By Lynn M. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: December, 2004
Summary: His job gone with the destruction of the Daily Planet and Lois about to marry Lex Luthor, Clark Kent finds himself at a crossroads. The future, once so bright, now seems to hold nothing but pain. When an earthquake brings him to a remote village deep in the Andes jungle, can he find a new life … as Superman?
First and foremost, I'd like to give a great big Thank You to CC Aiken, who not only cheerlead-ed me through the long days of writing, even from the paradise of Disney World, but also helped me find my way out of several corners I'd managed to paint myself into. Without her, I might have tossed this all into the garbage at the eleventh hour when I was tearing my hair out!
Mostly, though, she passed along some sage advice from an old pro (not to imply that LabRat is old <g>) that gave me the courage to write this story the way I saw it. With her support, I found my backbone.
This story was originally written as an Nfic. If you are of age and of a mind, I recommend that you read that version as it is the intended original. The nfic version can be found at annesplace.com.
The standard disclaimer applies and appears at the end of the story, as do some additional author's notes.
This story is set after *Barbarians at the Planet* but veers on a different course than the one taken in *House of Luthor*.
Thanks for reading.
He flew low, through the thick band of towering cumulous clouds strung together like beads and hung across a cerulean sky. Icy mist pelted his face, stinging shards that caused no real pain but reminded him there was still some feeling left in his body. It would have been a simple matter to adjust his altitude a few thousand feet to avoid the clouds, yet he maintained his course. He didn't want to see blue sky. Or sunshine.
Even though he had a destination, he didn't fly at super-speed. The earthquake had occurred several hours earlier, his knowledge of it coming late. A few extra minutes wouldn't make a difference by that point, and besides, he'd be there soon anyway. Metropolis to Colombia was only a jaunt half-way round the world, after all.
What a difference it made, to have something to actually run to when one needed to run away from something else, Clark noted as he swerved to avoid a United Airlines 747 banking left out of the clouds on its final approach into Miami.
In the month since the Daily Planet's destruction, he'd come to look forward to calls for help. While he absolutely regretted any suffering, at least he'd felt useful. Now if he could only find a way to forecast accidents and natural disasters, he'd wager he'd have the perfect setup. Show up in time to avert disaster before anyone could be hurt, then move on to the next catastrophe.
Catastrophe. That pretty much spelled the current state of his life. No Planet. Friends scattered to the winds. No job or prospects.
Instantly his stomach wrenched, and he headed straight upwards, piercing the stratosphere in search of the space he needed to fend off the overwhelming claustrophobia. Whenever he thought about her and what was soon going to happen, he couldn't breathe deeply enough, the feeling of suffocation inducing a near panic.
She was actually going to go through with it. In less than two months, Lois Lane would become Lois Luthor or Lois Lane-Luthor or Lois Luthor-Lane or whatever name she'd concocted. What she called herself was irrelevant. In the end, the only part that really mattered was the "Mrs." that would soon precede all other names. Lois was getting married. And it sure as hell wasn't to him.
In the weeks leading up to their heated argument during Perry's retirement party, he'd tortured himself trying to find the way to make it all stop. There was something he should be able to say, some magic combination of words that would penetrate the steel armor of stubbornness Lois had donned. Some way he could avert the train wreck.
His first instinct had proven an abysmal disaster. He'd confessed his love, sitting on a park bench in the center of the bustling city. Told her in amazingly few words of the feelings that had stacked on top of themselves over the course of the past year. She'd handed them back with a polite thanks-but-no-thanks and an of-course-we'll-always-be-friends. His sole consolation had been her lack of an enthusiastic *yes* when asked if she loved Luthor.
Next had been his efforts to discredit her fiancé. To make her see what kind of evil she'd be binding herself to if she didn't wake up and face the truth. But without telling her how *exactly* he'd come to know the depth of Luthor's vileness, he had no real proof. Nothing concrete a hardnose reporter insistent on three irrefutable sources would accept. Every accusation he'd made she'd countered with a canned-by-Luthor excuse. She'd chosen to remain blind, deliberately ignorant.
There had been some thought given to telling her who he really was. In fact, he'd pulled that trump card out of its locked case and had been read to throw it on the table when she'd summoned Superman to her apartment. And then it had come. The coup de grace.
<*If you had no powers, if you were just an ordinary man leading an ordinary life, I'd love you just the same…*>
Her words had been razors, severing the last threads of his hope to send him plunging into hell.
Lois loved the façade, the abilities and the cape. Even if she didn't understand it herself, he'd had no more delusions to hide behind. Lois didn't love *him*.
In the end, after he'd examined it ad nauseam, tore the beast apart trying to find the remaining inch he hadn't covered, he'd finally seen clearly that there was simply nothing more he could do. To stop her from marrying Luthor. To get his old life back, her friendship better than the dissension crackling between them. To make Lois Lane love Clark Kent.
So denial had been evicted, a bitter gut-eating anger settling in for a long, extended stay. And the days became endless. The nights even longer. He had no purpose any more. He was a wanderer who'd stopped wandering but no longer had a reason to stay put.
With a harsh shake of his head, Clark tossed off the self-pity. He couldn't afford such an indulgence, at least not at that moment. For a little while, anyway, he did have somewhere to go. Some fifty odd miles beneath him, the aftermath of an earthquake awaited.
He dove like a bullet toward the northwest coast of South America, pulling up just below the clouds to catch a magnificent view of the deep emerald jungles of Colombia where they ran right up to the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. Even in his melancholic mood, he had to appreciate the raw beauty beneath him, two pristine jewels nestled together in vibrant contrast of earth and ocean.
Passing over the capital of Bogotá, which he'd visited during his traveling days, he headed southwest. News reports had placed the epicenter of the quake near the city of Popayán. In a country saddled with civil unrest, open guerilla warfare, and the proliferation of drug cartels, he was uncertain what he might find when he landed.
But Popayán proved well equipped to handle the surprisingly minimal damage it had sustained. Emergency teams controlled the scene at the northern most edge of town, where less than a dozen buildings had been affected. Speaking with several rescue workers and city officials, he learned the quake's epicenter was actually north and to the east, closer to the smaller village of Silvia.
After spending only an hour x-raying the few suspicious piles of debris and finding no trapped people, he lifted off the ground amidst cheers and shouted *gracias*, heading northward into the Andes in hopes he wasn't too late to do some good.
The small village of Silvia was in a more dire situation. Nearly a third of the town's buildings tottered precariously on shaken foundations or lay in ruined heaps of stucco and adobe, and his initial scans sadly yielded real casualties. Ignoring the gaping stares of the villagers, he began to dig wherever a cry or a moan could be heard, and soon the crowds were digging alongside him.
Darkness descended too soon, making the rescue efforts even more difficult. But by morning they'd searched the entire town for buried survivors, moving piles of shattered brick and splintered wood when necessary to extract both the living and the dead. The work was grim, and as dawn broke over the distant mountain peaks, Clark felt the bizarre mixture of satisfaction that he'd been able to help and despair that he hadn't saved more.
With a heavy sigh, he determined he'd done all he could and made ready to leave. As the mayor of Silvia shook Superman's hand appreciatively, a growing murmur spread through the crowd filling the town's main square. The throng split, allowing a swayback horse to pass through. It's rider, a boy looking to be no more than thirteen or so, nearly collapsed onto the street when he reached the center of the square. Both beast and youth foamed with exertion, and it took long minutes for the boy to gather enough strength to tell his story.
In a jumble of Spanish sprinkled with what Clark was later to learn was a hybrid of Guambiano and Paez dialects, the boy sputtered that his village, San Pablo, had been nearly decimated by the earthquake. Both the school and a newly built clinic lay in ruins as well as most of the homes. People were missing and many more injured.
The boy, whose name it seemed was André, had been sent to retrieve help, and he begged for anyone to return with him to his crippled village. But the weary inhabitants of Silvia had neither the strength nor the means to offer assistance. Located twenty treacherous miles down into the valley, San Pablo was simply too remote, and the villagers were already overburdened with their own losses.
When André collapsed in torrent of tears and failure, Clark approached him with an outstretched hand. Speaking in Spanish, he tried to explain that he could offer some help.
At first the boy stared blankly at Clark, mesmerized by the blue suit and billowing red cape. But when the meaning of Clark's word's reached his exhausted brain, André began to nod enthusiastically. Scrambling to his feet, he gestured at the road and made to remount his horse. Clark shook his head and pointed to the sky. In the end, it took quite a bit of assistance from the mayor to explain that it would be faster for the man in the cape to fly to San Pablo rather than making the three hour journey on horseback.
André balked at the prospect of flying anywhere with the *gringo loco*. Clark had to demonstrate several times that such a feat was even possible, and still the youth clung to his neck with an iron grip, keeping his eyes shut for the entirety of the flight down the mountain.
Almost as disconcerting as the premise of a man flying through the air was the reality that André would have to leave his horse behind to be fetched later. Clark was not about to fly with the horse, no matter how much the boy pleaded or lamented about his father's imminent anger. Saving a village was one thing. Transporting livestock through the air was another.
San Pablo sat in a shallow valley no more than a quarter mile wide, on a narrow strip of cleared land surrounded by fingers of thick forests that rose up the hills on either side of it and ran right up to the edge of the village itself. The center of town consisted of a wide dirt road lined on each side with around a dozen adobe buildings. Five narrow tracks forked from the main street at various locations, and the villagers' homes were sprinkled off them like leaves splayed from the crooked branches of a tree.
The entire scene reminded Clark of a movie set, white washed boxes topped with a variety of materials ranging from corrugated tin to red tiles to twisted bundles of dried grass and twigs. But this movie was clearly staged to be a tragedy, for the chaos that greeted him was a staggering jumble of noise and terror and destruction.
But the cacophony ceased as he touched down in what appeared to be the village's main intersection. Every eye turned from the devastation to stare open-jawed at the flying man in blue spandex, carrying who looked suspiciously like André Martinez. Even without his super-hearing he could hear the whispers, the word *Diablo* hitting him particularly hard. Devil.
With his red cape and the way he'd been feeling of late, he could very well be from hell, so he took no offense at their obvious fascination and uncertainty. More accurately, he felt disbelief that in the very last decade of the twentieth century, in the age of computers and televisions and overly pervasive media that reached every corner of the globe, there were still places so remote they'd never seen or heard of Superman.
When no one stepped forward to present themselves as the village's mayor or leader, he wasted no time, turning to the rubble and beginning his search. As he scanned the first pile of destroyed adobe, he had to stifle a small smile. Behind him the very angry voice of a man berated the still bewildered André, wanting to know exactly what the boy had done with the family's horse. Soon after father and son wandered off, the people behind him returned to the task of being stunned by the violence wreaked on their homes and businesses.
The routine he'd established in Silvia proved just as efficient in the smaller town. First he'd scan a pile of debris to determine if any survivors lay trapped within. Often he would extinguish a fire burning hotly out of control. If he spotted no movement nor heard any sounds of life, he'd quickly move on to the next pile.
Oddly, the entire process felt remotely like an assembly line. He'd been doing it for so long his body operated on automatic pilot, freeing his mind to wander the several thousand miles back to Metropolis.
What would he be doing, if he wasn't there? Well, it depended on how far back he was willing to look. If he thought no further than a week or so ago, his answer would have been that he'd have been doing almost the same thing as he was doing in San Pablo. Removing rubble, in the metaphorical sense anyway. Picking up pieces of his destroyed life much as these people picked through the debris, looking for scraps and bits even remotely salvageable.
Less than a month ago, his life had been reduced to dust and splinters. When that bomb had destroyed the Planet, it had started a chain reaction, pushing over the blocks of his carefully constructed life as if they were no more than dominoes. He'd lost his dream job. He'd lost his work partner. He'd lost the woman he loved. He'd lost everything.
But mostly, he'd lost himself. When Lois had rejected him only to declare her love for his alter ego, he'd lost any desire to be the man who'd even lived that life. Of the three men Lois had held any feelings for, Clark Kent had ranked dead last. Last behind a murderous gangster. Last behind a two-dimensional cardboard cutout who could fly and bend steel with his bare hands.
No, much like these people, his entire life had been shaken out from under his feet in a matter of seconds. Except the village of San Pablo could be rebuilt, the buildings reformed and the town made new again. The damage to his world was irreparable. Even if he could somehow manage to salvage some of it, he didn't really think he wanted to live there anymore anyway. Not without Lois.
With nearly as much force as he employed in moving debris, he pushed thoughts of her from his mind. He knew the effort was futile. She'd show up there in a few minutes again anyway, no matter how hard he fought it. Even after her overt rejection and the finality of the choices she'd made, he couldn't stop thinking about her. Every day. Every minute. And it seemed the more he tried not to, the more impossible he found it to stop.
Instead, he focused intently on the work, the feeling of heavy stone rough in his hands. He imagined the large chunks of adobe to be Lex Luthor's head, feeling perverse pleasure when each crumbled into gray dust. The morning slipped into afternoon and neared evening before he slowed at all.
Clark stopped a moment, passing a hand across his forehead. He'd been removing rubble and extracting people for nearly two days. While it took a lot to deplete his resources, the constant emotional toil was starting to wear on him. He was getting tired. Of smashed adobe and blood and the keening wails of the victims.
"Here. Have a drink."
He turned toward the voice, blinking against the shaft of sunlight lowering on the horizon, casting the stranger in silhouette. As his eyes adjusted, Clark saw a reedy man with deeply tanned skin and a thick, dark beard extending a battered tin canteen toward him.
"It's been purified. Safe enough to drink," the man said when Clark hesitated. Thrusting the canteen into Clark's stunned hand, he repeated his command. "Drink."
Clark shook his head. It wasn't his fear of the water that caused his pause but rather shock at finding a man who spoke English without any trace of the thick Colombian accent he'd heard ever since arriving, when he'd heard English at all. When his own voice failed him, he took a long draught of water. Even lukewarm and tasting faintly of chlorine, the wetness was still refreshing. He tipped the canteen back for another swallow and felt his strength return.
"Name's Jeff Phillips, with the PC," the man answered before Clark could ask.
"PC. Peace Corps," Clark translated after a moment of contemplation. The man must be American then. That would account for the lack of an accent despite the dark features that marked Mr. Phillips as a Colombian native. "I thought the government evacuated –"
"They did. Some of us didn't listen," Mr. Phillips offered with a wry smile, but he didn't elaborate. "I'm guessing by that S on your chest you might be Superman? I saw a picture of you in the Bogotá paper."
Clark laughed. "That or the *gringo loco*. Nice to meet you Mr. Phillips."
"Oh, it's Jeff, please," Jeff said, taking the hand Clark had extended and giving it a firm shake.
"You in charge here, Jeff?" Clark asked.
"I guess as much as anyone. I'm the teacher at the school. For some reason they seem to think that means I can do anything. Don't know what gave them that idea," he said with a deprecating chuckle.
Clark laughed along with the friendly man. "How many people live here?"
"There's about five hundred that live in town. Another five hundred or so on the outlying farms," Jeff guessed. "But San Pablo's got the only school within walking distance. Only clinic, too. Services San Pablo, Peublito and Piendámo. We just finished about six months ago, and now it's nothing but a spot on the road."
Clark swung his gaze over the flattened town, taking in the partial walls and caved-in roofs, children playing in front of their former homes while parents stood helplessly staring at the wreckage. They'd had next to nothing, and now, they had nothing at all.
Jeff seemed to read his mind, giving voice to his thoughts. "These folks can't seem to catch a break. They spend their morning picking coffee beans and their afternoons working their own farms just to scrape together enough to feed their families with maybe a little left over to sell at market. They don't own much, and now what they do have is not a whole lot more than piles of dust."
"Well, I've scanned each building," Clark said, wanting to give this man some hope. "Good news is that everyone I found I was able to pull out. All of the fires are out, and what's still standing seems fairly stable."
"I don't know how we would have managed without you," Jeff said gratefully.
"You'll have to give André the credit. He's the one who convinced me to come down here."
"Yeah, I don't imagine you usually get this far off the beaten track."
"Not usually," Clark admitted with a grin. "And I'll tell you, for about five minutes, when I thought I was going to have to carry André's horse down into the valley, I kind of understood why."
Jeff joined him in an appreciative laugh, and Clark felt a little bit better. He was tired, but he'd helped these people whom the world had pretty much forgotten.
"Oh, what is she doing now?" Jeff muttered, his frown directed at some activity happening behind Clark.
Clark twisted around, looking for the source of Jeff's concern.
A small woman was climbing over a jumble of debris, picking up handfuls of adobe and tossing them aside. The two men hurried to assist her.
Clark couldn't see her face, bent over as she was, but as they neared, he suspected that, like Jeff, she wasn't Colombian. A long light-brown braid snaked down her back and the exposed skin of her arms was fair, Caucasian. A crimson scrap of cloth tied her braid and contrasted gaily with the piles of white-washed adobe and filmy gray dust, reminding Clark of a cardinal against the snowy fields of his parents' farm.
"Gills, we went through this section already," Jeff called out as he climbed the precarious mound. "There's –"
She held up a hand, palm out, commanding silence. "I hear something."
Clark immediately floated to the top of the pile and began to lift large chunks of wall from the pile, tossing them lightly to the side. He'd gone through this particular building earlier, and a cold dread swept through him at the thought he might have left a victim buried within its destroyed innards. How could he have let himself be so distracted?
"No, stop!" the woman exclaimed. "You might crush it."
Clark froze instantly at her warning.
But Jeff's hands went to his hips, his patience clearly stretched. "It?"
"Yeah, *it*," she said, gingerly removing individual pieces of adobe after testing the stability of the remaining pile beneath a prodding toe. "I heard a bark. Or more like a whine, really."
Clark let out a heavy breath of relief at the same time Jeff released an exasperated sigh. "For heaven sake, Gillian. You had us thinking there was somebody trapped down there."
She stood upright, brushing an errant wisp of honey-colored hair out of her eyes, and Clark was finally afforded a glimpse of her face, what little of it there was that wasn't covered in dirt. His first thought was she was far younger than he'd expected based on the authority in her voice. His second thought was that she had the grayest eyes he'd ever seen.
"Hey, just because it's not a person doesn't mean it doesn't deserve to be saved," she accused before turning back to her rescue mission.
The two men watched her painstaking work for a long, stunned minute before joining her efforts. Clark focused and picked up a distinct yip. Now able to pinpoint a more precise location, it took only a few minutes before a sizable hole had been made. The woman reached her arms in and extracted a very dusty, very wiggly dog.
"Hey, there," she cooed as the squirming mass tried to lick her face. "You're a little one."
"Great. Now you've got another critter to look after," Jeff muttered as he climbed back down to the road.
"Jeff, your compassion is overwhelming," she said pleasantly, satisfied with her rescue despite his cynicism. "I'm gonna call him Luke."
Clark brushed the dirt from his hands and joined Jeff back on the firm ground. The woman apparently named Gillian made her way down more slowly, examining the yapping puppy for signs of injury.
Assured Luke had suffered no harm throughout his ordeal, she turned her inspection to Clark. Her eyes widened perceptibly, as if she hadn't noticed the man in the brilliant blue suit with the floor-length cape until that very moment. "Wow. Who are you?"
Jeff rolled his eyes. "Gillian, this is Superman." Then more politely, he reversed the introduction. "Superman, this is Gillian Brooks."
"So you must be the *gringo loco* who can fly," she said. "I thought André had gotten hit on the head by some falling adobe."
Ignoring her imprudence, Jeff turned to Clark to explain. "Gillian runs the clinic…well…runs what's left of the clinic, anyway."
"Nice to meet you, Ms. Brooks," Clark said, but her attention had returned to the dog struggling in her arms. With an inward shrug, he turned back to Jeff, ready to go home. He needed a shower and a good night's sleep, if that was even possible. "Is there anything else you need?"
"I think most of the heavy work is done. The rest is clean up and starting over. Don't suppose you want to stick around for that?" Jeff asked with a hearty laugh.
"Let him go, Jeff. I'm sure he's got a meaty steak, a hot shower and a nice comfy bed with his name written all over it."
Clark blinked. Not so much at her rudeness but because he'd been thinking exactly that very thing. He felt his face heat, somewhat embarrassed for being caught in his own selfish musings.
"Gillian!" Jeff admonished, giving Clark an apologetic smile. "Don't mind her. She's had a rough couple of days."
"Hey, I just lost an entire year's worth of work, not to mention the fact that my bed is probably buried under ten feet of dust," she said despondently.
At that moment, a stooped man wearing a torn blue poncho appeared behind Jeff and tugged on his shirt sleeve. Bending to hear the man's softly uttered words, Jeff nodded several times and patted the man's shoulder. Having reached an understanding, he turned back to Clark and Gillian.
"Superman, this is Roberto. His was the *tienda*…um…shop…at the far end of the village," Jeff explained. "He needs some clean water for his wife. She was caught inside."
Clark remembered both the store and the woman. She'd suffered a few cuts and bruises, mild wounds considering the severity of the earthquake. But their home and store had collapsed to the ground, now nothing more than white dust.
"*Buonas díaz, señor. Siento su pérdida,*" he said, offering the man his condolences for the loss of his store and home.
"You speak Spanish?" Gillian asked, not bothering to hide the surprise from her voice.
"Yeah, a little bit," he offered, keeping his fluency to himself. "When you're in my line of work, you sort of pick things up."
Her light eyes narrowed, and he thought he caught a glimmer of respect flicker over them. He had no idea why, but her approval pleased him. Maybe because she seemed like a hard person to impress.
"If you'll excuse me, I'll give Roberto a hand." Jeff smiled, his strong white teeth flashing against his dark beard. "Can't thank you enough for all you've done, Superman. Gillian, stay out of trouble."
And with that, he and Roberto walked down the road toward the school, leaving superhero, wiggling dog, and belligerent young woman staring at each other in awkward silence.
"Well, how about it?" Gillian suddenly blurted.
"I'm sorry?" he asked, confused by her question.
"Gonna stick around for the clean up?"
"Oh, uh…I don't think…" he stammered, taken off guard. Jeff had joked about it, but this woman was serious. "I mean, I think I've done all I can here. Everyone's safe and –"
She snorted. "We've got a clinic and a school that are just piles of dust. And about a hundred families without homes. Nobody's safe yet."
He glanced around at the darkening forest climbing up both sides of the narrow valley, now suddenly menacing. He hadn't given much thought as to where these people would go once he'd pulled them out of their collapsed town. Guilt and something else pricked his conscience.
"I suppose I could…" he trailed off. What could he do? Stay and rebuild their town? The idea was laughable. His job was search and rescue, and he'd done that. Besides, he had a life of his own…
Gillian was waving at him dismissively. "Oh, no. It's great and all, what you've done. I mean, it would have taken us weeks to move all of this rubble. Now we're just looking at months…years…to put the place back together."
She gave him a broad smile indicating her suggestion had been meant only to tease. But the gray eyes held something that looked like disapproval. Or maybe he saw in them a challenge. Whatever it was, inwardly he squirmed, discomfited.
"Nice to meet you, flyboy. Thanks for helping with the dog and all," she said before turning away, leaving him gaping after her.
Did she really expect him to stick around a small, remote village in the middle of the Colombian Andes? Didn't she have any idea who he was? How many people out there needed him? That he had other places to go?
Clark watched her back as she headed up the pitted dirt road. The long rope of her braid swung back and forth like a pendulum, it's red tie hypnotizing.
<*Had* a life.>
"I'm staying," he called after her before his mind could register what he was saying. A streak of obstinate pride bubbled out of the dullness he'd felt for the last month and a half. He was tired of being a person without a purpose.
Gillian kept walking, but her pace seemed to slow a bit. A small boy ran from his place leaning against one of the few buildings that remained mostly standing to intercept her. She leaned down to say something, and Clark caught only the word *agua* before the boy nodded his dark head enthusiastically and scampered off. Water. Gillian moved back to the center of the road and increased her pace.
He wondered for a minute if she'd even heard him and was ready to repeat his declaration when she raised the hand that didn't contain wiggling brown puppy and gestured forward, in the direction she was heading.
"Well, in that case, you'd better come with me."
After winding her way down the main road and up a side street, Gillian stopped when she reached a path leading to a small wooden shack. It leaned visibly to the left, and Clark wondered if its skewed orientation was a result of the earthquake. But as they neared the ramshackle building, he suspected that, if anything, the severe shaking had probably tipped it closer to plumb.
Shifting Luke from her right arm to her left, she dug deep into the pocket of her olive green cargo pants and pulled out a clutch of keys strung on a braid of colored string. The bright key ring contrasted with the filmy layer of dust that seemed to coat every surface, a rainbow against the drabness of devastation.
"I can't offer you a hot shower, but I can at least get you some clean…cleaner…clothes," she said as she tried to fit one of three keys she'd isolated into the rusted padlock holding the door closed.
"I'm fine," he insisted immediately, crossing his arms over his chest. He might be dusty, maybe even downright grimy, but so was everyone else. There was no reason that he could see for someone to sacrifice what might be his only spare change of clothes just so Clark could freshen up.
Gillian stopped her struggle with the recalcitrant lock, turning to give him a hard glare. "OK, look. In that flashy outfit, you stand out like some sort of 'shoot me' target just begging for the FARC to use for practice. I'd hate to get hit with a bullet that was meant for you just because you wouldn't change into something a tad less garish…"
Her mention of the FARC, Colombia's largest and most deadly guerilla force, sent a shudder down his spine. Racking his brain, he tried to recall what he knew of Colombia and its political geography from reports in the Planet. Was this an area frequented by the vicious rebels? He glanced into the thick tangle of vegetation only a few hundred feet beyond the shack, almost expecting to see scores of automatic weapons pointed in his direction.
Self-consciously, he looked down at himself, repeating her evaluation. She was right. The red cape and blue suit were oddly surreal against the deep greens of the surrounding forests and the browns and tans and dusty whites of everything else. In this environment, he was wholly inorganic, a target that could be spotted from miles away.
If an innocent bystander died from a guerilla soldier's wayward bullet simply because he refused to change, he'd never be able to forgive himself. It was one thing to place himself in danger and completely another to risk innocent lives.
"All right," he agreed, tempted to spin into his own clothes right there so he wouldn't spend another second endangering her. But he stopped, remembering. His own clothes were…Clark's clothes. And Clark hadn't arrived in San Pablo. Superman had.
If he changed into his own clothes, he'd have to explain why he even had other clothes. Which would lead to explanations about Clark. About dual identities and secrets and a whole lot of other stuff. All of that seemed very complicated, and right now he was very much appreciating the simplicity of the situation. Superman, not Clark, had agreed to stick around, so Superman would. In borrowed clothes.
Satisfied with his agreement to change, Gillian had returned her attention to the lock, going so far as to secure Luke between clamped calves so she could employ both hands toward the operation. Clark resisted the urge to reach around her and snap the lock in two, guessing she wouldn't appreciate his interference.
Just as the lock finally succumbed, the young boy whom she'd spoken to earlier approached, lugging a battered plastic gallon jug. His thin arm strained with the weight, and he shifted the container from hand to hand.
"*Gracias*, Antonio." Gillian offered him a warm smile and accepted the jug.
Antonio spared a sideways glance at Clark, taking in the suit. His dark eyes widened when the large man gave him a friendly grin. Olive skin reddening with embarrassment at being caught staring, he took off back down the road, his small legs pumping furiously.
The door scraped the cement floor as Gillian swung it open, and releasing her pressure against the puppy's ribs, she allowed Luke to scamper into the shack. She followed, leaving Clark standing outside. Realizing he would receive no formal invitation, he stepped into the dim space, his eyes adjusting to the low light.
Not much more than fifteen feet square, there were no interior walls at all save a low knee wall stretching a few feet out from the farthest end. The single room's framework was exposed, studs placed at uneven intervals and planked vertically with weathered boards also of varying widths. Every so often the dingy gray walls were broken by a lighter board, an obvious replacement for a slab whose time had come and gone.
The corrugated tin roof made up the shack's ceiling, checkerboard lines of orange rust delineating where one sheet overlapped another and water found an easy path underneath. The room's five windows had no glass, only screens which were in need of repair, several large holes and tears thoroughly defeating their intended purpose. A closed door led somewhere out the back of the whole structure.
Here and there a crack between the warped lumber allowed a thin sliver of light to slip into the room, and several open knots provided fist-sized peep holes. A few of the holes located at the lower levels had been stuffed with rags, and Clark thought of Antonio's fascination with the *gringo loco*.
A dozen faded posters were hung in an eye-height ring around the room, for decoration or additional privacy he couldn't be sure. From where he stood, he could make out the logos of several popular rock groups, time and environment altering them in a way that most bands would have probably found offensive. The Rolling Stones' deep scarlet lips and tongue now a girlish bubble-gum pink, and certainly Pink Floyd had never intended for their prism to rest against a splotchy gray background. Even The Boss had not been spared, his classic Levis even more faded as he stood against the unfurled pink, white, and baby blue.
"Here. These should fit you. Brian was a pretty big guy, too." Gillian's comment interrupted his inspection of the posters. "And they're as clean as anything else around here."
He turned to see her standing next to an opened trunk and holding a stack of neatly folded clothes, which she thrust unceremoniously in his direction.
"Thank you." He accepted the tan pants and a shirt that might once have been dark blue but had faded to something closer to denim. Who was Brian, he wondered, and wouldn't he miss his clothes?
"You can change over there." She jerked her head toward the knee wall, which offered privacy from only mid-thigh down. He lifted his eyebrows warily, and underneath the dirt smudges, he thought he detected her faint blush. "I promise, I won't look."
As if to make good on her claim, she bent her head back into the trunk as if inspecting its remaining contents, continuing over her shoulder, "We'll have to find you some sturdy boots. Maybe Jeff can get a pair in Silvia…Wow, that was really fast."
He stood in the same exact spot, completely clothed except for his bare feet. Thankfully the pants fit although the shirt's arms hung about two inches past his fingers. He avoided her gaze by focusing on rolling up his sleeves, shrugging off his spin. "Yeah, it's just a thing I can do."
She nodded slowly. "Like I was saying, Jeff can get you a pair of shoes when he goes in to Silvia. He's usually there every other week, but he'll go back sooner considering we're going to need to replace a lot of stuff. In the meantime, I'm sure he has spare pair of Tevas."
Before he could ask her what exactly Tevas were and if he really wanted someone's spare pair, she reached into the trunk and extracted a scrap of cloth. "If you want to wash your face, you can use the water in the jug. It's already been purified. Don't use any other water until you boil it first. I'll get you some Halazone tablets. You're in luck. Here's some soap."
"I don't think I need to worry about it, the water I mean. My system's pretty…resistant to stuff like that." He took the cloth which appeared to be some sort of towel, holding out his other hand to receive a yellowed bit of soap. It seemed this Brian person must have left in a hurry, leaving behind his toiletries and all.
"Suit yourself. Just don't come crying to me if you pick up a nasty case of tumbo worms." She shut the trunk with a firm bang and started to right the shack's few furnishings.
While the walls and ceiling remained unaffected by the earthquake, the room's contents had not faired so well. A narrow pallet had been tipped to its side, a ticking-stripe mattress flopped beside it. The table and one of its two chairs had been toppled, the other stalwart chair still upright, defiant against the force of the earth beneath it. Mounted on the wall over the trunk, a narrow shelf dangled from only one bracket, several ancient paperbacks allowed to slide down its newly formed slope to land in a heap beneath it.
Clark set himself to stacking the paperbacks, noting the titles absently. *War and Peace*, *Don Quixote*, and *The Unabridged Works of Charles Dickens* lay next to more modern classics such as Michener's *Hawaii* and Keillor's *Lake Woebegon Days*. The books were yellowed and well-worn, pages dog-eared and covers creased to fabric-like suppleness. And all of them were in English.
"So, you got a name?" Gillian had righted the pallet to its correct horizontal position and replaced the mattress. She was rummaging inside the trunk once again, and she issued her question without looking up.
"Cl…" he started, then caught himself. Dressed in the suit, it had been simple. Now, he was going to have to remember. Clark wasn't there.
Worried she might have heard his near-miss, he straightened up, infusing his posture with Superman confidence and his voice with an authoritative casualness. "Superman."
"No, I mean a real name." She pulled a brightly stripe blanket out of the trunk and snapped it smartly to unfold it, sending a cloud of dust swirling through the air. "I can't have a conversation with someone called 'super' anything."
He paused only a second, considering his options, which numbered none. "Nope. Just Superman."
With that declaration, something inside him was liberated. Clark and all of his problems were abandoned. At least for a little while, he could live in the skin of his simpler persona. No glasses or unconfessed secrets. No destroyed Daily Planet. No upcoming wedding tragedy. Just Superman and his super abilities sticking around to help out those in need.
"Hmmm." She stopped smoothing the blanket over the pallet to study him for a minute, her gray eyes narrowing.
Under her scrutiny, he felt a deep flush creep over his skin. Could she tell he was hiding something? Without the suit, he felt like an imposter. A man claiming to be Superman but with no real proof. He suddenly had the ridiculous urge to prove himself, maybe lift the pallet with his pinky finger or float about the room. He resisted it, and when she returned to her chore, he let out the deep breath he'd been holding.
"So, what else can you do? I mean besides move entire towns and change your clothes faster than Luke there is gonna eat his dinner."
Clark thought a minute. He was Superman, even dressed in the borrowed pants and shirt. There was no reason to downplay any of his abilities. Again, another surge of liberation raced through him. Not since he'd left Smallville and his parents' home had he felt so free to just be himself.
"I have really good hearing. And I can…heat things. With my eyes," he clarified. At her bland look, he squirmed, suddenly feeling silly. "Plus there's the flying…" he trailed of helplessly.
"I see. Bet that comes in handy," she said, clearly unimpressed. "And that's what you do all day? You just fly around lifting stuff and waiting for people to need you to heat up things?"
"No. I have another job."
As soon as the words left his mouth, he wished he could draw them out of the air and put them back inside. She'd just painted such a ridiculous picture, an image of him sitting by the phone or something, waiting to be needed. Besides, maintaining his Superman front when he wasn't wearing that damn suit didn't come naturally. He needed the costume to maintain character.
Already he'd fallen into Clark's more relaxed speech patterns, the casualness slipping over him like the comfortable clothes. But since she had no comparisons to make, no nagging question about why Superman's voice sounded vaguely familiar, he pushed that worry aside. After all, how often did Superman hang around to make extended small talk? His conversations had been pretty limited to "What's the problem, here?" and "I've got things under control." How did one infuse unwavering confidence into discussions about the weather and where home was?
"Really?" she asked, looking slightly intrigued, and he started to feel a little less stupid. But then she ruined it. "Do you wear your cape to work?"
"I don't…I'm not…nothing," he stammered, flustered by both her teasing and his sudden realization that this whole living as Superman might prove to be as difficult as living as Clark. For once his very normalcy made him the outsider rather than his superpowers. How odd it was to hide his identity in reverse.
What he needed to do was avoid talking about himself. Ever. Starting now by changing the subject. Quickly. "So, what is this place?"
Gillian took mercy on him and didn't press. "Abandoned PCV shack. We use it to house visitors, those couple we get."
"PCV?" he echoed.
"Peace Corps volunteer," she translated. She'd moved behind the knee wall which concealed a cupboard and a two-burner electric hotplate. "They hauled it out of here when the guerillas took over the region. Government deemed it too dangerous. Of course, some of them refused to go. Jeff, for one. And Brian stuck around for a while until he got a job in Bogotá."
"How about you? Did you come in with the Peace Corps?" Clark asked, wondering why anyone would stay in an area the government had rejected as too dangerous.
"Nope. Doctors Without Borders."
"You're a doctor?" Jeff had mentioned she ran the clinic. It made sense, that she would be a doctor. But she seemed far too young. Surely she couldn't be even as old than he was.
"Nurse. Almost a nurse practitioner, which for these desperate folks is close enough. They don't waste doctors on towns this small." When he gave her a puzzled look, she explained. "My father's a doctor. He came down here two years ago as a Doctors Without Borders volunteer, and I came with him."
Clark blinked, wondering at a father who would bring his daughter into such a hostile environment. "Is your father still –"
She shook her head. "After his tour was up, he headed back home. I decided to hang around for a while even though he tried to drag me back to the states kicking and screaming."
His opinion of her father softened immediately. "So if you're not an ex-Peace Corps volunteer and not here with Doctors Without Borders, who are you with?"
"Technically, I'm a member of the ICRC." She reached inside the neck of her shirt and extracted a leather lanyard with a laminated rectangle affixed to its end. Flipping it from the faded identification side where he could make out a picture of what he supposed was her, she exposed the bright red cross on a solid white background. "I came to San Pablo about sixteen months ago with a Red Cross inoculation team and decided to stay on and help with the new clinic that was being built. Of course, I guess now I'm kind of unnecessary since there isn't a clinic any more."
The puzzle started to fit together. Still, he wondered why anyone would choose to stay in a country so riddled with problems and violence. Perhaps there was some connection between her and Jeff that kept her in San Pablo. Or it could just be that she was stubborn, digging in to stay in a place others had told her to abandon. From what he'd seen in just that single day, Gillian didn't seem to be a girl who took kindly to being told what to do.
Much like another woman he knew.
Before his mind could edge too close to dangerous territory and the overwhelming melancholy it would bring down upon him, he forced his thoughts to stay in the present.
"Why almost?" he asked.
"Huh?" Gillian grunted as she stacked a battered skillet and dented pan before shoving them back into the cupboard.
"Why 'almost' a nurse practitioner? Why not all the way?"
She shrugged as she stood up and brushed her hands together. "I left the masters program with one year left to go."
"Why'd you do that?" he asked. "Seems kind of crazy to stop after all of that if you only had a year left."
She stared at him, frozen. Like storm clouds rising out of nowhere to block the sun, her gray eyes darkened and her face became rigid. Even her tone had hardened, her voice wooden. "It's really none of your business."
"No, I guess not," he said, a bit taken aback by her abrupt change in demeanor. "Sorry."
An uneasy tension settled over the room, and for the next fifteen minutes, Clark avoided looking in Gillian's direction. If he'd had another place to go, he would have left the shack all together.
Instead he searched the wall for the nails needed to reattach the fallen shelf's bracket. With a firm press of his thumb, he straightened them and then tapped them into place. While he replaced the paperbacks, Gillian turned on the single lamp whose light bulb had miraculously survived the quake, chasing the oncoming dusk away with a harsh, glaring light.
Finally she broke the silence. "Listen, I think we've gotten you settled here, so I'm going to take off. Bathroom's out that way, but don't expect too much." She indicated the closed door leading out the back. "And watch out for snakes."
He recalled that she had said this shack was used to house visitors, and it now became clear she meant for him to sleep in it. But her own bed had been buried, and it wouldn't do for her to remain homeless when this room could be used.
"I think maybe you should stay here," he said, "since your house was destroyed by the quake –"
She shook her head. "Nah, my house is fine. It's wood like this one, so it's pretty tossed up on the inside, but at least it's still standing."
"You said your bed was buried under ten feet of dust."
"I tend to exaggerate sometimes," she admitted wryly. "So, you still going to be here in the morning?"
At first he thought she was joking, but the serious expression on her face said otherwise.
"I said I was staying," he told her, a bit offended she'd doubted his intentions. Didn't she know that Superman was all about truth and justice and all of that responsibility stuff?
"What about that other job?" she asked, her arms crossing over her chest. She still wasn't convinced. "Aren't they going to miss you after a while if you just don't show up?"
He thought a minute, this time remembering to give as little detail as possible. "Let's just say I'm on a sabbatical."
It was sort of true. And it sounded a heck of a lot better than being between jobs. Or that a ruthless homicidal madman had blown up the building for some twisted reason that Clark hadn't been able to prove but suspected had something to do with the fact that he was about to marry the woman Clark loved.
"Oh, a *sabbatical*," she repeated with a chuckle. "Well, then we are lucky. Instead of studying the mating habits of daytime TV soap stars and consuming copious amounts of fine wine and cheese, you're going to grace us with your precious time."
"You don't really have a very high opinion of people who just want to help out, do you? Or is it just me who brings out your good side?"
"No offense," she said without rancor. "I've just seen it happen before. Some glory hound swoops in for all of the initial drama and photo ops, then leaves with the media while the rest of us stick around and get our hands dirty."
He supposed he should take exception to her subtle dig. In truth, he found her skepticism far more curious than offensive. She obviously had no idea who Superman was. "Are you implying I do this kind of stuff just for media attention?"
"Of course not," she told him with no hint of apology. "But when was the last time you stuck around after the last interview was finished?"
"If I stayed after every disaster, I wouldn't be able to help very many people," he stated pointedly.
She nodded slowly, as if accepting his rationale for hit-and-run rescues. "That sounds reasonable. I'm just wondering, how many of those people you help would you be able to pick out of a crowd today? And are you sure, after you left, that they were really all right? Sometimes it's more about quality than quantity."
He'd never thought of his efforts to help people in quite that way. True, he did appear for the immediate rescue, but he'd never stuck around long enough to face what came after the catastrophe. The rebuilding of destroyed homes and schools and clinics. Destroyed lives.
The same obstinate pride that had offered up the "I'm staying" poked him in the ribs, pushing him to accept her implied challenge.
"All right, I'll stick around this time. As long as you need me. Or at least until we get things up and running again," he qualified. Her definition of need and his were probably two entirely different things.
"Yeah, well it's easy to make that kind of promise when you can just fly out of here any time you want. Slip home to take a shower. Catch a ballgame on TV. Maybe you ought to hold off on any kind of long term commitments."
He laughed at her cynicism. "What if I promised not to leave? Not to fly anywhere unless I had to handle some kind of an emergency?"
She shrugged. "I give you two days. Week at the outset."
"Is that a challenge?" he asked, arms crossed over his chest in his most responsible Superman pose.
"No, it's reality," she answered pragmatically. "Listen, flyboy, around here, you learn pretty quick what it's all about. People don't just drop out of the sky and solve all of your problems. I'm not counting on anything."
He wasn't sure what to say. In his year of being Superman, he'd never met anyone so immune to his presence, so unimpressed with his abilities or unassuming in their expectations of him. Just by arriving on the scene, he'd always commanded respect and admiration; he'd never had to prove his good intentions. Maybe as Clark he had, especially to one certain person. But never as Superman. Even she – he let himself think her name, steeling himself against the twinge it would inflict inside his chest – even Lois had instantly admired the superhero. He'd had to earn nothing, his mere existence inspiring her love and devotion. The irony was almost laughable.
But that's what this woman needed. He was going to have to earn Gillian's respect the hard way. Her way.
Before she walked out the door, Luke scrambling around her heels, she turned to give him a wry smile. "Welcome to Colombia, Sam."
"Sam?" Clark glanced around the room, confused. Who the heck was Sam?
"Yeah. You didn't really expect me to call you Superman?" And with her explanation, she was gone.
Now alone, Clark sat down at the table, taking in the small space that had just become his temporary home. The light from the single lamp cast his shadow long on the walls. Outside, the chirp and whine of insects was almost deafening, far louder even than he remembered ever hearing in Kansas.
Still, there was an over presence of peace. The calm was strange after the chaos of the past two days. He rubbed the back of his neck. How had he managed to get himself into this mess?
He'd stay a week. Get some homes built so the people in San Pablo would be safe from the elements and the guerilla factions. Then he'd go back to Metropolis. Where he belonged.
"*Hola, señor* Sam!"
The greeting followed him as he made his way down the washboard road, every dark face calling out a hello with the addition of a wide smile. Clark lifted a hand in friendly salute. After a month, he was almost able to greet each person by name.
"Sam" had caught on immediately. The natives of San Pablo found the common name far easier to use than "Superman". For his part, Clark didn't mind. It actually helped him remember that in San Pablo, he wasn't Clark Kent but rather Superman, despite the fact that he wore normal clothes and walked most places rather than flew.
Besides, it also meant they no longer referred to him as *gringo loco*, except on occasion when he'd do something particularly peculiar. Like the time after the first big rain, when he'd waded into the middle of the small river flowing past San Pablo so that he could wash his red boots of the thick mud caked nearly all the way to their tops. Since then, he'd acquired a pair of waterproof boots, an absolute necessity when the rain turned roads and paths to a dark, viscous muck. The red boots had joined his cape, stashed in the trunk in his shack.
But morning the sun shown warmly on his back, allowing him to forgo any boots. He now owned his own pair of Tevas, having learned first hand that the open-strap sport sandals proved extremely comfortable and surprisingly durable in the mild climate.
As he made his way to the day's work site, he passed by rows of wooden molds packed tightly with the precise mixture of clay, sand, water and straw necessary to make adobe bricks that wouldn't crack or crumble. Each row was marked, the exact number of days the bricks had been curing in the shade of the banana trees carefully accounted for.
Clark had quickly learned what generations of experience had already taught the villagers of San Pablo. Adobe bricks required a good ten days to cure. No amount of heat-vision or speed-drying could change that. In fact, any forced drying made the bricks too brittle and prone to crumble. He'd found it humbling to learn that despite his powers, there were still many things Mother Nature held firmly in her grasp and refused to allow to be improved.
So Superman, the world's strongest, fastest being, had set himself to learning the fine art of brick laying. And after four weeks, he now moved about the grounds comfortably, taking up the tools he'd learned to wield if not expertly, at least with a modicum of skill. The six other men working along side him gave him hearty nods and wide grins, their acceptance of "Sam" complete and well earned over the past weeks.
He made quick work of stacking bricks onto the wall he was building, closely scrutinized by the men who happened by the site and felt perfectly at ease pointing out flaws or potential problems with his work. He took their criticism seriously, removing poorly placed bricks when necessary in order to make the walls sturdy and straight.
Their input hadn't always been so welcome, and as he worked, placing layer upon layer with careful precision, he thought back over those first few days. They'd been incredibly hard, the clean-up effort not so much physically taxing as mentally draining. Each pile of crumbled adobe represented a family's home, a life's worth of belongings destroyed.
The rubble had been diligently sorted before being removed. Large chunks of stone and bricks were carefully set aside to be recycled in new buildings or to repair those suffering less severe damage. While the men picked through the ruins, the women rummaged through as well, extracting personal possessions that retained usefulness despite their dusty condition. Clothing, beautifully woven baskets, the few precious family heirlooms, and more mundane items such as pots and pans were carried away to be cleaned and put to good use once again.
And what was left after every useful item had been culled from the destruction was dumped into the deep ravine a quarter of a mile beyond San Pablo's western edge. Wagon load after wagon load of crumbled adobe was carted away, and slowly the damage of the earthquake was cleared to make room for a fresh start.
The whole process certainly stood as a metaphor for what Clark felt he had gone through, albeit with less success. Nothing much of value had been scavenged from the wreckage of his own life. But at least for a little while, he'd been afforded a chance to make a fresh start.
He wasn't sure if he found it an absolute relief or amazingly depressing that once his decision had been made to stick around for a while, it was a simple matter of making it so. With the destruction of the Daily Planet, so much of his life had been wiped away that not much was left for cleaning up. With not much more than a phone call and the price of a few air mail stamps, he'd neatly sewn up the loose ends of Clark Kent's life in Metropolis.
From a phone kiosk in Silvia, he'd called his parents.
"Clark?" His mother's voice slid from worry into reprimand without pause. "Honey, I was starting to get worried about you!"
"I'm sorry," he apologized instantly.
