By Terry Leatherwood <email@example.com>
Submitted: November, 2005
Summary: What might have happened to Clark if Lana Lang had accepted him despite his differences? How might their lives have turned out? How would Lois Lane have fit into his world? Maybe, it might have happened something like this story suggests.
Preface to The Road Taken
Please allow me to present Robert Frost's excellent poem "The Road Not Taken" to introduce this story.
*Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;*
*Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,*
*And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.*
*I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.*
— Robert Frost
From Modern American Poetry: an Introduction by Louis Untermeyer, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1919; Bartleby.com, 1999. www.bartleby.com/104/.
For those familiar to the Lois and Clark saga, whether from the wonderful series or from the comic books, Lana Lang represents the road not taken for Clark Kent. She is the girlfriend of his youth, his first love, and even today remains an enigma to us. But what if he had taken that road? What if Lana hadn't reacted with fear to Clark's powers? What if she'd truly loved him enough to accept that part of him and deal successfully with it? I present to you, the readers, this journey into the what-if, might-have-been alternate universe of Superman and some of the women who greatly impacted his life.
The physical model for Lana Lang in this story is not the impressively attractive Kristen Kreuk from the WB series 'Smallville' but the Lana Lang of the 1960's Superboy comics, the ones that have stuck in my memory all these years. She's short, slender but not anorexic, pretty but not stunning, with shoulder- length brown hair and a few freckles, very American Midwestern in look and manner but not a beauty pageant contestant, so please envision this girl as you read.
In the comics, Lana's father was an archaeologist who traveled a lot, sometimes with his daughter, which made for some interesting (and some highly contrived) plot twists. I'm sure that the editorial staff at DC Comics explained why Lana's mother wasn't around, but if they did I have no recollection of it. The situation with Lana's parents is, as far as I am consciously aware, entirely my own invention.
The familiar characters of this story are not my own but are the property of corporate entities (DC Comics, December 3rd Productions, ABC television, etc.) other than myself. This work is a labor of love and is presented with no expectation of remuneration. I anticipate much debate and some intense response to this particular flight of fancy. I hope you enjoy the ride.
I want to extend tons of thanks to Tricia and Ray, two of the hardest working Beta readers in the world. We don't always agree, but their opinions and suggestions are always helpful, and even when I don't incorporate their suggestions I respect them. Thanks, both of you!
The night was young and bright on the cloudless Kansas plain late that May. Sunset was swiftly fading in the west, and stars that had been hiding all day were coming out to play in the inky sky. The two young people had left their raucous high school graduation party early, changed from their formal attire into sweatshirts and jeans and tennis shoes, and come to one of their favorite places, his parents' front porch swing. They had often sat together in silence here, simply enjoying each other's company.
Tonight, however, was different. She had known that high school graduation would mark a change in their lives, but it seemed to her that there was much more on his mind that night than simply the march of events in their lives. He was so tense he couldn't sit still, and had been slowly pacing the porch for nearly fifteen minutes. He finally sat beside her in the swing and hesitantly called her name.
He opened his mouth but nothing came out. Lana tilted her head to one side. "Clark, is something wrong?"
"No. No, nothing's wrong." He wrung his hands and took two aimless steps. "Hey, are you going back to your uncle's ranch in Arizona for the summer?"
She shook her head and smiled. "Not this year. I figure five summers of being a cowgirl is enough for me. The money's good and the experience is priceless, but it's not really my thing. I'm going to stay home this summer and focus on earning some extra money before classes start this fall. What about you?"
"Me? Oh, I think I'll hire on to Wayne Irig's farm again. I can work there and with my dad and make enough for — for something."
"I've seen you work. You move enough hay for any three grown men. They're both lucky to have you around."
"Thanks." He fidgeted for a moment before speaking again. "Have you decided on a college yet?"
"I haven't heard yet. I hope some of them let me know before too much longer. Late May is about as late as I want to wait."
He grinned despite his obvious nervousness. "I know what you mean. Waiting for the admissions packet to come back is a little like sitting on barbed wire."
"Ouch! I don't know that I'd go quite that far. But you're right, it's tough to wait."
"Yeah." He rubbed his hands up and down on his thighs. "Tough."
She reached out and touched his wrist. "Clark? What's on your mind?" He wriggled around some more. "Come on, Clark, you can tell me. Tell me what's bothering you." She made a kissing noise. "I bet I can chase it away."
"Oh, yeah, well, maybe you could." He leaned closer, wearing a smacked-with-a-fencepost expression, but pulled back at the last second and regained control of his face. "Wait. I think — we need to talk about something."
Her soft, shoulder-length brown hair framed her lightly freckled face. "What is it?"
He hesitated. "I — I need to ask you a dumb — no, a personal question."
She smiled and turned in the swing to face him. The soft Kansas moon reflected in her glistening hazel eyes. "Which is it, a dumb question or a personal one?"
He frowned in thought. "Both, I think."
She giggled. "Is it a personally dumb question or a dumb personal question?"
"An important question. Really important." He stood and shifted from one foot to the other. "I need to ask you how you feel about me."
She stood before him. The top of her head was almost the height of his upper lip. She reached up to put her arms around his neck. "I'd rather show you than tell you."
Clark almost forgot his question in her soft kiss, but gently pulled away, breathing deeply. "Um. This — what I'm about to tell you may change that."
Lana frowned this time. "Clark, you aren't making any sense. And you're beginning to worry me a little."
"Well, it's that — I'm special."
She kissed him again, lightly this time. "I know that. You're very special to me."
"No, I mean 'special' as in 'different from everybody else' special. There's no one in the world like me, not as far as I know."
She took a step back and put her hands on her hips. "Look, babe, I know you're unique, just like everybody else in the world —"
He shook his head. "Not like this, Lana. This is different."
"Different, like how?" Her frown turned to anxiety. "Wait!" She took his hands again. "Clark, are you — are you sick? Is that what you're trying to tell me? Because if it is, I don't care! I love you no matter what might be wrong with you!"
He grimaced. "No, I'm not sick. Far from it."
"You're not sick?" He shook his head. "Then what is it? What are you talking about? What are you trying to tell me?"
He stepped back, holding her hands gently, until they were at arm's length. "I guess — the best thing for me to do is to show you."
She eyed him warily. "Show me what?"
He released her hands and stepped back off the porch — but he didn't step down onto the ground. He stood there, hanging in mid-air, standing on nothing, until he saw her eyes pop open and her jaw drop.
Lana forgot to breathe. She'd forgotten to breathe once or twice before, and it had been Clark's fault then, too, but it had been mostly because she'd been distracted by having his lips on hers. Now, with him standing there in front of her on — nothing at all — she didn't think, she didn't breathe, she didn't move, until she fell limply towards the porch.
The next thing she knew, Clark was holding her and touching her face. He sounded alarmed. "Lana! Lana, I'm sorry! Please be okay! Lana, please!"
She absently grabbed his hand. "I'm okay, Clark. Why are you —"
And then she remembered. She froze in place for a moment, then slowly reached out and touched his chest. "Clark? Did — did you — you really —"
"Float in mid-air? Yes."
She clenched his shirt in her fist. "Really?"
"Yes, I did."
He nodded. "Yes. I meant to do that."
His face smoothed. "I needed to know — to know what you'd do if you knew."
"I see. So, you really can float in mid-air?"
"I can. I can do it again if you want."
She shook her head and rubbed her eyes. "Maybe later. Right now I need to know for certain that I'm not dreaming."
His mouth tight, he said, "It was not a dream. You're completely awake."
"Oh." She took a deep breath. "Good."
His eyebrows levitated. "Good?"
"Sure." Her eyes twinkled at him. "It means we're both going crazy, not just me alone." She got her feet under her and stood up straight, then pulled him upright. "I always said we'd go places together."
"But — aren't you — don't you —"
"Have questions? Of course I do, you moron! Like how did you do that? Or are you changing your major from journalism to prestidigitation before you take your first college class?"
He cocked his head to one side. "I still plan to be a journalist, thank you. And I can do a lot of other things besides just float."
She braced herself and asked, "Like what?"
He shrugged. "I can fly, although —"
"What! You can fly?"
He put his hands on his hips. "No, I am not kidding. Flying is just an extension of floating, and you've already seen me do that. Now are you going to listen to me or what?"
She waved her hands. "I'm sorry, sorry, no, I'll listen. Please, go ahead."
"Okay. Like I said, I can fly, but I'm not real comfortable with it yet, so I haven't done a whole lot of it, but I have been practicing. I haven't found anything that can hurt me, not since I was about twelve. I can hold my dad's tractor over my head with one hand for as long as I want to and not get tired. I'm fast enough to run past people and they hear something whoosh by but they never see me. I can hear things from far away, and I can focus in on little noises no one else can hear. I can make things hot enough to burn just by looking at them the right way. I can see things that are far away, like I had built-in binoculars. I can see through things, too, like walls or the ground."
"See through things?"
She frowned slightly. "Any walls?"
"As long as they aren't made of lead. I can't see through lead."
"You can see through any walls? Even the girl's locker room walls?"
"What? No! Just that one time when I was fourteen and I didn't mean it and it was an accident and you weren't even in there!" He gaped at her as she laughed. "What's so funny?"
She crossed her arms over her stomach. "I — I don't know!" She stepped back and collapsed into the porch swing. "I guess — ha- ha — the way you — ho-ho-ho — reacted when you thought — ha-ha-ha — you thought I —"
And she dissolved into belly laughs. Clark stood in front of her, helpless, as she worked through them.
Lana finally calmed down. "Whew! I'm sorry, Clark, but you acted like a little boy caught with a girlie magazine in his hand. It was, like, totally hysterical!" She chuckled again.
He scowled and crossed his arms across his chest. "I see. Is there anything else about me you'd like to laugh at now?"
The wounded tone of his voice cut her to the heart and she jumped up to embrace him. "No! No, darling, no! I wasn't laughing at you, Clark! I was laughing at the mental picture you made in my head. It — I don't know, it kind of made me remember who you really are! You're not some weird alien, or some kind of scary mutant, you're Clark Kent and I love you!"
"Are you sure about that?"
She leaned back but didn't let him go. "Clark, I love you if you can pick up a building or if you can't lift a sack of apples. This is — it's important, I guess, but it doesn't change anything." She leaned her head on his chest. "It's just one more thing for me to know about you."
He cautiously put his arms around her. "It's a pretty big thing, though, isn't it?"
"Of course it is. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't. But it's not as if you're already married to someone else or that you're secretly a Mafia hit man or you're really Santa Claus. You're still Clark to me, no matter what kinds of incredible things you can do." She tightened her grip. "I love you, Clark, and I don't ever want to let you go."
He returned the pressure. "I love you too, Lana. You're the most wonderful girl in the whole state of Kansas."
She rolled her mouth up to his and kissed him. "Yum. Just Kansas?"
He smiled. "Maybe Oklahoma too. Possibly even including Idaho."
She laughed with him. "See? A girl likes a guy who can make her laugh."
"I'm glad. You want to sit down now?"
"If you'll tell me more about these marvelous abilities you have."
He sighed. "If that's what you want to talk about, okay."
"Oh, yes! I definitely want to learn all I can about you."
Her good mood had evaporated. She stared at Clark in horror. "You mean that there are actually people out there who want to treat you like a lab specimen? There are people who want to dissect you?"
He shook his head. "I don't know it as a fact, like anybody's actually tried to put me in a cage, but it's a logical conclusion, don't you think? Man shows off spectacular powers. Government of some country or even a private individual wants to find out how he does it, maybe to make their armies stronger or out of scientific curiosity or out of greed or out of fear. It doesn't matter. I don't want to end up as a rat in a maze, or some eager med student's dissertation theme."
She dropped her gaze. "Oh, Clark, you mean you've carried this burden for the last six years? All through high school? And you never told anyone?"
"My folks know, of course. They're probably bursting with curiosity right now."
"What? What could they be curious about?"
"Wondering about your reaction."
Lana's jaw hit her chest for the second time that evening. "Oh, my stars and garters! Of course! No wonder they were so nice to me at dinner the night before last!"
He smiled. "They were making bets with each other on how long it would take before you ran away screaming at the top of your lungs."
She smiled back and shook her head. "Clark, I wouldn't have run away if you'd told me you were sick and dying. I'm not running away because I've just learned something wonderfully fabulous about you. I promise you, I'm not going anywhere!" She stopped suddenly, then cautiously lifted his hand to her cheek. "Unless — unless you want me to go away."
He reached out and enveloped her. His voice broke. "Please don't go. Please stay with me forever."
Martha tucked the drape back in place and tiptoed away from the window. "Well, she's still there."
Jonathan nodded. "I knew that girl was a keeper."
Martha gave him a 'look.' "Uh-huh. You were the one who bet three days worth of chores that she'd break up with him on the spot."
He grinned back. "And I've never been so happy to lose a bet in my entire life." He sighed. "I just hope they're making the right decisions out there."
"Who's to know what the right decision is? Either of us could have married someone else and made a life with that other person."
"True. But I wouldn't trade a minute of our time together for a lifetime with anyone else. I love you, Martha."
She smiled and leaned her head on his massive chest. "I love you too, you wonderfully romantic man. Come on," she said as she pulled him away from the front of the house, "let's let the kids be kids by themselves." She turned back and winked at him. "We can be kids again, too, at least for a little while."
Jonathan smiled a knowing smile and reached out to pat his wife on the bottom. She looked back again and giggled playfully.
Clark and Lana sat on the swing together, talking through and adjusting to the new curve in their relationship. Then Lana asked the big question that had popped into her mind an hour before.
"Clark? What are you going to do with these abilities? I mean, on a long-term basis?"
He sat back, a surprised expression forming on his face. "I — don't know."
"You haven't thought about it? Or you haven't settled on a plan yet?"
He pulled a long face. "I guess — I haven't thought about it much."
She patted his hand. "Don't worry. You're young yet."
He turned away. "Actually — I have done a few things already."
She asked, in a matter-of-fact tone, "Such as?"
Clark shifted nervously. "Well, I got Wayne Irig out of his barn last fall when that windstorm collapsed the east wall. He had a concussion and a broken arm, but if I hadn't pulled him out before the rest of the wall fell, he might have died." He stood up. "Remember that flash flood just south of Wichita two years ago? I pulled three people out of the water. Two of them were just kids." He put his hands in his pockets. "And — two weeks ago I pulled Brent and Charlene out of that car wreck just before the gas tank blew up."
Lana nodded. "I see. You have been a busy boy, haven't you?"
He turned to face her and was relieved to see that she was smiling. "I'm guessing you aren't angry about those stunts."
She reached out and softly touched his arm. "They weren't stunts, Clark, they were acts of heroism. Just because you believe you can't be hurt doesn't mean your actions weren't brave. You were risking exposure on every one of those occasions. How could I be angry that you put other people's safety ahead of your own comfort? I think it was marvelous of you." She tugged at his wrist until his hand escaped his pocket, then she captured it in both of hers. "And you know that Charlene is my very best girlfriend in the whole world. When I visited her in the hospital, she told me that someone had pulled her out of the car, but she didn't recognize him, didn't even know for certain that it was a man." She kissed his hand. "I'm proud of you."
He squeezed her hands gently. "Thank you."
She popped up and pushed his shoulder until he turned to face the front door. "But if you're going to keep on doing stuff like this, and I see no reason for you to stop now, you're going to have to be invisible."
"Invisible? Lana, what do —"
She headed for the front door. "Come on. I need to talk to your mom."
"My mom? But we —"
Lana shoved the door open and flipped on the light in the front room. "Mrs. Kent? Mr. Kent? Where are you? We need to talk."
There was no answer, so Lana began marching through the house, calling out loudly. "Mrs. Kent? We need to talk about something. Mrs. Kent? Where are you?"
The master bedroom door cracked open. "Lana? What are you yelling about?"
"We need to talk. Are you coming out or do I come in?"
"Neither!" Martha's alarmed face showed in the opening, but she hid her body behind the door.
"Why? What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong, Lana. Just give us a minute to get dressed."
"Okay. I'll wait in — " and suddenly it clicked. Lana flushed bright red and gasped and laughed all at the same time. She turned around and galloped into the living room and thumped headfirst into Clark's unyielding chest.
He grabbed her and held her still. "Lana! What's wrong? Are my parents okay?"
She fanned her face with her hand. "Oh, yeah, they're fine, they're just fine."
He held her away from him and stared. "What do you mean?" He started to move around her, but she stepped in front of him and blocked his path. He moved again and she blocked him a second time. "Lana! Cut it out!" He stepped back and reached for his glasses, but she grabbed his wrist and held it tight.
"Don't you dare! You have to move your glasses to see through things, don't you?"
He looked puzzled. "Yes, the lenses are leaded glass, and like I told you I can't see through —"
"You look through that door right now and I'll — I'll — I'll make you eat my cooking every day for a week!"
"What? What's wrong with that? You cook great."
"You've never had my fried gravel or my dirt souffle and that's what you'll get if you cross me! Now come here!" She pulled him into the kitchen. "I need something to drink. Make me some lemonade or something. Anything at all."
Baffled, Clark complied and poured Lana a glass of iced tea. After a few minutes, Martha walked into the kitchen in housedress and slippers. Lana glanced up at her and blushed furiously once again. Martha laughed lightly and hugged the girl around the shoulders.
Lana put her face in her hands. "I'm so sorry! Really! Please forgive me!"
Martha patted her shoulder. "Lana, honey, it's okay. You didn't know."
Jonathan ambled in, wearing a plaid shirt, jeans, and a silly smile. "Clark, let's go check out the tractor shed."
"At this time of night? Dad, Lana wants to —"
Jonathan made a shushing motion. "Come with me, Clark. Let the ladies converse."
Still completely befuddled, Clark followed his father outside. Lana looked up at Martha, and they shared a knowing smile. Martha sat down beside the girl and looked into her eyes.
"Clark will eventually figure it out, Lana, and then he'll be so embarrassed that you were here and that you know that he knows that he'll look sunburned until Sunday afternoon."
Lana shook her head. "I can't believe I reacted like that! I guess — it's hard for me to admit that my parents once loved each other that much." She leaned back and wiped her face with her hands. "After all, they made me, just like you two made Clark."
Martha kept smiling at Lana and didn't say anything. A moment later, Lana flushed again, then slapped herself on the forehead. "Oh, stupid, stupid, stupid! For a second I forgot Clark was adopted!" She stood up and began pacing the floor. "Mrs. Kent, why don't you just shoot me and put me out of my misery?"
Martha caught her arm and led her back to her chair. "Lana, dear, just sit down. You've had something of a shock tonight, and I'm sure that's a large part of your confusion. Now what was it you originally wanted to talk to me about?"
Lana stared at her blankly. "I forgot. Wait, it was about Clark, and his rescues, and — right! I remember now. He's been going around doing good deeds, which I assume you already knew?"
Martha nodded. "Yes."
"I also assume you approve of his motives if not always his methods?"
Martha grinned. "I see that you weren't captain of the debate team because you can yodel. That would be a 'yes' also."
"Then you know the law of averages is going to catch up to him and he'll be either recognized or photographed and identified. Then the bovine excrement will firmly strike the operating rotary oscillator."
Martha chortled. "Very colorful, Lana, but probably true. What do you suggest?"
Lana leaned in close and lowered her voice. "Clark has to be invisible."
Martha whispered, "What do you mean, invisible?"
Lana whispered back, "People mustn't see him."
"How will they not see him?"
"Because they'll be looking somewhere else."
Martha asked, "Why are we whispering?"
Lana flushed again and straightened. "I don't know! But Clark has to be someone or something else when he's doing his helper thing."
"Honey, I'm his mother, but he's way too good-looking to go unnoticed, no matter what he's wearing."
"That's true." Lana grinned. "So we use the 'Purloined Letter' technique."
Martha frowned slightly. "Refresh my memory on that one?"
"The Edgar Allan Poe story! Clark did a fabulous report on it in eighth grade. Where someone stole an important letter in a nineteenth-century hotel and hid it in plain sight in the mail slot right behind the desk clerk! We make Clark's public persona so bright and splashy that people will automatically look at his body and not concentrate on his face! You're an excellent seamstress, you can put something together that will knock everybody's socks off!"
Martha sat back, thinking. Lana watched her expressions move from 'no way' to 'that might actually work' to 'brilliant!' in moments. Martha popped up from the chair and ran to the door. "Jonathan! Clark! Come in here! Lana has a fantastic idea!"
Clark sat at the table with his mouth wide open. "You're crazy, all of you! This is the nuttiest idea since — since —"
"Since you were an acorn in your third grade nature play."
"Very funny, Dad. Besides, I was a sapling, not a nut."
Martha leaned forward. "Clark, you're reacting from the participant viewpoint and not the observer viewpoint. You'd have everyone in sight looking at you in awe no matter what you might look like. You need to appear to be different, if for no other reason than to make it more difficult to match your hero persona to your civilian persona."
The other three stared at her for a moment, then Jonathan snorted. "Psychology and creative writing classes at the adult education center. It's a wonder she keeps it all straight."
Martha shot him an unfriendly look. "You don't like my reasoning, you come up with an alternative."
Jonathan raised his hands in surrender. "Honey, I was just kidding. Besides, I agree with you. As another great man once said, your logic is impeccable."
"You too, Dad? You think I should dress up like a circus clown and rescue people before they laugh themselves to death just from seeing me?"
Lana snickered. "It would make it easier to stop robberies. If the thieves wouldn't surrender, at least they'd be laughing too hard to hurt anyone."
"You do realize that you're not selling your proposal very well, don't you?"
She laughed aloud. "Clark, it's a good solution. Maybe not the only one, but can't we even talk about it?"
Just then the phone rang. Jonathan reached up and answered it. "Hello? Oh, Professor Lang! Okay, then, Dennis. Yes, she's right here, sitting with us at the kitchen table. No, we've been talking for, gosh, I guess over an hour now. Oh, lots of things. Yes, she does. Do you need to talk to her? Okay, I'll tell her. Bye."
He hung up and faced Lana. "Your father expects you home by one A.M. and not one minute after. He also hopes you're willing to stay up a while and regale him with tales of your wonderful evening with Clark." He glanced at the clock. "That gives us about another hour to chew on this." Martha kicked his ankle under the table. "Mmph! Or another hour for you and Clark to spend together." He glared at his wife in mock disgust.
Lana smiled. "Thank you, both of you, but this is important. I — " and she blushed again " — I don't know how our lives will turn out, but — Clark, you and I have been dating since our sophomore year together and it's been totally wonderful. I hope I stay with you for the rest of my life." She walked to his chair and sat in his lap. "I know it's not exactly the usual way to do this, but — " she kissed him deeply " — I want to marry you. I want to be Mrs. Clark Kent. What do you say?"
Clark was so astonished he almost dropped her. Martha dabbed at her eyes with her sleeve. Jonathan closed his eyes and shook his head and muttered, "These kids today."
Clark recovered and held her up. "Uh. Lana, there's — one more thing I haven't told you."
"I don't care! I know all I need to know about you. I love you and I want to spend my life loving you. And I'm not doing this just to head off Rachel Harris. I really, really mean it." She fixed him with a tremulous stare. "Will you marry me, Clark?"
His eyes glazed over for a moment and he almost leaned in to kiss her, but at the last instant he straightened. "Lana, you need to know a few other things."
Martha goggled. "Clark, what did you leave out?"
He sighed. "The barn."
"You left out the barn? How could you leave out the barn?"
"I haven't had the chance to show her yet, Mom!"
Jonathan nodded heavily. "She should know it all."
Lana slid from Clark's lap and stood beside him. "You guys need to stop that. You're scaring me again."
Clark stood and took her hand. "You should come with me now, Lana."
"You need some help, son?"
"Thanks, Dad, but I think I need to fly solo on this one."
Clark closed the barn door behind them and handed her the lit flashlight. Lana asked, "You don't need it, do you?"
"No. It's for you, so you don't miss your step."
"Don't mention it."
They walked towards the center of the barn, then Clark stopped. "Here it is."
"Here what is? In case you've forgotten, bub, I've seen the inside of a barn before."
"Not like this barn, you haven't."
Clark reached down through the dirt floor and grabbed a huge iron ring. He heaved it up, revealing a flight of steps heading down into what appeared to be a storm shelter.
Lana looked down the steps. "I think we're still in Kansas, Toto."
Clark wiggled his eyebrows up and down in a nervous attempt to lighten the mood. "Not for long."
He led the way down the steps and waited at the bottom. As Lana reached the floor of the shelter, Clark went back up the steps and pulled the cellar door shut.
"You know, big guy, you really don't have to work that hard to be alone with me."
"The thought never entered my mind." He lifted his index finger. "One more thing."
Clark floated up to the light fixture on the ceiling and pressed a panel beside it. The wall behind the stairs slid to one side, and a light came on in the newly opened room.
Lana peered around the stairs and stopped in her tracks. She looked at the ship sitting on the wooden rack, at the glowing globe in the wall fixture above it, and at the pieces of cloth inside the glass case. She looked for the source of the illumination, then realized the light was coming from the globe.
The sight fascinated her. "What's the price of admission?"
Clark's voice was tight. "It might be pretty high." He stepped into the room. "You can leave any time you want, Lana. Just say the word."
She shook her head. "Maybe I'm just dizzy from all the hits I've already taken, but I'm not leaving until I have the whole story."
"If that's really what you want."
"It is. You can start any time."
He nodded and pointed at the capsule. "I came to Earth on that ship. My folks said —"
"What! You did what?"
He stopped. "It might be best if I tell it in order, okay?"
"Uh. Yeah." She looked around. "You, uh, you got a chair in here?"
"I can get close." He picked up a small barrel and put it behind her. She sat down carefully.
"Better?" She nodded. "Okay, I'll try again. Just remember that no one else has ever heard this story, not like this."
"Right." She nodded again. "I'm okay now. Would you mind starting over? I'll try not to interrupt."
He smiled. "You already knew I was adopted, but you didn't know that my biological parents were Jor-El and Lara of the planet Krypton." He paused and looked at her.
"Don't stop now, it's just getting interesting."
"If you say so. My birth name is Kal-El. My father Jor-El was a scientist who discovered that Krypton was about to explode. So he put me in this little ship and sent me off to survive. The globe is an artificially intelligent computing device keyed to my DNA. My DNA, by the way, is practically identical to yours, so I'm not going to sprout another head or grow tentacles or suddenly turn green or anything like that."
"Uh-huh. We'll come back to that. Keep going."
He nodded. "I was about three months old when they sent me off. The globe's records say that the planet exploded less than a day later. The ship traveled through something, a wormhole, a subspace access tunnel, or maybe a water slide, I don't know, and ended up in Kansas nineteen subjective days later." He paused. "You doing okay?"
She nodded slowly. "So far. You ready for questions now, or should I hang on to them?"
He grinned. She thought she was handling it fairly well, and apparently Clark did too. "Just hold on. I'll answer any questions I can in a minute."
She waved one hand in a 'go-ahead' motion. "So tell me more. You were rocketed to Earth as an infant and found — where?"
"Shuster's Field, just southeast of Smallville. My folks were coming back from a doctor's appointment in Wichita." He ducked his head. "That's when they found out for sure that my mom couldn't have kids."
Lana didn't say anything, but she waved her hand again. Clark continued, "So, they saw something loud and bright smack down into the field beside the road. My dad got out and found the trench the ship had cut, then followed it to find me. They thought maybe I was a government experiment at first, you know, some kind of orbital baby test, so they hid me. No one ever asked them where they got me, except some of their friends, and after a couple of months they decided to say I was the orphan child of some distant cousin. The state adoption agency eventually granted them full and permanent custody. You know most of the rest."
Lana nodded slowly. "Question time?"
Clark steeled himself. "Shoot."
She wiggled her fingers. "It sounds like you're the last survivor of your people."
"How — " She licked her lips. "How does that make you feel?"
He shrugged. "It's hard to verbalize. I'm sad that all those people are gone, especially Jor-El and Lara, but since I have no memory of them, it's difficult to feel that loss. Besides, the Kents have been my parents as long as I can remember."
She nodded. "How long have you known about — " she gestured at the ship and the globe.
"Almost seven years. My folks decided I needed to know. I was mad at them at the time, but now I understand what a risk they took. I might have run away. I might have radically changed my behavior. I might have fallen into a catatonic state."
"But you didn't do any of those things."
He shrugged. "Not yet, at any rate."
She frowned in thought. "They showed you this about the time you started getting really strong, didn't they?"
"Yes. How'd you figure that out?"
She leaned forward. "I overheard the football coach one day raving at the principal about this middle schooler named Kent who was strong as an ox and fast as a panther. Those were his very words. He just knew you'd be All-State, All-American, and then All-Pro in short order. You quit the football team after your freshman year. I wondered about it at the time, but now I understand. You didn't want to hurt anyone, right?"
He nodded. "I didn't have enough control. I might have crippled someone."
She smiled. "That speaks well of you, Kal-El."
He stiffened slightly. "Any more questions?"
"Um. You don't want me to call you that, do you?"
"No. My name is Clark Kent."
"I'm sorry, Clark. I won't do it again."
He relaxed. "It's okay. I know you didn't mean anything by it."
"I didn't, really." She tilted her head. "Why does it bother you?"
He sighed. "Because I don't particularly want to be an alien. I want to be human. I want to fit in. I want to be a man, a real man, like my dad. Or like your dad."
"I think I understand. A little, anyway." She turned thoughtful. "I assume the globe told you all this and more?"
"How do you activate it? Does it only respond to you or can anyone play it?"
He frowned. "I don't know. I'm the only one who's tried to use it, as far as I know." He turned back to her. "Would you like to give it a shot?"
She stood. "Only if you want me to, Clark."
"I don't mind."
"That's not what I said." Her flat tone startled him. "I don't mean passive permission. What I mean is, do you actively want me to share that part of your life? Assuming the globe will even tell me anything, of course."
"Oh." He stood there, thinking, for a long moment. Lana wanted to shake him, to yank him into agreement, to force him to let her touch the globe, but she held herself as still as she possibly could. It was the longest nine seconds of her life.
Finally, Clark nodded. "If you're still here, it means you want to know more about me. I trust you. I want to share your life, and I want you to share mine. Therefore, yes, I want you to try the globe."
She allowed herself to breathe. "Thank you. I won't let you down."
He smiled. "I know. Here, hold your hands out. If it works with you like it does with me, it'll feel cold at first, then warm, and then you'll see and hear things in your mind. It might help to close your eyes and relax as much as possible."
She wiped her hands on her jeans. "Okay. Just one thing, okay?"
"Sure. What is it?"
"If I scream and drop this thing, you'll catch it before it hits the ground?"
He grinned sideways. "Promise. Now, hold out your hands. The globe is a little heavier than it looks."
"So I shouldn't try to dunk it?"
His grin expanded. "Not unless you want to pick up the pieces."
"Not really, no." She grimaced. "This thing looks like a basketball-sized planet."
"I think that's what Krypton looked like. Before it blew up, I mean." He held it in front of her. "Are you ready now?"
"Okay. Here you go."
She closed her eyes and stiffened her hands. It was indeed heavier than a basketball, but not so much so that she couldn't hold it. It felt cool at first, then waves of warmth caressed her fingers. Words formed in her mind, and she communicated with the globe without speaking aloud.
>>> You are not of Krypton. You are human. <<<
>>> You are also quite brave. <<<
You think so? I think I'm almost terrified here.
>>> You need not be afraid. No physical harm will result from interfacing with this unit. <<<
Okay, but I think the jury's still out on the 'me being brave' question.
>>> You are brave to explore something that is completely alien to you. <<<
I do like to try new things.
>>> That is a generally positive trait among intelligent species. You are also female. <<<
You sound surprised. And not a little condescending.
>>> Please do not anthropomorphize me. I am but an artificially intelligent computing device. <<<
Huh. A device with an attitude.
>>> You also appear to have what humans would consider a sense of humor. <<<
Thank you, I think. But I'm not here about me. Is there anything you can tell me about Clark?
>>> I assume you are speaking of Kal-El. <<<
There's that attitude again. His name is Clark Kent.
>>> I will refer to Kal-El as Clark if you prefer that I do so. What is it you wish to know? <<<
Whatever you can tell me. Preferably everything.
>>> You could not grasp 'everything' in one session. Nor could Kal-El — correction, Clark — were your positions reversed. <<<
You mean that he's human like me? He has limitations?
>>> All living beings have limitations. The fact that he is the sole survivor of an avoidable natural catastrophe should tell you that. <<<
Avoidable? You mean his planet didn't have to explode?
>>> The Krypton ruling council refused to hear Jor-El's evidence and his conclusions. It was politically expedient to ignore him. They censored his writings, denied him permission to speak publicly on the subject, and refused him permission to build a ship on which he might escape. He obeyed the literal dictates of the council, but constructed a smaller ship in which his son might escape the coming disaster. That ship is the one you see before you. <<<
So there are no more Kryptonites?
>>> They preferred the term 'Kryptonians,' but to respond to your query, no, according to my databases there are no other survivors. <<<
Can Clark — could Clark — if he and — a human woman — could they — um -
>>> My heuristic algorithms suggest that you wish to know if this particular Kryptonian male and a normal human female could breed successfully. <<<
Well, I was trying to be polite about it, but yes, that's my question.
>>> I believe so, but I am not certain. The base male human genetic structure and the base male Kryptonian genetic structure differ by approximately nine one-hundredths of one percent. I do not have sufficient data to determine conclusively if it is close enough to produce viable offspring, but the probability is above sixty-five percent. <<<
Sixty-five percent, huh? Does Clark know?
>>> He has never posed that particular query to me. <<<
And of course you haven't volunteered the information.
>>> I respond to queries and instructions. It is not my purpose to unilaterally initiate any action, including the dispensing of information. <<<
Okay. Let's talk about something else. What is Clark's purpose here?
>>> Part of Jor-El's original purpose in sending his son here was to preserve as much of Krypton's heritage as possible. Unfortunately, his son cannot sustain such a culture alone. My databases suggest that it would require a minimum population of 13,821 healthy adult Kryptonians of child-bearing age with a ratio of sixty-four females to thirty-six males to sustain such a complex culture, assuming the mechanization required to see to their needs and their safety was also present and fully functional. <<<
That's a lot of people.
>>> Compared to a normal planetary population of billions, it is not so many, but your point that we lack the additional 13,820 healthy adult Kryptonians to sustain such a civilization is well taken. Clark can, and will, function as a normal adult human male in human society. <<<
An adult male with some really special qualities.
>>> Also true. You, young lady, are well suited to assist him in his endeavors, should you wish to do so. <<<
Oh? How am I so suited?
>>> You are young, you are healthy, you are intelligent, you obviously care a great deal about him, and you are flexible enough to stand up to massive amounts of new data. <<<
Thanks. Hey, we're off the subject. What's Clark's purpose here?
>>> I cannot give him a purpose. He must create one for himself. <<<
How's he supposed to do that?
>>> I suggest that you have now found your own purpose. Clark will require support and assistance from people he trusts in order to fulfill whatever purpose he chooses. I speculate that you are one of those suited to assist him. <<<
You mean there are others?
>>> Of course. You are unique, but others share many of your better physical and intellectual qualities. <<<
But I love him! I want to marry him!
>>> Such feelings and desires are beyond my programmed parameters. Engaging in such a relationship must be his choice as well as your own. <<<
So, it's okay with you if we get married?
>>> As I said, I have neither information nor opinion on the matter. But you must be forewarned. If he continues on the path he is currently considering, there will be grave danger for both of you. <<<
Path? What path are you talking about?
>>> Clark has secretly rescued a number of people from injury or death in the past several months. I suspect he has not informed you of all that he has done. <<<
No, not everything, but some. I just found out about him, remember?
>>> True. But the probability is that, if he continues this course of action, he will be discovered soon. This would be dangerous for anyone close to him. <<<
Dangerous how, like maybe dead?
>>> That is one possible outcome, yes. <<<
You can tell the future?
>>> No. I can only compute probabilities. I compute that, if the two of you continue on your current path together, one or both of you will face mortal danger within fifteen years. <<<
What? You're saying that one of us will die before we're thirty- three?
>>> No, that is not my meaning. Mortal danger does not automatically imply death. Do not alarm yourself. This is not a prophecy of doom. I speak not of death, but of danger. I do not tell the future, I only compute probabilities. I will delineate the equations for you if you wish to examine them yourself. <<<
No thanks. I'll just play it safe.
>>> A wise choice at any time. Is there anything else you require, Lana? <<<
You know my name!
>>> I know many things about you. That is how I am able to compute these probabilities. Now that you have heard the result of these computations, however, your knowledge becomes a part of the equation, and the probabilities will change. <<<
For the better or the worse?
>>> I will have to recalculate them. It will require some time. <<<
Let's save it for the next session, okay?
>>> As you wish. If you choose to terminate this session, simply tell me 'good-bye.' >>>
Uh, okay. You already know my name. Would you tell me what your name is before we sign off?
>>> I do not require one, therefore I do not have one. <<<
Oh. What if I give you a name?
>>> For what purpose? <<<
Oh, I guess I just want to anthropomorphize you.
>>> You are attempting to be facetious. I can identify attempts at humor, but I cannot appreciate them as a human might. If you wish to do so, you may assign me a name. It might facilitate our future interaction. <<<
Let me think about it. I'll let you know what I come up with next time we talk.
>>> That is acceptable. <<<
>>> Good-bye, Lana. <<<
Lana slowly opened her eyes and looked at Clark. "Wow."
"That didn't take long." Clark took the globe from her and held it up for a moment, then frowned. "It talked to you?"
He frowned. "You must have spoiled it. Now it won't talk to me."
She looked at the globe. "Maybe he doesn't have anything to say right now."
"'He?' The globe is a mechanical device, Lana, not a living creature."
She lifted an eyebrow. "Maybe so, but I think I'm going to call him 'Bob.'"
Clark's eyes widened dramatically. "'Bob?' Why Bob?"
"Why not Bob? Besides, he told me I could give him a name."
"Oh." He looked closely at the globe again, then put it in its holder. "Sounds like you two have quite a relationship going already."
She took his hands in hers. "It's merely an extension of our relationship. Like a woman falling in love with a man who already has a dog."
He grinned. "Maybe you should call the globe 'Rex' instead."
She laughed. "Oh, sure, that'd go over real well. The only trick he'd be able to do would be to roll over." She tugged on his hands. "Let's find out what your mother's come up with."
Clark glanced at his watch. "Maybe we should save that for another time. It's late, and I need to get you home."
"Okay." She gave him a sly grin. "Can I tell Dad about our wedding plans?"
He stopped and stared at her. "You — you still want to marry me?"
She almost gave him a flippant answer, then she saw the trepidation behind his eyes. Even now, she realized, he was afraid to lose her to the truth about himself.
She reached up and kissed him passionately and gently. "Yes, Clark. I want to be your wife, now and forever." She hugged as much of his deep chest as she could reach around. "I love you truly, deeply, intensely, and permanently. I will never leave you, not as long as I live, no matter what I might learn about you."
Clark ducked his head to her shoulder and embraced her in return. She held him as he sobbed out his fear of being alone.
She stood there and held him until his tears subsided. Her own tears mixed with his and knit them even closer together.
Even through the emotional storm of the moment, Lana retained enough presence of mind to mark a victory on her mental scoreboard. It was her mother's legacy, given unintentionally when her parents had separated, then divorced. She'd realized that her mother had lost the battles that mattered to her: where they would live, how they would live, how much money her mother could spend, what face they would present to their neighbors, and Lana had begun scoring her life from the day she'd lost the battle to keep her mother at home. She was determined to finish with more wins than losses.
She never told anyone about the scoreboard, not her father or her pastor or the counselor she'd cried with after her mother had left them. The scoreboard would let her keep track of her life and allow her the control she believed she had to have. No one would betray her again. No one would destroy her world again. She'd be in charge, not anyone else, not even the young man whose happiness she now considered more important than her own.
Her motto was not 'Victory or Death,' but it wasn't far from it.
Lana pranced lightly through her front door and closed it as quietly as possible. She assumed her father would be up, as he had warned her he would be, but she didn't want to awaken him if he'd already journeyed to the land of Nod. She took off her shoes and started past the dining room.
"Welcome home, young lady. Do you know what time it is?"
Lana forced her skin to stay put and barely convinced her heart not to leap out of her chest. "Yes, Dad, it's three minutes before one."
Professor Lang smiled. "And I thank you for respecting me as much as you do. Most girls in your —"
"Please, Dad! 'Young women,' not 'girls.' Be sensitive."
He nodded. "My apologies. Most 'young women' in your situation would take advantage of the opportunity and freedom of the night to engage in all manner of, shall we say, personally pleasing activities. You, however," he said as he pulled out a chair, "are quite certain of the future you want for yourself. I am both thankful and proud."
She dimpled and sat. "Thank you, my learned and kind and thoughtful parent."
He frowned. "Uh-oh, major flattery alert. What is it you have to tell me?"
She took his hand. "First of all, I'm still headed for Kansas State to major in archaeology, assuming they'll take me. I still want to work with you in the field. Second, I asked Clark to marry me."
His face almost fell off his head. "You — what?"
She giggled. "I asked Clark to marry me! And he said yes!"
"Oh." He struggled to control his voice and his expression. "I — I see. Have you asked his mother for his hand?"
"What?" Then she laughed. "Sure, I get it! Complete role reversal. I'll ask her tomorrow."
"Ah. In that case, will you have to postpone the nuptials?"
She laughed again and shook her head. "We haven't gotten that far in the planning stage, Dad. I think Clark's folks will go for it. I just — I need to know that I have your blessing." She looked deep into his eyes. "What do you say?"
He shook his head. "If I do not give my blessing, will you call off the wedding?"
"You're kidding, right?" He didn't answer. She lost her happy place. "Dad, tell me you're just yanking my chain." He looked away. "Dad? Is it — do you disapprove of Clark?"
"Of Clark? No, no, he's a fine young man, talented and stable, has good prospects, and his parents couldn't have done a better job of raising him. It's not Clark that concerns me."
He stood and began pacing. "Lana, do you know how many promising young men and women have begun an archaeology degree and never finished because of family pressure? Succeeding in school is hard enough without the added burden of a family. You know how competitive this profession is! If you turn down a field assignment because of your family, you might never get another! And many young people who marry early don't ever get that first field assignment for that very reason.
"And what about Clark? Assuming he travels with you, what would he do while you're at a dig for eight to twelve hours a day? Would he be willing to live in a tent with no electricity or running water or indoor plumbing and do nothing for weeks or months at a time? Could he sacrifice his own career for your sake? Or would he wait at home alone for weeks at a time, missing you and eventually resenting you for being gone so much?" He sat beside her and stroked her face once. "My darling daughter! I can't count the number of divorces I've witnessed because of this vocation." He touched her hair. "I couldn't bear to see you hurt like that."
She grabbed his hand and kissed it. "Dad, I love you! I know why you're telling me this, and I know you're not exaggerating. I understand the dangers, really I do! But I love Clark too! I couldn't bear to be apart from him. Especially after tonight."
Professor Lang sat up straight and dropped his chin again. Lana puzzled over his expression for a moment, then suddenly realized one possible interpretation of what she'd said. "No! No, Dad, it's not what you think! Honest! Clark has always been a perfect gentleman!"
"I see. I take it, then, that you have also been a perfect lady?"
She flushed. "Let me be clear about this. Clark and I have never had sex together, not tonight or at any other time. Is that graphic enough?"
Her father turned his gaze away as his own face reddened. "I — see. I apologize, Lana. I should have known that you would understand the consequences of such a course of action."
"I do, and yes, you should have." She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "But I love you for caring, and for being concerned and not slamming me about it." She knuckled his head. "You're a pretty good dad."
He captured her hands. "I do my best, alone as I am."
She slowly sank into the chair beside him. "That's part of it, isn't it? Mom left you alone with me and you don't want it to happen to me and your grandchildren. Isn't that right?"
He closed his eyes. "I still love her, you know. That's why I so rarely see her. It enrages me still to see her with that — that money-grubbing weasel!"
"I know, Dad, I know. I don't know what she sees in him either, unless it's that he's home every night. That and the bling- bling."
"Bling-bling? What's that?"
"It's your new word for the day. Bright shiny baubles. Like the stuff a magpie collects because it's pretty, not because it's valuable."
"Ah. Bling-bling. Your mother's new nickname."
She grinned a little. "It suits her, don't you think?"
He sighed and nodded. "Yes. She couldn't stand my being gone so often. Not enough money, too many digs, too many overseas trips, too many days and nights away from home." He sighed. "It's a wonder that you didn't leave with her."
She tilted her head in curiosity. "She asked me to."
His entire body shook as if suddenly electrified. "What? She wanted you to leave with her?"
Lana frowned. "I thought you knew, Dad. When you left that morning to go to Greenland, Mom asked me to leave with her. I told her I was staying with you, that I loved you and would never leave you. She didn't want to leave a nine-year-old girl at home alone for three weeks, so she stayed until the morning you came back." She wiped a tear from her eye. "Right up until she got into the car with the weasel, I thought she'd turn around and come back. But she never did." Lana sniffed and forced a smile. "She may have walked out on us, but we still have each other."
He smiled softly. "Only as long as you remain unmarried. And before you protest, I refuse to stand in the way of your happiness. If you truly love Clark, and he loves you, and he understands exactly what he's letting himself in for, I think you two should indeed be married."
Lana threw her arms around her father's head and squeezed. "Oh, Dad, thank you! Thank you so much!"
"Mphgh kff brrff!"
She relaxed her arms and he inhaled deeply. "I said, 'I can't breathe!' Surely, my darling daughter, you'll not asphyxiate me before I can walk you down the aisle!"
The phone rang the next morning as she stepped out of the shower. "Hello, this is Lana Lang."
"Hello yourself, fellow graduate. How was your conversation with your dad last night?"
"Oh, quite enlightening. We talked about college and archaeology and my mom and the weasel and my future. I told him I'm still planning to follow in his fossilized footsteps."
"Speaking of college, have you picked one yet?"
"Not yet. I'm still waiting for a couple of responses, but I think I can get into Kansas State on at least a partial scholarship. You still heading that way yourself?"
"I think so. What else did you two talk about?"
"Oh, a bunch of father-daughter stuff. Like how responsible you and I are to remain celibate."
"Under the circumstances, don't you think that was a good idea?"
"My dear loving fiance, I think that's an outstanding idea under any set of circumstances."
"So, you didn't tell him?"
"About my asking you to marry me? Of course I did!"
"No, I mean about — the other stuff."
"I did not."
"Oh. Any particular reason?"
"Well, the subject never came up, actually."
"I see. Look, is your dad there now?"
"No, he left for the museum before I got up. We can talk freely."
"Good. Was there a particular reason you didn't tell him?"
"Flying saucers and space aliens aren't usually part of our normal evening discourse."
"But if —"
"What? Lana, what happened?"
"I pulled through on a knot in my hair."
"Why did you do that?"
"I'm combing my hair, smart guy! I just got out of the shower!"
"Oh. I didn't know that."
"Good. I need some privacy from those wondrous eyes of yours."
He sighed. "Would you answer my question?"
"Which question, Clark?"
"About why you didn't tell your father everything."
"Because it's your secret, not mine. Besides, I think there's still a lot more for me to learn."
"What makes you think that?"
"Come on, big boy! You're too deep to tell me everything about yourself in one night."
"Lana, I don't have any more secrets, honest."
She grinned. "I don't mean secrets, you big hunk. There are things about me you need to learn, and things about you I need to learn. It's called love, in case you'd forgotten."
She heard him whack the phone against his head. "Lana, I'm sorry! I'm — preoccupied, I guess. I love you very much."
She would have tweaked his nose had she been able to. "I know you do. And I love you too, you mindless drone! Hey, when can I come over and ask your mother for your hand?"
"You're — what?" He was silent for a moment. "I suppose this evening is a good time."
"Great! I'll bring some fried chicken and coleslaw. I have a new recipe I've been wanting to try out."
"Okay. I'll warn them — I mean, I'll let them know you're bringing dinner."
"Nice catch there, Speedy. I hope you're quicker than that when you stop car wrecks."
He was silent again. "How did you know about that?"
Lana was silent for a moment in return, then she sighed deeply. "I didn't. But I think we probably need to talk about that disguise sooner than I thought we would."
"Lana, this is really good chicken! What did you do differently?"
"Thanks, Mrs. Kent. I just used a different kind of oil."
"Oh? What brand of oil did you use?"
"I think the label said Quaker State."
Jonathan coughed and almost choked. Clark dropped his chicken leg from nerveless fingers onto his plate and stared at his girlfriend, horrified. "You used motor oil?" he spluttered.
Martha and Lana fell against each other and laughed themselves breathless. Jonathan looked at his son's expression and joined them.
Clark eventually regained a cautious smile. "I'm guessing that was a joke."
"Just be glad I — he-he-he — used the high-viscosity formula."
Clark's parents laughed again. Jonathan managed to say, "The other stuff — really gets thick — especially during cold weather!"
Lana nearly fell out of her chair, but Clark caught her before she hit the floor. Martha held onto the table until she regained her equilibrium, then quickly excused herself. Jonathan winked at Clark and followed her.
When everyone was seated again, Clark took a chicken thigh from the basket in the middle of the table. "Lana, I don't care how you cooked it, it tastes great."
Martha patted Lana's hand. "It's true, dear, the chicken is delicious. And I like the spiciness of the coleslaw, too."
Lana smiled. "Thanks. I was a little concerned about that until I remembered the chili cook-off award Mr. Kent won two years ago."
"Do you mean my 'Most Likely to Spontaneously Combust' trophy?"
"The very one! My dad liked it too. He said that chili isn't chili unless it makes your forehead drippy with sweat."
Jonathan chuckled. "I like the way he thinks."
Lana stripped off the last of the meat from a wing, then put the bone down and wiped her hands. "Mmm. It's got to be good when the cook likes it." She took a sip of tea. "Anyway, I have something I need to talk to all of you about."
Jonathan nodded. "Clark's college plans."
Martha shook her head. "No, it's about his new costume."
"Mom! That thing —"
Lana waved her hands. "No, no! Those are important, but this is even more important. And it's just as serious." She turned to Martha. "Mrs. Kent, I would like to ask you if I might have the hand of your son."
Martha smiled indulgently, then looked closely at Lana's eyes. Her smile slowly faded. "You really mean this, don't you, Lana?"
"Yes, I do. What is your answer, please?"
