The Forgotten

By Jenni Debbage <>

Rated: PG13

Submitted: December, 2006

Summary: Lois and her children must face life without Clark and the world must face the future without a Superman when he goes missing in North Korea. Meanwhile, a man awakes in a prison cell and discovers he has no memories — only hazy dreams of a beautiful woman in between frightening tests and pain. Will Clark be forgotten forever?

Hi readers,

This story begins with a major wham, though no one has died or will die. However, I did feel I should give some warning of trouble ahead for our favourite couple. I do believe in happy endings, though, as I'm sure anyone who has read my earlier stories will know. If you like an angsty A-plot, then perhaps you'll enjoy reading this story.

The Forgotten will stand alone, but it follows the fortunes of Lois and Clark and as they appeared in my last story, This Child Belongs To You, though a few years into the future.

I do not own the main characters, but a few are my own creations.


Chapter One: Lost

The man awoke to nothingness, then a growing sense of confusion. He thought he remembered pain, terrible pain, but he couldn't be sure. He couldn't grab hold of what pain actually felt like; couldn't grab hold of where he was or even who he was. He had no sense of self.

He lifted his head experimentally and looked around the room. That was good, because apart from a slight sensation of disorientation and cold, he felt nothing. He knew nothing.

The white concrete walls that surrounded him were unrecognizable, and the thin pallet beneath his body was similarly unfamiliar.

He ventured moving a little further, levering his body onto his elbows. For a moment his head swam alarmingly and he had to fight the craving to drop back into unconsciousness. Refusing to succumb, he allowed his senses to regain their balance and once again took note of his environment. The half-seated position gave him a new perspective of his cell.

Cell? Why would he think of a cell? And yet he knew without a shadow of doubt that he was in a prison. There might not be manacles round his wrists or ankles, but imprisonment was the one thing he was sure of. Only he had no idea what he had done or what crime he had committed to deserve such punishment.

His gaze at last began to register the confines of his dungeon. High overhead, a large neon light bathed the room in stark whiteness. There was no window, no outlook onto the world outside. A steel door was situated a quarter-way up the far wall, reached by an open stairway, also in shining, polished metal. The brightness hurt his eyes, and he closed them for a few seconds until his faculties reclaimed some stability and he was ready for some further investigation.

Letting his glance continue to roam, he found in the corner of the room a utilitarian toilet bowl and hand-basin, which he had some vague recollection of using in the past… but how far in the past, he had simply no idea. He had absolutely no concept of how long he had been here; of how he had reached here.

Did he dare stand? Somehow he thought that might be a 'bridge too far' and yet he couldn't deny the unmistakable call of nature. Thank goodness his jailers had the forethought to provide him with basic facilities. Yet somehow he believed it wasn't done out of decency or consideration for his comfort.

He allowed himself a moment, before hoisting himself to his feet. Without a doubt, he hadn't yet acquired his sea legs, or whatever the saying was, but, at least, he was able to take a few tentative steps in the direction of the 'men's room.' Actually, he felt he should hurry and he completed his journey rather like a drunken man… and derived the same pleasure from that fundamental release.

But his actions had brought another mystery to mind. His hands had sought the normal zip, only to find one didn't exist… not in the showy red underpants, and he'd been afraid of succumbing to a humiliating accident before he'd found the desired opening, under the briefs. He couldn't be sure, but wasn't the normal fashion to wear briefs underneath a suit?

And just exactly what kind of suit was he wearing… or not wearing as the case might be? The remnants of a skin-tight shirt adorned his shoulders and arms, but most of his torso was unclothed. The matching trousers, with their over-underpants, seemed mainly to be intact, though his feet were bare. Added to that puzzle was the notion that shiny electric blue with red accessories didn't seem likely to be the in color for today's modern man?

Pain started throbbing deep within his skull, and he raised his hand to his forehead, his fingers massaging the soft skin there. That was strange; as his fingertips extended into his hairline, he discovered a patch where the hair was rough and stubbly and he could feel the traces of a small, ridged scar, as if the wound was recent. He searched further over his head and found a similar spot near the base of his temple. What had caused those injuries?

He frowned in concentration, but sadly, nothing came to mind. He had no more answers to that question than he had to any of the others that nagged at his conscious. And somehow his fashion sense seemed far less important to the very big issue of what was he doing here… and, more importantly, who was he?


In the townhouse in Metropolis, Lois answered the interminable questions with as much forbearance as she could muster. She really shouldn't lose patience with the woman on the other end of the line; after all, this was her mother-in-law, and Martha was just as anxious and scared with the situation.

"Sorry, Martha, I have no fresh news. Superman was last seen heading to help the inhabitants of a small village in North Korea who'd been near the epicenter of the earthquake. All the infrastructure was wiped out in the quake and no one could reach them. Apparently Superman went out to reconnoiter the state of the countryside before he carried in the other rescue services."

"What about the Koreans' own military personnel? Don't they have helicopters and such things?" Martha's voice was edged with worry. It had been many days since anyone had heard from her boy.

"They're on the ground now, Martha, but when Clark flew out, the weather wasn't suitable for flying. Thanks to global warming or climate change, the area was hit by typhoons, or monsoons, or whatever they call them in that part of the world, right after the quake. Superman was the only person who was airborne."

"Honey, how are you holding up? Jonathan and I have booked a flight out tonight and we'll be with you first thing tomorrow morning."

"Martha, you shouldn't. I know it's harvest time coming up and you really are needed on the farm…"

"The farm be damned! This is my son, your husband we're talking about. Not to mention our grandchildren. Our place is with all of you."

Lois was on the verge of protesting, but to be honest, she'd love the support of the woman she thought of as her mother and closest friend.

"OK, Martha, I really could use your and Jonathan's help. Matthew is trying to be strong for me and his sisters, though he really is missing Clark. There is only so much a 12-year-old can do, and he relies on Clark to help with all these new powers he's developing. Do you know, he's actually beginning to float in a controlled way. Clark thinks it won't be long before he can actually fly." Pride and worry warred in Lois' soul. "I just pray Clark is here to see Matthew's first flight. Martha, what will we do if Clark doesn't come home? How will we go on?"

"It's far too early to be thinking like that!" Martha's voice was determined. For the sake of her much loved daughter-in-law she buried her own fear. "How are the girls holding up?"

Lois and Clark's family had expanded over the years since the New Kryptonians had brought them Matthew. Two years after their son's arrival, the couple had decided to avail themselves of Doctor Klein's borrowed knowledge to give Matthew a sibling.

The whole family had been over the moon when, after a fairly normal pregnancy, Lois had given birth to a baby girl. Sara Kent was a happy, healthy baby who had given her parents very little trouble throughout her formative years. Even today, she was a quiet child, with a gentle sense of humor, causing Lois to wonder if Bernard had included any of the Lane gene pool in her creation. However, the question of Sara's mother was never really in doubt, since physically she resembled Lois very much.

Then, long after Lois and Clark had thought their family complete and Lois felt her child-bearing days were receding into the past, she surprisingly found herself pregnant once more. Only this time, the couple had conceived in the natural way. They were somewhat astounded when they'd first become aware of the fact, yet Bernard had run a number of tests and reached the conclusion that Lois' earlier pregnancy had somehow altered her hormonal and chemical balance — Lois and Clark had finally become reproductively compatible.

Whatever the reason, neither Lois nor Clark were prepared to denigrate the gift of their special baby and they were thrilled to welcome another daughter into their loving family circle. A daughter, Victoria, who looked like Clark, but was in every other way Lois' child, even at the tender age of four.

"Lois, Lois, talk to me!" Martha's anxious demand broke into Lois' reverie. "Vicky and Sara must be breaking their little hearts."

"I'm sorry, Martha, my mind is wool-gathering again."

"That's not surprising under the circumstances, sweetie."

"Sara is quieter than normal, if that's possible. She crept into bed with me last night and we cried each other to sleep. Vicky's different. I don't think she really understands what's happening though. She keeps asking when Daddy's coming back, and she's starting to fret when I tell her he's off covering a story. Clark just hasn't been away from home for so long since we've had Vicky."

A lump formed in Lois' throat and she jammed her fist against her mouth to silence a sob, but she didn't fool Martha.

"Lois, honey, don't you give into despair. Clark's gotten himself out of a lot of bad situations before…"

"But maybe, not this time, Martha." Tears were beginning to well up in Lois' eyes. "We've always had this connection, you know. In my heart, I always knew it, long before my head would accept it… but it's always been there. And now…" The tears were coursing down her cheeks, impossible to stop.

"And now?" Martha's question was whispered, realizing she didn't want to hear the answer.

"Nothing, Martha." Though they were far apart, the silence in both homes was palpable. "I've tried and tried to reach him, but there's nothing there. Not in my my head or my heart. Martha, Clark is just… gone!"


Another day, or was it night? The man had no way of knowing. He only knew he felt utterly spent. Sleep came to him in snatches and gave him no release from his weariness. There were no dreams to disturb his sleep… no nightmares either. Strangely, he would have welcomed even bad dreams; they would have been a connection to something.

Above his head he heard the swish of the sliding door, followed by the dual whirring of the cameras that scanned every inch of his cell. A cell that was also a fish bowl, allowing every one of his actions to be monitored.

At first he'd been uncomfortable, knowing he was being watched, but why fight what he could not change? Better to conserve his strength for a time when resistance would make a difference.

Footsteps sounded on the stairway heralding the arrival of his guard and his breakfast, so probably morning! His turnkey was of Asian descent, as were most of the other personnel of this facility with whom he'd come in contact — except for the doctors.

Reaching the table, which had lately appeared in the cell along with a single chair, the guard placed the tray down and waited. He never spoke; probably that was against the rules, yet he always stayed to see that the prisoner ate all his meals.

Now whether that was because the guard was ordered by his superiors to take care of their specimen or the soldier's own kindness, the man without an identity couldn't tell. Though he thought he detected a hint of sympathy in the young soldier's eyes.

Dragging himself to the table, he forced himself to eat the unpalatable food. According to habit, they would come for him soon, and he would be injected with some unknown yellowish-colored substance that made his head swim and his stomach queasy.

Then they would manhandle him from his cell to the only other room he was aware of in this whole complex, which he'd deduced was fairly large. Though the laboratory was only next door to his room, the corridor seemed to stretch on to infinity. A passageway with the same brash lighting and no windows. Just like the lab where they did whatever it was they did to him once they'd strapped him to that stainless steel table; where the woman in the white coat would watch carefully as they administered the final drugs.

He'd retain some sort of vague consciousness at the start of their procedures, but thankfully his awareness faded into blackness until he woke up back in his cell. Awoke again to the feeling of numbness, with just a faint recollection of being dissected like a frog. Yet that couldn't be the case because physically he was still in one piece. Even the hair had grown back over the scars, which were now healed.

That was a frightening fact in itself. It meant he'd been here for some time for that to happen. Even the memory of the clothes he'd been wearing when he'd first regained some sort of sensibility was eroding from his mind. They'd been made of a strange fabric and color, but it hurt too much to try to recall. He couldn't explain it, but he understood that soon that memory would be gone.

He was alone — the way he'd always been afraid of, at least that thought hovered somewhere in the vestiges of his mind — in someplace which was akin to a tomb. Perhaps he was dead.


The black banner headline detailing the memorial service screamed at Lois Lane — no, Lois Kent! She had never taken Clark's name while he lived, so why should it seem so important to her to claim it in his… death? And yet, she would cling on to everything she had of him. If only she could cling to hope.

There was no proof of his actual death. No body of either Superman or Clark had been found, but he'd been missing for too long. Nearly a year had passed since Superman had left to help out with the earthquake in Korea and there had been not one single sighting of him anywhere in the world since.

For a time, Lois had convinced herself that he'd been lying hurt somewhere… perhaps had amnesia from a head trauma. Most people considered the Man of Steel to be invulnerable, but Lois knew differently. Who knew, maybe some kryptonite had dropped on Earth in some remote part of Korea. What if Clark had stumbled across the rock and hadn't been able to escape its deadly radiation?

She'd prayed that the multi-national search teams would find him. Rescue missions had continued for months; missions to which even the isolated North Koreans had opened their borders, but no sign of Superman had ever been traced. When the operations had been scaled down and finally closed, Lois had slowly lost faith that Clark would be coming home.

If there was a very minute silver lining on the edge of Lois' gray sky it was the fact that Clark's secret identity had never been discovered by the public, thanks to Perry White's quick thinking. Their old editor and friend had made it known within days of Superman's, and thus Clark Kent's, absence that he had given Kent permission to accompany Superman to the devastated region to report first hand on one of the biggest and most unexpected earthquakes the world had experienced in modern times. The accepted conclusion was that both men had somehow perished together — human and Kryptonian, which was in a strange way the truth.

Now, one year since the date of Superman's disappearance, Metropolis's citizens were holding a memorial service for the hero who had chosen to make his home among them. The ceremony would take place in Centennial Park to accommodate the large crowds, and where a statue of the Man of Steel would be unveiled by no less personage than the President.

When the city's plans to honor their most famous citizen had first been broadcast, Lois had been so afraid that she might be asked to unveil the sculpture; after all, she had been one of Superman's closest friends. Somehow she hadn't felt strong enough to carry out that final act of appreciation, even for Superman.

But Lois' fears had been groundless. Either the Mayor had thought to reserve the honor for herself, or the city fathers had shown more sensitivity than was normal in this case. Lois had just decided it was the former when the President's intervention had put paid to all other considerations.

So now there was to be an official closure to add to the smaller, though more intimate and loving, commemorative service that Clark's family and friends had held for him just a few months before. A time where Lois had said goodbye in public to her husband, but never would she say farewell within her heart.

Clark would always be with her, and though she missed his physical presence achingly every day, his love for her would continue to be her shelter and her strength. She took comfort from the knowledge that one day they would find each other again, if not in this lifetime.

Often in the dark of night she would remember Clark's sadly prophetic words. That it wasn't the years that mattered, but the moments… and Clark and she had shared more moments of enchantment, passion and tender care than she'd ever dreamed existed in this world. Though to the outer-world Lois Lane would continue on alone with her children, Lois Kent would forever be linked to her partner, her friend and her dearest husband, Clark.


Chapter Two: Sentence of Death

Strangely, the long corridor seemed so much shorter this morning, thought the woman as she obeyed the summons from her superior. She'd been expecting the call to this meeting for some time, had, in fact been dreading it. The General was not pleased by events and life tended to get very unpleasant when he believed he'd been let down by his subordinates.

She'd dressed in a dark gray pant-suit and her auburn hair was pulled back severely into a knot at the nape of her neck. Her thick, silky hair was her best feature, but neither she nor any of her colleagues cared much for appearances. In this facility most workers tended to choose to blend into the background.

Being the chief scientist for the project, however, meant that anonymity wasn't an option for her, but she did try to hide her femininity. Normally the loose white lab-coat helped with her cover, but there was no point in wearing it now — General Hyesan had ordered a halt to the clinical tests some days ago.

She slowed her march along the passageway, not exactly dragging her heels, but not striding in her habitual fashion. How in the world had she ended up in this underground bunker working on this godforsaken experiment? Damaging a man, for he was a man, despite his alien origins. And a good man who hadn't deserved what had been done to him.

If she'd known what coming here would lead to, she would have run as fast as she could in the opposite direction. But that was easy to say with hindsight. At the time, she'd believed she had no other option. There certainly hadn't been any other job offers on her table. Besides, back then, she still believed that her work would be for the good of mankind.

Now she'd learned that good intentions were not enough. Certainly she'd had enough faith when she'd graduated from the Sorbonne at the top of her class. Adrienne Ducos had been one of the brightest stars the medical faculty had mentored for quite sometime… almost as bright as her famous mother. Yet Adrienne hadn't wanted to be like her mother. After all, she had killed her mother! No, not exactly, but she had been instrumental in her death.

Both her mother and father had been leading lights in Doctors Without Borders, where they had been fearless campaigners, going to all the main trouble spots in the world and trying to bring order into chaos. They'd been so busy with their humanitarian work that neither had minded the fact that they were childless — not until her mother had found herself pregnant at the age of thirty-nine.

At first, the couple hadn't believed they were to have a baby. In her mother's line of work the hardships a woman experienced often led to certain monthly occurrences disappearing for months at a time, but finally her mother had to face the fact that she was to bear a child. Unfortunately, the timing of the pregnancy wasn't very convenient, as the would-be-parents were stranded in the middle of a death struggle between warlords in an African country where famine was also rife.

Michelle Ducos had felt she couldn't abandon the people who relied on her for medical help and she stayed much longer than she ought to. There had been a terrifying gun-battle between the factions in which Michelle was caught, causing her to go into premature labor. The mother had died, but the baby had been saved and taken back to Paris, where she'd been raised by her grandmother. Sadly, soon after Adrienne's eleventh birthday, the old lady too had passed away, leaving the child to be shuttled between various aunts and uncles. Phillipe Ducos had visited his daughter rarely and young Adrienne had always thought that he held her responsible for his wife's death.

Adrienne couldn't blame her present predicament on her childhood, though. She hadn't been mistreated, nor had she been extremely unhappy, but she had been a very lonely child. Even today, she preferred solitude, and it was probably that particular trait that had helped lead her to this place.

It was definitely her shyness that had prompted her to go into medical research rather than medical practice. She had done the usual training in hospitals and her father had hoped that she might take over his role in the organization he'd supported all his life, but Adrienne had always been fascinated by illnesses of the mind and how they could be cured. Especially since her greatest talent lay in the field of chemistry.

She'd been thrilled when she'd been approached to join one of the research teams of a large pharmaceutical company, who were working on producing drugs to control obsessive-compulsive disorders. At that time, little did she know that accepting this seemingly brilliant opportunity would lead to her downfall.

How could she have guessed that this seemingly reputable company was not above cutting corners in procedures to increase profits, and that the subjects on whom they were doing their clinical tests were not always volunteers? Many of the patients were orphaned children smuggled into the country from war-torn Eastern European countries. Children who were traumatized or suffering mental illnesses from diseases transferred to them by their parents.

Just like her mother, she'd become so tied up in her work that she hadn't stopped to think of the risks she was taking. All her attention was wrapped up in the fact that progress was very good and a range of medication could soon be available to alleviate people's suffering.

When the scandal of improper procedures had been uncovered, Adrienne had not been completely shocked by the discovery. Somewhere in her subconscious she'd suspected the wrong doing, yet she'd had neither the will nor the courage to confront her employers. In fact, her overwhelming emotion had been one of annoyance that her research had been halted, and it had taken some time for the fact to sink into her brain that she'd been tainted by the criminal charges against her bosses. Truth was, she was lucky not to have been in the dock alongside them.

Only she hadn't understood that back then. All she knew was that she'd been very close to a breakthrough in her research and now she had no way of continuing her work. For months she'd sought other similar employment, but the moment it became known who she'd worked for the doors were closed in her face. The situation had been so frustrating! Which is probably why she'd been so easily seduced into working for a government that was regarded as evil by the Western world.

She had been so blind. Yet, it had taken her quite a while to realize that. Though she couldn't hold herself completely at fault for that predicament, as in the beginning the tasks her employers had assigned to her were completely in keeping with the work she'd wanted to do. It was only later that she'd come to suspect that the range of drugs she was trying to perfect was being used not to help cure people… but to control them.

Then just over a year ago she'd been recruited to oversee a particular, highly classified project. Even her arrival at the remote secret laboratory had set her senses on edge, and as she'd stepped into the lift that had carried her to the bowels of the Earth, she'd finally been forced to face up to the possibility that she'd climbed into bed with the devil.

But it was much too late to pull out. They would have killed her… or perhaps worse. Under this regime she'd come to see that there were situations worse than death. Besides, perhaps she could in someway help this poor 'specimen,' as they were instructed to call him.

Her steps had slowed to allow her time to think and compose herself for the coming ordeal, yet she'd arrived at her destination. Swallowing her fear, she knocked on the conference room door and without waiting for an answer, walked inside.

The man who'd engineered this whole diabolical plan, General Hyesan, was seated at the head of the table, his bodyguards standing a step or two behind him. "Good morning, Dr Ducos, so good of you to join us — you are late!" the man growled, though Adrienne had become accustomed to his harsh speech and refused to be intimidated.

"I'm sorry, sir, but I was informed that our patient's temperature had risen during the night and I felt he should be checked over to see if he had acquired an infection."

"Patient, which patient?"

Hyesan's lips set in a thin line of disapproval and his steely glare almost made her cringe, but Adrienne swallowed down her rising fear. "Sorry — our one surviving specimen."

She let her glance stray to the back wall of the room, where a number of monitors displayed most of the complex. Hyesan had known exactly where she was and what she'd been doing. The whole area was covered by security cameras, from the fence with its guard posts and the one singular building above ground to the bottom level where the test subjects were housed, alongside the operating rooms and treatment laboratories. The only rooms not under surveillance were the General's own quarters, though there were fewer cameras on the second level where the staff lived.

Until a very short time ago the monitors had displayed an industrious work place, but now the complex was like a ghost town. Over the past few days, Adrienne's own research assistants had been assigned elsewhere and the soldiers had driven away in their trucks and armored cars, leaving only a skeleton crew behind. Why did you need lots of guards when there was only one prisoner left to watch over and that man was in no condition to escape? Besides, in the unlikely event that he did make a break for it, they had kryptonite — Adrienne hated the green glowing type with a passion.

There was only a handful of personnel left in the whole bunker and most of them were in this room, including the terrible twins, seated side-by-side at the other side of the table. Well, they weren't really twins, but they were terrible and Adrienne had dubbed them that very early on in her acquaintance with them.

"You shouldn't fuss over him so much. It's probably just a reaction to the extra exposure to kryptonite." One of the duo spoke up, the little one who reminded Adrienne of a weasel.

"Kryptonite! Why would you do that now?" she demanded, her worry for her patient lending her strength.

"Because I ordered it done, Dr Ducos." Once more the man at the head of the table addressed her, scorn sharpening his voice. "In preparation for termination."

"Excuse me?" Adrienne was stunned by those words, even though she was half-expecting to hear them. She allowed herself to sink into the nearest chair. "But why?"

"Don't be so obtuse, Doctor. Even you are not so stupid to believe that this experiment is anything other than a failure."

"General Hyesan, I still believe we have options." She leaned across the table in supplication. "Please you have to let me continue with my work…"

"No, I do not!" The answer was barked at her as Hyesan pushed back his chair to stand. "We have tried every option, from surgical to medication and nothing works."

Something snapped inside Adrienne and she heard herself answering back. "I was against surgery right from the start. I have never advocated the use of surgery to control brain dysfunction."

"But why? We were successful," the weaselly looking Abelev piped up again, ready to defend his work. "I am a brilliant neurological surgeon and I had more success than you." His whiny voice sounded like a petulant child. "I totally blocked his memory of his past life. He has no idea of who he is or where he came from."

"That might be! But your efforts to control his reasoning and emotions failed miserably. The cortex is still much too complex to go digging around in with a scalpel … and those kryptonite-coated chips you placed in his brain almost killed him." Adrienne reminded the man.

"You are wrong, Adrienne," the other of the 'twins' replied consolingly. Adrienne considered him the lesser of the two evils. "Immunology has been my field of expertise for many years and I have made a study also of Su… this alien specimen. I calculated exactly how much kryptonite we could safely employ to render our subject malleable until such time as we completed our conditioning. He might have reacted badly to the toxic-inserts initially, but we did manage to stabilize him."

"Yet, Dr Janik, your conclusion that the specimen's body would eventually become immune to those small doses of kryptonite within his brain was incorrect," General Hyesan interrupted, his forehead creasing in a caustic frown. "Even if we had managed to condition him, as you say, Korea would not have acquired a superpowered weapon, which was the reason for this whole operation in the first place."

Janik, unlike his female colleague, was not in awe of Hyesan. "We don't yet know that. Given time, I still believe in my theory."

"Time is something you no longer have! And, don't forget, your assumption that red kryptonite would change his character and make him more aggressive was complete nonsense." Hyesan leaned threateningly toward Janik. "Perhaps he was rendered useless by the infusion of red and green kryptonite you injected him with. You are incompetent, Janik, so take my advice, do what you're told and shut up!"

With hindsight, the immunologist had reached a similar conclusion about his mixture of the two types of kryptonite, yet he wasn't about to make such an admission to this madman of a General. Janik fell silent, once more, hunching his shoulders and shrinking, if possible, further into his chair.

Adrienne, however, found a sliver of courage and pleaded one last time, though she already knew her request would fall on deaf ears. "Please, General, please reconsider. Have the chips removed. There are other combinations of drugs I can try."

Hyesan, gave a cursory study to the file lying open on the table in front of him. "Dr Ducos, you've been testing your drugs for fourteen months without success. It's my opinion that you ran out of ideas sometime ago." At the General's words Abelev snickered and Hyesan's angry glare turned on the still seated surgeon. "You have no cause to be smug either, Abelev. You also failed in your attempts to control the specimen."

The Korean General widened his stare to include all of his specialists, and his voice was full of freezing contempt when he spoke. "No matter what the three of you have come up with the subject is incapable of obeying an order to either hurt or kill even a fly. You may have reduced him to a nobody, but even without his memories and identity he refuses to be anything but a chronic do-gooder. When we try to manipulate him to destroy he almost has a brain-seizure. He is utterly useless to me and my plans for the future…"

Now, it was not only Ducos and Janik who were feeling uncomfortable. Out of the corner of her eye Adrienne saw Abelev blanch — it gave her a tiny glimmer of satisfaction — but the General hadn't finished with them.

"Each of you have let me down and I have no more time to waste on you or on this experiment." Hyesan flipped the file shut. "I have been recalled to Pyongyang for a meeting with my superiors. I will be gone for five days and when I return I don't want to find any trace of this failed project within this facility. Let's hope that my three geniuses in their fields have more success as cleaners than they did as doctors. Get rid of your files, your equipment, your drugs and your test subject."

Adrienne was so shocked by the implications that she blurted out a question. "And Sup… I mean the specimen, what are we to do with him?"

"Again you are being incredibly dense, Dr Ducos. He is the only test subject left in the whole complex. I want him exterminated and his body destroyed. It shouldn't be an insurmountable problem since he is no longer invulnerable and there is always kryptonite if the task proves difficult." Hyesan marched to the door, his bodyguards shadowing him, but before he left he turned and directed a final menacing glare at Adrienne. "And since you are Chief Scientific Officer on this operation, Dr Ducos, I leave the responsibility of dealing with Superman, as I believe you like to call him in the western world, to you. Do not fail me on this or you will incur my wrath, and I can assure you that by the time I finish with you, death will be a welcome state. And that goes for all of you!"

He turned and was gone, leaving the three in the room silent and quaking.


It was late at night, but Adrienne couldn't sleep. She paced back and forward in her room, her thoughts in turmoil. What was she to do?

Following the discussion in the conference room, Abelev and Janik had made it very clear to her that she was on her own in the elimination of Superman. After all, they concluded, Hyesan had made her personally responsible for that part of the clean up. They agreed to destroy all their case-notes and dismantle their respective operating theatres and laboratories. Then they were off, before Hyesan returned, leaving the really dirty work to her.

Not that she had expected any help from them, and she would be glad to see them go, only this one time she could have used some backup. She didn't believe she could kill anyone… She didn't want to kill anyone!

Adrienne might not be a clinical doctor, but she had chosen the medical profession because she wanted to save lives, not take them. And this man was the victim. He wasn't evil, or seeking to hurt others. He didn't deserve to die.

Throwing herself down on her bed, Adrienne indulged in a fit of self-pitying tears. Why had this happened to her? She didn't consider that she'd done anything so terrible that she should end up in such a dreadful dilemma. Only, honesty compelled her to admit that she had been very naive.

No, it was much more than gullibility. She'd stuck her head in the sand and totally ignored the warning voices in her head telling her to stay well away from this country. Not to mention the fact that she'd carried out some very illegal medical research while here. She only had herself to blame for her predicament.

A gulping sob tore through her throat, but she fished a handkerchief from her pocket and blew her nose. Tears wouldn't help, nor recriminations. If she was to survive this situation, she had to pull herself together.

And maybe she didn't need to dirty her hands. General Hyesan might have left with most of his entourage, but there were a few guards left behind. Surely they would obey her order to kill the specimen.

Adrienne bit at her lip for a second, seeing a ray of light appear in her troubled world. She could order the soldiers to kill Superman and get rid of the body; that was what soldiers did for a living… kill people, wasn't it?

Yet the light faded quickly, as she realized that she didn't believe there was much difference in killing someone in person and instructing it done. The result was the same, and Adrienne didn't want Superman dead by anyone's hand.

But what could she, a shy, introverted research doctor do to change the outcome of Superman's future? She pushed herself off the bed and was back to pacing again, various escape scenarios running through her brain. Yet Adrienne wasn't confident in her bravery or her ability to carry out such a plan, and the possibility of failure brought on visions of torture and death for both the superhero and herself.

"Stop! Stop thinking of failure," Adrienne whispered into the quiet of her room, attempting to chase her fear away.

If she were going to do this… and she had to concede that she was seriously thinking of getting Superman out of here alive… she had to start thinking positively.

A furtive knock fell on the door to her room, causing her to jump in shock.

Who was calling on her at this late hour? No one had ever visited her in her quarters before. Oh, my god, did they know what she was plotting? Thankfully, her scientific, analytical mind rescued her from a downward spiral of terror. How could they know her intentions, when she hardly understood them herself?

Smoothing down her clothes, and tucking her hair behind her ears, Adrienne crossed to open the door a tiny crack.

"Adrienne, let me in, please… quickly." The hushed voice of Janik came from the darkened corridor.

Adrienne eyes opened wide, but she stayed silent, too stunned to speak. She had no idea what the immunologist would want with her now? Although he'd never treated her with the same contempt as his compatriot, Abelev, he'd never been exactly friendly with her either. Apart from conversations when their respective experiments crossed, he'd mostly ignored her. And, though she'd conceded that Superman's exposure to the concoction of red and green kryptonite was necessary for her medication to have any success, she'd hated witnessing the superhero's agony at this man's hands.

Now that she was being honest with herself, she admitted that she'd hated everything that had been done here in the name of science. It had never been about science. Hyesan wanted to use Superman's powers to shape the world into his vision. He had simply viewed Superman as a means to an end; a weapon system that had been a total failure.

"Adrienne!" Janik's voice sounded strained. "You have no reason to trust me, but we have to talk… inside. The corridors are still monitored."

She knew that to be true and without further thought she opened the door to let him slip by her, praying she was doing the right thing. Perhaps he had come to seduce her… though he had never given any sign that he fancied her in that way. But soon they would be parting company. Had he come here for a little sexual dalliance to alleviate his boredom? He was certainly mistaken if he believed she would allow him to…

"I'm sorry to intrude like this, but I'm not sure that I can allow this… thing to happen."

Janik's words cut through Adrienne's thoughts of seduction and rape.

"What thing?" she asked in confusion.


So, not rape then. For the first time, Adrienne allowed herself to study her colleague more closely. His face was pale and his brow furrowed. Though she'd never considered him a tidily dressed man, he certainly looked more haggard than ever before… but she probably appeared very similar.

"I know I've never given you any cause to believe what I'm about to tell you, but I need you to trust me, if we're to succeed in our plan." The man was almost wringing his hands together as he spoke.

"What plan?" Adrienne forced her voice to remain neutral, still unsure what Janik was meaning and afraid to incriminate herself too soon.

"The plan to save Su… our specimen's life."

"You want to save him?"

"Adrienne, could you stop asking inane questions. I'm fairly sure you're as distressed as I am by Hyesan's orders and we really don't have time to tiptoe around each other. We only have a few days to carry out this escape."

"I'm sorry! It's just this is so sudden, and I had no idea that you felt this way." Adrienne had closed the door and was now standing with her back to it. "Before, when Abelev was there, it appeared you were all for it, though you weren't about to soil your hands with murder."

"That was for appearances sake. The room was under surveillance and I wouldn't trust that weasel, even if you paid me a fortune."

At last, Adrienne allowed a small smile to turn up the corners of her mouth as she heard Janik describe the surgeon the same way she always did in her mind. Perhaps she'd misjudged this man…

"Dr Ducos — if you'd prefer I called you that — like you, I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I agreed to work with Hyesan, and believe me, I'm not proud of my involvement in this whole affair. I would have gotten out, if I could, but we both know what would have happened to any of us had we tried to leave. But I can't stand by any longer and do nothing. I took an oath when I became a doctor to uphold life, not to take it, and so far I've managed to do that. At least, I've never meant to kill anyone, but that's another story and one I'm sure you don't want to be bored with."

Adrienne stared at her colleague, trying to calculate his trustworthiness. A few seconds passed in silence until she decided that it didn't matter much whether he was playing some kind of twisted game; she'd made her decision and she couldn't help Superman alone. "I'm sure we all have skeletons in our pasts, or we wouldn't be here. You're right, though, the reasons why we are here are immaterial now." She moved forward into the room and pulled out the chair in front of her desk, inviting him to sit. "So what have you got planned? Because I've been wracking my brain and, so far, I've come up empty."


Chapter Three: Reprieve

While the new day was filled with anxious planning for the two doctors, in another time zone a woman lay alone in a king-sized bed, her eyelids fluttering tremulously in an uneasy sleep. Though Lois had had many months to come to terms with her life as a single mother, widowhood would never be a state with which she would be comfortable.

Yet this was the role fate had bestowed upon her, and she had no intention of changing it. No other man could ever replace Clark. Lois was still 'in love' with her husband and always would be. She had no doubt of that. But for her children's sake she had to go on with her life; to get up in the morning, to eat and drink to stay healthy, to do her job so she could keep a roof over their heads… and to make her children's life as happy and normal as was possible in the circumstances.

But in addition to all this, she had made a promise to herself that she would keep the memory of Superman alive and the work they had embarked upon together — to try with all they had to make the world a better place. Clark was gone. Now Lois would carry on alone for his dear sake.

She had known life would be a difficult, but she'd never expected it to be this hard.

Lois tossed and turned, and waking up plumped her pillow exasperatedly. Inanimate cotton and feathers just weren't a substitute for Clark's warm, muscled chest. She was just deciding to go downstairs for a cup of oolong tea when a furtive scratching on her bedroom door reached her ears.

"Come in," Lois said softly, though in the silence of the night, her words sounded overloud.