"I saw about that earthquake in Colombia on the news, but I though for sure you'd be back by now. I left a couple of messages at your apartment."
"I know, Mom. I'm sorry. I haven't been home yet," he explained.
"Haven't been home…?" she exclaimed, her worry for her son shifting to the unfortunate victims of the earthquake. "Heavens, is it that bad?"
"No, I just got…sidetracked a bit."
"Oh, well that's good. And anyway, we'll see you on Sunday –"
"Actually, that's why I called," he interrupted, steeling himself for her reaction. "I don't think I'm going to make it on Sunday. I'm going to stick around here for a while."
"Where?" she asked, and less than a second later, exclaimed, "In Colombia?"
"Clark, drug dealers live in Colombia. It's such a dangerous place…"
He rolled his eyes. "Mom."
"I know. I know." Her chuckle over her own irrelevant concern made him smile. "But I'm still your mother, and I worry you know."
A sharp hiss of static distorted the line for a second, and afraid that his connection might end, Clark got down to business. "Listen, I've sent Perry and Jimmy and Jack your phone number. Told them that if they need to reach me they should just call you."
"Perry and Jimmy?" She paused a moment, the significance of that comment sinking in. "Just how long are you planning to be away?"
"I don't know," he admitted "A week. Maybe a few."
"Oh no," she groaned. "Don't tell me you're going to start living out of that old suitcase again?"
"Mom, I'm not roaming around. This isn't like the days before the Planet." He rushed to assure her, knowing how happy his parents had been when he'd finally decided to stay put in Metropolis after his years of wandering. "I'm staying in a small village. In a real…house…not some seedy hotel."
It was sort of true. His shack was dilapidated but not seedy.
"What about Lois?"
He paused, just long enough to let the wave of pain subside. "What about her?"
"Does she know how to reach you?"
"Lois won't need to reach me," he stated firmly, the pain making way for the anger that always seemed to follow close on its heels. "She made her feelings pretty clear. She's Lex Luthor's problem now."
"Clark," his mother admonished, "Lois is your friend…"
"*Was*, Mom. Lois *was* my friend," he clarified. "I don't really want to hear about her wedding plans or where she and Luthor plan to live. And since we don't work together any more, we don't have that much in common anyway."
She didn't say anything, and he could imagine her disapproving frown. He knew he sounded petulant and selfish, but for once he needed to look after his own heart for a while. Besides, he had nothing to say to Lois. Not any more.
"Well, you can still come home, can't you?" Martha asked.
Clark thought of Gillian's jibe. Sure, it was easy to stick around when you could always pop home for a shower or a hot meal. Between wanting to prove her wrong and needing to isolate himself from anything he might inadvertently hear about the upcoming Luthor nuptials, he found himself shaking his head.
"I don't think I'll be home for a while. Unless you and Dad need me, of course. It's just a lot easier this way."
"Oh, Clark," Martha started, and Clark could hear the sympathy in her voice.
"Listen, can I talk to Dad?" he asked, before she could launch into a lecture about needing to be with family. He really didn't want to hurt her feelings, but for the moment, his mind was made up.
There was a long pause before she agreed. "Sure. Honey, you take care of yourself, OK?"
He promised her he would, and after an exchanged "I love you," waited until his dad's voice came on the line.
"So, son, what's this I'm hearing about you not coming home?" Jonathan Kent asked.
"I need a breather. Some time away before I decide what I want to do next. I'm going to stay here and help out for a while," he explained again, knowing that after they hung up, his parents would analyze everything he'd told each of them, cross checking notes and deciding if they needed to panic over their son's wayward tendencies.
"What about Metropolis?" his father asked. "Don't you think they're going to miss Superman?"
Clark had given that some thought and hadn't been able to completely evade the guilt in abandoning his adopted city. Still, he didn't plan to be gone forever, so he shoved it aside, giving his father all of the rationalizations he'd given himself.
"I've sent a letter to the Metropolis Star. From Superman, just saying that he's been called away on some urgent business. After a year, I figure I'm entitled to a vacation. Besides, Metropolis managed to stand for a couple hundred years before I showed up. I imagine it'll be there when I get back."
"I suppose," his father said noncommittally.
"Listen, I don't have easy access to a phone," Clark said, "so I don't want you to worry if you don't hear from me. I'll give you the number of the Red Cross headquarters in Popayán. They'll know how to reach me if it's an emergency."
He gave his father the appropriate phone number and the address for good measure. During his travels, there had often been times when he'd been unreachable for several weeks on end, so he didn't worry too much about the lack of contact. The Kents relied on the "no news is good news" philosophy, so unless a true emergency cropped up, his remoteness shouldn't pose a problem.
"Clark, do you know what you're doing?" Jonathan asked, and Clark thought he detected a note of concern in his father's voice.
"No, Dad, I don't," he admitted with a sigh. "I just know that right now, staying here makes about as much sense as anything else in my life. At least here I can be of some use instead of moping around waiting for Lois's wedding."
Then, feeling the need to lighten the mood a bit, Clark pushed aside his maudlin thoughts and forced a brightness into his voice. "Besides, I'm learning a new trade. The fine art of bricklaying. Did you know that adobe bricks take ten days to cure and no amount of super-heating can speed it up?"
"What?" his father exclaimed with a booming laugh. "The boy who practically had to be tied down to do chores around the farm is now working construction?"
Clark laughed. "Pretty much! It's hard though. A lot of the stuff I can do isn't much good around here. It's pretty humbling, but it's also kind of nice. I feel almost normal."
"Clark, you are normal," his father reminded him.
He thought a moment, understanding for the first time the appeal of staying in this tiny, remote village where no one had ever heard of Superman. "Well, to these people I am, anyway."
But being normal had its down side, Clark had come to find out. Especially when he steadfastly determined to tough it out no matter how bad things seemed.
The first two weeks had been difficult at best, miserable at their worst. Trying to communicate with the locals proved hard despite his fluency in Spanish. They used a dialect that contained much of the native Indian languages of the region. For nearly a full week, they seemed almost afraid of him despite the fact that the *Diablo* cape lay folded neatly in the trunk in his room. And the children still kept a wide berth as he wandered about the town.
Also frustrating was his inability to really use his powers to their fullest extent. Yes, his strength made the removal of debris a fairly easy task, but he was limited by the narrow, twisting road and thick vegetation covering the ravine. He couldn't just fly in with a wagon load and dump it. Much like the rest of the men, he could do not much more than help load the wagons then assist the horses as they made their slow journey back and forth to the ravine. And like everyone else, he had to simply wait for the adobe bricks to cure in their own due time.
Several times he'd thought of forgetting his promise to Gillian and heading back to Metropolis. He hadn't seen much of her while the majority of the clean-up had occurred, her own work attending to injuries keeping her tucked inside the temporary clinic set up in one of the few buildings that could be made stable with minimal repair. Sometimes she would pass by the work site to speak with Jeff, lifting her eyebrows in surprise when she'd glance at Clark, as if she couldn't believe he was still there. That look was what caused him to stagger back to his shack at the end of each day rather than take off straight into the sky.
Jeff Phillips, on the other hand, had proven indispensable in showing Clark the ways of village life. After he had gotten over the shock of learning that Superman himself was going to help in the recovery of San Pablo, Jeff had nearly tripped over himself to accommodate their celebrity guest.
As they worked side by side, Clark learned that Jeff was the product of a marriage between a Colombian school teacher from Cartagena and an American DEA agent. His family had left Colombia when he was very young, and he grew up in the United States. After attending law school, he'd wanted to return to his mother's native home and try to assist the impoverished farmers who often found themselves victims caught between Colombia's drug cartels and its government.
But after years of frustration, he'd abandon the system, deciding he could do more good if he actually rolled up his sleeves and went out among those he most wanted to help. He'd joined the Peace Corps, refusing to leave when the US government pulled the program out of Colombia. Instead he remained in San Pablo teaching at the school and doing whatever else the village required of him, often acting as liaison between the people and the government officials in Popayán.
Clark instantly liked the sincere, easy-going man. Although supremely well-learned, Jeff certainly didn't hold himself above the uneducated folks in San Pablo. Not even the most menial task was beneath him, and Clark noticed that nearly everyone in the village looked to Jeff for assistance and wished to please him in return.
In fact, Clark was sure that it was Jeff who arranged for the daily visits by the women of San Pablo, all bearing large platters of food just as Clark was sinking wearily onto his pallet, his stomach complaining loudly. Where they managed to cook it he never figured out, but it seemed they were on a mission to be sure he didn't starve.
Even as his days became a bit easier, Clark's nights remained as torturous as they had been in Metropolis. Tossing and turning on the narrow pallet, his head unsupported by a pillow, he found it nearly impossible to find rest despite the hard work of the day.
Once he slipped into a fitful sleep, images of Lois and Lex Luthor as he had last seen them together floated through his dreams. Lois's agreement to marry the villain, her warm reception of the kiss Luthor had given her upon her acceptance. And as if he watched it all for the first time, he could feel the agony of his shattering heart through the veil of unconsciousness, the pain so real and sharp that it pulled him awake
Even worse were the dreams where Lois declared her love to him, vowing that she would love him even if he were an ordinary man, only to turn against him when she learned that her hero was none other than Clark Kent. Her fists pounded against his chest as he tried to hold her, her words of love becoming shouts of hatred. The only difference now was that sometimes she shouted at him in Spanish.
It had been after one such fitful night, somewhere around his fifth or sixth day in San Pablo, that he'd hit his lowest point and had considered abandoning the place, promise to Gillian be damned. He was tired. He was frustrated. But mostly, he was sick of feeling incompetent.
He'd taken to purifying his water, not so much because he worried for his own health, but if someone were to actually visit his shack, he needed to have clean drinking water. Heating the water to boil for fifteen minutes wasn't always convenient, so he determined it would be a good idea to have on hand some of the Halazone tablets Gillian had mentioned.
Rubbing his stiff neck with a harsh scowl, he headed toward her place to fetch a supply.
Her house stood down the hill from the flattened clinic. Made of wood, it had survived the earthquake relatively unscathed and indeed looked quite a bit more sturdy than Clark's. In addition to the vertical planks that lined the interior, horizontal boards encircled the entire structure, offering a sense of solidness that Clark's shack lacked. While his looked as if a strong breeze might blow it over, hers had a permanence to it, only one step removed from an actual adobe house that spelled a long term stay.
As he approached, a young boy darted out the door and ran toward the main street. Clark recognized him as the same kid who'd fetched the water that very first day.
Gillian was shaking her head, her hands akimbo on her hips as she surveyed the room. "That boy. He's going to be the death of me. I think this place was cleaner before he showed up to clean it. Come on in."
The puppy she'd named Luke scampered over to Clark to give his hand a friendly lick while Clark took in the room with a cynical frown. His general bad mood and lack of sleep cast his view of pretty much everything in a negative light. It looked clean enough to him.
"Bit…imperialistic, don't you think?" he noted bitingly, slightly disgusted that she'd take advantage of a kid by making him clean her house. "Having locals clean your room. Fetch your water."
She fixed him with a hard stare. "I pay Antonio to do this to my house." Her arms made a broad sweep of a poorly made bed and piles of dust scattered across the stone floor. "And then I pay his sister, Alicia, to come in and undo it. They make more money cleaning for me for a half an hour once a week than they would if they dropped out of school to pick coffee beans all day. So I don't quite see it as imperialistic."
Firmly embarrassed by both his misunderstanding and his blatant rudeness, Clark shifted his gaze away from her pointed glare and made a show of inspecting her house. Despite the shabby job Antonio had done, it actually looked quite inviting.
Larger than his own shack, it still consisted of but one room minus the posters and the gaps and peep-hole knots. The walls had been painted, so instead of weathered gray, they were white giving the entire space a clean, open feel. A braided rag-rug in a riot of colors covered a healthy portion of the stone floor. Printed curtains hung at the windows, all of which had screens free of any tears or holes, their obvious patches evidence of the care taken to keep them in good repair.
Adding to the entire sense of permanence, Gillian's home contained real furniture, albeit pieces that had a very hand-me- down feel. Instead of a pallet, she possessed a genuine full- sized bed tucked into the far corner. Covered with the same native-style wool blanket as his own pallet, he noted wryly that she had pillows. And not just one, but two. Mosquito netting cascaded from the beams above the bed, providing backup protection for those pests the screens failed to keep out.
A low shelving unit against one wall contained both paperbacks and hardback books stacked haphazardly as if she had never gotten around to actually putting them away. On top of the shelf sat a shortwave radio, and angled near it was a battered recliner that looked far too nefarious to actually sit in. A dresser leaned against another wall, a jar of flowers sitting atop it lending both fragrance and bright colors to the room.
Like Clark, she possessed a table, but her elevated status afforded her four chairs instead of his mere two. And she had two lamps, both with lampshades. Truly a sign of luxury.
Most intriguing of all was what appeared to be a disemboweled motorcycle of some sort resting in the corner. Spread over a tattered rag that looked as if it might once have been a tee shirt were springs and gears and other parts unknown. The amputated wheels leaned against the wall, and the bike's frame rested on its kickstand like some kind of skeleton hanging in a physician's office.
"What's that?" he asked, hoping that if he acted as if he hadn't done it, she would ignore his rudeness of moments earlier.
She followed the line of his gaze. "A motorbike."
"Bet it's kind of hard to ride like that."
"I'm cleaning it."
"Cleaning it?" He snorted. "Looks like you killed it."
"Hardly. She'll be purring like a kitten soon enough." When he continued to look at her skeptically, she shrugged. "I just got a little sidetracked with, you know, stuff."
"*You're* going to put that thing back together?"
"Yep." She crossed her arms over her chest and tilted her head slightly, giving him a broad grin. "Let me guess, you're a big time Harley biker who can't believe that a little girl like me might actually know something about motorcycles?"
"Hey, I'm not saying anything," he said quickly. "That just looks like an awful lot of parts."
"It's amazing what you pick up once you leave Grosse Pointe, Michigan," she said with a laugh. "If you stick around long enough, I may even give you a ride."
He nearly choked on his laughter, the thought of riding the twisting roads of the Andes on a motorbike that currently lay in about a thousand pieces a hard concept to imagine. "I think I'll stick with flying."
"Now who's challenging who?" she asked. But he noticed a distinct twinkle in her gray eyes.
Pulling himself up to his full height, he crossed his arms over his chest. "I tell you what, if you ever get that thing to run again, I'll let you give me a ride on it. I have a feeling San Pablo will have a few skyscrapers by then."
She laughed. "OK, it's a deal."
He grasped the hand she extended, giving it a firm shake to seal the promise. For a long minute they stood there, looking at each other expectantly.
"Did you need something?" she asked finally. "I mean, I love to have company, but I'm sure you didn't just drop in to discuss motorcycle repair."
"Um, yes," he said, his mind coming back to the reason for his visit. "You mentioned some Halazone tablets. I was wondering if I could have a few."
"Oh, sure." She moved to a mounted cupboard in her small kitchenette, calling over her shoulder as she fetched the tablets. "Decided to heed my warning, huh? I'm telling you, I've never had them, but I've seen the results. You don't want to mess with those tropical parasites and worms."
While she rummaged for the tablets, he moved across the living area to a desk where a dusty CD player sat surrounded by stacks of CDs. Absently, he shifted through a pile, finding quite an eclectic mix. Van Morrison. Garth Brooks. Prince's *Purple Rain*. Two framed photos smiled out at the world, one of an older couple he guessed must be Gillian's parents. The other showed a teenage Gillian standing arms linked with a teenage boy and two older men. She wore a cheerleader's uniform, and he lifted the picture, trying to imagine what would bring a girl like her to this remote part of the world.
"I'm the only girl."
"What?" he said with a flush, a bit embarrassed to be caught snooping.
"Those are my brothers." She indicated the picture with a nod of her head. "I'm the only girl in the Brooks family."
"They teach you about motorbikes?" Clark asked, placing the picture back on the desk.
She laughed. "No. I think between the three of them they might have been able to figure out where to put the gas. They're what I'd call intellectual types. Here's the tablets."
"Thanks." He accepted the tablets that she handed to him, then shifted awkwardly from foot to foot. "Um, I guess I'd better get back to work."
She nodded and gave him a smile. "Ok, see ya then. Stop on by any time."
Shaking his head, he pocketed the tablets and headed for the work site. She certainly was an odd mix. He just couldn't determine what she thought of him. Nor exactly what he thought of her.
Enough adobe bricks had been cured that building had started on the destroyed home and cantina of a woman named Rosita. Since Rosita didn't have a husband and relied on the income from the cantina to feed herself and her two children, it had been deemed a priority.
The debris had been cleared to reveal a cement slab on which the adobe walls were to be built. Clark eyed the stack of pale bricks, thinking that surely it couldn't be too difficult of a job. He imagined that by the end of the day, they'd have all four walls standing since he could speed the process along. Grabbing a brick in each hand, he turned to the man named José, indicating that he was ready to start.
After many exaggerated gestures and a few rows of demonstration, José backed away, motioning for Clark to give it a try. Determined to prove himself competent at something, he carefully but quickly stacked row after row of bricks, making sure to put just the right amount of adhesive mud between each layer. The morning passed quickly, and by mid afternoon, he stood back to admire the head-high wall he'd constructed.
But as the other men stopped to examine his work, Clark noticed that the wall seem to waver back and forth, the sway picking up intensity until, with an ear-splitting crash, the whole thing flopped away from him as if he'd placed his hands against it and shoved. An entire day of work now lay in ruin.
When the dust settled, the loud riotous tumble of falling adobe made way for silence. For an extended minute, everyone stared at the pile of broken bricks that had almost become a wall, the horror on their faces turning into one of amusement. Their shock turned to smiles, which turned to barely concealed chuckles and then full-out laughter.
Clark turned on his heel and strode directly to his shack with the sounds of hilarity ringing behind him.
The wooden door ricocheted back open after he slammed it shut. He looked around in distaste at the dingy shack, the gray walls and faded posters that were long overdue to be tossed into the garbage can.
"Don't even have a blasted pillow," he muttered angrily. "What I would give for a decent shower. Or a blasted slice of pizza."
He turned to see Gillian, her arms crossed over her chest as she leaned against the door frame. A bemused smile twitched on her lips.
"What's the problem, flyboy? Hard work getting to you?" she asked cheerfully.
Clark scowled, in too foul of a mood to take her bait. He really wanted to be left alone. Or better yet, to fly away from this place and just forget about it. If he never saw another adobe brick, it would be too soon.
Releasing a breath, Gillian ignored his obvious signal and continued. "I just came to tell you that Jeff and I are heading to Popayán tomorrow. We need to file a disaster report so we can get some aid. All of this work will be for nothing if we can't manage to get some stucco on these buildings before the next rainy season –"
As if she hadn't spoken, he interrupted. "I don't mind hard work. It's just infuriating when I can't use the abilities I have to make a difference. To speed things along."
"We've been over this, Sam. You know it takes ten days at least for the adobe to set up –"
"It's not just the adobe. It's everything else. Do you know how much faster it would be if I just flew supplies down here instead of waiting for horses to haul it all down the mountain side?"
"And just what do you think would happen when folks started noticing that Superman kept flying back and forth over this area?" she asked pointedly. "Guerillas would be all over this place, not to mention the paramilitaries and the Colombian army, wanting to know why Superman had set up shop in some small backwater town."
"Then why am I here?" he asked, disgusted with the rationale she and Jeff had given him those first days when he'd wanted to fly supplies in. "What can I do for these people? Lift tons of bricks and haul rubble to the ravine? That's pretty much all I've done since I arrived."
"Sorry, right now we just don't need anything heated up."
"You know what I mean, Gillian," he said, thoroughly exasperated with her refusal to see the obvious. "I'm nothing more than a common laborer. And I can't even manage to do that very well."
He'd thought he could make a real difference. That as Superman, he'd be able to put these people's homes back together quickly and efficiently. But it was proving to be much harder than he'd ever expected. These people didn't need a superhero. They needed masons and supplies. Heavy construction equipment.
"Sometimes that's what it takes to rebuild lives. A lot of unglamorous, backbreaking labor," she said, giving him a thoughtful look.
"Yeah, but I've done nothing a couple of bulldozers couldn't do," he said, unable to keep the defeat from his voice.
"These people don't have bulldozers," she reminded him. "You're doing a lot of good here, Sam. The work of fifty men at least. Don't sweat the small stuff."
It was the first compliment she'd offered him, and it appeased him slightly. Still, he just didn't know if he could really help these people at all.
Later that evening, a soft tapping sounded on his closed door, and he opened it to find the boy Gillian had called Antonio standing several feet away, partially hidden in the shadows cast by the oncoming night. He clutched a bulky sack, but when Clark extended a hand to welcome him inside, the boy took a hesitant step back.
"Come in, Antonio," Clark invited in Spanish. While he'd been readily accepted by most of the adult villagers, the younger children still looked at him fearfully, remembering clearly the day when Superman had landed in the middle of San Pablo with the bright red cape of *el Diablo* billowing about him, a terrified André cradled in his arms.
Mustering up his courage, Antonio stepped out of the shadows, only continuing forward when Clark matched the boy's steps with backward steps of his own. In this manner, he entered the shack, but he wouldn't come in more than a foot from the door.
When at last he spoke, Clark nearly had to use super-hearing to catch the softly muttered Spanish. "*Señorita* Gillian sent me. She said you would pay me to clean your house, yes?"
Clark chuckled to himself, eliciting a puzzled expression from Antonio. Before the frightened child could bolt from the shack of the *gringo loco* who not only talked to himself but laughed for no good reason as well, Clark nodded. "Sure, Antonio. How about you come once a week? On Tuesdays, after school."
Antonio nodded slowly, then smiled when Clark extended a large hand to cement the deal. He placed his tiny hand in Clark's, even allowing it to linger once the ceremonial shake had been completed. Clark felt a surge of accomplishment in earning the boy's trust. It was a small move, but in his disheartened state, it was something.
"Also, *señorita* sent this. She told me to tell you that she does not have pizza or hot shower, but this maybe will make you feel better after much hard work." With that carefully worded recitation, Antonio thrust forward the sack he held in his other hand, offering it and its contents to a bewildered Clark.
Before Clark could open the sack, Antonio had slipped out the door and down the road.
Whatever she had sent was incredibly light, and more curious than ever, he turned on the lamp, blinking against the glare of the bright bulb. One of these days he was going to have to fashion some sort of lampshade.
Reaching into the sack, his hands closed around a soft bit of fabric.
It was a pillow. Pancake thin and grayed with frequent washings, it smelled faintly of shampoo.
Clutching it to his chest, he smiled softly. No more excuses.
That day had proven to be a low point before he fell into the comfortable rhythm of San Pablo. Now, after four weeks, enough homes had been constructed that all of the women and children could be housed at night. The pressure to secure the villagers' safety had lessened significantly, and with it a heavy weight was lifted from everyone's shoulders, most of all Clark's.
Work took on a joyous tone, jokes flying fast around the building sites. Clark started to see the humor in his ignorance, laughing at himself when his walls sloped visibly and taking the good natured ribbing from the other men as a sign that he belonged. That he was accepted and his efforts, no matter how unskilled, were appreciated.
Two weeks after they'd left for Popayán, word reached the village that Gillian and Jeff were back in Silvia. They'd received enough aid from the Colombian government's disaster relief division to procure much of the cement needed to make the heavy stucco used to coat homes and buildings, giving the porous adobe bricks much needed water-proofing.
Ignoring their small committee's decision that he refrain from flying, Clark did so under cover of night to meet them in Silvia and escort them on the three hour journey back to San Pablo. His presence not only offered protection against wandering bands of guerillas, but he was also able to supplement the efforts of the horses hauling four heavy wagons over the deeply rutted and sometimes impassable roads. It was brute work, pure and simple, but it needed to be done.
When they finally arrived in San Pablo, the three exhausted volunteers staggered to their individual houses, bone tired but pleased with a job well done. Instead of drafty and inhospitable, Clark's shack, still leaning to its left, looked welcoming. It was becoming home.
Clark sat quietly for a minute on the edge of his pallet, trying to pinpoint the odd sensation that squeezed at his temples and filled his head with heavy, wet rags. Everything about him weighted, his very skin heavy and drawn. As he passed his hand over his eyes, his thumb and finger joining in a firm pinch at the bridge of his nose, it came to him. The gesture was one his father had often made after a dawn to dusk day spent wrestling a frozen field. It was one of great weariness.
He felt weary. It settled over him, wrapping him in its muted blanket just as his cape enveloped him in folds of crimson.
Had he ever felt purely exhausted? And not just a tiredness of well-used super muscle or depleted reserves of nearly inexhaustible energy. No, never anything like this. Swooping in to perform heroic feats took nothing compared to dealing with the aftermath. It was in the rebuilding that true heroes were revealed.
And with each adobe brick he laid, each home finished and filled with a grateful family, he felt his own injured heart slowly stitching tight. With exhaustion, he found peaceful sleep.
As he sank down on to the narrow pallet and pulled his wool blanket over his shoulders, his last coherent thought was that he'd never felt anything so good as his pancake thin pillow rising to meet his cheek.
"Mmm." Clark snuggled deeper into the warm hollow created by his large body in the too-lumpy mattress.
"Sam, c'mon," the persistent voice hissed. It sounded suspiciously close to his ear.
"Wha?" he muttered, opening one eye just enough to notice the paling sky beyond the torn screen of the window right above his pallet. The crack of dawn, it was. No, not even that. Before the crack of dawn.
One of the benefits of living in the middle of nowhere with people who had no plans of going anywhere anytime soon was the luxury of timelessness. He hadn't glanced at a watch in weeks, letting the turning of the earth guide his waking and sleeping. And he could tell already that the earth hadn't turned far enough for him to be awake yet.
Rolling his head away from the wall, he opened the other eye to find Gillian bending over him, her finger poised to inflict a physical bit of incentive. "You gotta get up."
"Why?" he grumbled, then noticed a slightly panicked look in the gray eyes peering at him through the pre-dawn dimness. "What's wrong?"
Satisfied that she had his attention, she moved to the chair where he'd dumped his shirt and pants before falling into bed the night before. She scooped them up and held them out to him as she explained. "Henriqué spotted a FARC convoy headed this way. We've gotta leave before they get here."
The mention of guerilla soldiers worked better than a bucket of ice water to bring him to full alertness. Swinging his legs over the bed to sitting, he kept the striped blanket draped over his boxers. Her eyes widened at the site of his bare chest, and she glanced away quickly, although he couldn't be sure if it was embarrassment or nervousness.
"But you're Red Cross," he said, trying to understand the reason for her apparent panic. "I thought that meant –"
"Yeah, you'd think. But I guess the FARC isn't quite up to speed on the articles of the Geneva Convention. Even if they were, I don't think they believe it applies to them so much. Here." She thrust the clothes in his direction again, more insistent as she glanced toward the door.
Raking a hand through his hair, he yawned as he accepted his pants and shirt. She still didn't get it. What he was capable of doing. That he'd made a career out of saving people. Protecting people. That he was bullet proof.
"Gillian, you don't understand. I can stop them."
With a vertical twirl of his finger, he motioned for her to turn around, and after a startled blink, she quickly complied. Assured that she couldn't see anything they both might regret, he stood and began to dress. He didn't bother spinning. He never bothered spinning anymore. Part of the whole timelessness thing.
"There are something like 15,000 men in the FARC army," Gillian said over her shoulder. "You gonna round up all of them? Besides, unless you're planning on building yourself a cozy little hacienda and sticking around for a good long time, they'd just come back after you're gone. And believe me, they'd punish the villagers a hundred fold for anything you do to stop them today."
Her dire prediction stopped him cold, his fingers frozen on the button he'd been about to shove through the button hole. "So what will they do? The villagers, I mean."
Not checking to see if he was decent, or maybe just not caring, she turned around to face him with a shrug. "Lay low. Stay inside their homes. If the soldiers stop, they'll give them some food. Any money they have."
Clark glanced around the room, his eyes landing on the low trunk now housing his Superman suit and the Clark clothes he'd never worn. He strode to it purposefully. "I have some money."
Thrusting his hand into the pocket of his folded khakis, he pulled out about a hundred dollars worth in twenties and turned with them clutched in his fist. Not much, but in Colombia, a fortune. "Here. Take this."
She stared at the wad of green bills, her expression softening considerably. "That is so…incredibly generous, Sam. But those are US dollars."
"So? I thought they liked US money?" he said, confused. From his travels, he knew well how much US currency was valued, especially in underdeveloped nations with thriving black markets.
"People around here don't usually carry around twenty dollar bills," she pointed out, then continued when he looked at her with a frown. "If those soldiers see US money, they'll want to know where it came from. And they'll do anything it takes until they find out."
Clark felt his heart sink. Once again, Superman was of no use in this place. And now even his superficial value as an American could do these people no good. In fact, his very existence could cause the village more grief.
Gillian didn't give him any time to ponder the irony of the situation, heading for the door. "C'mon, Sam. We've gotta go."
He snatched up his Tevas sandals and followed her down the path to the main road. They were half way through the village before he had the presence of mind to ask her where exactly where they were going.
"Underneath Roberto's store is a *sótano*…a cellar, of sorts," she explained, slightly breathless from running up the hill. "Of course, it's going to be a little harder to get to since the quake buried it. But it's all we've got."
"I still don't understand why we have to hide."
"Because I don't have brown eyes, and you don't look Colombian," she said grimly. "We're perfect targets for a kidnap for ransom."
He was very familiar with that scenario, a story of a kidnap for ransom victim appearing in the Planet's international section almost weekly. But never in his wildest thoughts would he have imagined himself in danger of such a horrific practice.
They reached Roberto's store where Roberto himself was digging beneath the remaining rubble with one hand, a small oil lamp held high in his other. Clark stepped in to take over, and in no time, a wooden trap door thickly coated with grey dust came into view.
By then, several other men had appeared on the scene, and they quickly discussed how the trap door could be re-concealed once Gillian and Clark had disappeared down into the cellar. Clark positioned a sizeable chunk of adobe next to the door, it being an easy enough feat for two or three men to roll it on top of the wooden planks. They would toss on additional debris to camouflage it further, and when the danger had passed, Clark would be able to force his way out with minimal effort.
Gillian wasted no time scampering down into the dark, damp hole. But Clark hesitated. He had no real fear of small places, but something about the cellar reminded him of a grave. After Roberto handed the oil lamp down to Gillian's waiting hand, Clark felt a little better when he could see the small flame dancing away the pressing darkness, and he jumped down to land beside her.
Once in the cellar, it didn't seem quite as morbid as he'd imagined. Although he almost had to stoop to keep from brushing the ceiling with the top of his head, the room itself stretched bigger than his own shack. The walls and floor were tightly packed dirt, cool to the touch, and the whole room smelled very much of wet soil and roots.
The wall farthest from the trap door was lined with shelves, dusty jars and rusting tin cans stacked haphazardly along its length. In the darkness, Clark couldn't tell what the jars and cans contained, and he wondered if any of it was edible. He hadn't had breakfast yet.
In another corner was a wooden box with a loose lid, and Gillian went to it as the men above them slid the trap door back into place. Clark sucked in his breath, trying to still the sudden thudding of his heart. Why was he finding it so hard to remember that he didn't have to hide his abilities, and if necessary he could just tunnel his way out of the earthen chamber?
He glanced at Gillian to see if she were suffering from any of the same claustrophobic tendencies, but her attention was inside the box. From its innards she extracted another oil lamp, a thick woolen blanket, and a deck of playing cards. Obviously this wasn't the first time this cellar had been used to house humans.
And when she spread the blanket over the floor, plopped down upon it and started shuffling the cards, it became clear that it certainly wasn't the first time Gillian had spent time in hiding. The panic had left her gray eyes, her manner relaxed if not downright convivial. Torn between admiration for her calm acceptance of the situation and horror that she accepted it so calmly, he stared down at her.
"Does this happen a lot?" Clark asked.
"Depends on what you mean by a lot," she stated matter-of-factly. "Before the quake, it'd happen about once a month or so. Sometimes more. Sometimes less. After the quake I think everyone was so caught up in just surviving that even the guerillas stayed put."
"And every time they show up, you come running to hide out in this cellar?"
She thought a minute. "I suppose I could stay outside and take my chances. But I wouldn't put my parents through that."
He could easily imagine what she meant, but some perverse part of him asked the question anyway. "Put them through what?"
"My kidnapping. Being told they had to cough up a few million dollars if they ever wanted to see their daughter alive again. Maybe having a tape sent to them showing what I was suffering just to give them a little incentive to make it snappy."
Clark gaped at her, her detached observation shocking. "You're not worried about what would actually happen to you?"
"Sam, if I thought about what could happen to me out here, I'd go *loco*. When you decide to hang around the wilds of Colombia, you gotta expect a little danger." She started to deal two piles of cards. "Why don't you sit down and play some cards. You any good at poker?"
Wordlessly, he sank to the floor, trying to digest the casualness with which she accepted the danger inherent around her. It made him shudder, an icy coldness racing through his blood at the thought of Gillian in the hands of those who would harm her just to get her parents to pay huge amounts of money. Although he'd felt compassion for the victims and their families, the stories he'd read about kidnaps for ransom had always involved faceless people.
Gillian had the grayest eyes he'd ever seen, a quick, bright smile, and a long, honey colored braid running down her back. She had a face.
Whether she could sense his continued nervousness and wanted to soothe him, or perhaps because she just liked to hear herself speak, Gillian gave him a brief history of the FARC while they alternated between seven-card-stud and Black Jack. He already knew quite a bit about the guerilla groups and their origins, as well as the drug cartels and their stranglehold on the Colombian government, but he'd never imagined how the whole mess affected tiny towns like San Pablo.
"A lot of subsistence farmers are forced by the guerillas to grow coca plants on their land," she explained, munching on a large green olive pulled from the jar she'd selected off the shelf. "They're allowed to plant only enough food to get them through the year, but the rest of their crops have to be coca and they have to give the money it makes to the FARC. Kind of a medieval extortion."
Clark shook his head sadly, helping himself to another olive. It made an odd breakfast, but he enjoyed the unique flavor on his tongue all the same. He'd felt some additional relief to know that there was edible food in the dark cellar should their stay become extended. "And the government can't do anything about it?"
"What are they going to do? Most of these towns are so remote, there aren't even roads leading to them." She snorted derisively. "Besides, some of the thugs hired by the Colombian government are more feared than the guerillas themselves. I've heard horror stories about what these paramilitaries have done to civilians even suspected of sympathizing with any guerilla factions. Torture. Rape. Mass executions."
"Has anything like that ever happened in San Pablo?" Clark asked, holding his breath. In just the short time he'd been there, these people had come to be his friends.
She shook her head as she gathered up the last hand and started to reshuffle the cards. "Thankfully, San Pablo is too small. There's not enough farmable land to grow anything substantial." She chuckled at the irony. "It's kind of sad, but the very fact that these people are so poor is what keeps them free of interference."
"So why do the guerillas come here at all?"
"San Pablo is a pass through pit-stop. At least before the quake. Between Roberto's store and Rosita's cantina, it's about the only place they can buy cigarettes or replenish their stock of José Quervo for miles." She finished shuffling. "So, seems you're not so good at poker, and since you don't have any money I can win, how about we switch to gin rummy?"
They played several hands in silence while Clark absorbed what she had told him. Every day he came to see the forces that these people struggled against, both in the physical world and the human world. It amazed him that they had the strength to not only persevere but actually thrive.
And it humbled him, putting his own circumstances into sharp perspective. In his life, food was plenty, the water safe to drink, and hardship was an electrical storm that knocked power out for an hour or an inconsiderate neighbor who hogged the hot water supply. He could walk down the street without fear of being kidnapped. He'd lost his job, but his was a country where jobs were plentiful and there was a government to support him if he found himself on hard times.
"Since we've got some time to kill, do you want to tell me about that other job you have? Or maybe had, now that you've been gone so long," Gillian speculated, breaking the silence.
Clark blinked, a shiver running down his neck at the eerie coincidence of her asking such a question just as he'd been thinking of the Planet and his employment situation. That was the second time she'd spoken out loud thoughts that had been running through his brain, and he started to wonder if she had a gift. With a shake of his head, he dismissed the thought. He didn't believe in stuff like that.
"Nope, I don't want to tell you about it," he stated firmly. So far he'd avoided talking about his life as Clark, and he saw no reason to do so now. Instead, he changed the topic, wanting to know more about her. "But I'd love to know how you came to be here."
"Like I said, I came down here with my father when he was a Doctors Without Borders volunteer. Well, not actually San Pablo. But another town a lot like it."
He took up the seven cards she'd dealt him and ordered them into sets and runs. Only a pair of fours to start with. Another lousy hand. "So they accept nurses into their program?"
She laughed out loud. "They do if a certain doctor who has some pull with upper level decision makers requests it."
"I see. Your dad's a bigwig, then?"
Gillian thought a minute, her lips pursing before she grinned mischievously. "Not so much a bigwig as more like very persistent."
It was his turn to laugh out loud. "So you were adopted?"
She joined in the laughter, accepting his easy teasing. As they shared their amusement at her expense, Clark felt much of the gloom of the dark cellar disappearing even though the two small oil lights gave little illumination.
When their merriment lessened, she took a deep breath. "Actually, I think my dad was shocked when I told him I wanted to come down here with him."
"Why's that?" Clark asked.
"Because when I was sixteen, he used to drag me down to the free clinic where he volunteered once a month. I'd complain for days before we had to go, then every second of the forty-five minute commute to downtown Detroit." She shook her head, as if she regretted the hell she'd put her long-suffering father through. "I made it like pulling teeth for him."
Clark had a hard time imagining Gillian complaining about anything. In the last five weeks, he'd seen her accept a lot of discomfort and inconvenience, rolling up her sleeves to do the most menial of jobs. Still, there was a big difference between a grown woman and a teenager, so he gave her the excuse of youth.
"I'd imagine most sixteen-year-olds would rather sleep in on a Saturday than volunteer."
"No, I took complaining to a new level," she clarified with a sly grin, not letting her sixteen-year-old self off the hook. "I hated it. The dirty people, the screaming kids, all lined up waiting to see the doctor. The smell. It disgusted me. I once told my father I'd rather work in a gravel pit than spend another minute in that clinic."
"But you became a nurse?" he asked, puzzled.
"Yep," she said. "Just goes to show you that miracles really do happen. Gin."
Gillian laid down her cards, the five, six, seven and eight of clubs joined with the ace of hearts, diamonds and spades to create a winning hand.
"What really happened, to change your mind, I mean?" he asked, very much wanting to know how a sixteen year old who hated being around underprivileged people came to serve as a ICRC volunteer in a Colombian village so poor that it didn't have running water.
She shuffled the deck absently, as if her mind was traveling back in time. "One Saturday, I was giving my dad even more than the usual grief. My friends had all gone on an overnight trip to Chicago, but I had to stay behind because it was a volunteer weekend. So as you can imagine I was pretty pissed."
Clark nodded for her to continue, leaning back against the cold wall but oblivious to any discomfort.
"I was sulking in his office when this woman came into the clinic. She'd walked, like, twenty blocks to get there, and it was freezing outside. I remember her coat didn't have any buttons on it." Gillian shuddered, as if she herself felt the icy chill. She'd stopped shuffling the cards, holding the deck loosely.
"Come to find out this woman was pregnant, and she was in labor. But the only nurse at the clinic had gone out to get lunch for us. There wasn't any time to call an ambulance, so my dad made me scrub up so I could help him.
"Man, it was awful. The woman was screaming, there was blood all over the place. I kept asking my dad if we could give her some drugs or something, but he said it was too late for that. It seemed like it took forever but I guess it really didn't, because all of the sudden this baby was coming out of her. I'd never seen anything like it. A whole person, right there in my dad's hands. It just blew me away."
She stared off to a point past his shoulder, and Clark guessed that she was remembering that life-altering moment. He had a few of those himself. Memories that he could recall as if they were still happening. Some of them he held onto tightly. Others, he wished he could erase.
"So you decided to become a nurse," he concluded when she remained silent, her story apparently finished.
"Yep. Nurse practitioner actually. So I could deliver babies if I wanted to."
If he remembered correctly, that meant she had advance training and could do some of the things that a doctor could do, which made him wonder. "Why not a doctor?"
Gillian shook herself back into the present. "I thought about it, but then I realized that the nurses are the ones who get to be with the patients. Get to know them and really make a difference. The whole time that lady was having that baby, she held on tight to my hand. Wouldn't let it go for anything. I think it meant a lot to her that I was there."
"Did you keep complaining? I mean after that day. About going to the clinic?" he asked.
She smiled and looked down at the cards in her hands. "Yeah, of course. I mean, come on, I was sixteen. What sixteen-year-old would rather work at a walk-in clinic than hang out at the mall with her friends? Still, I didn't hate it so much after that. The people had stopped being these horrible slackers who should have just gotten jobs. They became real people, with names and stories. Kids and moms and grandpas."
Looking up, she caught him staring intently, amazed. She flushed. "Yeah, I know. Pretty sappy. What can I say, I'm the original spoiled rich girl turns hippy do-gooder."
"No, that's a great story," he said, meaning it. The kind of story that made wonderful movies and great biographies. He imagined that someday, Gillian's life story would make a great biography. And she was still so young. Jeff had told him she was only twenty-six.
"Yeah, well, it didn't end up so great," she remarked dryly as she started shuffling the deck again.
"Oh yeah?" He leaned forward, wanting to know more. A lot more.
"Turns out the lady was a crack addict, and her baby was born already dependent. He had to be ambulanced to the Detroit Children's Hospital, but he ended up dying because he was too small and his lungs were underdeveloped. I was crushed when my dad told me what happened to him."
Clark gaped, depressed that something so wonderful could end so tragically. "That is terrible."
She was no longer listening, lifting a hand to silence him. "Hey, did you hear that?"
"What?" he said, tensing. Was it possible the guerillas might find the trap door?
"That knocking. Listen again." They listened for a moment, then Gillian whispered, "Jeff always knocks on the door three times when it's safe to come up."
He turned his ear to the ceiling. Although his super-hearing could pick up taps happening on the other side of San Pablo, he knew that Jeff's would be distinct enough for Gillian's normal ears to hear.
Suddenly, as clear as a bell, three sharp raps sounded on the wooden door above their heads.
Gillian beamed. "Yep, that's it. The signal. We're free."
As if it had been the most normal way to spend the morning, she bent down to collect the scattered cards, then folded the blanket after shaking the dirt from it. Both of these she tucked back into the box, along with one of the extinguished oil lamps. Replacing the lid, she turned to Clark expectantly.
"OK, Sam the superman, I think this is your cue."
He stood fully upright, placing his palms flat on the trap door. With a slight heft, the door and its disguise slid away from the entrance, and he blinked against the sudden onslaught of sunlight hitting his light-deprived eyes.
Taking the hands that were thrust down into the hole, he allowed himself to be hoisted to the surface. Before anyone could offer Gillian the same courtesy, Clark turned, extending his own hand down to grasp her wrist firmly. She clasped her hand around his forearm, and he drew her lithe frame out of the darkness.
For some reason that he couldn't explain, he didn't let go of her arm right away. Instead, he pulled her in front of him and to the side so that he could place his other hand on the small of her back and guide her down the heap of rubble. He'd seen this woman scramble over piles of adobe ten feet high and bully reluctant horses down steep inclines. Still, he released his grip on her only when they stood firmly on the road.
Judging from the position of the sun in the sky, they'd been hiding well into mid-morning. As Gillian headed toward the temporary clinic and Clark toward the school where they'd begun to clear the site, he realized with a start that for the first time in over a year, he'd gone almost three whole hours without obsessing about Lois Lane.
Two days after the visit by the roving band of guerillas, San Pablo came to life. All work was forgotten as the villagers made preparations for the St. Mary's Day fiesta. Always full of noise anyway, now an almost electrical current seemed to run through the air. Clark likened it much to the atmosphere at the Daily Planet the day before Christmas, when work was pushed aside and anticipation put everyone in an exceptionally good mood.
Everywhere he went, the aroma of grilling meats and other savory dishes wafted out of homes. Flashes of brightly colored silk shawls and billowing skirts filled the roads as women made their way about San Pablo dressed in their very best. Children were set to the task of gathering wild flowers and watching their younger siblings as their parents readied for the night's festivities.
The grassy area behind Rosita's cantina, a place normally reserved for the daily matches of *tejo* and impromptu games of *fútbol*, had been decorated for the fiesta. Tables and battered folding chairs had been set about, and boards were laid side by side to create a dance floor of sorts. Colorful banners made of scraps of cloth were hung from the surrounding buildings, and the children's hand-picked flowers filled bowls set on every table. Clark could barely believe the transformation.
When he arrived, the party was already in full swing. Henriqué, Luis, and Daniel, men whom he knew as expert brick-layers and farmers, sat near the dance floor playing a variety of instruments, only one of which Clark recognized. Two long tables were covered with food, and nearly everyone in San Pablo either ate, danced, drank or played in the small field. Children ran underfoot, the women keeping a running stream of chatter as they talked to each other and to themselves.
Standing slightly off to the side, he felt a bit awkward, once more an outsider intruding on the lives of these people. While they'd never made him feel anything but welcome after those first few days, his efforts always appreciated, still he knew that he was a foreigner, not really one of the laughing crowd.
"You beat us here. Just couldn't wait to party, huh?" Jeff's booming English teased from behind his back.
Instantly more at ease, Clark turned with a grin to see his compatriots approaching. He noted Gillian's arm hooked comfortably into the crook of Jeff's bent elbow and looked away purposefully. He'd never asked outright if theirs was a relationship deeper than friendship, not really seeing it as any of his business. Still, he'd often caught himself watching carefully, trying to detect something in the warm hugs they bestowed upon each other and the casual touches and looks.
Instead of his normal work clothes, Jeff wore light tan pants and a white shirt that was intricately embroidered, probably by one of the village women, who took great pride in their skill at such a craft. A plaid *ruana*, the mainstay of a Colombian's wardrobe, was draped over his shoulder, and his beard looked neatly trimmed.
"Wow, I don't recognize you without a coating of stucco," Clark teased his friend in turn. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you might even have gotten your hair cut."
"Hardly," Jeff snorted. "Last time I let Rosita take a stab at it, I nearly lost an ear while she chattered away."
The two men laughed as Clark turned his attention to Gillian, ready to compliment her on her fiesta finery. She almost glowed, reflecting the infectious gaiety around her. Like the other women, she had donned a skirt for the celebration, full and brightly colored. Her white peasant blouse contained the same delicate embroidery as Jeff's shirt, and instead of Tevas, she wore sandals with thin leather straps. The look was altogether feminine, so different than the far more practical cargo pants and work shirts she normally wore.
She looked very fetching, and he thought to tell her so when he realized why exactly she look so different.
For the first time since his arrival in San Pablo, the thick brown braid was gone. In its place cascaded waves of honey- colored hair, curling and rippling clear to the small of her back. Swept back from her face and caught with a silver clip, it was breathtaking in its shear volume and luxuriousness.
"Yeah, I know. It's a bit much. That's why I keep it tied back," she remarked, and he realized with an embarrassed flush that he was actually staring at her.
"No, it's really nice," he stammered, feeling himself blush to the roots of his own hair. Trying to recover, he glanced around at the other people nearby who were thankfully oblivious to his discomfort. "You're the only person here who doesn't have black hair."