Martha stared at her for a moment, then sat back. "Have you discussed this with your own father?"
"Yes. He was reluctant at first because of his own past history and my career plans, but he gave me his blessing."
"Your past history?"
"Yes. You know my mother left my father for another man when I was nine? He's concerned that my chosen career would interfere with my family life."
Martha patted Lana's hand. "I remember when your mother left. And I think your father has done a marvelous job as a single parent."
Lana ducked her head for a moment. "I thank you in his stead, but I believe that's part of his reluctance too. He's brought a couple of his female friends home before, and I don't think I made them very welcome. I think he's worried that I don't have a very good family model to follow."
"So your father doesn't want you to get married as long as he's single?"
"It's not that. He just doesn't want me to end up with a broken family of my own."
"Dear, no parent wants that for his or her children. Did he really give his blessing, or did you talk him into it?"
"I think I helped him to realize that I understand why he's reluctant, but I also think he knows that I'm not my mother. I don't plan to follow in her footsteps, I assure you."
"I see. Have you spoken to Clark about marriage?"
"Last night in this kitchen, sitting in his lap."
Martha struggled not to smile. "I remember that, too. And — what was his response?"
Lana sighed. "Later, in the barn, down in the little hidey-hole, he said yes. Not in so many words, I guess, but the intent was unmistakable."
This time Martha did smile. "And how do you intend to live? When do you intend to marry?"
"We haven't talked much about that, not since last night. That's going to change some things."
Lana shrugged. "It'll make some things easier and some things harder. I haven't thought through all the possible permutations yet."
Martha glanced at Clark, who also shrugged. "She named the globe 'Bob.'"
"I see. Well, the only question I have left is this: Do you love my son?"
Lana ducked her head for a moment, then lifted it. Lana could see her reflection in Martha's liquid eyes. "Yes. I love him more than I love breathing. I love him with a depth and power that cannot be stopped. I love him so much that I would give him to another woman if that's what would make him happy."
Out of the corner of her eye, Lana saw Jonathan reach over and give Clark's arm a fatherly squeeze. Clark settled back and didn't say anything.
Martha took Lana's hands in her own and kissed them. "Lana, dear, if that space ship had held a girl, I hope she would have been be a lot like you. I think you'll be a marvelous wife for my son, and a wonderful daughter-in-law for Jonathan and me. Yes, you may seek the hand of my son."
Lana stood and kissed Martha on the forehead, then turned and kissed Jonathan on the cheek. Clark stood and received her as she stepped to him. Their kiss was brief but powerful.
Lana wiped her eyes and looked at Clark's parents. "Thank you, both of you. I'll do my best to be the world's finest wife."
Clark brushed her hair back. "No one could be better than you. I love you."
Martha stood and touched Jonathan's arm. "Come, dear, let's leave these young people alone."
Lana turned abruptly. "No! I mean, please stay." She wiped her nose on a paper napkin. "There are some other things I think we need to talk about tonight."
Martha nodded and sat down again. Lana pulled her chair next to Clark's. "Suitor's privilege," she grinned.
Martha raised her hand. "Speaking of suits —"
Clark groaned and Lana giggled. "Oh, yes, I'd love to see it. Will you model it for me, please, Clark, darling, please, sweetheart?"
Clark looked around the table, then shook his head in surrender. "As if I had any real choice."
He stood and left. Lana started to speak, but Martha smiled and held up her hand. "Wait a second. I think you'll like it."
Lana turned her head in time to see Clark walk out in a bright blue form-fitting spandex outfit with red shorts, red boots, and a long red cape. He folded his arms across his chest and stared as if daring anyone to laugh.
Lana's eyes popped. She stood and slowly walked around him, nodding and making small panting noises. She made two complete circuits, then stopped in front of him and gazed admiringly into his face.
Clark shook his hands, demanding a response. "Lana? What do you think?"
Lana regained control of her jaw and said, "Well, they won't be looking at your face."
"Well, Clark, that's —"
Martha joined in and finished in unison with her, " — why they call them 'tights'!"
Clark huffed and turned away. "That's it! I'm not wearing this stupid —"
Lana's voice cut through the air like a scythe. "Clark Kent! Come back here right now!"
Clark turned and stepped towards her slowly, his eyes narrowed. "Lana, we aren't married yet, and even when we are —"
"You won't talk to your mother like that, I guarantee! Now how many costumes did she make before this one?"
He ducked his head. "Four."
"And you shot down all of them, didn't you?"
He scraped the floor with his foot. "Well, it was kinda mutual, I guess. This one was her favorite, but —"
"It's my favorite too! It's heroic! It commands attention, which is what you want it to do! It pulls an observer's eyes from your face and makes itself known! It looks — you look bigger, taller somehow. Are you puffing up your chest?"
"No. The boots have an extra-thick sole, and the top is tight. It just makes me look bigger. Same reason I don't go swimming without a t-shirt. Loose clothes make my body look smaller."
Lana nodded. "Works for women, too, although you — " she sighed and shook herself. "Never mind. There's something missing, though. The colors are great, I really like the cape and the boots, but the chest seems a little bare. You need a symbol of some kind, something kind of logo or something, so people can recognize you."
Martha frowned. "Maybe — maybe — yes! I think I know!" She jumped up and ran into Clark's room. When she came back, she was carrying a red blanket with a yellow symbol on it. "Clark was wrapped in this when we found him in the ship. It's the only piece that's not under the barn. I have no idea what the material is, but maybe this S-shaped symbol will do the trick. What do you think?"
Lana looked at it, then smiled at Martha. "I think you're brilliant. This is why they pay you the big bucks, isn't it?"
Lana walked around Clark again, then a second time, then a third time. "Put your hands on your hips and lift your chest."
He did so. She forced herself not to sigh in admiration and to be as objective as possible. She took another lap around him. "That looks good to me. Mrs. Kent, any more fabulous ideas?"
Martha shook her head. "Lana, if you're planning to marry my son, and if you're going to be a part of his life, you need to start calling me by my first name."
Lana smiled warmly. "Thank you. That's very kind of you — Martha." She gestured at Clark again. "So, what do you think?"
Martha put her chin in her hand and looked closely. "The costume is good. I'm just not sure — the hair. Clark, you'll have to do something with your hair."
He dropped his hands to his side. "Like what, wear a wig?"
Martha giggled. "Too hard to carry around. No, I think if you slick back your hair and look as stern as you can as often as possible, it will make it that much harder for people to recognize you."
Clark exhaled forcefully. "Tell me one more time why a mask is a bad idea."
Lana smiled. "Masked heroes are pretty much passe, Clark. Zorro and the Lone Ranger are old school. Besides, you want to appear open and completely above-board. You don't want to look like you're hiding something. Folks are going to have a hard enough time getting used to an ultra-strong flying man as it is."
Jonathan sipped his coffee and cleared his throat. "That brings up one more item. Who are you?"
Clark gaped at his father. "What do you mean, who am I? What are you talking about?"
"What's your name? What will people call you? When they yell for you, or at you, what will they call out? 'Help, Mr. Really Strong Flying Man with Other Fantastic Abilities?' That's a bit clumsy."
Clark shrugged. "I'm open to suggestions."
Lana and Martha began calling out names as Jonathan made the judgment call.
"Big Strong Man."
"Makes him sound like a dumb hick."
"Which I'm certainly not!"
"Not now, Clark. What about Quickman?"
"Not bad. We'll keep it in mind."
"I don't think we want any religious overtones here, either way."
"How about just Speedy?"
"Mmm, don't think so. Doesn't capture what we want to communicate."
"I like it. That one goes in the kitty."
"The Red Streak."
"Or The Blue Streak?"
"The Red-And-Blue Streak!"
"Might be what he'll look like in flight, but I'm not sure it'll trip off the tongue."
"Hmm. Not too bad, but maybe a little long still."
"What about Super-Strong?"
"I think we need to keep some sort of humanity aspect in the name, or people might think he's a robot of some kind. They might think that anyway."
"Good. That's in the kitty too. That's the kind of name he needs, short and descriptive and with plenty of pop."
They suddenly ran out of mental fuel. Lana shook her head. "I think we can do better than Power Man! We need to prime the mental wells here." She stood. "Clark, can you list the kinds of things you can do? It'll help us think."
Clark folded his arms and pouted. "I'm glad you all remembered I was actually here."
Lana reached out and hugged him. "Oh, darling, I'm sorry! I just get so focused I kinda get tunnel vision sometimes." She reached up and kissed his cheek. "Forgive me?"
He softened. "As if I had a choice."
They kissed. They kept on kissing. After a moment, Martha cleared her throat. "Excuse me, but we're still in the room with you."
Clark reddened and released Lana, who grinned and patted him on the chest. "Okay, Clark, let's talk about my favorite subject, you. Can you list the kinds of things you can do?"
"If you think it'll help."
She shrugged. "It sure can't hurt."
"Well, I can fly, I'm extremely strong, I can heat things up with my eyes, I can focus on things really far away, I can look at really small things and magnify them, I can see through almost anything except lead, I can run so fast I'm almost invisible, I can hear things no one else can hear like really soft sounds and radio and TV transmissions, I can freeze things by breathing on them —"
"Whoa!" Lana gaped. "Tell me about that last one again."
"Oh. I just figured that one out. A couple of weeks ago I found an unopened soft drink bottle in the barn. I washed it off and started to open it, but it was hot and I didn't want to wait for it to cool off in the fridge, so I blew on it."
He blushed slightly. "And it froze solid and exploded. I was left with shards of glass all over the barn, a bottle-shaped chunk of caramel-flavored carbonated ice, and nothing to drink."
"So let's not use Cold-Blowing Man."
The Kents both chuckled. Clark paced and waved his hands. "Now that I'm embarrassed again, how does this help?"
Lana crossed her arms over her chest and frowned. "Except for the flying and the heating things up part, you don't do much that normal humans can't do, you just do them extremely well." She snapped her fingers. "Extreme Man? How does that sound?"
Jonathan lifted his eyebrows. "Terrific, if he's on a snowboard."
Lana's grin faded. "Yeah, that's kinda what I thought, too."
Martha said, "It may not be the right name, but I think it's the right direction. Why not focus on single-word synonyms for 'extreme' and see what we come up with?"
Clark lifted his hands. "Whoa! Stop! No way! I absolutely positively refuse to be called 'Resplendent Man!' What about this?"
The other three stared in amazement as he pointed to his chest. "Look, we all know this isn't really an 'S.' It's the symbol for the House of El, but no one else needs to know that. Why not come up with a name that starts with 'S' and give me some peace?"
Jonathan, Martha, and Lana exchanged glances, then almost as one they pointed to Clark and shouted, "Superman!"
Clark crossed his arms and paced the floor, thinking. Finally he stopped. "I can't say that I like it, but it's better than Stupendous Man or Superb Man. And it even beats Ultra Man."
Martha stood. "Then it's settled. You'll be known as 'Superman' when you make your public debut."
All four of them suddenly stopped. Jonathan looked around at them and asked, "And when will that happen?"
Lana put her hand on Clark's elbow. "I think that should be up to Superman."
Clark lifted his eyebrows. "How's about I get used to the name first?"
Lana returned home that evening, tired but happy. Her father looked up from the magazine he was reading as she walked through the front door.
"Hi, Kitten. Have a good time?"
She smiled. "I was with Clark. Of course I had a good time."
He patted the sofa beside him. "Sit with me for a few? I'd like to talk."
She nodded. "Sure. What's the interrogation about?"
"Oh, I don't think I'd characterize this as an interrogation."
She sat down and cocked her head to one side. "I'll let you know if it turns into one. What are we talking about?"
"About Clark. And about you."
She folded her arms and leaned back. "What about Clark and me?"
"Easy, sweetheart, I'm just asking for information. I was, um, a little abrupt with you last night, and I'd like to make it up to you."
"Oh." She relaxed. "Well, we still don't have any definite plans, other than attending the same school, assuming we're both accepted by the same school, and we still plan to get married some time in the future, the timing of which also depends on other things."
He nodded. "Okay. Would you like for me to make a couple of discreet phone calls? Maybe I can tug on some strings. For both of you, that is."
She hesitated. "Dad, I know I got upset with you last year when you suggested this, but I think I've changed my mind. I know Clark's been accepted at University of Kansas, Oklahoma State, Western Michigan, and Metropolis U in New Troy. I'm still waiting for responses from some of those schools and a couple of others. If I don't hear what I'd like to hear, I'll hand you the phone myself."
He picked up the mail. "Well, you got two thick envelopes and one thin one today. Maybe this will help."
She snatched all three envelopes and began shredding the thinnest one. "What! You had these and didn't call me and didn't tell me the nanosecond I walked in? What kind of horribly cruel father are you, anyway?"
He smiled. "One with his priorities intact, I would hope." He watched as she scanned the first letter. "What does that one say?"
"It's from Western Michigan. They say they'd take me and make some kind of scholarship available if I really wanted to come, and they'd be thrilled to have me, but they think I'd be happier at another school. The archaeology department is being revamped, and they're not taking any incoming freshmen with archaeology majors this year, and maybe not next year either."
He nodded. "It's scholastic code. Sometimes 'revamping the department' means they've lost some funding, or maybe some big names left for one reason or another and haven't been replaced yet. I can find out if you really want to know. This isn't that big a field, after all."
"Well, that really wasn't my top choice anyway. Let's see what Metropolis U says."
She tore open the envelope and yanked out a sheaf of paper. "Hmm. Application for dorm housing, for financial aid, scholarship info — hey, they'll give me half a free ride for the first two years, and the last two free and clear if I maintain a minimum 3.2 grade average. Not bad. I'll have to think hard about that."
"They only want four B's and one A from you each semester? You could do that in your sleep."
"As you've so often pointed out to me, Dad, college is lots harder than high school."
"I'm glad you were listening. The other one is from the University of Kansas. What do they say?"
"I don't know yet! I don't — Give me a chance to open it, okay?"
She mentally bit her tongue. She'd almost said she couldn't read it because she didn't have Clark's X-ray vision. It seemed "the secret" might be a heavier burden than she'd originally thought.
Lana finally got the last envelope open. She read the cover letter and the accompanying documents without saying a word. Finally her father couldn't wait any longer. "Will you please tell me what it says, preferably before I snatch that page right out of your hands?"
"I got in." She lowered the paper. "And I have a three-quarter academic scholarship for all four years, provided I'm willing and able to participate in at least six months of on-site field work during those four years. And the field work counts towards my degree, just like a lab." Her eyes glowed. "Dad, they're giving me college credit to do something I'd do for free! Isn't that just insanely great?"
"Totally gnarly, dudette."
She roared with laughter. "My pop, the surfer! Just call you Moon Doggie! Hey, here's the class schedule. Let's see, I think I can handle twelve class hours my first semester, and maybe fifteen the second, or eighteen if I don't sleep much —"
"Only twelve hours the first semester? That'll make for some long summer school sessions."
"I'll have to work part-time, at least. They're not paying for books or meals or even full tuition."
He shook his head. "No, but I am."
She goggled at him. "What? You and I both know we don't have that kind of money! We're talking a couple thousand a semester, at least! And that's if I live at home, and that would be one whale of a commute!"
He smiled and patted her hand. "I've been saving up for this very eventuality. I have a little over seventeen thousand dollars in a special account that's reserved just for you, Lana." He kissed her hands. "I presume you thought I was losing weight because I was eating right and exercising." He grinned. "I simply wasn't eating."
"But — Dad, you —"
"No. It's settled. Besides, you have to save your own money for your dowry."
She grimaced. "My dowry? That's an outmoded concept at best, Dad."
"Maybe so, but at least we aren't arguing over my contribution to the education of my future dig partner any more, are we?"
She grinned. "I guess not. I'll have to call Clark and bring him up to speed on all this."
Professor Lang sighed dramatically. "I certainly hope he grasps the information quickly. I won't have a dullard for a son-in- law."
Lana's mouth quirked. "You won't, Dad, I can assure you of that. Besides, Clark has talents you don't have any idea about."
"I don't doubt it. But I do doubt I'll ever learn about those talents. At least, not first-hand."
Lana stared at her father for a moment, then turned bright red. "Dad!"
It was a passive victory, but it went in her scoreboard's win column nonetheless.
A few nights later, after Lana had reluctantly gone home, Clark returned from a practice flight to find his father sitting on the front porch in his favorite rocking chair. He bounded up the steps, his brightly colored costume flashing in the starlight.
Jonathan nodded sagely. "Welcome back, son. Have a nice flight?"
Clark nodded like a ten-year-old at Christmas. "Oh, yeah! I learned something tonight."
"I don't think I show up on radar."
Jonathan chuckled. "I'm almost afraid to ask you how you know that."
"Oh, Dad, it was so cool!" Clark knelt down beside his father and used his hands to illustrate the description of his flight. "I went all the way over to O'Hare in Chicago and I listened in to the control tower and I flew back and forth at different altitudes but not so low someone on the ground could see me and they never picked me up and there was a plane having trouble so I followed it down almost to the runway and it landed fine and I flew away and did all kinds of acrobatics and they never saw me!" He stopped to take a deep breath. "It was soooo cool!"
Jonathan chuckled again and patted his son's arm. "I'm glad you enjoyed yourself. How's the practice coming?"
Clark fell backwards and stretched out on the porch. "Watch this!"
Jonathan obeyed. Clark slowly levitated above the wooden floor, an inch, four inches, a foot, then two feet. Then he rolled from his back to his stomach, all without changing his altitude, then lifted himself higher and rotated to a standing position with his head just below the porch roof.
He hovered for a moment, then slowly began rotating in place. Faster and faster he spun, until all Jonathan could see was flashing colors. Then Clark slowly reduced his spin rate until he was still again. Facing his father, he gently floated back to earth.
Jonathan clapped lightly and Clark bowed. "That was impressive, son. I see you've been working hard at this."
"I have. I can't wait to use it for real!"
Jonathan nodded and looked out over the fields again without speaking. Clark turned and reached for the doorknob, then hesitated.
"Is something wrong?"
"Hmm. No, nothing's wrong that I know of."
"Okay." He hesitated again. "Is something bothering you?"
Jonathan shifted in the rocker. "Now that you mention it, yes, something is bothering me."
Clark knelt down beside the rocker again. "Is it something you can tell me about?"
He rocked three times, then nodded slowly. "I think I should. Maybe you can ease my mind over it."
"Okay." He shifted into a sitting position with his elbows resting on upraised knees. "I'll do whatever I can."
"I know. See, that's what's bothering me."
Clark frowned. "Okay. That makes no sense to me, but, okay."
Jonathan sighed. "I wonder about Lana sometimes. She's so smart, so confident, so driven to succeed, and I have no doubt that she'll do exactly that. But sometimes she carries people along with her without their realizing it."
"Are you talking about that thing with the water tower last year? She didn't mean anything by it. She had an idea and those girls just went along with her. Nobody got hurt and they did their community service."
Jonathan shook his head. "Not that. Besides, the water tower needed a new coat of paint."
Clark tried to suppress a grin. "Florescent glow-in-the-dark pink?"
Jonathan laughed and Clark joined him. "Maybe not that shade. But it's not just the painting thing. Lana tends to take over whatever she's involved in and run it pedal to the metal."
"I don't understand. Is that a problem?"
"Not in and of itself, no, but I was thinking about the costume and the name and your new part-time job."
"My new — oh, you mean Superman!"
He jumped to his feet and struck a heroic pose. Jonathan reached out and tapped him on the hand. "Sit down, Son, we need to talk."
Puzzled, Clark complied, returning to his previous pose. "Okay."
"Clark, how often do you plan to be this — Superguy?"
Clark frowned. "Not very often. Only when I'm really needed."
"I see. How will you know that?"
He shrugged. "I guess — when people are in danger."
"What kind of danger? How much danger?"
"I — guess I haven't thought that much about it."
"You should. Are you going to help people at car wrecks?"
"Sure. Why wouldn't I?"
"How bad will the wrecks have to be before you respond?"
"Oh. I see what you mean." He shrugged again. "I suppose — when there's danger of people dying or being badly hurt, or if a wreck will take a long time to clear."
"Uh-huh. What if you hear of some other serious problem while you're helping someone?"
Clark opened his mouth and shut it again, then scratched his ear. "I hadn't really thought about that yet."
His father turned to face him. "You need to. You also need to think about the people you won't be able to help."
"Not be able to help? Dad, I'm Superman! How could I not be able to help?"
"Clark, what if you — oh, let's see — what if you respond to an avalanche in Colorado and there are four hikers buried separately under the snow? You'll have to locate them and dig them out, and while you can do it far faster than normal people, you'll have to choose who to help first. And if you dig up three and the fourth one dies before you get to him, what will you do?"
Clark's mouth flopped open and he shook himself, then turned away. Jonathan reached out and put his hand on his son's shoulder. "I'm not saying that's going to happen every time, Son, but you have to be prepared, and I'm not sure you're ready for something like that. Death is horrible, especially violent death." He paused and sat back. "You know I served in Korea?"
Clark didn't face him. "Yes."
"You know I don't talk much about it?"
Clark lifted his head, intrigued by the conversational thread. "Yes."
"I've never told you about the Silver Star they gave me, have I?"
Clark spun to face Jonathan. "No! I didn't know you'd won a medal."
"Then I'll tell you about it. No, don't say anything, just sit and listen."
He rocked for a moment and began. "It was May, nineteen-fifty- three, not long before the fighting ended. I was a staff sergeant, squad leader in a heavy weapons platoon. All of our officers were either out of action or away from the unit, so they put three squads together, told me I was in charge, and sent us off on our mission.
"We were supposed to dig in at the top of some hill I never knew the name of and defend it. I put two medium machine guns in the middle of our line and one heavy gun each at either end. I had the riflemen dig foxholes in a staggered pattern, one ten feet from the end machine gun and one fifteen feet down the line and ten feet back. It looked kind of like the black squares on a chessboard when they got through with them.
"Most of the guys in my outfit were new and they were scared to death. I was afraid they'd shoot each other, so I set up sticks on either side of the front foxholes and told the guys in back they couldn't shoot anything unless it was in front of them and between the two sticks.
"The hill in front of us wasn't very steep, but it was very uneven. I knew the North Koreans would either try to sneak up on us through the little gullies on the face of the hill or arrange a mass attack and try to overrun our position. I had one of my few veterans squirm down to the biggest cut below us and set up some land mines. Then I told the guys to sleep in shifts, four hours out and four awake, half at a time. I made sure they all ate something and had as much ammunition as they could keep track of. I don't think any of them even closed their eyes. All we could do was wait.
"Just before dawn, the mines down the hill went off. We sent up several parachute flares and lit up the hillside.
"There were several hundred North Koreans coming at us. As soon as they saw the flares they opened up on us with everything they had. I yelled for my guys to open fire, and the noise was horrible. It was worse than a tornado coming at you. It was worse than — than anything I can think of."
He stopped and took off his glasses, then rubbed his eyes. "We fired our rifles and our machine guns and threw grenades and yelled and screamed and did it all over again. I remember one rifleman, Jim something, who very coolly emptied his M-1, reloaded, shot several more Koreans, reloaded, and fired again. I remember thinking that he might make a soldier when he stood up to aim and got hit.
"I ran to him and yelled for a corpsman, but it was too late. The bullet had gone through his throat and out the back of his neck. He was dead before he hit the ground.
"I got mad. I threw all the grenades I had, then threw the ones Jim had, then I started firing my sub-machine gun. I had an old Thompson, one that took the big circular 100-round clips, and I had four of those magazines, fully loaded. I emptied all four of them.
"The guys told me later that the North Koreans had seen Jim fall and focused on his position to break through, but when I popped up and started firing, it blunted the attack. The machine gunners on our corners cut them down like wheat, and the gunners in the middle mopped up the few that were left.
"There were twenty-six of us on that hill that day. We stopped a battalion-strength attack on that hill and killed over six hundred of the enemy. We lost three dead and seven wounded."
He paused, then continued. "We had to stay in those holes for the rest of the day. They moved the dead and wounded out and brought in five or six replacements, and they were as terrified as the rest of us. I don't think there was one man in our outfit who hadn't filled his pants or vomited on himself or both.
"The smell was the worst of it, even worse than the moans of the wounded Koreans. We couldn't do anything for them. If we put our heads up out of our holes they'd shoot at us. Three more of our guys were hit during the day.
"Sometimes one of the guys would start shooting because he thought he saw a North Korean crawling at us. Usually, though, they were just shooting the dead." He paused and swallowed hard. "All that shooting blew some of the bodies apart. There were hands and arms and legs lying on the dirt, and the blood soaked the ground and drew flies and beetles and all kinds of scavengers. The crows were the worst. They usually went for the eyes first —"
"Dad!" Clark grabbed his stomach. "Please, that's enough. I get it. It was bad."
"No. It was horrible. Horrible in the worst sense of the word. It was the worst experience of my entire life.
"We waited all day for an attack that didn't come. That night we thought they were coming back for sure, but they didn't. Around midnight we were relieved and we crawled back to the rear."
He put his glasses back on. Even in the dark, Clark could see the tears in his father's eyes. "They gave me a medal for killing people, Son. I was fighting for my life and for the lives of my men, and they rewarded me for killing people." He paused and sniffed. "That's why I don't talk about it. I don't think I should have gotten a medal. I think Jim and the other two who died and the ten who were wounded should have gotten medals."
"But, Dad, you were a hero! You won a big battle!"
Jonathan shook his head. "No. The battle meant nothing to the war. The peace talks ended up giving that hill to the South only because it was below the thirty-eighth parallel." He clenched his fists. "We could have given the hill to the North and saved a lot of lives. It didn't matter. They would have given it back." He sobbed once. "All that death and it didn't matter!"
Clark put his hand on his father's shoulder. "Dad, I — I think I understand why you don't talk about it. It was — it was bad. It was bad for you and for everyone else there."
His father sat up and wiped his eyes. "Yes. It was bad. But I told you all that because you're going to see worse."
Clark shook his head. "I'm not going to war, Dad. I'm going to help people. I'm going to save lives."
Jonathan put his hand on his son's shoulder. "I know. And I'm proud of you. Don't ever think I'm not. But you have to remember that you can't save everyone. You have to be able to let it go at some point."
Clark ducked his head in thought. After a long moment, he said, "Okay. I'll see bad things and I won't be able to save everyone and I'll have to let it go. When will I know when to let go?"
Jonathan sighed. "I can't tell you that. I wish I could. I just know you'll need some help when it does happen. Will you let your mother and me help you?"
He thought some more. "I'll try. I'll talk to Lana about this, too, but yes, I'd like for you two help me."
"Good. Now, I think it's time this old man went to bed and got some quality sleep."
Clark grinned and stood. As he offered his hand to help his father up, he said, "Thanks, Dad. I'm glad I have you around to keep me stable."
Inside, Martha moved away from the window where she'd been listening. Even she had never heard the full story of that terrible day on that unnamed Korean hilltop. She dashed the tears from her eyes as she considered how lucky she was to be married to a man who felt so deeply and cared so strongly about life and living. It was probably a large part of the reason he enjoyed being a farmer, she thought. He was able to grow, to bring things to life, to replace that which had died. Maybe it eased the guilt he still carried inside him, even after all these years. She thanked the Lord yet again for matching her up with such a wonderful man.
She prayed that Lana would be able to give Clark the comfort she'd struggled to give Jonathan for so long. And she prayed that Clark, as his father eventually had, would accept her help and love.
Clark was sitting on the porch swing on Tuesday morning two weeks later when Lana drove up. He smiled and waved at her as she bounced up the steps.
She leaned in and kissed him ferociously. "Hey, big strong boyfriend! How's it going today?"
He nodded. "Okay. Have you heard the news today?"
"Didn't have the radio on. I was singing along with my new Reba album. Why?"
"I think I may have made my debut last night."
She softened her smile and sat down. "Oh." She looked admiringly at his profile. "Mind telling me what happened?"
He leaned back. "I was flying east, practicing, just looking at the stars, when I picked up a police radio talking about a hostage situation. I traced it to the Metropolis Federal Bank. There were three people with automatic weapons inside and two snipers with telescopic sights outside. They were demanding money and transportation out of the country or one hostage would die every fifteen minutes."
"What were the police doing?"
"What could they do? They were waiting for a break, but the first man they sent forward was shot and wounded by one of the snipers. The police couldn't spot them. The mayor's office told the police chief that no ransom would be paid. The chief was going nuts trying to figure out a plan, so I grabbed the snipers and delivered them to him, then I ran into the building and took away the machine guns and duct-taped the bad guys together. I stayed until the hostages were all out safely and the police had the gunmen, then I tried to leave."
"I assume you were wearing the costume."
"Yes, I was wearing the costume! I'm not exactly stupid, you know."
She patted him on the arm. "I'm sorry, darling. I didn't mean that like it sounded. Please go on."
He sighed. "Some newspaper reporter saw me and yelled at me. I tried to fly off, but he grabbed my cape and pulled me down."
"He pulled you down out of the air? He was that strong?"
"No, I let him pull me back. I couldn't risk taking off while he was holding on to me. I'm not real comfortable with the flying thing yet, remember?"
"Oh, yeah, right. So, what did he ask you?"
"Lots of things, most of which I answered with some version of 'no comment.' But when he asked me my name, I said, 'Some folks call me Superman.' You should have seen his face light up! He was so thrilled."
"What paper did this guy write for?"
"The Daily something, the Moon, no, the Earth, no, it was the Daily Planet! That was it, I think."
"That's a good paper! Did he ask you where you were from?"
"Yes. I told him I couldn't tell him that. Then he asked if I lived in Metropolis. I told him no, but I'd be around as often as I could."
She exhaled deeply. "Sounds like you did great. I'd like to read what the guy wrote about you."
Clark smirked and handed her the morning edition of the Daily Planet. "Here you go."
She gaped at him. "You ratfink! You made me think — oh, never mind! Gimme that!"
She quickly read the account of the hostage rescue, the interview with Superman, and she found no hint of his real name or his current whereabouts. "This is a good picture of you on the front page. Good body detail but not too much of your face. Hard to judge your height or weight from this, too." She closed the paper. "This Perry White guy — he's not a reporter, by the way, he's the managing editor, says so on the masthead — writes that you told him you were a friend who wanted to help."
"That's what I said when he asked me why I was here."
She hugged him. "Clark, this isn't quite what I envisioned as your coming-out, but I think it worked out great! You did something really good, you saved a bunch of people's lives, you looked really cool doing it, and you handled the press like a veteran. I'm so proud of you!"
"Thanks. That means a lot to me."
She ruffled the paper open again and began reading more carefully. After a few minutes, she mused, "You know, someone's going to make a lot of money off you."
Clark's eyebrows jumped onto his forehead. "Money? How? Why?"
Lana frowned. "'How' is on t-shirts and other clothing, endorsements, advertising, action figures, you name it. 'Why' is because people are greedy."
"But they can't do that, not without my permission! I'm a private individual!"
She shook her head. "Clark, I've seen this kind of thing happen before. Remember the Pharaoh Tutankhamen exhibit tour?"
"Sure. I did a report on it for English class."
"I remember that paper, it was good. But I did a case study on it for my accounting class. There's a King Tut foundation that controls all use of Tut's name, likeness, representation, or display anywhere. If you buy a legal Tut model, or Tut stationary, or Tut anything, the foundation gets a cut."
"Okay, I understand, but how does that affect me?"
"Think about it! If a guy who's been dead for more than three thousand years can stir up that kind of interest, what about a live guy who can fly and do all the other stuff you can do? You're going to be asked to do a lot of things to raise money, Clark, some worthy and some not. It would be easier if there was a foundation controlling those funds and telling people 'yes' and 'no' and setting up appearances and endorsements for you. You'll have to watch your public image very closely."
He sat back and frowned. "I'm not comfortable with being used to make money."
"Good. I'm glad to hear it. But someone's going to make money off you. You ought to have a say in what it's used for."
He sat still, thinking, for a long time. Lana quietly went into the Kent's kitchen and poured a glass of lemonade for each of them. She handed Clark's glass to him. He took it without a word and drained it. She sat beside him, silent, though the effort nearly broke her.
He finally sat up. "You're right. I'll do it."
She smiled and mentally chalked up a victory. "I'm glad. Have you thought about who's going to head it up?"
He nodded. "I'm going to visit the Daily Planet in Metropolis and talk to Perry White. He impressed me as an honest man. I think he can give me some recommendations and good advice, especially if I give him the exclusive about the foundation."
She patted his shoulder. "So, you've already named this organization?"
"Yep. It will be known as the Superman Foundation. Its purpose will be to legally control the use of my likeness, to control the money made on any Superman-sponsored endeavors, and to disburse the money as I see fit. I see lots of money being given to children's charities and hospitals and stuff like that."
"Sounds exciting. Can I give some advice, too?"
"Of course, Lana. It'll have to be anonymous advice, but, sure, I'd appreciate your input on this thing."
She grinned and mentally chalked up a half-win. "I'll give it some thought and put together a list. I should have something by the end of the week."
"No problem. As long as I don't get paid for what I do, that'll be okay with me."
She nodded, thinking that a discretionary fund for Superman's personal use would be a good thing to include. Four percent? No, that was too much. Besides, the foundation would rake in big bucks as long as Clark was thought of as a hero. And she'd make sure he was. She loved him, didn't she?
Lana knocked on the Kent's back door and smiled through the screen. "Hi, Martha. Is Clark here? I didn't see him when I drove up. We were supposed to meet this morning before I went to work."
Instead of answering, Martha pushed open the screen door. "Lana, how nice to see you! Please, come in and sit down. Have you had breakfast yet?"
Lana hesitated. "Yes, thanks. I'd really like to talk to Clark, though. There are a few things about college we need to discuss and we don't have much time —"
"He's down in the basement."
Lana frowned in confusion. "The basement? What's down there besides the laundry room and the furnace?"
Martha shook her head. "He's in the barn basement."
"Oh." Comprehension replaced confusion. "So, when's he coming up?"
"He's been down there since he got home last night."
"Last night? Why? What's wrong? What happened?"
"We don't know. I wouldn't have known he was there if his father hadn't been inside the barn cleaning the hay baler."
Lana stepped back and chewed her thumbnail. "He's been down there for, what, about twelve hours?"
"Almost. He's not done this before." Martha sighed. "I hope nothing bad happened last night."
"Something bad? What could have happened to Clark? He's pretty much hurt-proof, isn't he?"
"As far as we know, his body is, but I'm not so sure about his heart."
"His — heart, yes, of course." Lana stood and paced for a few moments. "Would you mind if I tried to talk to him?"
"We usually give him time to work out whatever it is that's bothering him, dear, but your relationship with him is your own. It's up to you."
Lana nodded and paced some more, then made a decision. "I'm going to try. I don't know how much good I'll do, but I have to try." She put her hand on the older woman's arm and gave her a reassuring squeeze. "Wish me luck."
"I wish you love, Lana."
Lana hesitated, then leaned close and kissed Martha on the cheek. "Thank you."
The barn was unusually quiet. The morning sun slanted through the spaces between the wall slats. Lana made her way to the iron ring in the floor, but she wasn't strong enough to pull the door open. She settled for lifting the ring and letting it clang back in place three times. He had to know she was there. If Clark didn't open the door after that noise, he simply wasn't going to talk to her.
She waited for an interminable time, trying to control both her fears and her imagination. What could have happened to drive him here and keep him from his family? Had she moved too fast, pushed him too hard? Had she scared him away from her? Was there something else he hadn't told her about himself, something he was certain would make her run screaming in any direction that was away from him?
She whispered, "Come on, Clark, open up and let me in."
She stopped her pacing and sat down on a sawhorse, determined to relax. As she took her first deep breath, however, the cellar door finally opened. Clark stuck his head up and looked directly at her without saying anything. He wasn't wearing his glasses, and she couldn't see his face clearly.
"Clark? It's me. It's Lana."
His flat tone wasn't very encouraging. "Are you okay?"
He sighed long and low. "I really don't want to talk right now."
She stood and took a hesitant step towards the stairway. "Please? I want to help."
Abruptly, he turned and clomped down the stairs, but didn't close the door. She paused, then decided to risk following him.
She negotiated the steps down to the darkness below. She could barely see Clark sitting on the same barrel she'd used as a chair just a few days before, facing towards the nearest wall and away from her. She cautiously slid her feet across the rough planking on the floor; tripping and falling wouldn't be very dignified at the moment, especially if she broke something.
She stopped beside him. He didn't acknowledge her presence, even when she gently put her hand on his shoulder. "Clark?"
He sniffed and wiped his nose. She was shocked. What could make this most powerful human she knew of cry?
She knelt down beside him and leaned her head on his upper arm. "Clark, I love you. Let me help."
He snorted. She tried again. "Please? If there's something wrong, maybe I can help you fix it." He didn't respond. "Clark? Is it me? Have I done something wrong?"
He shook his head. His voice was tight with barely restrained emotion. "No. Not you." He rocked back and forth a few times. "Not ever you."
She restrained a sigh of relief and softly whispered, "Please let me help, darling."
He dropped his head against his hands and began sobbing. Lana reached up and wrapped her arms around his shoulders as far as she could and held on for dear life. She knelt beside him, stroking his head or squeezing him as he held her arm and cried.
Long minutes passed as Clark poured out his pain and grief. Lana still didn't know what had happened, but she thought it had to be something that Superman had been involved in. His parents were fine, Martha didn't know what the problem was, Lana herself was hale and hearty, so by process of elimination she landed on a Superman event.
He finally lifted his head and looked at her. "She was only four."
Lana shifted in front of him and held his hands. "Who was only four, Clark?"
"The little girl. She — her parents were driving along a farm road, going home, I guess. Some drunk in a pickup truck hit them head-on."
Lana gasped. "Clark! Was she — wasn't she in a car seat?"
"Yes." He closed her eyes and shook his head. "It wasn't the wreck that killed her, it was the fire."
"No." Now there were tears in Lana's eyes. She squeezed Clark's hands as tightly as she could.
He forced himself to continue. "I heard the accident while I was on patrol. I saw the fire and got the parents out of the front seat, then blew the fire out. The parents weren't injured too badly, but both of them were unconscious. I got them comfortable at the side of the road and then took care of the pickup driver. All he had was a broken nose from hitting the steering wheel."
Lana ducked her head and kissed Clark's fingers. He went on. "An ambulance arrived just as I got the guy settled down. They treated all three adults and were loading them up for transport when the mom woke up and started calling for Jerusha, yelling for her baby. I ran to the back seat of their car, and there she was."
Lana knew the news was bad. She had no idea how to comfort him, but she refused to leave him alone with his grief.
He momentarily clenched his hands and nearly crushed her wrists, but she didn't cry out. Almost immediately he eased his grip and she gasped in relief. She hoped he'd tell her the rest of it. She was afraid he'd tell her the rest of it.
He hesitated, then continued. "Jerusha was burned over almost all of her body. The fire had burst through the back seat from the gas tank and enveloped her immediately. There was nothing I could have done." He bent his head. "I couldn't save her! All the things I can do but — that little girl, I was there but I couldn't —"
His throat closed and he spoke no more. Lana had no idea what to do, what to say, how to comfort him. When she'd encouraged him to become Superman, she'd never envisioned a circumstance where Clark couldn't help, couldn't save someone.
He'd already failed, or at least he thought he had. All she could do was hold him while he cried. No words of comfort came to her. Nothing she thought to say sounded any better than just sitting there with him.
It seemed hours before he ran down and slumped against her. He cupped his hand under her chin and lifted it for a quick kiss. She held his face between her hands and softly said, "Clark, I'm so sorry." He closed his eyes and nodded. "Maybe if you talked to your dad —"
"But he might —"
He spoke more sternly. "No." He sat up. "He'd tell me what I already know, that I did all I could and I should be glad I could do that much."
"Sounds like good advice to me."
"It is." He sighed deeply. "But it doesn't seem to help much."
She stroked his cheek. "I wish I could help you."
He nodded. "So do I." He straightened his back and rolled his shoulders. "I've got chores to do. Maybe we could meet tomorrow or the next day."
"I'm sure your folks would understand if you took a little time for yourself."
"The farm won't stand still and wait for me to feel better. Besides, it might help me to do something constructive."
She stood and offered her hands to help him up. He almost smiled as he let her pull him upright. "Okay, Clark, I'll go. But you have to promise to call me later, okay?"
He nodded. "Tonight, okay?"
"I'll be waiting." She turned towards the stairway and hesitated. "Will you be all right?"
His face was smooth, almost blank. "I'll make it."
"No, I mean —"
He held up his hand. "I know what you mean. Thank you, Lana."
She tried to smile. "It's only because I love you so much."
"I know. I love you, too. I'll talk to you later."
She nodded and walked up the steps into the brightness of the Kansas summer. She hoped the sun could melt the coldness in Clark's heart, because right now she had no idea how to help him. He probably wouldn't talk to his parents about this, and even if he did, she doubted he'd pay attention to their loving advice.
Lana glanced at her watch and saw that she'd be late for her shift at the cafeteria if she didn't hurry, then briefly wondered if everything she'd planned for them was worth the effort.
It wasn't just Clark who felt like a failure at that moment.
They both enrolled at Kansas State the following autumn, Clark as a journalism major with sociology minor, and Lana as an archaeology major with a minor in finance. They both made the Dean's list every semester. Superman made infrequent appearances to help at natural disasters, and occasionally assisted various police departments across the country in serious situations. He was spotted more often in Metropolis than in any other place, leading to speculation that the city was his home base. Clark encouraged the speculation, since it kept the public eye away from Middle America and from the Kents.
The Superman Foundation made money steadily, and Superman was present at a number of the presentation ceremonies to disburse the money. Lana's suggestion of two-and-a-half percent for Superman's discretionary fund had been lower than the number the foundation's lawyers had suggested, which helped to convince Clark that the fund was a useful item. He gave Lana discretionary authority over the money, which he almost regretted when he learned that she'd begun using the globe to build up the funds. Bob was able to predict market trends with over ninety percent accuracy. The shell companies Lana set up to manage the money shielded her from publicity, which was fine with her. All she wanted to do was use a little of the money to fund scientific projects, and also to build up a nest egg for them to use when they really needed one. For the most part, she was quite successful.
Lana worked with her father between semesters as much as she could, both in the field and at home schmoozing with the rich and famous, gaining invaluable experience and valuable contacts. She had always been adept at hosting the gatherings of the elite in her father's field, and now that she was older and in college she was even more effective. Her father's work expanded, largely due to her productive efforts with the people with the money and the people who picked the projects.
In addition to serving as feature editor of the university's weekly paper beginning in his second semester, Clark began making a name for himself as a travel feature writer. He sold a number of articles to several state-sponsored publications and some to national periodicals. He also sold quite a few human-interest stories, and he consented to write a weekly column for the Wichita Tribune. He was proving to be skillful in penetrating to the heart of a story and showing the people in the situation, not just the situation itself, and making his readers care about the people involved in his stories. Superman's relationship with Perry White made it easy for Clark to sell several stories to the Daily Planet, most of which were about people Superman had helped and how their lives were positively affected by Superman's actions.
Clark's success was less financially rewarding than Lana's investment activity or her own archeological publications, but he was more widely recognized by the public. When he and Lana were introduced together at Professor Lang's professional events and gatherings, Clark often garnered more attention than Lana or her father did, even from the professionals in attendance. She was uncomfortable with his growing celebrity, but she wasn't sure what, if anything, could — or should — be done about it. It didn't fit neatly on her scoreboard.
In early January of his junior year, Clark spent nearly two days searching for a group of Girl Scouts who'd gotten lost in the Pacific Northwest during a winter weekend campout. For the first time in his college career, he missed two straight days of classes, which puzzled everyone but his parents and Lana, who explained that Clark was absent because he was 'feeling really cold.'
He brought all the Scouts back safe and sound, and he was named 'Official Hero' of that particular Scout troop. Each of the girls kissed him on the cheek during the televised award presentation, and the younger adult leader brought down the house when she enthusiastically kissed Superman full on the mouth.
Lana watched the news conference with several of her female classmates, and she forced herself to join in the hysterical speculation on how to best kiss a superhero. It was the first time that Clark's abilities and growing fame as Superman had placed a personal distance between them, and she wasn't sure how she felt about it. She wasn't jealous, of course, she knew she wasn't. She just didn't like sharing him with anyone else for any length of time for any reason. That wasn't jealousy, she was sure of it.
When Lana met Clark after classes the next evening, she was quiet and withdrawn. Dinner was their usual less-than-sumptuous fare at the school cafeteria, followed by a long walk around the east end of the campus, where a few semi-private areas were unofficially available to courting couples on a first-come, first-kiss basis.
"You know, the Daily Planet really liked my story."
"Hmm? Which story was that?"
"About Superman rescuing those Girl Scouts. Mr. White told me to send anything I had to him, whether it was a Superman story or not. He likes the way I write."
"He has good taste, Clark."
"And so do you. Or is it that you taste good? Or maybe both?"
They'd stopped just inside an alcove they'd occupied a few days earlier, with Clark holding Lana's hand but not her attention. He drew her into his arms and kissed her, but he was puzzled by her lack of participation. "Lana? What's wrong?"
"What makes you think anything's wrong, Clark?"
"Well, we aren't taking advantage of the fresh snow on the ground to keep each other warm like we did a few days ago."
"Stuff happens. Things change."
He frowned. "Like what things?"
She turned and faced away from him but still held his hand. "Women kissing you during a televised nation-wide press conference."
"Oh. That." He leaned his cheek on the top of her head. "She was kissing Superman, Lana. She wasn't kissing me."
She lowered her voice so that only Clark could hear. "What's the difference?"
"There's a huge difference. First of all, I didn't ask her to kiss me. She did that entirely on her own. Second, she was kissing the guy who brought her back from a very cold and very dangerous and very scary place. It was a thank-you kiss, not an I-love-you-please-live-with-me-forever kiss. Third, it's extremely doubtful that she'll have any future contact with Superman, ever. Fourth, and most important, I love you, Lana Lang, and I look forward to marrying you as soon as it's feasible."
She stood beside him for several minutes and watched the flakes of snow waft to the already white ground. "It's hard, Clark, it's really hard."
She released his hand and crossed her arms. "Knowing you're who you are when you're wearing the suit and having to pretend you're someone else, someone I don't know at all. It's not like I thought it would be."
He put his hands on her shoulders. "How did you think it would be, Lana?"
"That you'd do your hero thing and come right back to me."
"I am back here with you."
"Yeah. But yesterday you were with her."
He put his chin on the top of her head. "No. Clark Kent wasn't with her at all. Superman was making a public appearance with people who were grateful to him for their lives. I was just filling up the suit for him."
She closed her eyes. "Oh, Clark, I'm so frustrated! I had to act like all those other ditzy girls when that woman kissed you, like I'd love nothing better than to teach Superman about sex! She meant that kiss, too! You should have heard — no, it's a good thing you didn't hear what those nasty little — what those girls said about you."
His voice remained gentle. "But I didn't intend to kiss her. I certainly wasn't expressing affection for her. I have reserved all my kisses and hugs and embraces and all my other assorted and sundry affections for you and you alone. I plan to join with you in the bonds of matrimony and stay wrapped up in them for the rest of our lives together."
"When will that be? When will the rest of our lives begin?"
He drew her closer to him. "Right now, if that's what you want. I'll go to school part-time and work full-time and make us a living and you'll become a famous archaeologist and I'll be supremely proud of you."
She leaned back into his embrace and chuckled sadly. "That's a nice dream. I wish it could be real."
"It can be. All you have to do is say the word."
She hesitated. "You really mean it, don't you?"
"Yes. Absolutely. I love you more than I love anyone or anything else. If it took losing the super-suit for the rest of my life to keep you, that's what I'd do, and I'd do it without a second thought or any shred of regret."
She turned towards him and nestled her face in his chest. "That's wonderful to hear, darling."
"It's also completely true."
"I know. And believe me, it helps."
He tipped her face up and bussed her lips with his. "Surely you weren't jealous of a Girl Scout leader?"
"Naw." She put her head down again. "Well, maybe a just little teensy bit."
He hugged her head and shoulders to him. "There's no need to be. There's no one else in the world with whom I'd rather be standing in the snow right now."
She hugged him for all she was worth. "I love you. And thank you for telling me that. I feel a lot better now."
"Glad to be of service, ma'am."
She leaned back and eyed him sharply as sternness battled a mischievous grin. "Don't get cocky, Kent. I could do better if I wanted to."
"Yeah? How would you keep warm during the frigid Kansas winters?"
She pulled his face down to hers. "That's a dumb question for someone who's as smart as you are."
They both enjoyed the warmth of the other's lips for several precious moments, then Lana put her head on Clark's chest. "You are such a wonderful man."
"Thank you. You're not at all bad yourself."
She giggled, then sighed dramatically. "Darling, tell me again why we can't find an unused motel room and use it."
He stiffened slightly. "You know why."
He nodded slowly. "There are two main reasons. Sex is way, way too important and personal to be reduced to the level of a handshake or a courtesy. I don't want to be in the middle of making love to my wife and also thinking about the hot college girl I slept with several years before."
"Unless they're the same woman."
He smiled. "True. But that brings to mind the second reason. If I can make babies — and I'm not even sure I can — I don't want to unless I'm married to the woman, and I won't marry her unless I love her like a forever-and-a-day love. I really don't want Superman's love children to be popping up all over the place. Wouldn't that just complicate our lives." He kissed the top of her head. "That help?"
She nodded. "I understand those reasons, and I actually agree with them, at least intellectually I do, but that doesn't mean I have to like them."
"Doesn't mean I like them either. But unless you can convince me they're wrong, we'll both wear white to our wedding."
Lana thought about Bob's sixty-five percent probability prediction and kept silent. She'd just have to enjoy Clark's company and try not to think too much about enjoying his body.
Had to be easier than, say, building a space station with just a screwdriver and a pair of pliers. But not much.
The summer after their junior year, Lana scored a sweet assignment that went a long way in repairing her bent self- esteem. She was chosen for an eight-week student trip to western Africa to work on a dig where her father was heading the team. It was a wonderful time for her. She applied much that she had already learned, learned a great deal more, and spent some quality time with her father, an item which had been in short supply for many months. She also found time to submit several articles of her own to various professional journals. Her father proofread them and smilingly approved, commenting that the longer she was around Clark, the better writer she became.