The door creaked open and a tiny white face peaked round the crack. "Can I come in, Mommy?" a very young female voice asked, yet the owner didn't wait for an answer as she propelled herself onto her mother's bed in a tumbling rush. Victoria Kent never moved anywhere slowly.

"What's wrong, Vicky? Can't you sleep?" Lois pulled her daughter to her side, in a tender hug. Her children were always a welcome distraction when she felt at her lowest. It was almost as if they had a radar system that recognized her moods.

"No, Mama."

Oh-oh, that title spoke volumes. Vicky only used the word Mama when she was tearful, believing that at five years old she was now a big girl and should progress to Mommy or even Mom like her siblings.

Her baby's pain lifted Lois from wallowing in her own pit of despair. It was only natural that her kids were going to miss their father and it was up to her to console them in their time of need, and if she found release in so doing, then Lois couldn't see that as a crime. Contrary to Lois' worries of long ago, she had bonded deeply with each of her children and adversity had only drawn them closer.

"I had a bad dream, Mama," her daughter confided. "Some very bad people came and took Daddy away, and I couldn't stop them. I tried and tried… I kicked and hit them, but they made him go away. I couldn't save Daddy." Vicky's tirade ended in a desperate sob.

"Oh, sweetie," Lois whispered into Vicky's silky hair as she hugged her baby tighter still. "It was just a bad dream…"

"No, Mama. Daddy is gone"

Lois could feel her daughter's tears on her nightshirt while her own threatened to spill and soak Vicky's head. She swallowed hard and sought for something comforting to say. "I know, honey. Daddy has gone to a better place, but he has never left us." Still holding Vicky loosely in her arms, she leaned back to look into the childish face, streaked with tears. "I know you can't reach out and touch Daddy anymore, but you think of him a lot, don't you, sweetie?" She waited while Vicky nodded. "And you talk to him. I've heard you."

Vicky nodded again, but more doubtfully. "Is that bad?"

"Oh, no. I do it too." Lois gently stroked Vicky's hair. "All the time."

"You do?" Vicky stared in amazement at her mother.

"Yes! I think we all do. Sara and Matt, too. You should talk to Sara, but maybe not Matt. He won't admit to it. Boys are like that. They like to pretend they are strong… and Matt feels he has to look after us now that Daddy's not here…"

At that reminder, Vicky's bottom lip began to tremble and the sobs that were drying up threatened to return in force. Lois thought quickly, then went with her instincts. She took one of her daughter's small hands and placed it on her breast.

"Do you feel my heart beating, Vicky?"

In the darkness, Vicky's eyes gleamed. "I hear it, Mama."

"Daddy is here in my heart, sweetie, and as long as my heart beats, then Daddy's will too." Lois took their clasped hands and touched them to Vicky's pyjamas clad chest. "He's in your heart too, isn't he?"

"Yes, he is," Vicky announced with all the conviction of her five years.

"And as long as you remember him, Daddy will never leave us. You, my precious, are the best part of me and of Daddy. When you were born, he was thrilled enough to burst. You must never forget that. As long as we have each other, Daddy will be happy. And I know one thing without a shadow of a doubt — he loved you so very, very much."

"I love him too, Mama. He's not here, but I still love him."

Now it was Lois' turn to nod and smile — the wisdom of a child. "And that's exactly how it is with Daddy. He loves you still."

"I think you are right, Mama," Vicky said very seriously, after a second or two of reflection, then a tiny grin turned up Vicky's rosebud mouth. "Can we have hot chocolate, Mama?"

"I think that can be arranged, sweetie." Lois climbed out of bed and pulled on her robe. "In fact, I think chocolate is just what the doctor ordered, and maybe I could read to you for a bit until you went back to sleep, Princess Tory. How about that?"

Vicky's brow drew down in a frown; she was not amused. "Mama! Don't call me that. Princesss Tory is Daddy's name for me." Vicky voice hissed on the s's.

Which was true. Clark had followed Sam Lane's tradition of calling his daughters his princesses, but Clark had meant the endearment with all his heart from the very beginning. Vicky's nickname, however, had developed a special meaning and it had to be spoken with just the correct inflection… the emphasis being on the s's. Of course, historically speaking there had been a Princess Victoria who had become Queen of Great Britain, but Clark's nickname was a play on words.

Since his role of Superman had tended to take him away from his family a fair amount, Clark had always made a point of spending time with his children at bedtime whenever he could, and Vicky being the youngest had probably benefited most from this habit. Metropolis had by then become a comparatively safer city than when Superman had first taken to the skies.

Besides, Victoria Kent had, very early in life, followed in both her parents' footsteps and become an avid lover of storytelling. As soon as she was old enough to make sense of nursery rhymes, Clark had read her to sleep almost every night. His younger princess had soon progressed to fairy tales, the more romantic the better, and as soon as she could string even the fewest words together, she had demanded of her Daddy a 'tory' at bedtime.

Within no time, Clark had begun to adapt his youngest daughter's name to Princess Tory and because it always drew happy giggles from the little girl, the name had remained… Only now, since Clark's death, Vicky fanatically protected her pet-name as being one shared only between her father and herself.

At Vicky's disapproving and crestfallen stare, Lois realized she'd stepped over the line. "I'm sorry, sweetie, I forgot. That was Daddy's special name for you." Her arm snaked round her daughter's small shoulders in apology. "I didn't mean to upset you."

Looking up at her mother with large sad eyes, Vicky decided her Mama could be forgiven. After all, Vicky did love hot-chocolate milk and, since Daddy wasn't around to read to her anymore, Mama was the best substitute. "OK. Will you read me the story of the Princess and the Pea?"

"I certainly will, honey, and we'll drink our chocolate in bed too."

The little girl smiled again as the bad dream faded from her mind, and while Mama told her the story, she would cuddle up close to Mama's heart, where Daddy would always be.

Later, as Lois watched her child sleep, she drew in a deep breath on a silent cry and closed her eyes. She wouldn't return to her big empty bed tonight, but would spend the night with Vicky. Step by careful step, she'd survived another day in the rest of her life without Clark.


In the bunker, twenty-four hours had passed since Adrienne and Janik had formed their unlikely alliance and Janik was back in Adrienne's room for another brainstorming session. Aware of the more lackadaisical attitude of the few remaining staff, they hoped that the lateness of the hour would preclude their discovery. If not, Janik suggested, with some embarrassment, they could always fall back on the excuse of a lover's tryst.

Adrienne blushed rosily at his words, remembering what she'd suspected was the reason behind Janik's first clandestine visit. Which, when she'd had time to think about it, was a ludicrous notion. The man's permanently doleful demeanour was hardly one of a sexual predator, and, at this moment, their lack of progress was making him look even more discouraged.

They still didn't have a complete escape plan and both were very aware that the clock was counting down to Hyesan's return. However, they had managed to formulate an idea which they hoped would fool the General into believing they'd carried out his orders. Yet the problem of how to get Superman safely out of the bunker still eluded them.

The hero might have lost some of his bulk, but he was still a large, fairly heavy man and not one who could be easily lifted up the steep stairway of the cell by one slight woman and a man who might be tall but was also very lanky. So far, with the guards dragging him, Superman had managed to stumble from his cell, only this time, he would be unconscious… In fact, for the sake of the cameras he would have to appear dead. Unless they 'killed' him in the treatment room, which would, at least, solve one dilemma.

But what would they do with him once they had gotten him out of the complex?

"There's always Teo!" Adrienne suggested, having run out of all other ideas.

Janik's gaze returned from contemplating Adrienne's wall. "Who's Teo?"

"Teo is one of Superman's Korean guards. He's one of the few left behind."

"What makes you think he'd help? None of the Koreans seem very sympathetic," Janik said skeptically.

"But I think he's different. I noticed a while back that he seemed to take more care of his charge than the other soldiers. So I started watching him. He keeps the cell clean and makes sure Superman eats his meals. Did you never wonder who provided the cot in the cell, or the blanket that appeared on Superman's mattress when the weather started getting colder? Teo gave up one of his own blankets. Of course, he can't do too much for fear of incurring Hyesan's wrath."

"I never knew that. You've obviously being paying much more attention than I have," the immunologist admitted guiltily. "I haven't exactly been very attentive of our patient, have I?"

Janik and Adrienne had individually reached the conclusion not to continue using the degrading name of 'specimen.'

"You haven't had daily contact with him as I have." Adrienne offered an excuse, not wanting to see her co-conspirator stew in a fit of self-blame, which wouldn't help their endeavour one bit. "Anyway, after watching Teo, I decided to ask him why he helped Superman…"

"You've spoken to one of the soldiers? You can understand their language?"

Most of the important discussions on the treatment of Superman had been carried out in English since the doctors were of different origins. All three knew English fairly well, as did the General, though he spoke with a thick guttural accent. None of the soldiers, however, seemed to speak any other language but their own.

"My father drummed into me the fact that I should learn the language of the people I was working with. He thought I'd follow in his footsteps, and believe me, I've been wishing recently that I had. But, at least, I'm thankful that I took his advice about the language. Not that I'm totally fluent, and I can't write it… still, what I do know has been helpful…"

"I can see that, but what did you find out from this guard?" Janik gazed at her with a growing sense of admiration. This woman was not the timid little bookworm he'd thought her to be.

"Apparently, Teo comes from the region that was hit by that earthquake. Before Hyesan managed to capture Superman, the hero had helped out in Teo's village, rescuing a lot of the villagers. Teo's family included. I'd stake my life that Teo is against what's being done to Superman, but he can't speak up, of course. Foot soldiers in this army can only obey orders, otherwise they or their families would suffer."

"That's true. I've seen some pretty brutal discipline meted out to soldiers who disappoint the General. But are you sure that this Teo would be brave enough to want to help? I'd say the fear of what could happen to his folks is a pretty strong deterrent. If you get this wrong, our lives probably will be at stake!"

"I believe it's a risk worth taking. I think he would want to do what he could, if we can convince him that no one will ever find out that we helped the superhero escape or that he is still alive."

"That's imperative." Janik's head nodded determinedly on his thin neck. "I don't want to see Superman dead, but I don't want to sign my own death warrant either. We get him out of here and to someplace where Hyesan can't recapture him, but after that he's on his own."

"I wish we had time to reverse the surgical process…"

"No!" Janik stood up abruptly, frightening Adrienne. "There's no time for that, and believe me, it will be a much trickier operation to remove those chips than it was to implant them. They've been in his brain for over a year now; such surgery could kill him and neither you nor I are capable of doing the job. Besides, we don't want to see Superman back in the skies. If the hero returns, Hyesan would know exactly what we'd done and he's a psychopath. That man would take great pleasure in hunting us down and killing us, and somehow I don't think he'd make our dying easy. I'm sorry to disappoint you, Adrienne, but I'm not a very brave man."

Adrienne stood too, and reached out to touch Janik's arm for the first time ever. "Don't apologize. I'm not very courageous either. If I was, I would have tried to put an end to this whole nasty business long ago."

Janik, placed his hand on top of Adrienne's and gazed at her with his habitually jaded expression, as if he were disappointed in himself and his life. "There was nothing you could do, Adrienne. There's no way you can reach the outside world from this wretched country to let them know what's going on. Believe me, you are expendable. If you'd objected, Hyesan would have killed you and found a replacement. And, at least, you were as kind to Superman as you could be under the circumstances. We're both doing the best we can to help him survive, and that's all we can do now."

"You're right, we can't undo the past." Her hand lingered for a moment before dropping away, and when she spoke again her voice was more business-like. "So, I should talk to Teo?"

"I can't see what other choice we have. We need help to get Superman out of here, and maybe he'll even have some suggestions about where we take Superman afterward. We're not very far away from the Chinese border, but I have no idea how to get there."

"Then we have a plan. I'll ask Teo first thing tomorrow morning and we'll meet back here tomorrow night…"

"Yes, but after that we have to move more quickly. Following tomorrow, there will only be two days left. We want everything sorted before the day of Hyesan's return. In the meantime, I can start working on that supposedly lethal injection. Getting the green color is easily done, but kryptonite has a certain glow… I might have to use a minute quantity mixed with the strong sedative. Oh, do you have Superman's current stats, like weight and such? If I don't get the proportions right, I could end up killing him by mistake."

Adrienne moved toward the door, realizing their plotting was over for the time being. "It's good to be prepared and I'll get his file to you tomorrow." She halted suddenly, as yet another worry entered her mind. "What about Ablelev? We both know he can't be trusted. He'd run straight to Hyesan, if he found out what we're up to."

"I doubt that'll be a problem. It seems the little weasel has needs that can't be 'scratched' in this prison. He's been having to ignore them for months while the General was around, and having a hard time doing so. He's informed me that since his 'clean up' is already done, he's entitled to some rest and recreation. Apparently some of the soldiers are taking advantage of Hyesan's absence and have agreed to take him down to the local 'knocking shop,' where booze and women are plentiful, if you have money and you're not too choosy. And it also means that there will be fewer guards on camp."

"I always knew the man was a moron! I hope he picks up something disgusting and painful," Adrienne said with feeling.

"Oh, I agree, but in this case the fact that he's a sleazeball makes our life a whole lot easier."

Adrienne reached for the door, but her troubled eyes searched her companion's face. "I wish I'd chosen a different life."

Janik smiled sadly as he went through the door which she'd opened. "Me too! And thank you for Superman's file." He raised his hand toward her, but let it drop without touching her. "Try not to be too down-hearted, Adrienne. We'll succeed, you'll see. Doesn't it say in the Bible that the meek shall inherit the Earth?"

Adrienne returned his smile. "Goodnight." But as her colleague started down the corridor, she called softly. "Janik, what's your first name?"

"Stephan." His voice came back to her out of the dim lighting, and did it hold the echo of pleasure? "Till tomorrow, Adrienne.


The light had dimmed automatically in the patient's small room, which meant that it was night. The lack of brightness was almost his only method of measuring time, that and the meals that were brought regularly to him in the morning and again in the evening.

There were still the drugs, of course. Twice a day the doctor would appear with two guards who were ready to hold him down while she administered the injection. He found that precaution strange. Had he once objected to his medication so viciously that they'd needed to restrain him? He didn't think he was a violent person, but then he really didn't know anything about himself, which must mean he was sick. Certainly, he now accepted that those jabs, along with the treatments he received each day, were for his own good.

Yet his routine had changed. During the past few days — he couldn't tell exactly how many — he hadn't been taken to visit the treatment room. Which had to be a good thing. Maybe he was starting to get better, though Dr Ducos appeared in his room to give him his medication as always. He'd asked why he still needed it, if his treatment was finished, but she'd simply answered that it was necessary for his condition to remain stable.

Briefly, he'd considered asking the doctor to explain what his 'condition' would mean for him in the future, but he was too lethargic to listen to lengthy explanations. Besides, he tended to trust Dr Ducos. She was one of the few of the medical staff whose name he knew. She was, also, kinder to him than the rest of the personnel, apart from Teo, perhaps, and she did seem to genuinely care about his welfare.

No, whatever was wrong with him must be a chronic disability because he'd been in this strange hospital for such a long time and he was still no nearer to remembering his past.

Sometimes he'd dream that this place wasn't really a hospital, but when he awoke he could never hold onto his reasoning for that suspicion. The only facts he'd been able to discover, since he'd been here, was that he had needed surgery and follow-up treatments to control some brain dysfunction he'd suffered. What exactly those treatments involved he simply didn't know because he was mostly unconscious for their duration, only waking up much later to find either Dr Ducos or Teo looking after him.

It was all very confusing, but he had no concrete reasons to doubt the little he'd been told. After all, his medical team might not be very friendly, but they hadn't mistreated him either… not that he could remember… and his personal orderly and the doctor were nice people… in a distant sort of way.

Besides, the alternative to accepting what he now knew about himself was unthinkable. Without some sort of anchor, he was lost and totally bereft. He needed some sense of being… of belonging, and no one else, neither family nor friends, had stepped forward to claim him.


But the nightmares had claimed him, and again that night they came for him; vague outlines of people he felt he should know, but their faces always remained in shadow, their presence merely faint sketches on the pages of his empty mind.

A woman staring at him through the gloom. Perhaps the doctor, for she was the only female he was acquainted with. No, this woman had chestnut colored hair that framed her face like a halo. If only his vision wasn't so clouded then he might recognize her, but the only other feature he could discern were her eyes — eloquent brown eyes with a glint of tears mirrored in their depths. Who was she, this sorrowing woman who haunted his nights?

The snake-like hiss of his door opening and quiet footfalls on the stair threatened to interrupt his dreams, but he turned his back upon the unexpected intrusion. His spiritual visitor had come to him many times in the past and always before, she'd left him without revealing her identity. Yet he never lost hope that just one time she'd step into the light and fill the empty places of his life with purpose. This could be the night, and he refused to allow reality to trespass on his unconscious thoughts.

There was a hand on his shoulder, shaking him urgently, but still he refused to leave his dreamworld.

"No, leave me alone," he mumbled into his thin pillow, as he attempted to pull his blanket over his head.

"We can't," the voice was hushed, close to his ear. A female voice, but this time it was the doctor. "Keep silent, say nothing," she directed, but it was more of an entreaty than an order.

At last, intrigued, he left his refuge of sleep, knowing that with waking his ghosts would fade from his thoughts. He wished he could keep hold of the dreams, but always they slipped from his mind like desert sand through a sieve. He thirsted for self-knowledge, but only the uneasy awareness that he'd had yet another nightmare remained to taunt him.

Reluctantly, he allowed himself to be turned onto his back. The bright ceiling-lights shone directly into his eyes and he squinted at his unexpected visitors. Within a few seconds his sight adjusted to the glare and the image of Dr Ducos came into focus, leaning over him. Behind her two other men stood. He quickly identified Teo, and the older man was vaguely familiar. Hadn't he seen him in the room, occasionally, when he'd been having his treatments?

Oh, no, did this mean they were about to renew the treatment sessions? He hoped not. The treatment always left him feeling weary and even more disconnected. And he'd been told that the cessation of this therapy meant that his disease was under control. Was that no longer true?

But, now that his senses were waking up, he noticed a slight difference in Dr Ducos' manner. She never came that close to him and she never whispered to him either.

"You have to trust us," she said, almost under her breath, as if she didn't want the microphones to pick up her words, while her position, bending over him, probably hid both their faces from the cameras' view. "This isn't what it seems. We don't want to hurt you."

Then she was pulled back and the man he only vaguely knew was shaking him and saying stridently. "Out of the way, Dr Ducos. You're always far too considerate of his feelings. He's only a good-for- nothing layabout. Wake up, specimen! It's time for another treatment. Your final treatment."

The man in the bed didn't like the sound of that, yet as the male doctor gripped his shoulders, he noticed the doctor wink — and he didn't think it was an involuntary action. No, he did it again! Specimen, for that was the only name he knew was his, wasn't quite sure he understood what a wink meant, but somewhere underneath his perplexity, he did feel reassured.

Dr Ducos interjected herself between him and the other doctor. "There's no need for name calling," she threw over her shoulder. "Let's try to make this as easy as possible."

Good! The man allowed himself to relax further as woman took over again. He was familiar with this procedure, yet his feeling of comfort fled as she beckoned Teo forward and he noticed the syringe on the tray that Teo held. His eyes fixated on the needle. Surely after all this time he'd be more used to having injections, but there was something slightly different about this particular hypodermic needle — it glowed faintly green.

And that set his nerves on edge. He decided green wasn't his favorite color. But before he could muster some resistance, or even voice his objection, Dr Ducos was sliding the needle into his arm, the greenish-tinged drug disappearing inside his vein.

"Argh," he groaned aloud. "That hurt!" Normally, Dr Ducos was very gentle when administering his medication.

"I'm sorry."

She sounded sympathetic while she rubbed his muscle to ease the pain, and to ease the drug's progress through his system, suggested a small wary voice in his mind.

"Can you stand? We need to take you to the treatment room." She moved back again as she spoke, enabling Teo to offer him assistance.

"Why? Do I need more treatment?" His voice sounded slurred even to his own ears. He pushed himself up and swung his legs from the bed, the usual dizziness from the drugs making his head swim, but this time it was accompanied by a feeling of nausea. "I'm sick…" he managed to grind out before his head started to roll and his legs began to sag like an old, worn-out rubber toy.

Teo's large hands steadied him and, immediately, the second man was at his other side, propping him up. Between them they supported him as he made a stumbling attempt to climb the stairs. It took longer than normal and he was extremely grateful for the gurney which waited outside his door.

Now there was a thing: a question popped randomly into his hazy brain. Why did his hospital room have a flight of stairs? Wouldn't it have made his treatment easier if the gurney could have been brought to his bedside? Of course, under normal circumstances he'd always been able to walk from his room with just a little help, and he just about made it this time… As his legs gave out completely, he was manhandled onto the gurney.

The lights in the corridor were dim, or was it his vision that was fading? Looking to the side he could still discern the figure of Dr Ducos as she hurried along, but she did seem to be wavering in and out of focus.

The little group about him swung the trolley into the treatment room and somehow managed to transfer him to the surgical table. He would have tried to help, but he felt a whole lot weaker than normal, and he knew he was going to throw up, unfortunately. This was different! What had they done to him, and what were they about to do to him?

Stephan Janik noticed Superman's pallor turn from sickly green to gray. "Turn his head," he demanded quickly of Adrienne. "Get a sick-bowl, Teo. Hurry!" All of their plotting to save the superhero would be useless if he choked on his own vomit first.

Some minutes passed while the patient heaved into the bowl, but as soon as Stephan was satisfied it was safe to do so, he gestured for Superman to be laid out flat again. Time was running out.

They'd chosen to make their move at 4 am to be sure that those not on duty or out carousing were fast asleep, but late enough so the drive to the border could be made in some semblance of light. There was still a lot to be done in the next hour or so before they left the complex and Stephan steeled himself for the ordeal. As distressing as their plans for the poor man might be, it was better than carrying out Hyesan's orders.

The immunologist had allowed himself to be seduced by the promise of money and the scope to research projects which were banned in most western societies. Like Adrienne he'd fooled himself into believing that the end justified the means. Yet, as he'd listened to the General's callous commands to dispose of Superman, he'd found in himself a sense of morality which he'd believed long dead.

For the first time in many years, Stephan rediscovered the need to do the right thing, regardless of the consequences to himself. Of course, he wasn't brave or foolish enough to sacrifice his life for the cause, or for that matter, to allow Adrienne and Teo to do so either — hence the need for this elaborate charade.

It was regrettable that Superman would probably be terrified by what they were about to do, but, thankfully, he would soon be unconscious. It would be easier to do what was necessary to a comatose victim… Stephan just hoped that his and his fellow conspirators' acting abilities would be good enough to fool the cameras and the General, who was sure to avidly watch the recordings of the proceedings just as soon as he returned. That knowledge sent a chill down Stephan's spine.

There was no time, however, for misgivings, and he tamped the feeling down with actions, beginning to strap the superhero to the table. For the first time in many months, Superman resisted. "Dr Ducos, don't just stand there like window-dressing, help me here."

Adrienne's gaze snapped from her contemplation of Superman to her fellow doctor. She shook herself and hurried to the table, taking Superman's hand in her own and squeezing it, she hoped in a comforting manner, as she slid his wrist into the thick leather bonds. "Don't fight us," she instructed, her cold tone at odds with her reassuring press of his hand.

Clearly, though, the man on the table was not picking up on her unspoken message, since he weakly fought against the restraints. Even in his state of disorientation, he seemed to be aware that something was not quite right. If only they could explain what they were about to do was for his own good, but Adrienne, too, knew that was impossible.

Superman's frailty, however, allowed the two doctors to control him easily, and they locked tight the bonds around his wrists and ankles.

"Dr Ducos, I believe the next phase is up to you." Stephan stepped back to allow Adrienne access to the table.

Their victim started to relax. He had been here before. Soon Dr Ducos would be inserting an IV tube into the back of his wrist. Soon he would be slipping into a deep sleep where nothing reached him, not even dreams. Soon, he would be waking up back in his own bed, feeling sick and melancholy, but with Teo to take care of him.

Only, not this time! It wasn't any type of medical implement that Dr Ducos pulled from beneath a side-trolley. It was an item of an entirely different shape and made of darker metal, which glinted evilly in the glare of the overhead lights, as she raised it toward his head. He'd seen the guards carry such things, though this was much smaller. Yet it still looked clumsy in her grasp. Perhaps, Dr Ducos was more at home with hypodermics than guns.

Immediately Superman tensed. His past and identity might be lost to him, but he sensed he'd faced guns before. He knew such weapons killed and maimed, but why should these people want to kill him? What had he done that his doctors would turn against him?

But you never were a patient, that tiny nagging voice reminded him. You were always a specimen! Wasn't that what they called you?

He'd allowed himself to be fooled by the caring manner of this woman and Teo. Strangely, he felt no fear as he stared into the barrel of the gun, held so near his face. His existence had been a living death for a long time now… it mattered little that this should be the end. If he had one regret, it was that he'd never discover the true identity of his dream woman.

That final thought shocked him. He was still conscious and he remembered that there was a dream woman! If only he could picture her. Dying with her image in his mind would not be a hardship.

But in his preoccupation with his dream, he failed to take account of reality. He hadn't noticed the gun begin to shake in Dr Ducos hand, nor that her aim had shifted slightly. He did, however, hear her strangled cry.

"I can't! What if bullets don't kill him?"

That seemed like a very weird thing to say, the man in the firing line decided somewhat distractedly. At this range he doubted any victim would survive.

"Dr Ducos, that's crazy." The man in the white coat clearly agreed. "The injection you gave him earlier contained 'green K.' Even if he wasn't already vulnerable, he is now. And you know you've been sticking him with needles for almost a year."

Listening to the conversation going back and forth above his head, the man wondered what 'green K' might be. Somehow he realized it was something that wasn't beneficial to his health… just as he'd known instinctively that he hated the color.

"Come on, Doctor! I don't want to hang around here all night waiting for you to do what you have to." Janik's voice betrayed mounting annoyance.

"I am trying. I've never done this sort of thing before…"

A silence engulfed the room, the four occupants remaining in a frozen tableau, awaiting the deafening noise of gunfire. Then Adrienne gave a gulping sigh, freeing the still figures.

"It's no use." She let the gun drop to her side. "I can't kill… anyone. Let Hyesan do what he wants to me. I won't shoot this man."

Superman let out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding and directed his attention fully back to the people in the room. Perhaps he'd been reprieved, though he thought that unlikely… and he was right.

"Women! Never could trust them to do a job properly," Janik complained loudly. "I knew Hyesan was wrong to put you in charge of the clean-up. What in god's name made you think you could shoot him? I bet you've never used a firearm before in your life."

"No," Adrienne admitted defensively. "But you probably haven't either. Can you do any better?" She passed the gun to Stephan, holding it by her fingertips as if the butt was contaminated.

"Put that away," he ordered. "Gunshot wounds are messy. I prefer something with more finesse. After all, we're physicians; we have other means of killing at our disposal. It's a good job for you that I have a back-up plan."

The male doctor walked out of Superman's line of vision for a moment, but when he returned, Superman was in no doubt that his final moment had arrived. He didn't need to see the injection-gun in Janik's hand, his body was already cramping as much as it possibly could in his confined position. Through eyes wet with tears of pain, he became mesmerized again by the sickly green hue emanating from Janik's fist.

After one final feeble attempt to wrench his arm free, Superman once again gave into the inevitable. He closed his eyes and turned his head away as the injection was administered, trying to ignore the pain, trying not to allow his killers the satisfaction of knowing he was afraid.

Then 'she' was there, a wraith-like figure in his fading consciousness, watching him with a gaze full of sadness and compassionate understanding, as if she shared his anguish. He almost cried out to her, yet her name remained beyond his memory, and it didn't matter anyway as he no longer had the power of speech. She smiled, and his terror ebbed away — death would not seem so bad, if she were with him.

Around him the others waited nervously for the moment when the drugs would take effect and they could begin the next phase of the plan. Each of them were struggling with their inner dreads, while hoping they were maintaining a calm exterior for the cameras.

Adrienne hated to see such a brave and good man brought so low, and the knowledge she'd been part of Hyesan's horrific scheme shamed her to the core of her being.

Teo was upset by what he saw, but growing up in this harsh land had made him somewhat immune to suffering. Besides, he was a simple soldier in an army where to disobey orders would mean certain death for himself and his family. He was proud to be given the chance to help the superhero he admired, but he was taking a huge risk in doing so, and not just with his own life. Teo totally understood the need for this pretense.

Yet, perhaps the most anxious of the three was Janik. The theory he was following was not an exact science and he could only pray that he'd calculated the correct doses of the toxins that the Kryptonian could safely withstand. An overdose could be lethal, and there was still more torture to come. All Stephan could do to help was to work quickly and hope Superman would have the stamina to come through his travail without incurring any permanent damage. Or no more than they had agreed to inflict on him, at least.

Adrienne had been horrified when he'd suggested his addition to the plan. Thankfully, Teo had agreed stoically. The soldier had served under Hyesan's command for some years and knew exactly what would impress the sadistic General. Between them, Stephan and Teo had persuaded Adrienne to comply, though she still hadn't been happy. Hell, he wasn't feeling very good about what he was about to do!

Which reminded Stephan that Adrienne was not following the script. He took a chance and nudged her with his foot, which wasn't exactly easy, since she was standing on the other side of the table. He hoped the camera hadn't picked up his surreptitious prompt.

The woman sent her colleague a challenging look, but at his steady stare, she remembered she had a role to act out. "Just what poison did you mix with the kryptonite?"

"I don't think you really want to know. I mixed up my own concoction; something similar to the lethal injections used in the United States. The green K is just to make sure it takes effect on his alien physiology."

The commentary was for Hyesan's benefit, though the latter was embellishment; without his powers, Superman reacted to drugs pretty similarly to a human. Since the General had kept a very close eye on the experiments over this past year, Stephan was pretty sure the top soldier would be very aware of all the medical details regarding his poor victim.

In truth, there was only a very minute quantity of kryptonite in the syringe, just enough to cause a reaction from the superhero, but Stephen had used a very powerful sedative, plus nerve and muscle relaxants. After all, it had to appear on camera that Superman had died. If Stephan had done his calculations correctly, his patient should remain totally comatose while they carried out the rest of their plan. Once they'd smuggled him out of the complex and they were no longer under surveillance, Stephan would administer the stimulant and with any luck Superman should regain his senses with nothing more than a giant hangover… and one very painful extremity.

Superman's breathing became laboured as if each single breath was dredged up from the very depths of his soul. Thankfully, his eyes remained closed, though at this point he was probably still semi- conscious. A gentle smile turned up the corners of his lips, transforming the haggard look of his face.

The others had never seen him smile before during his incarceration, and the knowledge broke Adrienne's heart. Here was a man who deserved to smile at life. She prayed that in this moment he had found a safe haven… one that brought him some happiness… if it were fleeting.

The painful breathing stuttered and the body on the table gave one last convulsive jerk as the cocktail of drugs caused the nerve-endings to freeze — the smile slowly faded, and yet a faint trace of peace lingered on Superman's face. Stephan placed his fingertips to the superhero's neck, searching for a pulse, while his fellow conspirators waited anxiously. They'd trusted the immunologist's expertise, yet they'd both known the very thin tightrope he'd been treading — Adrienne more than Teo.

"He's dead," Stephan stated baldy. "Would you care to confirm, Dr Ducos?"

Adrienne's frightened stare locked with Janik's. Superman was dead! Had all their scheming been for nothing? Had she placed her faith in the wrong man? No, this was part of the plan. She had to believe it.

"Adrienne, pay attention!" A mocking grin spread over his face. "I feel, since we're now partners-in-crime, so to speak, that first names are appropriate."

She gave herself a mental shake, fully aware that it was crucial that she hold up her part of the act, and, so far, she decided she hadn't been doing a very good job.

"Sorry, Dr Janik." She stressed his formal title. "It's hard to believe that we killed someone who's supposed to be indestructible. So many people have tried, in the past."

"Even the mighty fall if you have the knowledge and the correct tools. It's a pity I can never record my findings, though," Janik reflected with a disgruntled grimace.

Again Adrienne wondered if her trust was misplaced, or if Stephan Janik had missed his calling on the stage. She stretched her arm out, willing it not to shake, and followed Stephan's instructions. Beneath her fingertips, Superman's skin felt cold. For interminable moments she waited… seeking… sensing… There it was… a pulse, but so thready, and slow that only a medical person would find it.

Adrienne had been brought up a Catholic, but she'd long forgotten her faith, until now. She'd been praying, silently, unceasingly till she had felt that pulse. Now her elation gave her the courage to continue.

"I confirm that Superman is dead," she said, her voice steady and strong.

"Good. Now perhaps we can move along to the next phase," Stephan suggested helpfully, relieved that Adrienne had not broken down, and also that her apparent calm manner meant that she was actually confirming the opposite of her words. He'd been afraid that detecting Superman's pulse was only wishful thinking on his part.

"Yes, let's dispose of the body. Teo, help us get him down to the boiler-room."

"Wait, don't be too hasty, Adrienne. There's something I need to do first." Stephan picked up a scalpel from the trolley by his side and held it under the lights.

"What do you mean? What are you doing, Dr Janik?" Adrienne demanded, staring as Stephan spread Superman's fingers on the table — as the wicked blade nicked the skin of his middle finger. She knew this was part of the plan, and she had agreed, but the thought of it made her feel sick.

"We're cremating the body in the incinerator along with the rest of the stuff we have to destroy. By the time we're done there won't be anything left but ashes, so I thought General Hyesan might like a souvenir — like a trophy! OK, it's a little small to hang on the wall, but I'm sure he'll find a spot for it."

"You disgust me, Janik!"

"Don't be so squeamish, Adrienne," Stephan replied on cue, and deciding to stick to his choice of her given name. "You're in this up to your pretty little neck, just like the rest of us."

Janik had begun his amputation, and Adrienne didn't have to feign distaste. Stephan had explained last night why this had to be done. Of course she'd objected at first, but when the usually silent Teo had backed him, she'd known she'd lost the argument. Much as she hated to admit it, they did have a point.

The boiler room was also covered by CCTV, so unfortunately, the body they cast into the flames would need to be shrouded by a sheet. It would be possible to make the swap in the narrow anteroom leading to the basement which housed the furnace… the only place where the snooping lens had long since broken down and no one had thought to repair it. In fact, a body of similar height and build to Superman, which Teo had appropriated from the village cemetery, was already waiting there, suitably one finger less.