Even as he spoke, he heard how stupid it sounded. Gillian, for her part, ignored the inane comment and laughed. "Another reason I keep it back. These Latino men. For some reason, they seem to find light hair exotic. I learned pretty quick if I didn't want to be machismo-ed to death, I'd better just keep it braided back."
He frowned. "Machismo-ed? Doesn't sound very pleasant."
"Naw, it's pretty harmless. I take it as a compliment," she dismissed with a wave of her hand. "Speaking of, you look quite dashing. Just like a Colombian. I thought maybe you'd drag out your super suit and the *Diablo* cape for the party."
He had to laugh at the image of himself standing in the midst of the party in his suit. While the bright colors would have added to the festive atmosphere, the red cape would have sent the kids running. Since he'd removed it the day he'd decided to stay in San Pablo, the suit had remained folded and tucked in the bottom of the trunk in his shack. Almost forgotten.
Over the course of the past six weeks, he'd managed to purchase some of his own clothes when visiting the larger town of Silvia, no longer wearing the borrowed pants and shirt. Adopting the uniform that Jeff assured him was the de rigueur of volunteers all over the globe, he now owned a few pairs of cargo pants and a several cotton work shirts, as well as his own Tevas sandals and boots.
In addition to the cleaning services of Antonio and later, his sister, Alicia, Clark had employed another woman, Ines, to wash his new clothes. He assuaged his guilt by paying her at least what she would have made in a week by picking coffee for four hours a day, still a paltry amount to his American wallet.
Upon learning what he'd arranged, Gillian had approved heartily, helping to aid his acceptance of such a practice by telling him that Ines used her special position with *señor* Sam to elevate her status among the other women. Ines felt it an honor, Gillian explained to him, that she was trusted with the care of the *gringo's* store-bought clothes.
Supplementing his own purchases were the gifts bestowed upon him by the villagers of San Pablo, an astounding thing given the poverty they lived in. With the completion of each house, grateful women came forward bearing baskets and food, embroidered shirts, a finely woven straw hat, and other items they thought he might find useful. Again Gillian was instrumental in helping him accept the embarrassing bounty, giving him a lecture on pride and how even a person of the meanest circumstances wouldn't tolerate charity. He drew the line at livestock, turning away countless chickens, three pigs, and even once a tamed monkey on a leash.
Among his favorite gifts were two wool *ruanas*. Hanging to mid- thigh and surprisingly waterproof, they proved to be his most practical garments. One was a rather plain tan with brown plaid stripes and therefore used for everyday wear. The other, which he had donned in honor of the festival, was dark blue with cream stripes placed symmetrically on ether side of the slit where his head protruded through. When he wasn't wearing it, he draped it over his pallet blanket style, appreciating the warmth it offered when the clear Andean nights brought a crispness to the air.
Actually, Gillian was right. In his navy *ruana*, tan pants and clean white shirt, he did look much like a Colombian. His dark eyes and dark hair, grown a bit since his arrival, added to the illusion, along with the deep tan his skin had acquired through his many hours working in the Andean sun.
Even Luke had dressed up for the occasion, a bright red bandana tied smartly around his furry neck. They'd decided that the he looked most like a German Shepard, despite the fact that his ears failed to stand at attention, instead folding over in a comical wink. His enormous paws and rapidly growing body demonstrated that someday he'd be quite a force to contend with. Knowing to whom he owed his rescue, he could always be found within shouting distance of Gillian, sleeping in her shack at night when the other San Pablo dogs were wont to roam more freely. He stood next to her, watching the antics of the humans until Antonio issued a shrill whistle from across the field and waved a bit of food as added enticement.
After watching Luke scamper off and their compliments duly exchanged, Clark, Gillian and Jeff joined the party.
The food was abundant, nothing held back in honor of the celebration. Chicken and beef in a variety of forms covered chipped platters. Piles of thick *arepas* threatened to topple onto the tables, and as if the rich cornbread didn't offer enough starch, potatoes and rice were heaped into bowls. A staggering array of vegetables picked just that morning and prepared with local flair, lent their rich colors to the table and made Clark's mouth water.
They filled their plates and took seats at one of the unoccupied tables. Eating while a steady stream of villagers stopped by to chat with the Americans, Clark hardly noticed as the afternoon turned into dusk. If asked, he would not have been able to say when last he'd felt so carefree, so unfettered by worries or doubts.
Night had fallen in earnest, but the party showed no signs of slowing. Candles and oil lamps twinkled on all of the tables, the small band hitting its stride shortly after the bottles of *chicha* were passed and shots shared by all old enough to hold a glass. Clark, trying to be a good sport, slugged back his own small portion of the home-brewed liquor and nearly choked as the potent alcohol seared down his throat. Hearty smacks on the back and guffaws about the sure manliness of the *gringo loco* did little to convince him to try another shot.
In his travels, Clark had experienced many kinds of local music, but he never ceased to be amazed at what a grand amount of sound could be generated by a few simple instruments. With only a *flauta*, *tiple*, guitar and a pair of maracas, the small band filled the valley with joyful sound, and soon only he, Jeff and Gillian and a few of the eldest villagers remained seated.
Gillian explained to him the intricacies of the *bambuco*, how the goal of the dance was for the man to maneuver his way through various partners to end up with the woman of his choice. Another dance that he admired was called the *chirimia*, and Gillain told him he should appreciate it because he'd likely never see it outside of the lower Andes.
He watched, enraptured, as the people of San Pablo danced and laughed, looking for all the world like they had nothing to care about but the music and the food and the party. Skirts twirling and boots stomping, they were lost in the music and the magic of the warm night, their bellies full and friends at hand.
"Amazing," he muttered, feeling such a warmth for these people that up until a month ago he'd never known at all.
"What's so amazing?" Jeff asked.
"These people," Clark clarified with a broad sweep of his arm, indicating the merriment swirling about them. "They have nothing to celebrate. Their homes were decimated by an earthquake. Guerilla soldiers wandered into town not two days ago and took what little money they had. But still, they don't seem to have a care in the world."
"*Aquí y ahora*." Jeff said simply. When Clark continued to look at him blankly, he explained. "Here and now. It's their philosophy of life. Nothing matters but what happens right here, right now. They don't dwell on the past, and they don't worry about the future."
"Isn't that awfully short-sighted of them?" Clark wondered. "Not to think about the future and prepare for it?"
"Maybe," Jeff conceded. "But really, what exactly could they prepare for? I mean, you've seen how unpredictable things can be. It takes all these people have just to make it from day to day. There's not much use in wasting energy getting ready for something you don't even know will happen."
"I guess," Clark admitted. Just managing to cull enough food from the garden for the evening's meal was a big enough concern in San Pablo. A problem that could happen a week from now was unfathomable.
At that moment, a well-endowed woman name Lourdes swept up to the table. Clark cringed, sinking back into his chair. On several occasions, Lourdes had made it clear that she wouldn't mind getting friendlier with the dark-haired, dark-eyed *señor* Sam, and Clark always felt slightly unclean after encounters with her.
But he was in luck, Lourdes's target not him but instead the lean and bewildered Jeff. Clark gave him a sympathetic smile as Lourdes hauled him off to the dance floor.
"Poor guy," Gillian said with a giggle as Lourdes manhandled Jeff into a tight embrace. "He'd better hope she hasn't had too many shots of *chicha* or he may find himself pinned to the wall."
Clark laughed out loud at the image of an ensnared Jeff sandwiched between a slab of adobe wall and Lourdes's ample chest. "Better him than me."
She laughed along with him, the sound rising above the music in a delightful counter beat. "Well, your time might be coming, so don't be too smug."
After they'd watched Jeff and Lourdes take a few spins around the dance floor and their laughter had dwindled to coughs, she turned to him expectantly. "So, you ready to try it?"
Clark choked. "What? Lourdes? I don't think so!"
His panicked response sent her into peals of laughter once again, and she could barely manage to speak. "Not that…" she sputtered between convulsions. "I meant *aquí y ahora*."
"Oh." He relaxed visibly, grinning as she tried to compose herself. "Do you need another shot?"
She shook her head. "That's the last thing I need. But help yourself."
"I don't think so," he demurred. "Alcohol really has no affect on me. I'd rather just enjoy the wine."
What he was really enjoying was watching Gillian have such a good time. While she was always fairly easy-going, he'd never seen her laughing with such unbridled merriment and teasing so mercilessly. The reserve that always seemed to hold her in such calm control was gone, and whether it was the free flowing *chicha* or the party or just the fact that they'd all survived another day, he didn't know. If he had to guess, he'd probably say a little bit of all of it.
"You didn't answer the question. How does it feel to be a part of the here and now?"
What was it that they'd joked about? Oh yes, her lack of persistence. Clark took a drink of wine while he formulate an answer that would satisfy her without opening a bunch of painful things he'd rather avoid discussing.
"I guess it's nice. For a while, anyway," he added skeptically. "It doesn't seem very realistic."
What he didn't say was that he couldn't imagine living without any regards to what might happen next, even if he no longer had any idea what that might be. Just because he was too busy and too tired to think about it much didn't mean he didn't want to think about ever.
"Isn't that what you've been doing? For the last six weeks, staying here in San Pablo?"
Unnerved by her insight into his thoughts, he hesitated only for a second before answering her. "No."
She turned to face him directly, her flinty eyes unblinking and curious as they held his. "Are you sure about that? You don't seem to have a past, and I've noticed that you don't talk much about your plans for the future."
"Maybe that's because I don't have a future," he speculated with a broad grin that masked the uncertainty her observation had dredged to the surface.
"Everyone has a future, Sam," she said, reaching across the table to lift the bottle of wine. Pouring herself a hefty draught, she inclined the bottle in his direction, repeating her actions into his glass when he nodded his approval. "And there's a big difference between not worrying about it and running away from it. You might not be able to predict the future, but you sure as hell can't avoid the fact that it's going to come someday."
Clark took a drink of his wine. Was that what she thought? That he was running away from his future? How was that possible when every future that he'd ever imagined for himself had evaporated? How did you run away from…nothing?
"Besides, that's not what *aquí y ahora* is all about," she went on.
"Then what's it about, exactly?"
"It's about not holding on to things that are hurtful or make you angry. About just kind of rolling with it. I think it means that you should suck every bit of enjoyment you can from each moment and not let anything, past or future, stand in the way of living life right now."
"You certainly do that well," he said, tipping his glass in mock salute.
"Yeah, well, I've had more practice than you. It gets easier. Trust me," she said with a laugh that was distinctively less joyous than the ones of earlier.
A slightly uneasy silence settled over them, topics touched on a little to close to home for his comfort.
But he didn't want to feel maudlin. For that moment, at least, he wanted to enjoy the music and the wine and the company seated next to him. This was a party, after all.
When he spoke, his voice held a lightness that he allowed to settle in his heart. "So, what does your future hold, when it finally does come to pass?"
Taking his cue, she smiled brightly. "I see a dance in my future. Come on."
He shook his head vehemently as her intention to take him out on the floor became clear. "Oh, no."
Her hands went to her hips, her head cocked to one side so that a waterfall of honey waves came to cover her shoulder. "What, Superman can't dance? Or maybe it's that you'd rather wait for Lourdes to finish with Jeff."
"Oh, God," he groaned, "anything but that."
Extending her hand, she gestured for him to rise, adding a wry smile. "I promise, I won't pin you to the wall."
Quite reluctantly he allowed himself to be led to the dance floor, but within two songs, he'd picked up the strong beat of the music and was able to manage a bit of the *bambuco*.
Throughout the twirling dances, partners were exchanged, and Clark found himself passed from woman to woman all amidst the broad laughter and loud whoops of celebration. Thankfully, he was paired with Lourdes for only a brief set, soon spinning back into position with Gillian. They finished out the dance, and begging thirst and exhaustion, he led her back to the table.
Falling into their seats, out of breath with laughter and dancing, Clark refilled their wine glasses while Gillian swept errant strands of hair out of her face.
"I think you have an admirer," she whispered loudly, looking at a person standing beyond Clark's left shoulder.
Panic shot through his spine, and he stiffened, afraid to turn around. "Not Lourdes?"
Gillian giggled at his discomfort. "Relax, you're safe. At least this time."
He swiveled slowly to find a pair of dark eyes staring at him from several feet away. A little girl not much younger than Antonio clutched something in the fist that she held slightly in front of her, as if she wanted to bring it to the table where he and Gillian sat but was too afraid to move. Clark gave her what he hoped was a welcoming smile and lifted a hand in a small wave.
Instead of coming over, her eyes widened and she took a large step back. Clark's heart sank at seeing her obvious fear. He'd tried so hard to win the trust of the children, but so far, only Antonio and Alicia approached him with open acceptance. And that was because he paid them.
He glanced at Gillian, who was smiling slightly as she watched the interplay between the large American man and the tiny Colombian girl. But when she saw the dejection in his face, the merriment left her own, replaced with an odd tenderness. Standing swiftly, she positioned herself between Clark and the little girl, appointing herself ambassador.
Crouching down near the ground, she motioned for the girl to approach them. In a gentle voice that carried back to where he watched, she explained that Sam only seemed scary because he was so big, but really, he was like a giant *piñata*, full of sweet stuff on the inside. Clark choked on a laugh upon hearing that analogy, not sure if he likened himself to a fanciful creature filled with nothing but air and meant to be whacked with a big stick. But when it elicited a shy grin, he decided that he'd take being hit with a stick if that's what it earned him.
Holding the girl's hand in her own, Gillian approached the table. "Sam, this is Eva. She has something she wants to give you."
Clark leaned forward, placing his elbows on his knees to bring his eyes directly in line with Eva's. Her dark lashes were thick around her obsidian eyes, her young skin a warm, creamy tan. She was a beautiful child, and when she smiled at him, Clark felt his heart melt.
"This is for you, *señor* Sam," she said softly, holding out her gift.
Clark recognized a strap similar to the one holding Gillian's keys together. He took it, examining the brightly colored braid. Lengths of string in a rainbow of colors had been tied into tiny knots, creating delicate stripes running perpendicular to the strap's seven or so inch length. Only a quarter of an inch wide, it was a small but precise example of the expert weaving skills possessed by the women of San Pablo.
"Did you make this yourself?" he asked gently, holding the braid as if it were the most valuable thing he'd ever received. "It's so beautiful."
Eva nodded solemnly. "A *pulsera*."
Not trusting the *gringo* to understand, she gave Clark a look of wisdom far beyond her six or so years and took the strap from his hands. She wrapped it around his left wrist, her small fingers nimbly tying the two ends into a secure knot. He didn't dare move while she worked, not wanting to endanger their fragile friendship. When she was satisfied that it would not come untied, she spun the strap around, placing the knot against the inside of his wrist. Grasping his hand, she twisted his arm this way and that so she could admire the bracelet properly placed on its new owner.
Clark brushed a finger over the finely woven gift, a sharp wetness stinging the back of his eyes. When she placed a kiss on his cheek, he had to swallow hard against the lump that had risen in his throat. Thankfully, Eva scampered back to her friends, and he made a great show of examining his bracelet closely while he tried to compose himself.
He felt a hand on his shoulder, the touch so light as almost to pass notice. A suspicious glitter shone in the gray eyes gazing down at him.
"*Aquí y ahora*, Sam," Gillian said. "I'm telling you, it's the only way to live."
Funny thing was, he was starting to agree with her.
Even though the days had long since begun to blend together, Clark still kept to a mental calendar, subconsciously marking off time. So he was acutely aware of exactly when the Saturday of Lois's wedding dawned. A quick x-ray glance at his wrist watch laying atop his Clark-clothes inside the trunk confirmed it. May 28th.
He thought of staying in bed all day, but he'd never be left alone. Before mid-morning, his absence would have been duly noted. Someone, or maybe everyone, would then come looking for him, wanting to know if he was sick or needed anything. The curse of small town living; everyone knew your business. He'd thought he'd left it behind when he'd moved away from Smallville.
After pulling himself off the pallet and putting his clothes on in slow motion, he trudged down the road to Rosita's, wanting a strong cup of coffee. In Colombia, not a problem. A heavy fog had settled over the valley, shrouding the entire world in a muffling blanket much in keeping with his mood.
Thankfully, the cantina was empty. Waving Rosita off with an apologetic smile when she brought forth a plate stacked with arepas, he hunched over his steaming cup and stared into the dark liquid. The rich brown was almost the same color as Lois's eyes. Warm. Bottomless.
He'd probably never see those eyes again. At least not up close, where he could lose himself in them. Now that they were no longer working partners, there was really no reason to see each other at all. He wasn't interested in friendship, at least not while his heart still bled from the gaping wound she'd inflicted on it. And he sure as hell couldn't imagine socializing with the Luthors.
Nope, today Lois embarked on her new and improved life. A life that didn't include Clark Kent.
Of course, things could be worse, he imagined. He could be in Metropolis, bombarded by media coverage of the wedding of Metropolis's most eligible bachelor this side of Superman. Newspapers. LNN. Top Copy. Details on what the bride was wearing, what was served at the extravagant reception, where the newlyweds would be honeymooning.
Torturing himself, he let his mind play over the night he'd hovered outside Lex's penthouse and watched Lois accept the man's proposal. Lex slipping the ring on her finger, pulling her into his arms. And then he had kissed her. It had been agony to watch. Nothing short of his heart being physically ripped from his chest could have caused more pain.
But tonight the kisses would only be the beginning. Before the next day, she would become Lex's wife in every sense of the word. Silken skin and dark hair stroked by fingers other than his. Her body given freely to a man Clark hated probably more than anyone in the world.
He wanted to scream. Nothing in his life had ever hurt so bad. Could ever hurt as bad as knowing that she would never be his.
Unfortunately, Gillian picked that moment to walk into the cantina, Luke close on her heels. Oblivious to his foul state of mind, she approached his table and waved at Rosita to bring her a cup of coffee. "Hey Sam. Thought you'd be down at the school site by now."
He lifted his cup by way of explanation, not daring to speak for fear that only anguish would come out of his mouth.
Not deterred by his lack of speech, she swung her leg over the bench and sat down next to him. Rosita placed a cup of coffee in front of her. She gave the plump women a bright smile. "*Gracias, mi amiga*."
After taking a long, noisy sip that grated on his shredded nerves, she continued on about the school. "It's looking pretty good. Another month or so and it'll be better than new. But I wouldn't be expecting too much thanks from the kids. I think they've enjoyed their reprieve from Jeff's lectures."
"Huh huh," he mumbled, wondering if he never said a word, would she eventually just get the hint and leave him alone.
"We've done pretty good. Getting all of the homes rebuilt in less than two months. That's, like, unheard of."
He sipped his coffee, pausing a moment to zap it back to boiling.
"It's too bad we've had this spot of bad weather. So rainy none of those bricks will set up –"
He couldn't handle it any more. She was prattling on about adobe bricks while his life was ending. Something inside him snapped, and Gillian stood directly in the path of destruction.
"– the stucco to dry. Then it's just a matter of –"
"You know, it is possible that I might actually have other things on my mind than whether or not the last batch of bricks is dried enough to use," he said, not even attempting to keep the irritation from his voice.
She looked as though he had slapped her, for a minute gaping. "I didn't mean to suggest that you –"
He went on as if he hadn't heard her. Now that the anger had started to leak out, he couldn't seem to stop it. "I don't think you appreciate what you have here. By me sticking around slapping stucco on every thing that doesn't move, there are a lot of people out there who aren't getting my help."
Her face pinked with indignation. "I –"
"Not everyone gets this extended service, you know."
Having had enough, she stood, her hands landing on her hips. "Hey, flyboy, it was your choice to hang around here, remember?"
"My choice?" he said, his voice becoming loud enough that Rosita stuck her head out from the kitchen. "Seems to me that you were the one crying about all of these homeless people and sticking around to do the dirty work."
"Don't get me wrong, we appreciate all you've done," she snapped, gray eyes flashing. "But don't think that we wouldn't have survived without you. If you're not happy here, we'll get along just fine if you fly on back to wherever it is you came from."
"Maybe I will!" He stood, both the force of his words and the sudden movement sending the bench toppling to its side.
"Suit yourself. Have a nice life!" Without waiting for him to respond, she whirled about on her heel and stalked out the door. Even Luke seemed to frown with disapproval before following her.
"Fine!" he shouted at her receding back, satisfied that finally someone else felt as bad as he did.
Perched atop the Lincoln Plaza Building directly across the street from the Lexor Hotel, he watched as the white limousine pulled up to the curb and deposited its contents. He couldn't see her face, and for that he was thankful. If he'd had to see her face, radiant with happiness, he might have flown directly into the sun.
There was no way to enter the building, to get close enough to the ceremony to watch without being noticed. In either guise, Superman or Clark Kent, his appearance would have caused a stir. As far as Lois and everyone in that ballroom was concerned, both men had left Metropolis. Maybe for good.
But not seeing didn't preclude listening. With a focus even more intense than normal, he narrowed in on the voices murmuring in the ballroom where the wedding was to take place, assured that he had the right crowd when "Luthor" and "marriage" were mentioned in the same conversation.
Strains of the wedding march pounded against his ears, shrill in both volume and significance. His mind painted in the missing pictures. Lois walking down the aisle, her dark eyes shining. The guests whispering in awe at her loveliness. Lex, beaming with pride over his conquest.
And then it started. In a flat, monotone completely inappropriate for the devastation his words were about to create, the archbishop started to speak.
<*Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today in the sight of God…*>
There was no God, for surely if there was, he'd do something to stop this.
<*to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony.*>
Wasn't this the right time? The moment when he was supposed to burst through the doors and object? To tell her that she couldn't marry this man because he loved her. Damn it! He loved her!
<*Do you, Lex, take this woman to be your wedded wife*>
But he'd already done that. On a park bench. In the center of the bustling city.
<*From this day forward*>
He'd told her that he'd loved her for a long time.
<*for richer, for poorer,*>
And she'd told him she admired him.
<*In sickness and in health*>
<*To love and to cherish*>
Loved him as a friend.
<*'Til death do you part*?>
That she was in love with a him she didn't even know.
The words fell like a gavel, the final sentence handed down to reveal life imprisonment.
He couldn't do it. He couldn't sit on top of that building and listen while Lois vowed to love another man. With a speed amazing even to him, he shot into the air, flying far beyond the earth on a direct path to the moon.
The lack of gravity didn't matter to a man who could fly. He perched on the rocky surface, watching the blue marble beneath him, half of it cast in light, the other half in darkness. But the earth had it wrong. The half where Lois stood in her white gown should have been the half in darkness.
Mentally, he ticked off the seconds, sixty down to one. It had taken less than a minute for Lex to make his vows. Hers could take no longer. How amazingly ironic, he thought. Two words, spoken in a single breath would create a lifetime bond unbreakable by anything other than death.
He hadn't been able to stop it from happing, so it had happened. It was incontrovertible. He couldn't ignore it or forget it. A fact now recognized by law, society, and yes, even God.
Lois Lane was now Lex Luthor's wife.
She would sleep with him. Bear his children. Stand by his side and grow old with him. Every dream that Clark had ever had would be lived by another man. A snake who deserved nothing more than a modicum of the pain he'd inflicted upon others.
For so long Clark's dreams had revolved around her that he knew not how to replace them. Now his future held nothing. Like the vast emptiness in front of him, his future contained neither air nor matter, only a cold void that stretched into infinity.
Only when the air stored in his lungs dissipated did he consider going back down to Earth, and even then he hesitated. He'd never contemplated what might happen if he actually ran out of air. Would it be painful to just stop breathing? Would the indestructibility of his body lead him to float aimlessly among the cosmos for all eternity? Or maybe he'd break apart, bits of himself cast out into space, a tragic constellation. He'd come from somewhere out there. Perhaps the time had come for him to return to that somewhere.
His brain must be getting oxygen deprived, he thought sluggishly, any movements he made feeling much like they were executed in slow motion through gelatin. He waved his hand in front of his face, smiling at the image-echo it created. Was this what it felt like to be high on acid? Or maybe drunk on *chicha*.
A flash of color stilled his hand, and he focused, willing it to reform itself into a single body part. With great effort of concentration, he identified the source of unexpected color.
He hadn't taken it off, instead tucking it beneath the tight blue sleeve of the suit. But it had refused to stay hidden, working its way back out to remind him of its existence. A rainbow braid of gratitude from a little girl named Eva.
He stood at the end of the path that led up to his shack. It leaned to the left, eyeing him with disapproval.
"I knew you'd be back," it seemed to say.
Yes, he was back. Maybe for good.
"Hey, flyboy, you coming?"
Clark propped the battered copy of *War and Peace* across his chest and lifted his head off the bent arm supplementing his pancake pillow just as Gillian's head appeared in the open doorway.
"C'mon, they won't wait for us," she chided, out of breath as if she'd run all the way up the hill.
"I don't know," he answered. "I don't want to intrude on the big reunion."
Brian, the previous owner of Clark's shack, had arrived from Bogotá that morning, and big plans had been made for reminiscing at Rosita's cantina in honor of the recently passed Fourth of July. Clark had met the robust man when he and Gillian had come to the school to check on the progress of the rebuild. He'd seemed friendly enough, but somehow Clark had felt out of place, almost like a third wheel.
"Don't be crazy," she said, dismissing his objection. "When you're thousands of miles from home, you need to take any chance you can get to talk to other Americans, especially on the Fourth of July. It's downright unpatriotic if you don't come."
When he continued to look skeptical, she entered the room and came to stand next to his pallet. "Besides, Brian's brought a case of Chilean wine. It's good stuff. You don't want to miss that. Come on. I promise, we won't tell every bush story we have."
Clark laughed. "Just the ones that involve eating caterpillars."
She grabbed the book from his chest and snapped it closed, giving him a playful smack as he swung his feet to the floor. "That only happened once. And I keep telling you, they weren't that bad."
He gathered up his discarded sandals and followed her out the door. She was right. It might be kind of nice to celebrate the Fourth of July. After all, it was a national holiday, and as an American, the least he could do was acknowledge it by drinking Chilean wine in a Colombian cantina.
Besides, he still felt bad about how he'd treated her the day of Lois's wedding. It had been over a month, and she'd not brought it up, acting as if nothing at all had happened when she'd walked by the school the next morning to find him already at work. But he knew he'd behaved abominably, and he'd been trying to be extra nice ever since.
Three hours and twice as many bottles of wine later, the small group of expatriates could barely keep themselves in their seats, laughter ringing out of the cantina's open windows and into the streets beyond. Several villagers had gathered outside, shaking their heads and pointing at the crazy *gringos* who hooted and howled as Brian and Jeff regaled them with misadventures obtained during their nearly twenty years combined of service in foreign lands.
"The next day, I tiptoed back into the latrine," Jeff was saying to the captivated group, "and wouldn't you know that damn spider had called for backup. There had to be a dozen of the ugly brutes, each one as large as my hand, waiting to carry me out into the jungle where they could finish me off."
They all laughed, and Brian filled their empty cups from the communal bottle placed in the center of the table.
"So, Sam, you ever been to Colombia before?" he asked as their laughter ebbed.
Clark shook his head. "Just Bogotá. It's a beautiful country, at least what I've seen of it."
"You've gotta see the wax palms." He nudged Gillian with his elbow. "Gills, you have to take him to see the wax palms."
"We've been a little busy around here, making a town and all. We don't live the cushy life like you city folk do." Gillian remarked dryly. She was seated between Brian and Jeff, and she gave Clark a knowing grin over the table that separated them.
Her barb was lost on Brian, who leaned forward to rest his arms on the table. "And you've gotta come to Popayán for *Día De Negritos* and *Fiesta De Los Blanquitos*."
"I'm sorry?" Clark said, thinking that whatever it was, it sounded like something slightly racist.
"In January, it's a two day festival they call Day of the Blacks and Day of the Whites," Brian explained. "The first day, guys chase the girls around with black shoe polish, trying to smear it on them. Then the next day, they do the same thing with flour. They literally paint the town white."
"Sounds really…appealing," Clark remarked with a grin.
"Oh, no. It's a lot of fun," Brian was quick to assure him. "Parades. Strolling musicians, people dressed up in costume. Kind of like a mini Carnival."
"It is a lot of fun," Jeff agreed. "A great way to end Christmas time."
Clark felt an odd twist in his chest. Christmas. January. They seemed so far away. A time he'd let fall off the range of his radar. He'd grown so accustomed to thinking no further than when the next batch of adobe bricks would be cured that something happening six months in the future seemed inconceivable. With a start, he realized that *aquí y ahora* had settled on him, and he found it comfortable. He didn't need or even want to think beyond that very night. If he did, life became far too complicated.
Gillian must have sensed his discomfort because she changed the topic. "You know, Sam, Brian's the one who taught me how to take apart that motorbike and put it back together again."
An odd and totally inexplicable spark of irritation snapped through him on hearing this. It had bothered him when Brian had swirled Gillian off her feet in a big welcoming hug when they'd arrived at Rosita's. And it bothered him now that she had decided to forgo her braid in favor of letting her hair flow around her shoulders. She looked uncommonly pretty, a fact that Brian seemed to appreciate as several times Clark caught the man looking at her with a knowing smile. So then it bothered him to think about what their relationship might have entailed before Brian had left for Bogotá.
Mostly, though, it bothered him that he was bothered at all in the first place.
"Is that right?" he asked, forcing himself to smile with interest.
"Yeah, it's one of the many failed programs of the Peace Corps," Brian explained as he leaned back in his seat. "Used to be all PCVs were issued a motorbike to get around. You'd spend two days during training learning how to fix the thing, take apart the motor and clean it and put it back together again. Then some brilliant egghead started compiling statistics and discovered the number one killer of PCVs was motorbike accidents. So they stopped issuing them."
"Brian left me his when he deserted us out here." Gillian said. "At first I thought it was guilt, but now I think he was just hoping to trade up to something that actually had four wheels."
"You're a career volunteer, then?" Clark asked, curious to what jobs an ex-Peace Corps volunteer would find in a modern city like Bogotá.
"No. I decided that it was time to grow up and start earning a respectable living. I teach English to Colombian business men." Brian chuckled. "Not as much glamour as you find out here, but the pay's not too bad."
"Yeah, Brian just couldn't handle the wild nightlife of San Pablo," Gillian teased, giving his shoulder a playful smack. "He headed for the big city and settled down. I'm afraid he's become almost respectable."
The group shared a laugh, then Brian turned his focus back to Clark. "How about you? What's the market for superheroes like these days?"
Clark shook his head and took a drink of his wine. "I don't take money for helping people."
Brian lifted his dark brows knowingly. "Ah, the ultimate volunteer. Can't imagine it pays the bills, though. I'll bet a flat in Metropolis costs a pretty penny. Of course, if I were you, I'd settle some place a bit warmer. Beverly Hills, maybe. Or Hawaii."
"Naw, too glamorous for my blood," Clark said with a chuckle, hoping that Brian would stop asking questions. This was the stuff he'd dreaded and the reason he'd thought to avoid this party.
"Wow. Man." Brian let out a low whistle of appreciation as he studied Clark. "I can't imagine what it would be like to be Superman. Being able to do all of that stuff. I'll bet you get a lot of action with the chicks."
"Brian!" Gillian exclaimed.
"What?" He glanced at her, perplexed by her outrage. "I'll bet babes are falling all over themselves for a chance with the strongest man in the world."
Clark shifted uncomfortably and felt a warmth flooding his face. "Sadly, just Lourdes," he said, self-deprecatingly, and both Jeff and Brian chuckled appreciatively.
"Oh come on," Brian said. "You've got to have some pretty amazing stories. Saving people all the time. Must be a pretty exciting life."
"Sometimes," he admitted wryly. Yes, exciting. And wonderful. And also tragic and sometimes horrifying.
"I don't know. Sam seems pretty normal to me," Gillian chimed in with a broad grin. "Downright boring, really. I mean, he could go anywhere he wants and instead he's hanging around San Pablo. Makes me wonder if he has all of his dogs barking."
She gave him a slow wink, and he smiled his thanks to her for saving him from Brian's suppositions.
"Look who's talking!" Brian snorted, turning his attention to the woman seated next to him. "You left behind daddy's trust fund to come out here and piss in the woods. I've always questioned your sanity."
"Just following in your footsteps, trying to make the world a better place one bottle of wine at a time." She lifted her glass in salute and took a long sip, and they all laughed together.
Brian stared at her for another minute, shaking his head. "Geez, Gills, you look great. I love Colombian women, but it sure is nice to see eyes that aren't brown."
Even in the dimness of the cantina Clark could see the blush staining her cheeks. But she held her own. "Man, Brian, your lack of charm never ceases to amaze me."
"I mean it. You could have your pick of men in Bogotá. They'd be climbing all over themselves to date a woman with light eyes and hair like yours." He turned back to Clark. "I don't know if you've noticed, but Colombians seem to have some fascination with fair haired people, especially women. Guess anything becomes exotic if you don't see much of it."
Jeff chuckled in agreement. "My mother always said the things she found most attractive about my father were his blue eyes and blond hair. She said he was what she'd always imagined a California surfer would look like. Pretty funny considering he was from Cleveland."
"Matter of fact, tell him, Gillian," Brian persuaded as their laughter died, "about that time you got the *gringo* haircut."
Gillian nearly choked on the mouthful of wine she'd taken. "I'm not telling him about that!"
"Why not? It's hilarious." When she shook her head adamantly, Brian turned to face Clark, clearly unwilling to pass up the chance to share another tale. "When Gillian first arrived in Colombia with her father, they were sent on a medical convoy to a village west of Calí. You think this place is remote? You should see Santa Domingo. Makes this place look like Pittsburgh. Anyway, in Santa Domingo, they don't see very many white folks. So our little Gills stuck out like a sore thumb. Of course, it didn't help that she wore this flowery little sundress and the most impractical pair of high heeled sandals."
"Gee, thanks Bri," Gillian chided, then rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "I think I still have those shoes around somewhere. Use 'em to smack cicadas out of my shack."
Clark leaned back in his chair and took a sip of wine, enjoying the rich, fruity flavor as it washed over his tongue and down his throat. He watched Gillian, her eyes snapping with the laughter she shared at her expense. The young woman in the worn sandals, tan cotton cargo pants and loose hemp shirt certainly had little resemblance to the one in the picture Brian painted.
"This one girl was just fascinated with Gillian's hair," Brian continued. "Never seen anything like it. So light. She called it *leche de la abeja*. Milk of the bee. I think she meant honey. Anyway, that kid followed Gillian all over the village, just staring at her head."
Clark felt a slight heat rushing over his skin. He himself was guilty of staring at Gillian's hair, both the night of the St. Mary's fiesta and then again that morning when she'd shown up with Brian, minus her braid, the sunlight gilding it with burnished gold.
"Well, one morning, Gills wakes up and finds that a big chunk of her hair had been cut right off one side of her head. At first, we wondered if it was mice. They'll do that, you know. Chew off human hair to build their nests. But the ends were cut too clean. It had to have been cut off with a knife."
Horrified, Clark leaned forward, his eyes wide.
"Soon enough, we found out what had happened. Seems little…what was her name?" Brian turned to Gillian, his face furrowed as he tried to remember.
"Marissa," Gillian supplied.
"Yeah, Marissa. Seems Marissa was told by an old *bruja*…um, village shaman…that if she slept with a lock of Gillian's hair under her bed, her hair would change to the same color as Gill's."
"A lock?!" Gillian exclaimed, outraged. "That little sneak took a whole handful! Right from the front, where you couldn't miss it."
Clark squinted, trying to find the spot where the stolen chunk had been taken. But Gillian's long, honey colored tresses were even and thick on both sides. As if aware of his scrutiny, she tucked the locks behind her ears ruefully.
"Looks like it grew back OK," Jeff noted compassionately, voicing what Clark was thinking.
Brian shook his head sadly, but a grin pulled at his wide mouth as he teased. "What I want to know is why anyone would trade in their beautiful dark hair for hair the color of beer."
"Chris called it the color of bread crust," Gillian stated. "Wonderbread, to be exact."
They all laughed, the comparison, although somewhat odd, actually very accurate. Her light hair did indeed resemble the golden crust on a loaf of well-baked bread.
"Who's Chris?" Clark asked between chuckles, not remembering that name mentioned before.
The laughter faded almost instantly, as if he'd just announced that a band of FARC soldiers awaited outside.
"Gillian's twin brother," Jeff finally explained when the silence had become unbearable.
"Twin? I didn't know you were a twin?" Clark said, surprised that she'd never mention such an unusual fact about herself.
Gillian licked her lips and swallowed the last mouthful of wine in her glass. "Yeah. Well, I was."
"Was?" Clark echoed, perplexed at her odd choice of words. "How do you stop being a twin?"
She shrugged as she reached across the table and pulled the open bottle toward her. "I guess when your other half dies, you just become a normal person."
Instead of pouring more wine into her glass, she tipped the bottle to her mouth and took a long drag. No one complained.
Clark shifted uncomfortably. "Oh. I'm sorry…"
"He was killed three years ago. In a car accident."
"Hey, Gills, it's OK." Jeff placed a hand on her arm. "You don't have to –"
"What? There's nothing to hide." Gillian turned to look Clark squarely in the eye, and the expression he saw in hers was like a slap across the face. "Chris and his friend, Garrett, left a party late one night three summers ago and on their way home, wrapped their car around a tree. Doctors say they never felt a thing, probably died on impact."
"That's really terrible."
"Yeah, well, Chris never should have been in that car in the first place." She looked away and took another swig from the bottle. "He made a stupid decision and that was that."
Her harsh analysis of the situation unsettled him, so unlike her normally easy-going acceptance of things both bad and good. But when she lifted her eyes and caught Clark's gaze, the pure pain he saw in them ripped through him. Since knowing this woman, he'd never seen her so affected by anything.
"So…let's play the 'whatdaya miss' game," Jeff suggested, changing the subject and earning Clark's eternal gratitude. "I'll go first, speaking of beer. Cold beer."
"Ice cream," Gillian offered immediately, although the merriment was gone from her voice. "And ice in a diet Coke."
"Movies without subtitles," Brian said.
"Flush toilets." This from Jeff
"Pizza," Clark added.
"Macaroni and cheese." Brian offered.
"Hot showers," Gillian moaned wistfully.
"The Sunday paper."
And so the game continued, but Clark tuned it out, his concentration on the woman seated across from him. Her normally stoic acceptance of the daily sadness in this inhospitable world had led him to believe nothing could ruffle her. Yet he could tell that the death of her bother had inflicted a staggering blow. He had a suspicion that there was far more to the story than she was telling, but he certainly wasn't about to ask questions.
Instead, he felt an unbelievable urge to make her laugh and smile again. Somehow Gillian sad tilted his newly created world too far off its axis. All of this time he'd been soothing his own hurt with the balm of easy acceptance, using San Pablo as an escape from his problems. But now it seemed that she, too, was running from something too painful to face. The thought that she had a past, and one maybe as full of pain as his own, pulled him back toward the truth that the real world hadn't actually disappeared taking his sorrows with it. He'd simply pushed it out of his range of awareness, but still it lurked, waiting patiently for him to return.
And too there was a nagging pull of guilt. He'd been so wrapped up in himself that he'd failed to see past the surface she presented. He'd blithely accepted her appearance of no worries, but now it seemed there was far more to Gillian than he'd realized. She'd become his friend, and as such, he wanted to do anything he could to keep her from hurting. As she was helping him heal, he wanted to help her.
"Double Fudge Crunch Bars."
Clark froze, the words halting all other thoughts.
<*What I wouldn't give for a Double Fudge Crunch Bar.*>
In that instant, the miles and the months were stripped away. As if she were sitting next to him, he could hear Lois's voice lamenting the same request, the same wistfulness.
Was it always going to be this way? He'd believe he'd moved past it, forgotten enough to go on with his life, only to have some offhanded remark yank him back down into the deepest part of his regrets. Even in the remote nowhere of Colombia, he couldn't escape the reminders of her.
He drained the rest of the wine in his glass, and not for the first time in his life wished that he could enjoy the sweet inhibition it offered to those not like him. For a change, it might be nice to get wasted, to actually not care at all about anything instead of just pretending that you didn't care.
Looking over the rim of his glass, he saw Gillian staring at him. And when he met her gaze, his breathing stopped for a second. The pain in her eyes was still there, but also in them he saw a knowing. As if she could see into his heart and mind and recognized the sorrow he held within them. In a way, it was like looking into a mirror. She nodded slightly, then looked away, breaking the spell.
Clark released his breath, but his heart continued to pound for long minutes later.
By the time the evening ended, all but Clark were fully feeling the effects of the wine. Gillian staggered slightly as she tried to gain her feet, and Clark quickly grasped her elbow to steady her.
"C'mon, Gils," Brian mumbled, "I'll walk you on home 'fore I go to my room. Wouldn't want you to wander the wrong way and end up somewhere 'round Popayán."
"I'll take her," Clark stated firmly, in a voice he hadn't used since he'd arrived in San Pablo. Pure Superman, one that didn't broach argument.
Thankfully Brian was too drunk to protest, but when his good- night kiss started to linger, Clark gently pulled Gillian down the road. With an exaggerated wave of his own, he bid farewell to the visitor from Bogotá.
"Sam?" The force of her word breaking through the silent night pushed her into him, and he placed an arm across her shoulders to steady her.
"Yes, Gillian?" When she made no move to leave the solid support he offered, he kept his arm draped around her.
She yawned. "Do you think my hair looks like Wonderbread?"
He chuckled. "Nope."
"Really?" she asked.
"*Leche de la abeja*," he said, glancing down at the silky head leaning against his shoulder. Milk of the bee.
"Wow, you sure speak Spanish good," she said sleepily, another yawn slipping out. "That Brian. He's just a great guy, isn't he?"
"Yeah," Clark agreed noncommittally. "Seems to be really fond of you."
"Oh, he's just a big flirt. Used to drive all the girls of San Pablo crazy, having them think he liked one then another. A lot of them were pretty sad when he decided to leave." Her voice took on an almost wistful tone. "But I'll bet all the fathers breathed a big sigh of relief when he packed up and headed out of Dodd…I mean Dodge."
"How about you?" he asked casually. "Were you sad to see him go?"
Her lips pursed slightly as she thought about that question, finally shaking her head to send sheets of hair cascading over his arm. "I'm glad he left."
He felt a spurt of anger toward Brian, wondering if in the string of broken hearts he'd left behind, Gillian's was but a bead. "Why's that?"
They'd reached her shack, and he stopped her from walking past the path that led to her door. She grinned up at him, a smile both sloppy and sweet. "Cause if he hadn't left, you wouldn't have stayed."
In a display similar to that very first day, Gillian fumbled with her braided key ring. This time, Clark took the keys from her hand and easily fit the right one into the lock on her door.
Stumbling into the space, she walked to the middle of the room where she stopped. "Man, it's dark in here."
When it became clear that she planned to do nothing to change that fact, Clark turned on the lamp sitting on the counter. As the room filled with light, she smiled brilliantly, as if a miracle had occurred to banish the darkness.
He felt a bit awkward, not certain how much help she needed. Should he just leave her to find her way to bed? Or did he need to make sure that she didn't end up in a heap on the floor?
Deciding maybe it was best if she had some space, he was about to tell her goodnight when she started to talk, focusing on him as if she only just realized he was in the room. "So, now you know my tragic history. That my twin brother died in a horrible car wreck. Don't you think it's fair for you to tell me something about you? You know, a little tit for tat kind of thing?"
Gillian paused to think a minute, her face scrunching as she contemplated her last comment. "That's such a dumb expression. Who ever came up with that? I mean, what's a 'tat'? And I'm just not liking the whole implication of that first part, you know –"
"I'm hiding from a woman," he blurted before she could finish her thought, a deep flush creeping over his face. With a start, he wondered what had possessed him to say that? Perhaps it was the lingering sense that she knew everything about him anyway. With her, he had no secrets at all.
"A woman?" she repeated, her expression changing to one of confusion, as if he'd just confessed he was hiding from a bumblebee. "What, is she one of those big, burly Siberian wrestler…no, wait."
A sudden dawning lit her face, and she glanced sideways at him knowingly. Her hand lifted, the nearly empty wine bottled clutched tightly as she pointed one finger in his direction. "Don't tell me! Why Sam, I never took you for a wham-bam-thank- you-ma'am kind of guy. You devil! Found you a classic Fatal Attraction type and had to come all the way to –"
"It wasn't like that. We never…" he stopped and wiped a weary hand across his eyes. How could he ever explain about his feelings for Lois to this woman? This drunk woman. He removed his hand to see her swaying slightly, like a palm tree buffeted by a strong gale. "God, I don't know why I'm even telling you this. You can't even stand up straight."
He turned to leave, the long night of stories weighing heavily. For some reason, he couldn't get the image of Gillian's face as she'd recounted her brother's story out of his mind. The raw pain and emptiness in her eyes, the vulnerability that made her look so much younger than her twenty-six years.
"No. No, Sam. I'm sorry. Really. I want to know," she called, stopping him. As if to prove her sincerity, she staggered backward, glancing over her shoulder when her knees were clipped by the upholstered chair. She lowered herself to its edge with much care. "Here, look, I'm sitting down. See? So, tell me."
He took in her broad grin, no hints of the earlier pain in the gray eyes now focused on him. She was the picture of expectation. He sighed. Why not? They'd been through a lot together, and she'd shared her sorrows with him. And he trusted her. Completely. Besides, she probably wouldn't remember much in the morning anyway based on the amount of wine she'd consumed.
"There's not much to tell, really," he said, leaning against the table and crossing his arms over his chest. "It's pretty simple. I fell in love with this woman, and she married another guy."
She took a moment to process this bit of information.
"Well, did you tell her?" she asked.
"Tell her what?"
She snorted and rolled her eyes dramatically. "That you…loved her and all? I mean, you guys can be so ignorant sometimes, thinking we women know everything. Which, granted, most of the time we do. But sometimes, just occasionally, it helps if you give us…you know…a 'lil clue."
"I told her."
She stared at him, waiting. When he didn't say anything, she gestured with her hand as if pulling the information from him. "An' what she say?"
"That she didn't love me that way. She cared about me as a friend and all of that." He could have recited the exact words of Lois's rejection, but they would have been lost on Gillian. "So she married the other guy."
"Well…" She shook her head, not accepting it. "That's just…really…stupid."
"What, that I fell in love with a woman who married another guy?" He'd been prepared for "pathetic" or even "tragic", so "stupid" really caught him off guard. Great. Another dimension to the story. Not only was he a heartbroken sap but an idiot as well.
"No. That she didn't love you. I mean, jus' look at you. You're…" She waved her hand up and down, indicating his entire person. "Well, look at you. And you're so damned nice it's disgusting."
"Gee, thanks," he said, her tone so deprecating he had to laugh at her backhanded compliments.
"And I'm starting to think you might actually be kind of smart," she continued. "Plus you like to help people. Hell, you can even fly. 'Course, I'm still not too sure about your taste in clothes…"
"She didn't know."
"What, that you like to wear primary colors even though you're a grown man?"
"No, that I can fly."
Her eyebrows lowered in confusion. "Didn't she think it was kind of strange when you floated off the ground?"
"I didn't do that when she was around," he clarified, sighing deeply. "She didn't know I'm Superman"
The confusion deepened. "Well, who did she think you were?"
"It's a long story." A long story that he had no intention of going into now or at any time in the future. "Part of the past."
"Hey, don't be pulling any of that *aquí y ahora* stuff on me now. You don't know the secret password."