Clark was able to join her for the last two weeks of her tour of duty, and he wrote and sold five different pieces about the dig itself, the site, and the team working there. It more than paid for his trip, and he was able to treat the entire student contingent to a restaurant meal on their last night before returning home. He and Lana even set a tentative wedding date in December, after the semester ended.
But the article he'd written about the people running the dig disturbed her deeply. Her father didn't say anything, but Lana could tell that he was not flattered. Clark had been blunt, almost brutal, in his description of the treatment of the student temporaries. None of the professionals were showered with rose petals in print, but Lana felt that Clark had been especially hard on her dad.
Clark and Lana had seats next to each other for the long flight back to the USA across the Atlantic. Lana didn't say much for the first hour or so. Clark tried to act as if he knew she was just tired, but as the flight progressed the excuse wore thin. He finally turned to confront her.
"Okay, Lana, out with it. What's the problem?"
She looked directly at the tray table fastened to the seat in front of her. "No problem here."
"Wrong answer. Something's bothering you and I want to know what it is."
"Nothing's bothering me, Clark! Please leave me alone."
"Nope. I want to know if I've done something to upset you. Maybe I'll even feel like making it up to you."
She turned and glared at him. "You can't make it up to me. You — " She turned away again. "What's done is done, Clark. Let it alone. Please."
"Lana, I need to know what I've done wrong! I don't want to do it again, assuming that's even possible." He leaned closer. "Was it my buying dinner for the students?"
"What? No! That was very nice of you, Clark. The kids needed some time away from the old folks. Even my dad said so."
He lowered his voice. "So? Was it my taking off for two nights last week? I was gone almost all the next day, too."
She whispered back, "No! Even Nigerian princesses need to be rescued occasionally. I don't care how rich or how beautiful she is. You did the right thing."
"So what's wrong? What did I do to make you so mad at me?"
She turned to face him. Always, before, when she'd looked at him, she'd felt love for him; now, for the first time, she felt white-hot anger. "You really don't know, do you?"
Exasperated, he threw his hands in the air. "If I knew what I'd done I wouldn't have to ask! Come on, Lana, we've never kept important things from each other before!"
"It was the article you wrote."
"What? Which article?"
"The one on the team leaders."
He scrunched his face up. She could tell he was reviewing the article in his head. He finally shrugged. "You got me. I still don't know what I did wrong."
"It was the way you wrote about my dad! You made him look like a — a junior-grade Napoleon or something! You made him seem power- mad and arbitrary and petty and abrupt! He's not like that! He's a teacher, he's in charge, and they were being idiots!"
"Honey, you have to admit that your father runs a tight camp."
"He has to run a tight camp! People at digs destroy artifacts and evidence all the time because they're careless or clumsy or just downright stupid! The head of the expedition has to be strict with everybody all the time!"
"Even towards his own daughter?"
"Yes! Especially towards me! He can't show favoritism to anyone or all the discipline falls apart! I knew what he was doing even if you didn't! I don't want — " She stopped abruptly.
In an unnaturally casual tone, Clark asked, "You don't want what, Lana?"
She pulled away and sat back. "I don't want to talk to you right now."
He nodded once. "Okay, if that's what you want."
Neither of them spoke to the other for the duration of the flight to Metropolis International Airport. The flight was nearly endless.
What bothered Lana most was that she had very nearly told Clark she didn't want to be around him just then. She wondered if what some of her friends had said about her eventually having to choose between her father and her husband was true. She hoped not, but feared it was so. She wondered if she was having second thoughts about the wedding. Or she was having a hissy fit over nothing. Or she was just tired and scared of the future. She really didn't know which, and it frightened her.
They changed planes in Metropolis. The layover was three hours. As she exited the tunnel from the plane, Lana almost walked away, but at the last minute stopped and turned to wait for him.
Clark had gotten stuck in the window seat by the crush of passengers, so he was one of the last ones off the plane. When he saw Lana waiting for him, he broke stride, then smiled and walked to her side.
"Hi yourself, strange man. Come here often?"
"Just to pick up beautiful girls on their way back from archaeological dig sites in Africa."
She smiled and bumped elbows with him. "Well, you got lucky, stud. Come on, we'll split an overpriced airport pizza."
They took several steps together. Lana ducked her head and muttered, "Maybe we both got lucky."
Clark bumped her lightly with his elbow to let her know he'd heard her, as she'd known he would. "Want me to carry your stuff for you?"
She grinned up at him. "Hey, yeah, man, that would be just totally super."
He gave her a mock glare and took her carry-on baggage. "No problem, ma'am. Comes with the service."
They found a pasta shop with several empty tables; apparently eleven in the morning local time was early for pizza on the east coast of the U.S. Still on Africa time, Lana was ravenous. Other than the restaurant meal Clark had bought for the student crew, she hadn't eaten American cooking for almost two months. The airline meal, of course, didn't count.
The pizza was greasy and overpriced, the toppings were sparse and the crust was sub-par, but to Lana it was manna from heaven. She closed her eyes and savored the first few bites. Clark watched her with an indulgent smile.
Lana shuddered with delight. "Clark, if I ever tell you there's leftover pizza in the fridge, you'll know I'm lying." She took another big bite. "I just love this stuff."
Clark took a nibble from his slice. "I'm glad I don't have to worry about gaining weight. This stuff takes the term 'fattening' to a whole new level."
"That's why I don't eat it very often. My butt would look like the south end of a northbound bus if I made this a regular part of my diet. But mmmm, boy, it's good!" She slurped in some stringy cheese. "This must have been the ambrosia the ancient Greeks claimed was the food of the gods!"
When she'd taken the edge off her hunger with the first two slices, she wiped her hands on a napkin and reached out to hold Clark's wrist. "Darling, I love you. I'm sorry I reacted the way I did. I just — I guess I'm overprotective where my father is concerned. I've told you part of how my mom treated him, but not all of it, and I can't describe how he acts when he has to deal with her for more than ten minutes. She ripped his heart out when she left, and she beats him over the head with it nearly every time she sees him."
Clark turned to face her. "I'm sorry, too, Lana. I'm sorry I hurt you. I'm sorry I didn't understand how you'd react to my depiction of your dad. I like your dad, I respect him personally, and I think he's a great guy. Everyone I've ever talked to about his professional qualifications thinks he's at least one of the top five archaeologists in the world.
"But you have to understand that I can't make exceptions for family and friends any more than he can. Besides, I don't think what I wrote was out of character or deliberately mean. It was intended to be an objective view of what students go through on a dig like that. It's tough! I don't know if I could stick it out like you did. Maybe that article will help some young man or woman make the right decision about being or not being an archaeologist." He smiled. "Maybe I took out some of your competition."
She smiled back. "Maybe you did at that. I know you weren't really going after my dad. I'm tired, I didn't want to leave and I couldn't wait to go back home, I was happy that you were there and irritated that you were distracting me, and I need a three- hour bubble bath followed by three days of sleep followed by another three-hour bubble bath. Do you forgive me?"
He drew her close and kissed her. "Only if you forgive me, too. I love you so very, very much."
She embraced him and squeezed him as tightly as she could. As they separated, she looked around Clark's shoulder and noticed a slender young woman with shoulder-length dark hair watching them. She seemed to be about Lana's age, and because she was in jeans and sneakers, Lana assumed she was a college student. Her sad and wistful expression, combined with her slightly exotic eyes, struck Lana to the core. For a moment, she had a horrible feeling that there was something terribly wrong.
As Clark got up to refill their drinks, Lana and the woman looked into each other's eyes. Instead of averting her gaze, Lana tried to stare her down. The dark-haired beauty returned both the gaze and the intensity. It was almost a competition between them, even though Lana didn't understand what the contest was for, or why they were involved in it.
The young woman suddenly turned and walked away, dragging her wheeled carry-on behind her. Lana chalked it up as another win on her mental scoreboard, then drowned her momentary discomfort in pizza, bread sticks, soft drinks, and laughter with the man she loved. She dismissed the other woman from her memory.
The flight to Kansas was both too short and too long for Lana. She was so very glad to be headed home, but she was also so very glad to be talking with Clark again. Two of the flight attendants said something to them about how happy they seemed together. One woman even asked if they were coming back from their honeymoon.
Lana smiled fetchingly at Clark and said, "No, not yet, but I don't think I can wait much longer."
Clark blushed, and Lana shared a laugh with the attendant. Then the seat belt light came on, and they reluctantly drew apart. They held hands tenderly as the plane touched down in Wichita.
Martha was waiting for both of them. They filled her in about life on a dig in Africa while waiting for their luggage. Shockingly, none of their bags were lost.
Lana leaned against Clark a little more than usual on the trip out to the Kent farm. Because it was so late in the day, they had planned for Lana to stay there the first night and head home the next day. Lana found herself contemplating sneaking up to Clark's room after lights out, but she knew Clark would reluctantly refuse. At least, she hoped he'd be reluctant. She found herself wishing he'd sneak down to her room, even though she knew that wouldn't happen.
At dinner, both Martha and Jonathan noticed the current flowing between Lana and Clark, and they excused themselves as soon as they could. Lana led Clark onto the familiar front porch and sat him down beside her on the swing.
They watched the stars swirl above the horizon. Lana sighed deeply and snuggled her head into Clark's shoulder.
He stroked her hair. "You're a little intense tonight. Anything I can do to help?"
In an instant, she made the decision she'd been contemplating all day. "Yes. You can marry me and go on a passionate honeymoon with me."
He smiled. "I believe we set a December wedding date just a few days ago. Your dad even thought it was a good idea."
She looked up at him. "No, not in December. I mean right now. We can still have a big wedding celebration in December if that's what you want, but I want you to be my husband immediately, if not sooner."
Still smiling, he asked, "Shall I call a minister or a justice of the peace?"
"Whoever's available first. I'm past waiting, Clark. It's time."
He leaned back and looked into her eyes. "You're serious. You really mean it, don't you?"
"Yes. I want to marry you and start on the honeymoon in the next couple of days or I'm liable to burst. I want you, I need you, I love you, and I'm ready for us to be a family right now."
He held her close. "I'm glad you feel that way."
"Because I feel that way too."
She pulled back. "Then why the heck didn't you say something?"
"I didn't want you to think I was trying to pressure you into something you weren't ready for. Besides, you were the one who asked me first, remember?"
She almost snapped at him, but she saw the teasing glint in his eyes just in time. "You know, you're almost learning how to be funny." She reached up and cupped his face. "I remember a few other things, too. This was where you told me your biggest secret."
He kissed her gently, then again. "I remember. And you haven't even hinted at spilling the beans to anyone, not ever." He sighed. "You can't know what that means to me, to know you love me enough to help me carry Superman around."
"He's not so bad. Besides, he's great for food runs." She leaned against his shoulder. "Speaking of Superman, you know what I'm in the mood for?"
"Um, French pastry?" She shook her head. "Chinese?"
"After your mom's terrific dinner? I should say not."
"Huh. German chocolate for dessert?"
"No, silly, not food."
"But you mentioned food runs and — oh. Oh! Hey! I thought we agreed there'd be no nuptials until after the wedding."
"Nuptials are the wedding, doofus."
"Really? Now I'm going to be disappointed on our wedding night."
She giggled. "No chance of that, farm boy, not if I'm awake. And I promise you I will be very, very awake." She stepped closer. "Actually that's the other thing I'm in the mood for, but for that I'm willing to wait." She gently tapped his nose with one finger. "For a little while, anyway. But what I'm in the mood for is something else we've never done."
He frowned in thought. "There's a bunch of stuff we've never done, Lana. You'll have to be a little more specific."
She stood, turned, and sat down in his lap. "Take me flying."
"Flying, you know, zip-zip-zoom, up-up-and-away with no balloon, head-in-the-clouds kind of thing."
"Oh. I thought you — I didn't think you'd like it."
She kissed him. "I won't know until I try it, will I?"
He stood and carried her down the steps. "Okay, but I think I ought to change first."
She chuckled. "That would probably be best."
He put her down and stepped back. She'd seen him spin into costume a number of times, but it never failed to amaze her. He moved so fast she couldn't tell what clothing was where. Two seconds later, Superman held out his arms to her. "Ready to fly?"
She jumped into his arms. "Let's make aviation history."
Lana was too excited to sleep. The memory of shooting through clouds, of pacing a formation of geese, of hovering at what seemed like the edge of space, was too recent, too intense, to allow her to relax. She glanced at the bedside clock. Three- fourteen AM. She'd been lying in bed for over two hours, and by Africa time she should have been awake long before anyway, so she changed back into jeans and tennis shoes.
The barn drew her. She wasn't sure why, but she felt like she needed to see the ship and the globe again. She hadn't been down there for almost a year. It was time to check in with Bob, and not just for investment advice.
She activated the door lift, the one that Clark and Jonathan had installed after their freshman year. The door was far too heavy for her to lift alone, and the palm panel beside the empty saddle rack recognized only herself and the three Kents. She slipped down the steps and touched the panel on the wall that opened the secret room.
She felt the thrill again. She reached out and touched the ship that had carried Clark across the dark void to her. It never failed to amaze her that a small child could survive such a journey. She reached up to touch the globe, then pulled back slightly. She felt almost guilty at having been away for so long, but as Bob always reminded her, he was merely a device and not a living being.
After Lana had first communicated with Bob, Clark had built a cradle for the globe that would allow her to activate it without having to hold it, although she didn't think he'd ever imagined she'd go down there alone. She positioned herself carefully and put her hands on the globe.
>>> Hello, Lana. <<<
Hi, Bob. Long time no see.
>>> Although we have sent electronic messages to each other, we have not experienced interactive communication for the previous ten months, six days — <<<
Hey, I'm sorry, okay? I've been pretty busy.
>>> I know that you have. And I am not complaining. Do you wish to review your financial transactions at this point in time? <<<
No, not right now. I just want to touch base with you on some personal things.
>>> Very well. Congratulations on your assignment in Kenya. The preliminary results from the dig are most impressive, as are your article submissions. I project the probability that all three of them will be published soon to be over ninety percent. <<<
You do keep up, don't you?
>>> Of course. I have access to all broadcast frequencies in the area, any satellite transmissions within visual range, along with a direct connection to the Internet. My data gathering subroutines are quite busy. Clark has also discussed your accomplishments with me several times. He is quite proud of you. <<<
Oh. That's nice to know.
>>> He is also concerned about your reaction to his Superman persona. I am not certain why, but he feels — I suppose 'torn' would be an appropriate term. <<<
What are you talking about?
>>> Clark is justifiably proud of his accomplishments, yet he feels you do not appreciate the magnitude of what he does. He is glad that you do not love him only for his special abilities, but he is puzzled that they do not seem to matter to you greatly. <<<
I'm not sure what you mean.
>>> Clark, in his Superman persona, has performed a number of marvelous feats resulting in many lives saved and has greatly reduced the loss of property in a number of instances. He is concerned that you see only his civilian persona and prefer not to deal with the superhero. <<<
Maybe this will help. We went flying tonight.
>>> I am aware of this. You just returned from Africa by means of your planet's primitive powered aircraft. <<<
No, I mean I went flying with Superman.
Bob? Are you okay?
>>> I was merely processing the information, Lana. This is not an eventuality to which I had assigned a high probability. <<<
>>> Really. Given your lack of past involvement with Clark's Superman persona, the probability I had assigned to this event was less than ten percent. <<<
Makes you think, doesn't it?
>>> It makes me compute. <<<
Ha-ha. See, Bob, you do have a sense of humor.
>>> If my response was humorous, Lana, the effect was unintentional. This step in your relationship will generate a shift in my probability assignments. <<<
Okay. Maybe you should know that we're getting married.
>>> My most recent data indicates a wedding some four to five months from this date. <<<
You'll have to compute again. We're getting married today, as soon as we can find someone to perform the ceremony.
Bob? Hey, Bob, are you there?
>>> You have indeed presented me with an interesting piece of data. This will shift many more of my probability assignments. <<<
For the better, I hope.
>>> That would depend largely on your point of view. <<<
Now that sounded like a joke to me.
>>> Upon reevaluation, I can perceive that you might interpret my response as an attempt at humor. Thank you for your instruction in this aspect of humanity. Kryptonians were not noted for their sense of humor. <<<
Yeah, Clark needs still needs some work on his. Although he's usually pretty funny. Are you done with your calculations yet?
>>> You do understand that my computations would be more accurate and require less input data if you humans were more consistent in their actions. <<<
That's us, inconsistent and funny. We humans exist only to make your computations more complex.
>>> Your attempt at sarcasm is duly noted. Pursuant to this new information, Lana, I must ask you a question. From one human to another, I believe that it would be perceived as a highly personal question, but it is not intended as such. My probability database requires this information. <<<
>>> Please understand also that I am asking for information only. I am not attempting to give you advice or guide you in any way. <<<
You know, Bob, the last time we went through this song and dance, I dropped one course and picked up another lab.
>>> And was the outcome of your decision favorable or unfavorable? <<<
It was lots better than getting poked in the eye with a sharp stick.
>>> Or being struck firmly in a sensitive portion of one's anatomy. <<<
Hey! That had to be a joke, lame as it was.
>>> I confess, that one was intended to be humorous. I am glad you perceive it as even marginally funny. However, I must ask this question without any attempt at humor or intrusion into your private life. <<<
Well, now that you've got me good and worried, go ahead and ask.
>>> Do you and Clark anticipate the conception of children in the early stages of your life together? <<<
Whoa! You're asking me if we're planning to have kids?
>>> Yes. <<<
Wow. We — I guess we haven't talked about it much.
>>> Now I must ask you another question. >>>
Another personal one?
>>> Yes. Do you wish to have children quickly? Or would you prefer to wait some period of time before adding to your family? <<<
Well, we each have one more year of undergraduate work, and I've got one more field assignment to do to fulfill my scholarship requirements. And I'd prefer to enjoy life with Clark for a while before we fill our lives with little Clarks and little Lanas. Why? What difference does this make to you?
>>> I can give you a treatment which will preclude any possibility of your conceiving a child for a specified period of time. It is entirely your own choice to receive it or to refuse it. <<<
Oh. Can I think about it?
>>> Not for long. In order for the treatment to succeed, the female recipient must be free of sperm for three days prior to and six hours following the treatment. If you have remained chaste, as you have previously indicated that you would, you need do so for only six hours more. <<<
And I'd be certain not to get pregnant for how long?
>>> Any period of time from six hundred days to two thousand days. >From approximately twenty months to five and one-half years, current Earth calendar. <<<
Wow. I — maybe I'd better talk to Clark.
>>> That is your choice. The only requirement is that you be free — >>>
I know, I know! I understood that part.
>>> Very well. Shall we resume this discussion at a later time? <<<
No. Wait. Yes. No. Well — Dadgummit, no!
>>> I see. Or, rather, I do not. Please restate — >>>
>>> Are you certain? Once begun, the treatment cannot be reversed, or halted without risking negative side effects. <<<
I thought you said I had to be — you said I couldn't have sex for six hours.
>>> You must remain chaste for six hours following the treatment to insure success and to prevent negative side effects. <<<
What negative side effects? No! Forget that! Tell me what the side effects of a successful treatment are.
>>> There are none. You will have no physical or mental symptoms of any kind, save that you will not be able to conceive for the term of the treatment. Following the treatment period, you will be able to conceive normally. Should you wish to renew the treatment, you may do so at any time, as long as you are not already pregnant. <<<
And how long will this treatment term last?
>>> You may choose any time period from six hundred to two thousand days. There is a five-day approximation factor. <<<
Plus or minus five days?
>>> Yes. What period of time do you prefer? <<<
Two thousand days.
>>> Are you certain? That is a long time for a young couple. <<<
I thought you said this was my choice.
>>> It is entirely your own choice. You may choose to accept this procedure or reject it. If you accept it, you select the time period. I merely wish to be certain you understand what you are accepting. <<<
I want the max.
>>> If that is indeed your wish, I am required by my programming to ask you to state this clearly and unmistakably. Lana Lang, is it indeed your choice to accept this treatment which will prevent you from conceiving a child for a specified period of time? <<<
Yes, it is.
>>> Do you feel that I have coerced you or convinced you in any way to this course of action? <<<
No. This is my own free choice.
>>> Very well. What period of time do you choose? <<<
I choose a period of two thousand days.
>>> This is the maximum amount of time possible with this treatment. Is this also clear to you? <<<
>>> Then, Lana Lang, if it is indeed your wish to undergo this treatment — one which will prevent conception for a period of two thousand days — please place both of your hands on the top of the globe, side by side. You will feel a numbness, followed by slight pressure in your palms, then a cold sensation. When the cold sensation has dissipated, you may move your hands to the previous position. <<<
Okay. Here we go, Bob.
Lana shifted her hands to the top of the globe. Bob was as good as his mega-bit word. The whole thing took about twelve minutes. When her hands warmed up to normal again, she put them back on the globe's palm receptors.
Okay, we're done, right?
>>> We are. I must once again caution you to refrain from sexual activity for the next six hours. <<<
We are talking Earth hours, aren't we?
>>> My time frame is Kryptonian. An hour on Krypton would be slightly more than half a day on Earth. <<<
What! You mean now I've got to wait more than three days to get married? You — you — arrggh!
>>> Forgive me, Lana. My attempt at humor has caused you anxiety. The six-hour frame of reference is Earth time, not Kryptonian. <<<
What? You — you round rat! I ought to drill three holes in you and use you to knock down wooden dowels!
>>> I believe you are referring to a game known as 'bowling.' Since my shape is slightly elliptical rather than spherical, I would make a poor bowling ball. <<<
Yeah, you're probably right. Hey, what time is it?
>>> The time is now oh-four-eighteen, Central Daylight Savings Time. Dawn is eighty-nine minutes away. <<<
Sheesh! I got tons of stuff to do. Good night, Bob. And thanks! Thanks a lot!
>>> You are welcome, Lana. Good night. <<<
Lana trod up the stairs to the floor of the barn, talking to herself. "Six hours. A noon wedding will work just fine."
"Glad to hear it."
"Yikes!" Lana jumped and spun at hearing the voice, then grabbed an upright two-by-four, panting hard. "Martha! You scared me out of a year's growth!"
Martha smiled. "I'm sorry. I couldn't sleep either, and I saw you come out here. I thought you might like to talk, but I see you already have."
Lana walked to the panel and pressed it. As the door silently closed, she said, "I didn't know you were awake or — " She stopped. "You heard what I said about noon, didn't you?"
"Yes. I can't say I'm surprised, either. I'm impressed that you two aren't sharing pillows and toothbrushes already."
Lana blushed slightly. "I — have to confess that's mostly Clark. There've been a few times I wasn't willing to wait, but he always convinced me — reluctantly — that we should. He's a very patient person. You raised him right, you and Jonathan."
Martha smiled. "Thank you, from both of us. Clark knocked on our door last night and told us what you two had decided. I plan to call Reverend Matthews right after breakfast. Unless you'd prefer a Justice of the Peace?"
Lana shook her head. "No, I think our pastor should be involved. I just hope he doesn't freak out at how sudden this looks."
"He won't. He's a farmer too, born and raised. He lived in Nebraska for several years right after seminary, and he's been here ever since. He and his wife have seen a whole bunch of 'right-now' weddings, and they don't bother him. Assuming, of course, that the bride and groom have known each other for a while beforehand. And he isn't too fond of pregnant brides, although he won't refuse." Martha fixed Lana with a stare. "This isn't one of those situations, is it?"
Lana felt her face flush but matched Martha's stare. "No. Despite my best enticements, I'm still a virgin, and, as far as I am aware, Clark is also. I am most definitely not pregnant."
Martha smiled and nodded. "That's what I understood you to mean. I just needed to hear it directly."
"Now that you've heard it, when's breakfast?"
Martha cackled with glee. "I'm glad you're so practical. You can help keep Clark's feet on the ground."
"That will be a super challenge."
"Ha-ha-ha. I hope you still think it's funny in ten years."
"Me too." Lana rubbed her stomach. "You know, I'm really getting hungry. I hope there's some good breakfast stuff inside."
Martha lifted her hand. "Before we go in, Lana, there's something I've been meaning to talk to you about."
Lana nodded and leaned on a sawhorse. "Okay."
Martha shifted her posture. She seemed uncomfortable but determined. "Do you think you're rushing Clark into marriage?"
Lana's jaw bounced off her chest and she took a staggering step to one side. "Me? Rushing Clark? What kind of girl do you think I am?"
Martha sighed. "The kind I hope we might have had if the baby in the capsule had been a girl."
Lana stopped and righted herself. "Okay, now you've got me totally off-balance. Just exactly what are we talking about here?"
Martha took a hesitant step closer. "We're talking about your drive, your desperate need for control, your iron will to bend everything and everyone around you in the direction you want them to go."
"Oh." Lana crossed her arms. "You're saying you wish Clark were more like me? Or do you wish that I was more like Clark?"
"I'm not saying either of those things. I am saying that you need to learn that there are circumstances where you're not going to be in control and you'll have to deal with them as they come along. That includes people, Lana."
"I don't think you do. I meant what I said about you. You're the kind of daughter any parent should be proud of. You've been successful at everything you've done so far, I think you're going to be fabulously successful in your post-school life, and you're going to help Clark be successful, too. But what about Superman?"
"Superman is part of Clark. They're the same person."
Martha shook her head. "No, they're not. Superman is the disguise Clark wears when he uses his special abilities to help people. Clark Kent is the man you're planning to marry today. It's true that what happens to Superman affects Clark, but they're different people. I just want to be sure you know that."
Lana licked her lips and frowned in thought for a long moment. "You know he took me flying last night, right?"
"Was it fun?"
"Oh, it was beyond fun. It was great."
"Was it your first time?"
"Well, yes, it was —"
"Think about that, Lana. You've known Superman for three years, you're engaged to him, yet tonight was your first flight with him. Why is that?"
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I don't know."
"I think you do know."
Lana leaned against a two-by-four. "Sounds to me like you think you know."
"I have some ideas, but you're the one who will ultimately have to deal with it. You and Clark both, actually."
"What's your favorite idea of what's wrong with me?"
"I don't think it's something wrong, Lana, I think it's part of your personality that you don't like thinking about."
"Fine! What is it?"
Martha tilted her head to one side. "You sure you want to hear this?"
"Why not? It's my wedding day, after all. My mother-in-law is supposed to shower wisdom upon me and brighten my day continually."
"Okay. I think you're hesitant to involve yourself too deeply with Superman because you have no control over Clark when he's wearing the Suit. And it shows up in your relationship with him when he has a difficult rescue and you can't seem to help him get over it. Oh, you try your best to comfort him, you make yourself available, you make no demands on him, you tell him that he's done his best, but you don't connect with him on an emotional level. You don't empathize with him. You don't know how to ease Superman's pain."
Lana's arms tightened until she was hugging herself. "So you're saying I'm an emotional cripple?"
"Not at all. If you were, you wouldn't be able to love Clark, and I have no doubt that you do really love him. You simply haven't gotten to the point of allowing yourself not to be in charge of everything that happens to you and around you."
"You think I'll run Clark's life for him?"
"I doubt he'd let you do that. What I do think is that you have to make a decision to let go. The bad things that happen in life aren't usually your fault, and the good things that happen aren't usually due only to your good efforts."
"Ah." Lana lifted her head and looked Martha in the eye. "So now I'm an ego-centric control freak."
"Well, yes, that's clinically accurate. A bit harsh, perhaps, but essentially correct."
"Thanks a lot!"
Martha smiled. "Easy, Lana. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It will help you succeed, it will help you push through difficult situations, and it's something Clark recognizes in you, too, but he loves you in spite of it. And you've mellowed out quite a bit over the last year or so. I think you're on the right road. I just wanted to make sure you could read the directional signs."
"I see." The girl scuffed the barn floor with her toe. "So, in the final analysis, what do you think about me?"
"I think a wonderful young woman but you're not perfect. I think that you know you're not perfect, and that you tend to beat yourself up over it. I also think you're making progress. The last time you were here, just before you left for Africa, you told us about the summer when you were seven and you and your mother went to Six Flags Over Texas and how much fun the two of you had, and not once did you say anything the least bit disparaging about her. It sounds to me like you're moving out from under the shadow of the pain she's caused you over the years."
"Maybe I am." She sighed deeply. "Is that all?"
"No." Martha stepped close and embraced Lana. "I love you, Lana Lang, and I think you'll make an excellent wife for my son. I also think he'll be an excellent husband for you. All you have to do is let both of those things happen naturally and not try to force them."
Lana sniffed. "Thanks, I think." She shook her head. "No. I don't have to think about this one. Thank you."
"For being honest and loving, even when you didn't know how I'd take it. I'm glad I've known you all these years, Martha." Lana leaned back. "You know, I've never told you this, but when I was much younger I dreamed that my dad had married you instead of my mother. Maybe then I wouldn't be such an ego-centric control freak."
Martha smiled and kissed Lana on the forehead. "Thank you, my dear. Now, let's go have some breakfast."
"Sounds delicious." They turned to walk out of the barn. "By the way, how are things between you and Jonathan these days? I've got my dad's phone number —"
"What? Why, you — you young — " The rest of Martha's spluttered response was lost as Lana sprinted towards the house, laughing at the sky.
When Lana and Martha opened the kitchen door, they saw Clark and Jonathan sitting at the table wolfing down stacks of pancakes. Jonathan motioned to them. "Come on and sit down! There's plenty for everyone. Bacon, too, in a minute."
Martha smiled. "Smells great! Did my son or my husband cook them?"
Jonathan raised his hand. "Your husband did. I thought it appropriate, seeing as how I'm gaining a daughter today."
Lana smiled at him and ruffled his hair. "Thank you, Jonathan. So, you're okay with this sudden urge of ours to be married?"
He shrugged. "If I had a problem with you two being married, I would already have said something during the last three years, don't you think?"
Martha sat down. "If we don't eat now, Lana, we won't get anything. These two will inhale everything edible on the table if we let them."
Lana laughed and sat at the table beside Clark, then filled her plate. "Yesterday's pizza is history. I need food!"
Clark laughed with her. "I'm not surprised you're hungry. It's not every day we get married."
"I sincerely hope not."
Clark passed the syrup to Lana and their eyes homed in on each other. "What were you and Mom doing outside?"
Lana broke Clark's gaze. "She followed me out to the barn. I was talking to Bob."
"Oh. What did he have to say?"
"Some very interesting things. Did you know he'd assigned a probability of less than ten percent that I'd fly with you as Superman?"
"No." Clark slurped some milk. "I guess you made him think."
"Uh-uh. I made him compute."
The other three sat still for a moment, then the bell rang for each of them in turn. A hearty chuckle trotted around the table several times. Clark patted Lana on the shoulder. "I love a woman who can make me laugh."
She poked him in the ribs. "You'd better, pal, because after today you're out of the market for a personal comedienne!"
They finished breakfast in a companionable quiet. Lana stood and gathered dishes, then wiggled her head at Clark. "Come on, bucko, let's see how good you are in the kitchen."
Martha smiled and reached for the phone. At Jonathan's quizzical expression, she explained, "Reverend Matthews."
He nodded his comprehension and stood, then sauntered into the kitchen. Lana was washing and Clark was drying, except instead of a towel he was using his heat vision to evaporate the water.
"Clark, you're nothing but a show-off."
They turned and smiled in unison. "Hi, Dad. We're almost through here. Lana still has to pick out a dress and I've got to make sure I have a clean suit."
Jonathan reached out and put one hand on each of their shoulders. "I am very proud and happy for both of you today. I wish I could give you a huge send-off, but I can't. I can, however, give you three days in the finest hotel in Wichita, assuming you'll allow me to."
Clark was thunderstruck. Lana stepped forward and hugged Jonathan. "Thank you so much. Can I — can I call you 'Pop' instead of Jonathan?"
Jonathan smiled. "Of course you can, Lana."
She hugged him again. "No one could ever replace my dad, but you come awfully close!" She stepped back and dried her cheeks. "Will you — I know this is a really big question — Pop — but will you stand next to me and represent my dad? I think he'd be pleased." She put her hand on his arm. "I know I would be."
Jonathan smiled. "It's a wonderful compliment, Lana. Thank you. Is that okay with you, Clark?"
Clark smiled. "Sure! I'll ask Mom to stand next to me." He punched his father lightly on the shoulder. "If my first choice for best man is already busy, I'll get his better-looking counterpart."
"Charlene! This is Lana!"
"Oh, hey, girlfriend! You're back from digging up Africa? When did you get in? How long will you be here? How's Clark?"
"Yes, I'm back, I got in late last night, I think I'm staying in Smallville until the semester begins, and Clark and I are getting married this afternoon."
"Hey, that's — what did you say?"
"I said, I got in last night —"
"Not that! The part about Clark!"
"Clark and I are getting married this afternoon!"
"You're getting married?"
"I'm getting married!"
"Yes, to Clark!
"Lana, you're getting married to Clark this afternoon?"
"Yes! Isn't it great?"
"When? I mean what time?"
"At Central Chapel!"
"Who's doing the service?"
"What? What 'so' what?"
"So, Lana, are you going to invite me to your wedding or not?"
"Are you kidding? That's why I called! Besides, I need at least one bridesmaid!"
"Well, since Brent and I are married now, maybe I should be your bridesmatron. Can he come too?"
"Of course he can come! He can be the groomsman! Hey, are you free to run around with me this morning? I have to find a dress!"
"Oh, girl, you come on down to my bridal shop, I've got something that will knock Clark's eyes right out of his head! Oh, you aren't showing, are you?"
"Hey! I'm not pregnant!"
"Whew! I'm glad to hear that! You stuck to your guns, didn't you?"
"More like Clark sticking to his."
"Doesn't matter, the result's the same. Believe me, the first time is best with your husband after the wedding and not before. Now you get over here so I can fit you right!"
"Great! When do you open?"
"For you, girlfriend, I'll open up right now! Get your tiny little heinie down here right now!"
"I have to call my parents first, but I'll be there as soon as I can."
"Oh. Would you rather call them from the shop?"
"Thanks, Charlene, but no. My mom and the weasel live in Texas, and my dad's still in Africa. I don't want to slam your phone bill with those rates, and I may just have to leave a message for him."
"Okay. Don't be long! I'll be waiting!"
"Good morning, McConnell residence."
"Hi, this is Lana Lang. Is my mom there?"
"Oh, Miss Lang! This is Monique! I am so glad to hear again from you!"
"Well, howdy there, Monique! You manage to catch a jackalope yet?"
"No, Miss Lang, I have not. I have still seen them only mounted on the wall in Mr. McConnell's library."
"Well, keep trying. They're sneaky critters. Can I talk to my mother?"
"Oh. I am afraid, Miss Lang, that your mother — she cannot come to the telephone at the moment."
"I see. Sleeping one off, is she?"
"No, no, I have not told you correctly. She is — visiting a friend."
"Uh-huh. How long will she be visiting this friend?"
"For perhaps two more weeks."
"How long has she been there?"
"Perhaps — two weeks."
"So she's drying out again, Monique?"
"Oh, please, Miss Lang, I was told not to tell you of this! I will be in much trouble —"
"Take it easy, okay? I won't spill the beans."
"I won't tell them what you didn't just tell me."
"Oh, I understand now. Miss Lang, I am so sorry."
"Whose idea was it this time?"
"This time? Oh, Mr. McConnell, he — believed that — a time away — from all the pressures — would help Mrs. McConnell — and he —"
"Okay, Monique, okay. Will you give her a message?"
"Of course. I have a file of messages awaiting her return."
"I bet you do. Just write down the time and date and let her know I'm getting married today."
"Married? Miss Lang, you are being married? Today?"
"That's what I said."
"Oh, Miss Lang, I am so happy for you! Who is the most fortunate young man?"
"I don't think you know him, Monique, but his name is Clark Kent. He's a senior this year at Kansas State with me, a journalism major, and we're going to be intensely happy and insanely successful together."
"Oh, congratulations and best wishings to you, Miss Lang! I am so happy for you! I will inform the rest of the staff, and we will have a party in your honor! We will sing and dance and we will purchase for you a wonderful gift and we will pray that you both will love and be loved for all of your lives!"
"Why — thank you, Monique. That's — that's very kind of you."
"Miss Lang, you surely know that you are the staff favorite! Mr. McConnell has two other children from his previous marriage, and they are — oh, I should not say this!"
"That's okay, you've made your point. You folks have your party and pray for us, okay? I'm sure we'll need your prayers before it's all over."
"We will! Oh! May I inform Mr. McConnell of your wedding?"
"Be pretty hard to have a party without telling him, don't you think?"
"Oh, no! He is in England until Mrs. McConnell returns. He says the house is too large for him alone."
"Yeah, that sounds like the weasel, saying he's alone in a house with six servants. Sure, go ahead and tell him I'm getting married."
"I shall, Miss Lang! May the happiest day of your past be less joyful than the worst day of your future!"
"Thank — thank you, Monique. I'm touched, really. I hope to see you soon."
"Oh, yes, you must come and bring your new husband so that we all may flirt with him and make him most uncomfortable and you may pretend to be jealous and then he will feel that he must show you once again how much he loves you."
"Ha-ha-ha! So that's how you French women do it!"
"Miss Lang, it is how all women do it. Now, you must have many things to do so that you are ready at the proper time! Go and do them and you will tell us all about it when we meet again! Bon chance, Miss Lang!"
"Thanks, Monique. And bless you."
"Lang archaeological dig number one-seven-three-able-two. This is Dr. Bostwick."
"Hey, doc! How's the dirt business?"
"Lana? Is that you?"
"Yep. I'd love to chat, but satellite calls are outrageous, so is my dad around?"
"He's right outside. Just a moment. Dennis! Your daughter is on the phone!"
There was a moment's hesitation. "Lana! What's wrong?"
"What? Nothing's wrong! Can't I just call my dad when I want to?"
"Not at this time of night and at these rates, you can't. What's going on?"
"Well, Dad, you know that Clark and I decided on a wedding date in December, right?"
"Well, we, uh, we kinda, uh, we want to get married before then."
"How much 'before then' are we talking about?"
"What? Today? Lana, are you — no, of course you're sure. Kitten, is this something that can't wait five months?"
"No. I'm sorry, but I can't wait five days, and in fact I don't want to wait at all, but Clark won't — uh, he's pretty firm on waiting until marriage."
"I see. I'm glad one of you is."
"Oh, Dad, please! I agree with him, at least intellectually, but my non-intellectual being has waited long enough! We're getting married today!"
"I see. Do you have a place to stay?"
"We have enough money to rent a place and furnish it."
"Good. Where will you stay until then?"
"Uh. Don't know. Guess we'll have to look quick."
"Would Clark be okay with staying at our — well, I guess it'll be just my place after today."
"Oh, Dad, don't be so melodramatic!"
"I'm not, Kitten, I'm being realistic. I'm also offering the two of you a place to stay until you get settled."
"Dad, that's wonderful! You're the best!"
"Wait. There's a condition attached."
"Uh-oh. What is it?"
"That you let me throw you a wedding celebration in December. You can repeat your vows and have the big wedding I've always wanted you to have. What do you say?"
"Hmm. Get married now, have a place to stay until we get our own place, and have a big party in December? That's a tough choice."
"I drive a hard bargain."
"You do at that. I accept for both of us."
"Okay. Lana, I love you. You do know that, don't you?"
"Of course I do, Dad! And I love you too!"
"Good. I'll see you when I get back, probably early November. Write me and tell me all about it."
"You want to know everything, Dad?"
"Remember how far from home everyone is, and how any news from anybody's home is received here. Anything you put in your letter will be dinner conversation for days, so you be the judge on how much you tell me."
"I'll definitely keep that in mind. Dad?"
"For being the greatest dad in the whole world."
"Dad? Are you still there?"
"Y-yes. Thank you, Lana. You've made my month for me. Now go and get married, young lady!"
"Yes sir! Right away sir!"
"And tell Clark how lucky he is to have you!"
"Thanks, Dad. I'll let him know, every way I can."
Martha stood beside Clark, fussing with the flower in the lapel of his navy blue suit. "Mom, it's fine. Honest. If it were any straighter, Euclid would roll over in his grave."
She huffed at him. "It's not every day my son gets married. I want you to look perfect."
He smiled. "I'm marrying Lana, Mom. How much better could it be?"
She gave him an odd look. "Mom, what's wrong?"
She shook her head. "Nothing, nothing at all, just your mother's pre-wedding jitters."
Brent put his hand on Clark's shoulder. "Last chance to stay free, bud."
"I don't think so, Brent. I've waited long enough as it is."
Brent smiled. "Okay, but don't say I never warned you."
"Warn me about what?"
"About how tough it is to be married."
"You mean you wish you hadn't married Charlene?"
"No way, dude! That gets back to her and I sleep in the front porch hammock for a week! No, man, she's fantastic, and I wouldn't change a thing, except maybe I'd want to grow up some more first."
"Grow up more how?"
Brent's face became serious. "To be a better husband. Charlene's low maintenance, she's real easy on the eyes, she's a good —"
"Watch it, Brent! My mom's here, you know!"
"She's a good kisser, okay? And she thinks I'm the best thing since sliced bread and peanut butter, but that doesn't mean that being married isn't work. Your mom will tell you how much trouble it can get you into."
Martha grinned at Brent and patted Clark's cheek. "He's right, Clark, but being married to someone you truly love is better than anything else you could experience on this earth."
Brent nodded. "Amen to that, bud."
The door opened at the far side of the chapel. Reverend Matthews motioned to them. "Please come to the altar now and we'll begin."
Clark and Martha almost ran to the front. Brent sauntered up behind them, shaking his head. Reverend Matthews grinned at their display of nervous energy. "Clark, your bride is ready. Are you?"
"Yes, sir, Reverend, I'm ready!"
"Good." He turned and motioned towards the door he'd just come through. Jonathan walked out and held the door for Charlene, then for the bride.
Lana wore a short-sleeved, knee-length white dress with a small, light yellow flower print. She held a bouquet of white orchids before her. Her shoulder-length light brown hair was brushed to a lustrous sheen, and tiny white flowers were woven all through it. For a moment, Clark forgot to breathe.
Lana took her place beside Clark, who was still staring at her in stunned amazement. She looked up and him and grinned, then reached out and poked him in the stomach. "Earth to Clark. You there?"
He panted twice, then nodded. "Yes. Wow. You look — I thought you'd look tired but you look — you're fantastic, you're incredible. Wow. You're — wow."
She beamed at him, then turned to Reverend Matthews. "I think we're ready."
Clark and Lana walked into the hotel carrying their overnight bags, checked in as quickly as possible, and made straight for the elevator. Lana tried to say something to him several times, but she couldn't quite find the words. She waited as Clark slid the card key into the door slot, then put down her bags and lifted her arms towards him.
Clark looked at her oddly for a moment, then smiled in comprehension. He put their bags just inside the doorway, sitting them against the door to hold it open, then lifted her effortlessly and carried her across the threshold.
He put her down gently and kissed her, then embraced her. She returned both the kiss and the embrace, and they were so wrapped up in each other they didn't hear the maid clear her throat until the second time. They looked up at her, both breathing deeply.
She held out a white card. "I think you'll need this."
Clark reached out and took it. There was a cartoon drawing of a delirious man carrying a blushing woman through an open doorway. The caption read, 'Do Not Disturb — Newlywed Alert!'
She grinned at them. "We won't even knock to bring in clean towels unless you call down for something." She took the card from Clark and hung it on the outside doorknob. "See you two in a few days."
She smiled at them as she pulled the door shut. Clark looked at Lana, and they both broke into laughter.
Lana recovered first. She picked up her overnight bag and skipped into the bathroom. "You go turn down the bed and do whatever else you need to do. I'll just be a minute."
"Okay. You know, I think you're stunningly beautiful already."
"I know you do, and I appreciate it, but I really will be just a minute. And no peeking!"
Clark smiled to himself. For the first time, it would be okay if he saw her undressed. It would even be a good thing. Strange how a short ceremony like that could change both of their lives so dramatically.
He quickly hung up his clothes and changed into a new pair of short-sleeved silk pajamas. As he did, he thought that maybe it wasn't so strange. After all, they had both just vowed before God and their families — well, his family — and the community to remain faithful to each other for the rest of their lives. Maybe the key to a good marriage wasn't just being deeply in love, but both partners being totally committed to each other. He contrasted his parents' marriage to Lana's parents' marriage, and the biggest difference was that Jonathan and Martha Kent were totally committed to each other, while Caroline Lang had been committed to her own personal comfort, which short-changed her commitment to her husband. Clark told himself that he'd never — not ever — short-change Lana for anyone or anything, whether for career or fame or even Superman. And he was certain Lana felt the same about him.
He heard the bathroom door open and he smiled. True to her word, Lana was out of the bathroom in under a minute.
He turned to look at her and his heart stopped.
Then she stepped forward and restarted it for him.
Jonathan and Martha shared a sandwich supper that night. They had ridden the emotional roller coaster all day, and neither one wanted to cook.
"Martha, I can hardly believe our boy is married. And to such a fine young lady! I hope they're half as happy as we've been."
"Remember what we promised each other? No interference."
He raised his hands. "I reaffirm my promise. I will not offer unsolicited advice, even when I know I can make things right for them."
She smiled. "Same here, dear. It's their life together. We can't live it for them."
Martha washed down the last of her chicken salad with the last of her tea. Jonathan asked, "Can I get you some more of anything?"
"No, thanks, dear." She sat back and stared at the wall.
Jonathan took her plate and glass to the kitchen with his plate and rinsed them. He refilled his own glass and came back. He sat down next to his wife and settled against the back of the sofa. "Okay, let's have it."
"I know that look. Something's on your mind and I'm concerned that you're concerned about it. What is it?"
Martha sighed. "It's just a lot of little things, Jon. I'm sure Lana loves Clark, and I know Clark thinks Lana hung the moon and all the pretty stars. I'm confident that they'll be able to work out their problems as they come to them."
"What little things are we talking about?"
She frowned. "Last night, this morning, actually, when I found her coming out of the basement in the barn, she said something about six hours, and that a noon wedding would be fine."
"So? Maybe she was figuring out how much time she needed to get everything done. The wedding was at two-thirty, so she had her six hours and more."
"I got the feeling there was a lot more to it than that. Then there was the way she diverted our conversation away from her conversation with the globe at breakfast. Something happened down there that she didn't want to talk about."
"It's her business, Martha, hers and Clark's. They'll work it out together."
Martha nodded slowly. "Maybe." She paused. "Did you know the Superman Foundation has a draw account for Superman?"
"What? No, I didn't. How did you find out about that?"
"I was cleaning Clark's room after he left for Africa and the latest statement was on top of his desk. Every month, two and a half percent of the net income to the Foundation goes in. That account, as of the most recent closing period, has a little over four hundred thousand dollars in it."
He whistled long and low. "That's a lot of souvenirs. But so what? Clark hasn't taken any of the money out. He would've told us."
"I know. But there were two withdrawals for the previous quarter on the statement, one for about nine thousand dollars and one for just under sixteen thousand. They were made out to El-El Investments."
"Do you think someone at the Foundation is skimming?"
"No, no. Clark would have called them on it. This is something he's aware of but didn't initiate. And I also found out that El- El Investments is owned by another company in the Cayman Islands called Digger Enterprises."
"What are they using the money for?"
She shrugged. "It looks like they're backing on-site scientific research. There's a dinosaur dig in France, another one in Nigeria, an archaeological dig in New Mexico, and a museum in Scotland, all of whom got some of the money from those two withdrawals. Nothing even slightly shady, much less illegal. It's all clear and aboveboard and totally kosher, no hint of scandal anywhere."
"How'd you find all this information?"
She grinned slightly. "I told you we needed unlimited access on our Internet account. I've been using it. You can find out almost anything online, or at least find out who to call to find it."
"And did you find out who owns Digger Enterprises?"
"The sole shareholder is Lana Lang."
He nodded slowly. "So. Lana's taking a miniscule amount of money from the Superman Foundation to fund scientific research and activities but not using it for her personal benefit. She's not funding her father's work, is she?" Martha shook her head 'no.' "Well, then I don't see a problem with anything she's done."
"Neither do I, not with the doing of it. But I don't think Clark knew about the transactions before he got the latest statement. That was the day he was so tight-lipped from the time the mail came until he talked to Lana late that night, a few days before he met her in Africa."
"Then she must have explained it to him. Martha, he's the one she has to satisfy, not us. We're not interfering, remember?"
"I know." She sighed again. "I just hope she tells him everything, preferably before she does it."
Clark and Lana slept late the next day, both for the obvious reasons and because they were still sorting out what time zone they were in. It was almost one PM before Lana opened her eyes and looked around.
She reached across the bed for her husband, but instead found a note. She picked it up and squinted until her eyes focused.
'My lovely bride, you were so beautiful, lying there with your marvelous brown hair fanning out on the pillow, I couldn't bear to awaken you. I'll be back by two, if not before, bearing food for us and gifts for you. I love you, I love you, I love you!'
She smiled and shook her head. He's a hopeless romantic, she thought, and I'm so lucky to have him and to hold him. She slowly got up and made the bed, then stepped into the shower, hoping to wake up enough to enjoy Clark's company when he returned.
She was rinsing her hair when she heard the bathroom door open. "Who's there?"
Clark's voice answered, "It's a stalker, looking for love in all the beautiful places."
"Oh, no! A stalker! You'd better leave before my husband gets back."
"Husband? And here I thought you were a lonely, love-starved young maiden, passionately hoping for a romantic adventure."
"Hey, pal, I've already got about all the passionate adventure I can handle. Besides, you'd have to be out of this world to beat my man."
The shower door slowly slid open to reveal Clark in all his manly glory. "Well, can I at least stand in for him until he gets back?"
Lana smiled fetchingly, reached out for his hands, and tugged him under the stream of water. "If you think you're super enough for me, big boy, come on."
He pulled her to him and kissed her. "Let's find out, shall we?"
They sat on the couch in their complimentary terrycloth robes, eating dinner. They exchanged shy smiles mixed with passionate glances and electric touches. Lana drained the last of her spice tea and sat back, sighing with contentment.
Clark reached for her and she let out a world-class belch. She was as stunned as he was, and they both laughed out loud. They fell against each other and rolled into a gentle embrace that was both relaxing and invigorating.
Lana touched his cheek and traced the outline of his mouth. "I thought I knew you, Clark Kent. Turns out I didn't know you at all."
He kissed her fingertips. "I know. I feel the same way. I didn't think I could love you more than I already did, but I do."