Just yesterday, three local men had been killed in an accident when their ancient truck had veered off a mountain road into a ravine. A tragic incident for the victims and their families, but one which the conspirators had philosophically accepted as timely for their needs.

The villagers had been grateful for Corporal Teo's assistance, first in retrieving the bodies and later burying them. The young soldier was fairly well known in the village for being of a kinder disposition than the rest of the men in his battalion. So the fact that one body had been spirited away had either gone unnoticed, or was stoically ignored. The villagers had learned to turn a blind eye to the happenings at the camp on their doorstep and most would be likely to protect Teo, if the need arose.

Yet Teo wouldn't need protection if General Hyesan was convinced that the body being thrown into the flames belonged to his 'specimen.' The fact that he'd see the recording of Janik cutting off Superman's finger, an action which would appeal to his base nature, followed by a fortuitous slip of the sheet as the body disappeared inside the incinerator, allowing a hand minus a finger to be displayed, would hopefully dispel any doubt in the General's suspicious mind. People tended to believe what their eyes told them.

If Superman's death appeared so unimpeachable, then Hyesan would never contemplate searching for him. Adrienne had been persuaded, yet it didn't make the reality of the deed more acceptable.

Stephan was working quickly and expertly and she forced herself to remember her lines. If this was to be done, it had to be done convincingly.

"Why don't you just cut off the finger with a machete? He's dead. He won't feel a thing."

"Tut-tut, Adrienne. I already told you — I'm a doctor, not a butcher." Stephan never once looked up. Within minutes he'd finished his task and Superman's middle finger was dropped into a bowl of embalming fluid. "There it's done. Now we can get him down to the basement. I want to get some sleep tonight."

The gurney was brought back to the operating table, the restraints unfastened and the body transferred by Teo and Stephan. Before they had a chance to move the trolley, Adrienne had retrieved a pristine white sheet from a nearby cabinet and tucked it securely round the supposed corpse, shielding it completely from the camera's view. She was particularly careful when she reached the injured hand, but she had to concede that Stephan had done a proficient job, amputating the finger cleanly from the bottom knuckle. There was hardly any blood, though she suspected the drugs Superman had been given were partly responsible for that circumstance. They would treat the injury as soon as they had their patient out of this hell hole.

"Ever fastidious, Adrienne," Janik sneered at her actions. "You worry me, you do! However did you get involved in this business in the first place? Just remember to keep your prissy little mouth closed. Hyesan wants this kept secret, so make sure you don't go crying to world the truth about the death of its hero. Even Hyesan's superiors would probably baulk at being implicated in that can of worms. They'd throw him to the wolves, and he knows it. So if you don't want to end up like this poor b


d, you'd better grow a thicker skin."

It didn't take much acting on Adrienne's part for her to look horrified. "I know all that! I just don't like seeing our work of the past year wasted. The new combination of drugs would have worked. I should have been given the chance to prove it."

"Forget it, Adrienne. It's history. I'm sure if you ask the General nicely he'll find you some new lab rats to play with. Now can we get this show on the road. I'm tired and I have a date with a bottle of vodka before I go to sleep."


Chapter Four: Escape to Nowhere

The rest of the program to free Superman from his prison seemed to go without a hitch. Just before sundown, of what was now the previous day, Teo had brought the anonymous body into the compound in a large container which held the laundry. All of the camp linen, plus the personnel's uniforms and clothing, were taken twice weekly to the village women for washing — a circumstance Teo had been able to utilize to the rescuers' advantage.

By employing his knowledge of the cameras' routine sweeps of the bunker and a number of blind spots in the cameras' range, Teo had succeeded in conveying the poor man's remains to the boiler-anteroom in the bowels of the complex. Once there, Stephan had removed the correct finger from the body, using as much care as he would have done with a living being. Later, for the sake of authenticity, he would smear the stump with some of Superman's blood, using the contents of the only vial he hadn't destroyed.

Stephan was still surprised by his enthusiasm for thwarting Hyesan's orders. Since embarking on this project, vodka had not been his constant bedtime companion. And the reason was not only that he needed a clear head to carry out the risky plan, but the fact that he had found in Adrienne Ducos a fellow crusader and… perhaps a friend?

Was it possible they could be more than friends, if they ever got free of this repressive regime and Hyesan's insane schemes? By staying to save Superman, both he and Adrienne had given up the chance for their own escape. They couldn't afford to take any action which might alert the General's suspicions. Their only option was to stay and make their report on Superman's death, even if it meant remaining in the Korean's employ for the foreseeable future.

At least, they would be together.

Mind you, Stephan had no idea if that fact would please Adrienne. Until a couple of days ago, she'd linked him with Abelev and despised them both. Now she tolerated him, probably, because she needed his aid, but he had noticed a certain warming in her manner toward him. Whether this thaw was enough to give him hope he had no idea, yet the very fact that he was interested in a relationship with a woman was startling. For some years he'd considered himself an embittered, middle-aged reprobate. Only now he wanted more for himself… more for Adrienne… and, at least, freedom for the man they had wronged.

To that end, Stephan tidied up and bandaged Superman's injured hand while Teo pushed the trolley with the substitute body into the boiler room. In full view of the CCTV cameras, the soldier hefted the sheeted corpse onto his shoulder, apparently inadvertently letting an arm with a bloodied hand fall down his back. Seconds later, with some physical effort, he tossed his burden into the maw of the furnace, and lifting a large spade, he casually stuffed the cadaver further into the fire.

Teo watched for some time as the greedy flames lapped at the edge of the sheet, quickly blackening the material. Then he added to the fire stacks of the doctors' paper files, old video-tapes and discs which had been earmarked for destruction and which, hopefully, would aid the conflagration. It was imperative that no body parts be left for identification by the time the General and his entourage returned. The three were confident, however, that with a little extra tending of the incinerator, nothing but ash would be found inside… should Hyesan feel the need to check.

When Teo judged that the cameras had filmed enough of the blaze and a sickly sweet smell of burning flesh mixed with plastic began to irritate his senses, he closed the huge door, latching it shut. Finally, he checked the dials to ensure the furnace would burn at its hottest temperature, then left. He'd monitor progress later, when he returned from their proposed foray into the wild forests.

They were on the final stages of the rescue, but only Teo, who was more acquainted with the remote terrain their route would take them through, understood that the hardest part was yet to come. The two doctors apparently believed that the worst was behind them, but thankfully, Dr Ducos and Janik had yielded responsibility for the journey into his hands.

At least dawn would be breaking soon — a night drive through the treacherous countryside would be nigh on impossible — and once they closed in on the border, they would have to go on foot. Teo just hoped that Janik was correct and that Superman would be sufficiently recovered to manage the trek. Teo knew his own strength, and like any young man was unconsciously proud of his capabilities, but carrying the superhero over such rocky tracks might be too hard a task even for him.

But first they had to get out of the complex. The plotters had argued about the means of their leaving. Adrienne was all for transferring Superman into the laundry basket and smuggling him out in that, but the next delivery to the village wasn't due till the morning of the next day. How would they explain Teo driving the truck away at dawn? And waiting for the normal run wasn't an option. Besides, with only a handful of staff left behind, would Hyesan even believe that the laundry trip was necessary?

Especially since they'd agreed to burn Superman's bedding and his few pieces of furniture as extra fuel for the incinerator. The General had ordered all traces of the superhero's stay in the bunker obliterated, so it was pretty safe to assume that he would accept that decision without objections.

After much wrangling, the tiny escape committee agreed they needed another exit plan and once again Adrienne and Stephan were grateful for their newest recruit's intelligent and observant nature. Indeed, since bringing Teo on board, both had wondered if the guard had already contemplated rescuing his hero. He'd certainly jumped at their offer to help spirit Superman away.

In the time Teo had spent stationed at the complex he'd explored its layout extensively. Actually, Corporal Teo had been one of the advance guard who'd arrived with the General to reconnoiter the premises. When Hyesan had satisfied himself that the old 'cold war' refuge was remote enough for his covert experiments on mind control, he'd issued orders for the bunker to be modernized expeditiously. The fact that Teo was amongst the soldiers who'd liaised with the local builders was now very beneficial to their cause.

The bunker had been built in the 1950s and the original plans had incorporated an emergency stairwell for access, in case a power failure would render the elevators useless. However, with more modern technology and highly efficient generators installed in the bunker, Hyesan had instructed that the staircase be blocked off. The contractors had left this job to last, and running out of time and money, behind the heavy steel doors at both top and bottom of the stairs, they had built brick walls. On the surface these walls looked adequate, but were not exactly secure, due to substandard cement work.

None of the officers had ever thought to test the security of these barricades, relying on the fact that above ground a high barbed-wire fence ran round the whole perimeter of the camp. Guards patrolled regularly, plus the area was scanned by CCTV. Besides, none of the locals would have any inclination to approach Hyesan's lair and, certainly, none of the inmates would be in a fit state to find their way to the hidden stairwell.

Teo had always been aware of the botched job, but he'd said nothing, wanting to protect the villagers from his commander's rage. These people barely scraped a living for themselves in this harsh wilderness and didn't need the added worry of having a high-powered General breathing down their necks. Now he was grateful that he'd kept silent and even more thankful that the entrance to the staircase was in the ante-chamber to the boiler room — the one place with the broken surveillance camera.

It was a situation which hadn't gone undetected, either, by a few of Teo's enterprising comrades who didn't mind taking a few risks to sneak out of the camp to enjoy a little recreation at the local bordello, a pastime of which Hyesan would not have approved. The perpetrators had known the need for strict secrecy. In fact, they might have been the reason the camera was defunct in the first place, but that didn't really matter to Teo and the two doctors, since they could make full use of this undercover way out.

Sometime in the past, these guards had loosened some of the bricks to make holes in the walls… just enough for a grown man to squeeze through. When they'd return to the bunker after a night's recreation, they'd carefully replace the bricks so that their officers wouldn't find out what they were up to. But that wasn't quite true. Teo knew of one officer, at least, who had used the exit a couple of times along with the other soldiers.

It didn't take much effort for Teo to widen the opening in the shoddy brick work with some cautious use of a sledgehammer, a tool he'd taken openly, during the day, from the basement cupboards to break up the equipment in the respective doctor's labs and would soon employ on the furniture in Superman's cell.

Now Teo carefully pushed the extra bricks aside, so that like the other soldiers, he could repair the opening later.

"How many people know about this?" Stephan inquired as he watched Teo work, waiting for Adrienne to communicate to the corporal.

But it seemed a translation wasn't needed. Before Adrienne finished, Teo answered for himself.

"Not many! And no one tell… They be too scared. They be hurt if General ever knows this."

The doctors exchanged amused glances. Both had speculated privately that their helper understood some English. He'd often reacted too quickly to a conversation between themselves, not needing to wait for a translation. Yet he'd never spoken in English before; hadn't actually said much at all, so his words did surprise the two. Teo's accent might be thick and he didn't appear comfortable with the unfamiliar tongue, but the fact that they could converse would certainly make the next few hours easier.

Yet, Adrienne couldn't hold back the question that sprung immediately to her lips. "You speak English, Teo? Why have you never let on?"

Not stopping in his task, Teo glanced over his shoulder at the woman. "No speak English good… know some. Bad things happen to Teo if General Hyesan know. Teo no speak inside." He jerked his head in the direction of the heavy steel door which they had closed behind them.

"That's OK, Teo, neither Dr Janik nor I will ever give your secret away," Adrienne smiled as she spoke, throwing Stephan a glance, encouraging him to join in.

"No, of course not. We're all in this together — like the three musketeers, and we have to watch each other's backs!" Teo looked puzzled at the strange phrases and Stephan explained. "Sorry! We all have to take care of each other… make sure Hyesan never finds out what we've done."

Teo nodded, saying nothing, but his expression showed great relief. Speaking the language of the hated western world was strictly against the rules for a private soldier, and he was adding to his treachery by aiding and abetting Superman. He wasn't afraid for himself. A soldier risked death many times, but he was terrified for his family's sake.

Once the hole was deemed large enough, the three manipulated Superman through the space, and started to climb the four flights of steps. Not exactly an easy task, but made easier by the fact that the top of the gurney lifted of its base to be carried like a stretcher. Nevertheless, it was an extremely weary and out-of-breath threesome who reached the outer door.

Stephan grabbed the lever which operated the opening mechanism for the bulkhead door — this, after all, was the entrance to a fallout shelter and the metal was thicker than the door below. He yanked with all his strength, but to no avail.

"I guess this is where superstrength would come in handy," Adrienne teased, hoping to relieve the tension.

Clearly, Stephan didn't see the lighter side. "The darned thing can't be rusted in place if these other guards have been using it." He tried once more, throwing his entire weight behind his effort. "Teo, maybe we should have gone with the laundry basket."

The bolts screeched, echoing in the cavernous stairwell. "Man! That's loud enough to wake the dead." Stephan gave up on his efforts. "You'd think your partying friends would have oiled this door."

"Not friends." Teo's head shook back and forth emphatically, his hands gripping one of the older man's arms to move him aside.

"Relax, Stephan, there are no microphones in here to pick up the sound." Adrienne's eyes scanned the concrete hallway at the top of the stairs just to make sure. Now that they were almost out of the bunker, she felt strangely elated… tired, perhaps, but mentally alert. They'd come further than she'd ever dreamed possible and she was starting to believe that the gods were on their side. "Didn't you remind me that the meek shall inherit the Earth?"

"Yeah, but in this godforsaken country more often they get trodden in the dirt!" Stephan countered, for the moment not sharing Adrienne's optimism.

Finding it difficult to understand the references in the conversation, Teo gave a dismissive shrug and stepped between the two doctors to attempt to release the locks. The corporal's muscles bunched beneath his uniform and within seconds the door groaned once more then swung slowly open, allowing the ghostly glimmer of pre-dawn to seep onto the landing.

Three expectant stares searched the flat landscape of scrub and boulders. Roughly 50 yards away they could barely make out the line of barbed wire fence, but in between there were few bushes to create shadows — no places to hide. Stephan's anxiety notched up another level.

"How are we going to get past the patrols? We're not exactly going to be able to sprint across that distance carrying a stretcher."

Once again, Teo shook his head. "Guards gone… none in… lookouts…" The soldier looked a little nonplussed, before reverting to his own language to explain to Adrienne, leaving Stephan to stew in frustration.

"What's he saying?"

"Hush!" Adrienne ordered. "I can't listen to both of you."

There was a short verbal exchange in Korean while Stephan tried to curb his impatience. He'd just about reached the end of his tether when Adrienne turned to him.

"The towers have been unmanned for weeks and with only two guards on the gate tonight, there should be no patrols about now. The plan was that one of them would go round the grounds at midnight, and again just after dawn. The soldiers have no idea what we're up to and they don't believe anyone would want to break in, so they decided to relax a little. The others have gone with Abelev into the village, including the remaining dog handler. Seems he likes to have a good time. In fact, he's the soldier who found this way out. Neither of the remaining guards trust the dogs, so we don't have to worry about our scent being discovered later. Besides, the dog handlers usually give this place a wide berth, not wanting to give the secret away. Teo also says they aren't planning to return until morning. They're taking full advantage of Hyesan's absence."

"When the cat's away, the mice will play," Stephan said with a chuckle, which soon changed to a moan. "Great! Then there's a chance that we'll bump into them now or on our way back in."

"No! According to Teo they won't be back till much later, and this time they took a jeep and went out through the gates. Their friends on duty will turn a blind eye in expectation of the favour being returned someday."

"Good God, are all these soldiers corrupt?"

"Looks like quite a few," Adrienne concurred. "That's probably what you get when you keep your men on too tight a rein. We shouldn't complain, though. They've made our job easier!"

"Oh, I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. But what about the cameras?"

"The cameras scan the grounds more than the gates. Hyesan has faith in his men's loyalty. Not that there's any fondness between commander and troops, but he does have faith in their belief in self-preservation."

"Seems his faith is misplaced, but if the cameras scan the grounds how do we get the stretcher over there without being seen?" Stephan gestured with his chin toward the fence.

Once again, Teo interrupted and Stephan had to shut up and wait. Moments later, Adrienne translated the message for his benefit. "There aren't too many cameras and this place is at the edge of their range. Teo knows the timing of the sweeps and is confident we can get across the ground in time, but we have to hurry. There is a jeep hidden in the woods beyond the compound boundary. We have to reach the river and get back here before the others return from their party."

"Humph, I thought this place was impregnable. If I'd known about all this coming and going, I might have escaped long ago."

"Oh right!" Adrienne sounded skeptical. "And just where would you have gone? We're living in a camp in the middle of mountains covered with trees, and in an alien country. You don't even speak the language. Without a guide you'd wander around lost for days… weeks. And if you didn't die of exposure, Hyesan would have you brought back and flayed alive. He might need us, but he despises us. You might not have noticed, but I'm sure he'd enjoy having an excuse to torture us. Hyesan might be an arrogant sod, but he's right in surmising that only a fool would risk escaping from here."

"I know you're right," Stephan conceded quietly, determinedly straightening to his full height and grinning ruefully. He was over his moment of panic. "I guess we are crazy fools. But let's get this job done and just hope that he never finds that excuse."

Teo made them wait a few more minutes then he stuck his head around the door frame, peering into the gloomy light with his infrared binoculars. Immediately he'd satisfied himself the camera had swung in the opposite direction, he picked up his end of the stretcher and gestured for Stephan to do likewise. Adrienne, as planned, would steady the unconscious superhero on what might prove to be a bumpy ride.

The group made their way outside, laying the stretcher down in the shadow of the wall while Teo closed the door. Then wasting no time, Superman was picked up again and the three jogged their way as speedily, yet as carefully, as possible across the stony ground. It wouldn't do to stumble or drop their cargo. The camera lens wouldn't swing back in their direction for some minutes, but there was no time for errors.

When the stretcher-bearers reached the fence they were both gasping for breath, though Stephan was in more trouble than his younger colleague. The man they were carrying might no longer have his powers, but Stephan wished that the onetime hero had lost more weight, or that he himself was in better shape. Maybe he'd start taking better care of himself, if they ever were free of this mess. Who knew, maybe Adrienne might find him more attractive if he was fit.

The million-dollar question, though, was whether they would succeed in getting out of here. On the other side of the fence, Stephan could see a shrub-covered bank which sloped steeply to the encroaching trees. Over there lay the safety of cover, but how were they to reach that goal? He'd expected to find a hole in the wire; a cut-out panel which could easily be removed and replaced, but the stretched wire seemed intact.

Obviously the men who used this route were fit enough to climb the fence, but he doubted that he or Adrienne could manage such a feat… and there was absolutely no way the stretcher could be manhandled over such a high barrier.

"The camera!" Adrienne hissed in his ear.

Stephan and Adrienne gazed up at the pylon which held the camera. The all-seeing eye was returning to the concrete structure they'd left behind. It crept along the wall toward the door, carrying on till it reached the far corner of the building. Very shortly, it would be arcing across the open land toward the very spot they were occupying. They'd be caught like rats in a trap and all their meticulous planning would have been in vain.

"Go, quick!" Teo's voice was little more than a whisper but heavy with authority, while he made a grab for Adrienne's waist.

Taken completely by surprise, Adrienne couldn't suppress a scream, quickly muffled by Teo's hand as he pushed her down into the earth.

"What the heck?" Stephan managed to grind out before he too was being shoved into a gully among the rocks.

Neither of the two doctors had appreciated that they'd been led to a particular point where a few boulders rested close by the fence. Rocks hardly big enough to hide a child, let alone an adult, but rocks that overhung a cleft in the ground leading under the wire; a makeshift path to the outside world which had probably been caused by heavy rains during the last typhoon season.

The camera was sweeping ever closer as Teo passed the stretcher down into the high-sided ditch where his fellow conspirators helped its progress. Quickly, the corporal dived head first for cover, his boots disappearing from view with just seconds to spare.

Once more the three lay perfectly still in the leafy trench, hardly daring to breathe, while above their heads the CCTV searched the terrain directly outside the compound perimeter. In the total silence they heard the whir of the technological watchdog as it began to repeat its habitual journey.

After a few moments, they were galvanized into action, slithering and sliding down the length of the small ravine and into the tree line. From there it was only a matter of a short walk to the stashed jeep and five minutes later they were loaded up and driving north for the river border with China.

All three were too exhausted to feel a sense of relief. Their escape from the camp had been too close a call, but at least they were on the last lap. Which brought nearer the need to revive Superman and both doctors were all too aware that this procedure was little more than experimental.

The mood within the confines of the jeep was extremely somber. They were racing against time. Teo had estimated that the round-trip journey should take about two to three hours, not counting the time it would take to get Superman fit enough to cross the border, which meant they'd have to smuggle themselves back into the camp in daylight. Of course, if they got caught, they could always excuse themselves by saying the doctors had needed a drink after carrying out Hyesan's orders successfully.

Adrienne was sure Hyesan wouldn't doubt that she might want to get plastered after murdering Superman. He believed she was a spineless fool. Very probably he'd accept that Stephan would join her. After all, the General was likely aware of Stephan's nightly libation habits. So it shouldn't take too much trouble to convince Hyesan that they'd bribed Teo into guiding them to the village.

The ideal situation, however, was that they could sneak back in without discovery… and surely that scenario wasn't too much of a stretch. Abelev and his companions might not have returned, or if they had, those who could would probably be sleeping off their hangovers. The soldiers on the gate would be looking forward to being relieved — also by a couple of those who'd spent the night outside. Either way, those guarding the gate shouldn't be patrolling too zealously.

But even if they were apprehended, all might not be lost. To protect their own backs, the guards might agree to keep quiet about the doctors' supposed recreational trip to the village. The ordinary soldiers should have no reason to doubt that explanation, since they too went AWOL on a regular basis. Certainly, they wouldn't be too keen to have the General discover they'd been sneaking out of his camp in direct disobedience of his orders.

There was no way Adrienne, Stephan or Teo could be sure of the outcome of the next few hours, so they sat silently as the vehicle bumped over the pot-holed track and prayed in their own way for salvation.


Far removed from the Korean jungle, Lois Lane shut down her computer mid-afternoon and packed up her things to head out of the Daily Planet newsroom. This evening, her eldest daughter was to compete with the school's gymnastic team and she'd offered, along with some other parents, to help with the team's preparations.

Lois had learned in a very hard school that her family was the most important part of her life and she didn't take for granted a moment of the time she could spend with them. And this was one competition she wouldn't miss being a part of for anything in the world.

When Sara, their 'quiet' daughter, was seven years old she'd pleasantly surprised both her parents by joining gymnastic classes. Yet, for some months after her father's disappearance, Sara had lost all interest in her passion, ignoring her teammates and becoming almost a recluse. Lois had understood, but had worried so for her child. It had been such a relief when, suddenly, Sara announced she'd had a change of heart, deciding Daddy would want her to continue.

In the ensuing months, Sara had worked hard to achieve the required standard to regain her place on the team while doggedly suppressing her budding superpowers. Lois smiled gently, remembering her daughter solemnly telling her that she didn't want to use her 'specialness' to give her an advantage over her teammates. Clark would have been so proud…

Her hands stilled, as once again she was reminded of her husband. Lois might be learning to live without Clark, yet there wasn't a day went by, not even a moment, when he wasn't in her thoughts. Only a few nights ago, she'd told her younger daughter that she still talked to Clark, and that was true.

At work, she'd find herself having conversations with him inside her head as she worked through a difficult investigation, except she didn't do too many exposes these days. But, when she did, she'd try to recreate the easy ebb and flow of ideas between them which had led to Lane and Kent nailing so many prize-winning stories…

Within her personal life, she always tried to see any problems that arose from his point of view, letting him guide her when the going got particularly tough. And she always made time to talk to her children about their father. To let them know how much he loved them.

No, it wasn't unusual for Lois to think about Clark… but on that afternoon at the Planet, she was extremely shocked to feel he was thinking of her. Lois' breath caught and she instinctively opened up the connection which had been lost to her for too long. For over a year, she'd felt no sense of his presence. Indeed, this had been the one unforgiving factor which had convinced her that Clark was dead.

Yet for a moment, as the city room of the Daily Planet went about business in its normally chaotic fashion around her, Lois was transported to another world by the shade of her husband reaching out to her once more. In her heart, she sensed a shiver of his panic, followed by a strange sense of peace… a final coming home. Whatever was happening, and Lois couldn't be sure just what that was, Clark was finally at rest.

"Lois?" Jimmy's voice sounded close by, rising anxiously over the hubbub of the bullpit. "Is everything OK?"

The interlude had passed, and again Clark's presence retreated into memory, into that special place in her heart where he would always remain, entwined forever in the very sinews of her being. He would never truly leave her — how could he when he was the other half of her soul?

"Yes, I'm fine, Jimmy," Lois said, not really sure if this were true.

"For a minute there you looked like you'd seen a ghost."

Lois shrugged. "Something like that. I just got one of these feelings when you think someone is walking over your grave."

"Right," Jimmy grinned. "Never did understand where that saying comes from, or what it means."

"Me neither, but I have to rush. Got a hot date with Sara this evening. She's representing the school at a gymnastic event for the first time since… since she went back…" Lois' voice faltered and she returned to gathering up her things. "The coach asked for volunteers to help keep the kids focused during the final training session."

"Hey, why didn't you say. I'd like to come too. CK would have been so proud."

"Exactly what I was thinking."

Jimmy's grin softened in understanding. "So that's where you went to…"

"Yes." Sudden tears sparkled on the tips of Lois' lashes, threatening to fall. "Oh, Jimmy, just when I think I'm doing so well, I get all emotional again. I have to be strong for the kids, but sometimes thoughts of Clark hit me out of the blue and I end up a quivering wreck."

"And you wouldn't want it any other way," Jimmy reminded her, helpfully snagging a tissue from a box on her desk and passing it to her. "Well, maybe not the quivering wreck part, but you wouldn't want to forget him… would you?"

"No! Definitely not. Clark is kinda unforgettable."

"You just miss him, Lois, and if it makes you feel any better, I do too… we all do. He was one of a kind."

They'd had this conversation before… a number of times. Often, when they were working late on a story, they'd end up talking about CK. The things he said and did, some funny, some sad… and those crazy ties he wore…

Maybe not so often late at night now, as Lois tried to restrict her work, as much as possible, to normal 9-to-5 hours. Her kids had lost one parent and Lois was going to make sure they didn't lose another. Yet Jimmy was determined to be there for Lois whenever she needed him.

"And just so you know, Lois, I think you're doing a great job. Clark would be proud of you too."

Lois reached out a hand to her friend. This past year she'd discovered people cared for her more than she'd ever suspected… and that was also Clark's legacy to her. He'd taught her the value of letting people in.

Jimmy clasped her hand for a second, then started to draw her to the elevators. "You're gonna be late if we hang around here jawing about old times. And hey, tell Sara good luck from me. Oh, and where is this competition being held? I'll try to look in if I get off work on time."

"It's at the Superman Foundation Hall," Lois said, stepping into the elevator. "Starts at seven. I'm taking the kids for dinner first, though Sara will probably settle for a green salad. She's nervous and I doubt it would be a good idea, anyway, to tumble about on a full stomach. Her grandparents will be there too… and Perry and Alice."

"I better not miss out if the whole family are showing up…" Jimmy's voice tailed off as both quickly realized just who would not be there.

Lois and Jimmy exchange a sad smile. Sometimes it was those little perceptions that caught you unawares.

The doors closed as the car started to move down to the lower floors, leaving Lois alone. Desperately, she closed her eyes and directed her senses inward, to search again for that special connection to Clark, but this time she met with only silence and darkness. Had she only dreamed she'd heard his voice… saw his dark eyes staring at her, filled with love in abundance… felt that wondrous sense of belonging that she would never share with another?

The elevator arrived at its destination and Lois was hit with a cold deluge of reality. Staffers spilled into the car; a couple of young reporters rushing up to the newsroom to finish off their stories before deadline, a photographer anxious to reach the darkroom so his shots could make the next edition and a researcher loaded down with stacks of files. She felt their energy, their eagerness… and part of her regretted that she no longer shared that consuming commitment. The Daily Planet would always be the only newspaper she could ever work for, and she was grateful to have something to fill her days, but it was no longer the hub of her universe.

What had Mrs Church said all those years ago? 'A store couldn't boil an egg'? Mindy had been correct about that… and Clark had been great in the kitchen… amongst other rooms…

Lois forced her way out against the tide, deciding to take the single flight of stairs to the parking garage. If she didn't get a grip here, she'd be dissolving in a flood of tears and she had no intention of crying in front of her colleagues. They'd seen enough of that when Clark had first gone missing. Reminiscing about Clark, and knowing that memories were all she had left, often made her melancholic.

But she was not a wallower. She had to concentrate on the good… and Clark had left her so much of the good. The greatest of his gifts to her were his children, and they were waiting for her to pick them up after school.

Drawing strength from a love that would never die, Lois walked with a lighter step toward her jeep.


Chapter Five: To Endure

The journey toward the border passed uneventfully, though on a couple of occasions both Teo and Stephan had to get out of the vehicle to clear the track of felled tree limbs. Thankfully, no obstruction was too large or unmanageable since the jeep was fitted out with a winch and tow chain, which proved to be invaluable. Once again, Adrienne and Stephan were grateful for their young friend's forethought in choice of transport.

While the two men dealt with the outside complications of their drive, Adrienne stayed in the cabin of the jeep, watching over the unconscious Superman. She sat with his head in her lap, smoothing her hands gently up and down the cold skin of his arms, hoping to warm him. Yet more than that… she was willing her human touch to keep him alive.

So still and pale was he in the shafts of early dawn light, that she checked frequently for his illusive pulse, her heart beat racing once or twice, when it had taken her some seconds to find that one small sign that he was still in the land of the living.

Stephan had chosen to wait till the journey was halfway over before reviving the superhero. It had been a difficult decision to make. On the one hand, he didn't want to wait too long in case Superman would not be physically fit enough to cross the border on his own, but the opposite scenario was just as problematic. The prospect of keeping an aware, and perhaps a scared patient calm in the confines of the jeep was not something any of the three were looking forward to.

However, the deed could not be put off forever and, all too soon, Stephan injected the antidote into Superman's bloodstream. For long moments the rescuers waited… Outside, the sounds of the forest greeting a new day hung in the heavy, humid air. Yet, in the interior of the jeep, silence reigned.

Suddenly, like an awakening giant, Superman reared up, gasping for breath, his body trembling in aftershock. Adrienne and Stephan instinctively drew back, while Teo watched with compassion from the driver's seat.

"Don't try to move too much," Stephan advised, easing closer and risking placing a hand on his patient's shoulder. "You're safe now."

"Safe?" The superhero gazed in confusion at the three people around him.

"Yes," Adrienne answered gently. "Don't be afraid. We're here to help you. Do you remember me?"

Superman turned to study the woman by his side. "Dr Ducos, is that you?"

"Yes, that's right." Adrienne spoke as to a child. "And do you remember Teo?" She pointed helpfully to the soldier who was resting his folded arms along the back of his seat.

"Teo? Yes." Superman dragged the words out slowly, his voice feeling strangely detached from his brain. "He looks after me."

"That's correct. And this other doctor is Stephan Janik."

After a searching look at the man kneeling nearby, Superman shook his head. "I don't think I remember you. My head aches." So he hadn't died, after all. A person wouldn't experience this much pain in death. Would they? And yet, he'd been sure he was about to be killed.

Why did he think these people were trying to kill him? Nothing seemed clear. His hand went up to push through his hair in his habitual gesture of stress that his family would have recognized immediately, but to which he was now totally oblivious.

Stephan spoke up. "Your head aches because of the drugs we had to give you to get you out of the complex safely."

"Complex? You mean the hospital?" Superman looked totally perplexed.

"Yes, that's right. But I'm afraid it wasn't really a hospital… or not a very good one." Stephan added, trying to move the conversation along as quickly as possible. They didn't have time for lengthy explanations.

"Then why was I there?" Superman shook his head, but decided this was a bad idea as it only caused the pain to increase.

Stephan sent Adrienne a glance that pleaded for assistance.

"It was a laboratory, and we didn't know it was a bad place." Adrienne hated lying, but there was no way they could tell this man the truth — both for their sake and for his. "At first, we thought they wanted to help you. We wanted to help you. That's why we got you out of there when they started to do certain tests on you."

Somewhere in the depths of Superman's psyche her words resonated with dread. He couldn't remember where or when he'd heard them before, he knew only that he'd always been wary of laboratories and tests…

"Yes, they wanted to treat you like a lab rat," Stephan jumped in, realizing that they'd caught the man's attention. "We couldn't allow that to happen. Especially since you probably have a pretty good idea of what happens to lab rats once their usefulness is over."

Superman's nerves frayed even more as the man continued talking. He didn't really remember the details, but he did believe he'd been in terrible danger and it looked like these people were willing to help him… not kill him. He had no one else to trust… nowhere else to go.

"They wanted to kill me?"

"Yes! I'm so sorry." That came from the woman who was now stroking his back comfortingly. "We should have tried to do more…"

"We couldn't stand by and let them kill you, so the three of us decided we had to get you away from the bad guys." Stephan added, though bile rose in his throat as he acknowledged inwardly he'd been one of those bad guys. One day he might be held accountable for the terrible things they'd done to this exemplary man, and it would only be what he deserved. But not in this country, and not in Hyesan's court… and he was adamant that neither Teo nor Adrienne should face what he knew would be the General's warped idea of justice.

"Will they come after us?" Superman asked urgently, another possibility rising up to horrify him.

"No! They don't know we've left the complex," Stephan offered some reassurance. "And hopefully they never will. We smuggled you out. And, with any luck, they shouldn't be looking for you… ever." He paused. How did you tell someone they'd become… nonexistent. "They think you're dead."

"They do?" Superman frowned, trying hard to concentrate on the explanation, but it wasn't easy when his brain felt so sluggish and he still hadn't a clue where he was or even who he was. "Why?"

"No other… way for us…" This time the stumbling words came from the front of the vehicle and all eyes turned toward the soldier. "I no talk English… much, but you… hear doctors." Teo pulled at his earlobe, emphasizing his words with actions. "They help. I help you!"

Somehow, coming from Teo, Superman found that reassuring. The orderly had shown him many kindnesses when no one else would.

"We're trying to take you somewhere safe, but you have to help us." Stephan spoke again, his voice edged with anxiety.