He sighed again. He was starting to get the feeling that he wasn't going to be able to leave until she felt satisfied, and in her current condition, he was looking at a pretty long night. "She thought I was someone else. Someone…who wasn't Superman."
"I see." She thought a minute. "No, I don't see. Why'd she think you weren't who you are?"
"Because I told her I was someone else."
"Oh. Well, ok then." She smiled, as if it made perfect sense that he would be someone else. Then she frowned. "Why in the hell would you do a crazy thing like that?"
"Because I wanted her to see me for who I really am."
"So you told her you were someone else?"
"Yes." He had to admit, it actually did sound kind of crazy.
"OK." She eyed him suspiciously. "Who are you now?"
"OK, yes. Sam."
She exhaled loudly. "That's a relief. My mother told me never to let strange men into my room. You gonna tell me about her?"
Caught completely off guard by her one-hundred and eighty degree turn in direction, Clark blanched. "I don't think –"
"Oh, c'mon," she chided. "I gotta know about the woman that would pass up Superman."
"She didn't pass up Superman. I told you she –"
Gillian lifted a hand and waved it limply. "I know. I know. She didn't know who you were. But that's your own fault, so just tell me."
"She's…" He paused, thinking. How in the world could he describe Lois, the woman who for the past year had occupied nearly every waking moment of his life and several sleeping moments as well? "She's a lot like you, actually. Stubborn. Tenacious. Can't sit still for more than five minutes at a time."
"I'm not stubborn," she insisted with a small pout. "I'm persistent."
"Very," he agreed with a grin.
Gillian lifted the bottle to her lips and tipped it, frowning when nothing came out. "Empty. Does she like wine?"
"How about Colombian food?"
He thought a moment. Did Mexican count? "Chinese is her favorite."
"Classic rock or top 40?"
Her eyes narrowed, then a smile broke over her face, as if she'd found one to stump him. "How about licorice? Red or black?"
"Neither. Chocolate." Double Fudge Crunch Bars to be exact.
"Oh, well then, that explains it all." She lifted her hands triumphantly, as if she'd discovered the root of all evil in the world.
Thinking that perhaps she was satisfied, he stretched, wondering if maybe he should go. For some reason, though, he no longer felt like leaving. He'd thought a discussion of this particular topic would be excruciatingly painful, but oddly, it wasn't. There was something liberating about talking about this with a person who didn't know anything about Lois or Clark. And besides, she'd never remember any of it.
"OK, since you've been no help at all, I'm going to guess what she was like." She studied him for a minute, rubbing her chin thoughtfully. "Hmm. What kind of woman can I see you with?
He settled back on the table, intrigued to know what kind of woman she might imagine he would fall in love with.
Finally, she nodded, looking to have come to some momentous conclusion. "Tall."
"Not overly, but yes. Above average."
"Thin. She'd have to be incredibly thin."
He thought about Lois's trim form that contained just the right amount of curves. "Not too thin, but she's very healthy."
Gillian frowned, puzzled. "And she eats chocolate?"
"She works out," he explained.
"Of course." On a roll, she leaned forward, letting the bottle dangle in one hand. "Designer clothes. And matching shoes. Her shoes probably always match her outfit."
That one was tricky, him not having much experience with women's shoes. "I never noticed, but yeah, she dresses nice."
"I use to have matching shoes, too. And my toenails used to be painted." She slumped back in the chair, her face taking on a dreamy quality as if she remembered those glorious days. "Do you know how hard it is to keep your toenails painted in this place?"
"Pretty hard, I'm sure," he acquiesced, knowing even less about toenail painting than he did about women's shoes.
"So, if you fell in love with her, she must be pretty fabulous," she guessed. "I'll bet she's a preschool teacher who works with orphans and volunteers at the homeless shelter where she cooks entire seven course meals for the displaced. While speaking French and writing the great American novel."
"She can't cook."
"OK, she just serves them soup."
"I can't see her volunteering in a soup kitchen."
"But she loves children? I got that part right, right?" she asked hopefully.
"She's very…" He thought a minute, trying to be fair to Lois. "Career oriented."
"Is she a superhero?"
She asked it with such seriousness he laughed out loud at the image of Lois donning a cape and suit. "No. She saves the world in a different way."
Gillian shook her head sadly. "I'm sorry. She sounds perfect."
"Not perfect." He thought of Lois's brusque manner and pure stubbornness. Of her determination to keep him at arm's length those first few months. "She can be kind of unreasonable sometimes. And she's always getting herself into trouble."
Lifting a finger, Gillian pointed directly at him. "And she turned down Superman. A flaw for sure, that."
"Actually, she didn't turn *me* down." Technically, it was true. Sort of. She'd turned Clark Kent down, not Superman.
"Oh…" She stared at him, a look of understanding widening her eyes. "Wait a minute. If she didn't turn down Superman, and she married some guy, then she must have married…you. Unless you're not really Superman."
With a gasp, she lifted a hand to her mouth, horrified. "You're married!"
"Your logic is baffling." He shook his head, amazed and amused. "No, I'm not married."
Her brows came down, a small frown pulling at the corners of her mouth while she processed his words. "I'm confused."
"Lo…" He stopped, catching himself. "This woman, she told me that she loved me, but it wasn't me that she really loved. Just the Superman part.
"Well, OK now I'm not confused at all. Why didn't she love all of you?"
He shrugged. "I don't know."
"I like all of you." She frowned again, thinking over that declaration. "At least, I think I like all of you. Is there more of you somewhere?"
Hiding a grin fairly unsuccessfully, he said, "Nope. I'm all right here."
"Well, what part, exactly, did she love?" She hiccupped a bit and studied him thoughtfully, as if examining a statue. "I think you've got a really nice –"
"Gills," he interrupted, flushing under her scrutiny, "this conversation is way too complicated for me much less someone who's probably consumed three bottles of wine all by herself."
"You underestimate my ability to hold my liquor." She shook her head and waggled her finger loosely. "I've got this all down pat. This woman, who doesn't like to wear mismatched shoes and eats too much chocolate, works as a superhero in a soup kitchen. She loves some part of Superman, which I suspect might just be his great…" she paused, frowning as if she'd forgotten what she was going to say. Then a smile brightened her face and she continued. "But since she's a bodybuilder herself, a great…you know, body part…that wasn't enough. So she married some other guy. That wasn't you. 'Cause you're Superman, the whole guy, not just part of him. And you're not married."
His mind tangled, he tried to make some sense of what she'd just said, all in nearly one breath. "Um…well yeah, some of it. I think."
She lifted a finger again, nodding her head knowingly. "Maybe the problem is that you didn't show her the right parts. I mean, I'm not suggesting trench coat flasher type stuff. But if she only knows that you have one part, then how is she supposed to like all of the stuff you didn't show her?"
He wasn't quite sure how to answer her, both because he wasn't exactly sure what she'd asked, and also because some of what she said was making a bit of sense, a thought frightening in and of itself.
Thankfully, she didn't seem to expect an answer, continuing on. "Speaking of body parts, you know, you really should be a body organ donor."
"Huh?" he asked.
"All you have to do is sign the back of your driver's license. You can help a lot of people if something tragic were ever to happen to you. It's the gift of life, you know."
Since she seemed to have lost interest in discussing Lois, something that suited him just fine now that he was all confused, he decided perhaps she should get some sleep. She was looking at one big headache the next day as it was. "Listen Gillian, maybe you'd better lie down."
If she heard him, she didn't show it. "God, I'd love to have a shower. A nice, long hot shower where the water steams up the mirror. And I can sing Hopelessly Devoted. Do you know that song, Sam? It's from *Grease*. Olivia Newton John."
"I'm vaguely familiar," he said and reached out a hand, ready to pull her to her feet.
"It's a classic," she murmured, then took notice of the hand he'd extended.
With a slap that only made contact with his pinky finger, she missed his grip. Seeing that if left to her own devices she'd most likely remain in the chair all night, he fished for the waving hand and hauled her to her feet.
Gillian stood, rocking back and forth while she tried to balance herself. "I wouldn't worry about it too much if I were you."
"Worry about what?" He asked, completely mystified. He started to wonder if it was possible to become drunk just by association.
"That bodybuilder who married some guy she met at the soup kitchen."
Guessing that she must mean Lois, he eyed her carefully. "Why shouldn't I be worried about her?"
"Because, my Aunt Ruby, she used to say that men are like buses. If one passes you by, another one'll be along in five minutes." She thought a minute, then brightened. "Don't suppose you have an interest in men?"
"Ah, no," he said quickly.
"Well that's OK. I think it works backwards, too. And there's always Lourdes."
He let that remark go. "What about you?"
"I don't think Lourdes is my type. Too much…woman."
"No, how many buses have you let pass by?"
She looked at him, confused. "Bus? Oh, I never take the bus. Strange people. I prefer to ride a bike. Or a motorbike. Course mine is in a bunch of pieces."
Her gaze swung to the gears and springs and other parts of motorbike still spread over the tee-shirt rag, her voice forlorn. "Sure looks like a lot of pieces."
He grasped her elbow gently and directed her toward her bed.
"I know what it is, Sam. Why this…thing…has you so bummed," she said as she sat on the edge of it.
"Why's that?" He slipped off one sandal and then the other.
"Cause you're like me. You don't like to take the bus."
"I don't like to take the bus?" he echoed, no longer trying to follow her train of thought. "Why not?"
"Well, why would you want to take the bus when you can fly?" She lay back against her pillow, throwing an arm across her eyes. "Man, those Chileans sure make a great wine. Don't they?"
"It was very nice," he said as he lifted her legs and swung them onto the bed.
"Can't believe she cut off my hair…" she mumbled. "Bee milk…"
Pulling the blanket over her shoulders, he smoothed a strand of hair off her forehead. In sleep, she again took on the appearance of one much younger than her years, the weight of her responsibilities and the sorrows she'd endured falling away to reveal the innocent still within. He didn't think he'd ever met anyone as perplexing as Gillian Brooks.
The warm rasp of a wet tongue against the back of his hand shook him from his thoughts, and he looked down to see Luke waiting for his requested pat. Clark scratched the velvety fur between the dog's ears.
"You look after her, OK?" he whispered.
As if the animal understood, Luke jumped onto the bed and turned twice before settling in the crook made by Gillian's bent knees. He rested his chin on her calves and gave his tail a reassuring thump.
Satisfied that she was in good hands, so to speak, Clark left her house, shutting the door softly behind him.
For nearly a full week, the entire valley had been encased in a cloud. Each morning Clark awoke to the same microscopic mist that dampened everything. His clothes were clammy, even his waterproof wool *ruana* blanket limp. Finally, on the morning of the eighth day, he opened his eyes to see blue sky instead of the leaden gray. Just the promise of a day with some sunshine in it gave him the energy to spring from his bed.
He dressed quickly and headed for Rosita's for a cup of coffee. The constant damp had put a halt to any work on the school nearly three days earlier when they'd run out of adobe bricks cured enough to use. He'd filled the time holding impromptu discussions with the men of the village about alternative farming methods, a subject of which his knowledge was small and almost all but forgotten. Surely if Jonathan Kent could have heard his son talking, he'd have rolled his eyes and shaken his head sadly. Apparently, it was possible to take the farm out of the boy.
But surely there was something he could do now that the mist had stopped. He and Jeff had discussed several projects, and there was always adobe to be made.
Gillian was waiting for him at Rosita's. She handed him a cup of coffee, her smile almost as bright as the clear blue day. "Looks like we might see the sun today."
"About time," he muttered petulantly, but a grin twitched on his lips. "If I wasn't sold on the lovely weather of San Pablo before, I think after this last week I would be."
Ignoring his dig, she went on. "Since it's still too wet to do any work, are you up for a trip?"
"A trip?" He brightened, no longer hiding the grin that blossom into a full blown smile.
"Yep. Last night I put the last of the motorbike back together. I thought I might take her for a test drive."
"Ha!" he crowed. "How long have you been working on that thing, anyway? What, it's been at least four months…"
"Shut up or I'll make you walk," she said, but her smile belied her threat. With a flounce, she pushed past him and out of the cantina. He grinned and followed, gulping down his coffee before he reached the door.
The motorbike was parked in front of her shack, a large woven basket lashed to the rack across its back. He walked around it slowly, inspecting the workmanship. Lifting a skeptical eyebrow, he nodded with approval. "Looks like it might just run. Got two wheels in the right place. Didn't forget the motor. But did you use all the parts?"
Refusing to take the bait, she grinned. "I had a couple left over. Nothing important unless you think we might need brakes."
He laughed out loud as she took her seat and gripped the handlebars, looking at him expectantly.
"Where are we going?" he asked as he swung a leg over the seat behind her and placed his hands on her waist.
"It's time for you see the wax palms," she said as she kicked the motorbike to life and pointed it directly into the forest just beyond the clearing behind her shack.
After a couple of harrowing hours over twisting paths and inclines that seemed far too steep for the small bike to manage, Clark was thanking heaven he was invulnerable. That security didn't keep him from wincing and ducking as low branches threatened decapitation and trees sprung out of nowhere. Several times he hollered to ask her if she was sure she was still on a path and had to accept her quick nod for reassurance.
She finally slowed up, pulling to a stop in front the moss- covered remains of a tree far longer horizontal than vertical. They were still in the forest, but he could see open space a few hundred yards beyond the thick vegetation.
"We'll walk from here," Gillian explained as she shut off the motor and lowered the kickstand. "It packs more of a punch if you approach it on foot."
They made their way toward the brightness beyond the forest's edge. He'd grown accustomed to the sounds of the exotic birds and even the distinctive call of monkeys, but this was the first time since his arrival in Colombia that he'd been so completely immersed in its untamed wilderness.
"If we had a couple of days, I'd take you to Valle de Cocora. It's even more surreal," she called over her shoulder as they stepped out of the forest.
He blinked as he took in the vista extended before him. She was right. There was no other way to describe it. It was simply surreal.
Dotted across miles of rolling hills covered in green velvet was a pox of the strangest trees he'd ever seen. Thin, striped trunks towered far above their heads, ending over a hundred feet up with an explosive splay of palm fronds. Not a single fork or branch marred the absolute straightness of each tree. They looked like oversized pins, and the space of several hundred yards between each one accentuated their unnatural proportions. It was as if some greater being had touched a finger haphazardly about the hillsides, and where contact was made, a tree had sprung straight into the air.
"They can live as long as two hundred years," Gillian was saying. "The whole of Colombia used to be covered with them, but they were logged nearly to extinction. Now they're protected as the national tree."
"They're unreal," he exclaimed, unable to tear his eyes away from the view.
He knew they'd climbed out of the valley where San Pablo lay, but he hadn't realized how far up they'd come. Beneath them a heavy cloud shrouded some of the more distant hills in gray mist, while the area where he and Gillian stood remained bathed in brilliant sunlight. The effect was like that of a painting, the artist having the freedom to render colors and climate and light as he pleased rather than what was actually likely to occur.
"Oh! Did you see that?" Gillian gasped.
"What?" He broke from the hypnotic pull of the wax palms to see what had caught her attention.
"That blue butterfly." She pointed a bit down the hill. "I don't remember what it's called – blue motho or maphro or something. There it is again."
He followed the line of her finger and saw a flash of blue against the Kelly green of the hillside. With jerking lifts and drops, the small insect flittered along, dipping down to the ground before bouncing up again only to alight someplace else.
"I'm going to catch it," she said.
"I thought you weren't supposed to catch butterflies," he remarked. "Something about rubbing the powder off their wings."
"Old wives' tale," she tossed over her shoulder and was off before he could protest.
Crossing his arms over his chest, he watched with growing amusement as she hopped about the hillside, stalking the elusive creature like some kind of oversized, two-legged cat. Each time she came within an inch or two of capturing it, the butterfly would take off again, leaving her empty handed.
Unable to contain his laughter, it rolled down the valley toward her, and she stopped to give him an exasperated grin. "Think you could do better?"
A challenge such as that he simply couldn't refuse. Locking the butterfly in his line of sight, he zipped after it, cupping it gently between his hands before speeding to her side. The whole endeavor took less than five seconds.
"Hey, that's cheating," she protested, out of breath.
He grinned, unapologetic about his methods. "So you want me to let it go so you can catch it your way?"
"No!" she exclaimed, then gave him a sheepish smile. "Not until I get a good look."
Slowly, he opened his palms enough to expose the delicate cobalt wings without allowing the butterfly to escape. His dark head touched her light one as they both bent over for a closer look.
"You don't see these this far from the Amazon," Gillian murmured, as if such a special guest deserved hushed reverence. "Butterflies can't make it over the Andes. And they usually don't live long enough to cover the distance."
Apparently aware that it was on display, the butterfly opened and shut its wings slowly, allowing the awestruck human and Kryptonian to see the miracle of design and pure beauty it possessed in its small body. The brush of its wings against Clark's hands was nearly exquisite in its delicateness.
"OK, let it go," she whispered at last.
Flattening his palm, he held it aloft. The butterfly, taking its cue, launched itself back into the air. As it fluttered away, the sunlight caught its wings, turning them an iridescent blue that cause them both to gasp. Unable to find words to do the sight justice, they remained silent, watching as it flew toward the safety of the forest.
"That was amazing," Gillian finally said, slightly breathless.
He watched the butterfly another minute until he could no longer make out its shape against the heavy foliage. "Yeah, pretty spectacular."
"Did you know that there are over 3,000 different species of butterfly in Colombia?" she stated matter-of-factly.
Startling, he wondered how they'd gone from shared awe over one of the world's beautiful sights to recitations from Encyclopedia Britannica. "Wow. That's a lot of bugs."
"Colombia is second only to Brazil in the number of different species of plants and animals it contains," she continued, sounding much like an ecology professor about to launch into a lecture series. "And Colombia is nearly seven times smaller than Brazil."
"Seven times, you say?" he mocked.
"Do you have any idea what that means?"
"That you are just…really annoying," he teased.
"What?" she said, indignant.
"I thought I was a font of useless information," he remarked with a grin. "You're the bottomless pit of it."
"This stuff is not useless. It's very interesting." She snorted. "That's the problem with people, you know."
"That they don't know there's 3,000 species of butterfly in Colombia?"
"Exactly!" she exclaimed, happy that he'd gotten it right and oblivious that he was still teasing her. "And so they let these rainforests get mowed down acre by acre. There's no telling how many species become extinct every year. You know, pretty soon there's not going to be any oxygen left on the earth because all of the Amazon rainforests are going to be gone."
He nodded, remembering the research he'd done less than a year ago when he'd been assigned to cover a demonstration by the Metropolis chapter of Green Peace. "Yeah, I did a story on that once."
"A story?" she repeated.
He winced. "Um…yeah."
"That's very interesting. A story. That you wrote? You?"
Seeing that it was too late to backtrack, he tried to minimize the damage. "It was a long time ago."
But Gillian wasn't about to give up, completely distracted from saving the Amazon by his misstep. "Part of that other job you used to have?"
"Yeah," he said noncommittally, looking up at the sky to see if maybe it was getting dark. It looked to be only noon, but he tried anyway. "Listen, do you think we should be heading back soon?"
"*Ahorita*," she said, brushing off his efforts to evade her yet again. "I want to know about this job where you wrote stories."
He sighed. Maybe it wouldn't hurt if she knew that he'd been a writer. After all, the term "writer" still left things very vague. "OK, that other job, I'm…" He paused. Not anymore, he corrected himself. Now he was a bricklayer. A stucco expert. And of late, a farmer. "I was a writer."
She looked at him, waiting for more detail. When he stared back, silent, she pressed on. "So, what did you write?"
"Stories," he said, eliciting a dramatic eye-roll.
"Stories for who? Mother Goose?" she guessed with a grin. Then her eyes widened, the light gray taking on a sparkle of amusement. "Let me guess, you're really Stephen King researching your next big horror novel set right here in the jungles of Colombia. What is it, killer butterflies take over the world?"
He laughed out loud. "All right, I confess. I'm Stephen King."
"I knew it," she said, shaking her head as if she'd discovered some dark secret about him. "You have kind of a shifty look about you."
Suddenly, a wave of seriousness swept through him, an overwhelming desire to freeze time and keep anything from happening that might endanger the fragile peace he'd found since Lois's wedding. "Please, Gillian, don't ask me questions. Not about that."
She studied him a minute, and when she spoke, her own tone matched his, all traces of teasing gone. "Why not?"
He needed to explain, to make her understand so that she could help him live the life he'd chosen. "Because if you do, one of these times you're going to expect me to answer. And if I start answering, I can't stay here."
"I don't understand." Her eyes narrowed slightly, as if she were considering something she'd never thought of before. "Are you in some kind of trouble?"
"Gillian, I'm Superman," he said pointedly. "What kind of trouble could I possibly be in?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. Burnt somebody's house down by accident?"
He had to laugh at that. "Let's just say that outside of San Pablo, my life is a lot more complicated. And I like that here, at least, I can just be Sam."
"Sounds an awful lot like *aquí y ahora* to me," she accused with a small smile.
"I guess so," he admitted. "No worries about the past."
Her eyes narrowed. "And what about your future?"
Remembering her elusiveness when he'd asked her a similar question so long ago at the St. Mary's fiesta, he used her tactic to avoid answering her now. "I see me getting to drive that motorbike in my future."
She let out a bark of laugher. "No way, flyboy."
"For Pete's sake," he protested heatedly, "why won't you let me drive?"
"Because I know the way to the perfect spot for a picnic." The twinkle had returned to her eyes, and without warning, she bolted toward the forest, calling over her shoulder, "I'll race ya!"
He gave her only a second before tearing after her, but in the end he let her win.
They rode on what appeared to be some kind of path for a little less than an hour, finally reaching another spot that overlooked the valley of wax palms. No less spectacular than the first view, the new spot featured a small plateau that offered them a more horizontal place to share some lunch.
Clark spread his *ruana* on the ground while she untied the basket lashed to the back of the motorbike. Setting it on their makeshift blanket, she produced from within its innards a couple of bananas, some cold chicken, several thick arepas, and two glass bottles of orange Nehi.
He enjoyed the food while Gillian regaled him with more random facts about Colombia's wildlife. By the time they'd finished their simple meal, he'd promised that she'd be his first choice as a partner should they ever find themselves in a Trivial Pursuit match focusing on the flora and fauna of South American countries. When he'd suggested that she try to land a spot on Jeopardy, she'd thrown her balled up wax paper at his head with an indignant giggle.
Reaching for a bottle of soda, she rummaged deep inside the basket, frowning when she failed to find what she sought.
"Shoot. I forgot the bottle opener," she lamented, using her hand to try to twist off the metal cap. When the sharp edge dug into her palm, she examined the tender skin sorrowfully, then used the end of her shirt as thin protection while she tried to open it again.
Clark pulled the bottle from her, wincing when he saw the thin scrape of blood dotting her palm. "Let me do that. You're going to get hurt."
With his first finger and thumb, he unscrewed the cap as easily as if it had been a coin just set atop the bottle's opening. He handed it to her then opened the second bottle for himself.
She watched him with amazement. "What about you? Didn't that hurt?"
"Nope. I'm tough." As if to prove his point, he held the cap between his fingers and pinched, folding the thin metal in half as though it were paper.
"I'll say." She took a sip from her bottle, then eyed him keenly. "Have you ever been hurt? Being a superhero seems to be a pretty danger-intensive line of work."
"No, at least not in the normal sense," he said, taking a long draw from his own bottle. "I've been shot at, jumped into the middle of explosions, even flown toward the sun. Nothing seems to do any damage."
He didn't mention kryptonite. Like so many painful things he'd left behind, it wasn't a part of his life anymore.
"And none of that was painful?"
"I really can't feel pain." It was hard to explain. He could feel a bullet when it impacted his chest, but it felt simply like a shove. And while he could feel the heat from a fire, there weren't the degrees inherent in its intensity. To him, placing his hand in the flame was no more different than taking a hot shower.
Gillian reached across the space separating them and pinched his forearm lightly. "Can you feel this? Does it hurt?"
He shook his head. It felt like a small bug had landed on his arm. "I can feel it, but it doesn't hurt."
Unsatisfied, she grasped a little more skin between her fingers and pinched again, a little harder. As she did it, she winced, as if it hurt her. "What about that?"
He laughed. "Gillian, I'm not a science experiment."
"I'm a nurse. This is professional curiosity," she rationalized calmly. "Now, tell me. What about this?"
Trying a different approach, she used the very edges of her fingernails and tracked a path down the length of his forearm, leaving behind thin white lines that quickly faded into the tan of his skin.
"Yes, I feel that, and no, it doesn't hurt." In fact, it actually did the opposite of hurt. It felt strangely nice. Suddenly, an entire flock of blue butterflies began to flutter about in his stomach, and he shifted away from her, confused. "Now, stop. Before…" he trailed off.
Before what? His heart started to pound, adding to his dismay.
"What?" Taking her eyes off his uninjured arm, she caught his puzzled expression. Her own turned instantly contrite, her eyes filling with regret. "That hurt, didn't it? I'm sorry. I shouldn't have –"
"I'm fine," he said, offering reassurance while at the same time trying to come to grips with his own unexpected reaction and the discomfit spreading through his chest and down his limbs.
Maybe he just needed a little space. Scrambling to his feet, he looked up into the sky. This time the sun told a different story, and he realized with a start that the afternoon had slipped away. "We really need to head back."
She glanced upward as well, nodding her agreement. Silently they packed up the remnants of their picnic, shaking the grass and dirt off his *ruana*.
As they walked to where she'd parked the motorbike, Clark caught her hand and stopped her. "Hey, Gillian?"
"Yeah?" She turned to see what caused him to pause.
He gave her a slow, lazy grin. "It's my turn to drive."
By the time they reached San Pablo, the sun had settled well beyond the horizon. Gillian shouted over the roar of the motorbike's engine that if Clark wanted, she might have enough in her shack to make them a little dinner since it was probably too late to grab anything at Rosita's.
He nodded his agreement, happy to have a reason to extend their day together. He'd had a great time and didn't have any desire to return to his lonely room.
Expertly he parked the motorbike in front of her shack, turning to help her off and waiting with his arms crossed over his chest while she untied the picnic basket.
"So, are you going to admit it?" he asked, giving her a smug smile.
"What?" she asked, heading toward the door. She shoved the basket into his arms then fished in her pocket for her braided key ring.
"That I can drive that thing as well as you can."
"Sam, really, are you so insecure that you need my approval?" she tossed over her shoulder as she worked the key in the lock.
"You just can't admit it. That I can do anything you can do." He followed her into the room, blinking against the light when she switched on the lamp.
"You aren't going to break out into show tunes are you? Because if you are, I love Irving Berlin, but really, I prefer Rogers and Hammerstein – " She stopped mid sentence to let out a squeal of delight.
Clark peered over her shoulder, wondering what had elicited such a response. In the middle of her table sat a box wrapped in brown paper with a black design all over it.
She took the picnic basket from his hands and gave him a bright smile. "Wow, perfect ending to a pretty fabulous day, I would say. A package from home." She looked like a little girl on Christmas morning.
While she placed the basket on the counter, he walked over to the table and glanced at the neatly written label. *Sister Gillian Brooks, Calle 3 No 2-05, San Pablo DC Colombia*. He read it again and frowned. Something wasn't right. Sister Gillian Brooks. *Sister* Gillian Brooks.
He grasped the edges of the box, lifting it closer to his eyes as if he'd simply read it wrong. It was then that he noticed that the patterned wrapping wasn't really wrapping at all. With a heavy black marker, someone had drawn crosses all over the sides of the large box. Dozens of religious crosses.
With a thud, he set the box back onto the table. He couldn't explain the sharp rock that slid down his throat to settle painfully in his stomach. Why hadn't she told him? And why did he even care? He swallowed hard, trying to speak. "Are you…you never mentioned…"
At his stammering, she turned to look at him. "Geez, Sam. You look like you've seen a ghost."
"Are you…you're a nun?" he managed to croak out.
"What? A nun?" she hooted, coughing when her laughter overcame her breathing. "Whatever gave you that idea?"
Clark gestured to the shiny white label plastered to the top of the box. He felt like a fool, and a flush of anger mixed with his dismay. "I don't know, just the fact that this is addressed to *Sister* Gillian Brooks and has about a hundred crosses drawn all over the box."
"Oh, that," she said, hiccupping as her breathing settled back to normal. "It's an old PCV trick. Even the most corrupt postal workers won't mess with something religious. They'll risk the wrath of the government but never the wrath of God. They have their morals, you know."
"So you have your stuff addressed to 'Sister' Gillian to fool the mailman?" A wave of relief washed over him, almost as confusing as the panic he'd felt a few seconds earlier.
"Yep. Works like a charm. See, the original tape is still sealed." A giggle escaped before she could stop it. "Me a nun. That's a good one."
Clark collapsed into a chair, the anger distilling to irritation which quickly percolated into a heady joy that he didn't understand. Why in the world did it matter if Gillian were a nun, and why in the world was he so glad to find out that she wasn't?
"Well let's see what good old Mom sent to us." Using a key, she slit the middle and sides of the box, opening it to peer inside.
Lifting out a metal tin, she shook her head sadly. "I keep telling her not to send chocolate chip cookies. They're always so stale…oh fabulous. Licorice! Here, you want some?" When he declined with a shake of his head, she shrugged. "Geez, how come nobody likes black licorice? It's the best."
Clark lifted the top off the tin of cookies, choosing one. It looked harmless, actually very tasty, but when he bit off a corner, it crumbled like sawdust in his mouth.
"And here's the May issue of Glamour. Only four months out of date." She laid the magazine on the table, it's glossy image of a thick-lipped, highly made-up model strangely out of place in Gillian's homespun room. She must have agreed, going on to explain, "My mom is a little clueless. I think she thinks I sit around a pool all day trying to hook some handsome Latino man. She's always sending me Glamour and Cosmopolitan. If she could see what I wear every day, she'd probably have a heart attack."
He laughed along with her, once again trying to picture Gillian as she must have been before she had left the United States. In truth, he couldn't imagine her being any prettier with makeup or fancy clothes. Something about her unaffected naturalness seemed to suit her very personality. Besides, anything she might add would only distract from the clear gray eyes and her own smooth skin and healthy color.
"Oh, here we go. The latest books my mother thinks I just have to read. Let's see if there are any you might like. Hmmm. *Bridges of Madison County*. *Like Water for Chocolate*. I'm sensing a theme here." As she pulled each book from the box, she handed it to Clark. He examined the covers, flipping them over to skim the summaries. "Oh, here's one you might like. *Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil*. Looks like a real barnburner set in Savannah."
He accepted the book, studying the cover carefully. Quite haunting, it featured a statue of a girl, holding a shallow bowl in each hand. Squinting, he saw that rather than a statue, the girl was actually a headstone in the midst of a cemetery surrounded by trees draped heavy with Spanish moss.
"Oh, Mom. I love you," Gillian was saying.
Pulling his eyes away from the book, he tried to see what she held. "What?"
"New underwear. You can't find this kind anywhere in Colombia. Simple, white cotton bikinis…" She held up a package, then grinned sheepishly as she realized he was gaping slightly. Giving him a wink, she teased, "Perfect for a nun."
Feeling his cheeks heat, he quickly returned to inspecting the book. Clearing his throat, he tried to sound unaffected by learning what kind of underwear she preferred. "This book looks quite intriguing. A murder mystery based on a real story."
"New toothbrush. Soap. Shampoo," Gillian listed as she continued to pull items out of the seemingly bottomless box. "Look, Luke, dog treats! Box of Poptarts. Oh, for crying out loud, a loofah? What's this? God, it's heavy…"
It took a minute for him to realize that she'd stopped talking. When he looked up, her face was pale. She was staring at a flat object she clutched with white knuckles.
"Gillian, are you all right?" he asked, standing slowly.
She nodded, then swallowed, her voice flat. "Yeah. I'm fine."
"What is it?" He twisted his head slightly, trying to see what she held. Whatever it was, it had obviously caused her distress. Was it bad news from home?
"It's a plaque. For the clinic," she explained, pulling her gaze from it to look at him. Her eyes were so wide he almost stepped back, the intensity of her pain a palpable thing. "I asked my parents to send it before the earthquake happened. When there was still a clinic. I guess I forgot to tell them in my last letter not to send it…"
"Can I see it?" he asked carefully.
Wordlessly she handed it to him. He accepted it gingerly, turning it so that he could read the inscription. Etched into the brass oval mounted on a foot long slab of marble less than a quarter of an inch thick was a delicate script. *San Pablo Clinic ~ In Memory of Christopher Brooks*.
Christopher Brooks. Chris. Her twin who had died three summers ago. No wonder she looked so stricken. Both brother and clinic lost to her.
"I'm sorry," he said softly, wishing he could do something.
"Don't be. It's not your fault on either account," she said, swiping a hand across her cheek. Trying unsuccessfully to appear unaffected, she gave him a tremulous smile. But it didn't hide the pain in her eyes made silver by the tears pooled within them.
Placing the plaque on the table, he opened his arms, inviting her to come to him. And when she did, he held her tightly against his chest while quiet sobs trembled through her. He let her grieve, something he imagined she hadn't done at all in the four months since the earthquake had taken away all of her hard work.
"We're going to rebuild it, you know?" he murmured against the top of her head. "It's why I'm here. Why I've stayed."
"To help me rebuild the clinic?" she asked, turning to lay her cheek against his chest. He could feel her tears soaking through his shirt.
"Yeah," he promised.
Her palms flattened against him and she pushed back slightly. He loosened his hold on her, letting her pull away so that she could look up at his face. "Is that the only reason, Sam? The only reason you've stayed?"
"I don't think so," he admitted, both to her and, for the first time, to himself.
"Then why? You said it yourself. You don't usually give this kind of extended service."
He thought a minute, trying to understand it himself. "I guess I was hoping to find something here…something I lost."
She leaned against him again, her cheek pressed right above his heart. Her arms slipped around his waist and he tightened his hold across her shoulders. This time, she offered comfort to him as well as he to her.
"And have you found it?"
"Not yet, but I think I'm getting close."
"I want to help you," she whispered after a minute
He closed his eyes, letting the warm scent of her hair fill his nose. "You already are."
They stood that way for a long while, until a low growl emitted from her stomach filled the room and made her giggle. Joining her with deep chuckles of his own, he released her, and together they moved to her tiny kitchenette where they began to fix dinner.
As Clark promised, work began on the clinic as soon as the school was completed, and by mid September the new building stood proudly near the top of the hill. Larger than the old clinic, it boasted a waiting room, examining room and, as a bonus, a tiny recovery room. Everyone in San Pablo agreed that perhaps not all of the consequences of the earthquake were disastrous.
Gillian gave directions as supplies were moved from the temporary clinic into their permanent home. With additional disaster relief funds along with some assistance from the ICRC, she and Jeff had managed to procure a second-hand examining table as well as sterilization equipment and a locked supply cabinet. Whitewashed walls and a laminated eye-chart combined with the neatly organized shelves stocked with bandages, bottles of alcohol and jars of cotton swabs all collaborated to produce a clinic that San Pablo could be proud to have. The inspector sent from the ICRC agreed, and with the approval official, the doors opened for business.
Nothing he'd done to date had given Clark the same satisfaction and sense of accomplishment as the teary thank you Gillian offered to everyone who'd worked so hard to rebuild the clinic. Her eyes shone as she sought him out in the crowd gathered for the dedication, and the smile she gave him held a special message of gratitude. And with Clark standing by her side, she herself screwed the bolts that affixed Christopher's plaque to the front door.
With the families back in their homes, the school completed and classes resumed, and Gillian happily attending patients in the new clinic, Clark turned his attention to helping the farmers directly as they resumed day to day living. Doing everything from turning over unbroken land to mending fences to discussing crop rotation, except for the year-round growing season, he could have as easily been living in Smallville.
There was a happiness and a satisfaction still to be had from working hard all day and sleeping deeply at night, but something in the back of his mind had started to niggle at him. He'd never had any ambition to become a farmer. Otherwise, he would have remained in Smallville, working alongside his father on the Kent family farm. Yet here he was, digging in the dirt, worrying about rain and wishing there was a way to get tractors that would operate on the steep slopes of the Andes.
He was starting to fear his work in San Pablo was done.
But returning to Metropolis, or any other large city for that matter, involved complicating a life that he'd simplified to near perfection. There was little he could find motivating enough to go back to that way of living, alone and in hiding.
So he found things to keep him busy. Forcing the doubts from his thoughts, he took joy in the weariness he felt at the end of a long day, telling himself that he was still needed in San Pablo.
Besides, he rationalized as September rolled into October, the villagers were far from safe.
As San Pablo regained her feet from the terrible blow she'd received from Mother Nature, a far more sinister force began to tear away at her. Visits from roving bands of FARC soldiers were becoming more common place, and it was getting harder and harder for the villagers to avoid notice.
Three times in the recent week Gillian and Clark had been forced to seek refuge in Roberto's cellar, and twice the week before that. Jeff suspected that an entire regiment was being mobilized, and since San Pablo had both a store and a cantina, it made for a good watering hole. Thankfully, none of the unwelcome visits lasted for more than a few hours, and none of the soldiers remained behind to establish a permanent FARC presence.
The second week in October proved to offer no relief, however. It was almost dusk when the word came down to Clark, who was working on a retaining wall at the southern edge of the Morales field, that a fairly sizable band of FARC soldiers was a mere mile from the village's main street. Within seconds he had zipped to the clinic where he bustled a sputtering Gillian away from her administrations to Cesare Fuentas, a pregnant woman well into her seventh month.
Safely ensconced in the cool, earthy cocoon of Roberto's cellar, Gillian lit one of the small oil lamps. She placed it on the wooden crate and reached for the deck of cards. "Gin or poker?" she asked as she shuffled them smoothly between her nimble fingers. "Or maybe we should just go hog wild and play crazy eights."
Clark wasn't nearly so accepting of the situation. Not this time. He was tired of hiding away like a criminal evading the hangman's noose. And it was starting to wear sorely on him, the injustice of the whole situation. Not to mention the danger that Gillian was in each time the guerillas were on the move.
"You need to leave this place," he stated sharply, his anger at the situation funneling down until it dripped steadily on the woman seated before him.
"Now?" She glanced up at the trap door offering them thin protection. "Well, I suppose I could say that my father and mother adopted me and that's the reason I don't look like anyone else in San Pablo."
"No, not now," he clarified, his frustration mounting. Her easy acceptance of the danger was almost as intolerable as the danger itself. "You need to leave Colombia. As soon as possible."
"Oh, well OK then," she said, dealing two piles of cards despite his refusal to join her. "Just give me a couple of hours to pack up my stuff and make some reservations for a flight out to Paris. I hear it's lovely this time of year."
"I'm serious, Gillian. This is just nuts. You hiding down in this hole like some kind of a rabbit, waiting for the snakes to find you." He stopped pacing to give her a stern glare. "It's just a matter of time, you know. Before they come and decide to stay."
She shrugged. "Yeah, well, I could also get hit by a runaway burro tomorrow. We've all gotta go some time."
Her cavalier attitude infuriated him. "I can't believe you're joking about this. You are twenty six years old. You have your whole life ahead of you, and instead of taking your safety seriously, you're hanging around this place just begging to get kidnapped. Or shot. Or worse."
A shudder rumbled through him, the thought of Gillian in any of those scenarios too chilling to contemplate. He remembered the first time they'd sought the refuge of the cellar and her description of what could happen should she be discovered. He'd thought then that it would be tragic, especially for her family. And at the time, he'd only known her for a short while. Now, after six months spent with this amazing woman, he knew that her capture would be in fact devastating, and not only for her parents. Somehow, things had changed, and he was certain that whatever bad might happen to her would happen to him as well.
She stopped dealing and gave him her attention. "And just where would you have me go?"
"Home to Grosse Pointe? Where I can give rich kids unnecessary flu shots and worry about the bunions on old Mrs. Morrison?" She shook her head and started dealing again. "I want to be where I can make a difference. Where the people actually need me."
"You don't think there are needy people in the United States?" he argued. "There have to be thousands of free clinics all over the country where you can help people. Hell, some parts of Appalachia are no better off than San Pablo. Why is it so important for you to stay here?"
"I don't have to explain myself to you," she hissed, snatching up the two piles she'd dealt and crushing them together.
"Maybe you do," he said, equally as hard and full of anger. "Maybe I care about you and as your…friend…I have some…interest in making sure that you don't do anything stupid."
"Stupid?" Even by the dim light of the lamp he could see her eyes flashing. "Well, as my *friend*, you should appreciate my decision to stay."
He wasn't buying her argument. "Stay in a place where any second guerillas could haul you off at gunpoint to do who knows what?"
"Sam, if my own father couldn't make me go back, what makes you think you hold any sway?"
She had a point, but he didn't care. This was far too important to let that stop him. "So what's it going to take, then? Getting shot at directly? Some midnight raid that no one has any warning of?"
He released a growl of frustration, wanting to shake her until she saw how ridiculous she was being. "Seems to me like maybe you have a bit of a death wish."
"Wow, that sounds kind of romantic," she bit out sarcastically.
"Hardly," he bit back. "There's nothing romantic about dying."
"Oh no? Isn't that kind of what you've done?"
"Me?" he said, incredulous.
"Yeah, ditching your old life to come live here in the middle of nowhere. Isn't that kind of the same as dying?"
"The difference is that I can go back when I'm ready," he countered, completely ignoring her accusation because it held absolutely no validity. Temporary avoidance was far different than permanent abandonment.
"And when will that be, Sam?" She rolled to her knees, leaning forward to glare up at him. "San Pablo's back to normal, at least as normal as it ever was. Your work here was done a month ago. So when are you going to be ready to go back?"
"I have to stick around here to save your neck!" he shouted as loud as he dared, sparing a glance at the trapdoor over his head.
"Don't do me any favors," she whispered stridently. "I can take care of myself."
He laughed, a short harsh bark. "Yeah, I've heard that before. Usually right before I snatch someone out of the path of a freight train."
Instead of another sharp retort, Gillian remained quiet. Clark paced the short length of the room to the shelves, inspecting the dusty jars as he tried to cool himself down. He hadn't intended to fight with her, but she was so damn obstinate. She wouldn't listen to him even if it meant risking her very life. Persistent? He was starting to think of about a dozen other words to describe her, and none of them she would find pleasing.
"Do you want to know how Chris died?" she asked from the other side of the room. Her voice was oddly calm, all traces of anger gone.
Her question threw him completely off guard, momentarily knocking the fury out of him. "I thought he died in a car accident."
When she didn't answer, he walked back to the blanket, looking down at her expectantly. She stared at the cards held in her hands, gripping the deck so tightly her knuckles were white. For a long minute she remained silent, and when finally she started to talk, she spoke so quietly he could barely hear her.
"When we were growing up, Chris had this best friend, Garrett. They'd known each other since, like, kindergarten. I remember the first time Chris brought him home to play after school. They told me to get lost and it just about broke my heart. I really hated Garrett because he'd taken away my playmate."
Clark lowered himself to the floor, his legs crossed, bent knees touching hers. All thoughts of FARC soldiers left him completely as he focused on her and the soft stream of words coming from deep inside a place he already knew held great sorrow.
"Then we got older, and somewhere around junior high I developed this huge crush on Garrett. Of course, he never thought of me as anything more than Chris's sister." She laughed softly, lifting her head to give him a sheepish smile. "That didn't keep me from doing all kinds of crazy stuff to try to get him to like me. I'd sneak into Chris's room when Garrett would sleep over and try to kiss him. Or sit behind them at the movies and throw popcorn at him. Stupid stuff.
"It got worse when we went to high school. It became almost an obsession with me, to get Garrett to notice me. So when Garrett asked me…" She paused and took a deep, shuddering breath. "When he asked me one night to get stoned with him, I was thrilled. I thought finally, he was starting to like me. And there was an added bonus because it was something that was just me and Garrett, not Chris. Kind of like payback for the days when they'd left me out.
"At first it was just pot. We'd get high in his car after school and at parties on weekends. Pretty harmless stuff. My parents never found out because I always got good grades and pretty much stayed out of trouble otherwise. But Chris knew what I was up to, and he hated it. So many times he threatened to tell Mom and Dad what I was doing, but I always told him to butt out of my business and he'd back down.
"When Garrett and I graduated from marijuana to harder stuff like Ecstasy and speed, Chris was furious. We were seniors, and he told me that if I didn't stop seeing Garrett and messing around with the drugs, he'd not only rat me out to our parents but also tell the dean of our school. I'd get expelled and blow my spot in the nursing program at the University of Michigan." She shook her head ruefully. "God, I hated him then. For weeks I wouldn't even speak to him. I was so nasty."
Clark nodded his understanding, but inside, he was dumbfounded. Never would he have guessed that the woman he'd come to know so well had had such a wild youth.
"One day after school, Garrett and I were tripping in his basement. He must have gotten a hold of some bad stuff because something in it made me pass out. He freaked. Thought I'd overdosed and called Chris in a panic. Chris came over and rushed me to the hospital."
Her voice turned more matter-of-fact, as if she were discussing one of her own patients. "Turns out it wasn't Ecstasy that Garrett had scored but something that was new at the time. Special K…ketamine. I had a severe reaction. The doctors were going to call my parents, but by some miracle of God they were in London for a medical conference. Chris talked them into calling my older brother instead of tracking my parents all over England. Since David was twenty-seven, they let him approve of my treatment. I was out of the hospital that night, and my parents never found out. David even paid the hospital bill so it wouldn't go through insurance.
"After that, I swore to both Chris and David that I'd never use any drugs again. Nothing. I'd never been so scared in my whole life, so it was a pretty easy promise to make. David told me if he ever caught me using anything harder than aspirin he'd personally make my life a living hell, much less Mom and Dad. Not to mention the fact that he made me pay him back." She chuckled and glanced up from the eight of hearts she'd been worrying between her fingers. "You gotta know David. He's really big. I'd rather face my dad than him any day of the week."
Clark smiled but remained silent, willing her to continue.
"So I stayed clean, and even though he should have hated me, Chris got me through those last couple of months before graduation. I practically had no friends because the people I'd used to hang out with couldn't understand why I wouldn't party with them anymore. I kind of became a pariah. Not to mention the fact that I couldn't see Garrett at all, and I still thought I was in love with him. I though it was the worst time in my life. So many times I wanted to just say screw it and get stoned. But Chris would always be there to stop me, reminding me that I'd promised him.
"We went off to college and I kept my promise. For five years, the wildest I ever got was a beer or two at a frat party. And it wasn't until three years ago that I saw Garrett again. It was the summer after my first year of the nurse practitioner program at UCLA, and Chris was heading into his second year of med school. Everyone thought we were so cute, the twins, matching nurse and doctor. Everyone except my father, of course."
"Why not your father?" Clark asked, his voice cracking slightly over the lump that had settled in his throat.
"Because he wanted me to be a doctor. He thought I had the brains for it, even more so than Chris." She laughed a small, dry laugh. "He even told Chris that once, but it didn't stop Chris from going pre-med. He struggled, but still he stuck with it. Chris was the original do-gooder.
"Anyway, we got invited to this party some old high school friends were having, kind of an impromptu reunion. When we got there, there was Garrett. Chris wanted to leave right away when he saw him, but I told him he was being too uptight. I'd not even so much as smoked a cigarette since that day senior year, so I told Chris he needed to just trust me and stop being such a wet blanket."