She smiled and kissed him gently. "Yeah. That too." She sat up and faced him. "Have you thought about where we're going to live?"
He frowned. "Uh. Not a great deal, no. I've been kinda distracted."
She laughed. "Thank you, kind sir. I hope I can distract you in that manner for the rest of our lives together."
"I don't think that's going to be a problem, my lady."
She leaned over and kissed him again. "Me neither. But we need to talk about where we're gonna stay after your dad's extremely generous wedding present runs out."
Clark sat up and frowned in thought. "I suppose we could rent an apartment. We'd have to buy some furniture, and maybe some appliances. That could run into some real money, too. Wow." He shook his head. "Lana, I love you and I'm beyond thrilled that we're married, but maybe we should have thought a little more about the time after the honeymoon."
She grabbed his hands in hers. "Then let me make a suggestion. My dad won't be back from his dig until mid-November at the earliest. Why don't we stay at my dad's house until we find a place of our own? We wouldn't be there long." Her eyes sparkled. "I would've been there myself by now, except we had a better idea."
He frowned more deeply. "I'm not sure I like imposing on your dad like that. I'm sure he didn't intend for both of us to live there, even if we are married. Hey! Does he even know he has a son-in-law?"
"I called him before the ceremony. After he got over the shock, he wished us all the best, and he made me promise that if we had to have an August wedding, we also had to be available in December for a big wedding celebration. And he offered us the use of his house until we find our own place. I didn't prompt him at all, I promise." She gazed up into Clark's eyes, all winsome and vulnerable. "What could I do but agree?"
He looked into her eyes for a moment, then laughed. "All right. Your dad's house for a very short time, then our own place, and very soon. After all, we've only got eighteen days before our senior year starts."
"Oh, I've thought of that, too. You can move your stuff into my bedroom while I go make sure my new name is on all my legal documents. That should take most of a day, actually, what with the driver's license, social security card, credit card, bank, the school registrar, and mmmph!"
He wrapped her in his arms and stopped her mouth with a kiss. "All this planning is giving me a headache." He moved down and nibbled on her neck. "Let's talk about it later."
She moaned and put her arms around his head. "Okay, ummm, yeah, later, later is good for me, too."
The bored-looking older man with thin white hair, a thick mustache, and a Santa Claus belly opened his office door and nodded to Lana. "Miss Lang? Please come in."
Lana smiled to herself. She'd fix the name in a few minutes. "Thank you, Mr. Southerland. I appreciate your seeing me on such short notice."
"I'm an employee of the state of Kansas. I live to serve."
"Whoa. You have a moisturizer, don't you?"
"A moisturizer?" He frowned. "Why would I need one?"
"That comment couldn't be any drier. It's liable to suck all the humidity right out of the air."
His expression blanked out. "I'll make a note of that. Now, what can I do for you?"
She pulled out a folder and opened it on his desk. "I want my name legally changed. I just got married."
"Thank you. I want my official name to be Lana Lang-Kent. With the hyphen."
He raised his eyebrows. "State law allows you to do this, of course, but —"
"But what? Is it your job to advise me on such choices?"
He shook his head slowly. "No, ma'am. Let me give you the forms you'll need."
She flipped through the papers in her folder. "You mean these?"
He looked, then nodded. "Yes. Let's see, you have your marriage license, driver's license, social security card — you'll have to go to their office to notify them."
"I know, that's Federal and not state."
"Yes. Perhaps they'll have more of a sense of humor."
She glared at him. "Just put your mark on the papers, Mr. Southerland. I'd like to make it to my bank before it closes."
"Of course. I live to serve."
Clark looked at Lana's new driver's license. "Lana? It says your last name is Lang-Kent." He lifted his eyes. "I didn't know you wanted to hyphenate your last name." He looked at the license again. "And you're using your dad's address."
"We don't have an address yet, Clark."
He frowned slightly. "You could have waited a couple of days."
She gently took the license from his hand. "Does it bother you, darling?"
"No. Uh, well, yeah, maybe a little. Mostly because it's a surprise."
"Don't you like surprises?"
He shook his head minutely. "Surprises are my stock in trade, at least in my 'other job.' I really prefer to avoid them if at all possible."
She gave him a soulful look. "Clark, I'm sorry if I surprised you. I really didn't think it would make that much difference. After all, the Lang name is well known in archaeology circles. I didn't want to give up what little leverage it gives me in my chosen field. I made it to all the places I needed to register my new name today." She hugged him apologetically. "But if you really, really feel that strongly about it, darling, I can go back and change my name to Lana Kent as soon as we find our own place."
He shook his head. "No, that's not necessary. It was — unexpected, that's all." He kissed the top of her head. "It's one of those things that we both need to adjust to. Something else for us to learn about each other."
She nodded against his chest. "Thank you, my darling. I love you."
"I love you too, you impetuous little vixen you."
She leaned back and grinned. "So, is the house ready for us to occupy yet?"
"Yes. My stuff is now either combined with your stuff or hung up in the guest bedroom. Your closet was pretty full, after all."
"Great! How's about I fix us our first dinner as a family? I got a meatloaf recipe from your mother that I haven't had a chance to try yet."
He gave her a long, soft kiss. "Sounds great. I'm hungry from all that lifting and carrying today."
"Mmm. I guess I'd better be gentle with you tonight, then."
She marked down another victory on her mental scoreboard.
The next morning, they got up early to go hunting for a place of their own.
"Clark, do you have any strong preferences?"
"Something we can afford."
She giggled as she adjusted her slacks. "I think we can agree on that part."
"Well, I've got almost six thousand dollars in my savings account, and I'm expecting checks on a couple of articles I sold from the dig. I need to use some of that for books and lab fees and such, but the rest of it is available for our place."
She smiled. "Ooh, I like the sound of that. 'Our place.' It sounds so romantic."
He angled the hand mirror and heat-visioned the last of his morning beard away. "Maybe we should think 'practical' first."
"Hey, I can be as romantically practical as the next girl!"
"I'll take your word for it, since I have no basis for comparison. Speaking of practical, do you have any preferences?"
"No fair! I asked you first."
He splashed after-shave onto his face. "I was thinking about an upstairs apartment. It'd be easier for Superman to get in and out of quickly."
She stepped beside him at the mirror to brush her hair. "Actually, I thought we could go see this realtor I know. You remember Jennifer Allen from the pep squad?"
"Realtor?" He looked at her in the mirror. "Honey, I don't think we can afford to buy a house right now. We're poor, struggling college students. It wouldn't be ethical to use the Superman Foundation money for our house."
She smiled and worked on a tangle in the back. "I agree with you about the Foundation's money, and I wasn't talking about your discretionary fund. Remember that account my dad had for me?"
He nodded. "Sure, but that's for your education. You still have one more year to go."
"I know. But I've been investing some of that money, too." She kissed his upper arm and smiled. "You're married to a financially comfortable woman, Clark."
He cocked his head to one side. "How comfortable?"
She shrugged. "I'll have to check to get the exact balance, but it was over forty-seven thousand before I left for Africa."
His jaw dropped. "What? Forty-seven thousand dollars? Lana, why didn't you tell me about this?"
She stopped brushing. "Clark, what's wrong?"
"You've got a lot of money that I didn't know about, that's what's wrong!"
"So? Would it have made a difference if you'd known? Would you have refused to marry me?"
"No, of course not! It's just — Lana, honey, we've got to work on our communication skills. You keep surprising me. None of this is deal-breaker stuff, but we've got to talk about it! You can't just sail off by yourself and do things like this any more! We're a family now! We've got to work together on things like this!"
She tossed the brush onto the counter. "What about Superman stuff? Do we talk about that?"
"You know we do!"
"How often? How much? Do you tell me everything?"
"What does Superman have to do with this?"
"Everything! Clark, I love you and we're married and I wouldn't change that for all the money in the world, but you can't run my life! I made that money before we got married! You'll notice I didn't ask you to sign a pre-nuptial agreement! I could have, too! I'm worth more than you are!"
She glared at him sharply. He took a deep breath and spoke slowly and calmly. "That doesn't matter to me. I didn't marry you for your name, or your father's influence, or for your money, or your connections. I married you for you. I love you, Lana, not what you can do for me."
She stamped her foot. "It's part of the package! Just like Superman is part of your package! What I can do for you — for us — is important to me! If I can make our lives more comfortable by using what I know and who I know I'm gonna do it! I won't allow us to wallow in poverty just to satisfy your Puritanical ethics! Now are we going house-hunting or not?"
She put her hands on her hips and stared into his eyes. Clark held her gaze for a long breath, then looked around the room. She could see him thinking, and she didn't like what she saw running through his mind.
A horrifying realization struck her. She put her face in her hands and sobbed. "Oh, no! Clark, no! No!"
She leaned against him and he caught her. "Lana? Honey, I'm here. What is it?"
He put his arms around her and she burrowed into his embrace. "Oh, Clark, I'm so sorry! I'm my mother!"
He stroked her hair. "No, Lana, you aren't your mother. You're you, you're not anyone else."
She sobbed again and hiccupped. "No! You don't understand! That's the kind of horrible, nasty, hateful thing my mother would say to my father before — before she left us! She was always so worried about money and society and what people thought of her and I hated her for it! I hated her! And now I'm acting just like her! Oh, Clark, I'm so sorry, please forgive me!"
Her tears flowed like acid, burning her face and scalding her heart. She'd told herself for years that she'd never be like her mother, never hurt the man she loved, never let possessions or position or perception come between them, and she'd started out her marriage by manipulating her loving, trusting husband into a corner, then attacking him for trying to maneuver out of it.
Clark lifted her and put her on the bed, took her shoes off, covered her with a blanket, and sat beside her. He stroked her hair, told her he loved her and would never leave her, that they'd make everything okay together.
She squeezed his hand yet again and told herself she was the luckiest woman on the face of the earth. She'd married an honest, hard-working, loving man with incredible talents. She told herself she'd be satisfied to live and work with him in a two-room shack with no utilities if that's what it took for them to be happy. She'd give up anything and everything for him. She loved him truly, madly, deeply, and she'd never do anything to hurt him or drive him away from her.
She thought she'd hated her mother for years for treating her father so badly, but it was nothing next to the loathing she felt for herself at that moment. She wept herself into exhaustion.
She cried until she fell asleep in his arms. They didn't hunt for houses that day.
Lana slept until late afternoon. When she woke up, Clark was in a chair beside the bed. His eyes were closed and he was breathing evenly, but he straightened up as soon as she moved.
"Lana? Are you okay? Do you feel better?"
She looked at him and shook her head. "I really, really need to go to the bathroom." She struggled out of bed and padded towards the bathroom door. "I'll be right back."
Clark made the bed and turned on the ceiling light. When Lana came back, she was rubbing her eyes with a wet washcloth. "Eye makeup. Irritates my eyes if I sleep with it on."
Clark smiled and touched her shoulder. "Hungry?"
She tossed the washcloth on the vanity and nodded. "What's for breakfast?"
"If that's what you want, that's what you get."
She squinted at him. "Why? What time is it?" She looked at the clock and gasped. "Wow! Five-forty-six? It's still the same day, isn't it?"
"Yes. But I think it's time well spent. You were obviously wrung out, both physically and emotionally."
"Yeah, obviously." She hugged him and kissed his shirt. "What about you? How do you feel?"
He returned her embrace. "I still love you."
She tightened her grip. "I know that. I mean, how do you feel about — about us?"
"Like we both need to make adjustments to and for each other, just like any other newly married couple."
She nodded. "Yeah. My dad told me we'd have discussions like this, where you expect one thing and I expect another and neither one of us understands what the other's thinking. He told me to talk to you a lot, and to listen even more." She sniffed. "I didn't think it would be this hard to talk to the man I love."
He sat down on the bed and tugged her down beside him. "I know. I didn't think I'd be so prickly about such little things. I've been thinking that maybe my manly pride was wounded because you've done so well with your money, way better than I have." He lifted her chin with his finger. "Maybe you should be the family money manager."
She smiled. "Only if I can make a complete disclosure on a regular basis."
"Done." He kissed her. "And expect some dumb questions, especially at first. I'm a journalism major with a sociology minor. You're a finance minor, and you'll have to talk baby talk to me until I get up to speed."
She snuggled against him. "I will. And I won't get upset about your publishing credits any more."
He leaned back and looked at her. "My writing bothers you?"
"No, no, not the writing, that's great! It's the people who meet us both and find you fascinating and me dry and dusty. Most people prefer the here and now to the distant past. They read your stuff and like it, and most of them don't even know I'm published, too." She shook her head and sighed. "My dad warned me about that, too. I'm so glad you have some interest in archaeology, even if you'll never love it like I do."
He kissed her forehead. "Please don't think I enjoy the attention. I'd much rather fade into the background and let you take center stage. You're better at it than I am, anyway."
She smiled up at him. "Maybe we should just agree that we complement each other, that our strengths and weaknesses mesh to form a stronger union."
"Something like, we are stronger together than either of us is alone?" She nodded. "Corny, but I like it. Can I use it in my next piece?" Lana's eyes took on a pixyish aspect and she pinched him in the side. "Ow!"
"Don't pretend you felt that, Superman."
"Hey, I felt it!"
"It couldn't have hurt." She bounced up. "I'm hungry. I haven't eaten since last night. What would you like?"
"You pick it. I'll clean up afterwards."
She threw a grin over her shoulder as she headed for the kitchen. "Sounds like a plan to me. It'll be quick, whatever it is."
She mentally filed her scoreboard in the back of her mind, way back with the rest of the clutter and trash. No more contests, no more counting wins and losses. She'd be a good team member, every hour of every day. It wouldn't be easy, but she was sure it would be worth it. She finally realized that winning every battle and losing Clark would make her life futile and hollow.
They adjusted. Their overall grade averages stayed at or above 3.9 each, they found a house to rent through Jennifer that they both liked (and which had a basement with an outside exit for Superman to use), and they slipped into domesticity with few serious detours. Lana's savings and part-time jobs occasionally supplemented Clark's writing sales, and they lived as frugally as possible. Jonathan and Martha encouraged them to come and visit whenever they wanted, but did their best not to pressure the newlyweds into making their visits compulsory. Professor Dennis Lang returned from Africa just before Thanksgiving, which they all celebrated at Clark and Lana's new house. Martha and Lana cooked dinner together, and no cases of food poisoning were reported.
The day after Thanksgiving, Clark and Lana invited her father to visit them for lunch and spend the rest of the day with them. They intended to reveal to him that Clark and Superman were the same person. He'd tried to beg off, saying that he still needed to organize some things for their December wedding celebration, but Lana had pressed him, saying that there was something really big they needed to tell him. He capitulated and arrived the next day just before lunch.
Lana was fussing nervously in the kitchen when he arrived. "Dad! Good, come in and sit down. Thanks for coming." She scurried to the basement door. "Clark? My dad's here."
"Okay. Be right up."
She sat across from him. "Okay, Dad, now this is really important. We need to tell you something, and you have to understand just how big this something is."
He smiled at her. "It's okay, honey. I understand. This kind of thing always seems like a big deal at first, but you'll get used to it."
She stared at him without comprehension. "What?"
He patted her hand. "It's okay. I know about biology and newlyweds and such. I'm sure Clark will be a fabulous father. And you'll be a wonderful mother, I'm sure of it."
"Huh? Mother? Dad, what are you — " and then she realized what he was talking about. She couldn't decide whether to laugh or scream.
Clark chose that moment to open the basement door. Lana was struck dumb. She pointed at Clark and slapped the table, then pointed to her father. She knew Clark was confused, but she couldn't make her mouth work. Her father stood up to shake Clark's hand and smiled patronizingly at both of them.
"Congratulations, young man! I'm sure you'll do extremely well, especially considering the example your own father has set for you. Jonathan Kent is one of the finest men I know, and my only regret is that I haven't gotten to know him better."
"Uh, thanks, Dennis." Clark looked at Lana for clarification, but she only sputtered.
"Look, Dennis, I don't know what Lana told you, but —"
"Don't worry, Clark! I may be absent at times, but I promise you I'll be as available as I can. I'll even baby-sit as often as you need."
"Baby-sit? Dennis, what do you think we were going to tell you?"
He lifted his hands to either side. "That I'm going to be a grandfather, of course! What other really important thing could you have to tell me?"
Clark's shocked look spurred Lana into action. "Dad! Sit down and be quiet and let us tell you! I mean it! No talking!"
Dennis did so, still beaming. "Very well, Kitten, tell me."
Lana took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Dad, I'm not pregnant. That's not why you're here."
"What? But —"
"No! Listen to me! Clark is Superman."
A veritable panoply of reactions danced across Dennis Lang's face. He finally settled on disbelief. "I'm sorry, Lana, I could have sworn you just told me that your husband is Superman."
His mouth opened but no sound came out. He looked from Clark to Lana and back again several times, as if waiting for a punch line. He landed his gaze on Clark. "Clark, what is going on here?"
Clark stepped back. "Let me show you."
He spun into the suit, complete with slicked-down hair. Professor Lang sat slack-jawed in his chair and stared at Clark. Clark looked at Lana, then lifted himself off the floor and floated around the kitchen twice. Dennis still didn't respond, so Clark picked up the refrigerator with his index fingers and held it at arm's length while floating two feet above the floor. Still no response.
"Dad, are you okay?" Lana cautiously touched his arm. "Dad?"
He slowly turned his head to her and stared for a long moment. "Lana?"
"Yes, Dad, it's me."
"What are you doing here?"
She frowned. "I live here. This is my home."
"Oh. You live in my delusions?"
She grabbed his arm and shook it hard. "Dad! Snap out of it!"
"Ouch! Hey, what are you — Lana, what did I just see?"
"You saw Clark change into Superman and do some super-type things."
He nodded. "That's what I thought I saw. You'd better call the hospital and tell them my malaria delirium is back."
Lana snorted. "No, Dad! It's real. Clark is Superman!"
"Oh." He looked at Superman. "Clark? Is that really you?"
Clark put the refrigerator down, then drifted to the floor and smiled. "In the flesh, Dennis." He reached out and pulled Dennis to his feet. "I'm sorry for the shock, but we honestly couldn't figure out how to break it to you gently."
"Yeah. That would be — problematic at best." Dennis shook his head. "So. What happens now?"
"Whatever you want to happen. The only thing we ask is that you don't tell anyone. Not ever. It would be dangerous for Lana and for my parents and for you. There are some pretty dangerous criminals in custody who'd like to get back at me any way they could, and Superman's family would be a most inviting target."
"Uh-huh. I understand. I think." He turned around and looked at the kitchen. "Wow. Do you mind if I talk to Lana? By myself?"
Superman smiled. "Not at all. I need to make a patrol anyway." He gave Lana a quick kiss and turned to the basement door. "I'll see you in about an hour."
Lana watched him go. "Dad? Would you like something to eat or drink? It might help you come back down to reality."
He shook his head. "No thanks. Maybe later." He sat down slowly. "Lana? This is really true? You're married to Superman?"
She grinned. "Yep. Comes in handy when I'm in the mood for authentic Mexican food."
"Wow." He snorted in surprise. "I never thought about Superman having a family. Uh, speaking of family, I assume this isn't a secret from his parents?"
"Oh, no. In fact, Martha made the costume."
"Ah." He looked around the kitchen, then stood and walked to the refrigerator.
"Hungry now, Dad?"
"No." He put one hand on either side of the appliance and tried to lift it. Of course, it didn't even wiggle.
He stepped back and looked around. "I'm beginning to believe it."
"You have the advantage of already knowing that there's a guy out there who can do stuff like that. I didn't."
"Oh." He sat down again. "I assume you — that Clark told you before — you —"
She laughed, relieved that he seemed to be adjusting. "High school graduation night. He showed me he could fly and told me about a lot of the other stuff he could do."
"Oh. No wonder you were so wound up that night. I thought it was — well, never mind what I thought. I'm glad that was — wait a minute." He stood and began pacing. "That was before the Alaska expedition. We had just started the dig when the news came out. I remember, because one of the Inuit guides didn't believe the news reports. He said he'd believe in a flying man when the man flew over and offered to carry his pack for him." He spun and faced her. "You knew about this before Superman made his first public appearance, didn't you?"
"Yes. Why is that —"
"So you knew who Superman was in civilian life and told no one? Not even your own father?"
"Dad, I'm sorry but I couldn't tell you! Please sit down and —"
He reached out and plucked her out of the chair. "Kitten, I'm so proud of you! You kept one of the biggest secrets in the world for more than three years and didn't even hint at it to me! That's so wonderful!"
She waited until he put her down. "Yeah, okay, thanks. Dad, I'm sorry I didn't tell you before we got married, but that just came up so suddenly that —"
He reared back and laughed. "No, it's okay! I understand. Hey, how about something to drink? Or dinner! We could celebrate!"
"What? No, Dad, I don't think you understand! You can never tell anyone! Never! Got that? Nobody! Not ever!"
He grinned and nodded. "I know, Lana, I know. But can I at least think about telling your mother? She'd drop her teeth, and she doesn't wear even dentures!"
Lana smiled weakly. "Yeah, she probably would. But she can't know, Dad! She'd never keep this secret."
He shook his head, still grinning. "You're right. She'd babble about it to everyone she met and blame me for telling her in the first place. It would be front-page news in two days, if not less. I can still dream about it, though, can't I?"
She patted his arm. "Of course you can. Now sit down and tell me about the Africa dig. Is Professor Bostwick still worried about the civil war flaring up on the coast?"
They talked for almost three hours, covering ground both old and new. Lana began to worry about Clark; he was never this late unless there was an emergency. She finally gave in to her worries and turned on the radio, hoping to learn why her husband wasn't home.
The announcer spoke of the chance of freezing rain that night, of traffic tie-ups near the airports, and of a forest fire in southern Nevada. His voice suddenly sharpened as he read a fresh bulletin.
"Folks, I've just been handed a note that says that Superman has been helping to fight this forest fire in Nevada. There were two groups of firefighters trapped by a sudden surge of flame, and Superman has managed to rescue most of them. We don't have any names of survivors or victims at this time, but stay tuned and we'll give out further information as soon as — wait, I've just been handed another note. All of the surviving firefighters have been brought out of the fire, and Superman was last seen ferrying water into the worst of the flames. The marshal on the scene says that the firefighters are working to contain the remaining blaze, which has now been broken up into several smaller fires instead of one huge one, thanks largely to the efforts of Superman. They anticipate gaining control over the fire in the next six hours or so. He also says that Superman saved more than thirty lives in the time he was there.
"On the local front, February wheat futures gained four cents per share in today's commodity trading —"
She clicked off the radio and stood in front of it, silent. Her father put a hand on her shoulder. "I think he'll need to talk to you when he gets back, Kitten. I'll go and —"
"No!" She grabbed him and held on. "P-please wait! He — Clark will eat himself up over the ones who didn't make it and — and I'll have to comfort him! I'm not very good at it! I never really know what to say when stuff like this happens! Please, wait for him!"
"Okay, Kitten, okay. Here, let's get some tea ready." He guided Lana to the kitchen table and put her in a chair.
As Dennis was pouring, he heard heavy footfalls on the basement steps. Clark, in civilian clothes, opened the door. His face was haggard and drawn, and the stench of smoke and his super- human effort clung to him. Lana stood and embraced him, and he began to weep.
Dennis put three glasses of iced tea on the table and stood by as Clark released his grief. Lana held onto him desperately, trying to ease his pain and to be strong for him. She waited until she felt him run down, then she put him in a chair and sat beside him.
Clark took off his glasses and drew his hand down over his eyes. Dennis handed him a dishtowel and Clark wiped his face with it. "Thank you."
"It's the least I could do. You appear to have stared directly into the face of the beast today."
Clark raised his head. His face was dry but his voice was shaky. "I have."
Dennis motioned to the tea in front of him. "You should drink something."
Clark nodded and drained the glass. Dennis took it from him and refilled it, then sat down across from him. "You want to talk about it?"
Clark chuckled, but there was no humor in it. "You get to find out how strong I am and how weak I am all in the same day. Package deal, no extra charge."
"You watched people die today, didn't you?" Clark dropped his gaze and nodded. "You saved some others, too, didn't you?" Clark nodded again. "And not being able to save all of them is cutting you in two, isn't it?"
Clark clenched his fists and grunted. "Yes. Yes! It's like a knife in my gut."
"That isn't weakness, son, it's strength. Your compassion does you great credit. If you could watch people die and not react, I'd be worried about you and about Lana, but this tells me you're a man and not just a brightly colored suit flying around letting people tell you how wonderful you are." He leaned forward. "It's extremely hard to watch people die, Clark, whether you know their names or not. Don't think of it as weakness, because it certainly isn't weakness."
Clark raised his head. "The fire — it just exploded. It was too big and too hot for me to blow out. I would've scattered flames all over the state if I'd tried. All I could do was cut firebreaks and direct the planes dumping the chemicals."
He rubbed his face with his hands for a moment, then continued. "There were two groups trapped, one of about twenty-five and one of about a dozen or more. They were on opposite slopes of a small hill. I can only carry two, maybe three healthy adults at a time, but I can't carry more than one injured person. I got the larger group out as fast as I could. When I crossed the hill —"
He shuddered and closed his eyes. Lana put her arms around his neck and squeezed, hoping he could feel it, hoping he would accept her meager comfort. "Two large trees had fallen into the smaller group. Three were already dead, crushed. Three more were on fire, and the others were trying to put them out. I snuffed out the flames on the people and got the injured out as fast as I could, but I could only carry one at a time. By the time I went back for the rest, another tree had fallen. Two more were dead. I got the rest out as fast as I could. I went back and I — I brought out the bodies.
"A doctor told me that one of the burn victims had died before they'd gotten her to the hospital. He wasn't sure the other two would make it, either, but he thanked me for trying. He thanked me! Some of them died, and he still thanked me!"
Clark made a fist and almost slammed it on the table, but stopped himself. "See? See that? I can't even take out my frustrations here! I'll break something if I do. I wasn't fast enough! I wasn't strong enough!" He looked at Lana with more tears in his eyes. "What can I do? Tell me, Lana, please! What can I do?"
Lana shook her head. She didn't have an answer. She never had an answer for times like this. There hadn't been many, not so far, but she had no remedy for Clark's pain. She felt like a failure, but she had no idea what to do or to say, except to tell him that she loved him and was proud of him. Her inability to comfort him cut her to the core of her being.
Dennis sat back. "How does Superman decide whom to rescue?"
Clark drove his fist into his other hand. "The wrong way, apparently."
"That's not an answer. How do you make that decision?"
Clark rubbed his eyes. "Depends on the situation."
"All right. If two people are in danger and you have to help them one at a time, who gets your attention first?"
"Uh. The one in the most trouble, I guess."
"So if two cars are stalled on a bridge, the one hanging over the edge and holding on by the paint gets your attention before the one stopped in the breakdown lane?"
"Sure. How else would I decide?"
"I see. You decide whom to assist first according to the principle of imminent danger."
"Imminent danger?" Clark frowned slightly. "I've never called it that."
"But it's not inaccurate. In fact, it's probably the only way to do what you do. It's what policemen and firemen do every time they respond to an emergency."
"They don't have my powers."
"And that makes you more responsible than they?"
"It means I can do more than they can. A lot more."
"But can you do everything?"
Dennis pushed his chair back and stood. "Clark, are you responsible for the lives of every individual in the world?"
"Answer the question, please. Are you?"
Clark shook his head. "Well — no, of course not."
"How many of those people would have died today had you not been there to help?"
"I don't know —"
Dennis's voice hardened. "Don't sidestep! Answer the question."
Clark straightened. "Most of them. Maybe all of them."
"Young man, do you not understand that you can never fix all the world's problems? No one can, no matter how strong or how fast or how smart he or she is. There are at least thirty people who are alive right now who would almost surely be dead if not for you. Focus on the good you have done, not what you weren't able to do."
He stepped forward and put his hand on Clark's shoulder. "It is right and it is proper that you grieve for those you could not help, but it is not good that you ignore those you did help. You did your absolute best, and although you fell short of perfection, you came closer to it than any other man or woman on the planet might have. Always aim for perfection, Clark, but be ready to forgive yourself if you miss the target from time to time." He turned to Lana. "I take it you haven't given him this speech?"
She shook her head. "Not in such excellent terms, no. Thanks, Dad."
He smiled. "Don't mention it, Kitten. You've made my day — no, my entire year for me."
"By finding out that you're Superman's father-in-law?"
Dennis chuckled. "Partly that. Mostly, though, by finding out that Superman is human after all, and a good man as well." He put his hand out to Clark. "I was already glad to have you as a son-in-law, but now that I see your true character I'm even more proud. I hope you remember what I said, and I hope you put it in practice as often as you need to."
Clark took his hand and stood. "Thank you, Dennis. I can't tell you how much what you said means to me."
"You're welcome. Say, since I was robbed of my lunch, and it's so late in the afternoon, what if I take us all out to dinner? My treat."
Clark looked at Lana, who nodded. Lang smiled expansively. "Wonderful! I hope you like seafood."
Lana stood and hugged him. "We do, Dad. And thanks again. You're a lifesaver."
"Just don't try to put a hole in my middle, okay? Clark, we'll wait for you to clean up. Shouldn't take you more than — " Clark raced to the bedroom and returned wearing fresh clothing within five seconds.
Dennis's eyes bulged and he nodded. "Most impressive."
Lana licked her thumb and rubbed the side of his head. "You missed a spot, dear."
Dinner was wonderful. Dennis Lang proved to be an adept host. He turned their conversation to Clark's writing and Lana's preferences for her last on-site assignment, then got them to agree to a date for their December wedding celebration. By the time they all left the restaurant, Clark's eyes were sparkling and he had that smooth little skip in his step again. Lana was thrilled that her father was part of 'the group' who knew about Superman, and she was relieved that she'd never again have to shade the truth about Clark's whereabouts to him. When Jonathan and Martha learned that he knew, a few days later, they threw an impromptu "secret identity" costume party.
The rest of the semester passed quickly. Clark and Lana both aced their finals. That was when they found out they were both in a four-way competition for class salutatorian and valedictorian. The other two candidates for the senior class's top two scholastic honors — a pre-med student and an English major — were both smart, highly driven over-achievers with chronic sleep deprivation. Clark was pleased simply to be in the mix, but Lana wanted them to secure both honors.
"Clark, it'd be great! We'd both be able to pick our spots. We could set ourselves up as independents, or plug into almost any organization in the country! The University of Kansas may not be the archaeology capital of the nation's schools, but graduating at the top of the entire class is a feather in anyone's cap!"
He frowned. "Lana, I'm not into that kind of competition. Besides, I'm not sure I want to be tied down to a regular job. I'm sure you won't be, not if you get any of the digs you're looking for."
She frowned back. "That doesn't matter! I'm thinking of your career as well as mine! Unless you want to take the money out of the Superman Foundation discretionary fund, you're going to need a job in a few months, and being in the top two of your college class is a great way to get a good one! Who knows, maybe the Daily Planet will hire you full-time instead of just buying your stuff when they feel like it."
He shook his head. "I don't know, Lana. It's not that I wouldn't appreciate it, it's just that I don't think I need it."
She softened her tone. "Will you at least try? I would dearly love to stand beside my husband on that graduation platform, one of us valedictorian and the other the salutatorian. It would make a wonderful story to tell our kids and grandkids."
He smiled. "Well, when you put it that way, I understand. Sure, I'll do my best. I can't guarantee anything, now, you understand?"
She hugged him. "Of course I understand! You just do your best, I'll do mine, and we'll leave those nerds behind us eating our scholastic dust!" She kissed him enthusiastically. "Now let's finish getting ready for that wedding celebration. Dad has really rolled out the red carpet for us, and we shouldn't keep all those people waiting."
Clark exited the limo and handed Lana out, then looked down at the crimson-colored path to the hotel entrance. "I thought you were kidding about the red carpet."
Lana looked around at the wonderland surrounding them. "So did I. Well, we might as well get this done."
He smiled at her. "You know, I'd marry you all over again if I had the chance."
She pulled his arm close. "You'll have that chance in less than an hour, smooth talker. You'd better be as good as your word."
He was. They repeated their vows before Reverend Matthews and their families and friends, including a pregnant bridesmatron — Charlene, due in four months or so — and an overly proud groomsman — her husband, Brent. Then everyone moved into the reception hall, where a six-piece combo played old standards and more contemporary music. Clark and Lana had worn the same clothes they'd worn on their first wedding day, and they danced to the first tune, "Save the Last Dance for Me." Lana was so ecstatic she found it difficult to stay on the floor, even without Clark's natural buoyancy.
The guests joined in on the second song. It was a bit of a joke from Lana's father, as the large group of people in formal wear began moving and shaking to "Tequila." Everyone shouted out the name of the song at the appropriate places, and the ice was broken. The party was a grand success.
Clark led Lana to the cake table, where they fed each other — without smearing any on either's face — and toasted each other with fruit punch. They kissed for the photographers and smiled as the guests made their way through the receiving line.
One of the last to pass by them was Lana's mother. Lana put a plastic smile on her face and embraced her mother at arm's length.
"Oh, sweetie, you look so beautiful! My little girl's all grown up!" She sniffed theatrically and dabbed her eyes.
"Thanks, Mom. This is my husband, Clark."
"Of course he is! I remember him! You will take good care of my little girl, won't you, Clarkie?"
Clark took her hand and held it. "So far, she's done a pretty good job of taking care of me."
She laughed louder than the joke warranted. "You still have your sense of humor, Clarkie! I like that. Call me Carolyn, won't you? Lana, dear, did you and Clarkie get our present?"
"We haven't looked at the presents yet, Mom."
"You'll love it, I know! I bet it'll be your favorite! Oh, Clarkie, have you met my husband, Robbie? Robbie, this is Clark Kent, my new son-in-law."
The chubby, medium-sized man looked up at Clark and stuck out his hand. "Good to meet you. Robert McConnell. I'm in stocks and bonds."
Clark shook his hand. "Sounds restrictive."
Robert looked at him closely, then grinned at Lana. "Hey, girl, you got a live one here! I haven't heard that old chestnut for quite a while, maybe as long as a week!" He slapped Clark hard on the shoulder, then pulled his hand back as if stung. "Whoa. You work out, Clark?"
"You should, especially while you're still young. Keep that physique as long as you can. You know, you get a little older, your muscles start to sag a bit, your wind gets a little shorter, and first thing you know the wife is getting a face-lift and —"
Carolyn's eyes bulged and she yanked on his elbow. "Come along, Robbie, let's let the kids mix now. I'm sure there are a lot of people they want to talk to."
"Okay, sweet cheeks. See you kids later."
"Nice meeting you, Robbie."
Robert threw a quick glance at Clark over his shoulder as Carolyn escorted him around the room. They quickly vanished into the sea of formal wear.
Lana hugged his elbow. "Welcome to my world, Clarkie."
He smiled down at her. "I guess it could be worse."
"Maybe. Well, that's Mom and the weasel. They were on their best behavior tonight." She squinted at him in mild alarm. "Dad didn't stock a wet bar, did he?"
"Just champagne, and the servers have strict orders to limit everyone to a max of two glasses. He doesn't want any drunks here, either."
"Good. Maybe Mom won't get sloppy tonight."
He leaned down and kissed her. "Let's concern ourselves with ourselves, okay? This is our night, after all."
She grinned and kissed him back. "Not yet, but I'm pretty sure it will be pretty soon." She pressed his hand to her lips. "Time to schmooze, dear. I'll see you later."
Lana began making the rounds of the people there, making sure everyone was introduced to everyone else and that all the 'important' people were properly stroked. Her father caught her after a few minutes and led her back to Clark with another man in tow.
"Clark, Lana, I want you to meet Doctor Samuel Lane. He's a physician specializing in amputee research and prosthetic replacements. I met him last year in Africa. He was doing research there among some of the tribes, looking for herbal and holistic medicines to help his work. He's applied for a grant from the Superman Foundation to continue his research. Sam, let me present my daughter Lana, and my son-in-law Clark Kent."
Dr. Lane shook hands with them. "I'm pleased to meet you both. Dennis has told me so much about you. I understand you're both in the running to stand on the graduation platform in June."
Lana stepped forward. "Yes. We plan to be the first married couple in school history to earn those spots in the same year."
"I'm sure you'll make it. Oh, I'm sorry! Please let me introduce my research assistant, Mindy Benton. Mindy, this is Clark and Lana Kent."
Mindy's eyes grew huge inside the impossibly blond ringlets framing her face. "Ooh! I'm like, so really, really happy to make both of your acquaintances."
Clark stifled a chuckle as he shook Mindy's hand. "Glad to meet you, Mindy. Have you worked with Dr. Lane for long?"
"Oh, no, just a few weeks, actually. Right now I'm more of a glorified secretary than a research assistant. I'm really a registered nurse, you see."
Lana nodded. "That can be a challenging field."
"Oh, it is, especially with all the sick people today."
Neither Lana nor Clark had any response to that comment. Before Lana could regain control of her jaw, Dr. Lane took Mindy's arm and guided her away. "Please come this way, my dear. There are some bankers I'd like you to meet."
Mindy's squeal of delight as she wiggled into the crowd left Lana totally flummoxed. Clark leaned down and whispered, "I think she has more hair than brains."
Knowing that Clark would hear, she whispered back, "Only if you think her brains are in her head instead of on her chest!"
Clark choked on his ginger ale and spilled it. "Oops. I'll have to get another. You want something to drink, hon? Dennis?"
Dennis shook his head. "No thanks. I have to go talk to a money man myself." He kissed Lana on the cheek. "I hope this event isn't too wearing on you, Kitten, but you look wonderful tonight. Thank you both for indulging me."
"I'm a pretty strong girl, Dad. And thanks. And — how are you doing?"
She locked gazes with him. He sighed deeply. "Pretty good, actually."
"Mom's not twisting your guts in a knot?"
He canted his head to one side. "Where'd you hear that?"
"Never mind. How about it?"
He smiled ever so slightly. "I still have regrets, probably will for the rest of my life, but I'm not clobbering myself over her any more. I think you and Clark have helped me there."
She smiled. "I knew we were good for something."
"Oh, you both are, Kitten. You two have a good time. I'll check back with you later."
"Okay, Dad. See you then." She turned to her husband as her father slipped through the crowd. "Hey, Clark, how about a glass of champagne?" He lifted an eyebrow. "I'm a legally-of-age married woman, Clark, so don't give me that look."
He nodded and smiled. "I suppose it is a very special evening. One glass of champagne for my favorite bride, coming up."
"I'd better be the only bride you have, mister."
"Well, I did promise to keep you away from all my girlfriends. Saves on jail time and lawyer fees."
She narrowed her eyes at him and crossed her arms. "You know, you can take a joke too far."
He was immediately filled with remorse. "Lana, honey, I'm sorry, I didn't mean a word of it. I was just trying to be funny. Please forgive me."
She tilted her head to one side. "I'll think about it. Now, what about my champagne, oh loving husband?"
He looked into her eyes and saw the amusement dancing there, then kissed her on the nose. "Whatever my lady desires. She need but name it and it is hers." He kissed her forehead lightly and gently held her elbows. "I love you."
She tried for a flippant tone, but her heart overruled her head and she answered in a low, husky voice. "I love you too, my darling husband."
He slid his hands down her arms as he slowly moved away. "Be right back, okay?"
He winked and smiled. She watched him maneuver to the drink table, then turned to observe the crowd. Her attention was drawn to a tall, dark-haired woman about her age, wearing a floor- length red gown. Something in the woman's slightly exotic appearance touched a chord in Lana's memory, but Lana couldn't place her. The memory was faint but disturbing, like a half- remembered nightmare from her childhood.
The woman noticed Lana staring and smiled, then walked towards her. "Hi. My name's Lois Lane. You're Lana Lang-Kent, aren't you?"
Lana nodded. "Yes. Nice to meet you, Lois. Um, you know, you look familiar to me, but I can't place you. Have we met before?"
Lois frowned and studied Lana's face. "You look familiar to me, too, but I don't remember meeting you either. Maybe we've seen each other in passing somewhere."
Lana shrugged. "Probably. Your last name is Lane?" Lois nodded. "Any relation to Dr. Samuel Lane?"
"Father and daughter."
"I see. So, did you follow your father's footsteps into the medical field?"
"No. I'm a journalism major, like your husband."
Red flags went up in Lana's mind, and she didn't know why. "Journalism? Where do you go to school?"
"Metropolis University in New Troy. I'm a senior, due to graduate this spring."
"With honors, I assume."
Lois smiled. "Not as high as yours, but I made the Dean's list every semester."
"That's still nothing to sneeze at. What do you write about?"
"I'm an investigative reporter. I find out who's doing things in secret and bring them out into the open." Lois sipped her drink and fixed Lana with a stare. "There are those who don't like me very much because of that."
Bombs bursting in mid-air joined the red flags in Lana's head. "I can certainly understand that."
Lois froze for a moment, then smiled tightly. "Yeah. Anyway, I was hoping to talk to you privately for a few minutes."
"Well, this is my formal wedding reception, and I think my husband and the other guests might miss me if I just up and disappeared."
"Of course." Lois nodded. "I understand. I'll be here for a few days with my dad. Maybe we can get together between now and Christmas."
Lana shook her head. "I don't know if I'll have the time."
Lois twirled her glass. "I'd think the owner of Digger Enterprises would be able to make the time."
Lana tried to control her reaction, but she could tell that Lois liked what she saw in her face. "What — makes you think I'm the owner of — that company?"
"The corporate filing papers in the Cayman Islands. See, my father, the fox hunter —"
"Fox hunter? I thought he was a doctor!"
Lois lifted her eyebrows. "Didn't you see his latest hunting trophy? Mindy something-or-other?"
"Oh. Oh! Yeah, I met her." Lana leaned in closer, hoping to distract the other woman. "I can see why he likes her. She's got brains."
"Huh. I'm glad someone thinks so." Lois sipped her drink and refused to be sidetracked. "Anyway, he applied for a grant from the Superman Foundation last summer and they said they'd consider it. They hadn't come through by Thanksgiving, so I did a little investigating on my own. Everything I've found so far is perfectly legal, but I wonder why it is that you can get money from the Foundation any time you want."
The flat statement stunned Lana. "Why — why did you even look?"
Lois shrugged. "I was curious. And apparently no else had bothered to look, so I was treading unplowed ground. And my question stands."
Lana was still a little off balance. "What question?"
"About your access to Superman's draw account from the Superman Foundation."
Lana hoped she had her voice and face under control. "I really can't comment on that, Miss Lane, especially under these circumstances."
Lois smiled. It was a surprisingly pleasant smile. "I understand. Maybe we could meet later, say, sometime this weekend. I'd really like your side of this story before I write it."
"Who's going to print it, your college newspaper?"
"They've got the first shot, of course, but I've already talked to the New York Standard and the Washington Review. All I've told anyone is that there's something funny going on at the Foundation, nothing shady or illegal — as far as I know — just something very odd. They're both quite intrigued."
A deep male voice abruptly intruded on the pair. "I can imagine."
Both women spun around to see Clark standing beside them. He handed Lana her drink and nodded at Lois. "Hi. I'm Clark Kent. You've already met my wife, Lana. Who are you?"
He spoke in a normal tone, but his expression was intense. Lois's face slackened slightly and she took a short step back, but then she recovered. "Lois Lane. I was just talking to your wife about a story I'm working on."
"Miss Lane, if there are any stories to be written about my wife, I'll gladly do it."
"I'm talking about hard news, Mr. Kent, not the fluffy touchy- feely cotton candy pieces that float out of your word processor."
"Excuse me? Cotton candy? Fluffy touchy-feely pieces?"
"Yes. I read your articles on that dig in Kenya. You should have focused on how difficult it is to find qualified student assistants instead of holding the sponsors up as martinets."
"I wrote what I saw and what I heard. I don't publish rumor or innuendo."
"And you're insinuating that I do?"
"It sounds like you're considering it."
"I'm considering writing the truth."
"Before you gather all the facts? You must drive your professors crazy with your conspiracy theories."
"It's not a theory if I can prove it!"
"I don't think you're looking for proof."
"And I don't think you can see past the ring in your nose that you think is on your finger!"
Clark's face darkened even more and he took a step towards Lois. "I think you should leave."
"And why should I do that?"
"Because I don't think I like you very much, Miss Lane."
Lois's eyes sparked and her brow drew down. "I don't much care how you feel about me, Mr. Kent. I'm working on a story and I'm not about to let go of it."
Clark's eyes narrowed and one hand clenched into a fist. "Back away from my wife, Miss Lane, or you'll care a great deal."
Lana stepped between them and nudged them apart. "Hey, gang, I enjoy a good war as much as anyone else, but maybe this is a little public for this kind of fight. Why don't you each go to neutral corners and wait for the bell?"
Lois held Clark's glare for a few seconds more, then spun around and stalked away. Lana watched her go with a sigh of relief.
"Clark, I've never seen you get that mad that quick at anybody! Are you okay?" He didn't answer. "Clark?" His stare was still tracking Lois Lane.
Lana snapped her fingers beside his head. "Come back to earth, okay?"
"Ow!" Clark flinched and put his hand to his ear. "Lana, you know that stings. When you know I'm listening hard to something, please don't snap your fingers that close. It sounds to me like a gunshot beside your head would sound to you."
She held his arm. "I'm sorry, babe, but I had to bring you back somehow. You okay?"
Clark took a couple of deep breaths and nodded. "I am now. Thanks."
"What happened there?"
He shook his head. "I — I don't really know. It was like an instant clash of personalities."
"Well, I thought it was about to be a clash of something else. You weren't really going to hit her, were you?"
"What? Hit her? Me?"
"Your fist was closed."
Clark looked at his hand as if it had a mind of its own. "Wow. I didn't even know I'd done that." He turned it. "You mean — I looked like — I was going to —"
She pressed his hand to her lips. "It's okay, darling. Nothing happened. No one's hurt. And you'll control yourself better next time."
He tilted his head down at her. "I sincerely hope there isn't a next time."
Lana looked up and saw a flash of red moving resolutely towards the exit. Something told her it wouldn't be the last time she and Lois Lane crossed paths. Or maybe swords.
Something one of her psych professors had once said popped into her head. "Remember, the emotions of love and hate are two opposite sides of the same coin. They are the strongest emotions you will ever feel. If, by your action or inaction, you kill the love in someone, it will often turn into hate. And if you see two people who clash at first sight, often there is some kind of strong, immediate attraction at work, and they don't know how to handle it so they pick a fight with each other. So be careful about the ones with whom you argue! People will talk!"
The class had laughed, Lana included.
She wasn't laughing now.
Two nights later, Lois was up late at her hotel, re-working a portion of the story about the Superman Foundation, when a knock sounded at her balcony window. She frowned. Who'd be on her balcony at this time of night?
She pulled the curtains back and peeked out. Superman was standing on the railing with his arms folded across his chest. She was too stunned to open the door until he floated down to the balcony deck.
"Excuse me? You are Lois Lane, aren't you?"
She nodded slowly.
"Can we talk for a few minutes?"
She nodded again.
He sighed. "Do you want to come out here or should I come inside?"
"Oh. Oh, yeah! Please come in!" She yanked the door open and stepped back. "It's cold outside and there's no sense in you standing out there by yourself and freezing your —"
"I don't really get cold, Miss Lane."
"Oh. Right. Um, can I get you something?"
"What do you have?"
She suddenly remembered that she was in a hotel room, one which did not have an honor bar. "Uh, you want a cup of water?"
"No, thank you. I'm actually here to talk about my foundation."
"Oh. Oh, right! Look, I've got transaction records from your draw account, checks made out to El-El Investments for the last three years, and most of that money goes right to Digger Enterprises, and the sole owner is Lana Lang-Kent, and she's married to an ill-tempered jerk who can't take constructive criticism and she won't talk to me about -"
Superman held up his hand. "Miss Lane, I'm aware of the money going to El-El Investments. I also know that Mrs. Lang-Kent is supporting scientific research and museums with that money. Did you know that?"
She nodded. "Of course I did. But the fact that she's covering this up suggests a reason beyond mere shyness. Do you know why there are so many layers between her and the Foundation?"
He stepped to the desk where Lois's papers were spread out. "To keep nosy people like you away from her. She's a college student and a newlywed, and she values her privacy. I don't imagine you'd want the kind of scrutiny on you that you're about to bring to her life."
Lois turned and began to think about that. She stepped across the room and turned back. Superman was looking at her notes, and he had what appeared to be a surprised look on his face until she spoke. "So why are you here? Who is she to you that you're defending her?"
"I'm not here to defend her, Miss Lane. I'm defending the Foundation. If this story comes out as you've outlined it, people might lose confidence in the directors and their decisions. The Foundation supports or helps to support eleven hospitals, fifteen free clinics, two children's rehab hospitals, and twenty-nine foreign medical establishments, plus various other occasional charitable projects. I didn't find anything about them in your most recent draft."
She raised her brows in surprise. "You read it that fast?"
"Yes. Now, I can't force you to drop this story or even change it, and I'm not going to try. All I can do is ask, for the sake of the children the Foundation helps every day, is that you get all the facts before you print this story. I don't think a byline is worth the damage that could result from an inaccurate account."
She crossed her arms in unconscious imitation of his posture. "Superman, surely you believe in freedom of the press?"
"Of course I do. I also believe in personal responsibility. Are you willing to be responsible for the consequences of your actions?"
"The people can judge the truth for themselves!"
"Really? What if I had come in here by the front door? What if someone had seen me? What conclusions might that someone draw about our relationship?"
"What? That — that's not the same thing! We don't have a relationship!"
"True, but if people knew I'd been alone with you in your hotel room, Miss Lane, they might draw the wrong conclusion simply because they don't have all the facts. Do you think they'd listen to your protestations of innocence and believe you to be honest and sincere and not involved with me?"
She opened her mouth to speak, but closed it instead. "No," she admitted grudgingly. "I'd probably end up on the front of every tabloid in the nation as Superman's girlfriend, with obviously faked lurid pictures included."
"I take it, then, that I've made my point?"
"So now you're threatening me with blackmail?"
It was Superman's turn to look startled. "Blackmail? No! That was only an illustration. I assure you, I won't tell anyone about this meeting."
Lois frowned. "I'm not sure I like that. What if I want to discuss it with someone?"
"You can tell anyone anything you want, Miss Lane. I will neither confirm nor deny the veracity of your assertions."
"I see. You don't give anything away, do you?"
"I try not to. I ask again, have I made my point about your story on Lana Lang-Kent?"