But Superman was still too concerned with one idea to listen to reason. "Dead? I'm dead?"

He seemed to shrink inside himself for long minutes and none of the others dared to move, as if they each were sharing the distress of someone who was coming to terms with the fact that he no longer had an identity. Yet, surprisingly, he rallied, understanding, instinctively, that he was someone who wasn't content to wallow… that someone had taught him that enduring was all.

"So what happens now?" Superman began hoarsely, his voice becoming more resolute with each word. He stared through the windows of the jeep, for the first time, taking notice of his surroundings. "And how can I help?" To tell the truth, physically he was feeling too weak, and he really was still too mixed up mentally to be of much help to anyone, but the need to offer his assistance was almost overwhelming. He would try to do his best.

"We need you to be brave." Adrienne had gotten herself under control again and rejoined the conversation. "You have to cross the border into another country, and Teo says it will be difficult for you, but we needed to take you to a remote spot where the border guards patrol less often. It's a river crossing. Can you swim?"

Superman didn't really know the answer, but he found himself nodding his head. There were still so many things that he didn't know about himself. His location might have changed, but so many of his questions needed answers. Somehow, though, he realized that these people weren't about to give him any information. Maybe they didn't know much about him either.

"Hopefully the river will be lower at this time and you should make it across without too much trouble." The male doctor was speaking again and for the sake of his continuing existence Superman understood he had to listen to instructions. "Once you're on the other side, you need to head into the interior of the forest. Keep going, put as much distance as you can between yourself and the border."

"You're not coming with me?" This question was asked on a note of rising panic. He was going to be alone again and the prospect was frightening.

"We can't!" Adrienne stated emphatically. "It's not that we want to abandon you, but we have to get back. We have to pretend to General Hyesan — who is the man who ordered you killed — that we carried out his orders. He's a very powerful man. If he suspected for one minute that you were still alive, he'd execute us…"

"And he wouldn't just kill us!" Stephan interrupted, eager to get his point across. "He'd torture us first to find out where you were and then he'd come after you to do what we should have done…"

"They speak true." Teo emphasized the threat. "My mother… my sister… all my people be in danger… big danger. Hyesan very bad man. I know."

"What Teo says is correct," Adrienne interjected. "He's not fluent in English, but he's told me his family and friends would definitely be under threat if it were ever discovered that we'd let you live… helped you escape, and I believe him. He's served under General Hyesan for years and none knows better than he how evil the man is. Many people will die, if the truth ever gets out. For all our safety, you have to remain undercover… even in China. Hyesan would have ways of tracking you down. You're an Amer…" Adrienne halted when Stephan frowned at her. Even that small fact might be too much. "You'll be a Caucasian in a land of Asians, so you have to be very careful." Actually, Superman had a slightly exotic look with his high cheekbones, dark eyes and hair. He wouldn't look too out of place — even with silver beginning to pepper his hair. However, Adrienne felt it wouldn't do any harm to stress the need for him to lie low. "Don't attract attention if you want to live. You don't want to die, do you?"

"No…" Superman wondered what kind of life he could have as a nonperson, but he didn't want these people to suffer because they had saved his life… He didn't want to die either. Somewhere out there perhaps someone waited for him and where there was life, there was hope… That was probably an old cliché, but it didn't make the meaning any less real. He had to survive. "No!" he reiterated with more force. "I will keep my secret… your secret. I don't really have anything to tell anyone anyway," he added wryly.

"OK. Teo, start driving," Stephan ordered, exchanging another guilty glance with Adrienne. There was other information they could give this man, but what good would it do? Superman had to remain dead to the world, so the truth would serve no purpose. Someday that situation might change, and he promised himself that if the threat of General Hyesan's revenge were ever removed, he'd try to undo the damage that had been done. In Adrienne's sympathetic glance he saw her understanding and her silent accord.

One thing Stephan was slightly thankful for was the fact that Superman seemed not to have noticed his bandaged hand, though that was bound to change. The painkillers he'd incorporated in the injection would wear off soon, and he wasn't looking forward to explaining why he'd felt the need to cut off the man's finger… but he'd face that problem when they reached their destination. "We still have some way to go before we reach the river."


By the time the group left the jeep to trek the last mile and a half to the border, Stephan's fears had proved prophetic and Superman's headache had been eclipsed by the painful throbbing of his hand.

"What happened to my hand?" he questioned, cradling his bandaged appendage close to his body, as they began to climb over the final ridge toward the ravine which would lead to the river's edge.

For a fleeting moment, Stephan contemplated pretending there had been some sort of accident, but it was important that this man trusted them. They were asking him to keep quiet, perhaps forever, about what had happened to him in Korea while he'd been under their care. Telling lies wouldn't inspire Superman to keep faith with them. Meanwhile, Adrienne and Teo were waiting to see what he would say.

"Did I hurt myself?" Superman asked again, aware his question had caused tension between his rescuers.

"No. No you didn't." The words came out quietly, while Stephan's eyes scanned the rocky crag ahead — anywhere but confront the puzzled stare of his victim. "I removed one of your fingers," he said, after a pause.

Superman halted abruptly, balanced a little precariously on a rock on the edge of the winding path as he swung round to face the man who had treated him so cavalierly. "You did what?" His good arm was gripped by Teo, steadying his swaying motion, but he remained unaware of the soldier's action, or the fact that he was in danger of sliding back down the slope. Momentarily, shock and anger seethed within him, threatening to overcome his bewilderment, yet he hadn't the energy to sustain his outrage. "Why would you do that, Dr Janik?" he asked instead, his tone flat, his emotions numbed.

Stephan's voice failed him momentarily, and Adrienne found herself defending her colleague, though her stomach clenched as yet another of their crimes was revealed to this poor man, "I know you've learned many shocking things about yourself and us since you woke up in the jeep. You must be very confused, and you have every right to be angry, but we did feel the surgery was necessary… not because there was anything wrong with your hand…"

"Thanks for jumping in here, Adrienne, but I have to be honest." Stephan drew himself up to his considerable lanky height and addressed his victim. "Adrienne was totally against cutting off your finger. That crazy idea was all mine."

"I said yes, too," the Korean admitted somewhat sheepishly, yet deciding to share the blame.

Again there was a pointed silence as Superman chewed on his bottom lip and stared at the brightening sky above him. The early morning sun was starting to burn off the clouds and he had some silly notion in his head that he'd like to soar up into the blue. Perhaps up there he could make sense of this whole nightmarish scenario. Yet that really was an insane idea — men couldn't fly.

"I can only apologize again," Stephan said. "I know how hard this must be for you to understand. But we have to make the General believe that you are dead, and no way can we show him a body." The doctor's head shook back and forth forcibly on his thin neck. "Not up close anyhow. We threw a body into the incinerator and that's been recorded by the cameras, but the corpse was wrapped in a sheet. And before you get all stressed out, the poor guy died in an accident. None of us could kill anyone…" Actually, Stephan couldn't be sure that was true of Teo. After all, the Korean was a soldier, but he was one of the good guys, in this case, and it wouldn't do any good to bring that point up at this moment.

Besides, Superman, obviously wasn't impressed by the excuses so far. He'd crossed his arms, and was standing his ground, for the first time, staring disapprovingly at the three conspirators.

Stephan felt very uncomfortable. Personally, he hadn't ever seen the Man of Steel in action, but he recognized the stance from TV footage and newspaper photos. Thank goodness Superman had lost some weight and his face had thinned down considerably, making him look somewhat haggard. The once-dark hair was streaked with gray, too. This man really didn't much resemble the superhero of old, which was good for their plan. But Superman was waiting for an explanation…

"We just borrowed the body. It had already been buried, so even the man's relatives know nothing. What they don't know can't hurt them." Oh no, he'd committed another faux pas. Seeing Superman frown at that callous thought, Stephan hurried to make amends. "That seems cruel, but we had no choice. You have to appreciate that in General Hyesan we're dealing with a psychotic megalomaniac."

Again Adrienne stepped in. She was sure that Superman trusted her… just a little. "Stephan's speaking the truth. We couldn't risk Hyesan recognizing that it wasn't you, so we had to hide most of the body from view…"

Stephan returned the favour and hastened to back up his partner. "We deduced that if Hyesan spotted the body was missing a finger and we could present your finger to him…"

"He'd naturally assume the corpse belonged to you," Adrienne finished breathlessly.

"And that's our only excuse. I wish it hadn't needed to be done, but we had to have something tangible to give to Hyesan. Your hand will heal, and at least you'll be alive." This time, Stephan didn't evade Superman's stare and he noticed some of the irritation leach out of the man's posture.

"I guess I can understand. A finger isn't a lot to sacrifice for the rest of my life."

Actually, the man without a past had been faintly amused and comforted by the way the two doctors had jointly told their story, finishing off each other's sentences. He had no idea why that behavior should be familiar, he just knew that it was. Turning, Superman began to pick his way up the narrow track once more, while the others followed in his wake. If only he could believe that the rest of his life was worth saving. Yet he said nothing more. It seemed these three people had gone to a great deal of trouble to give him a chance of survival.

The rest of the march was made in silence. Clearly, some people had trodden this path before, but the terrain wasn't easy to traverse, particularly as they made their cautious way down into the ravine. One mistaken step and a body could go plunging down the steep slope into the river below.

Weakness caused Superman to stumble a couple of times, but Teo was always close to lend his support and for that Superman was grateful. Behind them Dr Ducos and Janik also helped each other on their way. Both Teo and the doctor had suggested the woman wait on the crest of the ridge, but Adrienne was determined to see the project brought to a successful close.

Yet standing by the fast flowing river, seeing its whitecaps careening over large boulders in midstream, not one of the four could be certain of a happy outcome.

"If this is the river at its calmest, I'd hate to see it in spate," Stephan commented dryly.

Superman silently agreed. While he stared in dismay at the intimidating currents, he heard Dr Ducos ask anxiously. "Do you think you can make it safely to the other side?"

"Do I have a choice?"

"No, I'm afraid not," she conceded. "Teo says there are many police to stop people crossing where the river is smooth. There's no turning back. And here is where we have to leave you."

An unexpected lump appeared in the onetime hero's throat. He had no memories of his life before meeting these people and he'd never been totally clear on exactly what had taken place in the mysterious laboratory. He did know that Doctor Ducos and Teo had shown him compassion, though, in this last hour or so, he'd come to suspect that their motives had not been altruistic. It appeared as if all three were trying to make amends for some unforgivable deeds. His mind might still be an empty place, but it didn't take much to deduce that they'd very probably worked for this evil General. Yet they had saved his life and to go on without them left him feeling very needy.

"I guess I won't know if I can make it till I try… and hanging around won't make it any easier."

"I guess not," Stephan agreed, removing a small waterproof package from his coat pocket. "Take this. There are painkillers and antiseptic dressings for your hand inside. If you stick to the instructions, you should do fine. There's also a couple of energy bars for you to eat. It isn't much, but all I could risk picking up." He took Superman's hand and shook it awkwardly as he passed over the plastic pack. "Now we have to get back. Teo has us on a strict timescale. We're hoping to reach the complex before anyone notices we've been gone."

Stuffing the bundle inside the combat jacket Teo had given him when they'd left the jeep and zipping it up tight, Superman couldn't help but worry a little about the only acquaintances he had. "And if you don't return on time?"

"Don't worry about us," Adrienne told him, laying a gentle hand on his shoulder. "We've got a plan. Just go, and take care of yourself. Make a new life… and stay safe." She leaned up to place a fleeting kiss on his cheek, then pushed him toward a small inlet where the waters were less turbulent.

The kiss was the first truly personal contact Superman had experienced in such a long time. It didn't feel quite right, but it stirred something emotional and poignant in his innermost self… not quite a remembrance, but an echo perhaps of the past. Had someone meant something to him once upon a time?

"Dr Ducos, will you tell me one thing?"

Adrienne was close to tears, but she nodded.

"Do I have a name?"

There was a sorrowing stillness between the two, while in the background the rushing river rumbled its way toward the far distant sea. There was no way she could tell this man his true identity. Finally she spoke, her voice at last strong, knowing she was giving him something precious… perhaps a foundation to build upon. "Your name is Letour."

The water lapped around his ankles while the name rolled around his tongue and mind. Letour! It sounded strange… unfamiliar. He experienced no blinding flash of recognition, and it wasn't a big thing to cling on to. But it meant he had an identity… he was no longer alien from this world of men.

He walked deeper into the river, then plunged into the torrent. For a moment he was stunned by the icy water as he sank into the depths. Surrendering to the river's cold embrace would be so easy; all he needed to do was let go and he could join whoever was waiting for him. Would it be the lovely woman of his dreams? Yet, instinctively, he sensed she wouldn't want him to give up. With renewed determination, he forced his way to the surface and struck out for the opposite shore and freedom.

Left on the bank, all three waited nervously as the seconds ticked by and the waves hid all sign of the person they had tried so hard to save. Adrienne unwittingly reached out to Stephan and felt comforted when he entwined his fingers with hers. Part of her acknowledged that his palm felt sweaty. He too must be feeling the strain. Even the impassive Teo was shifting edgily from foot to foot.

Then Superman's head broke the surface and the three gave a collective sigh, though it seemed he could be suffering from cramp or disorientation as he treaded water. But within seconds he began to swim away from them, fighting the current with all the strength he had left as slowly he inched toward the land of China.

Yet the swim was taking too long. Muscles, unused to exercise, began to throb in protest as Letour forced his arms and legs to propel him through the water, but still his destination seemed no closer and whatever energy he had was seeping away. Despite every effort, he was going to die; drowned in a river he couldn't name, and forgotten by everyone but those who were watching.

Just as he concluded that willpower alone wouldn't save him from a watery grave an arm snaked beneath his shoulders, holding him afloat. Once again, the ever faithful Teo had come to his aid and soon the two started to make progress.

The young soldier's speedy undressing and dive into the water had surprised Adrienne and Stephan, but was not exactly unexpected. Teo had done so much to save his hero, they understood he wasn't about to accept failure on this final stage.

"Letour? What made you come up with that name?" Stephan asked, his stare riveted to the two bobbing heads of the swimmers who were now approaching the river's far edge. Adrienne too strained to watch the man she'd just christened being dragged onto the stony beach by his young saviour, who then started to recross the river. Relief coursed through her veins. At least, they'd got him out of the country — perhaps he would survive.

"Without memory," she said distractedly. "L'etourdi… it means without memory. Letour just sounded right, and he needed a name." The lone figure lay still, obviously exhausted. Adrienne turned to her companion. "Do you think he'll be OK?"

"Who can say?" Stephan answered softly, while Teo, now unimpeded, powered his way quickly back to the Korean shore. "Adrienne, we've done what we could. We've given him a fighting chance."

As if to verify Stephan's pronouncement Letour began to stir, hefting himself onto his elbows, then onto his feet, though he remained bent over, heaving in gulps of fresh air. He gazed around, studying his whereabouts. Behind him a small track disappeared into the forest depths. They had told him to go, so he had no reason to linger. With one last look at the people who had freed him from his grim existence, he raised his hand in salutation, then slowly followed the path away from all that he knew of his life. Only Adrienne answered his wave. "I just wish we could have done more."

"That was impossible, Adrienne. Like we impressed on Superman, no one can ever know about this. If Hyesan does find out, he will destroy us. Even if our foreign nationality might protect us from death, and I really don't think Hyesan would take that into account, Teo and his family would certainly pay for what we've done today."

Teo was wading through the shallows toward them and Adrienne watched his face as he overheard Stephan's words. The thought of exposure terrified the young corporal. More than any of them, he'd risked everything. She sighed and reached out a hand to help him step up onto their rocky platform.

"Don't worry, Teo. I'm not about to let our secret slip. But, if we can ever extricate ourselves from Hyesan's clutches, perhaps we can come back and look for Su… Letour." Superman was gone! Killed by the orders of General Hyesan, and it would be best for all concerned if she accepted that for now.

"Come on, let's get back," Stephan suggested, almost as it he'd read her thoughts. "We still have some work to do to make sure that we've covered our tracks sufficiently well. Hyesan returns tomorrow and I'm fairly sure that he'll want to watch the recordings and hear a blow-by-blow account of what we did with the body. I don't know about you, but I would like to check what actually appears on those tapes."

Teo obviously agreed because he pulled on his tunic and boots then began leading the little group back up the path. His wet skin soaked his clothes and he felt a little chilled, but he was young and fit and trained to ignore discomfort. The morning sun too would help dry him off. He just hoped Superman wouldn't suffer any ill effects from his dip in the river, but there was nothing more he could do for the superhero and meanwhile he had to get the two doctors back to camp. If nothing else, this night had forged a bond between all three which would not be easily broken.

"I guess we have a wall to rebuild," Adrienne said conversationally, her spirits brightening again.

"The in-cin-er-ator too need be checked!" Teo tested his new language, becoming more comfortable with the strange sounds. "Then, I think I sleep…" A yawn accompanied his words… the action familiar in any language.

"Sleep sounds like a very good idea, Teo, but don't worry, we'll help with the hard work first," Stephan added.

"Oh, and, Stephan, we still have some of Superman's DNA on record, don't we? Just in case, Hyesan orders a test done on that finger — he's a distrusting devil."

"I couldn't disagree with you there. But don't worry. I already thought of that. I decided that was one file I wasn't going to delete… at least, not until Hyesan's checked it out. I think in this case, he'll make allowances."

The last of the trip back to the jeep was made in silence, each conserving their energy for walking and, even on the long drive back, little was said… and that only in short monotones. When finally they made it inside the bunker without any mishaps and the cover-up work was completed, the three bade each other goodbye in the little chamber with the broken surveillance unit. Though Teo was still careful enough and Stephan was still paranoid enough to check that the thing remained dysfunctional.

They shook hands, back-slapped… they even hugged, such was their euphoria of a job well done. Only all three were aware that their task wasn't finished till they faced General Hyesan. When next they met, none of them could acknowledge the kinship they'd shared throughout their journey… an actual physical trip perhaps, but also a voyage of discovery where they'd met and conquered every difficulty with inspiration and teamwork. In helping the once strongest man in the world, they'd borrowed a little of that strength and all three knew, without a shadow of doubt, they were better people because of their choice to save Superman.


Chapter Six: A Stranger in a Strange Land

Letour picked up his backpack from the road where it had been dumped and waved his hand apologetically at the irate driver. The man frowned back at him, closing the twisted door with much difficulty while muttering curses about those who tried to defraud the system. Then the driver quickly returned to his seat and manoeuvred the dilapidated bus away from the former passenger, down the dirt track which served as a main highway in this remote part of China.

Left alone in this lonely place, Letour grunted in frustration, though he couldn't exactly blame the man for throwing him off the bus. He'd already traveled well past the point his paltry funds would allow. Remaining inconspicuous had worked for a few miles, until he'd made the mistake of getting involved with a family feud which had taken place right under his nose. At first, he'd tried to ignore the altercation, but when the obnoxious passenger had lashed out at his heavily pregnant wife, Letour hadn't been able to control his instinctive need to protect the weak.

His habit of trying to help had gotten him in trouble a number of times since he'd begun his new life. Often he'd attracted unwelcome attention from the locals, who obviously weren't too happy to accept advice from a lowly Korean illegal immigrant. Drawing notice to himself was definitely one of the things that his 'rescuers' had advised him against — for his safety and theirs.

Most of the time, he'd managed to keep himself to himself. After all, he didn't have much to offer when it came to socializing with the neighbours. He really was more comfortable alone. Yet, it appeared he couldn't stop interfering when he saw someone in distress, and so, he'd been forced to lead a nomadic existence, always moving on before anyone became too curious about his origins.

The fact that the Chinese accepted he was a refugee from across the border might or might not be a good point. There were many of his 'kind' in this province and on the whole they were tolerated because they did the work that many of the residents were loath to do. Illegal immigrants were a source of virtual slave labor and as such were not deported, but his very association with the land he had escaped from could be unfortunate.

In the beginning, there was little he could do about that supposition, since he spoke Korean. That wasn't 'his' language though. He was sure that he'd conversed more naturally in English with the two doctors, as well as even exchanging a few words of French with Dr Ducos.

Then again, he'd learned very quickly to understand Teo and the other soldiers, while the local Chinese dialect hadn't proved too difficult for him to pick up either. Maybe he was one of those people who had a good 'ear' for foreign tongues. He had certainly come to speak like a native in these last two years.

However, no one would ever believe he was Chinese. He looked too different; was a little too tall, and though his skin had become weather-beaten from working mostly in the open air, he wasn't quite the right color.

No, he was a stranger in a strange land, cut off from belonging, not only by his appearance, but by his lack of self-knowledge. Regarded as little more than an indentured servant by the people he met, he'd yet discovered that the biggest obstacle to his making a connection lay deep within himself. How could he interact with other people's lives when he knew nothing of his own? Sadly, more than two years had gone by and he was no nearer to remembering his past or even what kind of person he had been.

There were still his dreams. Some nights the dark-haired woman would come to him, or he'd see a laughing boy catching a ball, or little girls cuddling into his chest, but all these visits were ephemeral. Whatever injury he'd suffered that had led him to the bunker, or perhaps suffered 'inside' the bunker, must have left him permanently impaired. He tried so hard to cling onto the memories — if such they were — but there was no one to give him answers, even if he could remember the correct questions. His life was this empty place…

Yet, bemoaning his lot wouldn't help with his present predicament. He was alive and that was something to be grateful for. Slinging his well-worn bag over his shoulder, he gazed up and down the empty road. On either side of the track, gorse and tree covered hills rose steeply to meet the snow-capped mountains beyond.

He'd been heading for the next small town. Using public transport, the journey would have lasted more than a day, since the route wound its way through the long, deep gorge. On foot, there was every prospect that the time scale would treble, but he had no other choice but to continue on his way. The community he'd left behind had made it clear he was unwelcome after he'd saved a fellow immigrant from a beating. So once again he was on his travels.

At least his luggage didn't weigh much. A single change of clothing, an old cut-throat razor, which he'd had so much difficulty in learning to use that he'd chosen to grow a beard, and a few toiletry items were all he owned in the world. Not exactly much to show for his two years of wandering this vast territory. He turned his face up to the sky, watching gray clouds gather above the mountains like some lack-lustre halo which had lost its ability to shine.

Just what he needed, to be caught in some downpour; yet what else could he expect. Winter was closing in on the area. He'd be lucky if it didn't snow. With an audible sigh, he turned up the collar of his second-hand army-fatigue jacket and began following in the wake of the bus. Perhaps he might come across a village, or at least a hill farm where he could offer to work in exchange for a small meal. He hadn't eaten since yesterday.

Hours later and he was still walking, or should he describe his gait as more of a hobble? The right sole on his only pair of boots had worn so thin that he felt every pebble, every rut and pothole he crossed. He sat by the side of the road to remove the offending boot. OK, strike the almost worn through, he laughed sarcastically as he poked a finger through a ragged gash in the leather. Looks like he needed to replace his footwear, but that option would be some time in coming given his financial status.

There was also the question of where he would buy them. He'd been climbing ever higher through the mountain pass and for many miles he'd seen no sign of civilization. It appeared that this narrow track of land between towering crags was too remote and isolated even for the natives to inhabit. Which meant he'd probably be sleeping in the open tonight… and going hungry. Water wouldn't be much of a problem, though, since the gray clouds had decided to exude their moisture in a steady drizzle.

'It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.'

He felt that was a quote, but for the life of him he couldn't remember where he'd heard it before, or even to what it referred. His whole existence was like that. There were things that he was aware of; he just didn't know how or why he knew them.

Folding an out-of-date newspaper to stuff into his boot to cover the hole, Letour decided he still had a couple of hours of semi-daylight to go before he had to find a place to shelter during darkness. Unconsciously, his fingers strayed across the print. In this region, printed newspapers were hard to come by — the locals too concentrated on their daily grind to pay much attention to what was happening in the big cities of their country. Nevertheless, Letour tried to pick up these papers whenever he had the chance. They seemed to hold some fascination for him, even if at first he'd had difficulty reading the text.

This particular paper had proved more useful than he'd anticipated, but it made him a little sad to see it being utilized to make a temporary repair on his boot. On the floor of a birdcage, or even to wrap up old fish seemed a more fitting end. Sometimes these strange ideas popped into his head, as if they were a reverberation from a time long gone. He found them comforting, though not perhaps helpful at this moment in finding him a place to rest for the night.

He rose and once more started trekking northwards. Thankfully the rain stopped after a short period, yet the wind had a sharper edge to it, maybe heralding snow. He lowered his head, leaning into the rising gale and soldiered on. The first warning that he was not alone came to him audibly, on a gust of the wind.

"Damn! Why did ye have to let me doon now, Genevieve? Couldn't ye have waited till I was closer tae home?"

A man's voice, and talking in some sort of English accent! Letour halted in shock, listening to make sure it wasn't the wind whistling through the gullies and trees… or his mind playing games with him.

There was a dull thud, followed closely by an audible yelp. "Oh, ye old devil! Ye didn'a have tae hurt me too. Though I'm thinkin' ye're probably blamin' the 'old goat' for kicking ye, and ye'd be right."

"Hello?" Letour shouted as he headed toward the voice.

There was a short silence, then the voice asked tentatively. "Who's there?"

Walking quickly round a sharp curve in the road, Letour found the source of the sound. At the side of the track an old jeep, looking like a relic from the 1970s, was parked with its hood propped up, and from under the slanting metal a white face peeped, glasses set owlishly on its nose.

"Who are ye?" the stranger demanded, yanking his khaki-colored pants up over his protruding stomach and standing as tall as he could. In these remote parts, vagabonds often spelled trouble, only this one didn't look too threatening, his eyes weary and his body too gaunt, worn clothes hanging loosely on his tall frame.

Letour smiled awkwardly, though there was something reassuring about his lopsided smile. "My name's Letour and you seem to be having some problem."

"Ye could say that," the man by the jeep visibly relaxed and returned the smile. "My name's MacDonnell — John MacDonnell. If I sounded unfriendly, it's just a bit of a shock tae hear someone speak English in this place at the back-of-beyond."

"Just what I was about to say."

MacDonnell wiped his fingers on a greasy rag, then held out his right hand, noticing that Letour hesitated for a moment, as though it had been a long time since he'd been offered a hand in friendship.

"I won't ask what ye're doin' here — I'll save that for later. Right now, ye couldn'a have a look under the bonnet and see if ye can fix this auld lassie?"

"Pardon?" Letour shook his head in apology.

"Oh, ye dinn'ae know any more about mechanics than I do. Not tae worry. I suppose we can always shelter inside Genevieve for the night. Won't be too comfortable, but we'll survive. They'll send out a search party in the mornin'."


"This auld jeep!" MacDonnell rubbed the side of the vehicle. "It's one of my idiosyncrasies tae name my possessions. Ye'll get used tae me in time."

Although Letour nodded in agreement, MacDonnell thought the man looked a little uncertain. "Dinn'ae look so worried. I'm no dangerous, and a night spent in a jeep is probably the best offer ye'll get tonight. I even have some of my lunch left over and a drop of the 'amber liquid' tae ward off the cold. Ye look like you could do with getting a few good meals inside of ye…"

Then Letour's eyes flashed and MacDonnell had a glimpse of the vitality the man must once have possessed.

"Oh, you mean the hood! And, you know, I think I do know some basic repairs. Why don't I take a look and see what I can do?" Letour moved to stand at the front of the jeep, then bent to peer more closely at its engine.

"Ye're American," MacDonnell said with an expansive grin.

Letour automatically stood up and stared, not at MacDonnell, but off in the distance.

"Funny place tae find an American, but I suspect ye're thinking this is a strange place tae find a Scotsman… and it is."

"What?" Letour slowly shifted his gaze to the Scotsman. "What did you say?"

"Ye're accent! It's American." MacDonnell couldn't help but wonder why Letour seemed so shocked by this obvious information? "Or maybe it could be Canadian," he speculated, shaking his head. "I never can tell the difference. Sorry! Disn'ae matter anyway. Ye could be from outer-space and I wouldn'ae care, as long as ye could help."

At that comment, Letour's eyes widened, but he said nothing and stood immobile, frozen to the spot.

MacDonnell shook his head. The laddie cann'ae take a joke, he thought. "Well, what are ye waitin' for then. D'ye know more than the name of this rusty lass?" He tapped the bonnet of the jeep. "We'll save the getting to know ye bit till later. Let's see if ye can get Genni on the move again… Ye know, Genevieve, the jeep!"

Letour leaned over the engine again, rubbing the side of his forehead and his eyes narrowed, but MacDonnell would swear it wasn't the engine he was seeing.

"Come on, man. The rain's startin' again, and it looks like it might hail." MacDonnell's practiced gaze surveyed the lowering evening sky. "I doubt it's goin' tae be the best of nights tae be out in the elements. We could freeze tae death up here. So ye'll no mind if I hurry ye up a wee bit?" MacDonnell watched as a slap of cold rain on the back of Letour's neck brought him to his senses and, after a quick scan of the menacing clouds, he must have agreed that a night spent in the jeep wouldn't be pleasant because he re-focused on the job in hand. "Right, but I can't promise I can fix this," he said, his eyebrows lifting in awe as he appeared to recognize the ancient engine. Sometime, somewhere in his past life, Letour had worked on an engine like this, yet MacDonnell had the strange notion that the laddie had misplaced that piece of information.

There was silence as Letour got to work. "It's your fan-belt. It's worn out." He detached the particular item from the fly-wheel and the thin leather strap came apart in his hands. "I don't suppose you have another?"

MacDonnell was grinning. "Knew ye'd be bound to spot it. Ye look like a man who knows yer way around engines. Never was any good at it meself, but I do think there might be a spare one of them thingies in the back. Not due tae me, mind ye, but Marje, that's my partner… and my other-half, likes to be prepared for every emergency. Just as well too, even if I dinn'ae admit that tae her, ye understand. I'd never have survived more than a month in this wilderness if it wasn't for my Marje. She's a fine lass, but that's just between ye and me. I'd never hear the end of it, if she discovered she was indispensable!"

All the time he was talking, MacDonnell was retrieving a large metal box from the back of the jeep, which he opened at Letour's feet and rummaged through the contents. "Aha! Would this be what ye're looking for?"

Again, Letour stood mesmerized as he listened to MacDonnell's babble.

"Man, oh man. Ye're a strange one," MacDonnell observed, waving the package in front of Letour's face. "Are ye sure ye're feeling all right?"

"Yes! Yes, I'm fine," Letour affirmed, reaching for the replacement part as the fogginess cleared from his eyes. He studied the new fanbelt for a few seconds, comparing it to the old. "This should do the trick. Your Marje must definitely know her stuff. I'll have Genevieve fixed in a minute or two."

Listening to his new acquaintance's appreciation of his wife, MacDonnell grinned. So the laddie had been paying attention after all. "Ye get us movin, man, and ye've got yersel' a bed for the night. That is, I'm assumin' ye've no got anywhere particular to be headin' to?"

"I'm afraid not," Letour admitted, his face noticeably reddening in the fast-fading light, while his deft hands replaced the broken belt. "I was on the bus, but my ticket ran out, unfortunately, and I didn't have enough money to…"

"Hey, laddie, ye had an accident?"

"Sorry?" Letour looked questioningly at his companion. MacDonnell pointed toward's Letour's hand. "I couldn'a help but notice ye're missin' a finger."

Letour lowered his head quickly and concentrated on finishing his task, ignoring the question.

"Sorry, I shouldn'a have mentioned it." MacDonnell was genuinely apologetic. He'd been too blunt. "Marje tells me I'm too nosy for my own guid. Always stickin' my tuppence worth in when it's no needed." His apology, however, was overlooked as much as was the question, and MacDonnell lapsed into silence. His new friend wasn't much of a conversationalist, which was a pity. There was nothing better than a good chin-wag to pass the long nights of winter…

Completing the job, Letour lifted the rag which had been left stuffed in a corner of the engine compartment, studying his hands as he cleaned them as best he could. "It's done. Genevieve should be road-worthy now…" Finally he raised his eyes. "And if that bed is still on offer, I'd be really grateful."

"Course it is, man! Ye don't think I'd leave a body stranded out here in the middle of nowhere." MacDonnell hefted his rotund body into the driver's seat and switched on the ignition. The engine spluttered a little, then roared into life… if with the occasional cough. MacDonnell pitched his voice above the noise of his jeep and the forces of nature. "Guid work, laddie. Get in then, quickly now. We've still a fair way tae go tae get tae the test centre."

As Letour bent to retrieve his pack, he stilled. "Test centre?"

Once again MacDonnell suspected his words had chilled his new friend to the very marrow. "Aye! Didn'ae I say? We're a botanical team doin' research and conservation work in the primeval forest rounds these parts." He saw Letour visibly relax at the last piece of information. OK, so that was an improvement. "Most of the personnel come and go, but Marje and I have been here for years. We came out for a few months on a workin' honeymoon, fell in love with the place and never went home. Now we're the team leaders of the group… just a couple of auld eccentric gardeners. The research is pretty important, of course. Ye'd be surprised how many medicinal breakthroughs we've made over the years. For all that though, they still keep cuttin' down the forests for a quick profit. Marje and I are just tryin' tae protect what's left."

"Sounds like a good cause."

"Aye, it is. Now are ye comin' with me, or stayin' here tae freeze? I wouldn'a recommend the latter."

Letour needed no further encouragement and he hurried inside, slinging his possessions onto the back seat. "Thanks for your hospitality. I'm very grateful, believe me."

"Least I could do. Ye fixed my second best lassie right up." MacDonnell patted the steering wheel of his beloved jeep, then yanking the gearstick into place, he began the final stage of his homeward journey with a smile of relief.

For the first few seconds, the vehicle's gearbox grated in protest and her wheels spun in the gravel, but Genevieve dug in deep, making her way to firmer ground in the middle of the road, her speed increasing as her master changed gears and pressed down on the accelerator pedal.

MacDonnell switched on the headlights and the two men watched the icy rain slice through the beams as they travelled in the darkness. Both were happy to be out of the cold and damp, and a companionable silence reigned, until Letour spoke up, deciding to offer some information to his benefactor.

"I lost my finger in an… accident a couple of years back. I guess I was lucky. I could have lost my life, and I hardly notice it these days."

The Scotsman inclined his head a little, but he'd noticed the other man's slight hesitation. "A close encounter with death gives a body an appreciation for life. But I'm sensing ye dinn'ae like givin' too much away about yersel'…"

"There's really not a lot to tell," Letour said dismissively, staring determinedly out the window, though there was little to be seen in the gloom.