Clark felt himself tensing, knowing already that the story had a tragic ending. Half of him wanted to stop her, to save himself the knowing of the details and her the reliving of it all. But she needed to tell him, and he wanted to understand her. Needed to know everything about her.
"I don't know why I did it. Every day since that night I go over how different things would have been if I just hadn't been so damn stupid." The tears came then, pooling in her eyes until they resembled the mercury at the bottom of a thermometer. "I don't know. Maybe it was seeing Garrett again. After a few beers, I was feeling pretty sloppy. I was stressed about going back for my last year, and I hadn't dated anyone for a while. Garrett told me he'd really missed me and all of the good times we'd had together. He hadn't changed a bit, and all of those old feelings started to come up.
"He asked me if, for old times' sake, did I want to try something that would give me a really good buzz. He pulled a tiny packet of white powder out of his pocket…" She paused, looking past Clark into the darkness beyond him, her eyes distant. "It's funny, but even with all of those club drugs I took in high school, I always wrote them off as not really hard-core stuff. It was like I had this imaginary line drawn, and as long as I didn't cross over into stuff like cocaine or crack or heroine, I wasn't really using drugs. When I went to nursing school, I learned how wrong I was, but for whatever reason, I still kind of thought of myself as having just missed getting hit by a train.
"Maybe that's why I did it. I thought I was immune. That I'd gotten away with all of that crap in high school, so if I tried cocaine just once, to see what it was like, it'd be no big deal. Kind of an experiment. And then there was Garrett, offering me the chance. So I said yes."
Clark's stomach twisted painfully, wishing he himself could travel back in time to stop her. To keep her from making such a horrible mistake. He wanted to pull her into his arms and hold on to her so tight she couldn't do it…
But since he couldn't change the past, Gillian continued, her voice hard and flat. "By the time Chris found us, we were both higher than a kite. I'm sure he was angry, but I don't remember much. I know that he put both me and Garrett in his car, me in the back seat. And I remember Chris yelling at Garrett, calling him all sorts of names and Garrett cursing back at him. Then there was a loud crash and a lot of screaming, and the next thing I remember was waking up in the hospital three days later."
She cleared her throat and swallowed, willing herself to go on. "Chris and Garrett had died instantly. I had a concussion plus a broken collarbone, and pins in both my left arm and two places in my left leg from where the front seat was compressed into the back seat. They said it was a miracle I lived at all. Of course, once I found out what happened to Chris, I wished that I had died."
Clark did reach across the space then to pick up her hand. He cradled it between his own, stroking his thumb over the soft skin, trying to wipe away the guilt and horror etched on her face.
She gave him a sad smile. "It's why I didn't go back to nursing school for my last year. I was in physical therapy for six months, and when I was finally better, I came down here with my father. And here I am now."
Her expression turned apologetic, her tone almost pleading. "I figure the world was cheated out of someone pretty special when it lost Chris. And since I had a pretty big hand in what happened, the least I could do was try to make a difference."
"So that's why you're here. To make it up to Chris," he guessed.
"It's my fault he's dead. Don't," she said, shaking her head vehemently when he started to protest. "I've been through this with my parents a thousand times, and there's nothing that you can say that will make me believe that if I hadn't taken that coke, Chris wouldn't still be alive today. I might not have killed him, but I put him in front of the loaded gun."
He nodded his understanding, everything about her starting to make sense. "And you chose Colombia because of the drugs."
At that, she gave him a weak smile. "I knew you were pretty smart underneath all of that muscle. I figured it was poetic justice or irony or something. It was cocaine that killed Chris, indirectly anyway. And it was because of that crack baby that I got into nursing. I figured someone was trying to tell me something. So I came here where all of that stuff is made to try to do something…anything…"
Squeezing her hand tightly, he waited until she looked directly into his eyes. "I'm pretty sure Chris wouldn't have wanted you to die all in the name of filling his shoes."
"If he was meant to go young, maybe I am, too," she whispered. "I mean, I've cheated death twice now. Maybe I'm missing the point."
"I don't believe that," he said, needing for her…no, insisting that she agree with.
"Did you know that we were an accident?" she said with a loud sniff. "David was nearly ten when my mom got pregnant. Tom was already thirteen. It was a 'surprise' when it happened. They never planned to have any more kids, especially not twins."
Her implication was clear, but again, he didn't believe what she was proposing. It was inconceivable to think that any parent wouldn't love Gillian. "I'm sure that they were happy to have you and Chris."
"Oh, I know they loved us – still love me. Just as much as they love Tom and David. I had a great childhood, and my parents were everything anyone could ever ask for," she admitted readily. "Still, I always had the strangest feeling that we weren't supposed to be here. Like we were just visiting or not really a part of the life everyone else lived in. Does that make any sense?"
"A little," he said, but then nodded his head. "Yeah."
Yeah, he knew exactly how that felt. He was a visitor, an alien in every sense of the word who'd joined life on Earth and had tried to make it his own. But always there was the knowledge that if things had happened the way that they were supposed to, he'd be somewhere else, living a completely different life. His entire existence was borrowed.
"So when Chris died, it just seemed right that I should leave," Gillian was saying. "Go out and find the place where I was supposed to be."
"I think that's one of the reasons I've stayed here," he said, surprised by the admission coming from his own mouth. "For the first time in my life, I feel like I've found a place where I fit in. Me, the entire person not just me the superhero or me the…"
He stopped, the habit of the last six months – no, his entire life – kicking in. With no one except his parents did the two sides, Superman and Clark Kent, exist in a single conversation.
"The what, Sam?" Gillian pushed.
He didn't hesitate. With Gillian, the dichotomy didn't exist. She knew him, the entire being, and like his parents, could be trusted completely. "Me the normal man. The guy without the superpowers."
"But you are a normal man," she whispered loudly, as if she were pointing out that he'd left his fly open.
"A normal man who can bend steel bars and fly all the way to the moon," he said pointedly.
"So?" he echoed. "Gillian, there's nothing normal about me. Hell, you think you don't fit in? I'm not even from this planet."
She shook her head and started to gather up the cards that had fallen out of her hands and spilled over the blanket. "Doesn't matter where you're from. I've only known you for a little while, but I think you might just be the most normal person I've ever met."
"How can you say that? All of my life I've had to actively concentrate on doing things the way other people do. To walk instead of float. Or fly. To not accidentally eavesdrop or look someplace I wasn't supposed to." Heat flooded his face, the frustrations of his entire life reaching the red zone as he vented. "And heaven forbid I actually use my powers to try to help someone. If anyone ever saw me stop a car out of control or blow out a fire, it was a pretty sure bet I'd have been packed off for the circus. Or worse, some lab where I'd be dissected."
"Why do you see your abilities as handicaps when, really, they're gifts?" she asked, holding his gaze in a vice-like grip. "Talents. Like Mozart writing symphonies when he was eight or Michelangelo lying on his back for four years to paint the Sistine Chapel. You think those guys ever thought they should try to hide what they could do? And if they ever did, thank God somebody talked them out of it."
"Because no one would accept a normal man who happened to have the abilities that I do. Only when I decided to advertise my differences, to put on a flashy suit, were people willing to let me do what I can do. And when I take off the suit, I have to put away all of those abilities as well." He took a deep breath. "That's the problem. It's all or nothing, and it seems that the 'nothing' part isn't enough."
She studied him for a moment, her eyes narrowing. "Is that what happened with that woman you loved? The one who married the other guy?"
"You remember that?" he asked, momentarily sidetracked. They'd never talked about it, his confession the night of the Fourth of July party. And since she'd been pretty drunk, he'd figured that she simply hadn't remembered the conversation at all.
"Yeah, she was a bodybuilder right? Who spoke French."
He laughed out loud, remembering her drunken ramble of what she thought Lois might be like. "Something like that."
"She loved just the superpowers part and not the rest. The 'nothing' part, that's the part she didn't want."
Gillian said it as a statement, not as a question. She'd reached the conclusion that he'd avoided for almost the entire year he'd known Lois until she'd told him outright and he couldn't deny it any longer. Even after six months, it still hurt to acknowledge that truth. But now, instead of a sharp, overwhelming pain, it manifested itself as a deep sadness and lingering regrets that maybe he should have done things differently.
But in the end, it didn't matter. It was all part of the past. There was no point in hiding it from Gillian, so he agreed. "Yeah, pretty much."
An odd pain flashed across her gray eyes, but he saw it for what it was. Not pity for him, but sadness for what he'd suffered by loving someone who didn't return it. It was the same thing he felt for her. He didn't feel sorry for her in any way. She was far too strong of a person to invoke such a feeling. But he was sad for what she'd had to go through in her struggle to find herself, and if he'd had any power at all to change things, to spare her the pain, he would gladly have given anything to do so.
Lifting a hand, she brushed it over his forehead, pushing aside his ever-errant lock of hair before letting it move down to cup his cheek. She lingered for only a second before dropping her hand, but the touch conveyed her complete empathy for him.
"I feel really sorry for her," she said finally, a tinge of contempt in her voice. "She missed a great chance to be loved by a pretty terrific guy. You are so much more than the sum of your parts. If you took away any one thing about you, you wouldn't be you. And I lo…I really like the entire you."
She glanced away, picking up the rest of the cards. With a focus far too intense for such a simple task, she took the time to make sure that the flowers on the back side of each card faced the same direction.
"I'm not perfect you know," he said, feeling a need to break the heaviness of the moment. But inside a heady glow had spread throughout his chest. The feeling of her fingertips lingered warm on his skin and the fact that she thought he was terrific made him ridiculously satisfied.
"Hell, yes, I know," she snorted. "You can't play poker for crap and you drive like a maniac."
"Has anyone ever told you that you're crazy?"
"Completely," she agreed with a grin. "Now, will you shut up and play cards?"
He gave it one last shot. "Gillian, I mean it. About you leaving Colombia. I really think –"
She lifted a hand, stopping him. "Listen, I can't promise you anything except that I'll think about it. Can you live with that?"
He nodded, satisfied for the moment but determined that he'd convince her one way or another.
Silently she dealt the cards, but Clark could sense that something still bothered her. When she finished, she looked up to catch his gaze, and he was startled to see the tears pooled in her eyes yet again. "Sam, I need to know…now that you know…what kind of person I was, when I was young…and some of the mistakes I made…"
He didn't let her finish, knowing instantly what she was asking. "Gills, nobody on this earth has a life totally free of regrets. We've all done things we wish we hadn't." He thought a minute, trying to find the words that would show her how much he still respected her. Cared for her. "I think if Chris were here right now, he'd be really proud of the woman you've become. And I'd have to agree with him."
Tears streamed down her cheek, but when she smiled, it reached her eyes. "Thanks," she whispered hoarsely and picked up her hand.
They played innumerable games of gin rummy and poker, and she taught him three new ways to play solitaire. Dinner consisted of a jar of olives and another one of stewed tomatoes. As the hours passed, she remarked that if the FARC were going to make these extended visits a habit, she was going to have to do a better job of stocking the cellar with fresh food and water and maybe a radio.
Clark eyed her grimly, worried that her speculations might prove to be too accurate. But since he didn't want to start another argument, he focused on the floor above them, scanning Roberto's store. It remained dark and empty, but with his super-hearing he could make out strange voices just outside and down the road a short way.
Neither one of them had brought a watch, but it became obvious that they'd been down in the cellar far longer than they ever had before. Their internal clocks kicked in and Gillian started to yawn widely, guessing that it must be near midnight or later. Clark encouraged her to sleep, but it finally took the flickering of the oil lamp to convince her. Deciding that they should conserve the oil in the second lamp, Clark turned it off, pitching them into a darkness so black the resemblance to a grave was complete.
Using his chest as a pillow, Gillian slept. He dozed as well, but his mind wouldn't stop rolling around the story she'd told him. So clear now he could see the guilt that drove her, her need to prove her worth and make it up to a brother she felt responsible for killing. Every day she struggled to earn the right to keep living, always uncertain that she deserved such a gift.
And too, she felt the reluctance to return home where she'd be forced to face life without Chris, to face a family with a gaping hole where a son and a brother used to be. Like Clark, her future contained an empty void that she had yet to figure out how to fill.
He guessed it must be morning when he heard shouts nearing the store. With his x-ray vision, he watched as four heavily armed soldiers entered the far end of the building, fingering the various items displayed on the shelves and in the racks placed next to the counter. Roberto hurried from the back, offering to assist the men with any needs they might have. Did they want cigarettes perhaps? Or maybe bottles of soda or beer.
Tensing, Clark placed a hand loosely over Gillian's mouth and shook her gently, ready to stifle any words she might utter in her drowsiness.
"Ssshhh," he whispered directly into her ear. "They're in the store."
She nodded her understanding, and he removed his hand. As he sat up, she reached over and located the oil lamp placed just where they'd left it. The strike of the match against the flint seemed unnaturally loud, and he winced. When the wick caught, she turned the flame as low as possible, giving only the slightest glow to the space immediately surrounding them.
The voices got louder, boot steps on the floor boards sending a cascade of dust raining down upon them. They covered their mouths and noses in the crooks of their elbows, trying to stifle the coughs that might give them away. Clark pulled Gillian's head into his chest and leaned over her, forcing her to use him for cover.
Although the words were muffled, it soon became clear what was happening right above their heads. Harsh commands were issued for Roberto to open his till and hand over the money within it. The store was being robbed.
Clark stood immediately, ready to burst through the hatch and take out the thugs. He'd had enough. Enough hiding. Enough of letting these men get away with their terrorism.
Gillian's hand on his arm stopped him, and he turned to give her a warning look, his command low and hard. "Stay down. No matter what happens, don't come up –"
She shook her head violently, her voice a strident whisper. "No, Sam. You can't go up there now."
"I'm not going to cower down here in the dark while those brutes rob Roberto."
"So you'll what? Barge up there and knock them all out? What about the soldiers standing out in the street? And the ones on the other end of the village? You have no idea how many there are. Not to mention the ones waiting a few miles away for their buddies to return."
He glanced upward, scanning the store above him. The four men stood around the room, weapons trained on Roberto while he dutifully pulled pesos from the small box he used as a cash register. Clark's view of the road immediately in front of the store was limited, but he could make out at least twenty or more soldiers loitering about.
Gillian grasped his hand and squeezed it tightly, understanding his frustration. "I know. It's so hard to let it go. But you have to. Helping them now will only cause them more pain later. You have to let it go."
Slowly, he sank back to the cool ground, pulling his knees toward his chest. Impotent rage clutched his chest tightly, and he buried his forehead into the forearm he rested on his bent knees. He was the strongest man on Earth, the fastest and most powerful. Yet he sat there, doing nothing while Roberto's store was robbed. He hadn't felt so helpless since the day of Lois's wedding.
An hour later, the three sharp taps sounded on the trap door. As he stood, his aching limbs protesting from the forced stillness, he realized that Gillian still held his hand. She'd never let it go.
For whatever reason, the overnight stay by the FARC signaled a respite of sorts, nearly two weeks passing without any indication that the guerillas were still in the area. The people in San Pablo released a collective sigh of relief and went about the business of living.
Clark held back on his promise to himself to convince Gillian to return home. He was too much enjoying the intense closeness they'd found after their night in Roberto's cellar, and any campaigning he might do towards such an end was sure to dredge up resentment and anger. He simply didn't want to fight with her when it felt so good to be together.
In stripping away all of the veneer, exposing the ugliest parts of themselves and their shameful histories, he and Gillian had reached an understanding so complete that everything not only made sense but seemed almost preordained. Their individual experiences had led them to the remote village of San Pablo, but they had stayed for nearly the same reasons. Knowing that they shared at least that much of the journey bonded them in a way deeper than mere friendship.
They acted the same around each other, and no one who saw them would think anything had changed. But when he looked at her and she at him, he saw far more in the gray eyes than had ever been there before. He wasn't sure if she let more of her emotions come through or if he was simply better able to read her, but now even subtle remarks and the slightest changes in her glances meant something to him. It was as if he'd learned a secret language, and Gillian was the only other person in the world who spoke it.
Of course, she still had some secrets. For one, she never let on that her birthday was coming up, and if it weren't for Jeff, Clark would have been none the wiser. As it was, he learned about it only a week before the actual date and found himself scrambling to prepare the surprises he'd planned for her.
In truth, he wasn't sure how Gillian would react to the event of her birth since it couldn't help but remind her of the twin who was no longer there to share their special day. It was quite possible that she'd want to remain in her room and be left alone to grieve privately. But Jeff assured him that if she'd ever felt any sadness on the past two birthdays he'd spent with her, she'd never let on. He even offered to help Clark by arranging a celebration dinner at Rosita's.
Gillian's birthday day dawned bright and sunny, thankfully, and as soon as Clark saw her leave for the clinic, he slipped into her shack to make his preparations. Antonio had been employed to play lookout, stationed across the road with strict orders to send out a shrill whistle should *señorita* Gillian even so much as poke her head out of the clinic. Clark had borrowed most of the things he needed and improvised when necessary, but after a couple of hours, he was finally satisfied with his efforts.
Some precise timing was required for his surprise to work properly, so instead of spending the day on any farms, he stayed in town, hovering between Roberto's and the school until he saw her locking the door of the clinic. With super-speed he slipped around to the back of her shack to complete the one remaining task, then zipped toward the front, remaining out of site from her door. He waited until she'd pulled the familiar braid out of her pocket before revealing his presence.
"Hey, you can't go in there," he said, stepping around the corner as she started to fit her key in the lock.
She gave him a wide smile and then looked at her door suspiciously. "Why not?"
"Because I've got a surprise for you."
"Uh-oh," she groaned, rolling her eyes. "The last real surprise I got involved a swimming pool and me in a soaking wet cheerleading uniform."
He laughed. "I promise, you'll like this one."
With her arms crossed over her chest, she turned to face him, her eyes narrowed warily. "And just what did I do to earn a surprise?"
"It's your birthday today, isn't it?" he asked.
"Remind me to kill Jeff," she muttered. "I told him I didn't want anyone to make a fuss…"
"This isn't a fuss," he was quick to assure her, looking carefully for signs that she might actually resent anything having to do with her birthday. When he didn't find the telltale sadness in her eyes, he pushed onward. "It's just a surprise."
"OK," she agreed, then warming to the idea, brightened considerably. "Well, let me guess. I know how these things work. I have to close my eyes, don't I?"
"Nope, you have to tie this around them." From behind his back he produced a faded red bandana and waved it like a cape in front of a bull.
"Don't you trust me?" she asked with a grin.
"Not at all," he said. "Here let me."
Slightly nervous, he fumbled a bit as he secured the bandana over her eyes. For some reason, he felt like a little kid, wanting so much for her to like his surprise. Assured that she couldn't see anything, he took her keys from hand and opened the door.
Before she stepped forward, she turned blindly in his general direction. "Nobody's going to jump out and scream at me, are they?"
"Nope." He took her outstretched arm and guided her into the room, maneuvering her around various obstacles. "Here. OK, watch the table. All right…there…stop."
Placing his hands on her shoulders, he positioned her in front of a pink calico curtain hanging from a wooden dowel placed a little higher than his head.
"I don't see anything." She waved her arms in front of her, searching.
He sighed loudly. "Take off the bandana."
She reached up and pulled the bandana down around her neck. She shook her head weakly as she eyed the curtain. "Wow. It's a…curtain. Gee, thanks, Sam. I…love it. Very pink."
He laughed at the obviously fake enthusiasm in her voice. "The surprise is behind the curtain."
Giving him a sideways glance, she frowned. "Really. No one is going to jump out…"
"You have a thing about people jumping out at you, don't you?"
"When you've grown up with three brothers, you get a little paranoid when you walk around corners," she explained.
"I promise, nothing or nobody is going to jump out. It's just us. Go ahead. Open it."
The curtain was hung in the corner of the room, each end of the dowel attached to the facing perpendicular wall. When she pulled the curtain back, she revealed a triangular alcove. A large tin washtub, big enough for an adult to sit in uncomfortably, sat upon the floor. From a small hole near the bottom of the tub, a length of green garden hose led out of the room via the most conveniently located knot hole, forming a crude but effective drain.
Her eyes traveled upward where a nozzle looking much like a watering can on steroids was suspended directly above the washtub. Another short length of hose led upward and out a hole drilled through the wall. Well, actually burned through the wall, as he'd had no need for a real drill. He'd tacked plastic on each wall, waterproofing the entire corner as best he could given his limited time and resources.
Her eyes widened as she took in the makeshift contraption. "Oh my gosh. Is that what I think it is?"
"Yep. And there's more," he said, his heart swelling at her obvious delight. "Here, give me your hand."
Holding her wrist, he placed her hand directly under the nozzle. With his free hand, he reached up and pulled the cord running next to the hose and looped down to hang beneath the nozzle. Within a few seconds a trickle of water dribbled out of the nozzle, quickly turning into a full blown sprinkle as the pressure built. He'd placed the massive tin drum of water behind the shack, on a makeshift platform constructed a few feet above the level of the shower curtain.
She gasped, rubbing her fingers together under the stream. "It's hot. Holy cow! Really hot, not just lukewarm."
"And there's enough that you should be able to get out all of Hopelessly Devoted and at least half of Sandy," he assured her, remembering her preference for Grease.
She turned to face him, her eyes glistening. "Sam, this is amazing. But how did you –"
He rolled his eyes and looked at her incredulously. "Gillian, come on. You've seen me move entire trees. This wasn't that tough."
"I haven't had a hot shower since…I don't even remember," she said wistfully. "But really, I shouldn't. Do you know what we could do with all of this clean, heated water?"
He grasped her shoulders and turned her to face him, shaking his head firmly. "This water is for you. If you feel bad, I'll get more for anything else you want it for. But you are going to enjoy a long, hot shower if it is the last thing you do. And no one would begrudge you that. You've certainly earned it. Besides, it's your birthday."
She glanced back at the shower longingly. "All I have to do is pull that cord?"
"Yep." Then he grinned. "Although I suggest you take your clothes off first unless you want a repeat of your swimming pool surprise."
"Too bad I ran out of real shampoo…" She stopped when he reached into his pocket and pulled out a tiny travel-size bottle of shampoo he'd obtained when he'd gone to Silvia to get her other gift, holding it up for her inspection. "Of course you would have thought of that. Shampoo."
He lifted her hand and placed the bottle in her palm. "Now, I'm going to go outside and give you some privacy. Holler if you need anything or if the water starts to get too cold. I can heat it up real quick."
She grinned. "You've just been dying to heat something up, haven't you? All this time, and finally, there's something."
He laughed. "Just imagine what I could do with a real Jacuzzi!"
Making good on his promise, he headed out of the room followed by her laughter. He couldn't stop grinning. Making her happy filled him with a contentment he hadn't known in so long.
"Sam…" she called to him before he reached the door, and he turned to see what else she might need. "This has to be the nicest thing anyone has ever given me."
With a wink, he left her to enjoy her much longed for shower.
When she emerged from her shack nearly a full hour later, the sun rested near the tree line. But even in the growing twilight, he could see she fairly glowed. Wearing the same skirt and white peasant blouse she'd had on at the St. Mary's fiesta, her skin was rosy from the warm water, her long hair hanging still damp down her back and smelling of the cherry-almond shampoo.
"You look great," he said, meaning it as he came to stand next to her.
"It's amazing what a hot shower can do for a girl," she said, blushing from his compliment.
"Yeah, I heard you singing."
"I don't think Olivia Newton John has much to worry about," he teased.
"I'm sure she doesn't stand in a washtub when she's singing," she rationalized with a smile.
He laughed along with her, glad that she didn't feel in the least self-conscious.
"So, now I'm all dressed up, where are we going?" she asked when their laughter ebbed. "Rosita's maybe? Or we could go to Rosita's. But then again, Rosita's is my favorite."
Chuckling for a minute, he turned serious. He and Jeff had decided that Clark would tell her about the dinner before hand, give her the chance to back out if she chose. "Listen, Jeff has invited some people to meet us there to celebrate. Is that all right?"
"Yeah, that would be really nice." Noticing that he studied her face with a small frown, she nodded her assurance. "It's OK, Sam. This part doesn't bother me."
"Good," he said, letting himself relax completely. "I was kind of worried that it might all be too much. Bring up too many memories."
"No, Chris always loved birthdays. He'd be pretty pissed if I moped around on ours." She lifted her chin, determined. "Besides, I just keep reminding myself *aquí y ahora*. And here and now, it's my birthday."
Clark was so proud of her he couldn't say anything. Taking his silence as her cue to head to the party, she turned toward the road.
Before she could walk down the path, he grabbed her hand, stopping her. "Gills, I have something else. It's your birthday present…"
"But I thought the shower…" she protested. "Sam, you shouldn't have gotten me anything else. That was perfect."
"Well, this didn't require me to heat anything, but it'll last a little longer than a hot shower," he explained with a grin. "I wanted to give it to you while we were still alone, and I don't know how late the party will go. And if we drink a little too much *chicha*, well, I might forget. So I figured I probably ought to give it to you before we head over to Rosita's."
"Are you rambling?"
"I think I might be," he admitted sheepishly. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a rectangular box, placing it in her palm as he'd done with the shampoo bottle. "Happy Birthday, Gillian."
Her hand shook slightly as she stared at the box. With an upward glance through her eyelashes, she looked back down as she lifted the lid off, eying the gift nestled on top of a square of cotton.
Gasping, she extracted a silver butterfly suspended on a thin silver chain. The wings of the tiny creature were made of slivered teardrop emeralds inset into the silver projecting from its body, the whole thing not bigger than a half an inch long.
Instead of the traditional pose for a pendant, splayed flat as if pinned to an entomologist's board, the butterfly's deep green wings were folded toward each other with only a few millimeters separating them until they tapered together to meet at the body. It looked exactly as if the silver insect had landed on the petal of a flower and rested there, allowing all to appreciate its beauty as it reflected back light full of green fire.
For a long minute she stared at it. When at last she shifted her gaze back to his face, tears shimmered in her eyes. "It's beautiful," she whispered hoarsely.
Without speaking, he took the chain from her hand, and she turned unbidden, sweeping aside the waves of honey-colored hair so that he could affix it around her neck.
After he'd secured the clasp and she'd returned to face him, he lifted the butterfly from its new home nestled an inch or so beneath the base of her throat. It had taken much convoluted discussion and finally an actual drawing for him to communicate to the ancient jewelry maker in Silvia exactly what he'd wanted, but when he'd picked up the finished piece, he'd known immediately that the trouble was well worth it. Perfectly executed, it looked just as he'd imagined it would on her.
"This one will make it over the Andes, or any place else you decide to take it," he promised softly.
He released it, but before he could pull his hand away, she placed hers on top of it, holding it against the warm skin of her chest. Beneath his fingers he could feel her heart beating, fast and steady. Lifting herself up on her toes, she leaned into him, placing the softest kiss on his lips, tentative and delicate. Before he could even close his eyes, it was over and she was gone.
Instinctively, he sought to keep her close. His free hand moved up to cup her cheek, slipping deeper so that his fingers threaded into the waves at her temple. Without thinking at all, he lowered his head to capture her mouth again, this kiss longer and filled with a tenderness that pulled at his heart. He lingered in the sweetness of her lips warm and responsive against his own, feeling a strange disappointment when, too soon, she pulled back.
He opened his eyes to find her looking a bit breathless, a flush turning her creamy skin pink, her eyes a deep battleship gray. Almost shyly, she looked down. "I suppose they're going to miss us at Rosita's…"
Nodding his agreement, still he didn't move. Not until she released his hand from the warmth of her skin did he think to actually walk down the path. In two strides he caught up with her, reaching down to lace his fingers into hers. She gave him a sideways glance, then a slow smile, squeezing his hand as they headed down the road toward her birthday celebration.
Clark would have called it perfect. The dinner, the company, Gillian's radiant smile as they toasted her continued good health and long future. There was a true contentment in his heart, and it was easy to forget about the doubts plaguing him of late. At least for that night, he belonged right in that very spot.
Within the course of a few minutes, that contentment faded as all hell broke loose.
The hour had grown late, the wine and food long gone. Friends had begun to trickle home, and only a handful of people remained in Rosita's when José Martinez burst into the room. His face held the horrifying mixture of panic and grief, the older man not even attempting to hide the tears that flowed down his leathered face. Instantly the remaining party guests had surrounded him, offering him a seat and a dose of *chicha* as they sought to learn what troubled him so.
Through his distress, José managed to choke out that his son, André, as well as two other boys from San Pablo, had been taking by the FARC. They'd been working a remote field, harvesting beans, when late that afternoon a band of the guerillas had approached them, guns flashing. In short order, the young teens had been marched off, hands held high in the air, to become the newest unwilling recruits in the renegade army.
Sadly, the sole witness to the entire encounter, a nine-year-old boy named Tomas who'd been working on a farther corner of the field, had fled into hiding the minute the FARC had disappeared down the road. Terrified that they would come after him next, he'd remained cowering behind the school until just the past hour when he'd found the courage to stumble to the Martinez home to recount the fate of their son.
Clark felt sick. André had been his first connection with San Pablo. Despite his fear, he'd trusted the strange gringo and allowed him to fly him down the side of the mountain, all because his village had needed help. At only fourteen, André had the courage of an adult and then some.
He listened carefully as José told what he could about the general direction the guerillas had taken. His mind worked, trying to calculate how far they might have gotten on foot. The problem was they could have veered from the main road at any point to get lost in the heavy tangle of forest. In the dark, it would be almost impossible to find them despite his powerful eyesight.
Jeff and two other men lent José support as they guided him out of Rosita's and back toward his home. The party sadly ended, everyone else followed silently, leaving Clark and Gillian alone.
Through the entire encounter, she'd remained quiet, and now that everyone had left, Clark turned his attention to her. She looked stricken, numb with disbelief as she sat passively on her folded chair.
"They couldn't have gotten very far," he said, using the logic he'd employed minutes before. "I can go and get them back, but I'm afraid I might have to wait –"
She shook her head, not letting him finish. "No, you can't."
"Yes, Gillian, I can." Instantly, the anger flared in his chest. This wasn't a store robbery that he had no choice but to ignore. This was the lives of three young boys, and there was no way he was going to let her talk him into sitting by without doing something. "I'm not going to stand by and let those boys be impressed that way…"
Her eyes flashed, granite hard. "You don't understand. It's too late. Even if you could find them, they can't come back here."
"What are you talking about?"
"Once you're a part of that army, you don't leave it. They'll bear a tattoo or something that marks them. If they try to leave, the FARC will hunt them down and kill them for desertion."
He gaped at her, stunned that in this modern age such draconian practices were still used. It shouldn't surprise him after all he'd witnessed, but still his mind rebelled against it. "They're just kids."
"I know. But that's how these people work," she explained. "Willing or not, they get these young boys and even girls to join their cause, promising them all kinds of crap when they finally overthrow the government. And if they can't convince them that way, they just take them at gunpoint. Either way, once you're in, there's no way out unless it's in a body bag."
Clark started to pace, feeling nauseated. But her next words stopped him cold.
"Even if by some miracle they managed to get away, they'd be putting the entire village in danger if they came back. The next time the paramilitaries wandered through the area, San Pablo would be decimated for harboring guerillas. They won't even take the time to listen to the story much less care if those boys were willing to go or not." She stood, taking a deep breath. "They'll kill everyone. Or worse."
Icy blood flowed through him, the horror of an entire village being uniformly executed too incomprehensible for him to understand. These people he knew. They were his friends. Children and families. Eva and Rosita. Roberto and Henriqué and even Lourdes. All in danger now. And Gillian…
His head snapped up, his voice hard. "I want you to leave. Tomorrow."
She sighed wearily. "We've been over this, Sam."
"And we're going to go over it again," he stated. He'd broach no argument this time. "This is all getting too close, Gillian. Don't be a fool."
She snorted. "First I'm stupid. Now I'm a fool."
"I mean it. I'm taking you home."
Lifting her hands, she looked around. "This is my home."
"Is it?" he asked. "What about your family? Don't you miss them? I know they must miss you."
She laughed. "I remind them too much of Chris."
"That's a cop out. You can't tell me any parent would feel that way," he accused. "I'll bet every day they pray for you to come home and every day they are devastated that you don't."
As soon as he said it, he cringed inwardly. She wasn't the only one guilty of neglecting a family back home. Like his Superman duties around the world, contact with his parents had fallen far below an acceptable level, a casualty of his abandonment of Clark Kent and his failed life. In fact, until the last few weeks, he hadn't given much thought at all to Metropolis, Smallville or his parents.
But this wasn't about him, he argued internally, shoving aside the guilt for later contemplation. He wasn't the one who's life was at risk. Despite her casual attitude toward the danger around her, she would fall victim to it eventually if she continued to remain in San Pablo. She had to leave, and soon, or unlike the butterfly she wore around her neck, she'd never make it over the Andes.
So he didn't let up. He'd planned to go about this much more diplomatically, but he was calling off all bets. He'd say anything it took to convince her, no matter how painful.
"You know what I think it is?" he asked. "I don't think you have a death wish. I think you don't feel you deserve to live. Chris died, and because you think it's your fault, you feel like you should be with him even now."
"Well, it's out of my hands. If it's my time, then it's my time," she said, turning to look out the window, her voice oddly muffled.
"That's crap, Gillian, and you know it. You aren't meant to be here any more than Chris was meant to die in that car crash. It was a stupid, pointless accident. But don't you think if he knew what was going to happen he would have done things differently? You're doing his memory a disservice because every minute you stay here, you're tempting fate."
With those words, her head snapped around, her eyes flashing brightly.
But he went on, not giving her a chance to speak. The frustrations with himself had joined forces with the ones she inspired to create a formidable foe. "What ever happened to *aquí y ahora*? Forgetting about all of those things that cause us hurt. You not only refuse to forget, you inflict it on yourself every day. Every minute that you stay here is just a way for you to hold on to the past. To pay penance for the death of Chris. You think he was a saint. Maybe he was. But you know what you're doing? You're trying to be a martyr."
"I am not!" she gasped.
"Aren't you?" he asked. Feeling slightly deflated, his voice was calmer, a low statement. "What happened to him was horrible, but sacrificing your whole life won't bring him back."
"So, what?" she choked back a sob. "I go back to what?"
Instantly the anger left him, contrition replacing it as he took in her tear streaked face and heard the desperation in her voice. "You go back and pick up where you left off. Go back to school. Finish it. And then take the next step."
He crossed to her, placing his hands on her shoulders. "Gillian, I don't want something to happen to you. I care for you too much." He swallowed, ready to deliver the final blow. "If Chris asked you to go home, you would. What about me? Would you go home if I asked you to?"
She looked down, and he felt a stab of guilt for using her own feelings against her. Still, if it meant she would be safe.
"Yes, I would," she whispered. But when she lifted her chin, her expression was firm, determined. "But it's just not that easy. This isn't just about me going home. It's also about me leaving. I meant what I said, Sam. This is my home. I've made a life here. These people need me, and I just can't leave them."
Dropping his hands, he sighed. This was a harder argument to overcome. When helping people was your vocation, one of the very things that defined you, it was hard to walk away. The very guilt of his not helping as many people as he could or should was pushing him to leave, an irony so profound at that particular moment that he could spend hours pondering its significance for them. But he'd said it before and it certainly applied now. She didn't have to live in a danger-ridden country in order to help people.
"I'm not diminishing what you do here," he said carefully, "but it's not worth risking your own life."
"Maybe not," she agreed, and he felt a flare of victory, seeing her resolve starting to crumble. "But I've worked hard to set up the clinic, and I can't…" she paused, thinking for a minute. "I won't just leave it to be of no use to anyone."
"There has to be someone…to take your place. Something."
"That takes time…"
"Promise me," he insisted. "That you'll look. We can find someone."
"I'm not good with promises. The last promise I made," she started, "didn't work out so well."
"No, Gillian. That won't work," he said, not willing to accept her mistakes of the past as an excuse to evade him now. "If you promise, I'll believe you."
She nodded, licking her lips. "All right. I promise I'll start looking. But that's all I can give you for right now."
"Tomorrow. You'll start looking tomorrow?" he pushed.
"Tomorrow I'm going to Silvia for market. I suppose I could start there. Send some letters to the ICRC office in Bogotá." When he smiled approvingly, she cautioned him. "This is going to take time, Sam. You've got to remember why I'm here in the first place. It's not like there's a lot of nurses or doctors willing to come out to the middle of nowhere. And I'm not leaving until I feel good about who takes my place."
"We'll see," he said, sensing her reluctance to commit. But he'd made progress, managed to dent her firm resolve, and he didn't want to risk sending her back to her absolute refusal. Instead, he backed off, a sudden weariness settling over him. "Come on. I'll take you home."
They walked in silence back to her place, the journey holding none of the carefree ease of the one hours earlier. Each of them was lost in their own concerns and the mutual distress over the fate of André and his friends.
With an apology that her birthday had ended on a less than happy note, he placed a gentle kiss on her cheek, brushing the other one with the back of his fingers as she gave him a small smile before slipping through the door.
Only after he heard the lock click firmly into place did he turn and make his way down the path toward his own home. For the first time in months he doubted he'd be able to sleep. And for the first time in a year and a half, it wasn't Lois who was the source of his insomnia.
After his sleepless night, Clark was glad that a steady rain kept him indoors the day after Gillian's birthday. He had a small pile of various farming tools that needed repair, some in the way of welding, so he set his sights on accomplishing that task. Mindless work, it gave him time to think about everything that had occurred the past few weeks. Or more accurately, the last few days.
He'd asked Gillian if she would leave San Pablo if he asked her to, a question posed without any deep thought to her possible answer unless it was "no". But knowing that she would, that he held the power to affect her life so profoundly, was exhilarating. She cared for him enough to respect his wishes, and that pleased him beyond measure.
And yet it also terrified him. In asking such a question, implied was an intention to be part of that leaving. He'd told her she should go back. To finish school. To take the next step. But what was that next step? And where did he fit in? Certainly he would not stay in San Pablo without her.
That sudden realization halted his actions as he let his mind wrap around that fact. He *wouldn't* stay in San Pablo if Gillian left. *She* was the reason he was still there. He'd only stayed as long as he had, remaining behind even after the homes and buildings had been rebuilt, because he couldn't imagine leaving her behind.
But as every day drew them closer together, it also showed him that his stay in this time out of time was drawing to an end. No longer did he have the excuse of altruism or self-preservation. In fact, his selfish desire to be with her was costing the world its superhero.
When he'd decided to become Superman, he'd made a commitment to use his abilities to help the world. The entire world, not just one small portion of it. Since that day he'd decided to stay in San Pablo, he'd fought with his guilt. While the people he'd come to know certainly deserved all the help he could give, he'd had to force himself to forget about the thousands he'd ignored by indulging his own need to lick his emotional wounds. Although he'd learned hard the lesson that helping meant so much more than swooping in for the initial rescue, his abilities were best suited to do just that. If he remained hidden in the Colombian countryside, he was wasting the gifts he had been given.
Yes, the guerillas and paramilitaries still posed a significant danger to the villagers, a fact made all the more clear by André's abduction. But Gillian had been right. Unless he planned to settle there forever, it was a danger he could not eradicate. His work in San Pablo was done. He'd helped to rebuild the town. The people once again stood on their own feet. Now theirs were problems that he alone could not solve for them.
For weeks he'd pushed aside the gnawing realization that he would soon have to leave San Pablo. As hard as he'd tried, he couldn't ignore the fact that it wasn't his home. It wasn't where he was meant to be. It wasn't what he was meant to be.
Six months he'd run from his past and avoided his future. Making plans, whether hers, his, or theirs, meant facing that unknown. The black, pictureless future was calling to be colored in, unwilling to wait silently any longer.
And now with growing confidence, he realized that it no longer hurt. Allowing his mind to wander forward, past the next day and the next week and even the next month wasn't terrifying. He felt much like he imagined a man imprisoned for life might feel after being granted unexpected parole. The future held hope once again.
His heart had been broken, nearly destroyed. But his feelings for Gillian proved that still it beat on.
She made him feel whole. With her, he was who he wanted to be. The entire person, neither superhero nor ordinary man mutually exclusive but combined into one complete being. A man whose sum was bigger than his parts.
With a puzzled frown, he wondered at the wretched state in which he'd arrived in San Pablo. Had he actually expected himself to remain tied forever to a love that had been unreciprocated? At the time, it had certainly felt like it. But for six months, he'd worked to put Lois and his feelings for her behind him. Now, finally, he started to feel a flicker of hope that he might actually be able to do it. To let her go.
But despite the growing pull of the future, he couldn't imagine what it would look like. For a year he'd imagined his life with Lois, and then for six months he'd not imagined a life at all. How did he go about building one from the ground up?
With a smile, he heard Gillian's voice admonishing him with practical advice. You build it one brick at a time, never looking too far beyond a batch or two of cured adobe.
He imagined the first step was to decide where to live. Did he want to return to Metropolis? He loved the city, its pulse and vibrancy. But it was thick with memories. Around every corner was a reminder of his old life. His future, whatever it held, shouldn't be saddled with leftover pain and regrets.
Perhaps better would be a fresh start…
Even lost in his thoughts, Clark felt the shaking immediately, but it took a few minutes for his brain to register that what he was feeling was an earthquake. In fact, the rattling of his meager four drinking glasses on their open shelf did the most to convince him that it was more than simply his shack shuddering against the force of a particularly strong gust.
Instantly he put down the small hand scythe he'd been tightening. As he tried to take a few steps toward the door, he stumbled against the constant motion of the cement floor beneath his feet. Rather than fight it, he floated several inches off the ground and out the door.
Other villagers obviously felt the quake as they streamed out of various buildings, panic and dread etched on their fearful faces. They'd lived through this before, too few months earlier. Would they be as lucky this time to walk away with only a destroyed village?
Rain cascaded in sheets, adding to the chaos that filled the street. It seemed Mother Nature was having a temper tantrum, unleashing tears and rage upon the unsuspecting inhabitants of her world.
Just as suddenly as it started, the shaking stopped. Everyone stood motionless, as if the switch that had turned off the earth's motion had stilled all the creatures upon it as well. After a minute, slowly, a collective breath was released, and in slow motion the villagers began moving, inspecting and searching for the aftermath.
But within an hour it became clear that none of the newly constructed building had sustained any damage. This quake had been far less violent and had lasted a mere fraction as long as the one six months earlier. Seismologists would have labeled it an aftershock and predicted that more would surely follow in the months and years to come.
But before Clark could pat himself on the back for helping to improve the stability of San Pablo, Jeff came running with a new worry.
"The bus from Silvia. It should have arrived over an hour ago," he explained. "I know it's not unusual for buses around here to be late, but given the situation…"
Clark didn't need to hear any more. Gillian was on that bus. Waiting only long enough to help hitch up Henriqué's wagon, he left the two men with the agreement that they would drive toward Silvia while he went on ahead. Flying low he kept to the curving twist and turns of the road as it clung to the hillside, his ears and eyes alert as he looked for signs of the missing bus.
Not three miles from San Pablo he heard the shouts, coming from around the next bend. He zipped ahead, pulling up short when he saw the small cluster of mud-covered people huddled on the edge of the road and peering down into the gulley below.
As he neared the group, he took one look at the scene and a cold fear swept through him. Instead of a stalled bus or a one tilting to its side because of a flat tire, there was no bus at all.
Even more menacing was the thick bed of mud that coated everything around them and the face of the hill above. The shaking from the quake mixed with the rain had apparently loosened the earth at higher elevations, sending it in a brown avalanche hurtling toward the road. Little stood in its path to act as a natural brake, in fact, what did was mowed over and added to the lethal mix bearing down on the unsuspecting bus. Mud mixed with massive rocks and huge logs, branches and other parts of trees had tumbled down the steep face of the hill. Like something had stampeded over it, trampling every bit of color away, all that was left was the dark brown muck, remnants of a river that had neither flowed nor cleaned but destroyed. A mudslide.
They'd had no hope of avoiding it, of course. Winding mountain roads didn't have shoulders or spare lanes for swerving, and antiquated buses loaded with far more people than they were meant to transport were afforded neither speed nor maneuverability. Caught on the front edge of the hundred-yard swath made by the mudslide, if the driver had just managed to stop the bus some fifty feet sooner, they may have escaped completely unscathed. Most likely he'd applied the brakes and had slid right into the path of destruction.
But someone on that doomed bus must have had luck to spare. Instead of careening the thousand feet or more down into the chasm below, it had been stopped by the massive trunk of a tree ancient enough to have a root system that could withstand the rushing anger of the flowing mud.
The bus lay on its side, wheels resting against the hill in the unnatural vertical sense rather than horizontally. Wedged on the shelf created by the thick trunk, the front tilted lower than the back, the entire mass resting on a fulcrum created by the tree that had stopped it. The problem, as Clark could clearly see from his vantage point, was that any major shift of weight inside the precariously placed vehicle would upset the miraculous balance it had achieved.
On its way down the steep slope, the bus must have bounced on its top at least once, for the roof caved in the very center, turning the entire vehicle into a giant V. On either side of the vertex, the bus flared out dramatically so that both front and back looked much as if the whole thing were placed back on its wheels, it could continue its journey, albeit with its middle third scraping the road beneath it. That or it could be folded up like some James Bond contraption and stuffed into a briefcase.
Since the door of the bus opened upward, those traveling on the forward side of the crushed roof had been able to scramble out and up the hill to the road. By the time he arrived, already a human chain of sorts had been established, and two men Clark didn't recognize worked to assist people out of the rear-most window, the only opening still large enough to allow a full grown human to squeeze through. Oddly, under different circumstances, the entire scene would have caused him to laugh, the bus looking as though it were giving birth one person at a time.
Trying to decide if it would be best to simply lift the entire tangled mess back onto the road or to peel back the steel side in a massive cesarean section, allowing the rest of the passengers to escape en masse, Clark scanned the group congregating at the edge of the road. Within seconds he knew that Gillian was not among those released from the bus's innards, and he felt a flicker of panic.
She had to have been on that exact bus, as only one made the market day run from Silvia back down into the valley. His heart pounding, he tried to guess the possibility of her having remained behind. But he dismissed it instantly as unlikely since she'd told neither him nor Jeff of such a plan, and she wouldn't worry them by staying away over night without notice. If she wasn't with the rest of the passengers, she was still inside.
Eyeing the crushed roof, he prayed fervently that her seat had been near the back where the bus had sustained the least damage. Of course, if it had been, she'd have been removed by that point and standing up on the road with the others. His anxiety reached a new level. What if she were pinned under the jagged, bent metal? Trapped, bleeding or broken? He felt his breathing become labored as he floated down to the two men who were helping an elderly man gain his footing on the steep hill.
Forcing himself to remain calm, Clark rationalized that she was simply waiting for her turn to come out the rear window. Or even more likely, helping someone who'd sustained an injury. Now that he was there, he'd have her and everyone else out in no time.
This was the first real emergency he'd attended in months, and suddenly he felt the overwhelming urge to change into the suit. He needed the protection it offered, the emotional barrier it allowed him to erect between himself and those he rescued. But since he'd long ago stopped wearing it under his clothes, the blue and red spandex remained folded neatly in the trunk back in his shack.
Besides, he realized as he hovered over the wreckage trying to determine the best course of action, even though he could have retrieved it within seconds, it was far too late for it to do any good. No wall could be constructed that would protect his heart now.