She turned away and huffed, then said, "You have. I won't print any of the story unless I have the whole thing."
"Thank you. That's all I ask."
She turned back in time to see him slip out the balcony door. "Good night, Miss Lane."
And he was gone. She locked the patio door and pulled the curtain closed, then looked at herself and grimaced. She'd finally met the legendary superhero, and she'd been wearing jeans, no shoes, and one of her father's old plaid shirts. She'd removed her makeup an hour before and tied her hair back with a rubber band. Not only that, she hadn't asked him any questions to go with her story. Oh, she'd made a terrific impression on him, for sure.
Lana was waiting for him in bed, wearing a short, slinky nightgown. "How'd it go?"
"I think she'll hold off on the story, but I don't know for how long. She's like a mad dog when it comes to her investigations." Clark pulled off his boots, then hung his cape over a chair. "I think you should talk to her." He tugged his shirt up and over his head. "Ecch. I also think this uniform needs a trip through Mr. Washing Machine."
She smiled. "I'll talk to her if you think that's best."
"I do. And make sure you tell her the truth. About the Foundation, I mean. I'd really rather you didn't tell her you're married to Superman."
"You think she'd believe me?"
He shrugged. "I don't know, but she might print it anyway. How much privacy do you think we'd have after that?"
Lana lost her smile. "Yeah. Talk about your tight scrutiny. Can you say 'under the microscope'?"
"I'd rather not. Anyway, that's then and this is now. I'm tired."
She sat up by the edge of the bed and reached up for him. "Then come here and let the little wifey rock you to sleep."
Clark didn't move towards her. "I have to ask you a question first."
"Okay, go ahead."
"The article draft I saw in Lois's room states that your personal net worth is in excess of one hundred thousand dollars. Not our net worth. Your net worth. Is that true, Lana?"
Her smile dimmed slightly. "None of that comes from the Foundation, Clark. It's all mine — ours, I should say, from my dad's savings account and our joint savings. Bob helped me build it up. He's very good a picking winning stocks."
"Please answer my question. Is your personal net worth in excess of one hundred thousand dollars?"
She dropped her arms. "Yes. Is that a problem?"
"I don't remember you telling me anything like that in our most recent financial discussion."
"Clark, I — you want to hear every little itty-bitty tiny detail every time?"
"I don't consider your net worth to be a little itty-bitty tiny detail."
She scowled. "Does it bother you that I'm worth more than you?"
"It doesn't bother me that you control more money than I do, no. What bothers me is that you didn't share the information with me."
She lurched backwards and crossed her arms. "I suppose you'd prefer a submissive wife who walks three steps behind you and disappears in your shadow!"
"I want a wife who keeps her word."
"What? When have I broken my word?"
"When you told me you'd share important things with me. I can't conceive of any circumstance where your net worth is unimportant, especially since you're the money manager of the family."
She threw the covers back and stood up. "Yeah? You want financial control? You think you can do better?"
Clark crossed his arms. "No, I don't. In fact, I'm sure I can't. You're the money whiz in this family, not me. I'm a good saver, but I'm not a good investor. You are. You're way better at that than I am, and I'd be stupid to do something poorly when you do it so well. I just want you to let me know what's going on."
She glared at him. "I suppose you want veto power on my investment decisions, too!"
He sighed. "No, Lana. I only want to be informed. I just want you to do what you've already agreed to do."
She stood there staring at him for a long moment, then whipped her robe off the bed. "I'm not sleepy. I'll see you in the morning."
"As you wish, Lana."
As Lana stormed into the kitchen, she cursed herself for being a fool. She should have simply apologized and promised to keep him in the loop from now on. Instead, she'd made their money situation a point of contention. She still didn't think she'd done anything wrong, she just hadn't gotten around to telling Clark all he thought he needed to know.
It was his farmer's upbringing, she thought. Farmers have to know what's going on all the time, or something will get away from them and cost them money they can't spare. She thought about the Kent farm, how neat and trim it always was, and how Clark and his parents were always building something or repairing something or painting something or maintaining something. Farm life had never appealed to Lana, and her father's spare lifestyle as she was growing up had infused her with a desire to be wealthy or close to it. After her mother left her father — an honorable and loving but economically marginal man who spent a great deal of time away from home — for a weasel whose only attractive quality was the size of his bank balance, Lana became determined that no one would ever leave her because of her lack of money.
Now her abundance of money was causing friction between herself and the man she loved more than anyone else. She didn't know what to do about it, so she made herself a cup of hot chocolate and sipped it while watching an old screwball comedy on TV. She found herself sympathizing with the tame leopard in the movie. She wished someone would take care of her problems as easily as the leopard's. All anyone had to do for the leopard was to walk her every day and toss raw meat into her cage at mealtime. Her old fears of being left alone began making themselves known again.
Lana refused to be alone. She also refused to be poor. She hoped, ultimately, that the two conditions weren't mutually exclusive.
Lana couldn't tell if she was dreaming or flying, but then she realized Clark was carrying her. She reached up and put her arms around his neck. He kissed her on the nose.
"Hey, wonderful man of mine. What time is it?"
"About two-thirty. Shh, it's time for sleeping."
She tightened her grip and fought down a sob. "No. It's time for me to say that I'm sorry. I don't ever want my money or your money or our money to come between us."
He stopped. "I'm sorry, too. I shouldn't have let it get to me."
"I love you, Clark. Believe it or not, I'd rather have you than a hundred billion dollars."
She felt him smile. "I love you, too, and I believe you without reservation. Can I get you anything?"
"You can come here and be with me. Please?"
He lowered her to the bed and untied her robe. "Your wish is my command, my lady. May it always be so between us."
She pulled him to her. "May it always be so, my wonderful man."
As he kissed her, urgently and passionately, she banished her fear of Lois Lane from her mind. Clark was hers, now and forever more.
Lana met Lois for the interview, just the two of them, the following Saturday morning in an office in Wichita that was leased by the Superman Foundation. She knew she was taking a risk, but she figured it was worth it to get this woman's claws out of her back. Besides, Clark had asked her to do this, and he knew reporting and reporters better than she did.
Lois was two minutes early. Lana opened the door without a word and gestured for her to enter. Lois inclined her head and strode in. Lana watched her walk, envying the easy grace of her step and the certainty of her carriage.
Lois stopped and looked back over her shoulder. "At the desk or the table?"
Lana broke out of her reverie. "Table, I think. More room to spread out."
Lois nodded and pulled off her coat, then sat down. Lana sat across from her.
"First thing, Mrs. Lang-Kent, is to set the tone. Can we do this interview on a first-name basis?"
"We gonna be on a first-name basis when we're done?"
Lois quirked one side of her mouth upwards. "That would be my first choice. What do you say?"
Lana stuck out her hand. "Call me Lana."
"Lois." They shook.
"Okay, Lois, what's the first question on your list?"
"I'd like to know why Superman took a personal interest in keeping you out of the news."
Lana managed to look surprised. "Personal interest? What are you talking about?"
"You mean you didn't know Superman showed up at my hotel room a few nights ago? You didn't send him?"
Lana sat back. "If you think Superman has nothing better to do than run my errands for me, you're way off-base. No, I didn't send him to see you." That's true, too, she added mentally, it had been Clark's idea all the way.
Lois looked at her closely, then wrote something on her pad. "I believe you. Unlike your husband, Superman doesn't impress me as being hen-pecked."
Lana chortled, and Lois looked up. "What's so funny?"
Lana let out a chuckle. "I just never pictured Superman hen- pecked and wearing a kitchen apron! It probably says, 'Kiss the Super-Cook!'"
Lois smiled back. "Yeah, I guess that is silly. Hey, I'm sorry about what I said about your husband. He and I just got off on the wrong foot with each other. I hope he hasn't complained about me."
"Are you kidding? You're all he talks about. He can't stand you."
Lana sat still, a deadpan expression on her face. Lois looked alarmed for a moment, then she snorted. "I'm all he talks about, huh?"
"Actually, he hasn't mentioned your name at all. I doubt he'd recognize you if you passed each other on the street."
Lois's eyes narrowed. "I'm not a seasoned pro, Lana, but even I can tell when I'm having my chain yanked. Can we save that for later, when we're both a little drunk and we start a fight over what song to play on the jukebox?"
Lana grinned. "Sure. I'll buy the first round if I get the first punch."
"Done. Now let's get down to business. The Superman Foundation has a discretionary fund set up for Superman's personal use. Why do you have access to it?"
This was the key question. If Lana could sell this answer, the rest of the interview would flow like kicks from a cheerleader. If not, Lana might as well kiss her private life goodbye.
Lana leaned forward and tried to act like she was letting Lois in on a huge secret. "You remember Superman's coming-out in Metropolis, right?"
"Sure. He resolved that bank hostage situation, what, about three-and-a-half years ago?"
"Well — Look, do you trust Superman?"
Lois frowned. "What kind of question is that? Do I trust him how?"
"To do right, to be honest and trustworthy and all that."
"Of course I -"
"Even if you learned something totally unexpected about him?"
"Like what, he's gay?"
The question was so off-the-wall that Lana almost lost it. She told herself she'd share that one with Clark later and forced herself to be calm. "Not that, exactly, but something — kinda almost similar."
"How kinda almost similar?"
Lana shook her head. "Nope. You answer mine first. Do you trust Superman?"
Lois frowned again, this time in thought. Lana waited, silent, hoping that she'd take the bait.
Finally Lois nodded. "As far as I know he's done nothing but good since he showed up, so, lacking any concrete evidence that I shouldn't, then yes, I trust him."
"Good." Lana blew out a long breath for show. "Okay. That hostage situation in Metropolis wasn't his first rescue. He was here in Kansas a few weeks before that. He pulled two of my friends out of a car wreck just before the car blew up."
"And you know this how?"
This was the part neither Lana nor Clark liked, but they couldn't figure any way around it. "I was there. I was following them in my car. When I saw them spin out and run off the road, I was sure they were dead. They went down an embankment and the car started burning. I had just gotten over the fence when BOOM! It blew up and the force of the blast knocked me down. I sat up and started to cry, and the next thing I knew they were on the ground beside me, unconscious, both of them. Superman set Brent's broken leg and splinted it with a piece of the retaining fence. Charlene had a concussion and some minor burns, and he asked me to stay with them until the ambulance came. I thanked him and told him I'd stay.
"That's when I asked him where he was from. He told me he was from Krypton, and I asked him if that was in Utah. He gave me a funny look and said, 'No, it is another planet. I am here to help you.' Then he lifted off and flew away."
Lois was drawn into the story despite herself. "Another planet! You mean Superman is an alien from another planet?" Lana nodded. "Are you sure that's what he said?"
"Yep. He tracked me down a couple of days later and asked me —"
"He tracked you down? How did he find you?"
"I don't know. Maybe he read my car's license number, maybe he memorized the car, maybe he just followed me until he could talk to me alone. You'd have to ask him that."
"I don't think he'll be very forthcoming on that subject."
Lana shrugged. "Maybe not. Anyway, he asked me if he could talk to me about human society. I told him I really only knew about Kansas, but he said anything he could learn would be more than he already knew."
"So you talked to Superman at length? He asked you questions about humans and human society?"
"Yes. I guess I helped him. After a few days, I asked him if he'd like to meet Clark."
"So you both know Superman personally?"
"Well, yes, but —"
"Can you contact him?"
"Can you contact Superman? I want to talk to him again!"
Lana's eyes widened. They hadn't game-planned for that question. They'd expected Lois to run with the alien angle. "Why? What for?"
"I want his take on this part of the story. He's the one who convinced me not to go to press until I had the whole enchilada."
"Uh, gee, I really don't —"
"Come on! I wanted to find out about your involvement, and I'll bet I already know the rest of it. He gave you access to the account because you still know more about human society than he does and you'd think of good places to put money that he wouldn't. Isn't that right?"
"Uh, yeah, that's pretty close. But I'm not sure —"
"Please! Please, try to get a message to him."
Lana sat back, thinking furiously. If she put Lois in touch with Superman, what might go wrong? If she didn't, what might Lois print that would be damaging for them? It was problematic, at best.
"Look, I'll call some people I know at the Foundation and ask them to get in touch with Superman if they can, but I can't promise anything. I don't know where he is or what he's doing on a day-to-day basis."
Lois nodded. "That'll have to do. Now, let's finish up these questions and I'll be out of your hair."
"Sure. For example, why don't you fund your father's expeditions? I'd think that'd be your first choice."
"That would be like reverse nepotism. My dad wouldn't take that money even if I tried to give it to him."
"Hmm. Yeah, I understand. I don't think my dad would agree with your dad, but I do. Hmmm, I understand the digs in France and Nigeria, but why the museum in Glasgow?"
"They're doing research into the bog mummies of Ireland and Scotland. It's a lot more recent than, say, ancient Egypt or Babylon, but it's still archaeology."
"Okay. It looks like that fund has had a lot of investment activity in it, too, most of it positive. Are you in charge of that?"
"Yes. I handle all my money through my financial manager."
"Your money? Not yours and your husband's money?"
"No, just mine. Clark does what he wants with his money. Mostly he saves it. I pay our bills and handle all the family money we have in common. I'm a finance minor, remember?"
Lois's expression told Lana that she hadn't known. Good. Maybe it would make her hesitate before she printed this story, make her consider what else she'd missed.
"So how are you doing? Financially, I mean?"
Lana crossed her arms and shook her head. "Uh-uh. Details of our personal finances are off-limits. All I'll tell you is that between our academic scholarships and our own earnings, we won't have any student loans to repay after graduation."
Lois nodded. "Congratulations. Not many college seniors can say that, including me. Let's go back to Superman. How often do you see him?"
Lana frowned. "I don't have any kind of standing appointment, if that's what you mean. I've seen him a few times out in public, two or three times at the Foundation, and those few days I already told you about, back before he announced himself."
"So you're not on Superman's social calendar?"
"I don't even know that he has a social calendar! I already told you I'm not all that close to him personally! Where are you going with this, anyway?"
Lois closed the notebook. "Look, Lana, I'm sure Clark's a solid and dependable fella, but we both know he's no Superman. It's just us girls here now. Can't you give me anything special on the Big Blue super guy? You know, some vital statistics, personal stuff, what aftershave he wears, what he likes to eat, how he kisses, does he shower with or without his cape, is there anything he particularly likes to do in bed? C'mon, you can tell me!"
Lana was stunned. Lois was asking if Lana was having an affair with Superman! For a wild moment, she considered giving her exactly that story, but common sense won out. She stood up. "This interview is over, Miss Lane. You can go now."
Lois stood and flashed an evil smile. "I think I've struck a nerve, Lana. You do have the hots for the guy in the sexy blue tights, don't you?"
Lana forgot her resolve, forgot how poorly she'd always done in high school gym class, forgot she was shorter and lighter than this woman, and swung her fist in the direction of Lois's head. The next thing she knew, her arm was bent behind her by Lois's right arm, her hand was between her shoulder blades, and her throat was being pressed shut by Lois's left arm.
"Don't try that again, Lana. I'm a second-degree brown belt in Tae Kwon Do and you can't touch me if I don't want you to. Believe me when I say this wasn't my first choice." Lois released her and shoved her across the office. "Thanks for the interview. Look for your name in forty-point type." She took a step and stopped. "And you owe me a drink. Even though you didn't land it, I already gave you the first punch."
Lois gathered her notes and stormed out, leaving Lana deeply troubled. She'd thought things were going so well, and then she'd lost her cool. That had turned out no better than the time in the fifth grade when she'd wrestled Charlene over a plaid scarf they both liked. Lana had ended that fight face down in a mud puddle, trying not to inhale the filthy water. She remembered that Clark had pulled Charlene off her just in time.
Lana didn't think Clark would be able to pull Lois off her in just in time.
Clark almost came unglued when Lana came to the end of her narrative. "She did what?" He spun around and growled. "I'll kill her! I'll rip her arms off and stuff them down her throat! I'll cut her up for fish bait! I'll set her on fire! I'll —"
"Clark, no! Just calm down. I think I know what to do."
He turned to face his wife and floated up almost a foot. "What?"
"Nothing. At least, nothing direct."
He forced himself down to the floor. "That's not what I'd prefer to do."
"Look, I'll contact the Foundation and tell them that Lois Lane is trying to get in touch with Superman. She'll call them and they'll tell her they don't know where Superman is. It'll end there."
"I don't think so, Lana. That woman is beyond tenacious."
Lana threw her hands in the air. "The only other thing I can come up with is for Superman to seduce her and ruin her journalistic objectivity! And I don't like that option one little bit!"
"That wouldn't be my first choice, either."
She stopped and stared at Clark, then laughed. "I'm sorry, darling! I shouldn't let her upset me so. Hey, are we still heading for your parents' house for Christmas dinner?"
He put his arms around her. "That's the plan. My dad invited us to spend Christmas Eve with them, too. What say you, my love?"
She burrowed into his chest. "By all means, my faithful prince."
Clark kissed her on the top of her head. "Faithful prince, huh? Arf-arf-arf."
She slapped his upper arm. "Be nice to me, Prince! You still have a couple of shots coming."
"Oh, no! I'm scared of needles!"
"Sure you are. Hey, I almost forgot to tell you! Did you know that Lois Lane thinks Superman is gay?"
"She thinks what?!?"
Christmas was wonderful for them.
The new year, not so much.
Lois Lane's story broke on New Year's Eve morning. She'd bypassed her campus paper and sold the story directly to the Metropolis Star. By nine-thirty that morning, they'd already fielded seventeen phone calls and four knocks on the front door from reporters wanting more information. Clark had literally thrown one man out of the back yard after he'd trampled Lana's flowerbeds.
Clark glowered at the man until he ran off, then he stomped inside and locked the back door. Lana patted her husband on the arm. "I'm glad you aimed for the big snowdrift. I don't think he's hurt too badly."
"Yeah, well, I hope he gets mild frostbite in a very sensitive spot."
"Your mom just called. They've shooed off several reporters already today."
"I hope Dad remembers to clean his shotgun after he uses it."
She chuckled, then tugged on his elbow. "I think we should go somewhere else for a while."
"How's South America sound?"
"This time of year? Warm and humid, mostly, and way out of reach for two struggling college students."
He put his hands in his pocket as they walked back away from the back door. "All my abilities and I can't use them to stop this idiocy! It's so frustrating!"
"It's okay, Clark. I told your mom we were going somewhere to hide, and she insisted I not tell her. She didn't want to lie to the reporters about where we were."
"That's my mom." He kicked at the floor. "Okay. How do we do this?"
"We take a cab to a motel."
He frowned. "I don't think we'll dodge them that easily."
She pulled her hair back into an off-center ponytail and put a piece of gum in her mouth. Then she leaned to one side and canted her hips. "Hey, Charlie baby, meet ya wife, Linda King."
The transformation startled Clark. "Wow! That's pretty good. What do you think I should do?"
She handed him a box of hair dye. "You're a blond for a little while. Part it down the middle and walk like you have hemorrhoids. That's a very painful condition affecting —"
"Hey! I know what part of the body it affects!"
"Well, I'm sure you've never had them! You should talk like you have marbles in one side of your mouth, too. No one who knows us only by sight will recognize us."
He frowned. "Where'd you learn about this stuff?"
"Anarchist's cookbook. Got it off the Internet. I found a good disguise site too."
Clark was astounded. "The Anarchist's cookbook? It's practically a terrorist's how-to manual! Why in the world did you get that thing?"
"It's surprising what you can learn from the other side of the fence."
He stepped into the bathroom. "What else have you learned?"
"Whoever this guy is, he can't spell worth beans."
He turned on the shower. "Besides that."
"Oh, about bombs and poisons and how to make them, about self- defense, about how to use ordinary things as weapons, that kind of stuff. It's scary what you can make from everyday household products."
"Useful knowledge if you're a terrorist, or fighting them. Now tell me why you want to know it."
She was silent for a long moment. "Because of Lois Lane, and what she did to me. When she had me in that hold, I was completely helpless. I don't ever want to feel like that again. I don't care if I'm up against the undisputed world heavyweight champion, I want to have some way to fight back."
"Okay." He ducked his head in the water and started working the dye in.
"You don't understand, do you, Superman?"
"Not really, no, but you do. It's enough for me that you know why you want that information. I trust you not to start any revolutions."
"That really wouldn't be my first choice, no."
He came up for air. "Anything else I need to know about?"
She hesitated. "Yes. I've been taking shooting lessons for the last three weeks."
He froze in place. "Shooting lessons? From who?"
"From 'whom,' Mr. Professional Writer."
His voice was sharp. "Don't play games, Lana! Who's teaching you to shoot?"
He turned off the water and picked up a towel. "The man who owns the gun and knife store in Smallville?"
"That's him. He used to be a cop. He teaches students and housewives to shoot handguns. He's very good, Clark. He always tells us that a gun is a tool for killing, and we have to respect it. He also says that killing has to be absolutely the last resort in any confrontation."
He nodded. "I agree with all of that. Now tell me why."
She took a step towards him and stood up as straight as she could. "Because you can't be everywhere. Because I refuse to be helpless again."
He saw the determination in her eyes and slowly nodded. "Okay. I love you and trust you, so I have to trust you with this, too. I'm sure you won't start picking off our neighbors at random."
She relaxed. "No. And I don't have any firearms here. It — it helps me to know that I can, that's all." She put her hands on his chest and drew him towards her. "I hope I never need that knowledge, Clark, but if I do, it's there. I love you. Please don't be angry."
He sighed deeply. "I'm not angry, sweetheart, I'm just — surprised. Again." He hugged her and left a wet spot on her shirt. "But I thank you for telling me. Please don't ever be afraid to tell me anything, no matter what you think I might think about it."
She kissed him softly. "I promise. For what it's worth, Mr. Butler says I'm good enough to qualify for a conceal-and-carry license if I want one. He even suggested I look into the school shooting team."
"The college has a shooting team?"
"Sure. They compete in Olympic-style events against amateur clubs and other schools. One of our riflemen was an alternate in the last Olympics."
"I see. You planning to try out?"
She shook her head. "No. I can barely handle all that's on my plate now. Besides, I don't think there are very many occasions for an archaeologist to use firearms in the line of duty. The artifacts generally don't attack you."
He sighed dramatically. "That's a relief. I'd hate to have to defend you against a four-thousand-year-old shard of pottery."
Suddenly, her eyes flashed mischievously and she pushed him away. "Hey, mister, you better get out of here before my husband gets home! He don't like me hangin' around with good-lookin' blondes."
He grinned. "Who wants you, ya skinny little thing? I got me a hot date with a really sexy-lookin' broad."
Much to Clark's surprise, their disguises worked. They spent four alternately boring and passionate days in a motel just north of Wichita, waiting for the furor to die away. The TV news found other subjects within a day. It took two full days for Lana's picture — a nice profile shot from their December wedding reception — to vanish from the daily papers, and one more before the print editorials focused on other issues. They stayed in character even when checking out.
To Clark, the most surprising part of the episode was the giant 'thud' of silence that greeted the revelation that Superman was not a native of Earth. None of the major news outlets picked up on it, aside from a couple of editorials insisting that Superman's planet of origin made no difference, since he'd always helped people and had never taken unfair advantage of his abilities, even when stopping criminals. He'd never killed or even injured any suspects, and had repeatedly gone out of his way to minimize harm to participants and bystanders alike.
Lana commented on it as they were leaving the motel. "I would've expected everybody from Ames to Zanzibar to be all up in arms about the 'alien menace from outer space.' Even the desk clerk didn't seem to care."
Clark shrugged. "Most people haven't seen me in person, so all they know is what they've read and seen on TV. The Foundation's done a good job with my public appearances, and no one's ever been scared by Superman, except maybe some bad guys. That Girl Scout troop even got back on the six o'clock news. I laughed when Annette said that if Superman was an alien, send her to outer space so she could kiss some of his cousins."
They shared a laugh. Lana took his near hand in hers. "I'm glad she remembered you. That was a great interview, even though you blushed."
"I didn't blush!"
"I meant night before last in the motel room, when she was describing how you tasted."
He grimaced. "Let's change the subject, shall we?"
Lana laughed. "Okay. Hey, you reminded me, I need to call the board of directors at the Foundation. I hope they're not too mad at me."
Lana had the cab stop so she could use the ladies' room and a pay phone. The Foundation's directors weren't happy about the adverse publicity, of course, but the director on site insisted that their finances were still solid, and that nearly all of their major sponsors had already contacted them and promised their continued support. The director also advised Lana to continue her policy of not responding to the story in print or on the air. The story didn't 'have legs,' as Clark had put it, and would vanish from the public's brief attention span if no more fuel was placed on the fire. Lana agreed and hung up, relieved.
Clark paid the cabbie and carried their overnight cases into the house. Their mail was on the greeting table inside the front door, labeled by date and arranged by size. Lana laughed when she saw it. "That's got to be my dad's handiwork. Even your mom isn't that overly organized."
"You mean retentive, don't you?" He grinned at her and she stuck her tongue out at him. "Promises, promises."
"Don't you wish!"
He laughed and picked up the stacks of mail. "I'll have to thank Dennis next time I see him. Good. Here's your admission packet, and here's mine. We'll have to hit the registrar's office right after we eat."
"Let me get changed first. Would you mind making lunch? I can't be this floozy any longer. I feel cheap and disgusting."
"Oh, I don't know, you're kinda hot when you're dressed like that."
"You think so? C'mere and show me how hot you think I am."
"Okay, sweetheart, you asked for it. Wait! What's that sound? Why, it's the siren call of the University Registrar! Hear that? It's calling out, 'Final semester, final semester, don't be late, get registered, get into all your required classes.'"
"Very funny. You want mud or just plain dirt for lunch?"
"You should let me eat cake. If I can't have you, I'll settle for something almost as sweet."
She kissed him soundly. "Mmm. You are one smooth-talking Superman, aren't you?"
They managed to shoehorn themselves into all their classes. Lana's brief notoriety actually turned out to be a help. When other students — particularly underclassmen — saw her coming, they'd allow her to cut in front of them. At first she was bothered by the attention, but as the afternoon wore on and her feet got more tired she thanked them more sincerely each time they made a space for her. She even answered some of their questions, as long as they were of the generic and non-personal type.
She was fully registered before Clark was, so she secured their favorite table in the student commons, then furnished it with some of his favorite junk food.
He found her there a little after five o'clock. "Hi, babe! Long time no see."
She lifted her soft drink bottle and gave him a sultry look. "All you have to do is whistle. You do know how to whistle, don't you?"
He fell into a terrible Bogart impression. "Sure. Ya just put yer lips t'gether 'n' blow."
They tapped their bottles together in a toast. She leered at him and said, "Here's lookin' at you, kid."
He grinned and sang off-key. "'We have it all, just like Bogie and Bacall.' Mixing our film noir classics again, aren't we?"
She scrunched her face in thought, then nodded. "I guess I am. 'To Have and To Hold' combined with 'Casablanca' to form a completely unintelligible mish-mosh."
"Throw in 'The Big Sleep' and 'Key Largo' and it's high art."
She laughed. "True. What's your schedule look like?"
Instead of answering, he sat back and looked around. "Honey, do you realize that this is the last time we'll begin a semester here? We're on the last lap of our senior year! Isn't that amazing?"
She frowned. "I don't plan to lift my head until we lock in those two top spots. Dr. Wenzel told me we have the inside track on both honors."
"Don't forget about our two competitors."
"Just one. The pre-med student has pneumonia and is laying out this semester. There's only one other person even close." She looked directly into his eyes. "Clark, I want those honors. I really, really want them."
Clark lifted a cupcake. "I promise to do my best, to do my duty —"
Lana grinned and kicked him in the ankle. "Enough already!" Then she turned serious and leaned closer. "Clark, this is really important to me. Important enough to spend some serious study time every night, even if it takes me away from you on occasion. I want you to understand how much I love you, but I also want you to know how much I want to be on the platform come graduation day. I won't die if it doesn't happen, but I know I won't be much fun to live with for a while."
Clark nodded. "I think I understand. I promise to do my best, Lana, really and truly. It's my scholastic goal to stand beside you on that platform come June." He leaned in and kissed her, then his eyes and mouth popped open. "Hey, a thought just hit me."
She tapped his forehead with her fingertips. "Don't let it die of loneliness."
"Funny girl. But really, I had a thought. Which one of us will be number one and which will be number two?"
Her grin faded into mock disgust. "If you have to ask that question, farm boy, you don't know me half as well as you think you do."
They worked hard until spring break and carried 4.0 averages to that point in the semester. Instead of partying or heading to a beach like so many of their classmates, they buckled down and finished all their outstanding assignments by late Tuesday night. By agreement, they slept in on Wednesday and did nothing unless they really wanted to. Superman managed a fairly uneventful afternoon patrol, but Lana did little more than nap most of the day. Clark woke her up long enough to eat dinner, then they went to bed early and made long overdue payments up on their sleep debt.
Thursday, all day, was spent in personal one-on-one time.
The phone rang before breakfast on Friday morning. Clark's arm snaked out from under the covers and answered it. "Hello? Hi, Dad. No, we're done with our homework for the week. It is a very nice feeling, yes. Lunch and dinner? Let me check." He pulled the phone down. "My folks are inviting us down for lunch and dinner today. I think they miss you."
Lana reached over and tweaked his nose. "They miss both of us, genius. That sounds like a great idea to me. When should we be there?"
"Dad? Oh, sorry, Mom? When should we be there? Well, about two hours, maybe a little more. We're not up yet. No, I think we'll drive. Let's not risk attracting any more attention than we have to. Okay, see you when we get there."
He hung up and turned to face her again. "Shall we get up and get ready?"
Lana reached out and captured his face against hers, then rolled on top of him. "Not just yet. I have something else in mind first."
She kissed him, long and soft and wet and gentle. She pulled back and watched him smile languorously. "What do you think of that, oh husband most muscular?"
He reached up for her. "Mmm. I love it when a plan comes together."
In mid-May, as the semester was winding down, Lana went to her faculty advisor for the last conference she'd have with him as an undergraduate. Dr. Wenzel was smiling, as usual, and talkative, also as usual.
"Lana, you have done extremely well in your college career. I'm proud to count you as my student."
"Thank you, Dr. Wenzel. I really appreciate all the help you've given me over the last four years."
"Think nothing of it! I've always been impressed by your level of preparation, both in the classroom and in the field. Speaking of your being in the field —"
He stopped and handed her a binder. "This is a proposal for the second major phase of the Kenya dig, the one you worked on last summer. Your father, unfortunately, won't be on-site this time, but his two top assistants will be. They've asked for you personally, Lana. They want you to come and work with them."
She leafed through the papers. "This is fascinating! I'd like to go back. There are so many things we had to leave undone. So, is this my final six weeks of field work?"
She was stunned. "What? No? What does that mean?"
He grinned at her. "It means that the committee has waived the final six weeks of your field assignment requirements. You've crammed what usually takes people five to seven years into four, and the work you've done has always been of the highest caliber. Professor Zimmer isn't asking for six weeks, but for two years."
"Two — YEARS?!?"
She fell back in the chair, stunned. She hadn't figured on anything like this! It was far more than a shock and only slightly less than a bomb going off in her lap.
"Two years? Really? Two straight years in the field?"
Wenzel shook his head. "No, no, no! They can't work during the summer months. The schedule is written into the government permits. During the non-field times, however, the team will clean, identify, label, evaluate, and compare any and all artifacts drawn from the site. There will also be visits from family and friends at the site during the year, and at least two weeks of vacation during the summer down time. They expect a significant number of articles from this site, perhaps even a book or two. What do you say?"
Her head was still whirling. "It's a great — it's a fabulous offer, but I — I have to talk to my husband."
Wenzel smiled. "I thought you might. I told Bill Zimmer he'd have to wait to hear from you. But I have to tell you that he's most eager for you to join his staff. After all, we only graduate one valedictorian in each senior class."
Lana stared, uncomprehending, for about three seconds, then his words sank into her brain. She leaped to her feet, punched the air, and screamed for joy.
"Yee-hah! Valedictorian! Yaaaaahh!" She did a happy dance around the chair she'd been sitting in. "Take that, Robert and Carolyn McConnell! Yaaaaahh! I did it!"
Dr. Wenzel's secretary peeked in, saw the professor seated at his desk and his student dancing for joy, and closed the door. Lana never saw her, never knew she was there.
Lana finally ran down. "I have to — call Clark! I have to tell him — about this!"
"And about the dig?"
"Oh. Yeah! About the dig, too!" She stepped towards the door, then jumped back to Wenzel's chair and kissed him on his bald pate. Then she threw open the door and sprinted through the secretary's office and into the corridor, her fist raised in triumph. "Yee-hah! Lana Lang-Kent, Valedictorian! Yaaaaahh!"
The secretary looked in. "Her reaction about what you expected, sir?"
He grinned and wiped his head with a tissue. "A little more than I expected, but not really excessive. She's really worked hard for it."
"What about her husband?"
"Clark Kent? Oh, yes, he's certainly a deserving salutatorian. I still can't believe he scored so poorly on his statistics final. He's been an A-plus student almost all the way through. That 'A' minus grade pulled his cumulative average eight hundredths of a point lower than his wife's. If he had aced that final, their places would be reversed."
She smiled. "Oh, I can believe it. I've met him, and he's dreamy."
"Margaret, he's a happily married man!"
She laughed. "He's also young enough to be my son. But I can still believe it."
He nodded. "I suppose I can too." He stood and straightened some papers on his desk. "You think he'll tell her he deliberately finished second?"
"No. Absolutely not. Not in a million years."
"I don't know, Margaret. The next really serious argument they have, it could pop out without his ever thinking about it."
She leaned against the doorjamb and sighed. "No, Dr. Wenzel, not that one. He'll take that secret to his grave, and love her more every day while he carries it."
Lana burst through their front door. "Clark! Where are you? You won't believe it! I didn't believe it at first but now I do! Clark! Where are you? Come here and kiss the class valedictorian!"
The basement door opened and he bounced into the room. "Lana? Did I hear right? You're —"
"Yes! Yes-yes-yes-yes! Yes!!" She leaped into his arms and he spun her around in the middle of the room.
"Honey, that's great! Have you called your dad?"
"No! I wanted to tell you first! Hey! You haven't kissed the valedictorian yet! Gimme a good one!"
He lifted her into a happy smooch. As their lips separated, the phone rang. Lana kicked loose from Clark's embrace and ran to answer it.
"Hello, University of Kansas Valedictorian speaking. Thank you! Yes, he's here." She stuck the phone out. "Honey? Call for you."
He took the phone and she whispered, "Don't tie up the phone line too long, all the papers will want to interview me."
He whacked her gently on the rear end as she sauntered towards the kitchen. "Hello? Yes, this is Clark Kent. What? Really? Are you sure? There's no mistake? Thank you! No, thank you! Yes! Goodbye!"
Lana bounced back to him. "What was that, a job offer?"
"Almost as good. You, my brilliant bride, may joyfully kiss the University of Kansas Salutatorian!"
Here face glowed. "No! Really? Oh, Clark, that's so wonderful! The first wife-husband team at Kansas to get those two slots!"
"Hey, I'm in the top slot! Wife-husband."
"It's an alphabetical pairing, Lana."
"Alphabetical my left elbow! Wife-husband!"
"Oh, yeah? Who says so?"
Clark picked her up and tossed her over his shoulder, then ran around the living room bent over like a chimpanzee. "Tarzan say so! Tarzan take Jane for mate! Whoo! Whoo! Famous American archaeologist mates with famous ape-man! Ya-eey-ya-eey- yaaaaahh!" Then he pulled her shoes off and tossed them into the corner of the room. "To treehouse! No more homework! We go to treehouse! Tarzan and Jane argue later! Ya-eey-ya-eey- yaaaaahh!"
Lana would have protested the manner of her trip to the bedroom, but she was laughing too hard.
Lana and Clark made the national media again, at least for a day. Lois Lane picked up a copy of the Daily Planet on her way into work and read the entire article. She figured it was a slow news day; the article covered most of the second page of the metro section. She read about the offer Lana had received to work in Kenya for two years. Even Lois knew what a prize offer that was.
Bet Kent was thrilled to learn about that one, she thought.
She also noted that Lana was considering other offers, including one to work in the Metropolis Museum of Natural History. Her eyes widened at that. Lana Lang-Kent in the same city as Lois Lane? Might as well issue body armor to the general populace. The first time they met, Lois would take her head off.
Naw. She'd invite her to lunch, have a nice public social occasion with 'just us girls,' make her laugh, get her to lower her guard, get her alone in a parking garage, and then take her head off. Nice to dream about it. Good stress relief.
No guy as nice as Clark Kent deserved to be married to the over- achiever from Siberia. It would take someone like Superman to corral her, and even then he'd have his hands full.
Lois's hand jerked to a halt as she reached for the subway door. Clark Kent, a nice guy? Now where had that thought come from?
"Lana, I can't believe you're even thinking about Kenya right now!"
"It's a great offer! Do you know how big a boost that would be to my career?"
"Of course I know! You have a husband to think of, too."
"And I have been! Kenya is a great place for a writer! Just think of all the human interest stories there! And the chance to write up a series of wonderful archaeological discoveries for the general public! It's a writer's paradise!"
He crossed his arms and tried to face her down. "What about your marriage? You're still pretty much a newlywed! Do you really want to set up married housekeeping in a tent? You know how slim the privacy margin is for the bosses. It's even worse for new people. You'd be on call twenty-four hours a day, you'd be filthy dirty and exhausted almost all the time, and you'd have a very bored husband waiting for you in your tent when your day finally ended! And that's assuming there are lodgings for married couples! Is that what you really want, Lana?"
She almost burst out again, but controlled herself and forced herself to think. "No. That's not really what I want." She turned and gestured dramatically. "But it's such a great shot!"
"There will be others, I promise. Now, I think you should seriously consider the Metropolis museum job, don't you?"
She sighed and hung her head. "Yes, Daddy. I'll call them back and —"
"No. You talk to Clark about this. And tell him that either one of those offers is a great one, and that you really want to do some field work while you're still young, and let him give you his input on it." Dennis Lang patted his daughter on the shoulder. "Kitten, I'd really hate for you to damage your marriage so early. Let a few years pass, then you can whack him with something like this. You two haven't even had your first anniversary yet." He crossed his arms. "Or your first screaming fight."
Lana hugged her father. "Thanks, Dad. It's not really what I wanted to hear, but I guess it's what I needed to hear. You're right. I'll talk to Clark, but I'll also tell him I think Metropolis is a wonderful place to live for most of the year."
He smiled. "I know from personal experience that it's got nicer bathrooms."
Lana told Clark about both offers. He didn't say a word until she was finished, then he took her hands in his and kissed them. "You really want to work on this Kenya dig, don't you?"
She shook her head. "It's not as important as the two of us. There'll be other good opportunities like this one. I'm not exactly throwing my career down the laundry drain. Besides, I'd rather lose an early shot at the big time than risk losing you."
"You can't lose me, Lana. You're stuck with me, remember? You couldn't drive me away with a battleship."
Her eyes began to water and she smiled. "I believe you, my darling. And I'm the luckiest woman on the planet, because I know that wasn't just expansive hyperbole."
He thumbed a tear from her cheek and smiled back. "See? Now we each know something about the other's work. In high school, you wouldn't have known what expansive hyperbole was if it licked you on the ear."
She laughed and hugged him tightly. "I think the job prospects are better for journalists in Metropolis, too. Besides, if anyone or anything licks my ear, I'd rather it were you."
The weekend before they left was spent packing their belongings and getting them ready to move. Clark was surprised at the amount of 'stuff' they'd already accumulated, but Lana just laughed and told him it was the 'stuff' that would make up the doctoral theses for future generations of archaeologists.
They arrived at the Metropolis International Airport on the second Tuesday of June. They had decided to split up for the afternoon and meet at the Metropolis Westin. Whoever arrived first would secure their room.
The heat reflecting off the asphalt bludgeoned Lana, who signaled for a cab as soon as they left the terminal.
"Where to, lady?"
"Museum of Natural History."
The cabbie smiled around his half-eaten cigar. "You a science buff or somethin'?"
"Something like that, yes."
"Lemme tell you, it's one of the really nice ones. You seen the one in Chicago?"
"Hey, it's really somethin', with all them dinosaurs and animal displays and them two lions."
Lana was interested despite the heat and the traffic. "What two lions are those?"
The cigar worked its way to the other side of his mouth. "You don't know? Back about eighteen-ninety and somethin', the British was buildin' a railroad some place in central Africa. These two really big lions, like nine feet long each, killed maybe a hundred native workers and some o' the British dudes before they got shot. Ain't no record of lions actin' like that anywhere else any time else. I tell ya, that's somethin' weird."
Lana nodded in comprehension. "I think I remember something about that. Didn't they call the lions Ghost and Night?"
"Close. The Ghost and the Darkness, 'cause they hunted at night a lot and they had a real hard time killin' 'em." He swerved to dodge a bus. "Dumb idiot! You see that? Just 'cause they're bigger'n me they think they own the street! Anyways, the museum we got here in Metropolis makes that one out there in Chicago look like some first-grader's show-and-tell."
She sat back tuned out the cabbie, then closed her eyes to review her interview, but all she could think of was where Clark could find a job. He couldn't be Superman full-time; he had to have a civilian life, and she couldn't picture him being the stay-at- home spouse for any length of time. Maybe the newspaper that had printed some of his stories would have something for him. She hoped so.
She also hoped Metropolis didn't harbor any lions, either real or metaphorical ones.
Clark entered the editor's office. "Mr. White? Clark Kent. Thank you for seeing me without an appointment."
Perry stood and took Clark's proffered hand. "Well! Glad to finally meet you in the flesh, Kent. Congratulations to you and your wife. That was quite a coup, both of you at the top of your graduating class."
"Thank you, Mr. White. I wish I'd laid better groundwork for this, but I didn't know we'd be moving to Metropolis until late last week, and I find myself in need of a job. You know my work, and you've always been strict but fair, so I thought I'd come to you first."
Perry sat down and motioned for Clark to do the same. "I wish I had better news for you, son. Your work is always quality and always on time, and if I had a opening I'd snatch you up so fast it'd detune the King's guitar. But the truth is, I don't have anything full-time right now. We have five or six brand new reporters on staff, and the average is that half of them are gone within the first six months, so if you can survive until then I'd love to hire you."
"What about freelance stuff? Do you still buy from outside?"
Perry gestured expansively. "Of course we do! Listen, you write something, I don't care what it is, let me have first crack at it. I'll either buy it or not in one day. How does that sound?"
"Pretty good, Mr. White. Thanks."
They both stood. "And son, if you get a full-time offer you like before I have a slot for you, don't feel obligated to wait for me to get back to you. You have to feed your family just like everybody else does, so don't think you're letting me down if you take another job."
"Thank you again, sir."
"What're your plans for the rest of the day?"
"Oh, I thought I'd walk around a little, learn how the city is put together. I'm meeting my wife at the Westin for dinner."
"You two staying there for a bit?"
"For a couple of days, until we find an apartment we like and can afford."
Perry laughed and slapped Clark on the shoulder. "Son, you'll find that most everything costs more here than it does in Kansas. I wish you luck."
"Thank you, sir. I'm sure —"
The office door burst open. "Chief, I have some more information on —"
Startled, Clark looked at a surprised Lois Lane. His eyebrows leaped upwards. Her mouth gaped open, revealing firm gums and perfect teeth. Perry gestured to her, frustrated.
"Lois, you have got to knock first, girl! You can be hard- charging all you want out there, but this office is mine and you will treat it as such! You got that?"
"Sure, Chief, I got it. I'm sorry." She turned to leave.
"Wait! Lois, I'd like you to meet this fella. You know, he just might —"
She turned back and held out her hand. "Hello again, Clark."
He examined her hand, then carefully took it. "Hello, Miss Lane. So, you work here now?"
She nodded, not smiling. "Full time since April. Intern before that. You?"
"Your wife take the museum job?"
"Deputy assistant director in charge of acquisitions. She starts officially on Monday."
Lois released his hand and nodded again. "Good for her. The Kenya expedition wasn't so attractive after all, huh?"
Clark's smile didn't reach his eyes. "You're awfully interested in us, aren't you, Miss Lane? Any particular reason for that?"
Perry stepped between them as if he didn't feel the tension in the room. "So, you two know each other?" He snapped his fingers. "That's right! Lois's story on the Superman Foundation back in January."
"Yes. My wife figured prominently in that story, as I recall. More so than I would have preferred."
"She was news."
Clark's nostrils flared as he inhaled sharply, then he forced himself to relax. "That's all in the past, Miss Lane. My wife doesn't hold a grudge and neither do I."
Lois smirked at him. "Glad to hear that. Tell her she still owes me a drink."
Clark nodded, then lifted an index finger to excuse himself. He went to the vending machine, dropped in several coins, made his choice, and brought a bottle of cream soda back to Lois. He watched her expression as he handed her the bottle. She didn't flinch, and in fact smiled ever so slightly. Perversely, he almost approved.
"Here you go, Miss Lane. This is for you, from Lana."
"Thank you. It's my favorite."
"Glad to hear it. Mr. White, thanks for what you said. I'll keep in touch."
Perry nodded. "Good. You two have a good time in the big city before you have to buckle down and work."
Clark didn't look back at either Lois or Perry as he entered the elevator. As soon as he was gone, Perry closed the door to his office and glared at Lois. "Young lady, do you have a problem with Clark Kent?"
She put the bottle on Perry's desk. "No, he's okay, I guess, for a hack from Nowhereseville. I don't have a problem with him, I have a problem with his wife."
"Why? You interested in him?"
Perry's comment was too close to the truth for comfort. "What? You mean — me, interested in him personally? No! No way! He's married! And even if he weren't, I'm nowhere near ready to settle for a — a Kansas farm boy! And I doubt I ever will be!"
"Well, since there's a fair chance he'll be working here soon, do you think you can tolerate either or both of them on a regular basis?"
Her eyebrows jumped up and her eyes bulged. "You hired Clark?"
"No, not yet. We don't have the money in the budget or a slot for him. But you know the rookies you came in with. At least two of them won't last out the summer, and I'll have a place for Kent if he still wants it."
Her face settled into a scowl. "Oh, come on, Chief! Why wouldn't he want to work for one of the most prestigious news publications east of the Mississippi?"
He waved his finger in her face. "Don't flatter me with my own words, young lady! Now, you came in here for something specific. Do you perhaps remember what it was?"
"Yes. Take a look at this folder and see if you see what I see."
Perry twinkled at her. "You're looking for another hot story, aren't you?"
She frowned. "Of course I am. You've said yourself that a good reporter is only as good as her latest byline."
"I did at that. So let's take a look at what you have."
She spread her notes out on his desk. "Someone is smuggling munitions from several points on the East Coast to various hot spots in Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. Some of it is just recycled Russian and Chinese weapons, but a lot of it is stolen U.S. Army ordnance. I have a contact on a base in the South who thinks there are a few noncoms and a sprinkling of officers who are running their own little gun and knife show on the side."
Perry picked up a sheet of paper. "Yeah. I see that. Any idea how they're doing this?"
"My military contact thinks they're skimming the munitions a little at a time to keep from calling attention to themselves, then staging the stuff somewhere and shipping it when they have enough to make it worthwhile. I think there's at least one warehouse in Metropolis, and I'm pretty sure there's one somewhere in South Carolina, and maybe two in Florida."
"What's their main debarkation point?"
"I haven't got that nailed down, not for sure, but I think the last shipment left from Hob's Bay about four months ago. I think it's because they want to ship from as far up the coast as they can so they can spread out the evidence."
"Reasonable. Now for the sixty-four thousand dollar question. Who's in charge of this?"
Lois shrugged. "That's the loosest of the loose ends. I don't have any hard data on that. It has to be somebody big, though. The highest-ranking officer my contact knows about is a captain who's always in trouble with his commander, barely stays out of the brig or whatever the Army calls their jail. I think the big boss is civilian, not military."
Perry frowned in concern. "Lois, if this is as big as you say, we need to bring in someone with more experience to run this."
"What? No! This is my story! I dug all this information up, me! This is mine!"
"And it will stay yours! But if what you've told me is true, these people won't hesitate to kill you dead as Caesar's ghost if you put one little toe over the line! I won't allow you to risk your life, young lady, no matter how good you think you are or how big the story might be!"
She locked eyes with him for a long moment, then sighed. "You're right, Chief. I'm sorry. This is a big story. If you bring someone in, will you at least guarantee me co-author credit?"
He nodded. "Yes. I'll promise you that. And you have to promise that you won't get yourself in trouble before your partner gets up to speed."
"I promise." She raised her hand. "Girl Scout's honor."
He held her gaze for a breath, then nodded and motioned for her to gather her notes. It was a good thing for her that Perry didn't know she was never a Girl Scout.
It was also a good thing for her that Perry didn't see how flustered his guess about her feelings for Clark had made her. She walked back to her desk, ordering herself to get control of her emotions. She insisted to herself that Kent was already married, and besides he was a Kansas nobody, not anywhere good enough for her.
She wasn't convinced.
Lana was ushered into the museum director's office by a prune- faced older woman named Prudhomme Smith whom Lana was sure she'd seen in some bad fifties-era monster movie. She was surprised to find that the director was a younger version of Paul Newman, complete with glittering blue eyes. His nameplate identified him as Doctor Roger Bean, Managing Director of Acquisitions. She managed to look calm, cool, and professional as the secretary repeated her name and the reason for her visit in funereal tones.
The man stood and gestured to a chair in front of his desk. "Ms. Lang-Kent, please sit down. Thank you for coming in today."
"Thank you for seeing me. I know I don't officially start until next Monday, Dr. Bean, but my husband and I are in town now and I'd like to get up to speed as soon as possible."
He smiled and returned to his chair as she sat. "An excellent attitude. My impression of you from reading your application and checking your references is that you'll have this office or one like it before very long."
She nodded. "I don't deny that I'm ambitious, sir, but I can assure you that my ambition doesn't include stepping on people. I've been around enough archaeologists in the field to know how museums sometimes treat them as if they're not the extremely vital first link in the whole chain."
He raised his eyebrow. "Very direct, but still mostly diplomatic. You should go far in the administrative side, should you choose to focus on it."
"You do plan to begin your master's program immediately, do you not?"
"Of course. One of the reasons I came here was for the chance to do a lot of my post-graduate work either on site or here, in conjunction with some of the best and brightest in the field. You fall into that category, too, Dr. Bean."