His passenger was trying to head off the inquisition, so MacDonnell decided a little probing was called for. "Not sure I believe that. An American wandering around in this part of China, very far away from home… seems there might be a mystery in yer past." A sideways glance warned MacDonnell that his speculation was definitely unwelcome. The laddie looked physically sick, so maybe it was time to give him a break. "But dinn'ae be worrying I'll give ye the third degree. Marje might call me an auld busybody, but even I know when to back off."

Letour's rising panic ceased somewhat and his breathing slowed back to a normal level. He swiped his hands on his trousers' leg, drying off his sweating palms. "Thanks, but I don't have much history… not really."

And that probably wasn't the whole truth either, MacDonnell thought, but for reasons unknown, he was prepared to trust this man. "Och aye! Ye dinn'ae like questions. I understand. But ye know, if ye dinn'ae have any particular place tae go, we might be able to use you at the centre. Are ye as good with a hammer and nails as ye are with a spanner?" MacDonnell enquired, his voice with its deep 'burr' sounding warm and friendly. "Genevieve needs someone to look after her, and if ye happened tae be green-fingered, too, that would be an added bonus."

Since most of the jobs Letour had found in China consisted of laboring in the outdoors at various tasks, he nodded his head. "I can turn my hand to carpentry, and if being green-fingered means the same thing as having a green-thumb, I think I could manage," he said modestly.

"I can't promise how long we could keep ye, 'cause funding is always a big problem, but we just lost our local handyman. The wee bugger got a better paid job with a loggin' company. I suppose he had an extended family tae take care of, but Marje and I couldn'a help feelin' betrayed. Dinn'ae think ye'd be the kind of person tae let us down like that." MacDonnell gave another quick look at his passenger. "If ye wouldn'a mind workin' for bed and board and a wee bit of pocket money, the job's yers."

"I think I might like that." Letour settled back in his seat, stretched out the kinks in his neck and let the tension leave his body. "To tell the truth, I'm getting a little sick of being a nomad. I'd think I'd enjoy working for you, Mr MacDonnell," he answered politely, clearly feeling some sort of kinship with the amicable MacDonnell. "And I'm looking forward to meeting your redoubtable Marje."

"Guid, it's a deal," MacDonnell said with a grin. He was still convinced that some secret surrounded his new employee — not exactly an unusual circumstance in this huge, enigmatic country. Yet, no matter how much his wife teased, he wasn't one to pry into what didn't concern him. Live and let live, was his motto. It was a necessary survival skill in this part of the world. "We'll shake on it later when I'm not so occupied with keepin' Genevieve on the straight and narrow. The roads around these parts aren'a exactly what ye'd find back at home. Oh, and my friends call me Mac. If ye're goin' tae be stayin' with us, ye should call me Mac."

The rhythmic movement of the jeep was lulling Letour to sleep and soon the soft, steady sound of his breathing filled Genevieve's interior. As MacDonnell drove the final few miles over the head of the pass and down toward the lake, he hummed an old Scot's lullaby in a slightly off-key voice. At his side, Letour's body swayed a little, but never stirred completely. The laddie might not have given away any clues about his past, but Mac was sure the American was a good man, and Mac prided himself on being a fair judge of character.

Marje would be happy with their new odd-job man. She was always fond of picking up waifs and strays… Aye, she'd give them both a right royal welcome when they reached home; a wood-scented fire burning in the stove to heat the hands and feet and a wee dram… or two, to warm the insides. He just hoped she'd left the cooking to Li-Ying. One thing Marje couldn't do was cook! Maybe he should have mentioned it to Letour. He'd let him think Marje was a paragon…

A staccato tip-tapping, like stones hitting metal, drew MacDonnell's glance upwards as the rain froze to solid pellets of sleet. He shivered, but noticed with concern that neither cold nor noise could rouse his passenger. The laddie was spent.

But this time Mac was wrong. Letour might be exhuasted, but too much information was spinning around in his head for him to fall into a deep sleep. Truthfully, he'd only closed his eyes to shut out any further conversation. He needed time to think.

An American! Because of the way he spoke English, MacDonnell, or Mac, or whatever his name was, believed he was American… But he had no recollection. Could the Scotsman's supposition be true?

And which was it? American, Canadian… or Alien? He could discount the last one, couldn't he?

America did seem to beckon him, though the only thing he knew for certain was the fact that it was a large continent on the other side of the Pacific. Then there was the discovery that he'd known how to fix the jeep, and yet he'd never studied mechanics, not that he could remember. Still, his memory was just three years old, and one of those years was extremely hazy. Oh, boy, if he wasn't careful, he'd kick off one of his annihilating headaches again. That happened frequently when he tried to think of who he was, or where he came from. Right now he was probably in the best place he'd been for a long time, so he should just relax and enjoy the moment.

Which brought him to the job offer. How did he feel about that? Probably a sense of relief.

He'd meant it when he said he was sick of endless traveling, and surely it was safe for him to stop running now, at least for a time. A time to rest and recuperate. If he was stronger physically, then perhaps his mind would recover.

But more than anything, he was so weary of being alone, and though he had little to offer a friend, he did feel at ease in this man's company. As long as MacDonnell and his wife didn't expect too much of him in the relationship department, he might be happy at their test centre. Intuitively, he knew the place Mac was offering him wasn't 'his' home, the one he'd been searching for in his wanderings, but it was probably the closest offer to a safe haven he might ever get. Sadly he acknowledged that happiness was not an option for him, but contentment… maybe.

An elusive peace pervaded Letour's body and soul and he finally drifted into sleep, while in his dreams 'the woman' smiled.


Chapter Seven,: When a Hero Comes Along

The conference room door burst open and Perry White stood in its frame regarding his top reporter/co-editor-in-chief with a mixture of shock, annoyance and a degree of disappointment.

"Lois, what the heck is going on? And why didn't you say anything? Surely you know by now you can trust me with this secret?" His questions tumbled at top speed one after the other.

"Excuse me, Perry?" Lois Lane-Kent turned her attention from the printouts she was studying, the files strewn across the large table as she perused the latest samples of work from this summer season's interns. A number of students from MetU's Journalism School worked at the Planet through the summer and a couple of the best were usually retained to work part time when the new semester started. As assistant editor, it was part of Lois' duties to pick out those she felt had the potential to make the grade as rookie reporters for the Planet.

Over the past few years, Lois had gradually cut back on her investigative journalism career in favor of the more desk-bound job and Perry had insisted on making her dual status official. The working relationship was mutually beneficial. Lois was less often in harm's way and she appreciated her rise in salary, while Perry was happy to share his responsibilities and to work shorter hours. The 'old hound dog' finally had to admit that he might not be quite as fit or tenacious as before.

"Calm down, Chief. You know you have to watch your blood pressure."

Lois' words took the edge off Perry's irritation, slightly. Enough for him to realize that this conversation should, at least, be private. He closed the door and moved into the room. "I'll calm down if you explain what's happening here."

"Happening where?" Lois leaned back in her chair and removed her glasses. Something big must have occurred to get her boss in such a state. "Perry, I have no idea what you're talking about."

"There are reports coming over the wire about a miracle worker… or a guardian angel, but you and I both know there are no such things as miracles… or angels."

"Perry, I really think you should sit down and tell me from the beginning what this is all about, because I'm completely in the dark."

Perry stared for a moment, then the furrows on his brow smoothed slightly and he did as Lois suggested, taking a seat on the opposite side of the table. He wanted to watch her face as he told her the latest breaking news. Clearly, she hadn't heard, so he began carefully, knowing this would be a shock to her.

"You know how all Metropolis has been glued to the media these past few days, watching the rescue reports on those two kids who fell down that old mineshaft…"

"In upstate New Troy?" At Perry's nod, Lois continued. "Things are looking pretty bleak for them. The emergency teams are worried if they dig too quickly they'll bring the whole lot down on top of the children. The ground around those shafts is so unstable…"

"They're out! The kids I mean."

"Perry, that's wonderful." Lois was genuinely relieved. Being a mother, she knew exactly how the parents of those children must be feeling. But that didn't explain why Perry had burst in here in such a dudgeon. "Do you want me to cover it?"

"Great shades of Elvis! No, I do not want you to cover it! Young Johnston's been on it since the beginning and he's doing an OK job. But you knew that already, since you sent him up there…"

"Ben's good and in time he'll get better." Lois nodded her approval. She'd read his reports from the rescue scene — they'd been clear and decisive, yet his writing was touched with a certain empathy. A little like the way Clark had once written. It had been over four years and still many things reminded her of her husband… but visiting old memories wouldn't help her get through her present task. Besides, Perry was still regarding her strangely. She was evidently missing some important point here. "Perry, are you trying to tell me something?"

"I was hoping you had something to tell me!"

Lois' stare grew more wide-eyed… and more confused. "Nope! Only that I'm glad the rescue teams got the job done. What those poor parents must have been going through." Then a thought struck home. "Do you want someone more experienced to talk to the parents? I could fit it in, though I'm sure we could find someone else… Maureen, maybe? She's got a couple of kids of her own."

"Lois, the emergency teams didn't haul those kids out!" Perry interrupted. "They were still trying to figure out how to shore up their digging when someone uncovered a filled-in ventilation shaft, dug his way down, all on his own, and tunneled horizontally to just below the children. From there it was pretty easy to get them back out the way he'd come in. The crews were surprised as heck to find the kids back on the surface right behind them… Kinda like an old Superman rescue, don't you think?"

"What are you saying, Perry?" Lois' voice was unbelieving but her pallor had turned pasty white.

"I'm saying that no one knows who brought the children to the surface… not even the kids. They said it was too dark to see clearly, though they did all agree it was a man. And whoever it was skedaddled out of there before anyone got a chance to talk with him. Seems like he was too shy to face the police or the press. Of course, everyone's talking about a miracle worker, but it reminds me of the sorta thing Superman used to do…"

"Superman never ignored the police or the press!" Lois stated, pushing her chair back from the table with some force and standing. "And this can't be the work of Superman. He's dead, remember!" Her voice was harsh, charged with emotion. She looked as if she wanted to pace, to release the frustration that was building up within her soul, yet somehow her feet seemed rooted the floor. "It can't be! I would know…"

If Perry had for one moment contemplated this woman who was his partner, friend and surrogate daughter was holding out on him, that supposition flew out the window. Now all he could feel was guilt and shame that he had opened anew a wound that had never truly healed.

"I'm sorry, darlin'. The rescue action just had Superman's MO written all over it, but you'd have told me if he were back…"

"Yes, I would!" Now it was Lois' turn to feel betrayed. "Apart from the family, you'd have been the first to know if that were true. You are family! And I wouldn't have had to tell you that. Do you really think I'd be in here, trawling through these stories with some pretty adventurous reporting styles, if Clark had come home?" She let some of the said papers drift through her fingers.

Perry had the grace to look embarrassed. "No, kiddo, I guess not." The two stood in silence, Lois close to tears, and Perry wondering how he'd ever made such a bad judgment call. However, there was an alternative. "Lois, you don't think that Clark might have been on his way back to you when he got distracted? You know… go save the kids and then get back to Lois. It really was a tense situation up there."

"I understand what you're suggesting, but even if Clark did decide to save those children first, he would have gotten in touch."

Involuntary, Perry's hand went to his ear. "The old telepathy thing, you mean?" At Lois' slight nod, Perry continued. "I guess I'd forgotten that… Wait a minute, Lois, that could be it. Clark's home, but he has amnesia. He couldn't use telepathy cause he's forgotten how… and he's forgotten who to contact."

For an infinitesimal moment, Lois' spirits soared, but only to come crashing down. "I doubt that's it."

"But he's suffered from amnesia before. Like after Nightfall… though I guess I never knew he was Superman back then. But if he was affected that way once, perhaps that's the problem now."

Lois contemplated that scenario for long seconds while her mind and body reached outwards… but still the channel was silent. She sat down heavily in her chair once more and, placing her elbows on the table, she dropped her head into her hands.

Perry waited.

"He's not there, Chief. No one is there. And before you go on supposing, I really do think I'd be able to reach Clark even if he were suffering amnesia… even if he were comatose." She was remembering another day long ago when she'd believed she'd lost Clark to a Kryptonian virus, but he'd come back to her then. Before he was fully awake, they'd called to each other. "Please, Perry, just let it be. Clark is nowhere near at hand… not in this life…"

"I guess you're right, Lois, and I'm just an old fool, coming blundering in here and reminding you of your loss. If Superman had made that rescue, he'd be in the suit… letting everyone know he's back on the job, not skulking around in the shadows. That wasn't his style."

There was total silence for long seconds as Perry ran his hand through his thinning hair, unaware that Lois' head had snapped up at his words.

"But it was, Chief. In the beginning, before he invented Superman, that was the way Clark worked. When he traveled the world, he'd sneak in a rescue here and there and then move on when he thought people were getting suspicious of him…"

That caught Perry's attention and he returned her gaze. "Wait a minute, are you saying this could be Clark?"

Again Lois paused, thinking. Finally, she shook her head sadly. "No, not Clark. But I think I might know who rescued those children…"

"Matthew!" A light switched on in Perry's brain. "Why didn't I think of that?" Lois nodded, unable to speak.

"Lois, has he said anything about wanting to become a hero?"

"No! But then he doesn't say too much to me these days. The nights when he does come home early, he shuts himself in his bedroom. I'm not exactly his confidant."

"Honey, he's a sixteen-year-old boy with all his hormones in overdrive. Not talking to your mother at that age is normal."

"And Matthew isn't exactly a normal sixteen-year-old." Lois leaned back in her chair, stretching her neck and shoulders. "Perry, where have I gone wrong? He used to tell me everything, but he's become so taciturn. Clark wasn't like that as a boy. He and Martha always had a close relationship."

"Matthew isn't Clark…"

"No! And I'm not Martha! She made parenting seem easy…"

"Does Matthew confide in his grandmother?"

"No, not really. I'm not sure he speaks to anyone at the moment."

Perry came round to stand by Lois, squeezing her shoulders comfortingly. "Matthew's a good boy, Lois. It's not like he gives you any trouble. He's not off stealing cars or getting drunk or using drugs…"

Lois' snorted. "He doesn't need a car to get around, and as far as I can tell, the last two don't effect Kryptonians."

"That's not fair, Lois. Matthew wouldn't think about any of that stuff and you know it."

"I guess. But why does he keep avoiding me? Whenever he comes in from school, he hides himself in his room and when I ask what's troubling him, he tells me nothing. I know he's having a hard time developing all these strange powers and I want to help him. We all do, but he's shutting us out."

"Matthew's been coping with developing the super powers for quite a few years now and, if you ask me, he's just been working out what to do with them."

"But I could advise him. Maybe not the way Clark could have, but I could have explained what his father did in the same circumstances. Martha and Jonathan watched Clark go through it…"

"But that's just it, darlin'. Matthew isn't Clark. Maybe you all have been expecting too much from Matthew."

Lois swung round in her chair to face Perry, indignation tightening her voice. "Do you think I expected Matthew to become a superhero? Because that's ridiculous!"

"Is it, Lois? You might not have said anything outright, but I think that you and Clark's parents assumed that, when he was old enough, Matthew would be another Superman."

"And what if I did? Was that so wrong? Not so long ago, he was a sweet boy, always trying to share my responsibilities, looking out for his sisters, helping me around the house… and listening to me talk about his father…" Lois halted, lost in the past.

"Perry, I thought he wanted to hear all those stories about Superman. In those early years when Clark first went missing, Matthew always asked me to tell him about his dad. After the girls had gone to bed, we'd make cocoa and sit in the back yard reminiscing, or in the winter time by the fire…" A crack developed in Lois' voice. "It was my favorite time. I guess I needed to speak about Clark too, and I didn't realize that somewhere along the way Matthew started making excuses. He had homework, or sports practice… he might even have a girlfriend now, for all I know. I wouldn't let myself notice he was growing up and didn't need me anymore."

"Just wait a doggone moment, Lois. Matthew loves you, and he still needs you. He's only sixteen. And if you're right and he's decided to start rescuing people then he's going to need your support. But you've got to wait for him to come to you."

"What if he doesn't?"

"Lois, that's crazy! Just give him a bit of space and he'll be…"

The ringing phone interrupted Perry and he snatched it up. "Yeah! White here! Who is this?"

Perry listened and seconds later a grin was spreading across his face. "That was quite a debut, son. Why don't you come on up and tell us all about it. Your mom and I are in the conference room."

Tears misted Lois' eyes and she rummage through her pocket for a tissue. "Matthew's here?"

"Yeah. Seems he wants to talk to you… urgently. Didn't I tell ya?"

Lois walked into her editor's bearlike hug, smiling and crying at the same time. "Perry, thank you. Sometimes I don't think I'd get by it if wasn't for you."

"Hey, don't you be getting all emotional on me here. Like you said, I'm family and that's what families are for. We support each other." Perry broke away and loaned Lois his handkerchief. "Now you dry your eyes and let Matthew know just how proud he's made you."


Jonathan Kent sat on the edge of one of Lois' large couches, staring at his grandson. The boy had stretched quite a bit in the last year, but still needed to do a little filling out. One day soon, though, he'd be as muscular as his dad… had been. Jonathan felt a knot form in his stomach, knowing that his grandson was about to embark on the same path. "Let me get this straight. You found an old air-shaft and used it to tunnel to beneath the kids?"

"Did I do right, Grandpa?" Matthew asked nervously, standing in front of the fire. He'd planned to make an announcement, but now that he was facing a family conference, he wasn't feeling quite so confident of his choices.

The older man nodded sagely. "The children are safe, aren't they? I'd say you did it just right."

"I tried to imagine how Dad would have done it…"

"Your dad's a good role model, son," Perry joined the conversation, his gruff voice betraying concern. "But he did it in a colorful suit and not as a shadowy guardian angel in civilian clothes. There were a whole parcel of media people round that rescue site, many of whom know your mom and some might even know you. If any one of them had recognized you, the family secret would be out."

"Uncle Perry, I know that, but I couldn't sit around and do nothing… Not when I knew I could help."

"That's just like your father too," Perry admitted, unable to suppress a smile. "And I'm not saying you were wrong. Far from it. I'm just suggesting you should be careful. Not all of your family are superpowered and you have to protect them."

"I know that too." Matthew's voice had a tiny edge to it, but his eyes looked doubtful as he gazed at his mother's bent head. "Mom, what do you think?"

Lois sighed audibly and slowly raised her face, displaying to the others in the room a sheen of tears sparkling in her eyes. "Matthew, I already told you at the Planet that I'm proud of you…"

"But? Come on, Mom, I can see there's a but coming."

This time Lois laughed, a mirthless laugh tinged with pain. "Since the day I found you floating above your bed when you were nine years old, I've known this day was coming. I just thought I'd have a little longer to get used to the idea. Matthew, you're only sixteen!"

"But I have the powers, Mom." Matthew said, sounding confident, while internally fighting the need to shuffle nervously. "If Dad had had the full range at my age, you know he would have done the same. In fact, Grandpa, Grandma, you can't tell me that Dad didn't do what he could when he was a teenager, because I wouldn't believe you."

"Yes, he did." Jonathan's hands fisted on his knees. He wished he didn't have to qualify that statement. "Course, he didn't realize he could fly then, but he had speed and strength. His quick reactions saved quite a few of his friends from having some nasty accidents."

"Do you remember, Jonathan, when the Anderson kids went missing?" Martha's hand slipped inside her husband's arm and she moved closer to him on the sofa. Normally, she loved to reminisce about Clark's childhood, yet knowing her recollections could have a serious bearing on her grandson's future, she sounded less sure. "They hadn't fallen down a mineshaft, but they'd gotten stuck inside an old abandoned fridge. No one knew where they were, and if it hadn't been for Clark's special hearing and speed, they'd have suffocated. We were really proud of your dad then, but even so your Grandpa Jon gave him the usual lecture about frogs and laboratories."

"There's nothing wrong in being cautious, but that was an easy rescue to excuse away," Jonathan said. "Everyone just thought that Clark was in the right place at the right time. Anyone could have saved those kids if they'd got lucky."

"Clark was too often in the right place at the right time and that's what worried you so much." Martha nodded in agreement. "You were always sure he'd be taken away from us and dissected, even though he was invulnerable…"

A strangled sob escaped from Lois. "But that's just it! Don't you all see it? Clark was never totally invincible. We wouldn't be having this conversation if he was." She stood quickly, her body stiff with tension. "Matthew, I don't want you doing anything like this again. It's just too dangerous."

"Mom, I don't plan on doing anything quite like this again… at least, not in secret. That's why I asked you all to come tonight. I only wanted to say this once… I've decided to make my debut as the new superhero."

"What?" Lois' voice sounded the loudest, although there were other gasps of astonishment around the room.

"Uncle Perry's right. Doing things in secret will send the media into a frenzy. They'll be onto me like a rash till they find out who's doing these rescues, and it would only be a matter of time till I was outed." Every gaze was locked on him and Matthew felt like a specimen under a microscope, but he wouldn't be put off. "No, I've got to do the same as Dad."

"You want to be another Superman?" Jimmy asked. His curiosity had been tweaked in the Planet earlier today when Matthew had invited him over to Hyperion Avenue, but he'd never dreamed this was what he was about to hear. He should have guessed though, given the manner of the rescue everyone was talking about.

"No, definitely not Superman. That was Dad, and I don't want to take his place. But I don't want to be called anything so nerdy as Superboy, either. Mom, couldn't you have come up with a cooler name? Something I could have adapted."

"There was nothing wrong with the name! Though you're right about one thing; I don't want you using it." Lois ignored the stone that had lodged in her throat and closed in on her son, tilting her head back to look into his eyes. When had he grown so tall? "I don't want you using any name. It's too soon."

Matthew laid a hand lightly on one of Lois' shoulders and began reasonably. "Come on, Mom…"

"No, this is not open to discussion, Matt. I don't want you putting yourself in danger and, if your father were here, he would agree with me," she said, her face set and determined.

"But Dad did it. He would understand." A mulish look, very like Lois' own, settled around Matthew's mouth.

"No, he wouldn't understand. Even he didn't recognize the danger he was in. He never believed he could be killed."

"That's not true, Lois," Jimmy stated, rising from the window seat and coming further into the room. "CK might have thought that at first, but he grew up. I think he accepted that one day he might meet something he couldn't handle. It never stopped him, though."

Lois threw her friend a disapproving look. She knew that about Clark only too well. Right now she needed people to back her, not to bring up an idea that would encourage Matthew in his hazardous plan.

"Then maybe it should have!"

For the first time since Clark's death four years ago, Lois allowed her anger free rein in the presence of her family. She'd always tried hard to hide the guilty resentment that had haunted her. Clark had put the world first. She was supposed to be supportive and be grateful for the moments they'd shared, but just sometimes in those early months, she couldn't halt the irate tears that she'd shed alone, when each day had appeared unsurmountable, each lonely night endless. Martha had been the only person to whom she'd hinted at the true nature of her grief.

Over the years, Lois believed she'd exorcised these demons, but now, in the face of her son risking his life for the greater good, the rage surged back to the surface, sweeping away reason.

"I mean it, Matthew. I forbid you to do this."

Jonathan edged quietly toward mother and son. "Lois, I think that's being a bit too intractable. We should talk about this."

If truth be told, Jonathan, too, was reluctant to allow his only grandson to don the hero's mantle at this time, but he recognized the dogged look on Matthew's face. Riding rough-shod over Matthew's wishes was only going to make the boy more stubborn. Lois was oblivious to her father-in-law's veiled warning. "No, I refuse to listen to any more of this nonsense."

"Mom, you can't…"

"Yes, I can!" Lois turned on her family and friends. "My god, don't any of you understand? I've already lost my husband to the superpowers. I am not about to lose my son too!" With that final word, Lois stormed through the dining room and into the kitchen, leaving the others white-faced and frozen behind her.

"Mom, please, you don't understand," Matthew shouted, heading after his mother, but he was halted by his Grandpa's hand.

"Son, I think we're the ones who don't understand how scared your mom is." Jonathan's eyes were troubled as he held onto his grandson. "This is a huge step you're taking."

"Your Grandpa's right, sweetie," Martha finally spoke again, pushing aside her own trepidation, as she rose from the sofa and crossed to her grandson. "Your announcement has come as a bit of a shock. Why didn't you tell us… or, at least, your mom what you've been thinking about. I know you, Matt, and I know this isn't something you've just decided to do."

"It wasn't, but I wasn't sure, Grandma. I guess I'm still not really sure about being a superhero." The youngster's head drooped and he spoke to the floor. "I'm not like Dad. He always knew he was here for a purpose, to help people. I don't feel that…"

"Yet you helped these children," Martha said gently.

"I had to! No one was doing anything but talking about what they should or shouldn't do to get the kids out. I could do something. I couldn't stand by and watch those kids die. But I was scared, Grandma." Matthew's voice cracked. In the depth of his eyes tears pooled but refused to fall; a would-be superhero could not indulge in crying.

"Of course you were," Martha took his hands into her own, gripping them soothingly. "Everyone is frightened when they try something new. It's OK to be scared."

"Your dad was scared too." Jonathan's hand still rested on Matthew's shoulder and the other slipped round Martha's waist, drawing the family together in a moment of crisis.

Matthew leaned into the circle of his grandparents embrace, his gaze still haunted. "That was different! Dad was always terrified someone would learn his secret and Mom, us kids, you and Grandma and all his friends would be in danger. I'm afraid I'll mess up… that I won't be fast enough, or that I'll miscalculate a rescue. What if I get it wrong and hurt someone?"

Martha and Jonathan shared a glance, their pride in their grandson shadowed with sadness. It felt like someone had turned back the clocks. "Honey, your dad worried about all these things too. He got better in time, but those doubts were always there in the background."

"No! Dad was comfortable with the powers. I'm not."

They led Matthew back to the couch and sat him down between them, Martha keeping a tight grip of his hand as she explained patiently. "By the time you realized your Dad was Superman, he'd had years of practice, and maybe he made it look easy, but he wasn't always so confident."

Matthew's stare resumed its fascination with the floor and his voice when he spoke was plaintive. "It's not just lack of confidence. I don't even have close friends anymore, Grandma." He glanced sideways at his grandmother before turning away again. "I'm too nervous I'm going to do something strange without thinking, then everyone will find out our secret. I've stopped playing sports because I'm afraid of injuring someone. I'm too different. I don't fit in!"

"Matt, honey, you'll learn how to adapt." Martha's voice faltered, her heart breaking for her grandson, just as it had for Clark so long ago. "Your father did exactly the same when he was growing up."

"You think your Dad never felt like he didn't fit in?" Jonathan asked, his bulk sinking comfortably into the over-soft cushions. "He traveled the world for years searching for his place in the world and he didn't find it till he came to Metropolis…"

"I know that, Grandpa. He only felt he belonged when he met Mom. I've heard all those stories… but that doesn't stop me being afraid about losing control. What if I go to help out and I don't know what to do… how to fix things? Or if I get angry or upset? I could do some serious damage!"

"Then don't be a superhero if you're so anxious." From behind them, Lois' voice echoed, empty of emotion, as she walked back into the room. Her red-ringed eyes gave evidence of weeping and her face was pale, but she had regained some control. "Maybe you just aren't ready."

Matthew looked up somewhat defiantly at his one remaining parent, a rebellious teenager who nevertheless hoped for approval. "I'm sorry if it hurts you, Mom, and maybe I still have a lot of stuff to work through, but I have to do this." Sandwiched between his grandparents, Matthew found their physical closeness gave him the self-possession to go on. "I thought you'd understand where I'm coming from, Mom. What about all the awards you won? You didn't ever give up on a breaking story when you knew you could unmask some bad guy… even if it meant you'd be in danger. Even when Dad warned you to be careful, you did what you had to do."

Lois' eyes widened and her chin lifted in full Mad Dog Lane mode. For some seconds she held Matthew's gaze, the air between them charged with emotion. Then her shoulder's fell and a humourless grin lifted the corners of her mouth.

"Hoist by my own petard!" she declared. "I should have expected that. After all, you're as much my child as your father's." A tiny smile ghosted across her face then faded under the weight of her misgivings. "You're completely correct, Matthew. When I was your age, I thought I could handle anything. I left home… my parents. I made up my mind to be an investigative journalist and nothing was going to stand in my way. I never let a little fear stop me from doing what I knew was right… I guess I'm getting older and much too cautious. It was wrong of me to force my will on you. That doesn't mean I'm happy with your decision… and I'll probably insist on conditions, but I would like to help, if you'll let me."


"We'll get to those later, Matt. But will you tell me, first, why you didn't come to me sooner, before you'd made your decision?"

"It had to be my decision." Matthew became interested in his fingers as they drummed absentmindedly on his thigh, but there was a touch of the famous Lane independence streak in his straight back. "I thought you'd talk me into being a superhero, and I just didn't know if it was the right thing for me to do." Finally, he looked up at his mother again. "I never dreamed that you'd try to talk me out of it."

"If you were ten years older I probably would have reacted a little differently. Matthew, are you sure this is right for you?" Lois gave her son another searching look. "You're not doing this in honor of your father's memory?"

"Maybe that's part of it," Matthew said slowly, considering. "I do think Dad would want me to take over his role. It's more than just that, though, and this isn't a knee-jerk reaction. Ever since I've been old enough to have an opinion, I guess I've agreed with the choice he made, that our powers should be used to help… I can't say I knew it was what I wanted for me, but for months now I've been hearing screams from people in danger. At first, I tried to tune them out because I wasn't sure I was ready, but Dad was right, I couldn't ignore them any more than he could. This is something I have to do, Mom… I want to do it. I have all the powers. I might not be quite so strong or as fast as Dad was, and maybe some do need fine tuning, but there didn't seem much point in waiting any longer, especially when those kids needed rescuing."

Lois was watching her son's face. It was such a young face — it wasn't so long ago he'd perfected the laser-vision shaving, and Clark's expertise during that particular period would have saved some angst — yet it was full of resolve.

"Yes, I can see you've thought this through," Lois admitted, letting her reluctance go. "So, do you want my advice?"

"Sure, I do, Mom. I was hoping you'd offer. I think I'm going to need all the help you can give me," Matthew replied, an eager smile so like his father's brightening his face. "Dad always said he was a better Superman because of you."

"OK, so let's address the question of losing control, since that seems to be your major concern. Why don't we all sit down and I'll tell you about one time it happened to your father." For a few moments there was silence as everyone found a seat, Jonathan making room for Lois to sit next to her son. "There was a mixed-up young man who tried to disrupt Superman's powers with red kryptonite." In the background, Perry shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "Sorry, Perry," Lois added quickly. "Don't feel bad. That water flowed under the bridge a long time ago, and it never was your fault. Besides, Jerry did the right thing in the end."

"What happened?" Matthew asked. This was one story he hadn't heard before.

"Red kryptonite always had a strange effect on your father. In fact, he reacted differently each time someone used it on him…"

Matthew perched on the edge of the couch, twisting slightly so he could see his mother's face. "He came across red K more than once? I thought you said it was rare."

"Well, I think it is. Kryptonite in any form is rare. We'd manage to procure quite a few pieces from various villains, and your dad and I always hoped we'd seen the last of it, but obviously that was a wrong assumption. Something killed Superman and unless the North Korean's had perfected a weapon that could do that, then I'd say they got their hands on kryptonite."

"We don't know for certain that is was the North Koreans, Lois," Perry argued, the need for hard facts an inbred ethic of long years spent as editor of the best newspaper in the world.

"No! But we've covered this a million times and we haven't come up with any other plausible explanation," Lois said brusquely, any discussion of Clark's death unsettling her.

"The Koreans did let the search teams in," Jimmy suggested prudently. While he felt he should back his chief, he didn't want to upset Lois.

"Yes, but not immediately. By the time they opened their borders to the UN search and rescue teams they could have gotten rid of all the evidence. I'm sorry, but if Clark had died by natural causes I believe we would have found a body… and the North Koreans insisted on directing the searches." Lois' abrupt voice was at odds with her tender gaze as it settled on a photograph of Clark with the children, which held pride of place on the mantlepiece. "They killed Superman and got rid of the proof and nothing anyone can say will change my mind."

A shiver coursed through Lois' body as another horrific possibility bled insidiously into her mind, that the Koreans had stolen Superman's body to experiment on — Jonathan's long ago prophecy come true. Sometimes in the darkness, that terrifying nightmare still came to taunt her. Far better that Clark lay at peace in some unknown grave.

She rose quickly and crossed to the fireplace, distancing herself from her eldest child. Occasionally, Matthew's fledgling telepathic abilities enabled him to pick up echoes of her mind, and this was one thought she'd rather keep to herself. Matthew might be a responsible young adult, who was about to launch his career as a superhero, but there were certain things he might not be ready to face.

My god, even she wasn't prepared to face the thought of Clark as an experimental subject. In her torment, she reached out to her soulmate, her hand lovingly tracing the image of his smiling face, captured in a time when they were happy and life was good. If only he were here to help her now.

"Killing Superman does seem the most likely scenario," Perry admitted to Lois' back, as he stretched his legs to ease his stiffening joints. The passing years took their uncomfortable toll on the body and it just wasn't fair that a young man like Clark should be dead while an old curmudgeon like himself should still be healthy and hearty… well almost. "But the fact is, I just never understood why they would do that."

"Cause it's a nasty regime, Chief." Jimmy interrupted again, coming down firmly on Lois' side. "The Korean leadership probably saw Superman as a threat. He'd made his home in the US and they don't particularly like the west, or what we stand for. I'd say they just killed him when they got the chance. Though I'd love to know how they did it. That would be quite a scoop!"

"Jimmy!" Perry's voice cracked like a whip as it did when he was controlling an unruly newsroom. His bones might be seizing up but his disposition was still razor sharp. "I don't think we're here to discuss newspaper business."

"Sorry!" Jimmy glanced round the room at the various people who were regarding him with some disapproval. His face reddened and he gave an embarrassed grin. "My 'foot in mouth' syndrome rears its ugly head again. I really didn't mean to…"

Surprisingly, Lois' shoulders shook with suppressed laughter. Just when she felt she couldn't go on… Thank goodness some things never changed, and she turned back to face her family with renewed tenacity. "That's OK, Jimmy. I understand where you're coming from. I might not print it, but I'd also be interested to find out how they did get rid of Clark. Only that's not why we're here today. We've done that question to dea… well, we've gone over it enough in the past four years, so I'd prefer if we stuck to Matthew's plans."