His carefully attained calm quickly disappeared when he peered through the rear window-turned-escape-hatch and viewed the damage inside the bus. While the seats nearest to him remained secured and undamaged, the ones near the center were bent and almost unrecognizable. And there, tottering just above the destroyed section, was the honey-colored head he both prayed and dreaded to see.
"Gillian!" he called, unable to see her face or eyes to know if she was all right.
"Sam? Is that you?" Turning her head slightly, she glanced upward.
She seemed unharmed, her voice strong, and releasing the breath he'd been holding, he squelched the urge to yell at her, sure that she'd volunteered to remain behind. First thing was to get her out before the bus lost its grip and plunged the rest of the way into the gulley. Later he'd give her more than a piece of his mind about her propensity to court death so rashly. At least she was the only passenger left inside, so once she was out, it would all be over.
"Yeah, it's me," he said, extending his arm into the window. "Can you reach me?"
She shook her head slightly, returning her gaze to the spot beneath her. "It's Antonio. I can't lift him…" she gasped. "He's slipping."
Horrified, he followed her gaze downward and saw the problem. On its side as it was, the bus's windows became gaping holes opening over a vast expanse of air. Several panes had been broken, and apparently not everyone had escaped the hazard they now presented. Out of reach from the upper most side of the bus, Gillian poised above one such opening, crouched on the upturned edge of the seat as if performing some extreme gymnastic feat. She leaned down, her arm extended toward the window, and he could tell that something pulled her taught.
Instantly, he zipped under the bus to see the small boy dangling from the underside of the wreckage. In less than a second, he had Antonio cradled snuggly in his arms, and he called up to Gillian to let go. Looking down from her perch and through the broken glass, she gave him a wide smile of relief and released her iron grip, leaving behind red finger marks that later became dark bruises around the boy's skinny wrist.
Clark flew Antonio to the road above where his grateful mother alternated between hugging her son and trying to hug Clark. Intent on returning to retrieve Gillian, he extricated himself as graciously as he could from her enthusiastic displays of thanks.
Gillian being the only one left in the bus, he determined there was no point in peeling back its side. Besides, any violent action might send the whole thing crashing down the side of the ravine. Nor was there any reason to carry the destroyed vehicle back to the road. It would never run again, and there were no scrap yards in the wilds of the Andes. If it didn't eventually finish its decent to the bottom of the valley, the bus would remain wedged against the tree as a monument to the forces of nature, vines and saplings turning it into a home for curious creatures brave enough to near the manmade contraption.
Since Gillian was thin enough by far to fit through the window as the others had done, it seemed the quickest way to get her out. But he was too big to fit both of his shoulders through the window, and as he peered down at her, he wondered if he'd even be able to reach her.
"Gillian," he called out. "You OK?"
"Yeah," she replied. "Just getting kind of lonely in here. Man, now I know why I hate buses."
"Let's get you out of there, then."
Leaning his arm and shoulder into the bus as far as he could, he reached down, ready to grasp her arm. "I think you're going to have to stand up or I can't reach you."
Following his instructions, she stretched upward to meet his limited reach. With her movements, the bus tottered slightly, and she rocked back in reaction, trying to regain her balance.
As if in slow motion, she leaned first to her left, then right, her arms outstretched. But there was nothing solid to grab onto, and the sparse couple of inches allowed by the seat's narrow side gave her feet little purchase.
"Sam, I can't –"
Before he could rip back the metal hindering his ability to reach down and scoop her out of that hellish bus, her foot slipped off her makeshift balance beam. As she fell, she lifted her eyes to his, a plea for help etched in the pale gray before it turned to panic and then resignation.
"Gillian!" he screamed just before she disappeared through the window.
His heart plummeted as he watched Gillian's light head disappear, panic giving him the slightest pause before he bolted for the underside of the bus.
Zipping to the same place he'd found Antonio, he made it just in time to grasp the back of her shirt as she fell past. With a sharp tug, he pulled her up, maneuvering himself so that he could slip an arm under her knees.
In a matter of seconds it was all over, and he was placing her gently down on the road. His heart, however, took its own time slowing down, hammering loudly inside his chest. If he'd gotten there any later, he shuddered to think what could have happened to her.
Shoving the horrific imaginings away with iron force, he swept the length of her, looking for injuries. "Are you hurt anywhere?"
"My ankle," she moaned. "I must have twisted it when I slipped…"
"It's OK. Don't move it." Lifting the leg of her pants, he gave the limb in question an x-ray look, but nothing appeared to be broken. Probably just a bad sprain. As his examination continued upward, he caught a thick trickle of blood flowing from her left arm and quickly located the source. A deep gash ran a couple of inches along her forearm. She must have cut it on the broken glass as she passed through the window.
Following his stare, she winced and paled, then looked away from the wound.
"It's nothing," she said through gritted teeth, and he wasn't sure if she'd said it for his benefit or her own. "Where's Antonio?"
"With his mother. He's fine," he reassured her with a smile.
She closed her eyes and gave a little nod.
Ripping the sleeve from his shirt with a sharp tug, he wrapped it around her arm and then tied a knot, securing it against the cut. He tried to be as gentle as he could, but when she winced again, he felt his own face grimace along with her. Still, she didn't utter a sound in protest, simply smiling her approval at his makeshift bandage.
The sound of Jeff and Henriqué's arrival and the subsequent cheers of the bedraggled crowd offered a welcome relief and distracted him from his focus on her. All of these people were going to need to be taken back to San Pablo.
Reluctantly, he left Gillian to consult with the two men. There had been nearly two dozen passengers on the bus, but no one appeared to have sustained any life threatening injuries. Indeed, from what he could see, Clark guessed that Gillian's ankle and arm might actually be the worst of it, and once again he shook his head in amazement at the luck bestowed upon them all. What could have been a tragedy had turned out to have remarkably few casualties.
They loaded Antonio and the most elderly on to the wagon, along with those who might have trouble walking. The rest of the thankful survivors followed behind as they began the trek back to San Pablo. With a wave to Jeff, Clark returned to Gillian.
It had started to drizzle again, and she shook slightly as the rain soaked her through. He crouched down, ready to scoop her back into his arms, anxious to get her someplace safe and dry. She didn't resist until he told her what he was planning to do. "I'm going to fly you to Bogotá. We need to get your ankle checked. And your arm…"
"No. I just twisted it. Please, take me back to the clinic. What?" she asked when he shook his head, her eyes widening with renewed panic. "Tell me there's still a clinic?"
"The clinic's fine," he said, pulling her tightly against his chest as he tried to absorb some of the chills racking through her while at the same time offering her small protection against the rain. He'd have given her his shirt except it was just as wet as hers. "Gills, you're dripping blood –"
"Really, Sam. I'm fine," she insisted, water trickling down from her hair to form droplets at the tips of her spiked eyelashes. "I want to go back to the clinic."
He stared at her a good long minute, his good sense warring with his desire to please her and the overwhelming gratitude that she was alive and in good enough condition to argue with him.
"The longer we stay here, the wetter we're getting," she reminded him. "And I am getting a bit chilly."
Nodding, he scooped her up in his arms and launched himself into the sky.
They passed the loaded wagon and landed at the clinic within minutes. He placed her on the examining table and went to the next room to retrieve the blanket from the recovery pallet, returning to drape it over her shoulders. She smiled in gratitude.
"You should go change," she advised, taking in his dripping hair and wet shirt, minus one sleeve. "Sorry about your shirt."
"It's all right, and I'm not leaving. How's your ankle?"
She gave it a twist this way and that, then felt the bones and muscles with her fingers, wincing when she hit a tender spot. "Just twisted. It hurts, but it could be a lot worse."
Clark performed his own examination, re-x-raying her foot and ankle from various angles, as well as her shin bone for good measure. He agreed with her assessment. "Nothing broken."
With a glance at the door, Gillian looked around the room, considering. "They're going to be here soon. I don't have a lot of time."
"Time for what?" he asked, grabbing a towel from the shelf and using it to rub the worst of the wetness from his hair.
"Since I can't get around very well, I think I'm going to have to ask you to help me out a little," she said, ignoring his question as she maneuvered herself off the table and onto the one stool in the examining room. "I need you to get two clean towels and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide from the shelf over there."
She untied his shirt sleeve bandage from around her arm as he followed her instructions, gathering the items she'd indicated.
"What are you doing?" he asked as she spun around on her stool and opened the supply cabinet, pulling out a pack of what looked to be a needle and some sutures.
"I need stitches," she said, spreading a towel on top of the examining table. She took the bottle of peroxide from him. "I'm going to need a bowl. Over there."
He looked around the room, bewildered. Didn't she know that he was the only other one there? Who was going to give her stitches? Surely she didn't think that he could do it? He blanched. "Gillian, I've never done this –"
"You don't have to. I'll do it. Thank God it's my left arm and not my right." Somewhat awkwardly, she managed to open the bottle with one hand. He was too stunned to help her until it was too late and she was pouring the clear liquid into the bowl he'd fetched. "But I'm going to need you to hold my arm still."
He shook his head. "Gills, this is crazy. I can have you at a hospital in five minutes."
"Where I'll sit for five days waiting for someone to get around to looking at me. I can't afford to be gone that long." As she said it, she spread the clean towel down on her work space and used her teeth to create a tear in the plastic packaging that housed the suture kit.
"What about pain killers?"
"I've only got enough lidocaine for about half a dozen people and at least ten or more who are going to need it," she explained tersely. "There's some Advil in my room. I'll send someone to fetch it."
"That's not going to help you now," he argued. Panic was starting to creep over him. She was really going to do this.
"Sam, do you have any idea how much pain I was in after the car accident? A few stitches is nothing." She pulled a latex glove out of the box sitting atop the supply table and held it out to him. "Just suck it up and hold my arm on the table."
Fumbling, he helped her put on the glove. "Maybe I should go find a doctor. Somebody who can help –"
"Will you stop. I've done stitches about a hundred million times. Besides, you're starting to make me nervous." She glanced at her preparations, then up at his stricken face. "Listen, I'm going to do this. Now, if you can't help me, I'll wait for Henriqué. He's not as strong as you but he's pretty big enough –"
"No. I'll do it." Even worse than helping her would be sitting in the other room, wondering what was going on and imagining the worst.
Pulling a pair of gloves out of the box for himself and putting them on, he went to stand on the other side of the table, opposite her. He placed his hands where she indicated, one on her wrist and the other a couple of inches past the cut, near the bend in her elbow. With tentative pressure, his hands formed living manacles, pinning her injured arm to the table. She wiggled it slightly, and satisfied with his grip, picked up a cotton pad and dipped it into the peroxide.
Several times as she cleaned the area around the gash and the very wound itself, she sucked in her breath sharply, causing him to tense. But after a reassuring smile from her, he'd relax a bit and she'd continue until finally the wound was cleaned. The whole situation would have been comical under different circumstances, the injured party comforting the supportive friend. He wished he could laugh and promised himself that one day, they both would, together.
Once all of the blood was gone, he felt better to see that the cut itself didn't look nearly as bad as he'd expected. Outside the closed door, Clark could hear people arriving, a child crying and the general murmur of those waiting to have their wounds checked. Gillian looked up, then returned to her task with increased speed and determination.
He maintained his newfound composure until the curved needle pierced her skin and he glanced at her ashen face. Her mouth was pressed tightly closed, and small beads of sweat dotted her forehead.
"Oh, God, Gillian. Doesn't that hurt?" he whispered hoarsely, wincing as she tied off the stitch and pushed the needle through a second time.
"No," she gasped, clenching her teeth and closing her eyes. Her right hand shook visibly, and she laid down the needle, flexing her fist to still it.
This was insane. He should just insist that she let him take her to Bogotá. "You're turning white –"
"Will you just…please," she said, taking a deep breath in through her nose. "Please. I need your help –"
Her plea was enough, and he felt himself calming. She needed him to be strong. Needed his confidence in her to get her through it. With a voice far steadier than his nerves, he encouraged her to go on. "I'm here. Keep going. Just a few more, that's all."
She nodded and gave him a weak smile, then picked the needle back up. "Too bad we're not up higher where there's snow."
"Yeah. It would probably take the edge off –"
He didn't even wait to explain, instead blowing gently on her arm. Why hadn't he thought of that, he berated himself. So caught up in his concern that he wasn't event thinking straight anymore.
Her eyes widened in amazement. "You never mentioned that particular ability."
"Almost as useful as being able to heat things with my eyes."
She smile broadly, nudging her chilled skin with a bemused shake of her head. "Well, this should help a lot."
Even with her arm numbed, Clark swore he'd never go through anything like that again. When she'd finished, seven stitches in all, his knees wobbled, and he wanted nothing more than to sit down. Still, he managed to help her wrap a clean bandage over the jagged line that would most certainly leave a scar despite her heroic efforts. And after he cleared away the bloodied cotton swabs and soiled towels, he stroked her head when she buried her face in her good arm resting on the table, regaining her composure before she opened the door and faced those waiting for her help.
After a quick triage, one by one she called them into the examining room, starting with the youngest. Clark stood in the corner, his arms folded across his chest and a concerned frown on his face. She had to be exhausted, and for once, he selfishly wanted her to worry about herself instead of every other creature in San Pablo. But since there was no argument in the world he could make to convince her to leave, he did what he could to help her, fetching supplies and water and anything else she needed.
Acting as the living X-ray machine, he checked several people for broken bones. But by some miracle, the only actual break was a finger which Gillian swiftly splinted. As patient after patient entered the room, the true luck of the bus passengers was revealed. Despite the severity of the crash and the condition of the bus, no one had sustained anything more serious than a quickly stitched cut and some very nasty bruises and bumps. The lidocaine lasted long enough for the youngest victims to receive some relief, but Clark found himself employed again on two men who had to endure the pain of their own stitches with only the benefit of Clark's personal numbing technique.
Gillian wouldn't leave the clinic until she had checked every injury, and Clark guessed it had to be near ten o'clock by the time the last person walked out the door. Other than the couple of *arepas* brought to them by Antonio's still grateful mother, she hadn't eaten anything, and he was afraid she might collapse from exhaustion. He knew where his own endless resources came from, but hers remained a mystery.
"Are you hungry?" he asked as he helped her put the rest of the dirty equipment in the sterilizer.
She shook her head. "I'm just ready to go home."
"I'll bet you're exhausted," he noted, but instead of weariness, her eyes contained an odd sparkle, as if being needed energized her.
"Actually, I feel pretty great." She grinned. "Pretty exciting day, huh? Almost makes me want to go into emergency medicine."
"I can think of other words," he snorted. "Terrifying, for one. Which reminds me, what the hell were you doing still on that bus, anyway?"
"Oh no," she groaned. "Actually, I think I am feeling kind of tired."
"No. That's not going to work. You could have died, you know."
"Yeah, well I didn't really stop to think about it," she said dryly. "When Antonio fell, I just reached out and grabbed. Instincts kicked in."
"I want to know what you were doing there in the first place. You should have gotten out as quickly as possible."
"He was stuck. His shirt had gotten caught on something. I couldn't just leave him there. The poor kid was terrified," she explained with a shrug. "By the time everyone else had gotten out, I'd managed to reach his shirt and rip it enough that he got loose, and that's when he slipped through the window."
"Then you should have waited," he said, sounding like a stern father.
She laughed. "How was I supposed to know you were coming?"
"Of course I would come. Why wouldn't I come?"
"I don't know. Because you were busy doing something else."
"All you had to do was yell."
"For help! 'Superman!'" he demonstrated. "Or 'Sam!' if you couldn't manage Superman."
"Are you kidding?" she asked, incredulous. "That's crazy."
"No, I'm not kidding. How else do you think people let me know they need help?"
"I have no idea. Smoke signals, maybe?"
"Gillian, I mean it. If you ever need me – ever – all you have to do is yell for help and I'll be there."
"So you would come running, just like that?"
"I guess I'm just not used to someone flying to the rescue."
"Yeah, well, it's my job."
"Oh, gee, thanks," she said sarcastically. "It's good to know you care."
"God, Gillian." His voice broke. "Of course I care. I…"
He stopped, the air around them thick with the tension of their argument and something else. His heart pounded against his ribs, his face hot. Taking a couple of deep breaths, he tried to regain control of his spiraling emotions. He felt like a spring tightly coiled.
"I'm taking you home," he said at last, needing to move. Run. Fly. Something. Stepping to her side, he bent down, ready to lift her up.
"I can walk," she protested.
He straightened, giving her a skeptical frown. "No, you can't."
"Yes, I can," she insisted, and he stepped back, ready to let her discover the truth for herself. Touching a toe to the ground, she tested her ankle gingerly, wincing in pain. "OK, no I can't. But I'll just lean –"
Before she could argue, he lifted her into his arms and strode out of the clinic.
After the chaos of the day, the village was eerily quiet. As they made their way down the hill, the only light was from the moon shining between a patch in the clouds.
They reached her place, and silently, she dug in her pocket and unlocked the door, all within the confines of his arms. Entering the dark room, she reached to the lamp and clicked it on with no resulting light.
"Quake must have killed my electricity," she said softly. "There's an oil lamp over there."
He walked with her to the table, and with more of their speechless cooperation, she lifted the glass dome of the oil lamp, and he lit it with a small burst of heat. The small flame cast a glowing ring of light as she replaced the glass and returned her hand to his shoulder.
Mesmerized, he couldn't look away from her when she turned to him expectantly. Her hair had dried in a riot of curls and waves, framing her face with curlicues of gold and honey that caught the warm light of the lamp. When she caught him staring at her, he heard her breath catch.
But instead of looking away, she locked her gaze on to his, smoke and mahogany colliding, joined by an invisible thread. She flushed under his scrutiny, warming to a rosy pink, and for the first time he noticed a trail of pale freckles, four in a neat row just at her right temple and running into her hair. If he'd had a free hand, he would have traced the line with his finger.
"Sam, I think you could probably put me down now," she murmured after they'd stood in the center of her room for a good full minute.
"Yeah, I guess," he said, but he felt no inclination to release her from the protection of his arms. He'd spent too many dreadful minutes that day wondering if he'd ever see those gray eyes again.
Finally, he set her down slowly, but he kept his hands placed loosely on her shoulders. As she transferred her weight onto her injured ankle, it buckled. With a gasp, she jerked her foot off the floor, propelling herself into his chest. He tightened his embrace immediately, hauling her against him to keep her from falling to the floor.
It wasn't intentional, but afterward, when he examined every moment and nuance of that night, he could see that what happened next was inevitable. Every event of the past six months had culminated in that single day full of near tragedy and unmitigated miracles, all conspiring to bring them to that exact place and point in time.
Hours of carefully controlled emotions, maintaining a calm exterior for the benefit of everyone around him while inside he had trembled with his own mind-numbing fear, ended instantly as he allowed himself to finally feel the overwhelming relief of finding her alive and relatively unharmed. Relief of knowing that once again, they'd faced tragedy together and come away unscathed, victorious against the forces conspiring to keep them down.
And too, after the blood and the panic and the fear, there was the piercing need to connect with her, to saturate all of his senses with smells and sounds and touches that reminded him that she lived on. Would live on.
All of those concentrated emotions mixed with his ever deepening feelings for this amazing woman, guiding him as he lowered his lips to capture hers. She hesitated only a heartbeat before returning his kiss.
Honeyed silk filled his hands. Clothes fell away in wordless whispers to reveal warm skin, musky with the scent of clean rain and cherry-almond shampoo. Sinuous curves molded to steel muscle.
Once again she was in his arms as he carried her to the bed, laying her down and covering her with himself. And beneath him, she was finally still.
Despite his inexperience, he felt no uncertainty, no shyness. His hands and mouth wrought pleasure because he used them naturally, every touch directed by his own need to feel her and explore the secrets of her curves and hollows. Smells and tastes and textures that were unique to her filled his senses and pushed him to seek more.
And as his body gave itself over to sensations beyond his imagining, Gillian responded generously. Fingers warm on his skin, gentle as they brushed magic onto every nerve. Her mouth pliant and receptive, wandering on its own explorations and bringing about responses that intoxicated him.
For only one moment did he give pause, lifting his head to peer into pewter eyes, his voice an aching whisper. "Gillian…I want…this…"
She placed her fingers on his lips, silencing the question and answering it at the same time. Never again did he hesitate.
Within timelessness they lingered. In slow motion, wordlessly, they surrendered to the bond drawing them together, securing it by baring the rawest elements of themselves. Until finally she gasped, the name she had given to him falling from her lips.
Beneath the frothy confines of the mosquito netting raining down around them, they lost themselves within each other. There was no past. There was no future. Only that night. Every moment and touch led them further from the hurt, where they found loving and being loved in return.
And afterward, as they lay entwined coated with the fine sheen of shared passion, he fell into a dreamless sleep, waves of honey covering his naked body like a blanket.
Clark woke when a bright shaft of sunlight slanted through the window and directly across his eyes. He lifted a hand trying to block the offending glare, the downy grip of deep sleep not easily loosened. It took a minute to realized that he wasn't laying on his own lumpy pallet, and only a nanosecond after that to remember that he shouldn't be alone.
But he was. He glanced at the expanse of empty bed next to him, then lifted his head to search the room. Gillian wasn't anywhere in sight, and a quick check with his super-hearing indicated she wasn't anywhere in the near vicinity. Frowning, he wondered if she'd headed straight for the clinic.
Despite his disappointment to find her gone instead of lying next to him, he felt no similar compulsion to jump out of bed. He stretched, enjoying the feel of cool linen against his bare skin. Every nerve felt electrified, as if until the past night, they hadn't been fully operational. He smiled softly to himself. In his whole range of experiences, never had he imagined that something could feel as wonderful as making love, either physically or emotionally.
He had not known it was possible to get so close to someone, to know them in every way and expose yourself in turn so that nothing remained between you. As connected as he'd felt to Gillian only twenty four hours earlier, now he saw how deep their intimacy truly ran. The vulnerability and trust they'd shown each other humbled him. And it was only with that intimacy, with that absolute certainty that she knew him in every way that mattered, that he had finally been able to be with her in every sense of the word.
His mind played over the moments of the night, his stomach tightening as he recalled the touches and kisses, the need and the wondrous responses of both her body and his. He'd experienced pleasure before, but none so all encompassing, felt so deeply that it rocked him to his very core. Every sense had reveled in the woman who'd lain within his arms, and even now he could almost taste and feel her so sharp the memory remained.
Rolling his head slightly, he inhaled the cherry-almond fragrance of her hair lingering on the pillow. To his delight, his body responded almost instantly, and he wished that she hadn't left him alone so soon. If she'd have been there, he doubted they'd have made it beyond her door for the rest of the day.
God, she was so beautiful, he mused. Beneath her practical volunteer's clothes he'd discovered shapely curves and firm, young muscle, smooth skin and velvety heat. With a blush, he remembered how she'd guided him. Showed him the way and then joined the journey they'd finished together time and again. Light melding with dark, male and female, heaven meeting earth.
Waiting had been worth it, he determined as he turned to his side and gazed through the mosquito netting and out at the sky. Always with him had been the fear of finally surrendering his virginity to someone who didn't truly know him, something that would have left him empty, grieving an irretrievable loss. Instead, he felt fuller than he ever had. Full of joy. Full of life. It had been his gift to give, and in waiting to do so, he'd received a bounty in return.
In truth, since knowing Lois, he'd imagined – hoped, he admitted to himself without the old bitterness – that she'd be his first. Instead of honey colored hair running through his fingers and lidded gray eyes locked onto his own, his dreams of making love for the first time had always contained dark brown silk and bottomless chocolate orbs.
But he'd followed a different path to a place he'd never imagined and found it no less sublime. Indeed, he wondered as he fingered the filmy netting hanging around him, the things he liked most about Gillian were those so nearly the opposite of Lois. Lois was dark and elegant, beautiful and sophisticated. Gillian was natural, forest and water and air. Lois was breathtaking, heart stopping. Gillian was lovely, gypsy and gossamer.
Seeing Lois for the first time had been like a body slam. Gillian had crept up behind him and enveloped him quietly. Gently.
Their difference extended beyond the physical, their very ways of handling the world around them a study in contrast. Lois's strength was unyielding, while Gillian bent without breaking, an oak towering next to a willow. While Lois crusaded in a broad, sweeping way, Gillian endeavored steadily, making small ripples that spread infinitely to affect those whose lives she touched.
In many ways, Lois had been the perfect fit for him, her ways so different from his own that they complimented each other, two halves that made a complete whole. But with those differences came conflict and the perpetual battle of wills. Now, there was a warm contentment in being understood, in knowing without asking and acceptance without explanation.
Struggling, he pushed thoughts of Lois from his mind. He refused to let his memories of her intrude in any way on what he and Gillian had shared. He'd wanted it, and he cared about her too deeply to do that to her. She deserved all of him, not just the leftovers.
Flipping toward the room, his eyes glanced around her living space, comfortable with its second-hand furniture and funky fabrics and books and chotchkes. The makeshift pink calico shower curtain remained in the corner, a permanent addition to her home, he guessed with a grin, then held his breath. Her *home*.
A home he'd asked her to leave. Possibly to mean that they might never see each other again. After their night together, after what they'd become to each other, he no longer knew if he could accept that possibility. Their paths had merged and led forward as one. But to where?
Just the day prior he'd been trying to shape a life for himself, brushing gently against the prospects that such a life might include her. Now his urge to explore the future tugged more firmly, but to his great frustration, the form it might take seemed even more elusive.
When he tried to picture Gillian in another environment, in a bustling city like Metropolis, his mind slammed against a stubborn roadblock. The two images didn't mesh. Only when he imagined her in Smallville did the picture feel right. But he had no desire to return to Smallville. It would simply be exchanging one remote village for another.
Even if he could come to imagine Gillian in the city, what kind of life could they have? Although he'd bypassed the problem in tiny San Pablo, there was no question in his mind that if and when he returned to the larger world, he'd once again have to resume a separate identity if he wanted any semblance of a normal life. That fact hadn't changed, and as hard as it would be to resume the secrets and half-truths he'd used to get by, it was part of the burden he bore.
She'd have to be willing to bear that burden as well. Would she be able – and willing – to help him perpetuate the image of a man who lived a normal life while concealing an entire side of himself? Gillian didn't lie, and she might not understand the necessity of a dual identity.
With a painful twisting in his stomach, he realized that with Gillian, he didn't want that. Part of the magic between them, the bond, was his ability to be himself completely. The thought of hiding anything, even in the name of practicality, chilled him. How would her feelings for him change if he himself had to change?
His contentment of moments earlier started to fade, and he sat up abruptly. What he needed to do was to find Gillian and talk to her. So much had changed after the last night. Guessing her thoughts and feelings was pointless.
And too was the perplexing question of why she'd left without waking him when he himself was wont to linger. To discover more of her secrets in the light of day and to watch her face as she gasped his name again and again. With a chuckle, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and reached for his pants. Just one night's taste and he was ready to make up for the long years he'd waited, all in the course of a day or two.
A note lay on the table, offering explanation for her undesired absence.
*Sam – Left early with Jeff to Piendamó – got word of some injuries. Thought you might need the sleep. No bus this time, I promise! See you tonight. G.*
So that was why she'd left the warmth of their bed. Piendamó was another small village in the valley, many of its residents related in some way to various people in San Pablo. Gillian often treated villagers from Piendamó in San Pablo's clinic, and of course she would make the trek to help if she could. He frowned, thinking of her injured ankle.
As he put on his shirt, he scrounged around for the wrist watch Gillian owned but never wore, leaving it instead to gather dust in a small basket placed on the kitchenette's counter. With a blink of surprise, he saw that it was after noon. Had he slept that late or had he lain there thinking that long?
For a few minutes he thought of flying to Piendamó to meet her, then decided maybe she'd gone without him because she'd needed some space. As he was grappling with his reaction to this monumental change in their relationship, perhaps she, too, needed some time to mull over events and come to terms with her own feelings. They'd taken a huge step, and, like him, maybe she felt it necessary to look around to make sure she'd landed on firm ground.
Besides, his thoughts of late concerning the future and the accusations he'd hurled at Gillian about neglecting her family were working hard against his conscience. With no small amount of guilt, he tried to remember the last time he'd called home. It had been a month at least, and the last time had involved a terrible phone connection lasting all of five minutes.
His parents had been understanding that first time he'd called, soon after arriving in San Pablo, to tell them he needed some time away. After all, they were used to his wandering ways. What they hadn't understood so readily was his need to cut himself off almost completely from all contact with the outside world ever since his return from Metropolis after Lois's wedding.
But he'd needed to find a cave where he could lick his wounds, and caves didn't come with newspapers and running updates from LNN. Such reminders of life beyond the Andes only fueled his guilt in not responding to every emergency. Also there was his fear of unintentionally hearing news of the blissfully wedded Luthors and their fabulous life together. He'd become a recluse of sorts, wrapping himself completely in his selfish need for time to heal, hoping that those who loved him most would understand and forgive.
Since he couldn't fully explain his desire to keep himself insulated from the outside world to his befuddled parents, he'd used San Pablo's remoteness as a handy excuse. The closest phone was in Silvia, the mail delivery sporadic at best. They had the address and phone number of the ICRC headquarters in Bogotá, so he'd felt confident they could reach him in case of an emergency. He'd stopped calling home regularly, instead sending occasional letters that spoke of his continued good health and general activity. If his parents resented his elusiveness, they made no mention of it in the few letters he'd received, keeping their comments to the state of the crops and other nonsensical goings- on in Smallville. He suspected that maybe they understood him better than he'd given them credit for.
Deciding that it was far past time to give them a call and suddenly wanting very much to share some things with them, he washed his face and, after a quick stop at his shack to retrieve a new shirt, headed straight for the nearest phone some twenty miles away.
The damaging rains of the day prior had been replaced by blue sky, innocent and unapologetic about the havoc it had wreaked. Even the call of the birds out of the forest seemed to deny that anything other than peace had ever reigned in this little corner of the world. It all so much mirrored his internal state that he had to shake his head. He'd arrived in San Pablo in turmoil, but calm had settled over him, his spirit cleansed and renewed. Healed.
Inhaling deeply, he took in the bright colors and warm sunshine, thinking that somehow everything around him had become super- saturated. Every sense was heightened, and he couldn't seem to remove the beaming smile that stretched across his face.
His good mood transferred to each person he passed as he headed down the road out of San Pablo, the waves and smiles returned to him especially exuberant. When he took off, flying slow and lazy up the mountain, he couldn't help but notice how summer never seemed to leave this particular part of the world, the balmy seventy or so degrees brushing his skin lightly.
A flicker of disappointment threatened to dull his blissful mood when instead of his mother or father, the stiff voice of the answering-machine picked up the other end of the call. He squelched it, offering a bright hello and a promise to try calling back in a day or two with a heart-felt 'I love you' attached to the end. As he hung up, he consoled himself with the fact that the connection he'd achieved had been particularly bad anyway, full of static. Trying to have a real conversation would have just been annoying rather than enjoyable.
Still, he couldn't push down the need to talk to someone who knew him, to share his newfound happiness and to hear a familiar voice. It was as if the last few days had acted like sunshine on a dormant seed, sending it sprouting and reaching out of the ground to breath fresh air. His past had been awakened, and he was finally strong enough to accept it with open arms.
Tapping his foot for a moment, he ran through his list of options, finely landing on the one person most like a second father to him. Thanking his alien parents for the gift of his deep and lasting memory, he pulled Perry White's home phone number from his mental address book and punched the numbers, wincing when static distorted the ring on the other end of the line. As he waited, he tried to remember what day it was and if Perry would even be home, then recalled that for the retired chief, specific days had probably ceased to matter, much as they had to him.
"Perry?" Clark said loudly, placing his hand over his exposed ear to block out any interfering noise.
"Clark? Is that you?"
Clark blinked, realizing that for nearly half a year, no one had called him 'Clark'. For a second, he wondered if he'd actually forgotten his own name. Recovering quickly, he nodded his head. "Yeah, Chief. It's me, Clark."
"Clark! I…barely hear you," Perry shouted back.
"Sorry. It's the best connection I could get." He gave the phone a sharp rap with his finger and the static lessened a bit. "Is that any better?"
"A little…you doing, son?" Perry's voice boomed across the continents and oceans.
"Great. How's retirement?" he asked, grinning broadly.
"Miserable. That's why…came out of it," he said, and Clark laughed. He never could picture Perry sitting in some tackle shop talking lures with weathered fishermen hours on end.
But before he could comment, Perry continued. "I've been trying…a hold of you the…few weeks. You've…pretty much lost…the world, there, son."
Clark nodded to himself. Living in a cave, albeit a glorious one. "Yeah, well, I needed to get away…decide what I wanted to do next…"
"Listen, Clark, there's something you…know. It's…Planet. She's back. Up and running."
Clark hesitated a long minute, not expecting such information. The Planet was back up and running? The Daily Planet?
Perry startled him out of his shock. "Um, yeah. I'm here. Wow, that's great Perry."
"Fired up the presses…four weeks ago. Already circulation's nearly doub…what it was…explosion."
Clark ignored his annoyance at the disrupted line that kept cutting out some of Perry's words and covering others with static, asking, "Luthor feel guilty about blowing it up in the first place?"
"It…Luthor. Franklin Stern decided he…broaden his portfolio a bit. Fronted…tire reconstruction," Perry explained.
The name sounded vaguely familiar, and Clark struggled to remember where he'd heard it. Mostly, he wondered what had convinced Lex Luthor to sell the Planet in the first place. If Clark's suspicions were correct, Luthor had destroyed the Planet intentionally, so why would he have been willing to see it rebuilt at all?
"I…know if you'd consid…ing back to work. We need…good reporter…work with…est investigative journalist."
"Who's that?" Clark shouted, trying to interpret Perry's broken words. Something about working with the best investigative journalist. "You steal Thompkins away from the Star?"
"Thompkins? He's…hack. Who else…think I'd call the best? I want to get…old…eam of Lane and Kent back on…beat."
Clark blanched. The old team of Lane and Kent. "I thought Lois was working at LNN?"
"Decided the broadcast news…just not…style. Besides, didn't take…convincing once she found…Planet was hiring again."
"Perry, I don't think it's a good idea." He didn't know how aware Perry was about what had occurred between him and Lois, but he wasn't about to walk into that nightmare situation. "There's a lot that happened between me and Lois."
"Now, son…know…have…differences. But you…professionals. The best…in…history…Planet."
"Perry, you're starting to break up," he said, his frustration with the phone adding to the excruciating tension that had taken a hold of his shoulders and neck. "Listen, I appreciate you thinking of me, but I really think it's a bad idea."
"If…retirement, you two…put aside…and get on…putting out…paper."
"Chief, I can't work with her," he explained, trying to keep calm. "I can't see her everyday and know that she's married to Lex Luthor."
"Yes, that's what I said," he repeated carefully, glancing around at the passers-by who'd slowed to gawk at him. "I can't sit across from her and ignore the fact that she married Lex Luthor."
"What? Perry, I couldn't hear you," he said, his own voice getting louder as if it might help Perry's come through in complete sentences instead of fragments. "What about a prison?"
"Perry, say that again. Perry?"
"Did you say suicide? Perry, who committed suicide?" Clark's heart pounded wildly, his frustration hitting a fever pitch as static filled the line.
"Luthor committed suicide?" he asked, desperate to understand. "Perry, say it again!"
"Perry? Perry?" he screamed into the receiver. But the line had gone dead.
For a minute, he thought it was another earthquake. Then he realized it was only his own body shaking so violently, only his own world that was once again tilting out of control.
Luthor was dead. Lois wasn't married anymore.
If the people passing by thought it odd that a large man sat beneath a telephone kiosk, the receiver clutched in his hand but way too far from his mouth to actually use, they made no mention of it. After all, they'd once seen a man fly.
Dusk had arrived by the time he once again became aware of his surroundings. After he'd picked himself off the ground, Clark numbly found his way back down into the valley although he couldn't recall a single minute of the flight.
How dare she not be married!
The bitterness of that fact was like acid washing through him. She had no right to do this to him. He'd moved on. He'd let her go.
God, he hated her.
He hated her for marrying another man. For breaking his heart and exiling him out of his own dreams.
He hated her for being fooled by Luthor. He hated her for being so blind that she couldn't see what was right in front of her, the evilness in the man she'd chosen to marry and the goodness in the man she'd rejected. She'd been willing to give that beast the benefit of the doubt, never suspecting anything but good intentions from him. Then, in nearly the same breath, she had spared her friend Clark no latitude, instead accusing him of trying to ruin her happiness. Of being jealous.
He hated her for not really seeing him. She had to be totally clueless. Fooled by a pair of glasses, so bedazzled by the powers and the suit that she couldn't see the man beneath the cape. Or maybe hadn't wanted to see him. For crying out loud, how could she have not known that he was Superman? His expectation wasn't rational, he knew it, but it didn't keep him from feeling the resentment.
Well, if those were the kind of men she wanted, a criminal or a plastic superhero, then more power to her. He wished her a happy life. Free now to break someone else's heart.
Through the bitterness, he felt a twinge of pity for her, though. Married for such a short time and then widowed. As angry as he was at her, he'd never want her to feel that kind of pain. The pain of losing someone you loved far too much.
No. No. He shook off his compassion, determined not to let it sway him to softening his stance. She'd made her own bed, tying her future to a man no better than pond scum. After all of the pain she'd dished out to Clark, maybe she deserved a bit of her own, he thought bitterly.
What he should do was go back just to say "I told you so". She owed him an apology if for nothing else but for the fact that he'd tried to warn her and she wouldn't listen. Served her right, to be taken down a peg or two.
God, he hated her.
That wasn't true.
He didn't hate her. Even after everything.
He felt sorry for her. Sad for her.
He hated himself for not hating her.
Not being able to hate Lois, he directed his animosity towards the dead Lex Luthor. Even from the grave that man was destroying Clark's life. Somehow he'd managed to steal the hard-earned peace that Clark had found, setting unknowns and what-ifs as Herculean obstacles blocking yet again the road to his future.
All of the doors he'd thought were tightly closed and locked had been suddenly thrown open. Dreams he'd struggled to bury and replace now stood before him once more, demanding to be recognized. Maybe even explored if he were willing to go back…
*Go back?* To what? Lois?
What was he thinking?
Why would he go back? Really, what had changed? Yes, Lois was a widow, free to love and marry once again. But there was no reason to believe that he'd be the one she'd choose the next time. She'd rejected him once. He'd be a fool to face that rejection again.
He knew immediately that he couldn't see her again. Ever. It had been the hardest six months of his life, and he wasn't going to go through that again. If he saw her, all of those old feelings would come back to the surface, and then he'd have to go through the hell of losing her all over again. It wasn't worth it. She just wasn't worth it, he insisted firmly, silencing the small voice in his head that whispered to him. *What if*…
What he wanted was to see Lois again and feel nothing. To know that she no longer held any power over him. Gone was her ability to make him weak or to break his heart with a casual dismissal.
He wanted to forget all of the quirks and habits and special things about her that triggered his memories at the most peculiar times. He wanted to be free of any associations that caused a stab of pain through his heart just on the hearing of certain words or phrases.
He wanted to forget what she looked like. That her brown eyes were so dark they seemed almost black. That her hair contained strands of both bronze and ebony when the sunlight hit it at just the right angle. That she smelled like vanilla. That she looked great in short skirts and even better in sweatpants and a sweatshirt.
He wanted to forget that she made him laugh harder than anyone else ever had and she made him madder than he'd ever been in his life. That her competitive streak drove him to near distraction but also to accomplish things he never would have striven to do without her to goad and push him.
The problem was, after six months of trying to forget, the grave he'd dug for his memories had proven far too shallow. With a single phone call, the time passed was erased, her face clear in his mind's eye, her voice beckoning to him from the deepest part of his mind . If only there was a pill he could take that would just let him forget everything about her. Wipe her completely from his memory.
It didn't matter, he insisted within his warring heart. Whether he forgot her or not. He'd found someone else who loved him. All of him.
God. Was it just that morning he'd lain in her bed, glorying in the memory of what they'd shared together? Instantly his heart softened, a quieting of his spirit giving him a moment of rest from the confusion. If it weren't for her, he didn't know how he would have survived the past six months. She'd given him everything – her heart, her body, her support, her love.
There was joy in his heart when he thought of Gillian, and a phone call didn't have the power to take that away. Right within his grasp were the things that could make him happy. It had taken six months to figure it out, but he knew it for certain now. He deserved to be happy.
Lois had made her choices. And he'd moved on. Nothing had changed. Nothing.
He would convince Gillian to go home to the states with him. Together they would find a place where she could continue to help people in her way and he would be free to help people in his. She could make him happy. Together, they could have a wonderful life.
Laying upon his pallet, Clark tried to focus on the words in the book he held. But in two hours, he'd read the same page at least twenty times and still had no idea what it said. In fact, he wasn't even sure what book he was reading.
Shutting it, he flipped it over to read the cover. In doing so, he removed the obstacle that blocked his view of the door, and in the periphery of his vision he caught a figure standing in it. Startled, he hadn't even heard her approach.
"*Don Quixote*," Gillian remarked from her position leaning against the door frame. "Now there's a guy who had his priorities straight."
"Hey," he said, sitting up immediately and swinging his feet to the floor. "How was Piendamó?"
"Fine," she said. "A few cuts and bruises. Nothing too serious."
His eyes darted past her, beyond the open door. Not because he thought she might not be alone but because he was afraid to look her directly in the eye. She'd know immediately that something wasn't right.
"You might as well stop looking around like that. There's no place to go," she remarked without rancor.
He reddened. "I'm not trying to leave."
"No, more like escape," she stated softly, not waiting for an invitation to walk into the room. "I missed you last night. And then all day today. You've been almost every place I haven't, I think. I was starting to wonder if you'd just flown off."
By the time he'd gotten home the night before, it had been too late to go to her house. At lease that's what he'd told himself. And he'd been working since before dawn that morning on a bridge that had been washed out by another smaller mudslide. This was the first time he'd seen her since they'd made love. Since he'd learned that Lois was now a widow. He'd needed time to come to grips with everything. Still needed time.
"I've been trying to get the bridge fixed," he offered lamely. "And there was a little bit of damage to the school's north wall…"
Her brows lifted, exasperation mixed with the sharp sting of hurt before she could mask it. "Please, don't. No mind games. We haven't played them yet, and I'd rather not start now."
"Gillian, I'm sorry – " he started, but she didn't give him a chance to apologize.
"You know Sam, there are several girls in this village who would have been more than willing to take a roll in the hay with you. Man, Lourdes even." She fixed him with an unblinking gaze, and although her voice held no accusation, her eyes spoke volumes. "Why'd you have to pick me?"
"You know that's not it. I didn't want a roll in the hay. What we did…it meant a lot to me," he said, standing. "More than you'll probably ever know."
"They why have you been skulking around for the last two days?" she asked. "You've been avoiding me like some kind of frat guy the morning after he takes off the beer goggles."
"I haven't been avoiding you," he denied, the boldface lie sounding as stupid as it was.
"Uh…look around." She swung her head around, taking in the small room but lifted her hands to encompass all of San Pablo. "It's a small town, remember? You have to pretty much actively try to avoid someone, and you've been avoiding me. Just admit it."
"I'm sorry," he said, trying again. "I have been sort of avoiding you. But it's not for the reason you think."
"Oh?" she said. "And just what reason might that be?"
"The frat guy thing."
"I see. But it is because of what happened the other night. At least I got that part right? Maybe regretting it a bit?"
"No. I don't have any regrets," he insisted quickly, that much being the truth at least. He raked a hand through his hair, the weight he'd carried on his shoulders since the morning prior multiplying by a thousand fold until he felt it would crush him. "I'm just not sure if what we did was such a good idea."
"That sounds like regrets." She pulled a chair out from underneath the table and sank down into it, crossing her arms as if readying herself for his list. "Let me guess, it was a moment of weakness. We were both feeling a little shaken after the quake…no pun there, of course. Or maybe it's just that it's been a while and the urge was getting kind of strong –"
"No, it's not any of that. I mean, yeah, the urge was there, but not because it's been a long time or because I was running on adrenaline. You have to know, I wouldn't just do that unless…" He stopped, not knowing the answer to that supposition.
He wouldn't have slept with her unless what? Unless he cared for her? Expected to have a future with her? Loved her? The questions tore through him. Forty-eight hours ago, the answers would have come so much easier.
"Unless what?" she asked, pulling him away from his own churning confusion.
"Gillian, what we shared…it was incredible. Beyond incredible." He sighed, not sure if telling her he'd been a virgin would hurt or help the situation. But since theirs had been a relationship based on knowing each other from the inside out, he'd rather she know everything. He couldn't stand it if she believed herself to be simply just another woman to him. "I'd never…that was the first time I've ever gotten that…close to someone."
For a minute, she stared at him, absorbing what he'd said. "You mean you'd never slept with anyone before?"
"No. I won't go into the reasons because a lot of them wouldn't make sense." At least not to anyone who'd never lived their entire life hiding so much about themselves from everyone. "Mostly its because no one's ever known me enough that I could let go like that. But with you…well, you were the first on both accounts."
His admission seemed to stun her, for she didn't say anything for a long time. He was about to ask her if she was all right when she finally spoke. "It was sort of my first time, too."
Her first time, too? But she'd never said anything, and she hadn't acted afraid or nervous. Then again, neither had he. Everything had just flowed so easily, so naturally, he'd just assumed she'd had some experience. But if she'd been a virgin, too…
His heart began to pound. He wasn't sure if it was from added guilt or a bizarre sense of pleasure that he might have been her first as well. "I kind of thought you and Garrett probably…"
"We did." She laughed, a dry sound without any real amusement. "I think that's one of the reasons he suddenly became so interested in me. He knew how much I liked him and that I'd probably be willing to…well, anyway, it didn't happen right away, but pretty soon after we started hanging out together. Actually, I don't even remember the first time because I was so out of it."
Clark's burst of inexplicable joy was replaced by a hot spark of fury towards Garrett. By many definitions, the kid had actually committed rape, taking advantage of her when she hadn't the power to make a clear decision. Yes, they'd been kids, and yes, she'd taken the drugs willingly. Still, he'd intentionally put her in that position and had used his hold over her for his own selfish purposes. Even knowing that, in the end, Garrett had paid the ultimate price, wasn't enough to ease Clark's anger.
But he held it in check, realizing that there was nothing to be gained by expressing his outrage. Garrett was dead and the damage done not to be undone. Besides, if he had to guess, he was sure that somewhere near the top of her list of regrets was the loss of her virginity in such a crass, unmemorable way. Who was he to fuel that regret?
"Once I stopped seeing Garrett," she went on to explain, "I swore off sex in general. In college, I dated, but I never let things get serious enough for anything to happen. I guess I was afraid of being used and …" she struggled a minute to find the words, looking down at the hands she twisted in her lap. "I was afraid that without something to help me, no guy would think I was any good. He'd be disappointed afterwards…"
She lifted her face, and he winced at the vulnerability he saw in her gray eyes. "Sam, I'd never had sex without being affected by some drug or another. This was the first time it was just me, experiencing everything as it's supposed to be. The first time I actually made love. In a way, I was a virgin, too."
He went to kneel down beside her, grasping her clutched hands between his own. "Gillian, I will never regret what we did. It was making love, and it was beautiful. For as long as I live, I'll always remember it."
She smiled appreciatively, but her brows came down in confusion. "Remember it? That sounds like you don't think it's ever going to happen again."