"Thank you. What do you anticipate your job description to be?"
She sat back and crossed her legs. She was pleased that Bean's eyes didn't flick down to her knees. "I understand that I'll be working with new acquisitions, setting up and maintaining displays, and watching over the loading dock. Anything else I'm responsible for is gravy, as far as I'm concerned."
He frowned slightly. "It's gravy?"
She smiled. "Sorry. Midwestern slang, meaning additional good things."
"Ah. Well, then, some of the 'gravy' you'll be lapping up — that is the proper term, is it not?"
"Good. Some of the 'gravy' -" he smiled at the term " — will be following me around and getting to know what I do on a daily basis. You'll be taking over for me when I'm out of town on museum business."
Her eyebrows rose. This was new. "Oh? How often does that happen?"
"Oh, three to five times a year, and you'll have a few days warning. I'm usually back within ten days or so, but we still need someone here to make the decisions that won't wait."
"I see. In that case, I intend to step on your heels as often as I can, especially for the first few weeks."
He smiled thinly. "I look forward to our association, Mrs. Lang- Kent." He stood. "Perhaps I should show you around, introduce you to some of the staff. You'll be working with these people in a few days, and it would be best if they didn't call security to have you thrown out."
She nodded and stood. "I'm ready when you are."
He led her outside and officially introduced her to the alien in the outer office. Lana decided that Miss Young's primary reason for being there was to cut down on unnecessary visits to the director, and that she was very good at performing that particular function. That woman could scare off a pack of werewolves.
She smiled at Lana, which didn't improve her visage in the slightest, and shook her hand. The handshake was cautious, as if Miss Smith preferred to keep people away from her. If Lana hadn't spent so much time with Clark, and not proof-read so many of his interviews, she would have ignored this little indicator. Instead, it lodged in her mind and increased the new-job trepidation factor even more.
Lana and Roger — he'd switched to first names on the initial introduction — meandered through the administrative area, shaking hands and challenging her memory for names and faces. They went down to the clean and prep floor, where Lana's field experience would come in handy. She met the people who were preparing items for exhibit, and she complimented them on their handling of the items. She also impressed them by not touching anything or making any immediate suggestions for improvements.
They ended their tour at the delivery dock. Bean said, "Well, this is where everything comes in. We can handle three extra- long eighteen-wheelers at once if we need to. Our security system is first-rate, and the ramp and doors are each less than a year old. Our security chief has nineteen years of law enforcement experience."
"Nice. Very nice setup." She looked closely at the overhead doors and their guides. They looked slightly worn, but still fairly new. In fact, the guide wheels and the insides of the guides were quite worn. She glanced at the floor and noted fresh tire marks.
"May I see the delivery log, Roger?"
He tensed up. "Why?"
"So I'll have some idea of how often we'll get a new delivery. I don't want to be surprised and have too many or too few people on duty at the wrong time, now do I?"
He smiled and exhaled, apparently relieved. Lana couldn't figure out why he'd be relieved at her answer. What could he possibly be worried about?
He handed her the log, which showed eleven deliveries in the past ten weeks, and none for the last eight days. Not enough traffic to have worn the doors that badly. Or recent enough to have left that many tread marks.
She handed the log back to Roger. "Thank you. That looks about like I expected. Is there anyone else you think I should meet?"
He pursed his lips in thought, then shook his head. "The only place you haven't walked through is the cafeteria. It's closed this late in the afternoon, but it opens promptly at six every morning except Sunday. They serve hot lunches until one, and keep a cold sandwich bar open until two-thirty. The place is clean and they have a fair selection of food for a company cafeteria." He leaned closer and spoke conspiratorially. "I'm not supposed to say this, but it's a bit over-priced and not the finest quality. Not that it's bad, mind you, it isn't, but it isn't five-star cuisine either."
"It'll be a pleasant change for me. You forget I've been living on college cafeteria food for four years."
He blinked at her. "I'm sorry, I thought you were married."
"I am, but they don't make you valedictorian because you can whip up an omelet or bake a cake."
"Unless you're in the master chef program."
"I can assure you that I wasn't. I won't kill anyone with my cooking, but I'm not planning to open a restaurant either."
Roger chuckled good-naturedly. "Well, that's the end of the nickel tour. I'll show you out."
She gave him her best gamin grin. "In that case, I'll see you bright and early on Monday morning, Roger. Eight o'clock?"
He returned the smile. "If you show up that early, you'll give the Employee Relations director a coronary. Nine o'clock is fine. I'll call her and tell her you're coming in then."
They shook hands. "Nine o'clock it is, then. I hope you don't mind if I'm a morning person once I get going."
"Not at all. I'm a night person myself, but that's certainly not an employment requirement. Our required hours are nine to four, but you can show up as early as you want, or do what I do and stay late. Welcome to the Metropolis Museum of Natural History, Lana. I'm sure you'll be a real asset to us."
Lana walked up beside Clark just as he got to the hotel front desk. He turned and whistled at her suggestively.
She frowned at him and spoke in a prim, Victorian maiden's voice. "Sir, please! I shall have you to know that I am a lady!"
He leaned on the counter and spoke like a movie mobster. "Yeah, I can sure see that, babe. You waitin' for your Prince Charming or what?"
"No. I have already found him. In fact, he is meeting me here this very night."
He leered at her. "Yeah? What if he don't show?"
Lana feigned discomfort for the benefit of the diminutive young female desk clerk, who was watching their exchange through huge eyes. "He — he will be here, sir, I am certain of it. Now please do not bother me any more."
"Okay, sweetheart, but you're missin' out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity." He turned to the clerk. "Ya got a reservation for Kent, good-lookin'?"
"A re-reservation for K-Kent? I'll ch-check and — I'll check it." The girl tapped the keyboard and looked at the computer screen. "Yes, here it is. You — reserved a double room, sir?"
Clark smiled lecherously at her. "Just in case I got lucky, sweetheart."
Lana took his arm. "Sir, you are indeed a fortunate man. I have changed my mind. I would like for you to show me a — oh, what is it called? Oh, yes, a good time."
Clark reached out and took the card key the young clerk had just programmed and led Lana off to the elevator. Out of the corners of their eyes, they watched her try to keep her eyes from bouncing off the desk and rolling around on the floor. Clark called over his shoulder in a classic English accent, "Do send up our luggage, won't you, my dear?"
Lana kept her composure until the elevator doors closed, then she collapsed in near hysterics against the wall of the car. "We gotta stop doing that in public, Clark! One or both of us is gonna get arrested!"
"What a way to go."
They put away their clothes and debated on dinner, but Lana's heart wasn't in it. Clark finally sat her down on the bed and asked, "Okay, what's bothering you?"
She frowned. "Nothing. At least I think it's nothing."
"Oh. Well, that certainly clears that up."
She pouted at him until he hugged her. "Honey, it isn't you or the room or anything here. It's something about my job."
He looked at her blankly. "It's a museum. What could be wrong with it?"
"I don't know. It's just a feeling I have, like there's more than one thing going on there."
"You think they're fencing hot mammoth bones or something?"
"No! Forget it, forget I said anything. It's probably just new job nerves or the difference between Smallville and Metropolis or something like that."
Clark nodded. "Maybe. You keep your head up anyway, okay?"
"Okay. So, where are we eating dinner tonight?"
He grinned at her. "It's an Italian surprise."
"This is wonderful pasta, Clark! How did you find this place?"
"I was walking around this afternoon, trying to get a mental picture of the city, and I overheard an argument in Italian in the hallway. I looked in and saw two of the waiters yelling at each other over splitting a tip, so I walked in and asked them if they knew of a good place to eat."
She grinned around her fettuccini. "So you didn't do anything — special?"
"Nope. They fell over each other telling me all about Mama's Pasta Retreat, so I told them I'd bring my favorite lady here one night soon to try it out. By that time, they were best friends again."
Lana nodded. "Very cute. Thanks for bringing me."
"No problem. I'll bring my favorite lady another night."
Lana froze and slowly swung her glare onto Clark. The glitter in his eyes dared her to start a food fight, but she restrained herself just in time. "Sir, were you to bring your 'favorite lady' here, and she were not myself, I would follow you and strangle her with your shoelaces while you ate."
"I'm certain she wouldn't bother to wear a bra."
Clark let his grin show. "You know, I believe you would."
"You can take that to the mortgage company, bub." She took another bite and made more 'yummy' noises. "Speaking of the future, you didn't tell me much about your interview, except that Mr. White didn't exactly hand you the keys to his office."
"No, but he was encouraging, and he asked me to keep in touch. I'm going to send him an article on spec about Mama here."
"On spec? Refresh my memory."
"Speculation. He doesn't know it's coming and he may or may not buy it."
"Right, I remember now. So tell me why Mama is such a good subject for a story."
"She came to Metropolis from Italy as a little girl right after World War II. Her father died fighting with the Italian Army against the Russians, and her mother married a sergeant with the U.S. Army unit that occupied her village. She remembers the wedding and the ship that brought them back to the States and how her stepfather started Sarge's Italian Victory Stand in nineteen forty-seven with three hundred dollars borrowed from his father. They worked very hard all their lives, and they're now in Florida soaking up the sun on the beach facing the Gulf of Mexico."
He stopped long enough to scoop up another big bite. "They sold the business to Mama and her husband about eight years ago. Mama's four sons either work here or have worked here since they were old enough to clear tables until they went to college. Her husband runs the kitchen and she's the hostess. They're listed in the New Troy tour guides as one of the best places to eat in the entire state."
Lana smiled and covered his hand with hers. "That's a marvelous story, Clark. Mr. White will buy it or he's an idiot! Especially after you write it. You have such a way with words."
"That's why you married me, isn't it?"
Her eyes softened. "I married you because I love you and you love me."
He glanced at her, surprised at the tenderness she'd expressed. "I do love you. And I'm glad you picked Metropolis and not Kenya."
"Me, too. I don't think Mama delivers there."
He leaned over, cupped her face in his hand, and kissed her. "I don't care. I'd be happy with you anywhere we were."
She had no response, at least not one she could display in public.
They planned to house-hunt the next day. Just before they left for breakfast, the phone in the room rang. Puzzled, Clark answered.
"Hello? Oh, yes, Mr. White, this is Clark. No, not yet. I have a piece for you to look at, though. This afternoon? Two-thirty? Sure, I'll make a point of it. Thank you for calling! No, I'll drop the story off at the front desk this morning. That sounds great! See you then."
Clark put down the phone and turned, beaming. "I think I'm gainfully employed now."
Lana clapped her hands and jumped up and down twice. "That's great! That's wonderful! Tell me all about it!"
"One of his feature writers turned in his resignation yesterday afternoon to be the feature editor of a daily in a small town south of Atlanta, and Mr. White immediately thought of me. Assuming I pass muster, I'll start on a rookie salary like any other newbie, but at least I'll be working for a nationally known newspaper."
"Oh, Clark, that's wonderful!" She jumped into his arms and knocked him backwards onto the bed. "I'm so proud of you!" She kissed him deeply, then jumped to her feet. "Come on! Now we have two good reasons to get our own place!"
He stood and looked around. "Yeah. No place to hide spare super-suits here."
"It's a good thing you don't sweat unless you want to. You must be hot with that suit on under your clothes." She toyed with his shirt buttons. "Want me to get you out of those hot clothes and cool you off?"
"Not if we want to find a place to live today."
She put a mock pout on her face. "Oh, bother, you're so practical!"
Perry White bought Clark's article that morning and hired him that afternoon. Fortified by a job and a check for his story, Clark listened with half an ear to the apartment broker telling them how hard it was for newcomers to adjust to the pace of life in Metropolis and how shocked they always were when they found out how expensive housing was. Lana apparently believed the woman simply didn't want to get out in the evening heat without a good prospect of closing a deal.
She leaned forward and zeroed in on the broker. "Mrs. Marsten, we are here in Metropolis to stay. We have a room in the Westin that's more expensive than we'd like and less permanent than we'd prefer. We want an apartment here in the city. If you can't or won't help us, we'll find someone else who will."
The woman leaned back, apparently surprised by the vehemence of a Kansas transplant to the big city. "Very well. I have three or four properties I can show you. When would be the most convenient time?"
"What about right now?" Lana demanded.
"I have a family too, Mrs. Kent. Two boys, ages eleven and fourteen. They are expecting me to prepare dinner for them. I hope that is not too inconvenient for you."
Lana bristled, but Clark put his hand on her arm. "Would tomorrow morning be a good time, Mrs. Marsten?"
The woman hesitated, then nodded. "If you and your wife will come to my office at eight-thirty tomorrow morning, Mr. Kent, we will begin the paperwork." She looked pointedly at Lana. "I do not think you will have as much trouble in Metropolis as had I first thought."
Lana nodded and stood. "Have a good supper with your sons, Mrs. Marsten. We'll see you tomorrow."
Lana left the office so quickly Clark almost had to super-speed walk to catch up to her. When he did, she didn't say a word, she just marched to the front door of the building and banged through it. Briefly, she looked for a taxi, then turned and stomped along the curb, muttering to herself.
"Stupid cabbies not here when I need them there oughta be a law not hungry that stupid room better be clean —"
Clark grabbed her arm and tugged her to a stop. "Lana!"
"What're you yanking on me for?" She pulled loose and started walking again.
"I called you three times and you didn't answer. What's wrong?"
He skipped in front of her but she dodged around him. "What did I do?"
"You didn't do a thing! Now let's get b-back to the stupid hotel before they close the stupid cafe!"
Helpless to stop her, Clark followed in her wake. They speedily walked the fifteen blocks back to the hotel in silence.
Lana stalked right through the lobby and ran up the stairs to their fourth-floor room. Clark took the elevator, sure that she needed a few moments alone, but when he turned the corner to their room, he found Lana sitting on the floor in front of the door, holding her key card in her fist and crying.
He rushed to her. "Honey! Are you hurt? Did someone attack you? Did you trip? What happened?" Lana didn't respond, except to put her arms around his neck and squeeze tightly, then cry even harder.
Rather than deal with whatever was going on in the hallway, Clark awkwardly opened the door and carried her in. He placed her on the bed and tried to disengage, but she grabbed him with a frenzied strength and refused to let go.
He rubbed her back and tried to comfort her. "Lana, I'm here. I love you. I'm not going anywhere. I'm here, baby, I'm here."
She finally wound down and loosened her grip, and Clark used the opportunity to lay her down on the bed and pull her shoes off. He pulled a coverlet over her and sat beside her. She grabbed both of his hands and tried to squeeze the blood out of them, and her tears started again.
Clark was nearly beside himself. He couldn't figure out what was wrong, couldn't figure out what he might have done or not done that might cause his wife to come completely unglued. He knelt down beside the bed, put his head next to hers, and again tried speaking gentle words into her ear.
This time it worked. She settled down after a few minutes. Clark knew he'd only have a short time to find out what had happened to set her off, so he watched and listened and waited.
Lana closed her eyes and blurted out, "I'm so sorry! I'm so sorry!"
Even worse. He had no inkling what she thought she had done, so he remained silent, stroking her hair and kissing her hands.
She took a shuddering breath. "It's all my fault, Clark."
He couldn't stand it any longer. "Lana, I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. You're going to have to explain it to me." He kissed her lips. "Please?"
She nodded. "I can't have kids for a while."
"That's it?" She nodded, and he frowned at her. "Lana, I still don't —"
"I — I wanted to make sure we didn't have kids for a while."
"Oh." Thoughts of terminal diseases and crippling surgeries flooded his mind. "Is there something wrong now, something that wasn't wrong before?"
She sniffed. "No."
"I see." He thought hard for a moment, then surrendered. "No, I don't see. I still don't understand. I'm sorry I'm being so dense."
"No!" She grabbed his face and then looked deep into his eyes. "You're not dense! You're wonderful and I'm a louse!"
"You're not a louse, Lana, you're —"
"Listen to me! It's my fault. It's all my fault!"
Clark barely restrained himself from asking what the heck did she think was her fault. Lana took another deep breath and continued. "We — I can't have kids for a while."
He waited for a moment. "You said that already."
"I didn't say why."
"No, you didn't."
She took a deep breath. "Bob."
Clark closed his eyes and sat up. He was losing patience with this situation, one he couldn't control either with or without his powers. "Lana, if you want me to understand what is going on, tell me! Tell me straight out."
She rolled onto her back and sat up against the headboard of the bed. "Bob did it, but I asked him to. He g-gave me a — a treatment, I guess, and I can't have kids for two thousand days from our wedding day."
"Two thousand — that's almost five and a half years."
Clark still wasn't clear on what had triggered her crying jag. "So, Bob fixed it so you wouldn't get pregnant for a while?" She nodded. "Is this what this — this outburst is all about? Is not being able to have kids a problem all of a sudden?"
Her eyes filled but her voice remained steady. "While we were still in school, I knew a baby would slow down our careers, hurt our chances of getting good job offers. I knew you'd want to be totally involved in our baby's life, even if it made you less available for all the things you do, including the super things. So, when Bob gave me the chance to make sure our lives stayed on track, I jumped at it. And don't blame him. It was my choice, not his."
Clark frowned. "Why would I blame the globe? It's not alive."
She wiped her cheeks with both hands. "But I made the decision without consulting you. I was wrong, Clark, I was so wrong. I'm so sorry."
He embraced her. "Darling, it's okay. I'm pretty sure humans and Kryptonians can't have kids anyway."
"Bob says the probability is above sixty-five percent."
Clark froze in her arms, then he leaned back. "You mean — it's possible?"
She sniffed and nodded. "Yes. Not a sure thing, but it's possible."
"Wow." His eyes popped. "I never even asked."
He drifted away for a moment, thinking of what it must have been like for his father to send him away forever. He got a glimpse of the agony Jor-El must have felt when he put his infant son in the rocket that sent Kal-El to Earth. He perceived a glimmer of the reason there was such pride in Jonathan Kent's eyes when he looked at his adopted son. Clark decided that kids were a given in their future, somehow, some way. He'd make sure of it.
Right now, though, his wife was still hurting. He snapped back to the present. "Lana, what's done is done. I'm not angry with you or at you or at what you did. Believe me, I'm not. I wish you'd talked to me about it, but I can't say I'd have advised you to do anything different. We'll just take this in and make it a part of the 'us' that's growing together. Who knows, maybe we'll just be a family of two for the rest of our lives. That wouldn't be so bad, would it?"
She embraced him and wept again, but these tears were for relief and for cleansing. When she finally ran down, she murmured against his shirt, "Thank you, my darling."
He hugged her as tenderly as he knew. "I love you. I can do nothing else but love you."
She squeezed her eyes shut. "I'm sorry I got your shirt so wet."
He kissed her forehead. "I can get a new shirt. I can't get a new wife."
They had dinner sent up. Lana picked at her food. Finally, she stood. "I'm sorry, darling, I'm just not hungry." Then she looked at him shyly. "I kinda ruined tonight, didn't I? I mean, we're not celebrating your new job or going apartment hunting or any of this new stuff and —"
He captured her hand. "It's okay, Lana, I promise. Tomorrow is a new day. We'll just get some sleep and be ready for it."
She smiled. "Thank you." She started to turn away, then stopped. "You know, I'd almost forgotten about what Bob did — what I had him — what I did. When I heard that woman talk about how she had to get home to make dinner for her kids, and when I thought about her showing us apartments and asking us if we'd need rooms for babies, it all just came back and slammed me. I'm sorry I put you through all that."
"It's okay, babe. Honest. I'd rather go through it with you than let you go through it by yourself."
She looked at her feet. "Thank you. Do you mind — would it be okay if you just — just held me tonight? I need to know you're there for me."
He stood and kissed her tenderly. "I will always be there for you."
Lana was in an altered state the next morning. She engaged Mrs. Marsten in friendly conversation, and after they got past the awkwardness left over from the previous evening, the two women exchanged personal information while Clark filled out most of the paperwork. Lana found that the woman's first name was Elena, that she had come to the U.S. from western Rumania when she was nine, that her husband had been a flight instructor and had died six years before in a crash caused by a panicky student, that her sons were named Andre and Michael, the boys were both science whizzes, and that she had made a Chinese pasta dish the night before. Lana wormed the recipe out of her before Clark signed the brokerage agreement.
They bounced out of the office before nine-thirty, Clark trailing the two women. He smiled as he thought about how volatile Lana was, and that she made a good complement to his steadfast and even temperament. Once again, he offered up thanks to whatever agency had brought them together. Despite the constant challenges, he was thrilled to be her husband.
They smilingly turned down the first two properties, nodded a qualified 'maybe' on the third, and fell in love with the fourth. It resided on the top floor of a six-story building, and it had a balcony, two large bedrooms and two baths, huge closets in each bedroom, a study, and a spacious and well-equipped kitchen. The building had underground parking and a large freight elevator. It was also beside a main bus line, and there was a cab stand half a block away. The only minus Lana could come up with was that it was a long trip from the apartment to the museum, and only a little closer to the Planet.
Clark's minus was the monthly cost. He gulped audibly when he read the rental agreement.
"That's the rent? For just one month?"
"Yes, Mr. Kent. Why?"
He shook his head. "Granny Hamner told me never to pay more than fifteen thousand dollars for anything unless it had a basement."
Lana giggled, then explained. "Basements are just about required for Kansas residents as tornado shelters. And Granny Hamner is Smallville's resident historian. Her father would have ridden up San Juan Hill in Cuba with Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders if he hadn't gotten malaria. She still thinks a car that costs more than her first Model T is too expensive."
Elena Marsten smiled at the young couple. "Let me see if I can do better than the listed price. It never hurts to ask. Besides, this whole building is under-occupied. I think I can get the owner to come down on the rent."
Lana hugged her. "Thanks, Elena. Clark, do you think fifteen percent off the rent is still too much?"
He shrugged. "I don't know, but it would make me feel less like we're buying the water and mineral rights for the entire block, too."
Lana laughed, and Elena joined in to be polite. "Fifteen percent is a great deal to ask, Mr. Kent. If they offer back as much as eleven percent off, may I accept for you?"
Clark and Lana looked at each other and smiled. "Lana, if you say no, we're out the door and still looking."
"I'm not saying no! What about you?"
"If we can get a break on the rent, I think we can afford it. You're going to be paying the bulk of the expenses for a while until I get a few raises under my belt."
Lana turned to Elena and smiled. "Yes! Eleven percent and we'll jump on it! But try to get fifteen if you can, okay?"
Elena nodded, still smiling. "I will try. I cannot promise anything, but I will try."
"Great! Hey, why don't you join Clark and me for lunch?"
"I wish that were possible, but I have other appointments I must keep. But I expect to be invited for a native Kansas dinner after you move in."
"Done! And you'll have to bring Andre and Michael along. We'll show them how farm folks behave towards their guests."
The three of them shared a laugh. "My sons will look forward to it, as will I. Now, Mr. Kent, Lana, let us sign some more documents and talk about the two of you parting with some of your hard-earned money."
The deal went through Thursday night. True to her word, Elena Marsten had managed to wrangle a twelve-percent reduction in rent from LexCorp Properties for Clark and Lana. For the first time, they dipped deeply into Lana's savings and paid the entire year's rent in advance, earning them another five percent off the total cost and avoiding a security deposit. As a result, Clark and Lana were happy with a place to live, Elena Marsten was thrilled with her commission, and the executives of the management company were ecstatic at having such a prestigious young couple occupying their most difficult apartment to rent, due to its size and location.
They signed the lease right after lunch on Friday, then put the utilities in their name. They stood in their apartment, bare of furniture, gazing at all the wonderful features and imagining their furniture from their Smallville apartment filling the rooms.
Then Lana had a frightening thought. "Furniture! Clark, how are we going to get our stuff here in time to go to work on Monday morning? Superman can't be seen doing all this moving for us! People will talk!"
He smiled. "No worries, as they say Down Under. I called both of our fathers yesterday afternoon while you and Mrs. Marsten were debating how much garlic to put in the spaghetti water and when to add it. You talk a good batch of spaghetti, by the way. Our parents are, even now, wending their way to Metropolis, driving two rented trucks which contain nearly all of our worldly possessions. They should be here about six o'clock tomorrow morning, which, being Saturday, will create less of a traffic problem than it might otherwise. Besides, we can put the trucks in the underground parking area. Yours truly will make sure no one lifts more than can be safely carried."
She hugged him. "That's wonderful! Thanks, love. Hey, is your mom coming?"
"Of course! She said she wouldn't miss it for all the corn in Kansas. She'll be doing her share of the driving, too."
"I figured." She stepped away, still holding his hands. "Clark, are you planning to check on them while they're on the road?"
"I'll look in on them from here. Your dad asked me if he could bring a relief driver, and I said sure. I think maybe his relief driver is a she."
"You think so?" He nodded. "I'll have to make sure she's good enough for him, then."
He waggled his finger at her. "Don't scare her off, okay? Your dad deserves some happiness and companionship in his life."
She lifted her hands in surrender. "Who, me? Scare anyone off? To whom are you referring, sir, since you certainly cannot be referring to my li'l ol' demure, quiet, shy self."
"Quiet, huh? I'll have to stay away from you while our folks are here, or they'll find out how quiet you aren't when you're in the throes of passion."
She put her arms around his neck. "You know, we have that hotel room for one more night. Why don't we see if we can shock the maid?"
He smiled and kissed her nose. "I thought we did that already."
She nibbled on his neck. "We can try to make her jump twice as high this time."
They checked out of the hotel at four the next morning and deposited their clothes in their new apartment closet. Clark waited on the street for the trucks while Lana walked to the nearest deli for breakfast and lunch fare. He lowered his glasses and watched over her. She must have known he was checking on her; when she left the deli she put the bags down, smiled, and waved in the general direction of her husband.
She turned the corner just as the first truck pulled up. Clark's parents popped out and rushed to him. "No rest areas in the city!" Jonathan blurted.
Clark smiled and escorted them into the front of the building, then super-sped them up to the apartment. He pointed in two directions. "There and there. Both of them have tissue."
Jonathan tossed Clark the keys to the truck they'd driven. Clark walked to the elevator just as the door opened and Lana stepped out, followed by her father and a tall, slender redheaded woman about his age.
Lana saw him and dumped the bags in his arms. "Here. Take this to the kitchen and put it away."
Clark looked at Dennis Lang. "I'd salute if a had a free hand."
Lana assumed a stern expression and pointed to their front door. "Kitchen. Now."
In the front room, the redhead looked around and nodded. "This is nice. Your furniture should fit in here pretty well, not too much and not too little."
Clark walked back from the kitchen. "We haven't met yet. I'm Lana's husband, Clark Kent."
They shook hands. "I'm Virginia McCoy. Call me Ginny. Glad to meet you. Dennis has told me quite a lot about both of you."
Dennis rubbed his hands together. "Ginny's a doctor of cultural anthropology and an instructor at Idaho State. She's between digs and classes right now. Clark, we're going to wait for the next available restrooms, and then we'll start ferrying up yours and Lana's stuff. Can we park the trucks down on the street?"
"No, but I'll move them into the underground parking area. There's a large open space near the freight elevator reserved for this very purpose. You have your keys?"
"Here you go."
Lana held out her hand. "I'll take one, Clark."
He held up both sets of keys. "Take your pick. They're pretty much the same size."
She snatched the set out of his right hand and spoke to her father as she walked out the door. "Just take the freight elevator to level P2. We'll be there, unloading one of the trucks."
Thanks largely to Clark's talents, they had both trucks empty by lunchtime. The goal, which they met, was to get everything into the apartment and return the trucks to reduce the rental fees. Lana and Clark would arrange the furniture later. They all flopped down on the sofa or in chairs and sighed.
Clark put his arm around Lana's shoulders. "Wow. That went a lot faster than I thought it would. All you old folks worked really hard."
Ginny's eyes bulged, but she said nothing. Martha shook her head. "If I wasn't so tired, my smart-alecky son, I'd come over there and wrench your ear off for insulting a young person like me."
Ginny's eyes showed comprehension and the corners of her mouth twitched upwards, but she remained silent. Lana stood slowly. "If anyone else is hungry, you can make yourself a sandwich. That's where I'm going now."
Clark patted her on the rear end. "How about one for me, babe?"
She shuffled towards the kitchen without looking at him. "How about you do it yourself, babe?"
In the ensuing silence, Clark dropped his gaze. "Sorry, folks, I guess I deserved that."
Dennis shook his head. "I never know how Lana's going to take what I say, except that she almost always comes around in the end."
"Yeah, but this time I think I may have stepped over the line."
Ginny stood. "Well, I don't know about anyone else, but I'm hungry. Dennis, you want to give me a hand?"
"Sure. All I have to do is get up now."
Clark stood and held out his hand. "How's this?"
"Good enough." Dennis pulled himself upright with a groan and reached for his back. "Oh, that's gonna be sore in the morning."
"You mean it's not sore now?"
"Not like it will be tomorrow, no."
Clark turned to follow them just as Lana came out of the kitchen with a tray. "Here, Clark. I'm sorry I snapped at you. I plead exhaustion and female silliness. Forgive me?"
He smiled at her. "Nothing to forgive. I was about to come in and make one for myself."
"No need. But you could make lunch for your parents. I don't think they want to get up off the couch."
He nodded. "Mom? Dad? Any preferences?"
Jonathan nodded. "Feathers."
"For my head. I'm really wiped out."
Clark laughed with the rest, but he tuned in on his father's heartbeat just the same. He was relieved to hear that it was normal. "What if I surprise you?"
"As long as you make it quick, sure."
Clark walked into the kitchen to see Dennis and Ginny leaning shoulder-to-shoulder against each other. He smiled and cleared his throat.
They both jumped a little, and Ginny laughed. "I feel a little like a teenager who's been caught necking on the front porch."
Clark chuckled back. "It wasn't so long ago that Dennis was doing the same thing to Lana and me. From my point of view, he deserves a little payback."
Dennis frowned. "When I get my strength back, in four or five weeks, I'm going to hold you accountable for being so disrespectful, young man. Now, did you come in here for a reason other than interrupting us?"
"My folks are hungry and I'm going to surprise them."
They stepped aside and picked up their own sandwiches. "The kitchen is yours, my good man."
"That's what it says on the lease."
Lunch ended, and Clark went into the master bedroom to assemble their bed. Lana pulled up a chair across from the sofa where her father and Ginny sat. Jonathan and Martha saw what she was doing and decided to 'help' Clark.
She smiled at them. "Okay, you two, time for the interrogation."
Dennis frowned slightly. "I was kinda hoping you wouldn't call it that."
"Hey, I'm the married adult in the family now. You're just a single guy."
Ginny raised her eyebrows. "You always so sweet and innocent with your dad?"
Lana's eyes were cutting lasers. "Yep. Sometimes even more than this."
Dennis lifted one hand. "Okay, you two stop right there. This will not become a competition of any kind. Understand?"
Ginny nodded. "I'm more than willing, Dennis. Talk to your daughter."
Lana bristled, but before she could speak, Dennis said, "Okay, Daughter, here are the rules. Ask any question you want as long as it's not framed as an accusation." Lana huffed slightly. "I mean it, Lana. That's not negotiable."
Lana held his gaze for a moment, then nodded. "Okay. I'm sorry for coming across like a Gestapo agent. And I don't really want this to be an interrogation. I only want to find out what plans, if any, you two have for the future."
Dennis held his ground. "What if we don't want to tell you?"
Lana shrugged. "I suppose I'll have to learn to live with disappointment. Not easy for an egocentric control freak like me."
Ginny's mouth twitched slightly. "Well, I think we can give you some hints, at least."
"I'd like that. If that's okay with Dad, of course."
"It's okay with me, as long as you don't try to fix our mistakes."
Lana spread her hands. "Promise. Pinky swear. Cross my heart and hope to fart."
Ginny giggled. "Oh, please, Dennis, don't make her resort to chemical warfare!"
All three of them broke up. Dennis recovered first. "Okay! Whew! Lana, when we leave here, we're going to a dig in Florida. We'll probably be there for a couple of months, then we'll decide where to go from there."
Lana frowned. "I thought Ginny was teaching at Idaho State."
"I'm on sabbatical until the spring semester. The Florida dig is part of my second doctoral thesis. My theories about the use of stone tools by ancient Native Americans will be tested quite thoroughly there, and Dennis is going to supervise the cataloging of the artifacts." She hugged his arm. "I'm lucky to have him there."
Lana nodded. "Sounds wonderful. Best of luck with your thesis." She leaned back. "But I was hoping for some personal plans and information too."
Dennis nodded. "We're not living together, or even occasionally sharing a bed, if that's what you mean."
Lana blushed. "Ah, no, actually, that's more information than I really wanted."
He frowned. "Then what are you asking us?"
Ginny touched him on the wrist and smiled patronizingly. "She wants to know if we're planning to get married any time soon, you very sweet but extremely dense man."
Dennis's jaw dropped. He looked at Lana, who nodded. "Really? That's what this is all about?"
"Well, yeah, Dad. I mean, you two touch each other, you smile at each other, you sit close together, you lean on each other's shoulders, you look like you're trying to give your friends something to talk about. What am I supposed to think?"
He composed himself. "What do you think?"
"You mean about you two getting married?"
He and Ginny both leaned forward intently. "Yes."
Lana took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I think it's your business, Dad. I only want to be kept in the loop, that's all. If you two think it's a good idea, who am I to tell you it's not?"
Ginny reached out and took Lana's hand in hers. "Thanks, Lana. I appreciate your attitude, even if your father doesn't."
"Hey! I do so appreciate it! She took me by surprise, that's all."
Lana grinned. "You were expecting maybe an explosion?"
He cocked his head to one side. "Yes, actually, I was. I had no idea what you thought."
"Well, now you know. So, are you planning to get married?"
Dennis smiled. "We'd talked about it, but we hadn't come to a decision yet. Partly because I wanted to get your input on the idea."
Lana smirked at him. "What for? You're the one who'll have to live with her, not me."
"True. So, I guess we'll talk some more and let you know when we know."
"Thanks, Dad." Lana leaned over and hugged him, then hugged Ginny.
Ginny patted her on the back. "Whoa! That was a surprise."
Lana smiled at her. "Yeah, Clark keeps telling me I surprise him a lot."
"I believe it." Ginny looked at Dennis. "So, what do you think?"
Dennis kissed her on the cheek. "I think we need to talk about it privately and come to a mutually agreed solution."
She found his lips with hers. "Mmm. I think that's a great idea."
Lana watched for a few seconds, then smiled and said, "Hey, you two! I'm still in the room!"
Martha chose that moment to lean out of the bedroom doorway. "Lana Lang-Kent, since when did that ever stop you and Clark?"
That night, Lana lay in Clark's arms as he slept. Jonathan and Dennis were sprawled around the living room, Martha and Ginny were having a girls-only slumber party in the guest room, and Lana was thinking.
She thought about how wonderful her life was, how lucky she was to be married to the greatest guy in the world, and maybe the greatest hero of all time. She was suddenly overcome with love for the man sleeping quietly beside her. She stroked his hair gently, trying not to wake him, but his eyes fluttered open.
"Lana? Is anything wrong?"
Her eyes clouded over. "No, babe, no. Everything's wonderful. Everything's just wonderful. Go back to sleep, my darling."
He slipped his arm around her waist and drew her closer. "You sure nothing's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong. Nothing could possibly be wrong at this moment. I just — I just love you so much!"
She let the tears come. Clark enfolded her in a powerfully gentle embrace as she wrapped her arms around him and sobbed for joy against his chest. She thought life couldn't be better than it was at that particular moment.
They said good-bye to Dennis and Ginny before leaving for work on their respective first days. Lana arrived at the Employee Relations office at eight-fifty on Monday morning. She'd dropped Clark off and taken their car to the museum after extracting a promise from him to meet her for lunch. She pushed through the glass office door and was greeted by a tall, slender woman with sharp but attractive features and long, impossibly dark hair that fluttered around her waist when she moved.
"Good morning, Mrs. Lang-Kent. My name is Phoebe Shining Mountain, and I will be taking care of your employment paperwork today. Please have a seat."
"Thank you. Uh, how should I address you?"
The woman looked up, apparently puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"Your family name is tribal Amerind, I think. Should I call you by your first name or your clan name?"
"Ah, I understand your question. Please call me Phoebe. May I call you Lana?"
"Sure. Are you from a Plains tribe?"
"I am of Sac and Fox descent. My people were originally from what are now the states of Ohio and Illinois. They were moved to reservations in what is now Oklahoma after the American Civil War."
"Wasn't Jim Thorpe's original tribal name Bright Path? He was Sac and Fox too, wasn't he?"
Phoebe smiled. "You know recent history as well as ancient history, I see. You are correct on both counts. Jim Thorpe is still held in high esteem in Oklahoma. A number of my friends claim to be related to him in some way. Many believe he was the finest American athlete of the twentieth century."
"I did a high school report on him. I'm from Kansas, just north of Oklahoma."
Phoebe nodded. "I am glad to know that. Now, we really need to dispose of all this mundane but highly necessary paperwork. May I have your driver's license and social security card? I must photocopy them for your file and for your I-4 form."
Lana dug in her purse. "Here you go."
"Thank you. While I am gone, you might as well start on the W-4 for the IRS and your personal data sheet."
"Next of kin, right?"
"Of course." Phoebe stood. "We must contact the correct party or parties should you be accidentally crushed by a falling exhibit."
Lana grimaced. "That happen often?"
Phoebe walked out the side door as she spoke. "There is always a first time."
Clark walked into the newsroom at nine-thirty that morning. He'd finished the pre-employment requirements in near-record time, claiming — truthfully — that he was eager to get to work. Perry White was looking over Lois Lane's shoulder and pointing to something on her computer screen. She was frowning as she typed, obviously making a correction she didn't want to make.
Clark walked up beside them. Perry noticed him first. "Kent! Hey, you made it through the labyrinth quick! Step inside my office for a minute. I'll be right there."
Clark nodded and complied. He looked around the newsroom through the glass in Perry's office door and saw the chaotic pulse of a major news organization. They were under constant pressure to get the whole story, make sure everything they printed was factual and verified, make the story interesting to read, and get it out to the public immediately if not sooner.
Clark remembered a conversation he'd had with Lana a few weeks before. She'd pointed out that technology had created an easier world for people, but also one where people had less and less patience. People in the worlds she studied had communicated only as quickly as a trade caravan or a traveler on horseback could move from one place to another, and nowadays people became angry if news came to them an hour after it had happened. The result was that the people reporting the news were under constant stress, since the completion of one story only meant the beginning of another one.
Clark had seen all that, had agreed with Lana's analysis, had understood that she probably couldn't take very much of that kind of pressure, and he still couldn't wait to get into the middle of it all. The last few years of being Superman had taught him that, while people sometimes needed help only he could give, they weren't babies and weren't helpless without him. He still suffered pangs of regret when he couldn't help everyone who needed it, but he thought he'd come to terms with the knowledge that no one could right every wrong in the world, much less all those in Metropolis.
Perry pointed at Lois, then grinned at her. Clark could hear him say, "Good work, Lois. Save that and send it to my inbox. I'll forward it to Melvin and it'll make the afternoon edition."
"In the Metro section!" she wailed.
"That's better than not getting printed at all! Now get back with Claude on that weapons smuggling ring. I have to get Kent started on some things."
Perry opened the door and shook hands with Clark. "Glad to have you on board, Clark! Sit down and we'll get you working."
"That's what I'm here for."
Perry grinned conspiratorially. "You'd be surprised how few rookies understand that." Perry sat behind his desk. "First of all, let me officially welcome you to the Daily Planet. You've written for us before, and you know the kinds of features we print, so none of these assignments should surprise you. Before I give them to you, though, I have to go through my speech about how working for a newspaper every day is different from writing freelance. You have to be here at eight every morning and get the story down fast and get it down accurately. I have time to guide my young reporters, because that's part of my job, but I don't have time to motivate you or to write your pieces for you. I'm confident that I won't have that problem with you, Clark."
"No, sir, I don't expect you will."
"Good! Here you go. We need a profile of this city councilman's oldest daughter. She's a real angel, about to start her senior year in high school. It's good human interest, the kind of stuff you're already used to doing, and it's a safe piece for you to get started on. Make sure you get info on her college plans, and don't pry too deeply into her love life. She's not supposed to have one yet.
"We also need a piece on the new fountain in the uptown mall. They've spent a lot of time and money on it, and our readers would like to know if it's something worth going to the mall to see. And, should you have the time — which you should — we have a file drawer full of obituaries that need updating. You can't be too up-to-date on your obits. If you get all this done before Friday, let me know and I'll load you up again."
"Thanks, Mr. White. Is there a desk for me, or should I pick an unoccupied one?"
"You'll have the empty desk to the left of Lois Lane. Ah, I noticed when you were here the other day that you and she aren't exactly the best of friends. Is being close to her going to be a problem for you?"
Clark shook his head. "I don't think it'll be a problem for me, no."
"Good!" Perry stood. "Let's get you settled in. Oh, good, there's Elaine. She'll take you through the Planet's computer operating system and phone system. Make sure you follow the password guidelines."
Clark stood and shook Perry's hand. "Thank you, Mr. White. I appreciate this opportunity."
"Just make me glad I gave it to you, son."
Clark and Lana didn't make their lunch date. By the time Lana got to a phone, Clark was out of the office on his assignment, and when he got back, Lana's new office number had already been changed, and he spent several confusing minutes talking to the museum tour secretary. They finally exchanged phone numbers at about three o'clock and laughingly agreed to have dinner at home together. Jonathan and Martha had volunteered to stay a couple of days to help them over the hump.
Lana picked Clark up in front of the Planet building just after six. The commute to their new apartment took about thirty minutes, and they smelled Martha's meatloaf surprise as soon as they walked in. Lana dropped her purse on the nearest chair and inhaled deeply.
"Wow! Martha, that smells fabulous! Thank you so much for cooking tonight."
Martha smiled and put the last of the dishes on the table. "It's a privilege to cook for my son and my favorite daughter-in-law. Besides, I don't know how often you two will be able to make it out to Smallville, now that you're ensconced in your new domicile."
Jonathan chuckled. "Adult education English classes."
"Mom? You're still taking adult education classes?"
Martha shook her head. "I'm teaching them."
Clark's jaw dropped for a moment. "Oh."
Lana grabbed his arm. "Come on, you can be properly amazed over dinner. I missed lunch and I'm ravenous."
Clark leaned back and whistled between his teeth. "Mom, that was the best peach pie I've eaten since the last time I ate your peach pie."
"Thank you, Clark. Lana, would you like another piece?"
Lana waved her hands 'no.' "I can tell already, I'm going to have to join a gym. City living isn't like a small town or college. It'd be easy for me to get really fat, and I refuse to look like the south end of a north-bound bus." She wiped her mouth. "Clark, do you know of a good gym close by?"
"I can check. I was pretty busy today, too."
She smiled and patted his arm. "I know you were busy, babe, and I'm glad you hit the ground running. Hey, how do they treat you at the Planet?"
"Like a rookie who has to ask where the men's room is. How else?"
"No, I mean do they look at you funny? Like you're an unclassified life form?"
"Uh, no, not really. Why?"
"Because that's what I'm getting at the museum. People will be talking to me normally, then all of a sudden we'll walk by someone else or I'll ask a question and they'll hesitate, say something else, and watch to see how I respond. I'm glad I'm home, where no one looks at me weird."
Jonathan made a goofy face and lifted his hands into claw shapes. "You mean like this?"
Martha threw a napkin at him. Lana smiled, but she was the only one who didn't laugh aloud. "It's really odd. It's like that dream where everybody knows something about you that no one else does, like you're walking around naked and you're the only one who doesn't realize it. I've been the new kid on the block on several digs, but I've never seen anything quite like this."
Clark drew closer to her. "Do you want Superman to take a quick look? Maybe I can spot something."
She shook her head. "No, not now. I'm just going to chalk it up to nerves and being the interloper in the pack. I'll be okay."
He kissed her on the cheek. "If you say so. Mom, Dad, are you two driving back to Smallville or flying Superman express?"
"Your mother and I want to visit her cousin in Indiana before we head for home. We've already reserved a rental car. We'll say our goodbyes before we go to bed, because we're getting up before the chickens on Wednesday morning."
"Give my love to Aunt Vernell, okay?"
"We will, son. Now, I'd better get these dishes rinsed before your mother gives me a lecture on sharing the housework."
"Hey, I hear that." Lana swatted him on the leg. He turned to his father with a deadpan expression and said, "Ouch. I feel your pain, Dad."
It was Lana's second Monday on the job, and the museum cafeteria was bustling at lunchtime. Lana brought her tray away from the cashier and scanned the room for an open table. She spied Phoebe Shining Mountain seated at a table, talking to Lamont Greer, the loading dock supervisor, and decided to start building friendships.
As she approached, she heard the last portion of their conversation. Phoebe was saying, "Of course, Mr. Greer. I will be in my office at three-thirty today. We may discuss your savings plan and your wife's medical benefits at that time."
He smiled and nodded. "Thank you, ma'am. I'll be there. Excuse me, but that's my boss coming, so I gotta get back to work."
He smiled at Lana, who returned it. "I doubt the dock will disappear if you're not there for ten minutes, Lamont."
"Thanks, Ms. Kent, but I really gotta get back. See you later."
Lana nodded to his retreating form. "Lamont seems like a nice guy."
"He is. Do you also wish to make an appointment with me in my professional capacity?"
"No, I'd like to join you for lunch, if that's okay."
Phoebe smiled. "Please do. I appreciate the company."
"Thanks. Do you eat here often, or are there a couple of really good lunch spots nearby?"
"There are a few. Do you usually limit yourself to salad and ice water?"
Lana grimaced. "No, but I've been packing it away pretty good for the last few days. Clark's parents helped us move from Kansas, and they stayed over for a couple of days, and they're both fabulous cooks and they trained Clark to cook, and, well, you get the idea."
Phoebe chuckled. "I do indeed. I admire your resolve to remain slender."
Lana nodded. "It's an ongoing battle, at least for me. So tell me all about your life, Phoebe. Married or single or committed or looking or what? Kids? Parents? Anything at all. I'm dying to find a girlfriend I can gossip with."
Phoebe smiled and tilted her head to one side. "You do not strike me as a social climber, Lana. So I will tell you a little about myself today and save the rest for later conversations."
"Sounds good to me. You talk and I'll make my lunch disappear."
"As you wish. I have been with the museum for nine years. My first doctorate is in anthropology, specifically studying the Native American tribes of the east coast. Did you know, for example, that from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries the Iroquois Confederation controlled much of what is now New England and southeastern Canada? And that the tribes were at peace with one another?"
Lana washed down a mouthful of lettuce. "I knew that generally, but I don't know much detail."
"There is much to know. The tribes were not nomadic, as the Plains tribes were, especially after the importation of horses by the Spanish in the early sixteenth century. They —"
Lana held up her hand. "Wait. Are you telling me that the Plains peoples didn't even have horses until the Europeans brought them?"
"They did not. They began herding horses themselves when they saw how successfully the Spanish utilized them. But I was telling you of the Iroquois and their alliances."
"Sorry. I'll eat and listen intently."
Suddenly Phoebe's expression flickered, like a movie film with a few frames missing. She recovered so quickly that if Lana hadn't been focused on her face she would have missed the moment. As Phoebe began speaking again, Lana saw Prudhomme Smith walk past their table, carrying her tray to the kitchen. Miss Smith never looked in their direction, but Lana could almost see her ears swiveling to lock in on their conversation.
Phoebe resumed her narrative, but Lana's attention was split between the story of the Iroquois tribal wars and the deliberate gait of her boss's secretary as she left the cafeteria. She made an impulsive decision to trust Phoebe.
Lana broke into the story. "Phoebe, that's really interesting, but what's going on here?"
The other woman's expression froze. "I do not know what you mean, Lana."
"Yes, you do. You saw Dr. Bean's secretary walk by like she was checking us out and something happened. Your face changed for just a second, like you knew you were under surveillance. Something's going on here and no one will let me in on the joke. Will you?"
"You say this. Why should I believe you? Perhaps you are attempting to discover what I know and use it against me."
Lana did her best to control her reaction. "Look, Phoebe, if I'm trying to spy on you, why would Ms. Smith be spying on both of us? Besides, if I'm one of the people on the inside, why would I even bring it up to you? Wouldn't that just increase your suspicions?"
Phoebe shook her head slightly. "I am not certain —"
"Just give me a hint, please! I've gone from bantering with people to walking on eggshells around them in the middle of a sentence and I have no idea why. Can't you please tell me what's going on?"
Phoebe stared deeply into Lana's eyes. "You do not know? Truly?"
Lana sighed. "No, I don't and it's really bugging me. I feel like the new prisoner on the cell block who doesn't know about the warden's drug smuggling ring." Her eyes widened. "Tell me that's not it! Please!"
Phoebe shook her head. Her long raven hair shimmered along her neck and shoulders. "No. I am certain there are no drugs involved. Something is happening, but I am almost as much in the dark as you are. All I can tell you is that it is not something one asks about. It has only been during the last two years that this has been going on, but I do not know what 'it' is."
"Can't you find out?"
Phoebe impaled Lana with a stare. "I have tried. Those who ask too many questions lose their jobs and discover that other employment in the field is difficult to find. My work with the Iroquois tribal history is vital to me. I will not risk my career for something I cannot even name."
Lana sat back. "I see. I think I'm sorry I brought it up."
"Oh? You think so little of me now?"
"I don't think ill of you. I just didn't realize you'd been threatened. I won't mention it again."
Phoebe sighed. "It is not so much a threat as it is an attitude. Those who are 'in the loop' are wary of those who are not 'in the loop.' As you surely have gathered by now, I am of the second group." Her expression softened. "As your new friend, Lana, I urge you not to probe too deeply into this — whatever it is. I have no hard facts, but I believe that the situation will resolve itself soon. And it may be something quite benign, despite our fears."
"And despite the evidence?"
"I have no evidence. Are you in possession of information that I do not have?"
Lana shook her head. "No. I just have feelings and impressions that something's not kosher here."
Phoebe leaned forward. "I understand your concerns and I share them. But I learned a harsh lesson as a child, growing up as an outsider in the white man's culture, a lesson which has been reinforced by my studies. Being the person or group on the 'right' side has less influence on the outcome of a conflict than possessing superior weapons, numbers, supplies, and tactics. My ancestors fought an unwinnable war against your ancestors because of those factors. Many of my family in Oklahoma still depend on my income to survive. If some in this museum are indeed involved in some illegal or dangerous enterprise, I have no wish to be involved, either deliberately or accidentally. I cannot risk taking food from the mouths of my nieces and nephews because I am uncomfortable with something that I cannot name and cannot be certain actually exists."