"Aw, sure thing, honey," Perry said, glad to drop the tetchy subject of Clark's disappearance.

"No point in reliving the past," Jonathan added pragmatically, though he did believe his son's mysterious end should be taken into account, since it might be relevant to his grandson's safety in the future… but that discussion could wait till later. A little positive thinking was what Lois needed right about now, and a quick glance at Martha told him she was feeling just as fragile. "I'd say we have another superhero to look out for now." "Exactly, Grandpa," Matthew said, grinning at Jonathan for bringing the conversation back on track. While Matthew hadn't been able to read his mom's thoughts, he'd felt her distress and found it troubling. He came to tug gently at Lois' hand to draw her back to the couch. "You were about to tell me about Dad losing control of the powers, Mom."

"OK, let me see if I remember this correctly." She made herself comfortable while Matthew sat next to her. "We hadn't been married for so very long when Mr Gadget decided to hold the city to ransom, only he needed a way to distract Superman, which was where the red kryptonite came in. They staged a few crimes and when Superman showed up they opened up the case that held the kryptonite…"

"Did they hurt Dad?"

"No! It was red kryptonite which doesn't hurt Kryptonians in the normal way. In this case it sent Superman's powers into overdrive. Your father couldn't contain himself. He hiccuped and the whole downstairs of the house looked like a hurricane had blown through." Lois warmed at the memory; Clark had been so repentant, sitting there on the floor.

"No kidding," Matthew said in awe. He'd never known his father lose control like that.

"There were a whole lot of other mishaps when Superman tried to apprehend some thieves and eventually the mayor placed a restraining order on Superman, which was exactly what the criminals wanted. They tried to blackmail Metropolis into paying up a huge some of money or they threatened to level the city. Of course, the only solution was to put Superman back on the case. Now he might have wrecked a couple of cars and smashed a few windows, but he got the job done and the villains were arrested." Lois chose not to tell Matthew the mayor had also ordered his father shot with a green kryptonite bullet and, if it hadn't been for Bernard Klein's warning, she might not have been able to save Superman. That was not the moral of this tale.

"How come I've never heard this story before?"

"Matthew, it wasn't exactly one of your dad's finest hours." Lois gave a tiny grimace. "But the important thing for you to learn is that while your father did damage some inanimate objects and even some infrastructure, he never hurt anyone… never intentionally."

"In the early days, he was always obsessing about harming someone by mistake," Martha added. "But as far as I know, he never did, not seriously. I think that fear made him extra careful and I think you'll be just the same."

"I'm not so sure," Matthew said doubtfully.

"Of course, there's always the 'aura' theory," Lois announced, beginning to enjoy reminiscing about the past.

"What's that?"

"Your dad believed his aura extended to protect those close to him. Perhaps that's why the people he rescued were safe from harm. He was instinctively projecting his aura to include them."

"Wish I'd known that when I interviewed him," Perry grumbled. "I'd have stood a little closer to him when I shook his hand. Had some grip, your father did. Course I put it down to all the farm work he probably did growing up."

"So he did hurt someone!" Matthew was quick to pounce on Perry's recollection.

"Now don't you go gettin' all shook up, son. It wasn't like my injury was anything permanent." Perry laughed. "Did you know Elvis had a mighty strong handshake too? Nothing wrong in that."

Yes, some things did stay the same. Lois believed Perry would be regaling the Archangel Gabrielle with Elvis tales when he finally made it to heaven… and that unruly lock of hair on her son's forehead, she remembered, was much like Clark's. "Matthew, the fact is Superman wasn't perfect. I'm not about to list them, but he did make mistakes, just as you will, and he learned from those mistakes, just as you will too."

"You'll be a wonderful superhero, sweetie," Martha said, smiling proudly at her beloved grandson. "You have the most important requirement for all superheroes… a caring heart. Everything else you can learn."

Tears threatened to fall from Lois' eyes once more. She'd said goodbye to her Superman and hoarded his memories preciously within her heart, but now it was time to move on — to put her fears aside and mentor her son's introduction.

"Your grandma is right," Lois said, hugging her boy. "The world needs a new hero… which brings me to another good point." She leaned back and stared into his face. "Have you decided on a name?"


Chapter Eight: The Best Laid Plans

Feeling the need for some light relief, the family conference broke for coffee and some of Martha's home-baked double-chocolate chip cookies, during which time Sara returned home from her evening's gymnastics class. Lois felt a little ambivalent about continuing the discussion in her eldest daughter's presence and had toyed with the idea of asking the Lanes to pick-up Sara from the school. They were already looking after Victoria, who was not yet aware of her father's heritage. Both grandparents were charmed to have their youngest grand-daughter to fuss over for the whole night, and Vicky was always quick to snap up any opportunity to be spoiled by Grandma Ellen and Grandpa Sam — they made her feel like a princess.

Lois had decided, finally, that at thirteen years old, and already experiencing some of the powers, Sara could be trusted with the secret. The fact that Sara was probably the most thoughtful young teenager any mother could hope to have also had some bearing on Lois' decision.

As it was, Lois soon found out that Sara was privy to Matthew's intentions, which wasn't too much of a surprise, since sister and brother were very close. Two hybrid Kryptonian Kents against the world, and Lois had no doubt that their tight little circle would extend to cover their sister when the time was right. Both siblings were already very protective of their younger sister… if Vicky actually needed protecting. For the most part, Victoria Kent was very well able to stick up for herself, and that was without super-powers. Heaven help the public when Vicky decided to solve the world's problems.

This evening, however, Lois discovered that these particular hybrid Kryptonians were not against the world, but wanted to support it; Matthew taking over his father's role as its protector and Sara, being for the moment, his confidant and number one cheerleader… in her own quiet way.

When mother and daughter went to refill the coffee cups and replenish the supply of cookies for the group, Sara asked, "You weren't really shocked about Matt, were you, Mom? You had to have known what he was thinking."

"Actually, no, I didn't. He hasn't confided in me recently, but then I'm sure you're aware of that."

Sara looked crestfallen. "I'm sorry. I did tell him he should talk to you… but I think he didn't want to disappoint you…"

"Disappoint me? Why would he disappoint me?" Lois' eyebrows creased in bafflement. She hoped all her children knew they would have to do something really immoral for her to be disappointed in them. Mad maybe, if they did wrong; like forgetting to do homework, or grumbled about taking out the trash, or keeping their bedrooms tidy. But they weren't bad kids and her anger always passed fairly quickly.

"If he decided being a superhero wasn't for him," Sara explained, her voice earnest. "Matt's always believed you'd want him to follow in Dad's footsteps. I suppose I believed that too."

Lois' first thought was denial, but honesty won out. "Yes, I guess I did think he would… eventually. But there was no hurry… and if Matt had chosen not to, I wouldn't have felt let down or unhappy. That goes for you too, Sara." She slipped her arm around her daughter's shoulders. "What was right for your dad, or for me, might be totally wrong for you kids. Dad would have been the first one to point that out. All of you have to choose what you want to do with your lives, and I'll support your choices, provided none of you want to become a master criminal, or an ax-murderer."

Lois bumped against her daughter's hip playfully. Already, Sara had almost equaled Lois in height. She was tall and lithe, though her build could be due to dedication to her sport and not her genes.

"Oh, Mom," Sara said laughingly, her cheeks blushing charmingly. Now, she did get that from Clark. "I don't think you have to worry about anything like that."

"No," Lois agreed, joining in the laughter. "At least, not when it comes to you and Matt. Now Vicky, is different. Nothing she might do would surprise me."

"Well, I think you can score crime-boss and serial killer off your list. Right now, she's wondering if having a father from a backwater like Smallville will spoil her chances of becoming President!"

Mother and daughter burst into louder gales of laughter just as Jonathan came into the kitchen. "Glad to see you two having so much fun, but Perry was wondering how long it would be before his second cup of java showed up," Jonathan said with mock seriousness.

"Oh, I'm sorry. We didn't mean to be so long." Lois contained her giggles with difficulty. Now that she'd come to terms with her son becoming a superhero, the excitement of making plans had lifted her spirits. "Is Perry in need of another dose of caffeine? His hip must be troubling him a lot tonight, though I'm not sure black coffee is the best thing for arthritis. Come on, Sara, let's not keep your Uncle Perry waiting for his medicine."

"OK, Mom, and don't worry, I'll soon sweet talk Uncle Perry out of his mood." Sara lifted the tray and set off in the direction of the living room, blowing a small puff of air toward the swing doors which parted to allow her passageway.

At the awesome — yet for Sara — natural action, Jonathan shook his head from side to side and smiled, offering his arm to Lois.

"You know, she's right, Jonathan. Perry's great with all the kids, but Sara's his favorite." Lois sounded a little puzzled by this fact. "And I'm sure it's not just because she's his god-daughter."

"No, it's not," he confided, bending down and whispering in her ear. "I think it's because she has your looks…"

"And Clark's personality… She's the perfect blend of both of us, and I'm so blessed to have her." For a second, tears filled Lois' eyes again and she dashed them away. "Look at me, I'm turning into a leaky faucet."

"This has been one of those nights. I've been tempted to cry myself a couple of times."

"Does it bring it all back for you too? I feel I'm in a time warp, and I wasn't around for Superman's creation. It must be harder for you and Martha," Lois said, with a great deal of insight. She'd noticed her mother-in-law was a little quieter than usual.

"In a way. But Matt seems determined to be his own kind of hero, and that's a good thing. Like you, I'd have been happier if he'd waited a few years, but we have to let him find his own way."

Lois sent her father-in-law a searching look. "I expected you to be more cautious. That sounds more like something Martha would say."

Another smile brightened his lined face. "I guess Martha's personality has finally begun to rub off on me after all these years. Actually, I'm as proud of my grandson as I was of my son, and with you to advise him, Matt will do fine. Never forget, if you're ever feeling too overwhelmed, we're here to help."

Lois kissed Jonathan's cheek. "Thank you. I don't think I'd ever have gotten through these last years if it hadn't been for you and Martha." Lois smothered another shudder. Her in-laws were getting older and she didn't want to think about facing life without either one of them. They'd been her constant support in her changing world. Thankfully, they both seemed pretty healthy, so far. Giving herself a mental shake, Lois picked up the plate of Martha's home-baked goodies. "But I've been maudlin enough for tonight. We should join the others. This should be a celebration and we still have lots of plans to make."


Once everyone was plied with a second helping of coffee and cookies, the talk returned to the advent of the new hero with Jimmy kicking off with the big question — the one Matthew had side-stepped earlier. "So what have you decided to call yourself, Matt, if not Superboy? I think that has a certain ring to it."

"Uncle Jimmy," Matt groaned. "I thought you'd realize where I was coming from. I know I'm not much more than a kid, but I don't want to be reminded of it all the time…"

"And he'd have to change his name in a few years time," Sara pointed out sagely.

"True," Lois conceded. Matthew would always be her 'boy,' but she could sympathize with his reasoning. "Do you have any ideas?"

Again Matthew stared at his feet. "I first thought of Kal-El, but that's Dad… and I decided it might be too painful for you and Grandma to hear the name repeated too often." He raised his gaze to both his mother and his grandmother and found gratitude in their eyes. "But I wondered if you'd object to Jor-El? After my other grandfather…" Matt's glance switched anxiously to his grandpa.

"That sounds like a good idea, Matt," Jonathan stated, quickly assuaging Matt's unspoken worry. "And it has the added advantage of implying you've not actually lived on Earth."

"Good point, Jonathan," Lois acknowledged, and decided to let herself pace. She always thought better on her feet. "But won't the people of Earth be worried if they believe the New Kryptonians are back again?"

"Not all New Kryptonians were bad, Lois, and the public recognized that fact." Perry set his cup down and arched his fingers together. "I suppose you'll always get the conspiracy theorists and the purists, but on the whole, most people understood that Kryptonians were decent people."

"Yeah, and after Superman passed away, they definitely admitted that about one Kryptonian… holding those memorial services world-wide! But a lot of people never really appreciated him until he was gone," Jimmy added with a burst of anger.

"That's the way of the world, Jimmy," Lois said sadly, though, in the past, she'd often allowed those thoughts Jimmy had voiced to gall her.

Martha adjusted her glasses on her nose and said with her habitual common sense. "I think it would ease most people's worries if Matthew made the point that he was here alone." Her eyes rested pensively on her grandson. "Matt, have you decided whether you're going to claim a relationship to Superman?"

"I haven't actually made up my mind about that." Matthew dug his hands into his pockets self-consciously. In fact, I haven't really thought all of this through. I was hoping that you guys would help me here. What do you think… Mom?"

Lois didn't answer immediately, but continued to walk back and forth. Seconds later, she halted while her glance swept over the others in the room and eventually settled on her son. "That's a difficult one, Matt. I suppose you could be evasive… claim your origins are Krytonian, as were Superman's…"

There was another small pause as Lois fingered her wedding ring and everyone else almost forgot to breathe. Then she continued with quiet dignity. "But I think you should say Superman was your father. It would give you a reason for being here. Superman said he came to help, but he also told the world he had another home, and I think most people presumed he only arrived on Earth shortly before he saved the space shuttle. Leading the media to believe the same thing of you would be a good thing."

"You could allow the public to think you're here because your father always wanted you to take over his role when you came of age," Jonathan said. "After all, that wouldn't exactly be a lie. He would have wanted you to help out."

Matthew smiled. "I think he would too, Grandpa. So, I tell everyone I'm here because of my father's wishes."

"Sounds good! But also assure them you're not here to place blame, or take revenge for your father's disappearance. That wasn't Superman's way and it isn't yours," Perry pointed out.

"Yes, Perry, I think that's also important to set people's minds at rest." Lois gestured a thank you toward Perry. She was on a roll and couldn't remember when she'd last felt so passionate. "Martha, we need to get out your sewing machine: does it still work?" Lois didn't wait for an answer. "Unless we can find Clark's earlier suits. I don't think the later ones will fit Matt, not yet anyway…"

"I got a brand new machine, Lois." Martha smiled at her animated daughter-in-law. "And adjusting the suits won't be a big problem. They just need taking in a bit…"

"Mom, Grandma! I don't want to wear Dad's suit."

That halted Lois' deliberations stone dead and she turned to face her son.

Matt was looking a little defiant again, but he spoke apologetically. "I meant it when I said I didn't want to be Superman. If I wear his suit, that's the name people will associate me with. They'll call me Superman Jr… or Son of Superman."

"He does have a point, Mom," Sara ventured. "We thought the black suit might be cool…"

"How do you kids know about the black suit?" Lois demanded, her hands settling on her hips.

"Mom, we have x-ray vision. We know you keep it at the back of your closet along with one of the blue suits," Matt admitted, looking somewhat mortified to be caught checking up on his mother. "We've seen you take them out some nights when someone or something has reminded you of Dad."

Lois flushed. Those were her private moments and she didn't exactly appreciate Matthew telling the family. It was true, though. There were times when she'd needed the feel of something of Clark's beneath her hand… beneath her cheek… "But I haven't done that in y… in a long time," she answered defensively.

"We know, Mom," Sara said quietly. "And we didn't mean to spy on you. It's just when we heard you crying, we'd get worried about you…"

"So we checked up on you," Matt added, edging up to his mother and placing an arm round her shoulder, experimentally, letting it rest there when she didn't pull away. "We only did it because we love you, Mom."

"I suppose I understand." Lois gave in, and allowed herself to sag against Matt's side.

"Nothing to be embarrassed about, Lois." Jonathan was, once more, the mediator, his voice calm and even. "I still catch Martha looking through those old photo albums of Clark every now and then…"

"That's true, and don't forget to tell everyone that you sit down and we go through them together, you old softie." Martha dug her elbow playfully into her husband's side and the tension in the room eased as everyone laughed.

"OK, the black suit would add to your association with New Krypton, and I think I can live with giving it up for the cause," Lois granted with a reluctant grin, her mind drifting off dreamily to the moment she'd first set eyes on Clark in his Kryptonian uniform. It had been on the alien ship and he'd looked more… Oh, yes, definitely more. Yet this was not the time to daydream and she dragged her imagination back to the present. "But, Matt, I think I should warn you that suit might have quite an effect on the female population. It is very revealing."

"I could make a blue cape to go with it," Martha suggested, also reliving the past. "A cape looks really dramatic when you're flying."

"It would also cover up your be…" Lois waved her hand in the general direction of Matthew's rear. "I mean, it would prevent girls from eyeing your…"

"All right, Mom, I think I get the picture and I certainly would be happier with the extra… cover." Matt was blushing furiously at the thought of being ogled. He'd been so concerned with the psychological aspects of becoming a superhero that he'd never really considered how he would feel going out in skintight spandex. "I guess I'll stick with tradition and wear briefs as well as a cape."

"Yes, sweetie, blue ones, to match the cape." Martha continued, making lists inside her head. "And blue boots."

Lois took hold of Matt's nearest hand, linking her fingers with his. "Talking of cover, you're going to need more than the suit. I know a certain person once told your dad that people wouldn't be looking at his face when he was wearing the red and blue," she said, with a quick grin at her mother-in-law before addressing a serious concern. "And that was probably true a lot of the time, but Superman's face did become very famous. Thankfully, Clark had already established a disguise…"

"You want me to wear glasses, Mom?" Matt asked.

"I think it's too late for that." Lois shook her head doubtfully. "Your dad had been wearing glasses since childhood, and he was comfortable with them. Everyone who knew him accepted that glasses were a natural part of Clark. If you suddenly started wearing them, they would draw attention to you rather than the opposite."

"Yeah, and these days most kids who have bad eyesight would settle for contacts. Glasses are so yesterday," Sara offered her considered thirteen-year-old opinion. "This time Jor-El should wear the disguise."

"You're right, honey!" Lois crossed to her daughter, dropping down beside her on the sofa and pulling Matt to sit on the arm. She had such smart kids. "Matt, you'll need a mask…"

"You know, when we were creating the Superman suit, your dad tried on a couple of outfits with masks and cowls," Martha said. "Not that he liked them, but I don't think that had too much to do with what he was wearing on his head. You need a cowl which comes down to cover part of your face."

"Like a ski-mask?" Matt's brow crinkled in disgust.

"No, stupid! Criminals wear ski-masks," Sara said disparagingly. The siblings shared a close relationship, but that didn't prevent them from sparring verbally on occasion.

"Sara, don't call your brother names. You know I don't condone that… even if you are right this time." Lois glanced sternly at both children. "Your grandma is meaning something which would come to just below your eyes. Something that would help hide your identity, but wouldn't scare the people you're saving."

"And a cowl would have the added advantage of staying in place during rescues. I could easily attach one to the suit," Martha offered, her creative juices making her feel rejuvenated. "The newer elasticity in spandex means it should move more freely with you, sort of like a second skin."

"That would work, and I remember some of these New Kryptonians wore funny headgear, so it wouldn't seem too out of place. Can't say I liked their dress sense much," Lois stated, her lips turning down at the corners. "Apart from the First Lord's uniform, and I'm sure it will look even better once Martha's altered it for you." Lois patted Matt's hand.

"OK, you've persuaded me. It's probably better that I wear a mask anyway… Might stop people realizing I'm just a kid. They'd probably trust their lives to someone a little older."

"Are you kidding? If I was trapped in a burning building… or drowning, I'd be grateful for super help from an eight-year-old," Jimmy said, his head nodding emphatically.

Lois laughed. "Do me a favor, Jimmy, don't let Vicky hear you say anything like that, or we'll have her donning a suit the minute she starts developing superpowers… Wait a minute! Sara?" Twisting round to face her daughter again, Lois' expressive eyebrows lifted to meet her hair. "You don't have any plans to… to be Supergirl in the near future?"

"Mom! I couldn't… not yet, anyway. I don't have all the powers." Lois' shoulder's relaxed, only to tense again at Sara's next statement. "But I promise to talk to you first when I do have to make a decision."

"Oh, please, can I just get over the shock of having my only son decide to place his life in jeopardy."

"Mom! I'm not necessarily putting myself in danger," Matthew complained.

"No you're not," Lois agreed with feeling. "That's why I'm insisting on conditions."

"I was wondering when we'd get to them." Clearly, Matthew had hoped that his mother would forget about the restrictions she'd mentioned earlier in her enthusiasm to create a new superhero. He should have known better. "What do you have in mind?" he asked, settling astride the sofa's broad arm, his resigned gaze reminiscent of Clark's when he was about to listen to the rules as laid down by Lois Lane.

Rising from the couch, Lois took centre stage before the fireplace. "You might not appreciate the rules, Matthew, but they are non-negotiable… at least for the time being. Whether you like it or not, your Dad had ten years more experience of the world before he went public as Superman… so, I think you need a probationary period…"

Matthew groaned, and for his pains received a quick warning glance from Jonathan.

"Son, I think you should listen to your mom," Johnathan said, supporting Lois to the hilt. "You need time to learn to be a superhero… even your dad realized that. There are dangerous people out there who will be very upset to have another powerful crime-fighter arrive on the scene."

"And they won't!" Lois announced with a vehemence that sent everyone in the room into varying stages of shock. "Going after criminals is definitely off limits for you at this time, Matthew."

"Mom, that's not possible," Matthew argued, surging to his feet.

"Yes, it is possible." Lois' voice remained adamant and her gaze and stance brooked no interference, from any quarter. "Rescues are fine, hopefully smaller ones at first, but for the time being, you stay away from thieves and thugs."

"But they can't hurt me…" Too late, Matt realized he'd metaphorically walked into a brick wall. He swallowed hard, then went on a little less confidently. "Well, most crooks don't have kryptonite."

"That's probably true, but I'm not prepared to take that risk… yet." Lois' arms had been folded over her chest in a gesture of authority, yet now her body seemed to wilt and her arms became a shield. "I can't risk losing you too, Matt."

"But you won't, Mom. I'll be careful." Now Matt's tone was cajoling. "I can't be a proper superhero if I can't tackle crime."

Martha echoed Lois' pain. She rose and came to stand by her daughter-in-law, slipping a hand round Lois' back. "Matt, you have to understand that we have been here before. We might not have spoken our fears aloud, but every time Superman flew out the window we worried, and we didn't relax until he returned safe and well."

"Only the last time he didn't return," Jonathan said, a tremble barely concealed in his voice. "Matt, son, you just can't expect your mother, or any one of us, to forget that. Maybe you could leave tackling crime till you've gotten more used to dealing with the powers; till we've grown accustomed to you doing your dad's job."

"I don't understand why everyone is so worried about me getting hurt. Uncle Bernie told me I'm more immune to kryptonite because of my human genes."

"No, Matt." Lois argued. "What your Uncle Bernie said was that you were probably less susceptible to kryptonite poisoning, but it could still harm you."

"What you need is backup!" Jimmy threw his wild idea into the conversation.

"Backup?" Lois' puzzled stare skewed in the direction of her colleague.

"Yeah. Kinda like a kryptonite disposal squad."

"Jimmy, this is no time for jokes!" Lois frowned and turned her back on Jimmy, dismissing his absurd suggestion.

But Jimmy wouldn't be silenced. "I'm not joking! Matt is my godson and I'm just as concerned about his safety as anyone else. Think about it, Lois. You're worried that some crook is going to hurt Matt by using kryptonite on him, so what he needs is someone who's not affected by the stuff to support him."

"Like a… partner?" Lois almost mumbled.

"You did it for Clark a number of times." Jimmy stared at his longest and possibly closest friend, willing her to understand where he was leading.

"But wouldn't a normal person get in the way, Uncle Jimmy? I mean, wouldn't it just make things more difficult for me if I had to protect someone while I was dealing with a gangster?" Matthew's anxious questions interrupted Jimmy's and Lois' moment of reflection.

"I think Jimmy's suggesting your partner should remain under cover," Lois spoke slowly, working through the new idea.

"You've got it, Lois. Superman patrolled the skies at night, and that's when he thwarted most run-of-the- mill crimes like muggings and the odd petty thief knocking over the local store… maybe even stopped a gang-fight or two. If Matthew cut his teeth on the same sort of thing, I doubt he'd encounter kryptonite, but just in case, he takes one of us with him. Whoever goes could stay out of sight, unless he needs help getting rid of the rock… or if things turn really nasty, the partner could call in the cops, at least."

An arrested expression appeared on Lois' face as Jimmy stopped speaking. "Henderson might help. If there was one cop in this city who was grateful for Superman's presence it was Bill… and I'm pretty certain he'd worked out Clark's secret identity."

"I wouldn't bet against that, Lois," Perry said. "He was one shrewd cop, but hasn't he retired from the force?"

"Yes, but he still runs his own security company… a very successful one too. I think he'd be grateful to have another superhero around and if I spoke to him, tell him what we had in mind, he might agree to help out. We need fairly fit and able-bodied people to back Matthew. I don't mean to insult anyone here, but some of you are just a bit too old… or too young." Lois' last statement was directed at her daughter. "Besides, Sara, you probably would be disabled by kryptonite too."

Martha couldn't help but smile at her grand-daughter's dejected expression. "Your mom's right, Sara. Just be patient and your time will come." At a glare of disapproval from Lois, she quickly continued. "Unfortunately, your mother's right about me too. Much as I don't want to admit it, I'm too old to be flying around at night chasing criminals."

"Don't worry, Grandma, I wouldn't let anyone harm you…"

"Matt, you've got this all wrong. Grandma would be minding you!" Sara's mood quickly changed and she chuckled, while the others grinned.

"That's right, laugh," Matthew declared, not exactly amused. "Some sort of superhero I'll be if I need a bodyguard."

"Matt, I'm sorry. Just humor me in this, OK?" Lois' tone was a little more conciliatory. "It won't be forever, I promise. Besides, I have another idea. We'll need Bernie Klein's help, though."

"I'm almost afraid to ask…" Matt ventured, looking extremely unconvinced.

"A tracking device… one that only Bernie could tune into. I'm sure he could adopt the technology."

"I don't doubt it, Lois," Jimmy said. "But trackers can be dropped or gotten rid of fairly easily."

"Not if he wore it round his neck, under the suit. It would have the added protection of the super-aura, should you have one, Matt." Lois studied her son, hoping to see some evidence of a protective presence. "An even better option would be if Bernie could somehow insert a tracing chip under your skin, but I suppose he'd have to expose you to kryptonite to do that… and that's what we're trying to prevent. Even then, there's probably a chance your body would reject the chip once you recovered from the exposure."

"Mom, now you're making me sound like a dog with a collar or an identity chip." Matthew interrupted Lois' babble, his pride wounded.

"What about a St Christopher?" Sara asked, finding she had an aptitude for this brainstorming stuff. "Bernie could disguise the tracker in a small medal. Lots of people wear these things. If anyone notices, you could say you got it from a friend… or from a grateful person you'd rescued."

"That's a terrific idea." Lois beamed on her daughter. "You know, Sara, you're pretty good at this sort of thing."

"I suppose I could live with wearing a tag — soldiers do, don't they?" Matt decided to give in gracefully on that point, but he still wasn't too sure about the back-up plan. "If I carried a tracker, would that mean I wouldn't need the bodyguard?"

"I'm still working that one out, Matthew. It all depends if Bernie could incorporate some kind of panic alarm in the St Christopher. Something you could use to call in help. It would still mean we'd need someone on standby, but perhaps not quite in such close proximity… just near enough to come to your aid if necessary."

"Right!" Matthew appeared to chew that information over for some moments. "I don't suppose I have any other option?"

"Not really. I'll agree to you being Jor-El if you agree to these stipulations." Lois smiled, to soften the ultimatum.

"I don't want to put you through any more trauma, Mom, so I guess we have a deal." Returning Lois' smile, Matt pulled his mother into another hug, though after a moment he drew back. "And you're sure there's no other regulations you want me to follow?"

"Now you mention it… I don't want your super-duties to interfere with your schooling. You need a college education to get yourself a job. Unless you're considering being Jor-El full time."

"No way, Mom. Dad couldn't do it, and I don't want to. Matt Kent is who I am… and I haven't really decided what I want to do for a living, though I thought maybe I'd like to follow Grandpa…"

"A doctor?"

"No, Mom! My other Grandpa… a farmer." Matt grinned over Lois' shoulder at his Grandpa Jon.

"I don't suppose that surprises me, Matt. When you were a child, you always were happiest in Smallville, working in the fields with your grandpa, fixing fences or messing around with tractors… You do know there are agricultural courses you can take that would teach you to improve your crop yields."

Matthew threw back his head and laughed aloud, a sound of pure relief and exhilaration. "Oh, Mom, you kill me. When did you become such an expert on farming?"

"Falling in love with a farm boy will do that to a girl!"

Lois laughed along with the others, glad to release the tension this evening of revelations had caused. She looked toward her in-laws sitting on one of her couches, their hands tightly intertwined. Had they been party to Matthew's future plans? Somehow she felt they were as surprised as she.

Some months after Clark's disappearance, Jonathan had finally admitted that he'd lost both the will and the energy to continue working the farm. He and Martha had leased out the land to a local farming co-operative and moved to Metropolis to help Lois raise the children.

Now tears mingled with smiles on their lined faces. Jonathan and Martha would be proud and more than happy to see their farm back in the hands of a Kent once again. Strangely, that thought gave her a warm feeling inside.

The world had turned full circle and she'd learned that her son was more like his father than she'd ever thought possible. A farmer… as well as a superhero!


In a mysterious land of teeming millions, a solitary person walked along a lake shore. It was morning and the man had spent some hours clearing the mouth of a small river which emptied its sparkling mountain waters into the lake. Yet today, because of a heavy storm, the water had been thick with silt and rocks, all jammed behind a tree trunk which had been brought down by the wind and rain.

The man had worked steadily since shortly after dawn, sawing the tree and accumulated brush into manageable sizes until he'd freed the dammed-up stream, allowing the waters and debris to mingle with the large volume of the lake. Within a few hours there would be no trace of the tiny natural disaster, though Letour was well aware that MacDonnell would be amazed that he'd accomplished so much in so short a time. His boss was proud to announce to anyone who was willing to listen that Letour could do the work of ten men.

Of course, that was a blatant exaggeration — MacDonnell was known to stretch the truth a little — but Letour couldn't deny the fact that he was fairly strong or that he had an abundance of energy. Not that anyone looking at him would believe Mac's claims. No matter how Marjory MacDonnell tried to feed him up, he remained the tall gaunt figure that her husband had found by the roadside two years ago.

That winter night had proved advantageous for both men. The conservation project, which filled Mac's life, had acquired a trustworthy and hard-working employee, while the wanderer had found a place of shelter. Letour was grateful for all the MacDonnells had done for him, yet regardless of their attempts to draw him into their family, his deep-seated feeling of isolation remained with him. He accepted their friendship, even offered as much of himself as he could in return, but still felt a stranger.

With the storm past, he'd gazed about him, marveling at the beauty of the scene. The pristine air was filled with the scent of pine trees, while above him the sun shone from a clear blue sky, a fitting backdrop for the regal mountains. Across the waters of the bay, the sound of fishermen calling to each other as they plied their trade wafted on the wind. In this province of China, it seemed as if time stood still.

He'd heard about China's large bustling, pollution-filled cities but had no desire to visit them. It wasn't that he was unfamiliar with cities… at least, he didn't think so, but those warnings to remain anonymous, to stay away from places of authority still lingered strongly in his mind. Here, no one bothered him. If fact, as one of MacDonnell's employees, people treated him with respect, even casual friendliness, but most were too intent on making their own livings to worry about his origins.

Besides, this wasn't a bad place to stay. He had a comfortable roof over his head. Shortly after he'd arrived at the center by the lake, Mac had gotten some of the other workers to clear out one of the outbuildings and, in the ensuing weeks, Marje had done her best to make it into a cozy home for him. In summer there were always flowers in a vase on an old dresser she'd rescued from somewhere, and in winter time a wood-burning stove to ward out the cold.

Yes, his life was definitely passable, and he decided to take a short walk along the pebble beach before returning to work. He picked up a stone and sent it skipping across the rippling water, watching it arc once, twice, three times before it sank into the depths. Not bad for a first try. He picked up another, making sure it was as flat as possible and threw again. This time the stone skipped six times before disappearing from sight. He felt a strange feeling of accomplishment, which made him grin.

When had he learned to do that, or was that a skill all boys learned in their youth? Suddenly a picture appeared in his mind of a dark-haired boy, concentrating seriously on making a stone skip across a lake. Another boy. He was sure it was an image captured from the past… but not of him.

Another lake too. A much smaller lake, actually more like a pond. The boy frowned and his teeth worried at his lip as he tried to imitate the action he'd been shown by… his father? Then the child crowed in delight as his stone hit the water twice before sinking.

"I did it, Dad! I did it!" The boy turned and jumped into the waiting arms of… who?

Letour rubbed at his temple. Was he the man who had received the joyful boy in his arms? The man who remained forever out of sight in his clouded visions.

Strange feelings assaulted him as the apparition changed. The boy was no longer a child and he was troubled… as if there was something he ought to do but was unsure of the outcome. In the youngster's soul there was confusion and yet there was steadfastness too. Letour could sense it.

But where did these ghostly images come from and what was their purpose? Mostly, these sensations would come to him in dreams… dreams which were still almost lost with the coming dawn. Yet, this was daylight and he was wide awake!

Voices and faces, known or only imagined, bombarded his brain as he tried to make sense of what was happening to him… and then the pain began. A throbbing, searing pain, as if burning needles stabbed inside his skull.

He dropped to his knees on the hard stones, but didn't feel their discomfort. Now he was no longer rubbing his head, but was almost clawing at the skin, as if he would tear out of the cause of his torment. But he knew it was useless.

Always with these flashes of… memory came the tearing ache. His body trembled as he curled around himself, trying to ward off the worst of the attack. Soon he would be sick, horribly physically sick… and then the pain would recede into numbness. Hopefully, then he'd be able to pick himself off the beach and drive back to his place. He'd tell Mac he was sick and needed to rest.

Thank goodness it wasn't Friday. On Friday nights he had a standing invitation to dinner with the MacDonnells. Marje would fuss over him and later he and Mac would share a glass of Mac's best malt and play a game of chess or cards. After today's 'incident' he just wouldn't be up to socializing, but the MacDonnell's would understand. They'd seen him through episodes like this before. No doubt, when he did awake from a long sleep, feeling spent and disorientated, he'd find a flask of Li-Ying's homemade soup waiting for him.