"I don't know what's going to happen. I don't know what the future has in store for us," he said, standing up and moving away from her. "Maybe letting ourselves get carried away like that was a little reckless. I'm just so afraid one of us is going to get hurt…"
"Future? What are you talking about?" she protested softly. "I don't expect a lifetime commitment. Just someone who wants to see me the next day at least."
"I do want to see you the next day. And the day after that. And then the day after that. But what happens in a month? Or two? Or next year? Where do we go then?" he asked.
"I don't know. Popayán for the festival?" she joked, and when he didn't laugh, tried another approach. "What ever happened to *aquí y ahora*? Here and now? Living without regards to past or future?"
"Stop it, Gillian. Just stop," he said. The frustration and confusion he'd been feeling converged into anger. "You said it yourself. Not worrying about the future doesn't mean it's not going to happen. And I can't ignore it any more."
She took a deep breath and adopted a stiff smile. "So, let's talk about the future."
"What is there to talk about?" Although he knew it was unfair, he latched on to the one obstacle between them that he didn't wholly own. "You've made it pretty clear that you're not interested in going back to the states any time soon. And I can't stay here forever."
"Why not? Why can't you stay here forever?"
"Because I never wanted to be a farmer," he snapped. "Because Superman has practically disappeared off the face of the earth. Other people need me. I had a life, responsibilities. There were people who I cared about and who care about me that I haven't seen in months.
"That never seemed to be a problem –"
"Yeah, well maybe it is now. Maybe I'm starting to miss them."
She blinked. "I didn't know you had…parents."
"I do. Hell, I haven't even talked to them in ages," he said, much harsher than he'd intended. He hated this. The frustration he was taking out on her. But he couldn't stop himself. And her continued calm was making it worse.
"I see…it's not the future that's got your knickers in a twist, is it? It's your past."
"My past is irrelevant."
"Is it? You came here…or, you stayed here to escape your old life. Your past. So what's the problem now? Why the sudden restlessness?" she asked.
"It's not sudden. I've been thinking about this for a while now," he said, acknowledging the stirrings that had bothered him since the completion of the clinic. "You know that I've been trying to convince you to leave Colombia."
Her eyebrows lifted in surprise. "So that was all an effort to make sure that we could have some kind of future together?"
"No…yes." He wanted to scream. "No, I mean, I'm worried about you. I want you to be safe."
"Come on, Sam. I'm just not buying all of this." She held his gaze, unflinching. "Just tell me. The truth. You owe me at least that much…"
God, he owed her everything. Loyalty. Love. His future. Something. Anything. But instead, he was giving her nothing.
Sitting down, he leaned his elbows on the table and covered his face with his hands, rubbing fiercely as if he could wash away his confusion. Letting his fingers thread upward into his hair, he held his head in hands as he stared down at the scared wood, unable to meet her eyes while he gave her the one thing he couldn't deny her. The truth.
"She isn't married anymore."
He swallowed hard. "The woman I…was…in love with."
She didn't speak for a long time, and he allowed her silence. Hell, he'd been trying to absorb the information for two days. She deserved at least a couple of minutes.
"Ah. So that's it," she said at last. Her tone was so matter-of- fact that they could have been discussing the reason Luke always ate all of the leftover chicken and never the rice she tried to feed him.
Looking directly at her, he explained. "I spoke with a…mutual friend. It sounds like she was widowed soon after her wedding. I don't really know very much. Our connection was broken before I could find out any details. I tried to call back and couldn't get through, then figured there was really no reason –"
"That's tragic," she said, interrupting him woodenly. "Just say it, Sam."
"What?" He'd told her the worst of it. What more could there be?
"Say what you're really feeling." When he continued to stare at her, she leaned toward him. "Not *was*. Are. The woman you are in love with isn't married anymore."
He leaned against the back of the chair, shaking his head. "No. I'm not in love with her. I don't know what I feel for her. Pity, maybe. It's been so long. A lot has happened."
"If you didn't know what you feel for her – didn't still love her – I don't think you'd be having this much trouble talking to me about the future we supposedly don't have but need to discuss because it's in jeopardy."
"Our future has nothing to do with her."
"Yes, Sam, it does. It has everything to do with her." She insisted with a hiss, and he finally saw the flash of anger in her eyes. "Tell me, when did you find out? Was it before or after the other night?"
"After. Just yesterday morning. When you and Jeff were in Piendamó, I went to Silvia to call home." It had been one of his reasons for not telling her, his finding out coming so close on the heels of their night spent together. In his mind, the two events had nothing to do with each other whatsoever, and never did he want her to believe that they did.
"And instead of coming to me so we could have a laugh together about her bad luck in not only giving up a terrific guy but losing the schmuck as well, you avoided me like the plague." She chuckled ruefully. "That kind of tells me you still have some pretty strong feelings there."
"But I don't want to have strong feelings," he said, the bitterness rising in his throat. "I don't want to love her anymore."
"Too bad," she retorted, offering him no quarter. "You can't just stop loving someone because they're not in your life anymore. Not if you really loved them in the first place. I didn't just stop loving my brother because he died."
"She didn't die," he threw back, not willing to give Lois the same courtesy as the noble Christopher Brooks. "She told me flat out that she didn't love me. At least not in the same way I loved her. So that's the end of it. I just need a few days to get the shock out of my system, that's all."
"God, I wish it was that easy," she groaned. "If it was, I would have saved myself a whole lot of pain by not thinking I gave two hoots about Garrett."
"Well, I have that chance," he insisted. "I can save myself that pain. Before anything else…tragic happens."
"And how far away exactly do you think you're going to have to go to avoid your feelings for her? How many tons of adobe are you going to have to move?" she asked. "You can't forget them or hide from them, Sam. No matter how many other women you sleep with."
He shook his head violently. "No. No, I didn't sleep with you so that I could forget her. If I thought you believed that –"
"Didn't you? Isn't that what all of this is about?" When he continued to shake his head, refusing her claim, she clarified more gently. "I'm not saying that you deliberately made love with me trying to replace her. But in your way, you were moving on. That's the first step towards letting go."
"So I've let go. I've moved on," he said. "Just because she's not married, that doesn't affect me anymore."
"Well, you know what they say. Sometimes it's one step forward and two steps back," she joked without real humor.
"Gillian, why would it matter if she isn't married?" He stood, his frustration mounting again, but this time he directed it inward, voicing the questions that had run through his mind like an endless loop for two days. "Why does it matter if I've found something…someone else?"
"Because love is not a faucet," she said heatedly. "You can't just turn it off because no one is there to catch it."
In her strange way, she'd hit it exactly. In the six months since his departure, he'd been trying to stop feeling love. But perhaps, since his body was indestructible, his heart contained the same inextinguishable quality. Once an emotion had developed within it, it couldn't simply be purged. At best, what he could hope for in a situation like this was for this particular love to recede, move to the back as other more pertinent feelings came to the forefront.
"What I feel aside, she doesn't love me," he said pointedly as he started to pace. That much was irrefutable. And her changed marital status didn't mean a change in her heart.
"You said she did love part of you."
"Not the way that I need her to love me. I can't go back to that life. Secrets and half truths." He sighed. "If nothing else, the last six months have shown me how good it can be, being myself without hiding."
Far too clear for his comfort given the time passed, he could recall Lois's words as she sat on that park bench and told him she loved him only as a friend. And perhaps even more painful, her ridiculous declaration that she would love him if he were just an ordinary man. Then, he would have given anything to have believed her. To hear her offer her love to Clark Kent.
But now he saw that that was no longer the case. He was a different man than the one who had sat next to her on that park bench and confessed his love. And such a declaration from her to Clark Kent would have been no better than the one she had offered to Superman. It would have been made to half a man.
Never would he settle for less than love given to the entire person he was. Superman and Clark Kent, not two halves mutually exclusive but rather mutually dependent, neither one able to exist without the other.
Gillian was one step ahead of him. "Then stop hiding," she said. "Be who you are. Who you were always meant to be."
He felt as if he stood at the edge of an abyss and there was no way to avoid falling into it. Everything he'd built, or rather rebuilt, started to crumble, like that very first adobe wall. In his mind, the noise built, an avalanche of choking dust, smothering all of the light and shooting him back into the darkness of the undefined.
"Sam, she didn't even know you," Gillian went on. "For crying out loud, you kept some pretty serious stuff from her. As much as I hate her right now, I see that it wasn't really fair to her."
He almost couldn't bear it, her compassion for Lois far more generous than his would have been if the situation was reversed. In fact, she was far more forgiving of Lois's rejection than he himself had been.
He shook his head, not wanting to see the rightness in what she was saying even as he knew he couldn't argue it away. He hadn't been fair to Lois by keeping his secret from her. And he hadn't been fair to himself. In his way, he'd been as guilty as Lois in pushing them apart, not allowing her to get close enough to see him for who and what he was. One man.
"I wouldn't even know where to start. To explain," he said. And as the words left his mouth, a new emotion added to the cacophony in his chest. Fear. Was he actually considering this? Seeing Lois again? Telling her everything?
"Well, if she doesn't know that you're Superman, I guess that's kind of a big thing," Gillian offered dispassionately. "I'd start there."
"How do you tell someone something like that? 'Oh, by the way, I'm Superman,'" he mocked, imagining the stunned look on Lois's face.
"Yeah, exactly that way," she said with a nod. "You go back and you just tell her. You just say the words and give her some time to digest them."
Gillian stood then, walking to the window where she pulled absently at the torn screen he'd never gotten around to fixing. "Besides, maybe there's something she didn't tell you. And now she's just hoping that you'll come back so she can."
His confusion increased, her reaction so unexpected that doubt and guilt battled within his chest. She should be screaming at him, telling him what a bastard he was for letting himself get involved with her when he still held such strong feelings for another woman. Garrett had used her in so many ways, and now it seemed that maybe, Clark had used her as well. Granted, his intention had never been to hurt her, but here he was, doing it all the same.
"I don't want to hurt you," he whispered, almost implored. Somehow, he wanted Gillian to keep him from hurting her. To insist that he stay and take the decision away from him.
But she didn't let him off the hook. One again, it was up to him, the superhero, to save her. Or not.
"I don't want you sticking around here just because you don't want to hurt me. If you did that, you would always wonder if you should have gone back. If you might have made it work with her." She came to stand in front of him, leaving more space between them than two lovers normally would. "Don't you think that would hurt me worse than anything you could do or say now? To know that you settled for me but dreamed of her?"
She was right, of course. Since the second Perry had told him in his broken way that Lois was no longer married, Clark had known that he would have to go back and face her. To find out if he still loved her and to deal with that fact once and for all.
"But what if I don't…" He'd been about to say *what if I don't love her any more?* But deep inside he knew the question was moot. He'd never stop loving Lois. He could only hope to live in peace with it.
"I'm not going anywhere," she said, knowing what he was thinking. With a forced laugh, she tried to joke away the pain. "Unless maybe it's to Bogotá for another case of that Chilean wine."
"I'll come back," he said. "In a few days. Maybe a week –"
"No," she protested vehemently. "Please. Don't. Don't make promises or plans because I don't want to wake up every day wondering if it's the one when you'll come walking down the road. If…when you come back, it'll be when you're ready. Besides, I live *aquí y ahora*, remember?"
When her voice broke on her last words, he reached across the space between them and pulled her into a tight embrace. She didn't make a sound, but he could feel the sobs as they shook her slender form. Tears pooled in his own eyes and he squeezed them tightly closed, placing his cheek against the top of her honey covered head. This was the last thing he wanted to do. To cause her more pain. She'd given him so much.
"Gillian…I…" he started, not sure what he could say. Nothing would make this any easier.
"You said you came here to find something you lost," she murmured against his chest. "Have you found it, Sam?"
"I think so," he said. But inside, he shook, fearing that as soon as he left the safety of her arms, he'd lose it again.
Her palms pressed against his chest, firmly pushing him away as she broke from the circle of his arms. She took a shuddering breath and turned to leave. Clark remained rooted to the floor, wanting to follow after her but knowing that he couldn't. Couldn't do that to either of them because if he touched her again, he'd make love to her again. If he did that, he'd never have the strength to leave her. And eventually, he would come to regret that decision and her along with it.
When she reached the door, she turned to give him a small smile. "Go home, Sam." Her voice was steady, but wet streaks glistened on her cheeks. "It's time. Just…go home."
And then she was gone.
They'd sent him a letter. The minute they'd read about the suicide, Jonathan had trimmed the article from the Smallville Ledger and mailed it to the address of the ICRC in Bogotá.
According to the paper, investigations into the Daily Planet bombing had led to a corrupt insurance official, who, once assured of immunity, had confessed to receiving bribes in order to keep quiet the exact sum of money settled on Luthor Corp for damages sustained. Once that small thread had been cut, the rest of Luthor's tapestry had started to unravel, and before long, the Metropolis prosecutor's office had plenty to justify the arrest of Luthor. Sadly, before he could be apprehended, he had plunged to his death after leaping from the balcony of his penthouse immediately following his own wedding. No mention at all was made of the bereaved Mrs. Luthor married and widowed almost simultaneously.
But the letter had not reached him, and Clark's lack of response to the news had convinced his parents that he had not wished to pursue Lois further, so they'd not mentioned it again. He didn't know whether to be glad or not. Would it have made a difference? Would he have left San Pablo immediately to be at her side?
A healthy portion of him was glad that he'd not had to make that decision. Six months earlier, he would have simply fallen back into the pattern of unrequited love, nothing changed and him none the better for it.
Clark spent two days in Smallville, letting his body readjust to the time and cold weather and his mind to the bombardment of smells and sights and sounds that he'd missed for over six months. At least that's what he told himself, although he suspected that he was actually avoiding the real reason he'd left the wilds of Colombia.
He didn't tell his parents about Gillian. Not when things were so uncertain. Besides, he didn't think he could handle the questions that would follow the discovery that their son might have met someone…a possible The Someone. She was too important to be reduced to questions with simple answers, descriptions of features and temperament and accomplishments.
For reasons he himself couldn't understand, he held everything about Colombia close to his chest, afraid that if he said too much, the safe haven there would disappear. Like the mystical Isle of Avalon, San Pablo was tucked hidden in the mist, and by exposing it to the harsh light of real evaluation, it would lose the power to offer him refuge. For his own peace of mind, he needed to know that always the valley in the Andes waited for him.
He'd come home because she'd been right. Gillian. He couldn't forget about Lois and he couldn't just stop loving her. But he owed it to himself to face that love and let go of it once and for all.
And he owed it to Gillian. Because he loved her, too. With a steady warmth that was safe and accepting. Gillian could make him happy, and he was ready to be happy.
Actually finding Lois had been a bit harder than he'd expected. He hadn't wanted to call Perry, not wanting to get the old boss's hopes up because, at that point, Clark had no intention of going back to the Planet to revive the team of Lane and Kent. Likewise he didn't want to talk to Jimmy, needing to keep as much about his old life dormant as possible until he knew what he planned to do with it.
Alice White proved to be the answer. Calling her mid-morning, when he was almost certain that Perry would already be at the office, he was able to glean the surprising fact that Lois was currently living in her old apartment. After a bit of small talk and polite non-answers to her well-intentioned questions, he hung up, puzzled over the information she'd provided. Why in the world would a woman with her power and money choose to live in a brownstone walk-up with old plumbing and a noisy upstairs neighbor?
He thought of calling, then decided it was easier – for him anyway – to just show up at her place. If he called and set up an appointment, there was every chance that he might back out. Besides, he felt a perverse need to surprise her, believing it gave him some bizarre advantage. It wasn't war, but still, he felt much as if he were heading for battle as he walked up the steps of her brownstone.
Fairly certain she was home as light streamed out her windows, he stood in front of her door, opening and closing his fist several time while he screwed up his courage. Finally he knocked. Three sharp raps. That was the code that all was clear and safe. Somehow, it seemed fitting.
"Just a minute," she called out.
He hadn't heard that voice in nearly seven months, yet it could have been only seven minutes the way his heart started to pound. Swallowing hard, he forced himself to calm down. Nerves. That was all, he reminded himself.
In less than a minute, he heard some motion against the door, but the door itself remained closed. Another minute passed. And then another. He resisted the urge to use his x-ray vision, but his super-hearing picked up her breathing on the other side of the wood that separated them. Apparently, she had a bad case of nerves, too.
Just as he was about to knock again, the door flew open, the whoosh of air as startling as the unexpected motion. He caught himself before he could tumble into her apartment.
And there she was.
Breathtaking. Heart stopping.
Exactly the same. Yet completely different.
With great effort, he forced himself to breathe. In and out. In and out.
"Clark!" she exclaimed brightly, a million watt smile plastered across her face. "What a surprise."
"Hello, Lois," he said, more calmly than he'd expected.
"Wow. Clark. I just never expected…you…after everything…" she stammered a bit, clutching the door knob tightly and making no move to invite him in. "Just…wow."
"Did I catch you at a bad time?" he asked, again surprising himself with the even, controlled voice that came out of a body completely disconnected with such serenity.
She glanced over her shoulder, as if checking with the room to see if it might be a bad time. "Oh, no. No, this is fine. Um…why don't you come on in?"
He nodded and gave her a smile, then walked past her into the living room. Blinking, he took in the furniture and décor, exactly the same as it had been over half a year earlier. He'd thought it odd that she would choose to move back into her old apartment after Lex's death rather than remain in the penthouse or one of the Luthor estates, but to go so far as to recreate her home as it had been seemed a bit extreme. Then again, people did strange things in the throes of grief.
"Can I get you anything? Coffee?" she asked as she shut the door. "Or tea. You like tea…I remember."
"No, thank you." He glanced at the sofa, wondering if he should sit. He'd rehearsed a lot of what he planned on saying, but he'd forgotten to think about whether he should sit or stand.
"So, hey, let me get a look at you." She walked toward him, her hands clasped in front of her. "You look…great. Have you lost weight?"
"I don't think so." He gave himself a quick perusal. "Maybe. My mom seemed to think I was too skinny, but she always says that…"
Lois shook her head. "No, not too skinny at all. Just…right. Really tan. And your hair."
Instantly his hand flew to the nape of his neck, fingering the thick hair that hung near the top of his shirt. "Oh, yeah. I didn't have time to get it cut. I was planning to –"
"I think it looks great," she said with a smile. "Really…sexy."
He shifted uncomfortably, not expecting to be scrutinized. Certainly not expecting her to find anything about him sexy. "Lois, I guess you're wondering why I'm here –"
"So, where've you been – " she said at the same time
Both of them laughed uncomfortably, and he shoved his hands in his pants pockets.
"Please, sit down," she said, gesturing toward the sofa. As if to further the invitation, she sat down herself and patted the cushion next to her.
With a curt nod, he complied, keeping his knees pointed straight out and away from hers as he readied to start again. He wanted to have his say and get out of there. Being near her, seeing her and hearing her voice was just too hard. The wound that he'd thought was so tightly knit was starting to shred at the seams, and he needed to leave before his heart spilled out onto the floor and she could stomp all over it again.
But before he could begin, she beat him to the punch. "So I guess you've heard about the Planet?"
"Um, yeah. I spoke to Perry a couple of days ago," he said, trying to switch gears and redirect his thoughts. "It's really wonderful that he found an investor. Franklin Stern, isn't it?"
"Yes," she confirmed with an enthusiastic nod. "Media mogul. Kind of resisted at first. Took some convincing, but you know Perry. I think he would have done just about anything to come out of retirement."
"Well, now he won't have to retire for a long time. I'll bet Alice is thankful for that," Clark joked stiffly.
"You just have to see the new building. The bull pen looks exactly like the old Planet, but they finally did away with the leaky toilets and that horrible banging the fan used to make when it kicked on. Remember?"
"Sure. I remember." How could he ever forget? Some of his proudest and saddest moments had occurred at the Planet. Getting his dream job at the greatest paper in the world. Meeting Lois. Earning a Kerth Award. Learning of her intention to marry Luthor. No, as long as he lived he'd remember everything about the Planet.
"Are you…have you given any thought to coming back to work there?" Lois was saying, and he pulled himself out of his memories.
"I only just found out a couple of days ago," he explained with a shrug. "I haven't had time to make any permanent plans yet."
"Well, yeah. I guess it is a pretty big decision," she agreed although her eyes held either surprise or disappointment, he couldn't be sure. "I'm sure you have a ton of other things lined up, so it makes sense that you would weigh all of your options –"
"Lois, I heard what happened. With Lex," he said, interrupting her before she could go on. "I just wanted to come by to tell you I'm sorry."
Licking her lips, she stood silently and walked to the island in the center of her kitchen. For a long minute she didn't speak, and he wondered if maybe he shouldn't have come. Maybe sending a card would have been easier on her. It certainly would have been easier on him.
"I guess I should have listened to you, huh?" she said over her shoulder with a small laugh. "Would have saved myself a lot of headaches."
"That's not why I came," he said, frustration stirring with a tinge of guilt in his belly. "I didn't come to say 'I told you so'."
"Why not? I would if I were you," she admitted, turning around to face him. "You tried to warn me, but I wouldn't listen."
"Sometimes, when we're in love, it's hard to hear the truth," he said quietly, looking down at his hands, clutched tightly as he leaned his elbows on his knees. "So, what happened?"
"Well, let's see. Turns out Lex was pretty much what you said he was. A psychopathic murderer. Thief. Gangster. They had a list as long as my arm of charges against him, including arson of the Daily Planet." She smiled weakly and gave a little shrug. "When the police came to arrest him, he jumped off the penthouse balcony so he wouldn't go to prison."
"Lois, I'm sorry…" He meant it. As angry as he'd been with her for not listening to him, for remaining so stubbornly blind, he wouldn't have wished any of this on her.
"Don't be. Lex hurt a lot of people. He decided his own fate, so how can you feel sorry for him?"
"It's not Lex I feel sorry for," he said softly, pushing down the sudden need to dispel some of the sadness lingering in her dark brown eyes.
"Oh, well, don't feel sorry for me," she dismissed in a surprisingly matter-of-fact tone. "Somehow I managed to land on my feet. Got my old job back. My apartment. Things could have been a lot worse, that's for sure."
"Yeah, and just look at the bright side," he said, trying to find something that might make her smile. "If you ever get tired of working at the Planet, you can always start your own newspaper."
"I'm sorry?" Her finely arched brows lowered in confusion.
"You could start your own paper. The Lane Gazette or maybe the L.L. Tribune," he suggested with a small laugh.
"Well, Perry'd better start paying me a lot more if I ever decide to do that," she said with a little snort. "I'm no Franklin Stern, you know."
"No, you're the widow of the third richest man in the world," he said pointedly, then felt instantly contrite when her eyes flew open wide in shock. With a sudden dawning, he realized that Luthor's assets had probably been frozen pending the outcome of all of the charges levied against him. Maybe she'd found herself in financial straights after he died. Squirming a bit for his insensitive blunder, he conjectured, "Surely, once they release his assets…"
"Widow?" She stared at him, eyes large and face paling perceptibly.
"Yes. Lois, are you all right?"
Her hand lifted to her mouth, and he could see it shaking slightly. "You mean, you don't know?"
"Know what?" Standing, he made to go to her to help her to a chair. She looked as if she were about to faint. But her words stopped him cold.
"I never married Lex."
"What?" he choked after a long second.
"I'm not a widow," she whispered hoarsely. "I never married Lex."
Whoosh! All of the air left his chest, as if he'd been punched hard in the gut. He could feel the blood draining from his own face, and he glanced around for the nearest chair in case he needed it.
"But I saw…" he sputtered, stopping before he confessed that he'd seen her arrive at the wedding ceremony. "…the wedding announcement in the paper."
She shook her head. "It was too late to pull it. You know Lex. Very…efficient."
The room started to tilt, and he stumbled backward to the sofa, grasping the arm as he lowered himself down to it. She wasn't a widow. She had never been married at all.
"Clark? Do you…would you like a glass of water?" Lois asked, concern replacing the stunned look of moments earlier.
He nodded wordlessly, forcing himself to sip the cool liquid when she handed him the glass. Only by concentrating on taking small mouthfuls was he able to maintain some semblance of calm.
When finally he felt able to speak, his voice was shaky. "So when did you…or was it him?"
"No, it was me," she answered, not needing him to clarify. She chuckled sadly. "Waited all the way until after he'd said 'I do.' Figured if I was going to ruin my wedding day, might as well do it with flare."
"I don't understand," he said, more to himself than to her. Why would she have called off her wedding at the last second? He'd almost heard her say her vows. If he'd just waited another minute before flying away, he would have known that she didn't go through with it.
Oh, God. She hadn't gone through with it!
"You asked me that day, remember, in the park?" Lois was saying, and he forced himself to listen over the roaring in his ears. "You asked me if I loved Lex. I didn't know…I mean, I wasn't sure what I felt. But when I was walking down that aisle, with all of those important people watching me and Lex waiting, I realized what the answer to that question was. It was no. I didn't love him."
He remembered that small consolation he'd grabbed onto those last few days before leaving Metropolis. She might not love him, but at least she didn't know what she felt for Lex either. Turns out, she did know what she felt for him. And it wasn't love.
"And even though I'm pretty stupid, not listening to you about what a creep he was and all," Lois went on, "still I was smart enough to know that I couldn't marry one man when I was in love with someone else."
The old bitterness surfaced, her implication making it through to his muddled brain very clearly. Of that one fact, he needed absolutely no reminder. "Superman. I know you love Superman but I –"
"I wasn't thinking about Superman, Clark," she interrupted. "I was thinking about…someone else."
He stared at her, baffled.
"No. I promised myself I wouldn't do this if I ever got the…if I ever saw you again." Lois muttered, almost to herself. She straightened and cleared her throat, looking him directly in the eye. "I wasn't thinking about Superman. I was thinking about you."
"Me?" He clutched the glass tightly, stopping before it shattered in his hands.
"Yes, you." She said clearly, firmly. "When I was walking down that aisle, I kept thinking of all of the times we had together and how much I missed you after the Planet was destroyed. How much I was going to miss you…"
She stopped a minute, as if gathering her thoughts together. Meanwhile, he sat stupefied. Was he supposed to believe that instead of Lex Luthor and instead of Superman, she loved him? Clark Kent? Ordinary man? No. There was something he was missing. He'd been away so long he didn't understand English any more.
But then Lois went on, speaking in the same language that had his stomach tied up in knots. "That day, when you told me that you could lose it all, Jimmy, Perry, the Planet, but it was me that you didn't want to live without. I couldn't stop thinking about what you said. When I thought about what I couldn't live without, it wasn't Lex or my job or Perry that came to mind. It was you. I love –"
He stood up, holding out his hand to stop her. This was all gone way out of control, so far off his rehearsed plan he needed a map to find his way back. Time to just get this over with. "Before you say anything else, there's something I have to tell you."
This was it. He was going to just say it and then give her some time to digest it. She might throw him out, but that was OK. He had places to go. People to see.
"Lois, I –"
She didn't give him a chance, interrupting in a rush. "I was wondering if you happened to bump into Superman while you were gone." When he blinked at her in stunned confusion, she went on. "He took off around the same time you did. Caused quite a stir. As a matter of fact, I saved some of the editorials people wrote after his letter appeared in the Star."
Moving to a small secretary against the wall, she opened a drawer and started rummaging around, speaking over her shoulder as she tried to locate the saved editorials. "Most of them were really supportive, but man, there were a couple of freaks who think that Metropolis owns rights to him or something…"
"Lois…" he tried again, squeezing his temples between his finger and thumb.
Suddenly she whirled around, clutching a wad of newspapers in her fist. "Are you going to tell me where you've been, Clark?"
He thought only a minute before shaking his head. At this point, it wasn't any of her business. "I'd rather not –"
"Because you and Superman have both been gone for over six months." She stared at him, her eyes piercing. "Almost to the day."
He knew then. She knew. She already knew what he'd come all the way back to Metropolis to tell her.
Needing the few seconds it afforded him, he crossed the room and pulled out a chair at her table, sinking into it. He leaned an elbow on the table and started to rub his eyes, wincing when he encountered the glasses. The damn glasses. He'd gotten so used to not wearing them that putting them back on had been harder than almost any other readjustment.
Since there was no point in keeping them on for her sake, he took them off and set them on the table, finishing his gesture of rubbing his eyes. This was all such a mess. Nothing had gone according to his plan. He was supposed to come back to Metropolis, see Lois and give her his regrets over her untimely widowhood. Possibly mention that he was Superman. Face the fact that he still loved her even if she didn't love him and prove to himself that he could still go on to live happily ever after. And then he was supposed to leave. Go back to Colombia and collect Gillian. Get on with his life, whatever that might entail.
But as usual, Lois had screwed up everything. Instead of a bereaved widow, he found an unmarried woman. And instead of revealing his secret to her shock and dismay, she already knew. Had apparently known for quite some time. He couldn't even think about the love stuff yet.
So what next? Had she had time to digest it? That was the next step in his plan, and until he knew where he stood on that score, he was at a loss.
When he sat back in the seat, his face free of the glasses for the first time in front of her, she gasped audibly, her hand flying to cover her mouth. "Oh, my God," she whispered.
He remained unaffected, too numb to appreciate her amazement. "How did you figure it out?"
"I don't think it takes an award winning journalist to put two and two together." She glanced away, as if embarrassed that she was staring at him. It didn't last long, her gaze quickly returning to his naked face. "Well, that's not quite true. It wasn't that easy, but once I sat down and started to think about it, it all made so much sense. All of the weird disappearances. The fact that I couldn't remember ever seeing you and Superman in the same place at the same time. Other…things, connections. Smallville, for one."
"Yeah, I figured that whole Trask fiasco would come back to haunt me," he said without humor.
"Why didn't you tell me?" she asked.
"When? When was I supposed to tell you?" he snapped. "Back in the beginning when I didn't know who I could trust? Or later, after I fell in love with you but you already had stars in your eyes?"
Her eyes flashed. "Why didn't you tell me when I stood right over there and told you that I loved you?"
"Because, you stood right over there and told me that you loved Superman," he retorted hotly.
"But you are Superman," she insisted with a hiss.
"No, I'm not. I'm Clark Kent," he said, the heat of his anger seven months ago coming at him full throttle. "When you told Superman that you'd love him even if he was an ordinary man leading an ordinary life, you were wrong. Because you didn't love me, and I'm the ordinary man that Superman would be without any of his powers."
"That's where you're wrong. I did love the ordinary man. I just didn't…" she paused, struggling to find the words, "…know it at the time."
"And when did you know it? After you put two and two together?" It all made sense now. Of course. Her sudden change in heart. That she thought she loved him once she realized he was Superman.
But Lois shook her head vehemently. "No. Before. For crying out loud, I called off my own wedding at a pretty crucial moment because I realized who it was that I really loved."
"That's a grand gesture, to be sure," he said. "Still, I can only wonder what changed your mind from the point when you told me you didn't have romantic feelings for me to deciding that you loved me. Especially after telling Superman that you wouldn't marry Lex if he told you there was any chance of a future for the two of you."
"You don't believe me?"
"I want to believe you," he said, meaning it so sincerely it hurt. "But I'm sure you can see why it's really hard."
"That's why I didn't try to find you. Believe me, I thought about tracking you down. But after what I said, I knew there was no way you'd ever believe me if I came to you and told you I was wrong. That I was sorry, and that I do love you."
"You're right," he said flatly. "I wouldn't have believed you."
"And now? Do you believe me now?" she asked.
"A lot of things have changed, Lois," he said. "I'm not the same person I was six months ago."
Her arms crossed over her chest, a frown marring her smooth features. "Well maybe you'd better tell me who you are now, because after everything I've been through since I've met you, I don't know if I can handle adding another person to the mix."
"That's not really very funny," he said, irritated that she'd joke about something like that.
"I'm not laughing, Clark. I think I'm entitled to a little bit of anger, too, you know. In a way, you really played me for a fool. Letting me think that you were two separate people and not saying a word when I went on and on about Superman." Her color rose as she launched into her list of grievances. "Can you imagine how mortified I was when I finally realized who you really were?"
Her expressed humiliation took him aback. He'd been so wrapped up in his own bruised feelings he hadn't given a lot of thought to her possible responses. Anger he'd expected, but not so much embarrassment. Feeling a bit more contrite, he tried to explain. "I never intended for that to happen. When I made the decision to become Superman, I never expected to have that problem, and I didn't know how to handle it."
"It really hurt that you didn't trust me," she went on, not completely appeased. "I thought we were friends. Good friends."
"We were. I didn't mean to hurt you," he apologized. "And I'm sorry if it seemed I distrusted you. I guess when you live your life hiding a big part of yourself from everyone you meet, it becomes second nature."
"Well sure," she agreed, "but once I started mooning over Superman, that might have been a good time to mention your connection."
"By then I'd fallen in love with you and you'd fallen in love with him," he said somewhat defensively. He grabbed on to the indignation, trying to fuel the small flame so that he could get back on course. "I'm sorry that I kept secrets from you. But not for the reasons you might think. I'm sorry because in doing that, I cheated myself. I wanted so bad for you to love me as a normal man that I sold myself short. I'm not a normal man."
"I know that," she retorted, then calmed slightly. "I just wish I would have known it before…"
"Before what, Lois? Would it have made a difference in your feelings?" he asked, really wanting to know the answer. "Would you have loved Clark more because he was Superman or Superman less because he was Clark? Either way, you didn't love the entire man."
"Yes, I did," she insisted stridently, desperately. "Because the things I love in Superman are the exact same things I love in you. Integrity. Bravery. Amazingly stupid optimism. And, Clark, that's not just a coincidence. It's like seeing a dress in a store and thinking you really love it, come to find out you already own the same dress. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"I think so," he said, then shook his head. Dresses and him being stupidly optimistic. "I don't know."
"I would love you if you didn't have any powers because it's not the powers that make you special. It's a lot more. But you wouldn't be the you that you are without them," she explained, placing a hand on his arm. "You can't separate yourself into two halves and insist that I love one without the other."
He swallowed, turning and striding to the window, not able to bear the heat of her hand on his arm. Of all the things that she'd said, her last statement hit him the hardest. That's exactly what he'd tried to do. What he'd regretted most, and what he'd come back to explain to her. But she'd already figured it out for herself. And if she understood, it was possible, believable even, that her claims of love were genuine. Maybe she did love more than just the façade.
"You were going to tell me, weren't you?" she said from behind him. "A little bit ago. If I wouldn't have told you that I'd figured out you were Superman, you were going to tell me yourself."
"Yes," he said, turning around to face her.
"Because I'm not ashamed of being Clark Kent. I don't feel like I have to apologize for that part of myself anymore. It's who I am."
That was it. What he'd spent six months stacking adobe bricks in order to find out.
He took a deep breath. "And now you know everything there is to know about me. I've laid all of my cards on the table, and after that, how you feel is out of my control. I needed to know that I was completely honest with you so I could move on with my life."
She stared at him for a minute, sinking down on to the sofa but never pulling her gaze from his face.
"And what does that mean? Moving on?" she asked, her voice breaking slightly. "Are you leaving again?"
"I haven't decided yet…" he said, more confused that he'd ever been in his whole life.
"Would you stay?" She swallowed. "If I asked you to, would you stay for me?"
Once again, the air left his lungs.
<*Would you go home if I asked you to?*>
<*Would you go home if I asked you to?*>
Was it really less than a week ago that he'd posed nearly the very same question? In a completely different place? In a completely different lifetime? The pure poetry of the situation staggered him.
Clark wanted to laugh. In the course of one conversation, every reason he'd had for coming back had been shot down and replaced with a million reasons why he should run screaming in the other direction. He'd come back to Metropolis intending to place the final nail in the coffin of his dead dreams. Instead he'd discovered that he'd abandoned them too soon, leaving them comatose only to return and find them alive in the form of Lois's hopes and declarations of love.
She was asking him to stay. And if he allowed himself to believe her, it was because she loved him. Even the 'nothing' part. Much like he'd felt seven months earlier, when he'd stood in that very room trying not to let the sight of her in her silk negligee distract him from saying the hardest thing he'd ever had to say, he wanted desperately to believe her now. Believe that she loved the ordinary man, not just the superhero.
His face must have displayed his dismay, because her hopeful expression darkened, disappointment and a sadness filling her mocha eyes. He thought he detected the glitter of tears, but before he could say a word, she spoke.
"I see. I mean, of course things have changed," she said knowingly, taking a step back as if it all made sense. "After all, it's been a while. And you probably feel a lot differently about me now, after everything that's happened. I understand why you don't want to stay. You don't love me anymore."
"I've changed, not my feelings," he admitted ruefully.
And that was the crux of it. He'd come back because he still loved her. So much that he couldn't forget it or bury it or run away from it. He'd come back to face it. Surrender to it. But never had he expected to have it returned in kind.
It all started to sink in. The significance of everything she'd told him. Lois had stopped her wedding to Lex because she loved him. Not Superman, but him. For a year he'd wanted nothing more, and she was placing it all at his feet. Problem was, now he wasn't sure what to do with such a bounty.
"What do you want, Lois? From me?" he asked. He needed to know what she expected. Never could he go back to the way things had been, nor would he settle for friendship or a working relationship. Not with her. It was far too late to cross back over that line.
"I want a chance to start all over. From the beginning." She said, almost pleaded. "I love you, and I want a chance to see where that takes us."
Something deep in his heart awakened and bloomed. For all the heartache Lois had caused him, she'd never lied to him. She'd always been honest about her feelings, brutally so. Or at least as far as she herself had understood them.
Now he had a choice to make. He could trust her, believe that she did love him. Or he could turn and walk out the door, never to see her again.
The heat from her body crossed the space between them and made him feel dizzy. The way he'd always felt when she was so close. Taking a deep breath, he steadied himself, shaking his head. He couldn't start from the beginning. It was too late for that, his feelings for her too strong.
"Not from the beginning," he said.
"No, from this point on. No secrets. All of you getting to know all of me, and vice versa," she said. "Do you think we could do that? Make this into something?"
There was a lot of risk. If he stayed, there was no guarantee that things would work out between them. He could end up no better than he'd been seven months earlier. But deep inside, he knew that that wasn't truly the case. Like he'd told her, he was a different person now. Stronger. Capable of seeing around his love for her if necessary.
Except that now she was saying it wasn't necessary. She was asking him to stay because she loved him.
"I don't know. I guess it would take some time," he said. Time for them both to start all over again, learning to trust each other.
"Does that mean you're staying?" she asked, her voice tinged with hope. "You'll come back to the Planet with me?"
Had Gillian known it, when she told him not to make her any promises about his return? Because in all his imaginings, the hundred or so what-ifs he'd never taken to the next level, staying in Metropolis to explore a future – a romantic future – with Lois had not seemed thinkable.
Yet here he was. On the edge of the tempest. Clouds of pain and heart break gathered in an intimidating swirl before him. Yet through their mass he could glimpse the eye of the storm, clear and so bright he nearly couldn't look upon it. If they could do it, he and Lois, make their way beyond the gray unknown, the future broke open like a blue mid-summer's day.
For six months he'd run away from a future without her. It was asinine to keep running now. He'd lost his excuse.
If he were to walk away, he'd have no one to blame but himself. If he didn't enter the fray and see where it led, he'd never know what joy was hidden beyond. Would always wonder. And regret.
"Yeah," he agreed, testing out the decision and finding that it felt solid enough for the moment. "I'll stay."
"Good," she said, and this time the million watt smile was dazzling, genuine.
Having reached a fragile acceptance, they smiled at each other awkwardly, neither one of them quite sure what to do next. Finally biology kicked in, giving him something to say.
"Listen, I'm starving." He glanced at the door, thinking. Taking the next step. "Do you want to go get something to eat? Catch me up on all the gossip at the Planet?"
"Yeah. I'd like that." In a sudden flurry of purpose, she snatched her coat off the hook by the door, smiling warmly when he took it from her hands and held it open so that she could shoulder it on. "That's a beautiful bracelet."
He glanced at his wrist, the rainbow braid dangling beneath the cuff of his denim button up. He smiled softly to himself, remembering dark brown eyes and a sweet, shy face. "Thanks. Someone special gave it to me."
"Oh. That's nice," she said, looking at him carefully. With a small shrug, she tossed off her curiosity. "So, what are you in the mood for? Chinese? Italian? Maybe some Mexican?"
"Pizza," he stated firmly. "I'd really like some pizza."
For the next few days he went about the business of re- establishing the life of Clark Kent, trying it back on to see if it still fit.
Sub-leasers occupied his apartment, and although his landlord assured him they could be out of the place by the end of the month with little inconvenience, he didn't want to displace them. Not yet. This was a test drive, after all. He wasn't ready to commit to the purchase.
So he set up living quarters in a hotel a far cry nicer than the one he'd first lived in, that long ago time when he'd arrived in Metropolis jobless and friendless. Even if it hadn't been, the fact that his room had a bath with running water and more than one lamp made it seem like a palace.
He spent the first couple of nights tossing and turning on the soft mattress, the bed almost too large after months on the narrow pallet. At least that's the excuse he gave himself for the sleeplessness that plagued him. Or perhaps it was the quiet, the steady hum of the room's fan almost invisible compared to the sounds of insects and creatures of the Colombian forests.
Lois offered to let him stay at her place, but he declined, detecting a tinge of relief in her eyes when he did so. They needed to move slowly, and the forced intimacy of sharing her space might have caused more problems than it would have solved.
Instead he made the best of the hotel, determined that once he was back in his own apartment and in his own bed, sleep would come more easily. This was just all part of the adjustment.
Setting up his home at the new Daily Planet proved much easier.
A brand new desk set in precisely the old position created the best of both worlds, as did most of the features of the new Planet offices. Gone were the annoying idiosyncrasies inherent in older buildings, instead everything updated and offering the latest in modern technology. Yet still the place retained the ramshackle feel of the bustling newsroom that it was, avoiding the sterility of environments like LNN.
Perry kept them busy with meetings and brainstorming sessions, even going so far as to assign them a fairly hefty story. The thrill of investigative reporting trilled through his veins, and only then did he realize how much he'd missed it.
Jimmy and Jack, fully exonerated of the allegations Luthor had levied against him, welcomed their buddy back with boisterous back thumps and quickly made plans to take in a Metropolis Spurs game. To Clark's relief, they respected his silence on where he'd been and what he'd been up to over the past seven months, filling the awkward moments with plenty of anecdotes about their own misadventures. By the end of the first day, it was as if he hadn't been gone at all.
It felt good to see his friends. Good to be home, Clark realized with a mixture of gratification and pure terror.
He and Lois performed an odd dance, walking tenuously on egg shells with a veneer of stiff politeness giving their interactions an artificial shininess. It was as if both of them feared upsetting each other in any way, and the tension increased until Clark could almost touch it.
Finally, the pin dropped after nearly a full week, when they'd been struggling to put the final pieces together on a major exposé involving stolen paintings from the Metropolis Museum of Fine Art. They'd returned to her apartment after several dead end leads, hoping they could make sense out of the random chunks of information they'd managed to pull together.
Lois sat at the kitchen table, rapping her pencil against its surface impatiently while Clark read through the first draft.
"Lois, you can't write this," he argued, shaking his head as he shifted to the second hand-written page of notes.
"Yes, I can," she retorted. "I have three sources that confirm the guy accepted over a half million dollars to smuggle those paintings out of the country."
He shook his head angrily, tossing his own pencil on the table. "And another three people who swear that those paintings were purchased legally by Delarue's father. He just might have been sending them to his family's ancestral estate like he claims."
"Likely story," she snorted. "It's this guy's word against the MMFA's director and art historian, and the customs agent who saw the crates being loaded on that boat in the middle of the night."
"Three people of whom two had a beef with Delarue when he pulled his healthy contribution to the museum after they wouldn't give him rightful ownership of the paintings," he said pointedly. "Their motives are a bit suspect. They stood to get a pretty fat insurance check if those paintings were stolen."
"So you're saying he was framed?"
"I'm saying it's possible. At this point, we don't know if these sources are on the level."
"You are still so naïve," she said, shaking her head as she stacked her notes purposefully.
"And you are still impossible to work with!" he blurted, surprised by the hot flush of anger that swept through him.
His intense reaction didn't make much sense. They'd argued over story issues before, but this was different and he couldn't quite put his finger on why. It was as if something had simmered deep inside of him ever since he'd agreed to stay, and with her stubbornness, she'd just cranked the burner up to high.
"You know, Clark," she said heatedly, "I do have a little bit more experience than you. And if I say that these sources are reliable, I think you'd do fine to believe me."
"That's your problem, Lois. You think you know everything." The papers he'd crumpled slightly with the force of his irritation followed the pencil to land on the table, one of them wafting to the floor.
"Oh yeah?" She stood, shoving her chair away from the table. "Well maybe I do! Did you ever stop to think about that?"
Crossing his arms over his chest, he adopted a suspiciously Superman-like pose. "Just like you knew everything about Luthor? Look where that got you."
"What, it took you a whole week to bring that up? I'm impressed," she snorted. "Just go ahead and say it, Clark. You've been itching since you got back here to tell me that you were right and I was wrong."
He felt a bit guilty because at one point he had wanted to gloat a bit. But he didn't apologize, instead recognizing his anger for what it was. Residual frustration with her for being so stubborn even in the face of her own possible ruination. For nearly going through with a marriage that would have destroyed her all because she was too hard-headed for her own good. And it seemed that even after all that had happened, she hadn't changed a bit.
But he had changed, and this time he wouldn't back down.
"I'm not saying anything about who was wrong or right," he offered in way of small appeasement. "I'm just saying that maybe sometimes you need to listen to other people. Especially when they know what they're talking about."
Her eyes snapped. "Well who's to blame for that? You know, you could have come to me and told me that the reason you knew Luthor was a crook was because you were Superman."
"And why would Superman's word have held more power than mine?" he countered. "You would have trusted him but not me? Your best friend and the man who'd told you that he loved you? Sorry, I didn't see any point in it. You seemed pretty determined to have Luthor one way or the other, even if it meant ignoring the truth."
"Yeah, well maybe I didn't want to trust you," she said.
"What?" he asked, not anticipating her statement. He'd expected more in the way of further admonishment for not taking that one step in trying to convince her not to marry Luthor. He'd long added it to his list of regrets for how he'd handled the entire situation, wondering if he shouldn't have used Superman's sway over her.
Lois took a deep breath, then after a moment, let everything out in a rush. "If I trusted you, then I would have had to admit that Lex was a scumbag and the only reason I even agreed to marry him was –"
When she stopped cold, he prodded. "Was why, Lois?"
She licked her lips and crossed her arms over her chest. "Was because I was afraid."
All of his anger was replaced with curiosity mixed with disbelief. What in the world could possibly scare Lois Lane? "Afraid of what?"
"Of my feelings for you," she said. "I was so confused. And scared to death because the last time I felt like this about someone, I ended up alone and heart broken. And what I felt then was only a tiny crumb compared to the way I feel about you now."
"So you agreed to marry Luthor just because you were afraid of being in love with me?"
"It's a lot easier to run away from someone if you have someone else to run to," she said with a shrug, and he felt dizzy with understanding. He'd noticed the exact same thing seven months earlier, during his flight from Metropolis.
She went on. "I tried to run to Superman, but he turned me down flat. Lex wanted me. And even if I did suspect that maybe something wasn't quite right, he seemed to…love me. In his way."