Lana nodded. "I think I understand. I'm sorry."
"For what? For being on the winning side? For reminding me of something I try to pretend does not exist?"
"No. For imposing on a friendship that hasn't been built yet."
It was Phoebe's turn to sit back. "I see. I am sorry I have disappointed you."
Lana leaned forward and reached out for Phoebe's hand. "I'm not disappointed! Not in you, in me. I'm sorry I put pressure on you. You don't know me, you have no way of knowing how trustworthy I may or may not be, and I can't expect you to risk your livelihood on the say-so of a woman you've just met." She sat back again. "I'd still like to be your friend."
Phoebe's smile didn't illuminate her eyes as it had before. "Thank you. I would like that also. Perhaps we can work on that in the future. One cannot have too many friends. Now, please excuse me. I must return to my office. I have work which cannot wait."
She picked up her tray and strode regally to the tray return, then out the door. Not once did she look back at Lana.
Lois wasn't happy. Her most recent story assignment was stopped cold, waiting for a state appellate court judge and his 'secretary' to return from a 'business trip' so she could interview them about the rumors concerning their affair and possible marriage, and what might happen to their current spouses. The gun-running story was waiting for a break that might come in the next five minutes or the next five years. Her Jeep had had a parking ticket on the windshield when she'd left the Planet. What was the big deal if she parked beside a fire hydrant for ten minutes? The source she was supposed to meet downtown hadn't shown up. And she'd settled for a salad for lunch because the sub shop was out of Italian wheat bread. The day wasn't one of her best.
As she finished her not-quite-satisfying lunch and stood to leave, someone bumped into her. Reflexively, she muttered, "Excuse me," and looked up to check on the other person.
It was Lana Lang-Kent.
They both froze in place and stared at each other for a moment, until Lana's companion, a tall, slender woman with long dark hair, touched her shoulder and asked, "Is something the matter?"
Lana shook herself out of the locked gaze. The incident gave Lois a feeling of deja vu, like the first time they'd seen each other at Lana's wedding reception. Once again, the impression that the reception wasn't the first time they'd met persisted in her awareness.
Lana turned to her companion and said, "No, Phoebe, I'm fine."
Phoebe answered, "Very well. Since you said you have not eaten here before, shall I order for both of us so that you may converse with your friend?"
They both snapped their eyes to Phoebe, who stood waiting placidly for Lana to respond. Lois opened her mouth to tell this — person — that she and Lana were definitely not friends, when Lana smiled and nodded. "Sure. Something spicy, okay?"
The woman smiled and nodded. "Remember your meeting at two- thirty today."
"Thanks. This won't take long." Lana turned back to Lois. "To respond to your original statement, I am uninjured and you are excused."
"Oh, good, I was really worried for a minute that I'd damaged you."
"I'm sure you were. Will there be anything else? I'm hungry."
Lois felt an evil urge well up inside her. "No." As Lana began to turn away, she added, "Oh, wait, tell Clark I said tomorrow night's fine."
Lana stopped and turned back, frowning. "Fine for what?"
Lois schooled her features to be as open as she could make them. "The stakeout, of course."
"You and Clark?" Lois nodded. "On a stakeout?" She nodded again. "Together?"
Lois tilted her head to one side. "I'm sorry, I was sure he said he'd tell you about it." She sighed and tried to look sympathetic. "But then, you know how men are. Sometimes one woman just isn't enough for a guy."
Lana tensed and clenched her fists. As she leaned forward, Phoebe appeared behind her and took her by the arm. "Lana, our food has arrived. I think we should not take too much time. They will want to clean our table as soon as we are finished eating."
Lana resisted for a moment, then allowed herself to be turned and pointed to their table. Phoebe looked over her shoulder and said, "It was nice meeting you, Miss. I hope we see each other again soon."
"Me too," Lois called. Then she smiled brightly and waved jovially. It gave her a measure of satisfaction when Lana refused to acknowledge her salutation.
As she walked out of the eatery, her evil urge departed, leaving her wondering just what had gotten into her back there. Did she really dislike Lana that much? Was Clark's wife so distasteful to her?
She closed the driver's door and put the key in the ignition, then hesitated. Surely it had nothing to do with Clark! Nice guy or not, she wanted nothing to do with him as long as he was married to Smallville's — now Metropolis's — resident harridan.
She pulled into traffic, determined to put both Lana and Clark out of her mind. But the question of which one of them had acted more like a harridan niggled at the edge of her conscience.
Phoebe impaled her salad's remaining cherry tomato and held it before her as she examined her new friend. If Lana's fork were plastic, she would've snapped it in two. Phoebe put her own fork down and touched Lana's hand.
Lana started. "What? What is it?"
"I think you are not good friends with that woman."
Lana finally relaxed and began poking at her meal. "What was your first clue?"
"When you thought about leaving her dead on the floor just now."
Lana smiled and shook her head. "Yeah, I did, actually. I guess she and I just don't get along."
Phoebe smiled back. "Please, eat. Do not allow her to rob you of your meal." She suited her actions to her words as she chewed and swallowed her last cherry tomato. "I will not."
Lana speared a chicken strip and held it in front of her. "You got it."
They ate in companionable silence. Phoebe had always been a people person, but her Native American upbringing had instilled a respect for others in her. She liked to talk as she ate, but if the other person preferred not to, she had no problem with eating instead of talking. Besides, she always disliked what she considered the rude practice of talking with food in one's mouth. She didn't do it and didn't like it when others did it.
Lana sat back and dabbed at her mouth with her napkin. "That was good. You ready to go back now?"
Phoebe looked at the clock on the wall. "We have a few minutes. Perhaps we should invest that time in deepening our new friendship."
Lana grinned. "Sounds good to me. What do you want to talk about?"
Phoebe hesitated. "If you are comfortable in telling me, I would like to know about the dark-haired young woman with whom you had words."
Lana's face fell. "Ah. Yes." She sat back and crossed her arms. "She wrote a news story on me back at the first of the year. I guess you didn't see it."
"I saw it." When Lana's eyes widened, Phoebe explained, "I did not think it proper to judge you by someone else's words. And I am glad that I did not."
"Oh. Okay, so you know about that."
"Yes, but I suspect there is more to tell."
Lana frowned and exhaled through her nose. "There is. She works with Clark now. They're both reporters at the Daily Planet."
Phoebe waited for a moment, then prompted her. "Perhaps she does not like your husband?"
Lana shook her head. "I don't know if she doesn't like Clark, is jealous of him, is afraid of him, or likes him and doesn't want to admit it, but the end result is that we can't be around each other without going at it like gangbusters." She leaned forward on her elbows. "I'd hate to be trapped in a small room alone with her. We'd probably kill each other."
Phoebe nodded. "Do you dislike her so much?"
"Just what she does and what she says. And the way she acts around me or Clark. Other than that, she's okay." Lana chuckled ruefully. "Of course, it might be better if she were working at the Gotham Gazette instead."
"A different place of employment would ease the tension so much?"
"That, and the fact that she'd have to live in Gotham City."
"I see. Odd that you two seem to meet so often, given the size of this city."
"If she'd pick a side, I'd pick the other one, and then we'd never see each other again. Wouldn't break my heart."
Phoebe smiled warmly. "Perhaps that will happen. Perhaps something will occur to bring the two of you together as friends. Perhaps you will remain as you are now. You cannot control the future, Lana. You can only control your reaction to the situations in which you find yourself."
"You're right, of course, but that doesn't make her easier to take."
"If making peace were easy, then there would be very few enemies. I think you have within you what is necessary to make peace with that woman, assuming she will allow herself to consider it."
Lana nodded. "Thanks, pal." She glanced at her watch. "I think we'd best get back to the museum before we get in trouble."
Phoebe stared at her blankly. "How might we be in trouble for having an off-site business meeting?"
"Business meeting?" Lana grinned. "Phoebe, I think you have a little streak of evil inside you."
Phoebe stood and shouldered her purse. "We all do, Lana. And that is why we spend so much of our time repairing our mistakes." She smiled down at her companion. "Shall we go now?"
That night, after the dinner dishes were clear, Lana sat on the couch, lost in dark thoughts about Lois. Despite the excellent dinner Clark had prepared, the night seemed destined for disaster, and she couldn't figure a way past it.
Clark sat down next to her and said, "Nickel for your thoughts?"
"What happened to the penny?"
"Inflation gets to everything eventually." He put his hand on her shoulder. "Want to take a minute and tell me about it?"
She glanced up at him. "Not sure my thoughts are worth a nickel."
He gentled his voice even more. "You want to tell me about them?"
He squeezed her shoulder. "I'm here. If you're having a problem, I'll listen, and if there's anything you want me to do about it, all you have to do is ask me and it will be done." He reached up and gently rubbed her neck for a moment. "You're the most important person in my life and there's very little I wouldn't do for you."
She lifted an eyebrow at him. "'Very little' as opposed to 'nothing?'"
He shrugged. "I've pretty much ruled out bank robbery and kidnapping."
Lana didn't respond to the joke as he'd hoped. Instead, she wrung her hands together for a moment, then stared at the floor. "I'm gonna say this just once and then I'm not bringing it up again, not ever. And I don't want you to say anything back to me, okay? Because I'm not worried, not about you, anyway."
He frowned. "Honey, what are you talking about?"
Still facing away from him, she lifted her hands and said, "Just listen, okay? And don't say anything to me about it. It's stupid and idiotic and I don't even know why it's on my mind but if you ever have an affair we can work through it unless you have an affair with Lois Lane and if you do I'll kill both of you!"
She stood abruptly and faced him. He sat there, astonished and unable to speak. "I told you it was stupid and I love you and I trust you and I don't think you'll ever have an affair because I don't ever intend to leave you that much energy but if you do don't do it with Lois Lane, okay, because I couldn't take that!"
She spun and ran across the living room to the bedroom. Clark sat there, still astounded, until he heard a police call about an armed robbery in progress not far from their apartment. He bounded to the bedroom door and knocked sharply.
"Lana? Honey, I'm sorry, but I have to go out for a few minutes. It's an emergency. I'll be back as soon as I can and we'll talk, okay?" She listened for a moment, but she didn't answer. "I promise, I'll be right back."
He spun into the suit and flashed out the living room window.
He easily apprehended the suspects for the police and was back within fifteen minutes. Lana had changed into sweats and was going through a Pilates routine in the living room when Clark reentered and spun back into his civilian clothes.
He stood behind her for a moment, waiting for her to end a thigh stretch, then touched her hand. "Lana? Do you want to talk about this?"
"What, my workout?"
"No. My affair with Lois Lane. The one that isn't happening. The one that will never, never, ever happen. The one I've never even thought about."
She turned to face him. "You don't have to, Clark. I trust you completely. I know you'd never cheat on me, any more than I'd ever cheat on you. It isn't anything you've done, or not done, it's just my own insecurities at work again."
He cupped her face with both hands and kissed her gently. "I don't know why you're even thinking about something like that. What could have put that in your — Lois Lane." His face hardened and he stepped back. "It was Lois, wasn't it? Lois said something to you, didn't she?" He punched his hand with his other fist. "I'll take care of it. She won't bother you any more, I promise."
Lana reached out and grabbed his hands. "No, Clark, please! Just let it go! It's okay!"
"No, it's not okay! Anyone who makes my wife think I'm going to cheat on her isn't going to get away with it! I'll —"
"No!" Lana shook her head. "Please, darling, calm down. It's okay. Really."
"Calm down? After that — that woman told you whatever it was she told you to make you think I'd ever —"
She pulled his hands to her chest. "I don't think that! I don't! And I trust you, no matter what happens. You're my husband and my lover and my partner for life and you'd never do anything to hurt me." She kissed his hands. "Please don't do anything or say anything to her."
He put her arms around her and pressed her close. "Are you sure? Because it's no trouble for me to —"
"Shh." She squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her face against his chest. "No. Just make believe you don't even know about it. Pretend I never said anything. Please." She pulled herself closer to him. "I love you so much!"
"And I love you."
"I know," she whispered tearfully. "I know."
Later, as she lay close to Clark's bare skin and listened to his gentle breathing, she reflected that, on balance, it hadn't been such a bad night after all.
Except for Lana's mysterious lunch conversation with Phoebe, and her encounter with Lois, their first three weeks passed uneventfully. Clark kept getting ahead of his regular assignments, so Perry teamed him with an older reporter who'd proven herself. He found Paula Young to be bright, funny, and more than a little cynical.
"Stick with me, kid," she told him, "and I'll learn ya how ta report the news."
"If you say so. I'll keep my spell-checker handy, if you don't mind."
She guffawed and reached for a fresh package of Carolina Longs. "You don't take any guff from anybody, do you, Kent?"
"Well, our apartment's pretty full and I really don't have any place to put it."
She laughed and coughed at the same time, blowing smoke into Clark's face. "Ha-ha-ha! You got a good sense of humor, at least. Not like a lot of rookies these days. Not like when I was just startin' out." She leaned back and took a deep drag. "Yeah, those were the days. Me 'n' Perry wrote an expose on fake employees in the city water department when we were just young pups. He had quite a crush on me back then. Course, that was before Alice. That gal blew into his life and snapped him right up." She blew several smoke rings, then sighed deeply.
"Paula, do you — do you regret being a reporter?"
Her head snapped around. "Wha'd'ya mean, regret?"
"I mean, you never married, you say you don't have many friends, you pretty much live to work, so do you wish you'd done things differently?"
She leaned back in her chair, then took another deep drag. "Kid, there's not a day goes by that I wish I'd made time for people when I was young. Look at me. I'm fifty-seven years old, I have reduced lung function, and yes, I know these coffin nails don't do me a bit of good. My knees ache no matter what I do or don't do, my ears ring all the time, I've got cataracts forming in my left eye, my blood pressure is too high to measure, they took away my driver's license, and when I die I'll probably have to pay the mourners. What do you think?"
She stared him down. He dropped his gaze and said, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked you such a personal question."
She waved the apology away. "Ahh! Don't sweat it. You gotta know who you're working with, right?"
"Yes, I suppose so."
She slapped the desk. "Well now you do! You take that pretty little wife you got. I saw her yesterday when she came to pick you up after work. You two been married almost a year, right?" Clark nodded. "Okay, so she's still got the glow. You do too, for that matter. Boy, don't you ever do anything to make her doubt you. You don't have to be Superman, for cryin' out loud! Just be yourself. Make her know she's the number one human being on the planet in your heart and in your mind. You got all that?"
Clark smiled. "I think so."
"Good." She stabbed out the cigarette and sat up. "Now let's get this story written. Gimme your notes."
"There's a draft of the article in the folder, too."
"Good. I'll check it out." She started glancing through, then stopped and read it again, more slowly. "Kent, you wrote this?"
"Mmm." She read more. Finally she put the file on the desk and picked up her phone. "Perry? Paula. Come over to my desk. I need to show you something."
Clark was puzzled by her behavior, and he was even more puzzled when Perry White popped out of his office and made a beeline for Paula's desk.
Perry stood beside Paula opposite Clark's chair. "What is it?"
She handed him Clark's folder. Perry leafed through it, nodding. Finally he put it down. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
"I think so, Perry."
"You want to tell him or should I?"
"It would be better coming from you."
"Okay." He looked at Clark, who by this time was troubled. "Kent, you wrote the sample story in this folder?"
Perry nodded. "That's what I thought." He sighed deeply. "Kent, you just earned your first co-byline."
"What? I what?"
Paula looked at Clark's amazed expression and guffawed. "Perry, we blindsided him! Look at the boy!"
Perry smiled warmly. "This article is going on the bottom of page one in tomorrow's morning edition. And it will be credited to Paula Young and Clark Kent."
Clark was astounded. "You — you're not kidding me, are you?"
"Nope! You've earned it."
Paula fished out another smoke. "Kid, three weeks is the quickest any rookie got a byline in my experience. Lois Lane had the record before you."
"Oh." Clark tried to sound nonchalant. "What was her record?"
"Four and a half weeks. It was a solo credit, which yours won't be. But hers wasn't quite page one material, either."
"Wow! I — is it alright if I call Lana and tell her?"
Perry nodded. "Just as soon as you finish up with Paula. You two are a good team for now, and I want to get as much out of you as I can before you move on to bigger and better things."
"Wow. A page one byline. Wow!"
Lois had chosen that moment to linger at the coffeemaker, which was within earshot of Paula's desk. When she heard that Kent's name would be on page one the next day, she almost dropped her mug.
Page one, huh? she thought. I'll give him page one experience. I'll show him just how to get a fifty-four-point banner. I'll show him and his little porcelain bride how it's done in the big city.
Lana also had an interesting day. She finished her paperwork quickly and decided to head downstairs to the prep room. That morning at breakfast, Clark had mentioned briefly that he'd seen a couple of trucks pull into the museum delivery area the previous night while he'd been on patrol. He'd left almost immediately to help at a car wreck on the interstate, and he'd almost forgotten about it. Lana hadn't been told about a delivery, so she was more than curious.
She walked onto the loading dock area and greeted several of the workers there. She'd made a point to learn their names and something about each of them, so their smiles seemed more and more real as she heard about Bill's daughter and her veterinary practice, Callie's husband's golf game, and Manuel's son's college plans.
"Hi, Ms. Kent. You down here slummin' again?"
Lana gave the older man her most winning smile and held her arms out wide. "No, Lamont, I'm here to bask in your intoxicating presence."
He laughed. "You won't get very high on me, I promise."
She patted his arm. "I guess not. Hey, how come I wasn't notified about the delivery last night?"
Lamont's entire demeanor changed. Lana almost thought she'd scared him. "No delivery last night, Ms. Kent. No deliveries for almost a week now."
"Really? I was sure I heard someone say something about a truck coming in last night."
"No! No, ma'am, no trucks. I swear."
Lana nodded. "Okay. I must have misunderstood. Sorry, Lamont."
"No problem, Ms. Kent. Maybe you heard someone say something about the new Madagascar diorama. That stuff's due in on Friday."
"Friday, huh? Not Tuesday?"
"No, ma'am. Friday, about two in the afternoon."
"Okay, Lamont. Sorry I got confused."
"No problem, Ms. Kent. Everybody gets confused sometimes."
She smiled her most disarming smile and turned to go back to her office. The elevator door had barely closed when Lamont picked up the phone and punched in an extension that wasn't in the company directory.
"Ms. Kent was just down here. She heard about last night. I don't know! No! Okay, I won't say nothing. Yeah, I understand."
Lamont shook his head. He hoped Kent had bought his story. The extra money he was paid — tax-free — when he unloaded the 'special' trucks was important to him. He could pay for his wife's in-home rehabilitation care with it, but if it dried up she'd have to move to a rest home or have her mother come and live with them. Neither of them liked either of those options, so Lamont looked the other way and told himself that if he didn't do it, someone else would, and at least he was using the money for something good.
The man at the extension Lamont had dialed sat and pondered for a long moment, then made a decision. He picked up the phone again and dialed an outside number, one he'd been given for emergencies. He figured this was an emergency.
"Hello? We have a slight problem. The new staff archaeologist is asking awkward questions. Of course I have! No! She's married to a reporter from the Daily Planet! Because he didn't work for the Planet when we hired her! Very well. Yes, I agree. Observe her closely and report back. I'll see to it."
He put the phone down. They couldn't allow anyone to disrupt their plans at this late date. Just twelve more days and they'd be home free. He'd take the two million dollars he was owed and go to France. They idolized American criminals over there. Maybe he could catch up with the Unicorn and swap stories over a good French burgundy. Unless, of course, white wine was the beverage of choice when discussing one's murder victims.
Lana was quiet at dinner, except when Clark repeated the news about his byline. She ate the meal Clark had prepared, then cleared the table. Their agreement, for the time being, was for one to cook for a week and the other to clean up afterward. Lana had nearly decided she preferred Clark's cooking to her own. She'd learned a lot since high school, but she'd never be a culinary genius like Clark almost was.
She sat down beside him on the couch and let the movie wash over her and flow past. Clark had picked a romantic fantasy adventure comedy for them, but she couldn't focus on it.
He picked up the remote and paused the VCR. "Honey, is something wrong? Have I done something to upset you?"
She frowned. "Clark, I love you dearly, but you don't rule every single aspect of my world. There are things in my life that upset me over which you have absolutely no influence."
"Oh." He nodded. "Then, if it's not me, what is it?"
She opened her mouth, then closed it and shook her head. "I really don't know. People are still acting goofy around me at work."
"Maybe you should read a different joke book."
"Doggone it, Clark, this isn't funny! Something hinky is going on at the museum and I have no idea what it is!"
Clark drew himself up and focused on her. "Maybe you should tell me exactly what you're talking about."
She ran her hands through her hair. "Okay. Remember those trucks you saw last night?"
"At the museum?"
"Yes. You said there were two?" He nodded. "The dock supervisor assured me that no trucks arrived last night. None, zero, zip, zilch, nada."
Clark frowned. "Let me think a minute. No. There were two trucks there, I'm sure of it. They were both backing into the loading docks at the same time."
"Really? They're not supposed to do that. Museum traffic rules say only one truck moves at a time. They're nervous about damaging anything irreplaceable."
"That makes sense. The trucks weren't there this morning?"
She rolled her eyes. "No trucks, nothing in the log. And the dock supervisor was fine this afternoon until I asked him about them, and then he got real antsy. Clark, there's something really odd going on there, and I think I may be one of the few people in management who doesn't have some idea of what that something is."
He nodded. "Okay. I'll start checking it more closely when I make my patrols. If I see any trucks, I'll X-ray them to see what's inside and I'll let you know what I find."
She held up her hand. "Just at night, okay? The daytime trucks can't be hidden. I know when they come in."
"Gotcha. You want to watch the rest of this? They're just now climbing the Cliffs of Insanity."
She leaned against him. "Sure. I think I can focus on it now." She put her hand on his chest. "Thanks for listening, and for not laughing."
"Who, me, laugh at my brilliant wife? Not in this lifetime."
After the swordfight, Clark leaned down and kissed Lana on top of her head. "Hey, you know our one-year anniversary is coming up, don't you?"
She looked up with clear, innocent eyes. "Really? I'd completely forgotten about it."
"Uh-huh. Want to plan anything special?"
Still in innocent mode, Lana replied, "Oh, I don't know, maybe you could save the world for me?"
"Wouldn't you rather have a romantic dinner, followed by a night of passion and adventure?"
"Sure!" She sat up and grabbed a magazine off the living room table. "Let me call some of these guys and find out who's available that night. You're paying, right?"
"What! You little — " He poked her in the ribs. She wiggled around and went for his stomach. Clark quickly gained the upper hand when he floated out from under her and hovered above the couch, just out of her reach.
His tickles caused Lana to alternate between laughter and screams. "No fair! I can't fly!"
"I win! I win again!"
"Okay! Okay! Uncle!"
He dug in again. "Nope! You know what to say!"
"Aaahhh! Okay! Super-uncle! Super-uncle!"
He let her go and stayed floating over her while she spluttered to a halt, still smiling up at him. "Had enough?"
She reached up and drew him down to her. "Not yet, mister. You've won this battle — " she kissed him deeply and passionately. " — but I'll win the war."
Clark smiled tenderly. "How about I just surrender now and save time?"
She stroked his hair. "I knew you were a smart guy."
Lana went to work the next day, determined to behave as if she suspected nothing. It seemed to work. No one 'acted funny' around her, and she refrained from asking any suspicious questions. Her day passed without undue incident.
Clark received congratulations from various staffers on his byline, one notable exception being Lois Lane. As far as Clark could tell, she didn't even acknowledge his existence.
And that was fine with him. Anyone who actively disliked his wife wasn't at the top of his get-to-know-better list anyway.
Paula treated him to lunch and regaled him with tales of her misspent youth. Clark responded with a couple of high school stories of his own, and then they were ready to return to the salt mines.
As they walked to Paula's desk back in the newsroom, Clark said, "Paula, I just remembered something. Do you know anything about the Museum of Natural History?"
She shrugged. "Only that there's lots of pieces of dead animals there. Why?"
"Lana works there. You knew that, right?" She nodded. "She thinks something fishy is going on there, something that a lot of the staff know is happening, but they won't talk to her about it."
"What kind of something?"
"Someone mentioned to Lana that a couple of trucks came in Monday night after hours, but there was no mention of it in the log, and the loading dock supervisor denied that any trucks were there."
Paula frowned. "This someone who mentioned seeing the trucks is reliable?"
"Hmm. I'll keep my eyes and ears open, but I can't think of anything at the moment. But if she learns anything solid, she should take it to the police. That many people involved in something means it's big, and that increases the risk that some whacko will think it's worth killing someone to keep it quiet."
Clark's eyebrows rose. "Yeah. I'll sure tell her. Tonight."
Lois stirred sweetener into her coffee and smiled a private and slightly predatory smile. The museum was a natural distribution point, and it was the kind of place where occasional large deliveries didn't attract undue attention. Maybe it was time she checked this place out herself. It had the scent of banner headlines all over it.
For the next six nights, Lois staked out the museum from an office in a condemned building across the street. Nothing happened, except that her sleepiness at work prompted a pointed comment from Perry about how even Elvis had to rest between shows. Lois didn't tell anyone what she was doing, because she wanted to break this story by herself, and short of following the trail of the guns all the way to Africa, this was her best shot at accomplishing her goal.
Superman flew by at odd intervals each of those nights on his patrol, but since he didn't see any trucks he didn't look any further. He never knew Lois was also watching the loading dock, and she never looked skyward to see him.
The following Tuesday night, Lois was about to leave her perch early when she heard a diesel engine rumbling down the street. She had her emergency band radio earphone in her ear, so she'd already heard that Superman was helping out at a nightclub fire on the north side of the city. A large number of police and fire units were assisting also, so she decided she wouldn't call 9-1-1 unless there was a real emergency. A truck parking beside the museum probably wouldn't count as an emergency in the dispatcher's mind.
Lois watched the truck back up to the loading dock as she recorded the time in her notebook. All thoughts of sleep vanished as she watched four men and a forklift scurry to move several large covered pallets from the truck trailer and place them at the back of the dock. As soon as the truck was unloaded, the driver ran to the cab and pulled away. By the time he was cruising down the street again, the door to the dock was closed.
Lois copied down the license plate of both the cab and the trailer, then wrote the trailer number and the business name — Zelda's Produce — in her notebook. She checked her watch. They'd emptied the trailer in less than ten minutes.
She had a lot more than when she'd started, but she still needed more before she could print it. She mentally ticked through her short list of contacts and found nothing. She needed someone inside the museum to give her information, someone she was confident wasn't in on whatever deal this was. Could Claude help her? No. Claude was a selfish, self-serving pig. Claude would take the story from her and list her as additional research or a contributor, assuming he gave her that much credit. She wanted the banner all by herself on this one. Maybe Clark would know someone who -
And then it hit her. Clark did know someone. Lois didn't even want to talk to that someone, much less get within ten feet of her. But she needed another source to take the next step. And contacting Lana Lang-Kent was the best option she had.
Lois slid from the building without being spotted. No one in the criminal conspiracy knew she'd been there. She walked two blocks to her Jeep unseen, then drove to the Kent's apartment building and steered down into the parking garage. She'd already memorized their address, telling herself she might need to beat up Lana in the near future. Now she would be asking for her help. It was a crazy world.
When she was parked, Lois picked up her cell phone and dialed the Kent's number. The phone rang until the voicemail picked up, so Lois hung up, waited ten seconds, and hit redial.
This time a sleepy woman's voice answered. "'Lo?"
"Lana? Lana Lang-Kent?"
There was a pause. Lois could hear Lana moving in her bed. "Say that name again."
"This is Lois Lane! I need to talk to you."
"Call my office in the morning and make an appointment."
"I need to talk to you now!"
Lois heard a groan and a bump, then a muffled exclamation. Lana came back on the phone. "It's almost two in the morning! Why can't this wait?"
"It has to do with the museum!"
"Once again, call my office and make an app —"
"You stupid idiot! There was another truck there tonight!"
Lana paused again, then Lois heard her take a deep breath. "Where are you now?"
"Parking garage, level one."
"Take the elevator to the sixth floor. Apartment six-oh-six. I'll be dressed by the time you get up here."
"Got it. Put some coffee on. You're going to need it."
"You'd better be right about this."
"Don't worry, I am." Lois hung up and stepped out of her Jeep. Almost as an afterthought, she tossed her notebook onto the passenger seat and picked up a blank one.
She found the elevator and the front door with no problem. Lana opened it almost as soon as Lois knocked. They made a matched pair, since Lana had also donned jeans, sneakers, and a dark pullover shirt.
She didn't notice the open stairway door at the end of the hallway, behind which sat a man with a phone at his ear.
Lois looked around and felt a pang of jealousy. The front room was neat and tidy, but obviously lived in. It looked like Clark and Lana were happy together. The thought bothered her in a way she couldn't identify.
Lana locked the door behind Lois and sat down on the sofa. "There's your coffee, sweetener on the left and cream on the right."
"Thanks." She stirred in sweetener and sipped it. Way better than the standard issue sludge in the newsroom, she thought, although she'd never admit it to Lana.
Lana waited until Lois put down her cup. "Why exactly are you here?"
"I overheard Clark talking about late night deliveries at the museum that you weren't notified about. I decided to check it out myself." She looked around. "Your husband still asleep?"
"No. He's — out covering a story. Something about a fire."
Lois nodded. So Kent was either chasing ambulances or Superman, and she hoped it was the latter. It would be more professional.
Like she really cared, she thought.
Maybe this was better, anyway. If Clark had been here, she would've had to tell him everything, too, and she still wanted the solo byline. She did care about that.
She refocused on Lana. "No problem. I need to see you anyway. Is there anyplace you could store a truckload of stuff near the loading dock in the museum?"
"Of course there is. We get large shipments fairly regularly. There's a seven thousand square foot storage room behind the docks that's over two stories high." At Lois's surprised expression, Lana added, "Some of those dinosaurs were pretty tall."
"Yeah. Right. I forgot about that. So, if you had a bunch of covered pallets stacked back there, no one would think anything was wrong?"
"Not unless someone ordered a physical inventory. That's so labor-intensive that we don't do it unless there's a good reason."
"When's the last time you were in that room?"
"About a week — no, about ten days ago. It was nearly empty. Why? What's in there now?"
"I don't know, but it came in on six or seven pallets, each about five feet high and covered with a tarpaulin. They were in a hurry to get it off the truck, too."
"So why come to me? And why at this time of night?"
"I want to get in there and get a look at what's under those tarps. You can let me in."
"Let you in? At this time of night?" Lana gaped at her. "Are you crazy? I'd not only get fired, I'd get arrested! I don't have the authority to go poking around in there at night! Especially not on mere suspicion!" She stood. "Ms. Lane, you are beyond audacious. Clark was right about you. You're like a mad dog with a kitten in its mouth when you're on a story."
Lois also stood. "I thought we were on a first-name basis."
"You thought wrong! Now get out of here and get some sleep! If this still makes sense in the light of day you can take it to the police or the district attorney! Out!"
Lana flipped the locks open as Lois stood beside the doorframe. "You're making a mistake. We don't know how long that stuff will be —"
Lois looked through the open door and jumped back. The door slammed into Lana and the blow sent her staggering across the room and then over the couch, momentarily stunning her. By the time she recovered, Lois was bound and gagged and a large man wearing a ski mask was pointing a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun at Lana's head.
The man restraining the still-struggling Lois reached down and slapped her in the side of the head. Lana could see Lois's eyes rattle as she fought to stay conscious.
The man standing over Lois looked at Lana and asked, "Where's your husband?"
"He — he's out."
"Huh. Out with some other chick, I bet."
"No. He's covering a story. He's a reporter."
"We know that. He at that fire we set at the waterfront?"
They ignored Lana's shocked gasp. The man with the shotgun said, "Hey! Why don't you keep your big mouth shut?"
"Get off my back, moron!"
Shotgun Man almost took a step towards his partner, then stopped himself. "I'll talk to you about this later." He gestured at Lana. "You two babes comin' with us. Now."
The other man picked up Lois's notepad and handed it to Lana. "Leave a note for your man. Tell him you're visiting your friend here, maybe for a couple of days. Got that?"
Lana nodded and slowly began writing. She knew that when Clark read the note, he'd realize something was seriously wrong. She only hoped he could find them quickly.
Invisible at the speed he was moving, Superman flashed into the apartment through the kitchen window and spun into Clark's nighttime attire. He stopped in surprise when he saw the two coffee cups in the sink. Was Lana having a bad night? She'd been asleep when he'd left. He lifted the cups and sniffed. One was black coffee, obviously Lana's. The other one had sweetener in it.
Clark frowned. Someone had been there since he'd left. Awfully late for a casual visitor. He sniffed the air, hoping for some kind of tell-tale scent, but all he detected was stale coffee.
He padded into the living room and spotted the note on the coffee table. He picked it up and read it.
Honey, guess what! Lois called! I was so excited to hear from her that I decided to spend the night with her. We have a lot of best-friend catching-up to do, so I'll see you some time tomorrow, if then! Sorry about the short notice, but you know how us girls are! Love you! P.S. There's leftover pizza in the fridge!
He remembered Lana's comment that if she ever told him there was leftover pizza in the house she'd be lying. Well, somehow Lana'd gotten into trouble. Lois had to be Lois Lane, but why would Lana go when Lois called? Best friends, they sure weren't. It had to be something that Lois was working on. But what could Lois be working on that might involve Lana?
He snapped his fingers. The museum! Lois must have overheard something that he and Paula had said and decided to run with it! And now she'd endangered not only herself, but Clark's wife! He promised himself he'd get them both out of trouble and then hold Lois motionless while Lana pounded on her.
He moved further into the room, checking the floor for clues with his special vision. He saw two sets of large booted footprints, and what seemed to be the imprint of a small body on the floor. No blood, no other signs of struggle, no drag marks, and what appeared to be four pairs of shoeprints, two male and two female, in the carpet leading to the door. They had been alive when they'd left.
He shuddered as he considered the implications of his thoughts. He wasn't sure either of them would be alive for much longer. He needed to find them quickly.
Lana sat in the back of the delivery van with a dazed Lois beside her. Lois had tried to break away just before they'd entered the van, but the man who'd hit Lois before had tackled her and clubbed her senseless. Lana couldn't tell if Lois had a concussion or worse, but she obeyed the men's every command. She tried to tell herself she was doing it to take care of Lois, but she suspected she was simply terrified of being killed.
Lana called to the kidnapper in the front seat. "Hey! Hey, mister! Will you let me untie her?"
He rubbed his chin. "She clipped me pretty good. Maybe you should leave her tied up."
"But she's almost unconscious! She can't hurt you now! And she might choke or have a stroke or something with her arms pulled back like that!"
He frowned, then nodded. "Okay. But you keep her still. She jumps either of us and I blow you away. Understand?"
Lana nodded back, then began releasing Lois's bonds.
The van didn't head towards the museum as she'd expected it to. Instead, they drove to the waterfront, where a small freighter was being loaded with a number of pallets of similar size and shape.
When they opened the door, Lana cried out, "Why am I here? I don't know what's going on! I don't know what you're doing! Please let me go!"
The man with the shotgun gestured to her. "You know enough to be dangerous. The boss needs to decide what to do with you."
"What about Lois? She can't even sit up, much less walk!"
He lifted the shotgun. "If she can't walk, I'll have to take care of her right here."
Almost frantic, Lana grabbed Lois's collar and shook her. "Lois, wake up! You have to wake up! Come on! Get up or they'll kill you!"
Lois's eyes focused on Lana for a moment, then she grunted and rolled to one side. "Okay. Gettin' up. One-two-three-four."
With Lana's help, she sat up and scooted to the door of the van. She leaned on Lana as they were escorted to the gangplank of the ship. Lana balked and turned to face the shotgun-toting thug.
"Lois needs a doctor! Please let us go! Please!"
Lois stumbled towards the gangplank, dragging Lana with her. Her voice was strained with the effort to speak coherently. "Come on, Lana. We — we have to get on board or they'll kill us here. Longer we live, better chance we got." Lois groaned and lost her footing. "Help me?"
Her plaintive tone jarred Lana into action. She lifted Lois's arm and helped her climb the incline. Shotgun Man called out, "Turn left and go down to the next door."
A sailor called to him, "They ain't doors, they's hatches!"
"Yeah, yeah, whatever. You girls go on in through that there 'hatch' and sit down. This'll be locked from the outside, so don't try nothing."
He shut the hatch and spun the wheel. Lana watched the door lugs close, securing them in their prison, by the light of a single forty-watt bulb hanging from the ceiling. She lowered Lois to the cleaner of the two cots in the cabin and looked for anything to treat the other woman's wounds.
Lois reached out and grabbed Lana's wrist with a surprising amount of strength. "Shh! I'm not hurt that badly."
Lois sat up quietly and pulled Lana down beside her. "Lois! That guy whacked you pretty hard! How did —"
"Shhh! Inside voice, okay? Talk like you're talking to a sick person, quiet and soft."
"Okay, but why? And why aren't you really hurt?"
"He nailed me pretty good but I rolled with the blow. If they think I'm hurt badly, they won't expect me to make a move."
"You can't stop twelve-gauge buckshot with attitude."
"No, but maybe I can get close enough to take it away from him." She felt her head. "Ow!"
"Let me look. This isn't too bad, it's just a narrow scalp cut. I think there's a first aid kit over the sink. Sit still and let me treat it. You don't want it to get an infection."
"That's not my greatest worry right now."
Lana hesitated, then continued. "No, I guess not. But we need to stay optimistic, don't you think?"
Lois stared for a moment, then nodded. "Yeah, sure. Go ahead."
She was silent as Lana cleaned her wound. "Okay, it's done, unless you want a head wrap."
"Is it still bleeding?"
"Then forget the wrap. Just put a piece of gauze on it and tape it down."
"Tape won't stick to your hair. I'd have to cut it down to the scalp."
Lois's eyes flashed and she taught Lana a new phrase. "Then forget it. We'll have to make our move when they come back."
"Unless you have a cutting torch hidden in your bra, we're not leaving this room until they open the door. Besides, they probably have to talk to the boss so he or she can decide what to do with us."
"Oh. That's encouraging, I suppose."
"Really? I don't exactly have warm fuzzies about it right now."
"It could be worse."
Lois gave her a disgusted look. "How could it be worse?"
"At least we have water to drink, a toilet and tissue, and each other's company."
"Oh, yeah, all the comforts of home. I'm sure they put us in the executive stateroom." She lay back on the cot. "Wake me when the butler brings our orange juice in the morning. Make sure he trims the crust off my toast and brings raspberry syrup for my Belgian waffles."
Lana frowned at her. "You always this happy-go-lucky?"
Lois looked at her. "Beats being a cynic. Why don't you find a salsa station on the stereo and work on your dance moves?" She frowned. "But be real quiet, okay? You've slept since I have and I'm about worn out."
Clark checked the Planet building, Lois's apartment (he'd found the address by X-raying Perry's Rolodex file), the museum, and various points in between. Nothing. He was starting to get a little frantic, so he stopped on the roof of his apartment building and forced himself to be calm.
He began listing aloud what he knew. "One: Lois is chasing a gun-running story. Two: She saw, or thinks she saw, something that Lana could help her with. Three: Both of them are missing. Four: I don't have a four!" He punched one fist into his other hand out of frustration. "Okay, calm down. Focus. It's now past four in the morning and I don't know where they are. Wait. Maybe I can pick up their trail in the parking garage."
He flashed downstairs to the parking area and glanced around. "Lois's Jeep! Dummy! Of course she drove here." He looked through the window and saw her notebook.
He yanked the door open, breaking the lock. I'll apologize to her later, assuming I don't kill her first, he thought, and opened the notebook. He quickly found the entries he was looking for.
The desk sergeant stared glumly at the anxious young man in front of him. "Sir, you really should fill out a missing persons report, or you should if your wife stays gone for more than forty-eight hours. I understand that you're concerned. I understand that you two haven't been married long. I understand that this is the first night she's spent apart from you since you were married. Are you sure you didn't have a fight with her? Maybe she went home to visit her mother. Sometimes young wives do that, you know."
Clark was close to losing it. "Look! My wife and a reporter for the Daily Planet are missing and I can't find them! This is a police matter! An urgent one!"
"Sir, we can't go looking for adults who haven't been missing for at least —"
Clark slapped the desk sharply and raised his voice again. "They aren't just missing! They've been kidnapped!"
"Sir, without proof there's really nothing —"
"Where's your supervisor? Where's a cop who wants to do his job?"
A tall, thin man with round glasses stepped out of the hallway behind the sergeant's desk. "Whittaker, we're trying to finish our paperwork back here. What's the problem?"
"Sir, this man insists his wife was abducted and he wants us to go after her."
Clark skipped past the desk, ignoring the sergeant's warning drawl. "Lana Lang-Kent from the Museum of Natural History and Lois Lane of the Daily Planet are missing! Someone needs —"
"Lois Lane? Lane is missing?" Clark nodded. The man threw his hands in the air. "Why didn't you say so? Come with me."
The man guided Clark to his office. "Don't think we've met. Inspector Bill Henderson, MPD."
"Clark Kent, Daily Planet."
Henderson stopped. "This better not be research for a story, Kent."
"No! They're really missing! I don't pull stuff like this!"
They started moving again. "Lois does. That her notebook?" Clark nodded as they stepped into an office. "Give it to me."
"The last page is all that's important right now."
Henderson read it and nodded. "How'd you get it?"
"Her Jeep was parked in our parking garage. I saw it on the front seat and broke in." Clark met Henderson's glance. "I'll apologize later."
"Good attitude. Wish I could use that line sometimes. What makes you think they were abducted?"
Clark handed Lana's note to him. "Lana and Lois aren't exactly what you'd call close friends."
Henderson glanced sharply at Clark, then read the note. "Any idea where they were taken?"
Clark relaxed slightly as he realized that the inspector believed him. "I checked Lois's apartment, the museum, the Planet, and a couple of other places before I came here. I don't know where else to look."
"What was Lois working on?"
Lois is on a first name basis with a police inspector, thought Clark. Don't know if that's good or bad. I'll have to find out more about that when we get them back. "She had a bee in her bonnet about a gun-running ring on the East Coast sending —"
Henderson's head snapped up. "What!" He slapped the intercom on his desk. "Brenda! Get the local ATF rep on the phone now!" He jumped up and yelled out into the hallway. "Somebody wake up the precinct captain and get him here ASAP! Sheesh, this just keeps getting better and better." He turned back to Clark. "You have no idea what this is about, do you?"
Clark shrugged. "Apparently not. What's with the Feds and the captain?"
"Lois was trying to find out where these gun-runners were warehousing their inventory before shipping it overseas. I think —"
Clark's eyes brightened. "They were using the museum as a staging point!"
"Not bad, Kent. We just got word tonight that the Army caught a captain and a couple of non-coms trying to sneak off a base in Georgia with a truckload of heavy machine guns and ammunition. I guess they got greedy."
"Or they're trying to fill one last order."
"Yeah, we thought of that one too. Problem is, we don't know how they're getting the goods to their customers."
Clark thought hard for a moment. "A ship. A small to medium sized freighter, probably registered in some small West African country with little or no regulation. We have to check on ships that are leaving in the next couple of days."
"That's why I called the ATF. Once they get on the ship, MPD can't touch them. It becomes a matter for the Coast Guard and Federal law enforcement. Our jurisdiction ends at water's edge unless we're in hot pursuit."
Clark gritted his teeth. "So what do we do now?"
"We wait for help. Right now, that's all we can do."
Clark shook his head. "Inspector, you go ahead and do what you need to do. I'm going to see what I can do."
"Hold it, Kent! You can't legally board any ship without the captain's invitation, and I doubt they'll buy any cover story you might come up with."
Clark fixed him with a knife-edged glare. "I'll find them, Inspector, and I won't break one law doing it. You have my word."
Henderson shook his head and stood between Clark and the doorway. "I can't let you go, Kent. You'll just get in the way and I don't want you to get hurt."
Clark let his shoulders sag in apparent defeat. Henderson relaxed a bit. "That's better. I understand your feelings, but you can't — hey!"
The moment Henderson turned away, Clark was past him and out the door. He ran as fast as he dared past the front desk and slammed out the front door. He crossed the street into a dark alley and launched himself into the air, confident that the night would hide his unorthodox escape.
It did. The three officers who thought they'd trapped him in the alley received a highly creative tongue-lashing from Inspector Henderson, who never quite believed that Kent could move as quickly as he would've had to in order to get away from them had they been doing their jobs correctly.
The tall, muscular longshoreman bumped through the press of men on the docks as dawn began to peer over the watery horizon. He stopped beside a group standing outside the harbormaster's office.
"Hey you! What's all the ruckus? What's going on?"
"You ain't heard?"
The young, bearded man scowled at the older, shorter dockworker. "If I'd heard I'd not ask, now, would I?"
"Naw, guess not. Some ship took off without clearance about three hours ago. Nearly ran down a tug doin' it. Left about a ton of cargo still sitting on the docks, too. The Coast Guard is royally —"
"What ship was it?"
The man snorted and turned. "Hey! Briscoe! What was the ship that left in such a roaring hurry this morning?"
"Who wants t' know?"
The bearded man called out, "I was supposed to report for duty this morning, but I can't find the vessel."
"Ah. 'Twas the 'Star of the Amazon,' bound for Ecuador. That yer billet?"
"No. I'm headed north, not south. Thanks, I'll keep looking."
He turned and trudged off. As he turned a corner and headed into shade, Clark pulled off the fake beard and the woolen cap. He looked around and saw several people, so he kept walking.
He finally found an empty alley and ducked into it. A moment later, Superman's blurred form whooshed into the sky and out over the ocean.
Lana twisted her fingers together. "I'm bored."
"I'm bored and scared."
"Still don't care."
"Lois, the ship left the harbor hours ago! We need to do something other than watch each other use the toilet."
"Speak for yourself. You aren't exactly my type and watching you pee does not qualify as a spectator sport in my book."
"I can't help it! I'm nervous."
"Can't you be quiet while you're being nervous and bored and scared over on the other side of the room?"
Lana forced herself to be calm. Clark would find them. Clark would save them. But she couldn't say that to Lois. "Look, let's at least pass the time constructively. You tell me about your family and I'll tell you about mine."
Lois rolled her head on the dirty pillow and opened her eyes. "Oh, crap! Here we go."
"What do you mean?"
"You're going to try to make friends with me now, aren't you?"
"It's better than being enemies!"
"What genius told you that fairy tale?"
Lana stopped and took a deep breath. "Look, Lois, I don't like unnecessary conflict. There's no reason for us to fight, especially right now."
"What's your reason not to fight?"
"Because I really don't want to hate you! Besides, my life's on the line here too."
"You saying you'll die more comfortably if we get to be great buddies?"
Lana huffed and threw herself down on the other bunk, facing away from her fellow captive. "Never mind! I'm sorry I said anything at all! Just forget it!"
Neither of them spoke for several minutes. Then Lois said, "I think my sister will mourn me."
Lois sat up. "I was just thinking about who'd miss me if they — if I don't survive this thing. All I could really come up with was my sister Lucy. Assuming she isn't too involved with some new guy."
Slowly, cautiously, Lana rolled onto her side. "What about your parents?"
Lois shrugged. "You met my dad. He'd just bury himself in his work and his latest 'research assistant.' My mom would cover any grief she might feel with booze, assuming she hasn't already died of liver failure."
Lana frowned in sympathy. "You too, huh?"
"Me too what?"
"Your mom drinks."
"Oh. So now we're the local Al-Anon chapter?"
Lana abruptly sat upright. "Can't you be serious? We're in danger here!"
"Sorry, it's a defense mechanism to distance me from painful circumstances." Lois's face caught and she shuddered briefly. "Whoa. Where'd that come from?"
"The truth is inside you. At least, that's what they say at the Al-Anon meetings."
Lois sat up and wrapped her arms around her knees. "Yeah, that's what they told me, too."
Lana relaxed. "We're not so different after all, are we? We're both driven by the memory of rejection by someone very close. Your mom rejected you for a bottle. Mine rejected me and my dad for a man she doesn't really love, but who gives her all the pretty trinkets she can display. Didn't you see her at the reception?"
Lois frowned. "Which one was she?"
"The loud one trying to get a few more drinks from the bartender."
Lois chuckled ruefully. "I thought it was my mom for a minute, until I looked closer." She turned towards Lana. "How about your dad? Did he go chasing the sexy coeds too?"
Lana smiled. "No. My dad's great. He doesn't flirt with his female students. He's been Dad and Mom to me since I was nine, and he's never let me down. He's even found a nice lady I think he should marry."
"You tell him that?"
"I told him it was his decision, not mine. I wasn't going to live with her."
Lois grinned. "Nice phrasing."
"Comes from being married to a writer."
"So your dad would miss you a lot." Lois looked at Lana. "And Clark will — Clark would mourn you."
"You really think so?"
Lois's eyes flashed for a moment, then she shook her head ruefully. "I guess I had that one coming."
"You did. Besides, our anniversary is coming up in about ten days. Can't miss that."
"No, you can't." She let out a deep sigh. "Clark's not really so bad, you know. Besides, I think he really loves you."
Lana smiled and clasped her hands across her knee. "He does. And he's very good at what he does, too."
"Good. He can report the story and make me the tragic heroine. 'Intrepid reporter dies chasing banner headline.'" Lois stood and crossed her arms. "He'd probably make every reader cry, and then he'd get a Kerth and a Pulitzer and dedicate them to our memories." Lois stepped to the tiny porthole, now illuminated by daylight. "Yeah, he'd probably work in some mention of you, too. You can be my faithful sidekick. What do you think?"
"I think Clark will find us."
Lois snorted. "Right. We're at sea, been out of sight of land for over three hours now. I can't tell where we are. I don't even know for certain what direction we're going. What are you going to do, hang your underwear out the window?"
That just might work, she thought, but she said, "Trust me, okay? He'll find us."
"Mmph. I'd rather have an Uzi and a grenade launcher."
Lana pondered for a moment. "I'll bet there's all kinds of stuff in the hold."
"Which we can't get to and couldn't use if we did."