But that was for later… now he had to get through these next agonizing hours. He clasped his arms around his body, warding off the cold, though the weather was mild and he'd fallen in the full glare of the morning sun. Shutting his eyes to keep out the light, he waited in resignation for time to pass and bring him ease.

Would his dream woman come to bring him succor? He did so hope to see her again — it made the pain almost bearable.

But through the red haze behind his tightly closed eyelids the nebulous image of the teenage boy drifted… and he too smiled, happy at last. Perhaps the boy's problem had been resolved. Letour thought that might be true, and found some consolation in that belief.

In the background, but definitely in reality, he heard a shout from the road above the lake. It was a Scottish cry, one he'd recognize anywhere. Mac must have been driving into the village and noticed him lying helpless on the beach. The Scotsman surely was making a habit of coming to his rescue. Maybe one day he'd get to return the favor.


Chapter Nine: In the Name of the Father

One week after the momentous meeting in the Kent family home, Matthew 'Jor-El' Kent strode back and forth in one of the boardrooms on the top floor of the Daily Planet. On this occasion, Perry White had appropriated the room for his own personal use, and woe betide any uninitiated or wayward employee who dared to interrupt the Chief's private space. Lois Lane, however, was neither uninitiated nor wayward.

Lois stepped from the elevator, her high-heeled shoes clicking on the hardwood flooring as she hurried down the corridor, checking her watch. She was late. Why was it that the Planet's lawyers always chose the most inopportune moments to knock on her office door? As usual, they'd spent more time than was necessary explaining that a story could not be published in quite the way Lois had edited it; not if she wanted to keep the Planet's owners out of a court of law.

Of course, Lois found any visit from the firm's lawyers inopportune, but, on this particular morning, their appearance was extra galling. She had no time nor energy to waste, and she'd astounded her visitors by quickly caving into their demands. Her mind was currently focused on an evolving story; one the media and the public would be talking about for days to come.

She tapped lightly on the door and grinned slightly as she heard a voice.

"Who's there?" The whispered voice asked, but Lois had no difficulty in recognizing Perry's drawl. Clearly, he was taking no chances that the clandestine actions taking place inside would be discovered.

"It's Lois!" She was tempted to giggle hysterically at the cloak and dagger approach, but realized she had to remain calm for the sake of her son.

Perry unlocked the door and opened it just wide enough to allow Lois access and she slipped inside, paying little attention to Perry re-engaging the lock. The lighting in the long room was more muted than usual. Someone had drawn the blinds over the long windows, keeping out the brightly shining sun and the attention of any would-be spies. At this point in time, she thought the precautions unnecessary. Perry might have made the arrangements for the press conference, but he'd kept these actions low key and made it clear he was acting on behalf of another party. The media and the public were not yet aware they had anything to spy upon.

However, her intuition that Matthew would need her to project a sense of composure had been spot on. Before her, a youthful superhero marched up and down while his grandmother followed him, trying, with difficulty, to arrange the fall of the blue cape.

"I'm sorry I'm late. Collins and his minions talked on and on," Lois explained, walking up to the head of the long table. "I have no idea why they couldn't understand I was agreeing to their proposals. I swear I was at the point of throwing them out."

That brought a grin to Perry's face. "They probably thought they'd been transported to the twilight zone. No doubt old Collins' blood pressure almost hit the roof. He's not used to Lois Lane backing down without a fight."

"I have no time to argue with stuffy old lawyers today." Lois' hands rested on the back of a chair as she watched her son pause to give her a silent nod of recognition, before resuming his march, his fingers seeming to count off unspoken thoughts. "Matt, stand still for a moment to allow Grandma to put the finishing touches to your cape. We don't want the stitches coming apart in front of the cameras."

"According to you, Mom, my aura's supposed to protect it." Matt came to an abrupt halt. "Wait a minute. That never happened to Dad, did it?" he asked, his nerves stretched as tight as a Stradivarius.

"No, dear," Martha answered soothingly, stopping just short of crashing into her grandson's back. She was quite unruffled by his anxieties, and not fooled by Lois' collected manner either. "Though, if any part of his suit did get damaged, it was the cape, but usually just the edges."

"Unless you count the time he lost his complete uniform during the Nightfall incident. I was told some homeless man found him naked in a crater." Lois believed a little distraction might be in order, but schooled her mouth into a straight line at the look of consternation on Matthew's face. Oh dear, that had not been the best Superman anecdote to use as a diversion. She had to learn to stop her tongue from disengaging from her brain. At her age, she really ought to know better… but then she was feeling a little stressed.

"How come I'm only just hearing these horror stories now?" Matt demanded. As the appointed time for press conference drew nearer, he was beginning to be overwhelmed by second thoughts about whether he was ready for this next huge step.

"Oh, there are lots of stories you haven't heard about, but the Nightfall Asteroid was probably one of the biggest catastrophes your Dad ever faced. It's not like those disasters come along everyday, thank goodness." Lois quickly sought to reassure Matt. "But this is exactly why I want you to start your superhero career off in a small way."

Matthew sighed audibly. "Mom, it's a bit late now for laying down more rules."

Lois hurried to her son, taking his hands in her own. "I'm not… really I'm not. These aren't new rules, just emphasizing the earlier ones." She spread his arms and looked him up and down, her sight growing misty. In the gloom, she was transported back in time to the newsroom when Clark had worn that suit. "Forgive me, Matt, I didn't mean to sound discouraging. It's just that seeing you in the suit makes everything seem so real. My son the superhero." She brought their clasped hands together again. "The black suit is inspiring. You look… good… so good." Lois wanted to say beautiful, but felt that description wouldn't sit well with Matt. "And I'm so proud of you. You'll do a wonderful job. I don't doubt that."

"I'm not so sure, Mom. I'm just beginning to think you might have been right when you said I was too young."

"Don't you worry yourself about that, Matt," Martha advised, snipping off the final stitch and smoothing down the silky folds of the cape. "There, now it's flowing just right," she said after standing back to view her work. "Your second thoughts are due to first day butterflies… like you got when you were little and started kindergarten…"

"Yeah, but back then Dad was there to give me moral support. I remember how he hung about for a long time after I went inside. I could see him through the window." The occupants of the room shared a poignant smile.

"Yes, and he was back waiting outside for an hour before the kindergarten finished," Lois said. "He was so anxious for you. I think his butterflies were a lot bigger than yours, and when you breezed out without a care in the world, he was so upset. I remember the look on his face. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry."

"Clark always did have the softest, kindest heart of any of my employees." Perry slid thankfully into a seat at the opposite end of the table, laying down his cane and removing his handkerchief from his pocket. "Your mom's right, Matt. You might not be wearing the red and blue, but you sure are bringing back memories… good memories, so don't you go worrying about that either." The Chief blew his nose, noisily. "Now come on, ladies, enough of the ' hearts and flowers' stuff. We've got less than an hour to prepare for the press conference and having three old fogies crying over bygone days isn't helping Matt, at all."

"Speak for yourself, Perry. I am not old!" Lois declared, pretending annoyance. "And Martha isn't crying… much. But you're correct. We're here to help Matt, not scare him witless."

Matt gave a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a grimace. "You're not to blame, Mom. I'm managing to do that all by myself."

For a fleeting moment, Lois was tempted to take advantage of Matthew's beginner's nerves. With a few sympathetic words of agreement, she could keep him safe from the perils of guarding the world for a few more months, perhaps even years. But they'd come too far… In her heart of hearts, she recognized her son was ready to fulfill his destiny. What he needed from her now was encouragement to take that first step.

"Matthew, look at me," Lois said, turning her son's face to hers. "I know you're going to do just fine. You have all the superpowers you need to be a hero and you're definitely clever enough to figure out the complicated rescues. But most important of all…" Lois' hand came to rest on the crest of Matthew's suit. "You have a kind heart. You care about what happens to people. Those were the qualities that helped your dad become a superman, and they'll do the same for you. You just have to trust your instincts…"

"Your mom's right, Matt. Listen to your heart, and you won't go far wrong." Martha's words of wisdom followed those of Lois, but as always, she was there with practical help too. "And if you find yourself unsure, or in trouble you have Bernard's tracker, so someone will always be close at hand."

"I guess," Matthew said a little doubtfully. "Mom, I just wish you and Grandma could be at the press conference… or that it could be held outside the Daily Planet."

"Matt, we've already discussed this," Perry chimed in again. "The first human your dad met during his debut as Superman was Lois Lane, the Planet's top reporter. It was understandable that he'd give his exclusive interview to her, and that he'd continue to have a connection to her and the paper she worked for. But even that caused problems now and then. This is your first contact with the media. We can explain away the fact that you contacted the Planet to arrange the press conference because of their link to Superman, but you don't want to emphasize that connection. Believe me, it's a less risky idea to hold the press conference outside City Hall."

"I know… I know. And you're sure Uncle Jimmy will be there to start the ball rolling with the questions we've rehearsed?" It was clear Matt's stress levels were rising with every passing moment.

Perry checked his watch. "He'll already be heading over to City Hall, and I'll be there too. If you feel you need to see a friendly face, you just look out for either one of us."

"Perry, I'm still not sure your presence is a good move. You haven't covered any stories in years," Lois said, her hands smoothing Matt's sleeve.

"Honey, I might only work part time and I know you do a lot of the hard work these days, but I am still editor in chief of the Daily Planet and this is the biggest story to hit the public in years. Jimmy can write the headlines, but I was a firm supporter of Superman in his day and I think that entitles me to write an op-ed piece for the Sunday supplement on the arrival of his son. Besides, I'm an old man and it won't matter so much if endorsing a new superhero makes me into a target…"

"Perry, I don't want anyone to become a target."

"Mom, if you can't be there, I'd like Uncle Perry to be," Matt interrupted, disentangling his mother's tense fingers from his arm. "You're creasing the suit, Mom. I can't appear in public for the first time with a wrinkled suit!"

"Sorry," Lois mumbled, moving away lest she couldn't resist the temptation to continue her nervous stroking. She had to start thinking more positively. "So, Matt, do you remember what you have to say?"

"Mom, we've been through this a thousand times…"

"I think that's a little over the top, but you have to know your lines. The media can be like vultures if you falter."

"Mom, I'm lived with you my whole life. I think I know about the press."

"Just don't tell them you've made Metropolis your home. Your dad did that and every crime boss in the city went gunning for him."


"Keep them guessing son," Perry advised, leaning back in his chair and adding his words of experience. "If anyone asks where you're based, you tell them you'll go wherever and whenever you're needed."

"Except on school days…"

"Matt, I've already made it clear I don't want you missing classes," Lois said, adamantly.

"Don't you think someone might notice that, Mom?"

Again Perry came to Lois' defense. "Son, that's the benefit of being vague. If you're not around in Metropolis, people will just assume your working elsewhere."

"But won't the public wonder why there are no reports by the foreign press?" Matt had tried to push the envelope on his mother's rules and regulations before without success, but he saw no reason why he shouldn't try again at this late date.

Lois folded her arms, echoing her husband's pose and well aware of her son's intentions. "But there will be reports. Now you have Uncle Bernie's gizmos, I'm not too worried about you going to overseas' rescues in your free time. Just make sure you let one of us know where you are and how you're doing at all times. I'm trusting you, Matt, to stick to the rules we've agreed."

"OK, Mom, I guess I can live with that until you decide I'm old enough to look after myself."

"No one is ever too old to accept help from others, Matt. There's no shame in that, as you'll find out." Perry said, levering himself from his seat. "Even your dad realized he needed help now and then. Time's a wasting and I really do need to go." He leaned heavily on his cane while he limped his way to the door. "Good luck, son!"

"Thanks, I'll need it," Matthew whispered, watching the door close behind the man who'd often stood in place of the father he'd lost.

Sadly, Perry White had ignored his own sons when they were growing up in favour of his profession, but he'd jumped wholeheartedly at the second chance to mentor the Kent kids after Clark's disappearance. Sometimes old hound dogs did learn new tricks.

"OK, let's get this cowl and mask in place and see how it looks," Martha suggested, breaking into the heavy silence that had descended on the room after Perry's exit. "We don't have much time left."

"You're right, Martha. Do you need a hand?" Lois asked, anxiety still leaking a little through her enforced calm.

"Don't you think I should try to do this myself? After all, I'm going to have to learn how to dress myself in this suit at superspeed." Matt's tiny smile took the edge off his impatient tone as he looked from his grandmother to mother.

"Yes, dear, but this is the first time you'll wear the suit in public and we want to make sure you look your best," Martha said. "You'll have plenty of time to practice later." Martha's even temper steadied the younger members of her family while her clever fingers went to work with the one-piece hood and mask. Within minutes her task was complete and both she and Lois stood back to view the result. Again there was silence.

"Well, what's the verdict?" Matthew demanded, his nerves getting the better of him once more. "I look totally dorky, don't I?"

"No, no!" Lois gasped, one of her hands coming up to her mouth. "You look… super! "Your mom's right. It works, Matthew. You look every inch the superhero."

"Come on. There's a restroom over here." Lois grabbed her son's arm and started dragging him to the end of the room, while Martha followed behind. "You can judge for yourself."

Seconds later Matthew was staring at his image in the full length mirror. "Oh, boy," he ground out breathlessly, turning this way and that. "I don't even recognize myself." Slowly, he pulled his shoulders back and firmed his chin, instinctively adopting his father's stance.

Actually, Lois understood exactly what he meant. If she hadn't been in on the secret, she would never have believed the imposing figure in the glass was her sixteen-year-old son. Of course, the suit and the mask helped with the transformation. Like every other teenage boy, Matt's preferred attire was jeans and T-shirt, or perhaps sweats. He only owned one dress suit, and he'd got that under protest.

But it wasn't only the clothes. Before her eyes, she watched him morph into the superman persona. She suspected that the transformation wouldn't last. There would be times in the future, when he'd come home from a rescue, which hadn't gone quite as well as he planned, feeling traumatized and confused. A sixteen year old boy trying to do a super man's job, who needed her understanding and her support. And she would be there for him. No matter how many painful memories it invoked. It would seem that was one of her roles in life — to sustain the father and now the son. She prayed to god she would never have to mourn her son.

"The mask part isn't too bad, but the hood seems a bit tight, Grandma." Matthew was stretching his neck from side to side.

"Aerodynamics, sweetie. Cuts down on wind resistance." Martha gave the standard answer… just as she had to Clark. "Besides, I wanted it to feel like a second skin."

"Yes, Matt. You're dad told me that the more he wore the suit the more comfortable it became. I'm sure it will be the same for you." Lois stepped closer and started rearranging the cape. "You'll grow into it in no time." Her hands waved toward the mirror. "Look at you! You already look the part."

"As much as Dad did?" Matt asked, betraying his biggest fear that he could never live up to Superman's reputation.

"Matt, you said yourself you didn't want to be a carbon copy of Superman. You wanted to be your own kind of hero… and you will. The black suit is so… cool, I think is what your sisters would say. Now you don't have much time left and I think it would be a good idea if you went flying for a bit before going to City Hall. Let yourself get more at ease in the suit before you tackle the media."

As with Clark, Lois was aware Matthew enjoyed flying the most of all his powers. A short flight would help ease his nerves and maybe he'd even manage to do a small rescue before arriving at the conference. A rescue would give Matt an extra boost of confidence… as long as nothing went wrong. Oh, dwelling on negative thoughts wasn't good. She had to stop acting like a clingy mother and send her son off with a smile. Lois pulled Matthew into a tight hug, then quickly released him, smiling into his face. "Go on, Matt. Go be Jor-El. The public needs another superhero, and we're all so proud of you."

Matt started to move, but at the last moment he tugged his mother and then his grandmother into his arms. "I'll try not to let you down," he said, so softly that both women had to strain to hear.

"Matt, you could never let us down. We love you… No matter what happens, remember that." Lois kissed her son's cheek just below the silk of the mask. "And wherever your father is… I know he would be proud too…" A sob threatened to cut off her breath and she mentally shook herself. "Now get out of here, Jor-El. Go and do super things!"

"Yes, Mom." Matt gave a laugh as he stepped back. "Grandma, did you boss Superman about like this?"

"Of course I did, sweetie!" Martha joined in his laughter and soon Lois was laughing too. Then the boy in the black and blue suit was gone, a slight gust of wind following in his wake. The Kent women collapsed into each other's arms. Neither quite knew whether they were laughing or crying… but both of them felt the presence of a ghost in the room. Clark would have so loved his boy.


Next morning, the banner headline of the Daily Planet read 'In The Name Of The Father.' Excited Metropolitans rushed to the news-stands to buy their copies, avidly devouring the information heralding the advent of another superhero. Across the United States and round the globe, newspapers picked up the story. Online media sites covering the news were inundated with so many hits that the high-powered web failed for the first time in years, as technology struggled to cope with the deluge, while images of Jor-El filled TV screens in almost every home in the free-world.

Lois' and the family's assumption that the public would welcome another superhero into their midst proved to be correct. It seemed that the years spent without Superman had taught the world's population to appreciate his great gifts, and they were ecstatic to learn that someone else would be there to watch over them again. Such was the collective elation, that, for the moment, conspiracy theorists, xenophobics and organized crime bosses, whom Lois had fretted so much about, didn't dare to raise their hands against the son of Superman.

Jor-El was the people of Earth's new hero and, as the weeks and months passed by, their first flush of adulation settled into a feeling of kinship and respect. Matthew Kent was aware that he owed his easy acceptance to his father, yet he wouldn't have wished it any other way.


Chapter Ten: The Day That The Rains Came Down

Letour set his cutlery down on his plate and sat back in his chair. "Thanks, Marje. That was…"

"Interesting," MacDonnell suggested, helpfully. "I think that might be the word ye're looking fer. I dinn'ae like tae see ye struggling, laddie, between ye're fine manners and not wanting to blot ye're copy-book with a downright lie," he added with a surreptitious wink. "I probably should hae told ye that Marje was doin' the cooking tonight since Li-Ying's off visiting her latest grandchild."

Marje lifted her napkin and swatted her husband across the table. "Mind what you're saying, Mac, or you could be going hungry for the next few days. I gave Li-Ying some time off. Her daughter isn't too well since the birth and Li-Ying's staying down in the village to look after the baby and her son-in-law." The Scotswoman's brogue wasn't nearly so pronounced as her husband's; a difference Marje had explained away by suggesting she came from a place called Inverness where they spoke the queen's English and not Mac's rough Scots.

Letour, however, wasn't distressed by the MacDonnells' oral sparring; instead he stifled a grin. They often bickered, but he'd very soon realized that they thought the world of each other. Sharing a commitment to environmental conservation and caring for the local people had forged a bond between Mac and Marje. Their work might not always have been easy and they'd fought many a battle against greed and ignorance, yet adversity had only strengthened their union.

Somehow, Letour found himself at ease in the couple's company, which was an unusual occurrence for him. He might have put down some tentative roots in this neighborhood, and actually believed his work was contributing to the greater good, but he still felt strangely alien.

"OK, woman, dinn'ae fash yersel'! I'm sure my stomach can stand the strain fer a day or two, and, since ye did the cooking, I suppose it's up tae Letour and me tae dae the washing up. Come on, laddie, let's mak ourselves useful."

Mac pushed himself up from the table and began collecting the dishes while Letour quickly copied him.

"You two don't have to do that. Letour is a guest," Marje objected, also standing. "Go get on with your chess game. You know you want to."

"The chess can wait for a bit, Marje. Why don't you sit down and relax," Letour suggested. "I really don't mind helping out…"

"Aye, and the laddie isn'ae a guest. He's part of the family." Mac mentioned casually, balancing a stack of plates rather precariously in his hands, while Letour held his breath, waiting for them to fall. "Dinn'ae argue now, Marje. I'm sure ye can find something tae dae meanwhile."

Clearly, Marje shared Letour's fears for her best china, her single remaining wedding present from back home, but decided it was better to let Mac get on with the job instead of wasting time arguing. She did, however, send Letour a pleading glance and was relieved as he took some of the dishes from her husband. Letour could always be relied on to lend a hand.

"That's true," she admitted to Mac, while smiling on the savior of her dinner-set. "I do have some work to be doing online. The people back home need to know the problems we're having with the logging company and the local governing committee. The loggers are skating very close to the edge of their quotas and the Party Leader is refusing to confront them."

"Aye, the wee bugger is too scared of the company's bully-boys; either that or he's gettin' his palm greased," Mac called over his shoulder as he made his way into the kitchen, fully laden, having picked up more dishes to replace the ones Letour had removed.

"Probably a bit of both," Marje concurred, booting up her computer with its wireless connection to the Internet, one of the few pieces of high-technology in the centre, even if the system was a comparatively older model. Their on-site laboratory was cobbled together with second-hand goods. As she waited for her computer to connect, she called out, "Anyway, if I alert Edinburgh and Beijing maybe they'll put a flea in his ear and we can put a stop to those parasites deforesting the whole mountainside."

"They'll have to hurry, Marje," Letour stated, standing in the doorway with a dishtowel in his hand. "I drove up there this afternoon and the loggers have started on the trees along the ridge above the village. I thought that was out of bounds."

"Aye, that it is!" Mac called from the kitchen, plunging his hands into a sink brimming over with soapy foam. Perhaps he'd been a mite generous with the soap? "And ye went drivin' in this weather? Ye're a brave man, Letour, but my Genevieve didn'ae let ye down, did she?"

"Not at all, Mac." Letour smiled at Mac's devotion to his jeep. You could almost think Mac admired the vehicle more than he did his wife, but in reality he loved both in equal measure. That thought made Letour grin broadly. Mac was a strange mix of personalities, but there was no doubt his heart was in the right place and that was what was important… and he had the ability to make Letour laugh, something Letour did too rarely. He walked into the kitchen to begin his task of drying up. "I chose today because I thought the loggers might have abandoned their work in this wet weather and I might have a better chance to look around, but they're still up there."

"They're cutting trees doon in the rain?" Mac's hands stilled in the hot water. "Using that machinery in a' this rain has got tae be a dangerous job." The heat on his skin broke through his distraction and he drew his hands back quickly. "Damn, damn, damn!" He blew on his stinging fingers, then ran some more cold water into the bowl causing the suds to slosh over the edge. "I dinn'ae blame the poor workers, mind ye. It's them greedy swines in the suits wha're exploiting poverty that I'd like tae strangle, metaphorically speakin', ye understand."

"They weren't using the biggest machinery, but they were still working, trimming and stacking the logs for transport," Letour explained, dabbing at the excess water on the floor with a cloth. Poor Marje would probably have more work to do cleaning up the kitchen after Mac's efforts to help. "I was concerned to see the men working in the downpour, too, but obviously the company felt its profits shouldn't be affected by a little adverse weather." But that was the trouble — it wasn't just a little rain. It had been coming down in torrents for days.

"Adverse weather!" Mac repeated on a snort. "Aye, the company wuid see it that way. It disn'ae believe in down time, and they wuidn'ae pay wages for wet weather either. What we need here is a strong union, like in the guid auld days of the Clyde shipyards. These shop-stewards would hae been a match for the Jilin Logging Company." Mac spat out the title like he was getting rid of a sour taste in his mouth. "Chinese mafia is whit they really are!"

"Yeah, but unfortunately they are legal." Finished with the mopping up, Letour polished the dishes dry as Mac continued to place them on the drying board. "We've got to prove their breaking agreements, which is why I thought I'd do some sneaking around." Actually, he hadn't managed to do too much sneaking, but oddly enough he'd felt quite comfortable while doing so.

"Fancy yersel' as a bit of a private-eye, Letour?" Mac grinned broadly, finally finishing his imposed task and letting the water drain away. "I'm no complainin', mind ye. Ye find anything we can use tae close the buggers down and I'll be forever in yer debt."

"I want to put a stop to what they're doing too, Mac. The world needs these forests and I don't like seeing the locals taken advantage off." Letour might have forgotten the details, but he suspected he'd always been passionately concerned with the world and its problems. He just wished he knew what sort of role he'd played before these last few years. "Where do these dishes go, Mac?" he asked, changing the subject to more practical matters.

A voice drifted in from the living room. "If you've finished washing up, just leave them and I'll clear away later. Leave it up to Mac and I'll never be able to find anything again." Letour could hear laughter in Marje's voice. "Come back in here both of you and look at this, will you? That new superhero is in the news again."

The two men made their way over to Marje's desk and read the computer screen over her shoulder. She'd opened the homepage of The Scotsman's online newspaper where the main story covered Jor-El's latest super feat.

"That laddie has been affy busy since he arrived on the scene," Mac remarked, while his wife scrolled down the article.

"He has that, and a group of Chinese college students are certainly happy that he's around," Marje agreed and launched on a shortened version of the current achievement. "Their plane got into difficulties on their flight to Australia, but Jor-El arrived in time to save the day and landed the plane in Melbourne. It's a fine job he's chosen to do. Everyone thinks so." Marje clicked through a number of foreign media sites, stopping on The Daily Planet page where a large picture of the black-clad hero graced the front page.

"Isn'ae he supposed tae be Superman's son?" Mac asked, leaning forward to study the screen closely. "Aye, I 'd say there's a family resemblance."

Marje twisted in her seat to regard her husband. "Come on, Mac! How would you know? Half his face is covered."

"But no all of it! Just tae below his eyes." Mac remonstrated with his partner, sounding a little hurt. He stretched his arm out and touched the image of Jor-El. "The laddie's got his father's chin… and his mouth, maybe. Can ye no see that, lass?"

"Perhaps, a bit," Marje admitted. "It's a bit difficult with these action shots. What do you think, Letour?"

There was a few seconds of silence, while Letour stared transfixed at the computer, his mind blanking out.

"Letour?" Marje asked again, touching his arm lightly.

She was surprised to see him looking so pale. Once Letour had settled down at the centre and got some meat on his bones, his skin tone had taken on a slightly exotic bronze, cementing the supposition that he might have some Eurasian blood in his genealogy. Hopefully, he wasn't coming down with some flu virus, having spent most of the day out in the inclement weather. Marje often fretted about the younger man's health since Mac had brought him back home, looking like a stray waif.

"Are you OK?" She tugged on his arm a little more urgently.

Letour roused himself with some effort. What was wrong that a mere picture on a screen should have such an effect on him? What was more, he couldn't exactly pinpoint what kind of effect. His glance passed between Marje and Mac. Apparently, they were waiting for an answer, but what had been the question? Oh yeah… about Jor-El and Superman.

"Um, I don't really know. I'm not sure what Superman looked like…"

"Ye never saw Superman?" Mac directed a narrow look at Letour and asked, sounding flabbergasted. "That's kinda hard tae believe, lad. Ye're an American, and Superman made his home in Metropolis — one of the US's most important cities. Ye think ye'd hae run intae him sometime or other."

"Come on, Mac, why would I ever see Superman?" Letour experienced a weird need to defend himself… but from what? "America is a big place and it's not like I'm going to bump into him walking down the street. >From what I've heard, Superman was based in Metropolis and I have no idea where in the States I came from. Chances are I lived somewhere totally different… like Illinois or Kansas. In fact, if you hadn't told me, I wouldn't even know I was an American."

Mac was nodding his head wisely. "That's probably it. Ye've forgotten about Superman along with a'thing else. But tak a look at the photo of the boy. It'll maybe jog that memory of yers."

Another look! Letour didn't want to look, but could see no suitable excuse to give to Mac, who obviously thought he was doing his friend a good turn. Glancing reluctantly at the computer again, he found himself drawn to the picture. He saw an image of a young man — he felt more than registered that the hero was young — dressed in a black skintight suit with a cape. A masked figure, who would be difficult to identify, but he suspected that was the whole idea of the mask. The boy probably had another identity.

Now, why would he think that, and why would be feel compelled not to mention that to his friends?

His eyes were attracted to the blue metallic shield on the front of the suit. It looked suspiciously like a stylized 'S'. Did that stand for Superman? After all, he'd read a few of the media articles and this Jor-El did claim to be Superman's son, so it was possible… only, Letour wasn't so sure.

But what did he know about the lineage of superheroes? A distinct throbbing was beginning in his temples and his throat felt constricted. He hoped he wasn't coming down with something. He'd gotten really soaked today up at the logging camp. Most of all, he just wanted to stop staring at the screen which had developed an annoying strobe effect. Only he was pretty sure Mac wasn't ready to abandon this subject. The man was like a dog with a bone when it came to attempting to jog Letour's missing memory.

He tore his eyes away from the computer and addressed Mac, trying to turn the tables on the older man. "Actually, I'm surprised you know so much about Superman. I wouldn't have thought the Chinese press would have covered the superhero's exploits — not a few years ago anyway."

"No, at first, maybe, but they wrote up the puir man's disappearance." Mac grunted, hunching his shoulders and appearing genuinely upset by this fact.

"Yes, they did, and they joined in the mass tributes." Marje added, somewhat cynically. "Though I think that might have been to cover their own backs. Superman disappeared close to their borders and they were trying to avoid the finger being pointed at them."

The conversation swinging round to Superman's demise wasn't helping Letour's state of health at all. The throbbing inside his head was threatening to upgrade into a full scale pounding, while he wiped his sweaty palms agitatedly on his pant's leg. He might be unwilling to deepen Mac's suspicions, but he was almost on the brink of excusing himself and running off to his lair.

Yet, Mac wasn't insensitive. He was aware that Letour suffered physically when trying to remember his past. In the early days, Mac had suggested a couple of times that Letour should contact the US Embassy in hope that the staff could uncover the missing identity, but the confusion and very real terror he'd witnessed on Letour's face at the mention of such an investigation forced Mac to drop the idea. It was obvious that Letour was ready to bolt at the merest sign any official might be interested in his presence in China.

Now, seeing his friend becoming similarly distressed by the talk about the Kryptonians, Mac's radar went on high alert. The laddie had that haunted look about him again, and Mac couldn't help but wonder what was the connection. However, he had no intention of forcing the issue just to satisfy his own curiosity, so he backed off.

"Ah well, we're never gonna know whit happened to Superman, and who the young lad looks like is nane o' ma business. He's doin' a guid job of taking care of people in trouble and that's aw that counts. I just hope he's more appreciated than wis his faether." With those final words, Mac walked away from the computer and, finding his chess-set, began setting it up by the fire. "Come over here tae the heat, man." He gestured to Letour. "This constant dreich weather gets inside a body's bones. Ye dinn'ae look too well, right now, if ye dinn'ae mind me sayin'. Are ye sure ye're up tae a game?"

Relieved that he'd been let off the hook, Letour smiled and made his way to the fire, while Marje continued tapping away at the keyboard behind him. She did have work to do if she wanted to recruit the authorities into halting the destructive over-cutting of the ancient forests.

"This rain is starting to get on everyone's nerves, I think," Letour stated, his gaze drawn to the ceiling by the constant drone of raindrops, keening like a lament on the tin roof. "Has it ever been as bad as this before?"

"Not since I've been here, though I have heard the aulder fisherman bletherin' about mountainsides slidin' intae the loch and creating massive waves… sorta a doomsday scenario, if ye get ma drift. Mind ye, I'm no one tae take no heed of sic stories. There's usually some truth in a' these tales."

Letour settled himself in a chair, his rear sliding easily into the well-worn cushions. He pulled the seat up to the small table with the chess board sitting on top, smiling to himself as he realized Mac had positioned the table so he would get the main benefit from the wood-burning fire. As he stretched his hands out to place the chess pieces on their squares, he was pleased to note his fingers merely trembled. His panic was over, thank goodness, and he breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

Mac had poured out a couple of glasses of his best whiskey and he placed one on the table near Letour. "Here, get that inside ye and it'll warm ye up. Best medicine in the world, this is."

Taking his own advice, Mac took a long sip of the amber liquid then sat down opposite Letour. For quite a time the only sound in the room was the soft pat of Marje's fingers flying across the keypad, while the two men locked horns over the chessboard, concentrating on taking advantage of the other's first wrong move. Mac had been his university's star chess player, though he had to admit that when his current opponent was on song, he was totally outclassed. Sometimes it seemed as if Letour could see through every one of his strategies. Mac believed that Letour might have made a world-class Master, if he could only apply himself, but the thing was, the laddie didn't have the killer instinct.

Clearly, Letour had other things on his mind tonight, as Mac moved his queen, building toward his declaration of 'checkmate'. Letour wasted little time and moved his piece without giving the game much thought. Mac edged forward in his seat and studied the pieces, smiling inwardly with glee. This was going to be one of the few nights when he tasted victory.

Then, suddenly, with a reverberating crash that echoed round the ring of mountains, the world seemed to collapse. Seconds later, a shock wave hit the house, causing the wooden timbers to shudder on its foundations.

"Oh, beejeezus, whit the hell was that?" Mac clung to his chair as it threatened to over-balance, though whether because the room was shaking or as a result of his own stupor, he couldn't quite tell. "An earthquake?" Mac asked of the man sitting opposite him. Only Letour was no longer there.

"Not an earthquake, I think." Letour spoke as he opened the French windows leading onto the wooden porch and stepped outside.

How had the laddie moved so fast? Mac had been staring straight ahead of himself. Mind you, he might have blinked. Yes, he'd definitely blinked… maybe even once or twice.

A movement across the room drew his attention away from the question of Letour's speed and to Mac's dismay he saw Marje on the floor, tangled up in the spars of her wooden seat and with her computer balancing precariously on the edge of the desk above her. "Marje, lass, I'm comin'!"

But before he could reach his wife, Letour was helping her up. Now there, the lad had done it again! Had Mac bumped his head and was suffering from concussion? Was the world really speeding by, or had time stood still? Certainly something very weird was happening outside. The rumbling had stopped momentarily, then almost like an approaching roar of a herd of stampeding elephants, it began again, growing louder with each minute.

Both Mac and Letour dusted Marje down and, once they'd established that she was indeed unhurt, all three headed outside. In the darkness it was difficult to make out exactly what had occurred, but Mac found himself concurring with Letour's take on the earthquake. The house and surrounding grounds appeared to have stabilized, though he could feel a trembling deep within the earth, almost like ripples in the water when a stone broke the surface… and the noise was reaching mammoth decibels.

"Look!" Letour stretched his hand out toward the general direction of the lake's shore. "My god, the whole ridge is on the move!"

The two people standing by him stared out into the darkness, straining to follow his direction, trying to see what he was meaning, but apart from hearing a noise like rolling thunder, neither could see what was happening.