"Geez, Lois," he said, uncertain what to think. Her admission did much to humble him. She'd been so afraid of her own feelings she'd been willing to marry probably the most dangerous man around simply to avoid them.
He felt an overwhelming need to protect her, suddenly seeing her as far more fragile than he'd ever imagined. Underneath her tough exterior and bravado existed a woman who held a lot of self doubts and more than a little uncertainty about her own worth. That she'd been so wounded in the past nearly broke his heart, and the tenderness he felt towards her multiplied exponentially. She was exposing that woman he'd first glimpsed so long ago, that very first week they'd worked together. The one who'd instantly captivated him. The woman he'd fallen in love with.
But Lois didn't seem to expect pity or comfort. She stood before him admitting to her weaknesses and owning them outright. Maybe she had changed after all.
"I know, Clark. Don't you think I know I made a mistake?" she said, then rolled her eyes. "OK, a lot of mistakes. Believe me, I had plenty of time to make lists while you were gone."
"I'm sorry," he said and truly meant it. "I didn't mean to make you feel bad. I admit I was pretty angry that you ignored my warnings. But I never wanted things to end up like they did."
"You know the worst part about it? Besides Lex jumping off that balcony and learning that I'd been engaged to a murdering megalomaniac? It was that you were gone." She sniffed, swiping a hand over her cheek as she tried to still her trembling lip. "I didn't even have my best friend around to talk to."
At that, he couldn't resist the urge to comfort her, closing the distance between them and drawing her tight against his chest. It felt so good, holding her close and smelling her familiar scent. His hand moved to cup the back of her head and stroke her hair.
"I'm sorry," he apologized. "I wasn't a good friend. I can only tell you that it wasn't the friend part of me that was thinking back then. It was my heart, and it had been pretty much shattered into about a million pieces."
"I know, and I'm sorry I did that to you," she mumbled, her words muffled against his shirt. "But did you have to disappear for so long? I didn't know if I'd ever see you again."
He paused, trying to find words to explain the myriad emotions that had driven him to cut himself off from everything and everyone associated with her and the overwhelming pain he'd felt at the time. "Yeah, I had to go. I needed time. Some space away from Metropolis and all of the memories here."
"Away from me?" she said, the question asked into his shoulder.
He nodded, his cheek rubbing against her silky brown head. "I thought I'd lost you forever, and I didn't know how to deal with that reality. I had to find a way to go on. A reason to wake up every morning all while knowing I wouldn't see you. I meant it when I said that I could lose everything except for you. So when I thought you'd married Luthor, nothing seemed to have any purpose any more. Especially me."
She pulled back, and he felt the pang of disappointment, the chill against his chest where her warm body had been more than just the coolness of the air between them. It was as if in moving that single step away, she'd taken a part of him with her, and he missed it already.
"But what if you get angry at me again? Or if we have a big fight or you stop loving me?" she asked, and he was touched by the fear in her eyes. "I'm afraid you'll just take off again, and I won't know where to find you."
"I promise. I won't ever leave again unless you know why I'm leaving," he vowed.
And with a hard swallow, he added the words that sealed not only his fate but that of another.
"And I'll always come back. Because I love you."
She nodded, accepting his promise. Placing her hands on his chest, she smiled. "I love you, too."
The air was heavy with the weight of new promise, and their fresh beginning started at that very moment.
But something still troubled her, and he thought he knew what it might be. When she started, "It just seems like since you've been back –"
"– we've been tiptoeing around each other," he finished easily.
"Yeah. I'm not used to worrying about if I might make you mad or not." She grinned. "It's not in my nature to be this nice to you all the time."
He laughed, reveling in the familiar teasing that used to come so naturally and now seemed to have returned. "You don't have to worry about it, Lois. It's pretty much guaranteed that it's going to happen sooner or later."
"So this is all part of the starting over. Our first fight?"
"I guess so. We did it. We got mad, hollered a bit, and forgave each other."
Her dark eyes locked with his, her meaning clear when she asked, "Have you? Forgiven me, I mean?"
He realized then that he had. Forgiven her. For breaking his heart. For making mistakes. The very fact that he'd agreed to stay in Metropolis in the first place, wanted to stay, showed him how much easier it had been than he'd thought it would be. How right it had been for him to come back.
"Yeah," he said, then needed to know the same of her. She hadn't been the only one who'd made mistakes. "How about you?"
She nodded. "Yeah."
After a long, magic moment, Lois cleared her throat. Turning to the table, she picked up the pages he'd tossed down. "But I still plan to go with what I have here. These three sources are irrefutable."
"Don't even start!" he warned with a laugh and joined her at the table.
After that afternoon, every minute he didn't spend at the Planet he spent with Lois, getting to know each other all over again. They had dinner together almost every night, often taking home a video or bent over their work as they sat at her kitchen table. They'd crossed the bridge and found that it supported their weight.
With frightening ease, they slipped back into their partnership. They started finishing each other's sentences again. Drawing knowing smirks from Perry and Jimmy, they lapsed into the odd habit of anticipating the other's thoughts and reactions with eerie accuracy. Lane and Kent were back on the beat, stronger than ever.
But there were changes. Significant ones. Touches were no longer platonic, held a second or two longer than would have been appropriate between mere business partners or even good friends. He felt her watching him, and when he turned to meet her stare, she blushed yet held his gaze steadily. While she'd always had the power to make his heart race, now, being near her, he felt surrounded in electricity, the current between them so strong he wondered it didn't appear in neon blue lightning bolts, a mad scientist's experiment gone right.
The feelings no longer flowed in only one direction, and that knowledge filled him with a heady joy.
In truth, the hardest thing about rejoining the bustling society of Metropolis was becoming a superhero again. Off the cuff excuses for sudden disappearances once again became a part of his life. His demeanor as Superman regained its formality, its somewhat detached confidence. He'd had to put the glasses back on.
In this world, there wasn't a way for him to be just Clark Kent if he wanted to continue to help people. His dual identity and the secrets it involved were necessary for reasons both practical and personal. Yet having tasted the sweetness of pure freedom, of being all of who he was twenty four hours a day, returning to the suit held little appeal.
Except now he shared the burden with someone. Lois had joined the small club of those who knew the whole of Clark Kent. And in her knowing, he was no longer alone in his hiding. He'd be able to make the split, to re-divide the two parts of himself into the necessary components, because where it really mattered, in her heart, he was one man.
As the details of his life fell neatly back into place, Clark turned to look inside himself. He'd settled his score with the future, no longer fearing it. No longer avoiding it. With or without Lois, he would be able to handle what it held for him. She had the power to break his heart, but unlike a time not so long ago, she no longer had the power to break him. No one did.
But there was a piece of his life that lingered still in timelessness, not a part of the future and not yet relegated to the past. As the days became weeks, he finally had to admit that his sleeplessness could not be blamed on mattresses or white noise but on the gnawing ache in his heart. A mixture of guilt and sorrow and longing, it dimmed everything in his world.
Even if he hadn't, Gillian had known when she'd sent him home that he'd have to make a choice. But where she'd had the courage to face the pain such a choice might inflict on her, he'd pushed his own deep down inside, choosing to ignore it in light of the newfound happiness he and Lois shared.
But he knew that such happiness could not come without sacrifice and pain, both his own and that of a woman who deserved nothing more than his love. Unlike his own anguish seven months earlier, he couldn't run from it this time because it was not his alone. He'd owed it to himself to find his own road into the future, and now he owed it to her to set her free to find her way as well.
Before he could reclaim the here and now, he had to face the hurt and let it go. He had to return to Colombia.
The night before he left, he and Lois took in a movie and dinner. When they reached her apartment, he was reluctant to leave, feeling the need to impress upon himself all of the feelings she stirred within him so he would be able to keep his resolve. He was about to break a woman's heart and big part of his own as well, and he needed to know without a doubt why he was doing it.
Finally, he could linger no longer without explanation. She walked him to the door, and he placed a gentle kiss on her forehead. Stroking her cheek with his thumb, he studied her face carefully, committing every cell to memory so that he could call it up when he needed to. And he was going to need to.
"What's that look for?" she asked, her brows raised in concern. "You look like you're about to face your execution."
He shook his head and gave her a small smile. "Listen, I have to leave tomorrow morning. Will you meet me in Smallville for Thanksgiving?"
Her smooth forehead wrinkled with a frown. "You'll be gone that long?"
"It's only a couple of days," he said, offering her only the barest explanation. "I have some loose ends I need to take care of."
She nodded slowly, searching his face for a long moment before looking down at her hands, clasped in front of her. "Are you going to tell me where you're going?" she asked softly, almost a whisper.
"No." There was no point in telling her. She'd start asking questions he had no intention of answering. At least not yet.
"Does one of those loose ends have to do with the person who gave you that bracelet?"
"Your bracelet." She pointed to his left wrist, and he instantly began to finger the thick braid that still hung there. A constant reminder of the journey he'd traveled. "You mentioned that someone pretty special gave it to you."
"Oh, yeah," he said, amused by her hinted jealousy, so refreshing for a change since it came from her instead of him. "She was. Beautiful dark eyes. Long, raven black hair. Smile that just melted my heart."
"Oh," she said to her feet. "I see. I mean, it's OK. I understand. You were gone for a long time. And you thought I'd married Lex, so it's only natural that maybe you'd meet someone else."
Instantly he felt contrite, not wanting to make her worry, especially about Eva. "Lois, the girl who gave me this bracelet was all of six years old."
"Clark, we've made a clean start," she said, lifting her face to reveal eyes that contained a plea. "I don't want any secrets. If there was someone else, I'd want to know."
He wanted to reassure her. It wasn't a secret, not in the sense that it was something he was trying to hide or felt guilty about. But he struggled to find the words to explain and realized that, at least for now, he couldn't. He wouldn't let his relationship with Gillian be reduced to something Lois might construe as a fling he'd had on the rebound. Gillian had meant far too much to occupy such a trivial position in his history. Would always mean too much.
His time out of time was still too personal, his pain too imminent.
"What happened to me…and who I met…none of it is a secret," he said, doing the best he could to explain something he still held so closely to his heart. "But it's mine. Something that I'm not ready to share yet. What really matters is that I came back to you. And I'll come back again. Can you trust me?"
She nodded, not insisting for more although her eyes held a vulnerability that he'd never seen in them before. "And when you come back, what happens then?"
If he'd learned nothing in his months in San Pablo, it was that the future was a mystery. You never knew what would come in the next month or week, or even day. Never look past the next batch of cured adobe bricks when you're rebuilding your life.
"I'm not sure," he admitted, giving her a warm smile to soften his honesty. "I guess we see where this goes."
She bit her lip, then nodded. But he could see her lip tremble slightly. Drawing her into his arms, he held her tightly against his chest, letting their heartbeats synchronize into one rhythm.
When he felt her relaxing, the confidence in his embrace seeping through to assure her of his unwavering feelings for her, he pulled back enough to look down into her face. Her beautiful, heart stopping face.
His breath hitched tight in his chest, and the moment he'd waited so long to reach finally arrived. Lowering his head just enough to meet hers already rising in anticipation, he kissed her then. Long and slow, sweet and tender. All of him in one person, the man she loved.
The warmth reached in and filled his entire body. And as her lips responded, moving surely against his own, it infused him with courage. It made him see for certain that as hard as it was going to be, he was doing what he had to do.
Gillian had worked her way into his heart. But Lois had already staked a claim on his soul.
"Gillian?" he called out, knocking on the door but not waiting for an invitation to enter since it was unlocked. The old familiarity came easily. "Gills –"
The words died on his lips as he took in the empty room.
Antonio must have been in earlier that morning, or more likely Alicia, for everything was very tidy. The mosquito netting was tied back over the neatly made bed, chairs tucked under the table and counter clear of clutter. Even her books were lined up in a fairly straight line upon their shelves. But as always, the layer of microscopic dust that permeated everything was too thick. The whole room needed a good dusting.
Leaving her house, he darted up the road toward the clinic. He slowed only as he passed his old shack, still leaning to the left. For a brief second, he thought of going inside. Not because he'd left anything behind, but because he wanted to know that it still looked the same. Faded posters and torn screens. The yellowed paperbacks resting on the shelf, the narrow pallet with its pancake pillow. All waiting for him.
With a shake of his head, he decided to stop back later. Once more, before he left for good. But first he had to see Gillian.
The shout stopped him before he could turn down the path leading to the clinic's front door. He lifted a hand in greeting as Jeff trotted toward him. Dried stucco coated Jeff's bare arms, a smudge of the thick, white paste dabbed on his dark cheek.
"Hey, Jeff!" Clark greeted him, holding out a hand and then drawing the thin man into a tight hug, thumping his back affectionately.
"Wow, look at you," Jeff said when they pulled out of their embrace. "Clean shaven and a hair cut. Bet you've even had a shower or two. You look almost civilized."
Clark laughed. "Yeah, this look goes better with the suit."
He'd changed into his volunteer clothes immediately upon landing, not wanting to scare any of the children with the *Diablo* cape. And he had to admit that slipping on the old Tevas felt pretty good. It was actually somewhat disconcerting how good it all felt. How comfortably familiar.
"So you're wearing the suit again?" Jeff asked with a knowing wink.
"It's not the same out there as it is here. I need it…" Clark started to explain but decided it was far too complicated. And he wanted to keep this part of his life as simple as possible. "It's a long story."
"Then I'm guessing you're not staying for long?" Jeff asked. His smile was warm, but something flickered in his eyes, and Clark guessed that he already knew the answer to that question.
"Afraid not," he said, genuinely sorry. "I have to get back. I've got…people…expecting me."
Clark felt a pang of guilt, his vagueness deliberate. Jeff's loyalties would always lie with Gillian, and after Clark broke her heart, the man might not feel as kindly toward Clark as he did at that moment. It made his return mission all the more painful, losing Jeff's respect a regret he felt keenly. Jeff had become a good friend. Would always be a good friend.
But for the moment, Jeff apparently didn't know what Clark was about to do because he nodded his understanding. "Well, you're going to be missed. Come to Rosita's with me for a final shot of *chicha*?"
Clark shook his head regretfully. This had to be done quickly, before he lost his nerve. "I need to talk to Gillian. Is she up at the clinic?"
He took a few steps up the path, not waiting for confirmation.
"She's not there." Jeff called out, stopping him before he got very far.
Clark felt a slight flicker of irritation before he squelched it. Every second that he had to wait made his heart ache all the more, prolonging the inevitable. And he wanted to see her. Missed her. "Is she at the school? Not in Piendamó, I hope?"
"Sam, I didn't know where to send word…" Jeff stammered, "…didn't know how to get a hold of you…"
The flicker that Clark had noticed in Jeff's dark eyes became more pronounced, more of a glistening that made the hairs on the back of Clark's neck stand on end. And he noticed then a pale weariness in the slump of his friend's shoulders. He tensed. "Where is she?"
"Two days after you left, we got word that André had been wounded," Jeff said flatly. "The FARC wouldn't bring him back here, so Gillian got it into her head to go and get him."
<…*because my eyes aren't brown*…>
Clark's voice was a choked whisper. "Oh, God, she was kidnapped?"
He stated it as a question, but deep inside, he already knew the answer. He thought instantly of her parents, his chest constricting painfully. Did they have that kind of money? Where could he get it if they didn't?
Jeff continued. "She took Henriqué and José with her, along with as much cash as we could get our hands on…"
The words came at him in bits and pieces as his mind raced. Where should he begin searching? The camp…
"…less than ten miles away…two horses…"
He'd fly low, use his x-ray vision. Search every cave…
"…figured they could fetch him while she held back, stayed hidden…"
<…*these Latino men. For some reason, they seem to find light hair exotic*…>
Oh, God. What if he was too late, and they…Struggling, he fought against the hysteria climbing up his throat. He had to stay calm…
"…André's injuries…camp already deserted…"
He'd get her back. Then he'd make her go home with him. No more excuses.
"…get out of camp, the paramilitaries showed up…"
Jeff's words penetrated his thoughts like knives.
<…*I've heard horror stories about what these paramilitaries have done to civilians…they won't even take the time to listen to the story much less care*…>
"Don't…" Clark warned as an icy coldness enveloped his body. "Jeff…don't…"
But Jeff didn't listen. He kept talking. Wouldn't stop talking.
"Gillian was shot."
The world started to spin wildly, and Clark felt the overwhelming need to sit down.
"No. No, that's not possible. She was with the ICRC. There was a red cross on her ID. They're not supposed to touch people with red crosses."
"Sam, she died," Jeff insisted firmly.
"She didn't *die*," he insisted just as firmly. "They took her somewhere, and I'll just go find her and get her back."
"I saw it…" Jeff cried, strangled. "Her. I saw her body, Sam."
Clark shook his head, refusing to believe it. Jeff was wrong. She was at the clinic, giving Lourdes a lecture on safe sex or in Roberto's cellar playing gin rummy. Or running between wax palms trying to catch dark blue butterflies…
The nausea blindsided him, and he barely made it to the edge of the forest before his stomach emptied. Retching heaves mingled with sobs, choking him with their violence. Taking deep breaths, he slashed the back of his hand across his mouth, shaking, then glanced around frantically. This wasn't happening. Hadn't happened. But the thick vegetation spreading beyond and into infinity remained silent and empty.
"Nooo!" His anguished bellow ripped through the forest, sending all of the birds within a mile radius soaring into the sky.
Unable to contain the overwhelming grief that flooded through him, he placed his hands on the broad trunk of a palm and shoved. Roots tore from the ground, the towering tree falling in slow motion. Three more trees met the same fate. When it became clear that he could knock down every tree in Colombia and feel no better, he sank to the ground, burying his face in his hands.
He'd come to say good-bye, but now he couldn't because she'd left first. God. He couldn't stand it. He'd been ready to give her up. But he wasn't ready to give her back. She was supposed to live on. Be happy. She'd said it herself. You couldn't avoid the future.
But she'd found a way. Butterflies that never made it over the Andes and Gillian Brooks. But Gillian wasn't a butterfly. She was a woman.
With a sob of anguish, he raged against every person who'd ever lived. Against her brother, Chris, so selfish in his need to take her with him to an early death that he wouldn't release his hold on her.
Against Lois, for making Clark love her so much he couldn't stay.
Against Gillian for her obsession with this place. Her rash disregard to her own worth, valuing everyone over herself until there was no her left.
Against the people of Colombia, who'd done this to her. Or allowed it to happen. Didn't they know what they were stealing from the world?
Against himself. For leaving her. He choked back a sob.
He'd left her there.
And now the gray eyes were forever closed, unseeing. The bright smile silenced. His haven was lost, it was she that had made it so. How could this be happening? How could he have let it happen?
Jeff watched him from a distance, and when finally Clark lifted his head to give him a tormented stare, the tall man turned and walked up the path, disappearing into the clinic and closing the door behind him.
How long he remained on the ground Clark had no idea. It might have been hours or seconds. Only after he became aware of the clammy wetness from the forest floor seeping through the knees of his pants did he think of getting up. And it took many long minutes after that to muster the strength to stand. Finally, possessing only a miniscule grasp on the emotions warring within him, he staggered to the clinic.
Henriqué, who'd had the foresight to play dead after the paramilitaries had shot him clean through the thigh and upper arm, remained in the clinic's single bed recovering from his agonizing return journey home. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he recounted the events of that day to Clark, who sat in stony silence, staring blankly at the wall he himself had helped build.
He took no comfort whatsoever in learning that the first shot had killed her immediately, for there was no comfort to be had. At least his mind wouldn't be tormented with images of her being tortured or raped as neither horror had occurred. By some miracle, she'd suffered no pain. Just death.
For his sanity, he forcibly refused to imagine the fear she must have felt. When his mind played over her face and neared the gray eyes, he recoiled inwardly, knowing that if he allowed himself to see the terror they must have held, to think on how she might have trembled or cried out for him, he would have been driven mad.
< *If you ever need me – ever – all you have to do is yell for help and I'll be there.*>
Gillian's body had been fetched from the camp, saving Clark the painful task of retrieving it himself. In fact, within days after the shooting, Jeff had been able to secure transport for her back to the states, an accommodation readily afforded by a Colombian government embarrassed that an ICRC volunteer had been so brutally murdered. For that, Clark was grateful. He didn't relish the thought of flying her lifeless body to her grief-stricken family. But he would have done it.
There was one thing left undone, which Jeff explained when he reluctantly approached Clark later that day.
After leaving Henriqué, he'd gone to Gillian's shack where he'd sat alone for several hours, stroking the soft fur between Luke's ears. The dog seemed to sense that something horrible had happened, again, and sat next to Clark's chair, his head placed mournfully in the subdued man's lap. He lifted it when Jeff entered the shack, adding several welcoming thumps of his tail in greeting.
"Sam, I'm sorry. If I could have sent word…" Jeff offered by way of apology for the shock.
Clark shook his head numbly. "You couldn't have reached me. It's the way I wanted it when I left. Not to be found."
Jeff pulled another chair away from the table and sat across from Clark. "You have to know that she knew what she was risking. We tried to talk her out of it, but she wouldn't be swayed. Even so, I blame myself. I should have locked her up or…something."
"Persistent," Clark mumbled.
He cleared his throat, licking the dryness from his lips. "She was…persistent."
Jeff chuckled. "I was thinking something else, but that works."
The hot spark of fury flared in his chest again. He'd been over and over it, but still it came as strong as the first moment he'd felt it. The anger at himself for not insisting that she go back with him and at her for doing something so stupid. Anger that he'd left in the first place, or more in knowing that he'd have left all the same because he loved Lois that much.
"I should have made her go back with me," he ground out, his teeth clenched. "Forced her even, if that's what it took."
"And then what?" Jeff asked. "Kept her under lock and key? She was an adult. She made her own decisions."
"Dammit, I told her. I told her something like this would happen." How many times had he imagined it himself? What could happen. Tried to convince her, his pleas falling on death-defying ears. "She didn't care. She laughed it off."
"If it helps at all, some of what you said…it did make a difference," Jeff offered softly. "She was talking about going home. Thinking of maybe surprising her parents for Christmas."
"Christmas? That's six weeks too late," he choked, thinking of all of the holidays she would never see. The birthdays…
"Just stop, Sam. Don't do this to yourself. Trust me. I've already done it. And it gets you nowhere." Jeff sounded defeated, but still he tried to offer words of assurance.
"But you stayed, would have gone with her even," he argued. Jeff had nothing to feel guilty about. That emotion belonged solely to him, and he hoarded it like a miser. "You didn't run off and leave her…"
"You had to leave and Gillian understood that. She didn't hold that against you."
"How do you know that?" Clark snapped.
He stood, pacing across the stone floor. It was time to confess. To pay the price for his choice. It was what he'd come back to do, and the coincidence of Gillian's death shouldn't let him off the hook.
"Did she tell you why I left? That I left because I'm in love with another woman and couldn't make up my mind. So I went back home to see if the other woman would have me." He stopped pacing, looking Jeff directly in the eye while he said the words that would make Jeff hate him. "I came back to San Pablo to tell Gillian good-bye. To tell her that she wasn't the one I chose."
But instead of hatred, Jeff's expression remained concerned, almost sympathetic, and his voice was calm. "So here you are. Say good-bye."
"It's a little late for that," Clark said, feeling the burning sting of tears once again. "She didn't wait around for me to say anything. She went off and got herself killed."
He instantly regretted the harsh words when a stark pain flashed across Jeff's face. It wasn't fair of him to take his own guilt out on Jeff, who'd never been more than a friend to either of them.
"Maybe it's not the one you planned, but in the end, it's still a good-bye," Jeff said quietly.
Raking his hand through his hair, Clark sank wearily back into his chair. He felt hollow inside. Nothing made sense. This wasn't supposed to happen this way. It was supposed to be painful, saying good-bye. But it wasn't supposed to crush him. Then again, Gillian wasn't supposed to be dead.
Jeff broke the silence, standing and wiping his hands on the legs of his pants. "There's one thing I haven't done. I haven't sent Gillian's things back to her parents."
He walked over to the corner and retrieved a box just big enough to house a pair of men's boots, setting it on the table between them. It was taped and neatly labeled.
Clark blinked, wondering that he hadn't noticed it earlier. Funny. Jeff hadn't drawn any crosses on it. Didn't he know that it needed to have lots of crosses?
Jeff explained, "I didn't want to send it through the mail because I was afraid…well, you know how those Colombian postal workers can be. They don't hold much sacred, even the effects of a dead woman."
Clark winced when he heard Gillian described that way. A dead woman. He'd never be able to imagine her any way but fully alive. He refused to imagine her any other way.
He turned his attention back to Jeff who was continuing. "I gave her clothes to Rosita, and I kept a couple of things out, thinking that maybe you'd come back…someday. Things I thought you might like to have. But the rest needs to go to Grosse Pointe. If you're willing, can you take the box back and mail it once you get to the states? It might even be better if you send it UPS or Fedex or –"
Clark shook his head. "I'll take it to her parents personally. Today. It's the least I can do."
Jeff blanched visibly. "I don't know, Sam. Three years ago they lost a son and now they just lost their daughter. There's bound to be a whole lot of stuff going on that you might not want to see. It'll just make it harder."
"Why should it be easy for me?" he asked, not really knowing how it could be any harder than it already was. "Why should I be spared? Gillian wasn't. Her family wasn't. And I…" He choked, a sob lodging in his throat.
Jeff clamped his shoulder with a tight grip, and before he could stop himself, Clark fell against his friend, holding on to this last connection with Gillian as if he was drowning and Jeff was a life line.
Swallowing hard, he forced himself to say it out loud. Way too late, but still, it deserved to be heard by someone that had known her. So that it would be real to someone other than him, the only one left who knew the truth.
"I love…loved her, too."
The Brooks home was large but far less ostentatious than the other houses on the block. She'd called herself the original spoiled rich-kid, and Clark realized when he saw her neighborhood that she hadn't exaggerated. Gillian Brooks had grown up a far cry away from the tiny Colombian village where she'd died.
He'd wrestled with the dilemma of showing up on the Brooks' doorstep in full Superman regalia, wondering if he shouldn't change first. But after going back and forth in his mind, he finally decided that he needed the little bit of detachment the suit might afford him. Or perhaps he knew, deep inside, that they'd be more likely to show their grief to a man they knew – or knew through the media, anyway – than to a complete stranger who appeared bearing Gillian's things.
He also suspected it was why he hadn't called ahead, afraid that if the Brooks knew the reason for his visit, they might choose not to see him. Maybe they'd have requested that he just leave the box. But he needed to face her parents and own their grief. To tell them how sorry he was.
It was all part of his penance. Of his need to take in as much of the pain as he could since he'd failed miserably at avoiding the reason for it in the first place.
So, he'd left San Pablo immediately after Jeff had placed the box in his hands, promising to return that evening. Perhaps he was adding salt to his wound, but somehow, he hoped that seeing Gillian's parents might cauterize it instead, a searing pain so intense that it had nothing to do but lessen.
A drab woman opened the door, and Clark tensed, preparing to speak to Gillian's mother. The woman turned out to be the housekeeper, and without batting an eye, she settled the large man with the billowing cape in the sitting room before fetching Mr. Brooks.
Thomas Brooks was tall and had the same light eyes as his daughter, but they were not of the pure gray of Gillian's, having a lot more blue in them. His silvered hair was thick on the sides but completely gone through the middle. Tan and athletic, Clark could easily imagine that this man chose to volunteer his services in third world countries rather than spend his vacations on the golf course. He looked far too young to have lost two children.
"Superman, it's very nice to meet you." Mr. Brooks extended a hand, and Clark shook it.
"Thank you, sir," he said, not sure how to announce the reason for his visit.
"I have to admit this is a pretty big surprise. We're not used to receiving celebrity guests." He gestured for Clark to sit in one of the two leather chairs placed near the fireplace, then took the other. "So, what brings you to Grosse Pointe? Not a disaster I hope?"
"No, I'm sad to say that I've come on a personal matter. I was asked to deliver something to you." He held out the box still tightly clutched in his hands.
Mr. Brooks leaned forward, reading the addresses on the large white label. He paled when he saw the return city listed as San Pablo, recoiling against the back of his chair as if he feared the box's contents.
"It's just a few of Gillian's things," Clark rushed to assure him that the box contained nothing harmful. "Her clothes were donated to some of the village women. I hope that's all right?"
His explanation seemed to jolt Mr. Brooks from his shock. He nodded vigorously, his skin regaining some of its healthy color. "Of course. Of course. I'm glad someone will get use of them."
The older man took the box almost hesitatingly, studying it for a long minute in silence. Clark wondered if he also noticed the absence of crosses.
Finally he stood and, moving across the small room, set the box on a credenza just inside the foyer. Clark guessed that Gillian's father wanted some privacy when he went through his daughter's things. He'd required a lot of his own when he'd accepted the tiny box Jeff had given to him, things he'd thought Clark might want to keep.
"So you knew Gillian?" Mr. Brooks said after he'd taken his seat again. He appeared composed, but Clark couldn't help but notice the shine in his eyes.
He cleared his throat, determined to answer the questions that were asked, no matter how hard it became. "I met her in San Pablo when I assisted after the earthquake several months ago."
"And you know what happened to her?" With that question, Mr. Brooks looked away, toward the fireplace where no fire burned.
"Yes, sir," Clark said, feeling his resolve melt away like snow in the sun. Those questions, the ones that required him to recount what he knew in detail, would bring him to the brink of losing control. Perhaps send him over it. He'd go there if asked outright, but only then.
Jeff must have been thorough enough because, thankfully, Mr. Brooks didn't seem to expect anything more than Clark had offered. He shook his head with a sad smile. "Colombia's a pretty dangerous country. Can't tell you how much time I've spent wishing I'd taken her to Malaysia or Nigeria. Or Paris."
Instinctively, Clark slipped into platitudes. "Mr. Brooks, I can't tell you how sorry I am. She was so generous…" he trailed off.
"It's funny, but in her last letter, she mentioned coming back to the states. Said she thought maybe it was time to come home. We were so glad." He looked at Clark with an almost pleading expression, as if he felt it imperative for this young man to know how much he had loved his daughter. "We've missed her over these past two years."
"She missed you, too." Clark said it with true conviction. There was no doubt in his mind how much she missed her family, despite her extended absence and reluctance to return home.
"I tried to talk her into coming back with me when my tour with DWB was over, but she wouldn't hear of it. Gillian was always too…"
"Persistent," Clark supplied, more to himself than to the man seated across from him.
Mr. Brooks chuckled. "Yes, persistent. Guess she gets that from me."
It was no use. There was nothing Clark could say to ease Thomas Brooks' obvious guilt. He understood it and wouldn't deny the man his need to wrap himself in it. To use it to dull the pain and push aside the realization that Gillian was gone forever. It was an emotion that they both felt equally. Maybe deserved equally, for as much as blame could ever be rationed in such a situation. Both men had failed her. If not in making her leave Colombia, for something more fundamental. Offering her reason enough to return.
Clark leaned forward, feeling more helpless than he had in his whole life. "Listen, Mr. Brooks, if there's anything at all I can do for you."
"Oh, no, Superman. You've already been too kind to bring this to us. I thank you, and I know my wife would as well." He spared a glance in the direction of the massive staircase, telling Clark volumes about Mrs. Brooks' current condition. His tone was almost apologetic when he continued. "She's taken this all very hard. We lost a son a few years back. Gillian's twin, if you can believe that."
Clark nodded, swallowing against the lump that was suddenly filling his throat. "Gillian mentioned it."
"When Chris died, I think Gillian felt she had no purpose anymore. Like they were a matched set, and once he was gone, she was of no use. She viewed her brother as some sort of saint…" he trailed off.
As Mr. Brooks sat, lost in his own thoughts, Clark looked at his hands, tented in front of him as he rested his arms on his knees. He'd said the same thing to Gillian. That she thought of her brother as a saint. And he'd accused her of trying to become a martyr. What he wouldn't give to take those words back now.
Startling suddenly, his attention snapped back to the man sitting before him, Mr. Brooks apologized. "I'm sorry, for going on like this. Can I offer you a drink?
"No sir, I should be going." Clark stood, then hesitated. "Unless there's something else –"
"No. No." Mr. Brooks stood as well, protesting. "You must have some place you'd rather be."
They walked to the door in silence, but before Mr. Brooks could open it, Clark turned to face him. "Again, Mr. Brooks, I'm so sorry for your loss."
"Superman, there is one thing. I don't know if you can help, but since you knew her…"
"Anything," Clark said, encouraging him to ask. He'd do anything he could.
"Well, there was a man. Gillian mentioned him in her last few letters home. His first name was Sam, but I don't know his last name."
Clark nodded, his throat too constricted to allow words to pass through. She'd written home about him…mentioned him…
"I didn't know how to get a hold of him to let him know…" Mr. Brooks went on, faltering as he tried to explain what he needed.
"Mr. Brooks, I know…" Clark paused, both to let the tidal wave of pain subside so that he could speak clearly and to choose the right words to convey what he felt. "I knew Sam. He died in the guerilla camp. With Gillian."
A look of horror swept over Mr. Brooks' face. "Oh, I didn't know. Jeff didn't mention…That's too bad. Gillian seemed rather fond of him."
"Sam was very…fond of her," he managed to choke out. He was having trouble breathing and needed to get away while he still had some small semblance of composure.
Mr. Brooks smiled weakly. "Well, I guess that's some consolation then. That she was with a friend at the end."
His knees nearly no longer able to support his weight, Clark extended his hand. But when the shake was over, he didn't release his grip immediately. They shared much, he and Thomas Brooks. Grief. Guilt. Regrets. But mostly, love for Gillian.
"Good-bye Mr. Brooks."
With an appreciative squeeze, Mr. Brooks smiled, a quick smile, almost like Gillian's but so much sadder. "Thank you, Superman."
The image he always retained of Gillian's father was one of a man far too young to have lost two children.
He returned to San Pablo that evening, not ready to face anyone but those who understood and shared his grief. And his promise made to Lois gave him some time.
It was funny how once he'd learned what had happened, he could see signs everywhere that something terribly wrong had occurred.
A scrap of black cloth was attached to each house and building, sometimes hung like flags, other times tied into bows. The laughter and activity normally heard at all hours of the day seemed strangely muted, as if the volume in the entire village had been turned way down. The women who owned black clothes wore them and, as Jeff explained, would continue to wear them for another six months. All of San Pablo mourned and would do so long after Clark had returned home.
Three white crosses marked the graves of André and José and served as a memorial to Gillian. They were placed near the clinic, in the tiny cemetery at the top of the hill, and fresh flowers were brought to them every day. Clark knew that she would have been pleased to receive such an honor, given a permanent place in the village she'd called home.
He'd been gone only three weeks, but in that time, even the weather in San Pablo had changed. Although the days were still mild, a chill in the air contained bitterness instead of the refreshing quality of the summer breezes. Fall had finally come to the Andes, the very earth itself shutting down as if it, too, mourned Gillian.
Into the wee hours of the morning he and Jeff sat together under a star-filled sky, sharing stories and long silences. They reminisced about the things that she'd done to make them laugh, and Jeff told tale after tale of times before Clark. He felt an unquenchable need to know everything about her, things that he should have asked when he'd had the chance.
Finally, when the night had grown too cool and damp, Jeff stood and stretched, pleading exhaustion. Clark had wandered to his own shack, standing for long minutes in the doorway before entering it. Nothing had been moved since he'd left. His curiosity was satisfied. It looked exactly the same.
After staring at the tin ceiling for over an hour, he grabbed the pancake pillow from his pallet and walked barefoot through the sleeping village to Gillian's shack. Pulling back the wool blanket, he crawled into her bed, inhaling deeply as her lingering scent wrapped around him.
When he let his mind touch on the memory of what had occurred the last time he'd lain there, a whimper fought its way up his throat. Any second thoughts he had ever had, any twinges of doubt about the rightness of what they had shared, left him completely. In giving her himself, he'd established a bond with her that would never be broken. She would always be his first. Always hold a place in his heart that no one else could touch.
And, too, he took small comfort in knowing that although he had never said it out loud, in that one night, he had shown her how much he cared for her. For the rest of his life, he would hold on to that hope. That at least for a few hours, she had known that he loved her.
With the fingers of his mind, he traced the curves of her face, stroked the length of her honey-colored hair. He breathed deeply of the smell that was uniquely hers, let his tongue remember the taste of her lips and skin. Gingerly, he allowed himself to look into her gray eyes, and in them he placed love instead of fear. And finally, with an ache that swallowed him whole, he heard her voice, a whispered word spoken into his heart where it would echo for as long as he lived. "Sam."
Hugging the pillow tightly and drawing his knees to his chest, he let the tears come, first in a trickle and then a steady flow. And when the dawn came, he placed the pillow on the neatly remade bed next to its intended mate, closing the door softly behind him.
After paying his respects to Mrs. Martinez, who'd lost both son and husband in the form of André and José, he took Gillian's motorbike and visited the valley she had taken him to on their day together. There weren't any butterflies, but he created snapshots in his mind of the towering wax palms and the rolling hills and mists. Something inexplicable drove him, and he fed his memory as if it were a starving man unable to be sated.
A Colombian wake, of sorts, had been planned for late that afternoon, to take advantage of Clark's unexpected visit. Shots of *chicha* were passed and toasts made in the fine name of *señorita* Gillian. Lacking the boisterousness of the Saint Mary's Day festival, it was still a joyous occasion. In the true spirit of *aquí y ahora*, they were letting go of the hurt and celebrating the life of someone who'd come to mean so much to the villagers of San Pablo.
While he smiled and toasted along with everyone else, Clark couldn't manage to feel the same sense of peace the others had apparently found. Only Jeff seemed to understand his need to let the sorrow linger, his wound far too fresh to expose it so wantonly.
Wanting to leave without a fuss, he slipped out of Rosita's at dusk, while the merriment was in full swing. Before he left, he gave Jeff his new number at the Daily Planet.
"Just ask for Clark Kent. He always knows how to reach me," he said as he pressed the scrap of paper with the phone number on it into Jeff's hand. "I mean it. If you need anything at all, call. If you can make it to a phone."
Jeff studied him for a long time, and Clark knew then that he hadn't fooled the astute man for a second.
"I wouldn't dream of bothering Mr. Kent," Jeff said firmly. "I'm sure he'll be busy with his own life."
Clark swallowed hard, then nodded. Understanding. He'd come to say good-bye, and since he hadn't been able to do it the right way with Gillian, Jeff was letting him do it now.
No one saw him as he made his way up the road and slipped into his shack.
He folded his clothes neatly and placed them atop his worn Tevas sandals already resting in the bottom of the trunk. Perhaps someday another stranger would arrive in San Pablo and have use for them.
<*You said you came here to find something you lost. Have you found it, Sam?*>
As if she stood next to him, he heard her ask the question.
"Yeah, Gillian, I found it," he whispered back into the darkness.
He'd come to find himself, and she'd shown him the way.
With a final glance around the small room he'd considered his home for over half a year, he left, shutting the door behind him. He made one quick stop before shooting straight up into the cool Colombian evening.
He touched down on the wooden porch, setting his passenger gently on his feet. Luke stood patiently while Clark spun out of the suit and into his clothes, as unimpressed by the sight as ever. He was one of the few who knew all sides of Clark and accepted the entire man, not just the superhuman part.
"C'mon. There's someone I want you to meet," Clark said as he held the door open for his furry companion.
Luke trotted through the door and down the hallway toward the kitchen, his nails clicking on the hardwood floor. He stopped about half-way, turning to wait for Clark to join him.
The kitchen, brightly lit and filled with the heavy aroma of baking turkey and cooling pumpkin pie, filled him with a warm glow that started the long, slow thaw of his frozen heart. This farm was part of his past, a part that he would never let go. And sitting at the kitchen table, sharing a cup of coffee with his parents, was his future. No longer unknown.
But he wouldn't wait for the future to start living the happiness it promised to hold. *Aquí y ahora*. Always he would live here and now. It was what she would have wanted. Demanded. It was Gillian's legacy.
"Lois, I want you to meet a friend of mine," he announced softly, drawing the attention of the three people he loved most in the world.
She turned, the love shining in her eyes causing his breath to catch.
"This is Luke," he said. Then with a small smile of his own, he gave Luke a scratch between the ears. "Luke, meet Lois Lane."
"Clark, the truck's going to be here in fifteen minutes. You bringing down that box?"
"Yeah, I'll be down in a minute," he hollered from the bedroom, his voice traveling down the stairs to illicit satisfied silence.
Glancing around the comfortable bedroom, he tried to think if he had any other items to donate to the homeless shelter's annual clothing drive. He'd already placed two of his slightly out-of- date but still in good condition suits into the box, along with several sweaters, a couple pairs of slacks that seemed to have shrunk slightly at the dry cleaners, and several ties that had garnered him some pretty odd stares when he'd worn them to work.
His gaze landed on the tall dresser angled in the corner of the room. Tee shirts. He had an entire drawer full of them, many of them complementary gifts from the various benefit runs and walks he participated in as Superman. Surely someone at the homeless shelter would be glad to have a bright green tee shirt with "Run Away from Drugs" or a blue one with "A3I/Americans Against Adult Illiteracy" on it.
He reached into the deep drawer, digging beneath the tees he did consider favorites. It wouldn't do to give away the faded "World's Greatest Dad" tee or his worn "Coach" jersey from Little League, even if he hadn't coached the team in nearly ten years.
His fingers brushed the corner of something firm, and his heart started to pound as he wrapped his hand around the object. Extracting it from the drawer, Clark felt a sharp pang in his chest as the small, cedar box reached the light, a tiny golden key projecting from the matching gold lock.
Holding the box in his palm as if it were made of glass, he backed slowly to sit on the edge of the large bed. For long minutes he stared at it while the years were stripped away. When finally his hand moved to turn the miniature key and gingerly open the hinged lid, he could almost smell the rain and the thick clay mixture of adobe. See the sun shining over the high peaks of the Andes and hear the cry of monkeys and the beat of the *bambuco*.
Nestled inside the smooth pungent cedar was a thick braid of colored string, the brilliant rainbow faded yet no less beautiful than the day an ebony-haired little girl named Eva had given it to him.
Next to the bracelet, its chain coiled into a delicate spiral of thin silver, lay the butterfly he had given to Gillian on her birthday so many years ago. Her last birthday, although neither of them had realized it at the time. But this treasure had not faded, emerald wings snapping with dark green fire as he held it up to the sunshine pouring through the window. Bright and full of life, just as she had been.
Honey colored waves and the grayest eyes he'd ever seen. Forest and water and sky. Loved always by a man named Sam.
His eyes shifted beyond the jewels dangling before him, and through a thick lens of tears, he saw the portraits hanging from the wall near the dresser. After twenty years, the sight of his bride, resplendent in her floor-length white gown, still took his breath away. The Kent Christmas portrait, two adults with their three dark headed children smiling brightly at the camera. Soccer and ballet. Martha and Jonathan, far more gray than not but still alive and well.
His family. His life.
The box slipped silently back into its spot, buried behind soft cotton tee shirts. Tucked back into the depths of his memory where it would remain for as long as he lived. Something far too precious to ever forget.
No. Never forgotten. Always *aquí y ahora*.
He left the room, darting past the box of donation clothes as he headed toward the stairs. There was something far more important he needed to do. Someone he needed to hold tightly to his chest.
"Lois…" he called, his heart stopping when she turned to give him a brilliant smile.
I want to thank all of the people who read this story when I posted it on the Lois and Clark Fanfic Message Boards. Not only did many follow this story faithfully – even when I took Clark down some pretty unconventional roads – but they offered such encouraging and thought-provoking feedback. Both helped me fine- tune this story and also pushed me to re-examine my premises and motivations. I feel that, in the end, it helped make for a stronger story.
This story was inspired by a question asked on one of the boards, and for the life of me, I couldn't find it again despite several searches so that I could give the asker credit. This person asked what might happen if Clark fell in love with another woman who wasn't Lois, not including any earlier relationships or feelings he might have had for Lana Lang. I found this question very intriguing, and it just wouldn't let me go. As someone who stands firm in her belief that it is possible to love more than one person in a lifetime, I started to wonder what would happen if Superman fell in love.
Despite some trepidation that I'd be chased by FoLCs wielding pitchforks, I let my mind run with the whole premise, and Gillian was born. Since she came to know Clark through a different door than Lois, I saw her as someone who could heal his bruised confidence after Lois rejected his declaration of love in BaTP only to tell Superman that she'd love him even if he was an ordinary man. Gillian was one of the few people who saw and loved him as the entire person he is rather than as simply Clark (a la Mayson Drake) or as Superman alone (a la early Lois).
So without apology, I let Clark find love again. And not only love in his heart, but physical love as well. For the purists who believe that Clark would never have made love with anyone other than Lois, I maintain that he of all people has more than enough room in his heart for two women, and even as Lois is his true soul-mate, it is plausible that someone else could have left her mark as well. I also believe that those who would doom a Lois- less Clark (for whatever reason he lost Lois) to a loveless and celibate existence are not only uncharitable but almost downright cruel to a man who lives to serve mankind.
Many have asked the question if Gillian really knew the real "Clark Kent." I would argue that the answer to that question has to be a qualified yes – admittedly on a certain level she knew very little about him. She didn't know about his family or his home. His chosen profession or even that his name was Clark Kent. But the man she did know – Sam – was the very essence of Clark Kent and Superman combined. The most basic elements that made him the man he was. She saw that he felt joy and happiness, sadness and anger. That he could be hurt and feel and express love. That he wanted to help people and felt frustration and guilt when he couldn't. All of the things that he himself needed to discover didn't change whether he was Superman or Clark Kent. And in learning that about himself, he was able to return to Lois and offer his entire person to her. He learned that he couldn't expect someone to love only one part of him, and that he didn't need to apologize for the non-super part. To borrow a line from the story "Clark Kent and Superman were not mutually exclusive, but rather mutually dependent."
I know that Gillian's death was very hard to take by several readers and have indeed fielded the question about whether or not her death was even necessary. In any story I suppose the question could be posed asking if a particular character's death was necessary, and I can see how it can be argued on both sides. As I saw it and intended it, in this story, Sam existed in the world of San Pablo and life lived in the here and now, where little thought had to be given to the next week or month. Once he left that haven, Sam himself stopped living, unable to function properly in a world full of complications and practicalities. That level of simplicity was impossible – once again he had to become Clark Kent/Superman with all of the baggage that such a dual identity entails. Gillian's death was kind of a symbol of that finality. When she died and his haven disappeared, Sam died as well to make way for a healed and stronger Clark.
As I neared the end of posting this, some questions and expectations from the wonderful feedback I've received tumbled about in my head so much so that I feel the need to write two scenes that seem to be missing. I'm currently in process of writing "The Butterfly Legacy – The Lost Chapters" which is just a short, two-chapter side story. One chapter deals with Clark telling Lois about Gillian and her reaction, since this is something that many people seemed to expect to see yet were denied because I saw this as strictly Clark's story. I hope that in these two chapters, I'll tie up any loose endings that might be left after the ending and epilogue. I don't have a time frame for this but hope to have it done sooner rather than later.
Thanks so much for reading such a very long story.
Disclaimer: The characters of Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Martha and Jonathan Kent, Jimmy Oleson and Perry White are the property of Warner Bros. and DC Comics as are all references to episodes or dialogue featured in *Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman*. All other characters are mine, and any similarities to real people alive or dead are purely coincidental. No infringement on anyone's copyright is intended.