Lois slowly turned and raised her eyebrows. "You wanna clarify that?"
"I've been studying the Anarchist's cookbook. There's a section —"
"Where did you get that thing?"
"Internet. Anyway, there's a section in it about personal weapons, both military and civilian, how to load and clean them, do field repair, and how to ready them from storage to action. Besides, I grew up in Kansas. Everybody uses guns out there, either for hunting or self-defense or sport shooting, me included. If this is your gun-running ship, there's an arsenal in the hold right below us."
Lois's eyes widened. "You know, with all that's happened, I never thought of that. Maybe you aren't totally useless after all."
Lana grimaced back. "Thanks a lot. You want to try it?"
"We have to get out of this room first. That's our most important — " Lois snapped her hand up. "Someone's coming! C'mere and hold me up. I'm hurt bad — no, I'm dying and I want to see the sun one more time."
Lana popped off the cot. "How good an actress are you?"
Lois laid her arm on Lana's near shoulder. "As good as I have to be."
"Hope so. Break a leg."
"Now you decide to be funny." Lois slumped against Lana and whispered, "If I can knock him down, you grab his gun if he has one."
The lugs crept inward as the hatch was opened from the outside. A young man they hadn't seen before leaned in cautiously, holding a pistol in his left hand. "Okay, you two, come with me."
Lois stood still, leaning unsteadily on Lana's shoulder, and moaned. She reached out and touched the porthole. "Ohh. So pretty. So pretty."
"What's she doing?"
"She — she wanted to see the sun once more."
The youth looked at Lana relaxed slightly. "What's wrong with her?"
Lana replied with what she hoped was the proper combination of anger and fear. "One of your friends hit her in the head. She's hurt! She needs a doctor or she might die!"
He shrugged. "That ain't my lookout. I just gotta get you two up to the first mate's cabin. Come on."
"I can't carry her and she can't walk!"
He hesitated, then shifted the pistol to his other hand. "I'll help you."
As soon as he stepped close enough, Lois drove her elbow into his face and broke his nose, then turned and kicked him in the groin. When he bent over, she drove a fist into the back of his neck. He fell to the floor, dishrag limp. The attack was so sudden that he had no chance to cry out.
Lana snaked her arm out and picked up the pistol, then checked him for more ammunition. "Nuts! No more ammo. I guess he didn't expect to get into a shootout."
"With two unarmed and helpless women?"
"Yeah, you're right." She nudged their unconscious victim. "Stinks to be you right now, don't it, pal? That'll teach you to pick on us helpless women." She dropped out the magazine and examined it, then slid it back in. "Eight rounds of three-eighty auto and one in the chamber. Not a real heavy caliber. Nine shots and we're helpless."
"Then let's go find some bigger guns and more bullets."
Lana gagged the unconscious youth as Lois tied his hands behind him with a wet sheet. Lana saw it and grinned. "Nice touch. They might have to cut him out of it after it dries and shrinks."
"Let's not be here when they find him."
"No argument from me. You know the layout of the ship?"
"I looked up some ship blueprints at the Planet as background for this story. I think I can find the main hold."
"Good. You lead and I'll be the rear guard."
Lois pointed at the pistol in Lana's hand. "You just might have to shoot somebody with that thing. Think you can?"
"I can make it go 'bang' and scare them."
Lois arched her eyebrow. "Yeah, but could you put a bullet in one of them?"
"Only one way to find out. Let's go."
Superman flew over the Atlantic, searching for any westbound or southbound freighters. He'd spotted and examined three from the air already, had come up empty all three times, and he was getting antsy. He stopped and hovered as he ticked off his facts on his fingers.
"One: They're on a small freighter headed across the Atlantic, probably the 'Star of the Amazon.' Two: The ship is trying to avoid the authorities and probably isn't following the normal routes. Three: They've probably upgraded the engines to go faster. Four: There are more ships north of the direct easterly line from Metropolis than south, so they're almost certainly moving on a line between straight east and straight south. Therefore, I need to check for freighters sailing out of the usual lanes of traffic and moving faster than normal. Let's see, a two hundred mile radius with a search grid covering a ninety- degree variance should do it. That's a lot of water, so I'd better get started."
He peeked back towards the coast and lined himself up on a heading directly east from Metropolis. Then he flew out to the two-hundred mile mark and began searching the area. He ignored anything heading west or north, judging that the criminals wouldn't risk backtracking, especially since they had no idea he was looking for them. With his plan now laid out, he began to search the grid hoping that he'd find the ship in time.
He hoped desperately that he could find them before it was too late.
Lois led them along a series of narrow passageways. Twice they ducked into open hatches to hide from individual sailors moving along the passageway. Neither man seemed to be looking for them.
Lana held the pistol down and to one side with the safety off and her index finger along the trigger guard instead of on the trigger. Her shooting instructor had taught his class that inexperienced combat shooters who swung a pistol into action often fired early, so lifting a pistol to aim would at least direct the bullet towards the target's legs. It would also enable them to bring the weapon to bear on the target more quickly.
They came to a corner where they heard conversation, so Lois motioned for them to move backwards. Before they could hide, however, Shotgun Man came around the corner they had just rounded and shouted, "Hold it!"
Her instructor had also told them not to try to reason with someone aiming a firearm at them, and if they had a choice of targets to take out the shotgun first. Lana swung the pistol up, and just as her instructor had warned, she fired before it came level. But the bullet found the man's lower leg and knocked him down.
Lana hesitated. Shotgun Man looked up into her eyes, and she saw the fear there. He tried to roll to one side but his wounded leg wouldn't cooperate. Lana pointed the pistol at his torso, holding it with two hands as she'd been taught.
Lois called, "We can't stay here! We have to go now!" Then she turned and sprinted towards the corner they'd turned away from and slammed into the two unsuspecting crewmen who were just peeking around the corner to see what all the noise was about. She yelled again. "Come on! Two more ladders and we're there!"
With a final nod to the man she'd shot, Lana turned and ran past the crewmen sprawled on the deck. She didn't see the man pick up his shotgun and squeeze the trigger twice in succession just as she rounded the corner. The two crewmen covered their heads and tried to burrow into the steel deck. The buckshot pellets ricocheted off the metal wall and ceiling and spattered along the corridor where the two women were running.
Lois yelled and jumped in the air and grabbed her left hand. "Oww! Stupid shotgun! You shoulda killed him!"
"I'll make them keep their heads down." Lana turned and squeezed off two rounds at the ceiling. "The ungrateful wretch, shooting at us like that."
Lois hissed in pain. "Yeah, and after you didn't kill him, too."
"You hit bad?"
She looked closer as they ran. "Cut a furrow along the back of my hand. Burns, but not bleeding, just seeping a little. You okay?"
Lana was suddenly panting. "Out — out of breath. Gotta stop — soon."
"Down this ladder. Hey! Come on! You can't slow down now, we're —"
Lois put her arm around Lana to help her and felt dampness at the small of her back. She looked at her hand and saw blood on her fingers. "Lana, you're hurt! We have to make it to the hold. Can you get down this last ladder?"
"Have to — don't I?" She stumbled down the ladder and fell into Lois's arms at the bottom. "Good catch. Thanks."
Lois hauled Lana to her feet and tucked the pistol into her waistband. "Don't thank me yet. Here, that should be the hatch we need."
"You said — two ladders."
"So if they heard me they'll think we went lower. Maybe they'll miss us. Hope we hit paydirt here."
Lois helped Lana stumble through the hatchway. Their pursuers had been disinclined to follow them closely after they found that their victims were willing to shoot back. Lois dogged the hatch shut from the inside and looked around hurriedly for a piece of wood or pipe to force through the spokes of the hatch cover wheel, but she didn't find anything and decided Lana needed immediate help. Only then did she turn around to look where they were.
The hold was crammed full of pallets loaded with boxes of varying sizes and shapes. Lana leaned against the nearest crate, looking extremely pale. She also was having trouble breathing. Lois looped the smaller woman's arm over her neck and half-guided, half-carried her deeper into the maze of crates.
Lois set Lana down beside a pallet with red crosses showing through a tear in the tarp. She untied the rope holding the tarp down and popped open the top crate. It was filled with field medic parcels, and Lois grabbed two off the top and turned back.
Lana was trying to pull up her shirt. "Hey, easy! I'll do that, I'm the doctor's daughter, remember? You just lie face down and let me take a look."
The wound was bleeding steadily but not quickly, and the blood flow was even and not pulsing. "I don't think it hit an artery. I'm going to plug the hole with antiseptic and cotton and put a bandage over it. I think you only caught one pellet."
Lana coughed twice. "Good. I think — you're right. Don't feel — any more — punctures back there."
Lois wrapped the gauze holding the bandage around her patient's abdomen, then pulled Lana's shirt down and sat back on her heels. "That's the best I can do until we get you to a doctor. I think the pellet penetrated the lower lobe of your lung, and you've lost a lot of blood. You're probably bleeding internally, too. You shouldn't move around much."
"Fix your hand."
"Fix — cough — fix your hand. Don't want you getting some — cough — nasty infection."
Lois checked the back of her left hand where the pellet had scored the skin. "Sheesh. You got a phobia about infections or what?"
"Hey, if you — cough — if you don't have your health —"
"Never mind. I'll take care of it." She put antibiotic ointment on the wound and wrapped a bandage around her hand. "I think that's gonna leave a mark."
"Better there than — cough — somewhere else."
"Oh. I'm sorry, I forgot for a second. Hey, you need to be still. That's what they say in all the war movies when somebody's shot. Be still and wait for the medic."
"You're the — the field medic here, remember?"
"Then be still until we can find you a doctor!"
Lana painfully pushed herself upright. "Ordinarily — you'd probably be — cough — right. This isn't ordinary. Gotta — get some weapons and — cough — hold them off."
Lois frowned. "Until when? I don't think I can carry you to a lifeboat and I'm not happy about leaving you here."
"Don't have to. Clark — cough-cough — will find us."
"Yeah, right. I told you before, he's no Superman."
Lana chuckled until she coughed again, this time more violently. "Actually, he — cough — he is."
Lois looked at the blood flecking Lana's hand, blood that Lana had just coughed up. "Sure he is. He's a real animal when you two are alone, isn't he?"
"When he's not — cough — on patrol, yeah, he is."
"Patrol?" Lois scrunched her face in thought, then opened it in amazement. "You're not saying — you aren't telling me — you mean that Clark Kent really —"
"Inside voice, remember? Yeah, that's — cough-cough — what I'm saying."
Lois paused for two long breaths. "I don't believe you."
Lana seemed to relax a bit. "Okay, but it's true."
"No. No, I don't buy it. Clark's not as tall as Superman. I've seen him up close at a couple of press conferences, and I met Superman in person that time he came to my hotel on that story about the Foundation. He's huge around the chest, too, not that Clark's not built pretty good, but he's not that big."
"Part — of the act. Clark wears thick soles — in his boots. Crosses his arms. Wears a tight outfit. Looks — cough — looks really stern. Nobody — sees him, they just see — see the hero. You see what — cough — what you expect to see."
Lois shook her head. "Okay, fine. Clark Kent is Superman. Assuming that's true, what do we do now?"
Lana turned her head and looked at the crates around them. Her color seemed better to Lois. "We delay them. We make it — cough — too expensive for them to take us."
"How do we do that?"
Lana pointed. "Open that crate. Markings say it has boxes with — semtex and detonators and wires."
"Plastic explosive. Very powerful."
"Explosive! Are you crazy?"
"Don't worry. Won't go off — cough — in your hands. Just bring the case to me. I'll show you."
Lois pried open the crate, then cautiously worked one of the long cases to the deck and slid it in front of Lana. "I hope you've done this before."
"Read about it." At Lois's expression, Lana smiled and said, "Has to be easier — cough-cough — than delivering a baby."
"Helped my dad do that once. Babies don't blow you to kingdom come."
"Even trade. This stuff — cough — won't spit up on you. Gimme the pistol. I'll — cough — I'll cover you if someone comes in."
Between them, they packed several charges of explosives along a seam in the bottom of the hold, along with putting some on several of the solid containers. Lois was increasingly edgy the more she worked with the material, but she molded the plastic explosive into the shapes Lana recommended and attached the wires to the detonators, then pushed the detonators into the soft plastic.
As Lana tied the wires together and worked with a handle-shaped device, Lois hunted for heavier weapons until she opened a case and found what she thought was a light machine gun. She brought it to Lana, who looked at it and said, "Saw."
Lois shook her head. "It's a gun, not a woodworking tool."
Lana smiled weakly. "No. Army calls it the M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon. The initials — cough — spell SAW. All capital letters. This one is the short version. Used by — cough-cough — airborne troops and commandos. Uses the same cartridge — cough- cough — that the M16 uses. Should be a box of ammo nearby."
Lois reached into the cushioning foam and pulled up a box-like object. "Like this?"
"That's the spare magazine. The SAW uses either M-16 clips or belt ammo. Try to find a box of belts. Two — cough — two hundred rounds per belt."
Lois started looking, then ducked down as the hatch at the far end of the hold swung open. " — can't be in there! That would be stupid beyond belief!"
A refined voice that Lois recognized but couldn't quite place spoke next. "Then where are they? This is pretty much the only place we haven't looked."
"What about — the lifeboats! We haven't checked the lifeboats!"
"No one's launched any lifeboats, Martin."
"But they might be hiding in one of them! We need to check them first!"
"You really don't like being this close to so many weapons, do you?"
"The guns and the bullets don't bother me. It's all those containers of jet fuel. There's tons of that stuff down there!"
"One hundred thirty-seven thousand pounds on board all together, according to the manifest. I wouldn't smoke in here if I were you."
"You mean there's — there's seventy tons of gasoline on this boat?"
"Almost. Fifty-five thousand pounds in the stern hold, another forty thousand in the forward hold, and the rest here in the main hold with the guns and ammunition."
Martin whistled. "That's a lotta gas."
The other voice let out a dignified chuckle. "Nearly as much as you have."
Martin impolitely expressed his deleted opinion of the entire censored matter and slammed the hatch shut. Lois peered at more boxes until she found one labeled M-249 SAW — BELT AMMO. She tried to pick it up and almost dropped it, then recovered and carried it back to the machine gun.
Lana was sitting up, holding the pistol they'd taken from the first young man, and crying. "Hey! Your back hurting you?" Lana shook her head. "What's wrong?"
"I know that voice."
"Yeah, one guy was named Martin something or something Martin. Look, I found —"
"The other one — cough — the other one was Roger."
"Dr. Roger Bean. From — cough — from the museum."
"Oh. Yeah, you're right. I talked to him on the phone a week or so ago. I thought I recognized the voice. So?"
Lana wiped her eyes. "Roger is a world-renowned cultural archaeologist. For his age, he has no peer. He's — cough — been published in most of the best journals. I studied — ow! — I studied some of his articles in college. I just can't believe he's mixed up in this."
"Well he is! Now get yourself in the present and help me! I can shoot this gun but I don't know how to load it! Show me!" Lois grabbed Lana's shoulder. "Look, we can mourn Roger's fall from grace later! Right now I need your help!"
Lana looked into Lois's eyes. "Never thought I'd — hear you say that."
Lois shrugged. "Nobody does everything perfect all the time."
Lana smiled. "Okay. See this lever? Push it forward and — cough — lift the loading port cover. That's it."
They had the SAW loaded and ready to fire just before the far hatch popped open once again. Two men's voices that they hadn't heard before called out.
"Hey! Girls! Y'all in there?"
"We know you're not hiding in the lifeboats, and ya ain't anywhere else. C'mon out. We ain't gonna hurt ya."
"Yeah, come on out like the cute little bunnies y'all are."
Lana whispered, "A rabbit's best — ow — best defense is to hide, Lois. Be vewy, vewy quiet."
Lois wiggled the SAW. "Elmer Fudd was the one with the gun, remember?"
Lana put a finger to her lips and made a "be quiet" motion. The second voice called out, "Come on, girls, we just wanna make sure you're safe."
Lois snarled back, "Like we believe you!"
Lana grimaced. "Great. Oh, yeah, we're just gonna hide like little baby rabbits until — cough — the bad guys leave."
"Girl, this rabbit has some real teeth. Watch this!"
Lois pointed the SAW at the open hatchway and squeezed the trigger. When she released it, more than forty empty shell casings were bouncing around the deck at her feet. "Lana? Finish connecting that detonator."
Lana whispered back, "Not so loud!"
Lois raised her voice even more. "They need to know we've set up a bomb in here that'll sink this ship if they mess with us. Hey! Listen up! You clowns make any stupid moves and we'll blow this ship apart!"
Quiet descended on the hold, both inside and out. Lana watched Lois's face closely. Lois suddenly giggled. "You know, this is the ultimate in point-and-shoot."
Lana frowned. "It's a weapon, Lois. It's used — cough — it's used to kill people."
"Maybe so, but it's fun! I can't believe what a blast that was!"
"You might have shot someone."
Lois scowled. "I was just trying to make them keep their heads down. Besides, they were hunting us first. You really think they plan to let us live?"
"No. I — cough — I doubt it. But could you live with it if — cough-cough — if you did kill someone?"
"I could live with it better than they could."
"Very — cough-cough — very funny."
"Sorry, I wasn't trying to be funny. It's just —"
"I know. Just don't — cough — don't have too good a time with that thing."
Before Lois could reply, Roger called to them from the hatchway. "Lana? Are you in there?"
Lois looked at Lana, who nodded. "Yes, Roger, I'm here."
"Good. Did you shoot at us just then?"
"No. My irritable friend — pant-pant — with the — cough — the automatic weapon and lots more bullets did."
"She's — cough — she's out of chocolate. Why do you ask?"
"Because we have a dead man up here, and two others wounded. You two need to stop playing with your toys and let us try to figure out how to resolve this situation before more people get killed."
Lana watched Lois's face go bone white. Lois knelt down suddenly and leaned against the nearest pallet, panting with shock. Lana called out, "Gone too far now, Roger, old buddy. Lois was right. Us rabbits have some bite."
"Come on, Lana, you're bluffing and we both know it."
"No bluff, Roger." She winced and paused to breathe. "We have semtex planted along the seam of the hold. Altogether about eighteen pounds — cough-cough — at six different points. I figure the ship would — cough — would split apart and sink middle first if we touch it off. Not much time to get away. That's — cough-cough — that's assuming the rest of the goodies down here don't blow up — cough — along with it. That would probably vap — ahh! — vaporize everything within two hundred meters of the hull."
"You're crazy! The blast would kill you too!"
"You're not gonna let us live, Roger. We — cough — we know too much."
"Wait! Don't do anything stup — anything rash. Just let me talk to the captain. Maybe we can make a deal."
"Good. We'll — cough — we'll be here."
Lois looked at Lana with a stricken expression. "I — I didn't mean to kill anyone! I was just trying to scare them!"
"I know. It's okay, Lois. Hey, don't — cough — don't forget to breathe. In, out, in, out —"
"But — that man — I killed him!"
"You don't know that. Roger could have said that — cough-cough — just to make us think twice about shooting at them."
Lois gulped and nodded quickly. She dashed the unshed tears from her eyes. "Yeah. Yeah, you're right! He's just playing mind games with us. Well, it's not gonna work!"
Lana watched the color creep back into Lois's face. "Good for you. Can you — cough — can you watch for them while I work on this?"
Lois lifted the machine gun to her shoulder again. "You got it, partner."
Lana shot her a glance. "Partner? You mean I got — cough — got promoted from sidekick?"
Lois almost smiled. "Yeah. Hey, I'm sorry about what I said earlier. You're — you're okay. I'm really sorry we're in this mess, but if I have to be here I'm almost glad I'm in it with you."
"Thanks. Me — cough-cough — me too."
Lois looked at her tenderly. She almost said something, then thought better of it and turned back to her self-assigned guard duties.
Lana decided Lois probably would be okay until Clark found them. If not, she'd handle it somehow. She pulled the various wires into a bundle, which she hooked to an odd-looking handle-shaped device, and as Lois finally glanced over, she connected more wires from the device to a battery.
Lois shuddered. "Lovely name. How's it work?"
"Simple. See that green LED? It says the power's connected but it's — cough — it's still in safe mode. Squeeze the — cough- cough — squeeze the handle once and the red LED comes on. Let it — cough — let it go again and — boom."
Lana looked Lois in the eye. "Boom."
"No joke, Lois, this — cough — this is for real. Very big, very loud, very real boom. No retry, no new game, no restore saved game, no — cough-cough — no cartoon powder burns. If this stuff goes off with us in here, there's — ahh — there's no way for us to survive. We'll both die."
Lois hesitated, then nodded. "Yeah. Big dead ba-da-boom."
Lana paled and she flinched again. "It's this or them. I prefer — cough — the illusion of control."
"I prefer not being dead, thank you very much."
"Clark's coming for us, Lois. He — cough — he won't let me down. He'll find us. We just have to give him — cough-cough — ohh — give him enough time."
"I still don't like it. Why can't we just keep the machine gun going and scare them away?"
Lana took a shuddering breath. "We have to — cough — make them think they're all in — cough-cough — as much danger as we are. They can hide from the SAW, but they can't hide — ow! — they can't hide from a sinking ship."
Lois didn't answer. She lifted the SAW and nervously thumbed the safety on, then off again, all while staring at the far wall of the hold.
Lois knelt beside Lana, fuming silently. It galled her to admit it, but they probably weren't getting out without help. If Lana was losing it mentally, and Kent was no more Superman than Lois was Queen of England, then she didn't think she could get Lana to safety without some kind of outside intervention. The only thing she could think to do was to get to the radio room and call for help.
She glanced at Lana, who wasn't doing well at all. "Hey. Hey! You still with me, kid?"
"I'm not — cough — a kid. Specially not your — your kid."
"Yeah, right. So how are you doing, your highness?"
"That's better." Lana nodded without opening her eyes. "Don't know — how much longer — cough-cough — I can stay awake."
Lois made her decision. "Look, I think I can get to the radio room and call for help. Can you wait here alone for a while?"
"Not gonna — cough — wait for Clark?"
Lois shook her head. "It's not that I don't believe you. I just hate depending on other people. I won't go if you don't think you can wait here alone."
Lana took two deep breaths. She winced visibly after the second breath. "Guess I'll — cough — I'll have to. You — you go. I'll get — get ready."
She put the deadman switch under her thigh. "Take a look. Red light — cough — or green?"
Lois looked. "Still green. Hey, don't get up on my account."
Lana almost smiled. "I'll hide it — cough — under my leg." She waved at Lois. "Get going. Take the pistol. Leave me the SAW."
Lois frowned. "I dunno, Lana. That thing kicks more than just a little bit."
"They don't — cough-cough — know how badly I'm hurt. I'll keep them — keep them busy while you climb up there. I won't — cough — have to aim too well, just — cough-cough — just make lots of noise."
"If you say so. I'll come back for you as soon as I can, okay?"
Lana nodded. "Okay. Hey."
Lois turned back. "What?"
"If I don't — get out of here —"
"Whoa! Uh-uh! Don't talk like that! We're both getting out of here. Besides, you still owe me a drink."
"You got a — cough — a cream soda."
"That one was from Clark and it doesn't count. When this is all over, you and I are gonna paint the town red and green and any other color we feel like. We'll be three sheets to the wind, whatever that means. You got that?"
"I got it. Just promise to tell Clark — cough — tell him I love him."
Lois shuddered to herself but frowned at Lana. "Tell him yourself, girl. I hate mushy stuff like that. Besides, if you think I'm telling Clark you're going to miss your anniversary, you're crazy."
"I'll be there if — cough — if I can."
"Hey, you'd better. He wouldn't want to hear from me that you'll be late."
"Yeah. The late Lana Kent." Lana chuckled, then gasped and coughed. "Lois?"
"Take care of him, okay?"
Lois stared in amazement. "Do — do what?"
"I want you — cough — to promise me you'll take care of Clark."
"You — you're out of your mind! He doesn't even like me!"
Lois scowled. "You're supposed to tell me that's an act, that he really respects me and thinks very highly of me."
"Don't have — cough — the breath to lie."
Lois slowly grinned. "That's pretty good. I suppose you want your own office now."
"Got one. May not — cough-cough — see it again."
Lois reached out and touched Lana's hand. "Don't think like that. Don't talk like that. We're both getting out of here, I promise."
"Your mouth's writing — cough — writing checks your body can't cash."
"Look, Lana —"
Lana grabbed Lois's wrist with frightening strength and spoke with terrible urgency. "Promise me! Promise me you'll — cough — you'll take care of Clark for me."
"I thought he was Superman."
Lana's grip eased. "Even Superman has — cough — has a fragile heart." She panted a couple of times. "Took me quite a while to learn that, but he — cough-cough — he does."
Lois hesitated, then sighed. "All right. I promise."
"Cross your heart and — cough — hope to fart?"
Lois grinned. "Sure. I'll even set fire to it if you want."
Lana almost laughed, but instead she coughed even harder. Blood flecked the floor beside her. She leaned back and panted, "Go. Now."
Lois stuck the pistol in her waistband and crawled to the side of the hold, then made her way to the far end, opposite the hatch where Roger had spoken to them. She climbed the utility ladder in the wall, then cautiously lifted her head to the deck floor.
No one was there. She scrambled up and over the edge just as a bullet spanged off the wall just under her foot. A burst of fire from the SAW against the far wall made the shooter dive for shelter and covered any noise she might have made leaping into the corridor.
She paused and shuddered. Beside her feet were two bodies, each with several bullet wounds. It seemed that Roger hadn't been lying to her after all.
She'd deal with it later. Right now, she had a date with a radio.
Superman strained to listen. He thought he'd heard individual gunshots to the southwest of his position, but he wasn't sure, so he continued his grid search. Then he heard the chatter of an automatic weapon. That decided him. That had to be his target. He headed in the general direction of the sound, searching for any ship that might fit the profile.
He looked closer at one ship, then another, then spotted a third. He heard the rapid firing again, and he was sure it came from that ship. He focused on the bow and read the name: Star of the Amazon.
Bingo. Now to see just how much trouble Lana and Lois were in.
He found Lana deep in the main hold. She was pointing a long- barreled weapon at the stern wall. He looked further in that direction and saw two men lying still and alone in the passageway, along with three others apparently being treated for injuries.
He tried to feel some compassion for them but failed. Serves them right, he thought, for messing with my woman. He looked higher up and finally spotted Lois on the foredeck, hiding from two men pointing shotguns at her position behind a hatch cover. She held a pistol ready to shoot, but couldn't aim without putting herself in their line of fire.
He almost angled towards Lana's hiding place, but Dennis Lang's lecture on how he decided who to save first popped into his mind. Imminent danger, he thought, and right now that's my co-worker and not my wife. He swooped down, moving too fast to be seen, to land behind Lois.
She tried to spin and shoot at this new threat, but Superman snatched the pistol out of her hand. "Shh! Don't let them know I'm here! Are you hurt?"
"No! They're lousy shots, even with shotguns. They couldn't hit the wide side of an elephant's butt with those things."
"Good. I'm going to get you out of here."
"Okay!" she whispered back. "How?"
"I'm going to grab a life raft and put you over the horizon, then come back for your friend. Ready?"
"But you —"
He grabbed Lois before she could finish her sentence and launched himself over the side of the ship too quickly to be spotted. The abrupt takeoff jarred Lois's breath from her body, and she clung to him for all she was worth. He sped alongside the ship for a moment, then angled up and grabbed the raft. As soon as he had it, he flicked over the ship and vanished against the surface on the other side.
Lois quickly decided that she didn't like this kind of flying. Bent almost double over his arm with her stomach compressed, she couldn't breathe deeply or change her position enough to prevent severe nausea from welling up inside her.
As soon as he thought they were far enough away, he opened the auto-inflation compressed air canister on the raft and dropped it onto the ocean's surface, then he orbited rapidly as it inflated. As soon as it was full, he lowered Lois down on it and grinned as she leaned over the edge and vomited into the ocean.
He hovered above her head. "You don't like flying, Ms. Lane?"
"Anybody ever tell you — " she leaned over the edge to vomit again " — you got a real nasty streak?"
"I'm just glad you waited until I put you down."
She tried to respond but bent over the edge of the raft yet again. After a long moment, she straightened. "Nuts. I hate dry heaves." She spat into the water and rinsed her mouth as best she could, then looked up and saw his smile. "This isn't funny, Kent. I don't like being tossed around like a sack of potatoes."
"You just don't have the stomach to — " and it hit him. He floated lower and looked directly into her eyes. "What did you just call me?"
She scooped some seawater and rinsed her mouth again. "Kent. You're Clark Kent. Your wife told me who you were." Lois's eyes bulged and she stiffened. "Your wife! Oh! Go get Lana! She's in trouble!"
"She's holding them off with a machine gun. You were about to be a target practice dummy."
"No, you super-moron! She's been shot! She needs a doctor right now!"
Superman didn't wait. He spun and rocketed away towards the ship at supersonic speed. He didn't hear Lois trying to tell him about the explosives that she and Lana had planted.
Footsteps sounded in the hold, then stopped just around the corner from Lana's hiding place. "Lana? Lana, it's Roger. Are you there?"
She coughed. "Yes. I'm — still here."
"For what it's worth, I'm sorry all this happened."
"Not — cough — not worth squat."
"Please, Lana, let's not be rude. Actually, none of this would have been necessary had you not contacted that reporter."
"What — cough — what are you talking about?"
"Don't be coy. She's trapped on the bow of the ship. We'll have her in a few minutes, assuming we don't already."
"I — cough-cough — I wouldn't make book on that. She's — ahh — she's pretty resourceful."
"Let's not dance around this." His shoes scraped closer. "You called Lois Lane of the Daily Planet. She came to your apartment last night."
"No, Roger. She — cough — she called me."
Roger hesitated. "What do you mean, she called you?"
"She called me — cough — last night. Said she had some information for me. When she got to my place, she — cough-cough — she wanted me to let her into the museum to check the holding room. I — ohh! — I was about — cough — to throw her out when your friends — cough — burst into the room and snatched us."
"You mean — you didn't — she was watching us?"
"I guess so."
Lana could hear Roger fidgeting around. "This changes everything. If the Daily Planet is investigating us, we probably can't go back."
Instead of answering, Lana moaned. Roger tried to sound as if he cared. "You're hurt badly, aren't you, Lana?"
"What was — cough — your first clue?"
"The blood on the stairs. I was hoping, if someone had to be hurt, that it would be the very rude and very nosy reporter, not you. I respect you, Lana, and I like you. You're going to be the next big star in archaeology."
"Glad to hear — you say that, Roger. You have a doctor standing by to — cough-cough — to fix me up?"
He stepped around the crate with extreme caution. "Actually, we do. If you'll just come with me —"
"Don't trust you that far." She reached under her leg and slid out the deadman switch with her left hand, then squeezed it shut. "Got a red light here.".
"I don't understand what you mean, Lana. What is that?"
"You're good — cough — good at games, Roger. Guess what it is."
His face paled as he realized what she held. "Lana, please shut it down! Please!"
"I guess that means you — cough-cough — figured it out." She wiggled it at him. "Can't put it down. It'll — cough — it'll blow up. Pull the wires out and it — cough — closes the circuit. Cut the wires and it closes the circuit. You have to take this ship — cough-cough — back to Metropolis — before I pass out and let go of it." It wasn't true, not completely, but Roger didn't have to know that.
"We can tape it shut so it doesn't go off! Lana, please let me —"
"No way, Roger. Anyone steps closer to me and I shoot. I still — cough-cough — have a machine gun." She lifted the SAW with her free arm and waved it unsteadily. "Now turn — cough-cough-cough — turn this ship around."
"We can't do that! You have no idea —"
"Don't care. Get everybody out of the — cough — hold and turn back to Metropolis." Roger's eyes betrayed his terror. Lana forced herself to stand, still holding the SAW under her arm, and brandished the triggering device at him. "Turn back! Now, Roger! I don't know — cough — how much longer I can hold this. After all, I've already been shot in —"
The sniper in the far hatchway saw Lana stand. He settled the .270 Winchester rifle in his arms. He put the crosshairs in his telescopic sight squarely on the side of her head.
He squeezed the trigger.
Lois saw the cloud billow up above the horizon. A few seconds later, she heard the immense rumbling boom, attenuated only slightly by the distance between them. The noise startled her away from the edge of the raft. She glimpsed the pressure wave from the explosion moving towards her in the water, so she ducked back inside the canopy and zipped it shut.
She yanked on a life vest and grabbed an exposed loop of hard plastic to anchor herself to the raft. She felt herself being lifted up and she anticipated being tossed around violently, but the raft remained steady.
It had to be Superman. He'd picked up the raft to keep it from capsizing. After almost a minute, she felt herself being lowered to the surface of the water. She heard a brief whirring noise from outside, then Clark fell into the raft, wearing his civilian clothes. He lay on his side and curled up into a ball and began crying, not little tears and sniffles but huge, wet sobs, accompanied by howls of rage and agony.
There was only one conclusion. Lana was gone.
He hadn't gotten back to the ship in time. Somehow the deadman switch had been activated and all that semtex had gone off, along with the bombs and bullets and jet fuel in the hold. His wife was dead, and he was grieving violently.
Lois had no idea how to comfort him, or even if he'd let her try, nor did she know if he would blame her for Lana's death. She was afraid to move, yet afraid to stay where she was.
Circumstances decided for her. A loud splash came from outside, then a voice called out. "Ahoy the raft! Do you need assistance?"
She crawled cautiously past Clark, who was lost in his own world of grief and pain. She stuck her head out the zippered opening and was astonished to see a submarine on the surface next to them.
A sailor on the sub's front deck repeated his call. "Do you need assistance?"
"Of course we need assistance, idiot! This isn't a pleasure cruise! Get us out of here!"
"Yes, ma'am. Can you receive a line?"
"No! I don't have a phone!"
The man tried not to grin. "I mean, can you grab a rope if I throw it to you?"
"Yes! Just make it a good throw!"
He did. Lois had only to reach out and pluck the line from the water directly beside the raft. She lifted it and yelled, "Now what?"
"Is there a belaying ring in the deck — a loop of hard plastic in the floor of the raft?"
She looked under her feet. "Yes! I have one!"
"Good! Fit the rope through the loop and tie it off. We'll pull you alongside."
Once again regretting never having been a Girl Scout, Lois tied the line as best she could, then waved to the sailor. He'd been joined by two of his crewmates, and they hauled the raft to the edge of the sub and lowered a flexible ladder down to the water line.
She scrambled up the ladder as quickly as she could. "There's a man still in the raft! Can you go and get him?"
"Is he hurt, ma'am?"
"I — I don't know! Just get him up here! Please!"
Two sailors clambered down to the raft, then reappeared moments later with Clark between them. He moved stiffly, awkwardly, and he climbed the ladder as if going to his own death.
Lois turned to the first sailor. "Do you have a computer on board I can use?"
"That would be up to the captain, ma'am."
"Please take me to him!"
"Yes, ma'am. I rather think he wants to see you at any rate."
"You want to do what?"
"I need to send my story to the Daily Planet, Captain. If you don't have an Internet connection on board so I can e-mail it, I can fax it to my editor's office, and if not, I could dictate it over the radio."
Captain McDunn shoved his hand through his thinning hair. "Miss Lane, if you was a man, I'd say you had some really big —"
"What I have is deadlines and priorities, Captain. Do I get access to a computer or not?"
McDunn sighed deeply. "Yes, go ahead and use the one in my office. But you have to let my exec check your article before you send it!"
She smiled at last, having gained what she wanted. "Don't worry, Captain. I won't break any security rules."
"Just make sure you report us as an Australian naval vessel, young lady."
"I will, Captain. And I'll make sure I spell your name right."
She turned towards the captain's office, but he stopped her with a touch on her elbow. "Just a minute."
"Now what? I've got to get to work on this story —"
"Your head is bleeding."
Lois lifted her hand to her scalp and felt the dampness there. "Oh. The scab must have gotten wet and come loose. I'll get it taken care of as soon as I file my story."
"No. You will go to sick bay and let the doctor take care of it right now. I'll not have you bleeding all over a keyboard on my ship. Besides, our new pharmacist's mate needs to practice his stitching technique."
Lois glared at him. She couldn't decide if his smile was satisfaction that she'd have to accede to his authority, glee at the prospect of her getting stitches from a rookie, or gladness that she wasn't invulnerable after all.
The last thought startled her. Even Superman had a weakness — two of them, actually, his secret identity and his love for his wife — and she held the secret of that other life in her hands. Despite the notoriety that such a major story would bring her, she felt no anticipation at filing it.
"Okay, Captain, you win. Stitches first. Which way is sick bay?"
"Down that hall, miss, fifth door to the left. Says 'Sick Bay' in big black letters right on the door."
The doctor was in another part of sick bay, tending to a sailor who'd fallen and broken his leg. Sure enough, the pharmacist's mate who rebandaged her hand and then treated her head wound used enough thread in her scalp to mend a sofa. She promised herself a haircut when she got back to Metropolis, maybe something short and feathered that circled her face and would grow back fast if — or rather, when — she needed stitches in her scalp again.
Three hours later, she received confirmation that the Planet had gotten her e-mail and approved the story. Perry had even accepted her suggestion for the both the banner and the byline. She printed off a copy of the front page and folded it into the pocket of her borrowed seaman's jacket.
She found the conning tower and the captain. "Captain McDunn, thank you for the use of your computer. The Daily Planet appreciates it."
He nodded to her. "All in a day's work, ma'am."
"Can you tell me where Clark is?"
"Clark Kent. The man who came on the boat with me."
"Oh, right, the ship. Do you know where Clark is?"
McDunn turned to another officer. "Mr. Bradshaw, where's Mr. Kent?"
"Doctor Drake has him in sick bay still, sir."
Lois nodded. "Thanks."
She made her way down the corridor and pushed through the sick bay door. Clark lay on his back in a bed beside the far wall, staring at the ceiling. A stern-looking young blond woman was taking his blood pressure.
Lois approached her. "Is the doctor around?"
"You're looking at her. Australian Naval Lieutenant Mayson Drake, doctor and chief medical officer of this ship. Who are you and what do you want here?"
"I'm Lois Lane. The boat — er, ship — picked us up earlier today."
"Oh, yes, the reporter with the scalp laceration. Is it giving you problems?"
"No, my head's fine. I'm with the Daily Planet and I need to talk to —"
The doctor lifted one eyebrow. "Quite a beat you have there."
"The planet? The entire globe?" The doctor lifted one eyebrow. "Promise you'll think about it and laugh later."
"Oh. Right, sure. Can I talk to Clark?"
The doctor frowned. "You can talk to him, but I don't know if he'll talk back. He's not said a word to me the whole time he's been here, and I can't figure out why."
"He writes for the same paper that I do. We're both reporters."
"I don't think he's going to report anything for a while. I can't find any physical injuries. In fact, he's in fabulous physical shape, and pretty good-looking, too, but if not for his autonomic responses, I'd say he was catatonic. He ever do anything like this before?"
"I doubt it."
"Well, maybe I should go ahead with that blood test. I don't think he's on any kind of drug, but you never know —"
Lois couldn't let her break a needle in Clark's elbow. Urgently, she waved the doctor closer and lowered her voice. "I think I can explain it, Doctor."
Drake tilted her head to one side. "Go ahead."
"You know that ship that blew up earlier today?"
Drake frowned. "Yes, I heard about that. All those people on board." She shook her head.
"His wife was still on it when it went up."
The doctor blinked, then nodded. "Oh. I didn't know that. It does explain a lot. We'll give you as much privacy as we can, then. Call me if you need me."
Drake pulled a thick curtain around Clark's bed and walked to the other end of the sick bay. Lois waited until the footsteps stopped, then she pulled up a stool and sat down beside Clark.
Now that she was there, she wasn't sure what to say, so she started with the story she'd sent in. "Clark? Look. Perry printed the gun smuggling story on the afternoon edition's front page. Banner headline."
Clark didn't respond. "See? He gave both of us the byline. We shared the story." She held up the faxed page in front of Clark's face. He still didn't speak, but she noticed that his eyes flickered.
"I'm sorry I had to put my name first, but I am senior, after all, even if it's only by a few weeks, and it was my story anyway —"
She was so startled to hear his voice, even at that low volume, she wasn't sure he'd spoken at first. "Uh. Thanks. Actually, congratulations go to both of us."
"That's great. You get two banners in one day."
Lois frowned and lowered her voice. "I'm assuming you're talking about your — that thing Lana told me. I didn't send that story in."
Clark finally looked at her. "What?"
"I didn't send it in!" She looked away from his flat stare. "Don't do that!"
"Don't do what?"
"Don't look at me like I'm some kind of saint or something! I didn't send it in because I don't have any verification for it."
"I see. You want to interview me about it now? Or maybe you'd prefer a quick demonstration?"
She shook her head. "No. I want to — I want to tell you how sorry I am about Lana. She and I talked a little, back on the freighter. We decided that if they — if neither of us made it off alive, more people would miss her than would miss me."
"Maybe." He sighed. "Why would you talk about something like that?"
"It was Lana's idea. She said — she said she didn't want us to be enemies."
"I see." He exhaled deeply. "Are you?"
"Am I what?"
"Are you her enemy?"
Her eyes hardened and she almost snapped back at him, but she restrained herself at the last second. "No. No, we're not enemies. I wish I'd had a friend like her years ago."
"Can't change the past."
"No, I guess not." Lois hesitated. "Speaking of that, why did you change?"
"Why did I change what?"
"Why did you change back to — to Clark clothes? Before you got back in the raft?"
He didn't answer for a long moment. "What difference does it make?"
She shrugged. "No difference, I guess. I was just wondering."
His face began to crumble, but he regained control. "Because I failed."
"Yes! I was inches from the hull and it — " He clenched his teeth for a moment. "I got you out first and now Lana — " He broke off and bit his lower lip.
"I see. You can't save everybody, so you think you're not worthy, or something idiotic like that. Right?"
"You don't understand!" He rose on his elbow and put his face inches from hers. His voice was a razor whisper. "The woman I love more than my own life is dead! I couldn't save her! I told her I'd always be there for her and I wasn't! I let her down! I'm not worthy! Superman isn't worthy and I wish I'd never heard the name! I wish to God I'd been never been born!" His anger and grief momentarily spent, he flopped down on the bed again and put his hand over his eyes. "When that ship sank, it took my heart with it."
Lois forced herself to speak calmly and quietly. "I didn't know Lana all that well, Clark, and we were never what you'd call friends, but she saved my life on that ship at least once, maybe a couple of times. If not for her, they'd have caught both of us and probably killed us before you even got there, and she did a lot to help me even after she was shot. Superman can't stop being Superman because he isn't perfect." She pointed her index finger at him. "You can't quit being who you are any more than I can, or Lana could. You punk out now and you'll take some of the meaning out of her life and a lot from her death. And I doubt she'd be any easier on you if I'd still been on the ship when it went up."
"Doesn't change the fact that she's dead!"
"You're right. It doesn't. You got to learn, Kent, nobody lives forever. Young as I am, I know that." She finally lowered her finger. "And you can't make people live the way you want them to. You can't even make them stay alive."
"Like you'd know anything about that."
She huffed out a breath. "I know. Believe me, I know. Besides, no one can fix everything, not even Superman. Not even he can save everyone."
He closed his eyes. "You don't understand. I lost everything today."
She tried to sound comforting. "Your wife is gone. She was a huge part of your life, maybe the part you think was most valuable to you. And I'm sorry she's gone, Clark, I'm really sorry, but you did some good today." Lois's voice dropped even lower. "I'd be dead if you hadn't come looking for me. And now, because of you, people will know what happened to her. Her family and friends won't wonder whether she's alive or dead and agonize over her fate. She may be gone, Clark, but we know what happened to her, and that's because of you."
"It's because of me that she's dead. Don't you understand how difficult that is to think about?" His flat tone finally took on some life. "I couldn't save her! I couldn't save the one who loved me the most!" He almost moaned. "What will I do now? How can I live without her?"
"You didn't kill her, Clark. You're not responsible for —"
"I could've saved her and I didn't! That makes it my fault!"
She frowned. "You know, if you had taken Lana off the ship first, I might be dead now. I think I'd dislike that result myself."
"Like you care about anyone else! You, the poster girl for type- A personalities driven to succeed at all costs!"
Her brows drew down and she hissed, "You selfish idiot. You self-centered butthead! You think you're the only one who has a bad day?"
"A bad day? What —"
"Shut up and listen! You don't have an alcoholic mother who gets blitzed on a daily basis because your father can't keep from taking his pretty airhead nurses to bed with him and a sister who's trying to put a notch on her bedpost for every musician and actor in California! I do! And Lana didn't whine because her mother left her father for money and comfort instead of being faithful to her marriage, or that she had to share you with the entire world and never knew if you'd make it home at night! She loved you and would have loved you until the sun shut itself down and being loved like that is a rare privilege! So don't tell me what I do know or don't know about!"
Clark turned his gaze away from Lois. The air seemed to leak out of him as he lay there. "Is she in the story?"
She sat back and shook her head. "Not by name. She's in there as the courageous woman who overcame her hostage status and fought back against her captors. Public identification of the heroine is pending notification of her family."
"Heroine, you say?"
"Yes. No equivocation, no qualification. She's the heroine of the story."
He settled into his original posture, on his back and facing the ceiling. "Who's going to tell her father?"
"I assume the local police will contact him. Do you know where he is?"
"A Native American dig site in Florida. Lana has the number — " He jerked as if he'd been electrocuted, then crushed his eyes shut and turned his head away from her.
Before she realized she'd done it, she reached out and put her hand on his shoulder and squeezed. His tears started again, and he rolled onto his side, facing away from her. Lois released his arm and sat there, silently waiting out the storm.
His tears subsided more quickly than they had in the raft. She pulled up a tissue from the box on the table beside the bed and handed it to him over his shoulder. He took it and wiped his face, then sighed deeply. "Thanks."
They were silent for a minute, then Lois spoke. "Clark?" She hesitated, then said, "I'm sorry for what I said to you a minute ago. I was way out of line. I shouldn't be so — anyway, I'm sorry."
"No, it's not. Perry tells me I run my mouth before my brain gets engaged like that autistic guy in the movie who said whatever came into his head and I think he's right because —"
"Huh?" She ducked her head and smiled to herself. "Yeah, I guess he is. I'm sorry, Clark. I shouldn't be babbling at you. Can I get you anything? Something to drink, maybe? They have real orange juice."
"No thanks, I'm okay."
"Um, I think they have a chaplain on board. You want to talk with him?"
He hesitated. "Not now. Maybe later. Thanks, though."
They remained silent for a few moments, then Clark said quietly, "Thank you for coming, Lois. Really. But I'd like to be alone now, please."
She stood. "Sure. I understand." She took two steps and stopped. "Hey, Kent?"
"You're staying with the Planet, aren't you?"
He rolled over and faced her. "What?"
"You're not quitting the Planet, are you?"
"Uh. Hadn't thought that far ahead."
"You should stay. You do good work. The Planet needs good reporters like you. I'd hate to see you leave so soon."
He almost smiled. "I'll keep it in mind."
"Good. See you later."
She reached for the curtain. "Lois?"
"Thanks. For everything."
Her face clouded up and a single tear slid down her cheek. "She was — pretty wonderful, wasn't she?"
"Yes. She was."
She forced her voice to remain level. "She — Lana asked me — she asked me to do something for her."
"Just before I snuck out of the hold, she asked me to tell you — tell you that she loved you. I told her to tell you herself but — she — " She sobbed once. "Clark, I'm so sorry."
Clark nodded and rolled away. Lois wiped her face dry, opened the curtain, and walked out of the sick bay.
She felt lower than a snake's belly. He had thanked her. She'd gotten his wife killed and he'd thanked her. The world was insane and she was riding the crazy coaster along with everyone else.
She forced herself to focus on her job. There was a good sidebar ready to be written on the crew of the Sailfin, a bunch of kids on a training cruise who were suddenly thrust into a rescue mission and who performed well. Doctor Mayson Drake, an American naval surgeon serving on an Australian Navy sub, was a prime candidate for an article too, although Clark could have done a better job on a feel-good story like that one than she could. And she still didn't know who the ultimate boss of the gun- running operation was. Now that was a great opportunity, one she could sink her teeth into, one she could follow all the way to Africa if necessary.
And Kent would have to stay out of her way. She'd give him a few days slack, maybe even a couple of weeks, but then the kid gloves would come off and she'd run over him just like she'd run over anyone else who got in her way, even if Perry made them partners. She 'humphed' to herself. As if anyone could stand to partner with someone as difficult as she was.
She'd stay as busy as she could. She'd even go see a therapist to deal with her state of mind after shooting those men. She knew it had been them or her. She knew they would have killed her without a second thought. Somehow that knowledge didn't help as much as she wished it would. The story hadn't quite been accurate on that score; she'd given Lana the credit. Or the blame. Lana couldn't set the record straight, and Clark didn't know any more than had been printed. Perry knew, but he'd sooner destroy his Elvis memorabilia collection than tell anyone.
She'd never tell Clark the whole truth. She'd let him think Lana had bravely defended them, even with a gunshot wound in her back. She'd let Lana be the heroine. She'd let those who loved her remember her courage. That way, she'd be an inspiration to those left behind. She could be an example of a young woman who fought back against terrible odds, even though she didn't survive.
That way, people would never look at Lois and think, That woman machine-gunned several men to death. She's a stone-cold killer. Only her reflection in the mirror would know.
Maybe that reflection would one day stop reminding her of the young bride with the fabulous future whom Lois had left to die in the hold of that ship. It was something else she'd have to talk over with that therapist.
Maybe Kent would forget the little bit of humanity that had leaked through her defenses a few moments ago. She'd certainly give him reason to forget it. Take care of him? Yeah, she'd take care of him for sure. Mad Dog Lane had the bit in her teeth now.
Mad Dog Lane? Who had said that? Right, she remembered now. Lana had called her that. It hadn't been meant as a compliment, but at that moment Lois decided to wear the sobriquet with pride, as both a remembrance of Lana and as a self-imposed penance. She'd be relentless. She'd be ruthless. All would see her and know fear, evildoers and co-workers alike. Threats, bombs, guns, attempted murder, bribery, political pressure, none of that would stop her.
Even the guilt wouldn't stop her. It would probably drive her to several Kerths, maybe even a Pulitzer. At least, as long as the guilt lasted, Superman's secret identity was safe. Maybe even after that.
To be continued Further On Down the Road