"The village by the lake, look! Don't you see it?"

Letour began moving toward the few steps on the stoop, but Marje had taken hold of his arm. She'd suddenly grasped his meaning.

"Oh, dear god!" she whispered, as one by one the house lights began to blink out… slowly at first, but with ever increasing speed until it seemed a giant hand had distractedly snuffed out hundreds of candles.

Then, eerily, a break in the clouds partially uncovered the moon and silvered-edged light illuminated a ghostly scene, displaying to the watchers the horror which nature had wrought. Only, in this case, Mother Nature had been abetted by the greed of man. A few miles away, the hillside, sodden with days of never-ending rain and devoid of trees, was sliding, tumbling, rushing, without heed of what stood in its path, into the depths of the lake below.

"Them puir souls! Aw, them unfortunate wee souls!" Mac cried, tears springing to his eyes. He knew most of the people who lived in that village; considered most of them his friends.

"I've got to go help out," Letour stated baldly, disentangling his arm from Marje's stiff fingers. Deep inside his being stirred an overwhelming need to save…

"Aye, ye dae. We both dae. But just whit are ye thinkin' of? Runnin' down there?" From the arrested expression on Letour's face, Mac thought that might have been the laddie's intention. "The village is seven miles awa'. We'll be quicker if we tak Genevieve. Besides, we'll need shovels and things. Anything that will help us dig!" For a second Mac turned his attention to Marje, who was still staring off into the distance. "Marje, snap out o' it, lass! Get on the radio or the Internet — any way ye can reach help, and tell them tae damn well git here as soon as they can. I have a bad feeling about this."

"And you'd be right!" Marje's face appeared blanched and haggard in the shifting moonlight, but it was the dread in her voice that stopped her husband. "Mac, the logging camp round the bay. There are no lights… nothing… not any sign of life."

Over time, a small, lively township had grown up round the camp. Apart from some desperate locals who'd signed on the payroll, the loggers were mostly outsiders and many had brought their families to live in the area, as had those who supplied the workers with the necessities of life. People from all trades had converged on the sprawling compound — from the store-keepers to the medics who manned the ill-equipped clinic the logging company had been obliged to set up. At this time in the evening, the town was normally a thriving little metropolis, now it appeared to have been wiped from the map.

"Dear, lord, ye're right. This isn'ae just any landslide. I'd say the 'hale mountainside has come down. I warned them they were over-cuttin' but wuid they listen? No! But they didn'ae deserve this, puir buggers. Besides, aw the Chiefs sit safe in their swankie offices in Chanchung while the Indians are in the thick o' it," Mac growled out his words of disapproval, then his voice softened. "Marje, love, better get goin'. There's no time tae waste." As Mac passed Letour on his way to the old barn where Genevieve was housed, he tapped the bemused man's shoulder. "Come on, Letour, we have work tae get done. These puir folks need us!"

At the Scotsman's words, Letour shuddered. From almost throwing himself down the track toward the shore road, he'd become frozen to the spot. He actually had believed he could go to the villagers' aid under his own steam, which was totally crazy. Using the jeep would be far quicker and they could carry more equipment that way. Yet the vehicle might get bogged down in the mud. Everything appeared to be fairly normal up here, but they had no idea what they'd find closer to the village.

"Mac, we still might have to abandon Genevieve if the road's washed out further down the track," Letour mentioned as he, too, reached the large wooden shack and started loading up the back of the jeep with the tools Mac was pulling out of the dim interior.

"Aye, lad, that thought had occurred tae me, but it'll be quicker if we can use her fer as far as we can. Speed is whit we need here, and we might pick up a few mair volunteers tae help us along the way."

Satisfied that he'd stripped their resources bare of any rescue equipment, Mac made his way to the jeep, throwing the keys to Letour. "Ye drive. Ye can handle her better than I can." At his words, he rubbed the metal of his much loved jeep in apology for abandoning her to another driver, then opened the passenger door.

But just before the men climbed into the vehicle, Marje emerged from the house wearing an enveloping waterproof poncho. For a very few moments before the disaster, the deluge had eased, but now the rain had begun again and the gusting winds were increasing.

She raised her voice to shout to her men folk above the tumultuous noise. "Hold on a minute." She scurried down the slope, slipping and sliding in the hostile conditions, to where they waited and handed each a rain mac. "Here put these on; you're going to need them. I've managed to reach the emergency services on the radio and help is on the way. They're sending in rescue teams from the army and the airforce. Only with this gale getting up, they doubt they can get the helicopters off the ground, which means they have to come by road, and that will take more time, especially since they don't know what sort of state the roads are in. They told me to man the radio and let them know any updates, but they want you to co-ordinate a local rescue team, Mac."

"I thought they micht." Mac nodded as he spoke, while he struggled into his waterproofs. "Let's just hope there's enough able-bodied people left."

"We can look out for them on the way down to the lake," Letour suggested anxiously, now dressed for the weather and climbing into the driver's seat. "We should get going, Mac."

"Aye, Aye. With ye as my righthand man, Letour, I winn'ae go far wrong. Tell them we'll dae the best we can, Marje. We'll keep in touch with ye by the radio and ye can pass on the ETA of those rescue teams the minute ye ken it." The radios were a fairly new acquisition for the centre and, though not exactly as high-tech as cellphones, they were a welcome bonus for the biologists and their team. The radios would certainly come in very useful in these circumstances. Mac hoisted himself into the jeep. "I just hope the rescuers can make it here as soon as maybe. There's mony a life that'll depend on their speedy arrival, ye can be sure."

Before Mac closed the door, he took a fleeting moment to pull Marje closer and planted a kiss on her lips, leaving her stunned. Mac wasn't the most demonstrative husband in the world, so it was a measure of his emotional state of mind that he'd given her a hug.

"Get on with you, you big lummox," she said derisively, yet she couldn't resist leaning into him for a second or two to give and take comfort. Then she swung Genevieve's door shut and stood back, swiping at her cheeks which were wet with rain and the tears she could no longer staunch. "Mac, I know it's going to be a mess, but try to find Li-Ying and her family. I'm worried sick about them. That little boy is just a few days old…" A wrenching sob cut off her words as she moved a step or two back to give the vehicle room to manoeuvre. "Good luck, and be careful, both of you," she cried, but a strong gust of wind took her words away and she wasn't sure if they'd heard her wishes.

Letour started the jeep and with a sucking squelch of tires in mud, Genevieve roared off down the hill. The mention of Li-Ying had struck dread in Mac's and Letour's hearts. The housekeeper's son-in-law was a fisherman and lived very close to the lake. What chance would the family's flimsily built home have against the tremendous mass of a mudslide… what chance had any of the houses? Both men were dreading what they'd find when they reached the village, yet neither thought to be anywhere else. Many of these people were their workmates, and more importantly… their friends.


Lois Lane-Kent waited for the elevator doors to open then crossed the newsroom with a determined step and a frown on her face, hoping to discourage any approaches from her staff. She'd just spent most of the morning in her monthly meeting with the 'bean-counters' and, as always, came away feeling frustrated that the real work of gathering news came secondary to generating funds for the share-holders. Now she knew exactly why Perry had so hated attending these 'lectures' and why he'd readily delegated the job to his co-editor. She'd have a few words to say to Perry, the moment he returned from his sick leave.

Distracted by her annoyance, Lois entered her office and was closing her door before she realized someone was waiting for her. By the way her visitor was pacing, it appeared he was also suffering stress.

"OK, Jimmy, what's wrong now? Why don't you sit down and let it all out," she suggested with a resigned sigh. In her experience, bad news was best heard immediately — a little like pulling off a band aid in one quick, decisive motion. It didn't really lessen the pain, it just seemed that way.

Jimmy's head snapped up. Her arrival had taken him by surprise and he looked like he'd rather be someplace else. "I'm sorry, Lois. I know you're gonna be mad, but believe me, I would have tried to stop him, if he'd given me the chance."

"Stopped who?" Lois demanded, sharply, but when he stared at her as if he was in danger of being torn limb from limb, she softened her tone. "Is this a work thing, Jimmy?"

James Olsen shook his head. Why did he have to be the one to pass on the message?

"James, you're beginning to frighten me. What's wrong? Has something happened to Perry?" Their Chief was in the hospital, having undergone hip replacement surgery a few days previously, but Lois had visited him yesterday afternoon and the procedure had gone well. Perry had looked good, but any surgery was dangerous for more elderly patients and a day could make a difference.

"No, not Perry. He's fine… Can you believe they've got him back on his feet already? He says he'll be back here just as soon as they discharge him… And nothing is exactly wrong. At least, I don't think so."

"Jimmy!" Lois was now exasperated.

"OK, just let it out! I know." Jimmy absentmindedly rifled through the files in Lois' in-tray. "I got this message from Matt on my cellphone this morning. It seems he's gone overseas."

"What? Where has he gone?"

"I'd assume China. Haven't you heard? It's been on the news all morning. There's been this terrible disaster. This gigantic mudslide that's engulfed some villages and killed most of the inhabitants…"

"You only assume? Didn't he tell you?" Lois asked, her breath quickening.

"No! I didn't speak to him. I told you he messaged me. I was in a meeting with a source and the guy was kinda spooked about whistle-blowing, so I didn't want to interrupt by accepting a message. But to be honest, Matt didn't give me the chance. I think he knew I'd try to talk him out of it, and he sure wasn't waiting around for any arguments."

Lois crossed to her desk and sank down into her chair. What was Matt thinking of… and why hadn't he spoken with her? Unless… She clicked on her own phone and watched her messages scroll across the small screen. There had been a few while she'd been out, but mostly work-related and certainly not one from her son.

"Matt, what are you playing at?" she said under her breath, then addressed Jimmy, who was clearly waiting for the storm to break over his head. Yet Jimmy wasn't to blame. "I'm sure you're right. It's probably the reason he chose not to talk to me, though I do put a block on my phone when I'm meeting with the accountants, except for family emergencies, of course. But hey, my son probably thinks a trip to China is just a walk in the park."

Lois leaned her elbows on her desk and dropped her head into her hands and for a few seconds there was silence. "And it's a Friday!" Lois looked up as she spoke. "He knows how I feel about rescues on school days. Has Matthew decided to throw the rule book away?"

"He did mention that… about Fridays, I mean. Lois, he said to tell you he was sorry, but he heard about the disaster on his way to school. I guess he decided that trying to save a few thousand lives was worth playing hooky for. You know his education won't suffer much for missing one day of school, Lois, and he has the rest of the weekend before he's due back."

"I guess so." Lois smoothed her hair back behind her ear, fretfully. "My worry is that this is just the first time. You know, these disasters don't happen to suit my son's school schedule. How soon before he's taking time off to fly to catastrophes on a regular basis?"

"I got the impression he's not intending to do that. He told me he felt this one was special… though don't ask me why, because he didn't clarify. This was just a voice message you know, not a conversation."

Again, Lois reached for her phone. "I'm not endorsing what Matt did, and he's going to hear what I think about this stunt of his whenever he gets back, but I suppose I better give some excuse to the school for his absence."

"No need, Lois. I already did that… right after I got Matt's message. I didn't want him getting in trouble with the principal. He might have broken the rules, but you've got to admit the kid's got guts. I'm sorry if you think I overstepped the mark, though."

Relaxing a little, Lois let her hand rest on her desktop and grinned ruefully at her friend. "Jimmy, you know you're part of the family. What mark could you possibly step across? The school needed to be told something. By the way, is Matt off returning a library book, though with electronic reading, that excuse is a little old… or was it a video?"

Jimmy laughed along with Lois. "Videos! Oh, man, those were the days. CK's excuses were pretty cheesy back then. I can't believe that I swallowed them hook, line and sinker. God knows what he'd come up with now…"

Their laughter died, halted again by memories of Clark. "Jimmy, I know I have to let Matt grow up, but it's hard… really hard. How do I stop being afraid for him?"

"Sore throat. I told the school secretary that Matt had some sort of virus." Jimmy evaded Lois' last question and crossed to the armchair in front of her desk, dropping into its comforting embrace. How often had he sat in this chair during an emotional crisis… though there was nothing to suggest that this particular occasion was one of those. Not yet anyway. "I don't think you'll ever stop worrying. But, Lois, I'm pretty certain Matt will be fine. Jilin Province is even a tourist destination these days and the worldwide media has already hot-footed it over there, not to mention global rescue services…"

"Jimmy, that's exactly what we thought when Clark went to North Korea… well, not the touristy bit. Yet, it didn't help him any, did it?" Lois' tone was harsh, but Jimmy looked more concerned than upset.

"China isn't Korea, Lois. Time has moved on too; even North Korea is changing." He sat forward in his seat, hoping to convey comfort to Lois, but he couldn't resist wringing his hands together. "And Matt isn't naïve. He'll be careful. Besides, he's in communication with Bernie…"

"You've spoken to Bernie?"

"It was the first thing I did, after calling the school. Bernie's tracking him. According to the tracker, Matt arrived on the scene a short time ago and Bernie told me he'd keep you informed of any updates."

But Lois wasn't prepared to wait and she quickly picked up the phone and speed-dialed Star Labs. A few seconds later she was asking into the mouthpiece. "Bernard, where is he and can you patch him through to me?"

The nervous scientist had been expecting this call and not exactly with pleasure. "Hi, Lois, how are you?" Yet from the groan which echoed from his phone, Bernie realized that his caller wasn't prepared for small talk. His voice dropped to an anxious whisper. "Oh, don't answer that. Of course you're upset. Lois, I have some people with me just now, important people, so perhaps we could talk later."

"Bernard! Don't you dare hang up on me."

"No, of course not. I wouldn't dream of it. But I really can't say too much at this time." The poor man was almost strangling on his words. "Everything is fine with… well with who you're worried about. But I haven't actually spoken with him lately…"

"How lately is lately? Within the past ten minutes say?"

"No, I spoke to him when he first left… when he was en-route, probably. He checked in to let me know where he was going and to make sure the contact system was operational. Oh, and he wanted information about the geology of the area and the effects of such a landslide. I ran a simulation on my computer and passed on the results, but I told him what I'm telling you. The Board of Directors are inspecting our premises today and are here with me now. They've gone into my main lab for a moment, so I only have a few minutes to talk. I wouldn't want them to find out too much about my extra-curricular activities involving the new superhero. They know I provide him with medical help, but we really don't want them looking too deeply into the connection."

Lois knew well that Dr Klein was never good under pressure and decided to cut him some slack. "I understand, Bernie, and I'm sorry I snapped at you, but I am worried."

"Yes, of course you are, but the tracking device is in order and Jor-el has reached his destination safely. I'll get back to you as soon as I can, but Lois, if Jor-El is too busy to chat, I can't force him to acknowledge my messages."

"I know." Lois shook her head sadly. Matt was just too stubborn at times, and she wasn't quite sure which parent he got that from. Both she and Clark could be headstrong when they believed passionately in a cause, so it was hardly surprising their son had inherited the trait. "And Bernie, I don't blame you at all. There wasn't a thing anyone could have said to stop Matt going to China. Not you, not Jimmy and not even me… if he had given me the chance."

"Lois, I agree with you. That boy of yours is very single-minded when it comes to his super-duties. But I really don't think you should be worrying too much. I'll keep an eye on him and if I lose contact at any time, I'll call in backup. Those new high-altitude jets have cut the journey time by half so we could have someone on the ground very quickly. I'll go myself if it makes you feel better."

"Bernie, let's hope it doesn't come to that," Lois said, lifting her chin determinedly. There was no use whining about something she couldn't control. "I'm probably just being an over-protective mother, and you're much too old to go jaunting around the world after errant superheroes. I can always send Jimmy to cover the disaster story. In fact, why haven't I already thought of that." Lois started gesturing toward Jimmy. "Bernie, I've got to go. Things to do… arrangements to make. Just stay in touch." The last was said more loudly as she replaced the phone in its cradle.


"It's OK. I get the message and I'm on my way. Phone Bill, tell him to meet me at the airport. I'm assuming you'll be happier if we're both there. Get Delphine to book our tickets on the first available tri-star."

But it appeared Lois wasn't listening, instead she sat back in her chair, her hands steepled together, studying them intently.


She heaved yet another sigh. "Jimmy, no. Scrub that for the moment. We have our Asian correspondent on the spot and if you turn up, Matt will just think I don't have any faith in his abilities. I don't want to undermine his confidence. He already thinks I fuss too much about him. The trouble is, I understand how he feels. There were times when I had the same argument with Clark."

"You? Nah! Come on Lois. You always believed in Superman. Right from the beginning you were his biggest fa… supporter."

Lois raised her eyebrows at Jimmy's faux pas, yet she couldn't deny she had been slightly moony-eyed when Superman first arrived on the scene. But that wasn't what she'd meant. "No, the other way round. Clark used to worry about me 'dangling over the jaws of death'. I thought I'd put him straight on the fact that I was capable of taking care of myself, and then I got pregnant. He became so protective; he was like my shadow. Boy, did he get on my nerves. I mean, it was sweet in one way, but it was suffocating too. I couldn't stand it, and in the end we had quite an argument about his overbearing ways. We didn't talk for days, until we finally came to a compromise; I agreed I wouldn't go rushing in without checking the water level, after all it wasn't just my life I'd be risking, and he agreed to let me live my life the only way I knew how because, in the long run, that was the Lois Lane he fell in love with. We were an equal partnership…"

"The hottest team in town," Jimmy said, grinning again. "You and CK."

"Yeah…" She wanted to sigh again, only she refused to be melancholic. "But I can't do that to my son, Jimmy. I have to stand back and let him do his job and trust that he'll take care. So we'll shelve the travel plans for now and let Bernie monitor the situation."

"Sure thing, if that's what you want… and if it's any consolation, I think you've made the right choice. Matt might have inherited his father's powers but he has a fair amount of his mother's street smarts too."

"Thanks, Jimmy. It's comforting to know you have such confidence." Lois said with a small touch of sarcasm as she stood up and came round her desk. "Now about that source of yours. Are you sure he has the inside line on those phony re-zoning applications?"

Lois Lane-Kent for the present was back in business as editor in chief of the Daily Planet, the best news-gathering organization in the world, yet part of her was miles away on another continent and would be until her son came home.


Chapter Eleven: Mr. Letour, I Presume

The errant superhero who filled so much of his mother's thoughts was meanwhile en-route for the disaster region. When he'd first heard the news of the giant landslide over a car radio while on his way to school, Matthew had spent only a very short period of deliberation before choosing to intervene. His decision might go against the deal he'd made with his mother, but truthfully, not going had never been an option for him. Somehow he'd felt compelled to go.

Jor-El had taken to the sky and flown west across his own country; sped as fast as he could over the wide Pacific, crossing the international date line, to the mystical land of China. It had taken him longer than he'd anticipated, but he'd reached the conclusion, since it was already too late to prevent the disaster, that conserving his strength for the coming rescue was more important than breakneck speed. Unfortunately, though Jor-El had inherited all of his father's gifts, he was not quite as fast nor as strong as Superman had been… not yet.

Uncle Bernie put his shortcomings down to his immaturity and was fairly confident that given time, Jor-El would be a match for the great Superman. Matt certainly hoped so. He also prayed that he could be as compassionate a man as his father, but of that he wasn't so certain. In many ways, Matt was too much like his feisty, impulsive mother, which wasn't a bad thing really… but he did suspect that a superhero ought to have a calm disposition.

Well, Matt wasn't Superman. He'd never professed to be the Man of Steel. All he could do was his best and hope that would be enough. He guessed he was about to find out just what sort of hero he could be and discover his limits. This was probably the biggest natural disaster he'd encountered since donning his suit and cape just a few months ago.

The ground below him passed quickly by as Matt put on an extra spurt of speed and wished he had better night vision along with his telescopic sight. Had his father been able to see in the dark? He'd never thought of that and he made a mental note to ask Mom later. In this part of the world, dawn was still some time off and the heavy cloud cover and rain were hampering his progress. How many people would die before he came to their aid? Matt felt his frustration mounting and tried to tamp it down. Calm, he had to stay calm, but he was beginning to question his earlier course of action.

When he'd reached the continent, his first port of call had been to the Chinese authorities who were obviously in charge of co-ordinating the rescue plans. Jor-El had thought this visit unnecessary, yet he'd followed his Uncle Bernie's advice and taken valuable time out to pay this short courtesy call.

Uncle Bernie had freaked out when Matt had told him where he was headed; after all, Superman had disappeared in this part of the world. The poor man was probably terrified of how Mom would react when she heard the news… and since Bernie was Matt's first contact when in the suit, he was probably dreading she would shoot the messenger…

Matt and his siblings often considered their uncle to be a little quirky, but relationships between the US and the People's Republic of China, while cordial, were not exactly close. So he'd decided that perhaps this time Uncle Bernie was right and it was a good idea to check the water level and assess his welcome.

Despite his misgivings, however, the representatives of the government he'd talked with had proved to be very appreciative of his involvement. Due to the atrocious weather conditions in the region their own air support had been grounded, so they'd sent him immediately on his way, telling him to contact the locally organized rescue team, led by someone called Professor MacDonnell. The rest of the military salvage squads were already on their way by road.

Now MacDonnell seemed to be a pretty strange name for a Chinese man, but what did Matt know? If the guy was familiar with the region, Matt was prepared to accept all the help he could offer. After all, the estimated numbers of deaths and casualties the authorities had suggested, had set Matt back on his heels. Was he really up to the task?

His mother had repeatedly told him that he couldn't be everywhere at once, no matter how hard he tried, and Matt was sure he was about to learn that lesson first hand… and right now. He could hear screams and anxious cries for help coming from somewhere close by. Time to put his doubts aside for later and assume his superhero persona.

Jor-El turned his gaze in the direction of the voices and scanned the area. He didn't yet seem to be in the worst area of the landslide, but below him the winding lakeside road which he had been following was broken and littered by trees and large boulders. He flew closer and listened again, trying to trace the source of the sounds, as he couldn't yet see anyone in trouble.

Touching down, he started picking his way carefully over the fractured tarmac and, within seconds, he spotted a faint trace of light coming from a large hole in the road. He hurried over and saw beneath him a battered Land Rover, buried in the earth and rubble, one headlight still shining weakly through the dirt. Using his x-ray vision he could just make out the faces of two very frightened occupants — a woman and a man, neither of whom appeared to be Asian. Maybe they were western tourists caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"It's OK," he called out, instinctively using the language with which he was most at home, as he quickly began to lift the largest rocks away. "My name's Jor-El and I'll get you out of there."

"Jor-El! Thank god! We need a little help getting out of this." A man's voice echoed hollowly, as if from a tomb.

In the back of Matt's mind, the fact registered that these people weren't too shocked by his presence. They certainly appeared to know exactly who he was and he'd been answered in English, so his guess that they were tourists was probably correct.

"Hold still and I'll free you as quickly as I can," he replied, in his best superhero voice, which his Mom had coached him in.

His intervention wasn't a moment too soon either. Another boulder, balanced precariously on the hill directly above the ruined road, suddenly started rolling, bouncing down into the hole and onto the roof of the car, squeezing the interior into an even tighter space. Inside, the woman panicked and started kicking and punching furiously on the front windscreen, whose surface, already splintered, gave way completely, allowing the rubble to pour into the car.

Immediately, Matt castigated himself. His first job should have been to make the surrounding area secure. He'd been caught unawares, but there was no time for self-reproach while he sought to stem the tide of cascading rubble. Recriminations could come later and, meanwhile, he could learn from his mistakes.

Thankfully, the man must have anticipated the glass shattering before Jor-El's appearance because he'd adapted some kind of tarpaulin as a shield, which he now ducked behind, pushing the woman below him to protect her with his body. Yet it would only be a temporary reprieve. If the couple couldn't escape soon, they would be crushed by the weight of earth.

Working hard, the young superhero quickly dug the stones and scrub out of the way, while keeping a wary eye open for any other missiles hurtling in their direction. His task seemed to go on forever, but in reality lasted only a matter of minutes, and soon Jor-El had pulled first the woman, then the man from the shell of their vehicle and set them down on a patch of ground which he deemed to be safest.

Matt smiled a little mournfully as he watched the two people hug each other in relief, the loving caress bringing back memories of his parents, and he was only a little embarrassed when the woman turned and wrapped her arms around him while the man grabbed his hand and started shaking it enthusiastically.

"Jor-El, you can't know how pleased we are to see you here. I'm Stephan Janik and this is Adrienne Ducos." The man ceased pumping Jor-El's arm, and began mopping his own muddied face with the torn sleeve of his shirt. "We really thought we'd had it there. Thank you for digging us out."

Ms Ducos took a step back and allowed her arms to drop from Jor-El's shoulders, though she still beamed at him, her gaze running up and down his body. Normally, that type of appraising glance from a member of the female sex made Matt blush to the roots of his hair. This time, however, he felt the woman was acting a little like his mother had when she'd first seen him in the suit.

"We are so grateful and not just because you saved us…"

"Have we met before?" Jor-El inquired, beginning to feel somewhat awkward at their familiar attitude. Perhaps he'd come across this couple back at home. They did speak English, but he did detect an accent. "Are you from the US?"

"No, oh no," Ms Ducos answered again. "We've never met, but it is an honor, believe me… and we're Europeans."

"You're tourists?"

"Not exactly," Stephan Janik added, clearly feeling some explanation was needed, but deciding that this was not the time nor the place to reveal the true reason for their journey. "We've been doing some traveling in the area and since both of us are doctors we thought we'd offer our assistance to the rescue effort. We were staying further down the valley when we heard about the landslide, though I have to tell you it felt more like an earthquake from back there — the ground shook like it was about to erupt."

"I don't suppose there's much difference in the outcome, Stephan. Either way, there are bound to be casualties." The woman slipped her arm through the man's, substantiating Jor-El's supposition that they must be an item. "We were driving toward the area, hoping to find a forward medical post we could join, when we were hit by what must have been a secondary slide."

"That's possible." Jor-El nodded his head sagely. "I was talking with some experts back in Changchun and they warned me that the ground would still be very unstable. Some of those foothills along this stretch could come down." He lifted his chin toward the jagged landscape above them, looming menacing and shadowed in the murky night. "You really can't stay here, and there is an aid center further along the lake run by a man named MacDonnell. That's where I'm headed, and if you don't mind trusting yourself to me, I could give you a lift."

"A lift?" The woman's eyes opened wide.

"If you don't mind flying without an aircraft."

"Wow, that's quite an offer," the man said with some ambivalence. He'd heard of people flying with Superman but hadn't read too many reports of this new hero's exploits… and the boy looked a lot slighter than his father, even when his father had been unwell. "Are you sure you can manage the two of us at one time? Because I've got to say I wouldn't bet on anyone living too long out here alone."

Just to emphasis Janik's words a rumble could be heard in the darkness as yet another section of land yielded to the sucking damp and the downward drag of gravity.

"I can do it, but I'll have to fly more slowly. I wouldn't want either of you to suffer from wind chill." Actually, Jor-El's latter statement was a slight bending of the truth. He was more concerned about his own ability to carry a double burden in such atrocious conditions, but he felt justified in telling the tiny white lie because his new acquaintances already appeared nervous of his offer. "If you're coming, we really need to get underway. Every moment that passes could mean life or death for the survivors trapped in this mud, assuming there are any."

"I'm sure there are, Jor-El, and you'll get a chance to save them, never fear. We're ready when you are." Janik stretched his arms wide, wondering just what he should do with them. "Only how do we do this?"

"If you don't mind, Ma'am, I'll carry you in my arms, and Dr Janik, wrap your arms around my neck. Once we're in the air and I'm horizontal, lie along my back and hang on for dear life. I haven't lost a passenger yet, and I don't intend to do so now."

Jor-El, however, wasn't quite so confident as he sounded as he picked up the woman and waited till he felt the man's arms lock around his neck.

"Don't you worry about me, Jor-El. I've no intentions of letting go until my feet are firmly back on the ground… Oooooh, hell's teeth!" Stephan screeched as he was lifted into the air and one of his arms jerked automatically, flailing desperately for balance before regaining its grip on something solid.

"Dr Janik!" Jor-El exclaimed, a slight note of panic in his voice as he fought to stay upright in the clinging drizzle. At ground level, he hadn't been too aware of the rain. They'd been standing on the lee-side of the hill, sheltered from the gusting wind, but now, even at low altitude, he and his passengers were fully exposed to the foul weather conditions. "Dr Janik, I don't like to complain, but it would help if you shifted your arm back to my neck. I know I have x-ray vision, but that takes all my concentration on a night like this, and I can fly best when I can see where I'm going."

"Sorry, so sorry," Stephan replied sheepishly, quickly removing his hand from over Jor-El's face, where it had come to rest. He closed his own eyes and prayed silently to the god he'd stopped believing in many years ago. It paid to keep one's options open.

"I don't know what you're so scared about, Stephan," Adrienne shouted to be heard above the elements, a smug grin tugging at her mouth. "I think flying with a superhero is pretty exciting."

Stephan opened his eyes and craned over his pilot's shoulder. "It's OK for you, Adrienne. You're in first class, while I'm not even in the cargo bay… more like on the wing!"

Poor Jor-El cringed as the man's voice sounded like thunder in his ear. "And, please, could you not shout so loud," he complained, trying not to sound too much like a surly teenager. "You'll give me a headache and I need to focus. We don't want to overshoot our target."

Yet the superhero's stricture was hardly necessary as below them the landscape changed. Even in the darkness, with their sight now become accustomed to the low light, the three were horrified by the expanse of dirty brown sludge that laid bare the countryside. There was no longer a road to follow; no cultivated fields nor fresh green hues of majestic trees standing tall and proud, a testament to nature's magnificence.

Mother Nature had suddenly and pitilessly turned her face away from this land. Now a thick layer of silt blanketed all living things. Even the clear water of the mountain lake had been inundated and it was nearly impossible to make out where land and lake met.

They flew onward, searching for signs of life.

"Oh, dear god!" Adrienne whispered, the first one to find her voice. "How could anyone survive under that?"

"There has to be some place… maybe some houses that aren't completely buried." Yet, Stephan's tone was not quite so optimistic as his words. Underneath his hands he could feel the superhero shoulder's tense. This younger hero might assume an unemotional face for the media and the public at large, just as his father had, but obviously this was just an act. Stephan found himself compelled to add, "I know it looks bad, but try not to jump to conclusions, Jor-El. I'm sure you'll be able to find people alive down there. You're probably the only person who can save them now too."

"Look, up ahead!" Jor-El's cry was that of an eager youth. "There are lights. Up on the hillside."

"Where?" Stephan asked, blinking against the rain, his gaze straining into the distance. "I can't see anything."

"You can't?" Jor-El sounded surprised. "I'm not using my telescopic vision. There's something happening on the far side of the slick."

"You must have good eyesight then, even without the telescopic stuff. I can't see where this mud ends." Stephan rolled his shoulders, but was careful not to dislodge himself from his human platform again.

"Stephan, he's right. Look over there." Adrienne pointed, concurring with the young man who carried her so carefully. "You have to look further up the mountain. There are lights twinkling. Not many, but perhaps that's the camp you spoke of, Jor-El."

"There's only one way to find out," their pilot said, changing course. "And the quicker I deliver you, the quicker I can start looking for survivors."

"Talking of survivors." Stephan lightly tapped one of Jor-El's shoulders. "You might want to look straight down. Isn't that a boat below us? It certainly has the shape of a keel."

In his eagerness to be rid of his passengers and get on with the real job of saving victims, Jor-El's attention had been sidetracked by his search for the camp. How could be have let this middle-aged, slightly weedy doctor be first to spot possible signs of life in the mire? Though, as he trained his enhanced sight on the terrain beneath them, the idea of life might be a bit premature.

"It's a boat, OK. Only it's upside down and I can't see anyone near by. But it must mean we're near the fishing village."

"Unless the mud carried it along," Adrienne said cautiously. "Judging by the volume of the slide, I'd say that movable objects might have ended up a fair distance from their origins."

"There speaks a research scientist, Jor-El. They are sticklers for detail, but in this case, she could be right. You can't even see the shore of the lake along this stretch."

"But the boat would have been carried out into the lake by the force of the earth behind it," Jor-El reasoned, training his x-ray vision to peel away the layers of muck. "I'm not totally sure, but it seems to be on solid ground… well mud."

"Then maybe that village is somewhere around here. You should start your search from this spot," Stephan suggested helpfully.

"I will. I hope you don't mind, but I'm going to have to drop you off fast. If there is anyone alive round here, they need me."

"We understand completely, Jor-El," Adrienne said. "And there will probably be work for us too."

The rest of the journey was completed in silence, and speedier than Stephan's stomach appreciated. When moments later he was set down on the ground, he looked a little green, struggling to regain his balance. At least, he decided, this stretch of hillside seemed to be fairly solid and untouched by the landslide.

Adrienne, meanwhile, was already looking around the bustling little enclave, searching for someone who might be in charge.

At the head of the clearing, a comfortable-looking wooden house appeared to be the centre of operations, where a woman dressed in yellow waterproofs stood on the balcony, directing her small team of helpers.

Adrienne and Jor-El moved off, intent on the same course of action.

"Professor MacDonnell," Jor-El hailed the woman, while reflecting that he'd been foolish to expect the head of operations to be man. After all, having lived with Lois Lane his whole life, he should have known that anything a man could do a woman could do better. When the woman turned in his direction, he sped toward her. "I'm Jor-El. I'm here to help."

Marje looked closely at the hero, deciding he looked far more impressive in person than he had on her monitor. "Well, of course, you are. And you've arrived not a moment too soon. But my husband is probably more in need of your help than we are here."

"Your husband?"

"Yes. He went with our handyman down to the village, searching for our friends." Marje pointed straight down the hillside. "You probably flew right over them."

Anxious to begin the job which he'd flown half-way round the world to accomplish, Jor-El levitated off the ground, shouting downwards to those he left behind. "Thank you. I'll find them."

"And I'll let him know you're coming," Marje replied, waving her radio in the air. "They'll be fair glad to see you."

In the back of Matt's mind, another strange sounding accent had registered. This was China, but since he'd arrived in this particular area, he'd not met a single national, which was kind of strange. Yet he put such thoughts aside and concentrated on finding Professor MacDonnell and his handyman. He hoped they hadn't gotten themselves into trouble. Judging from the scale of this disaster, he'd have enough on his plate rescuing the first lot of survivors. He'd already wasted too much time taking care of two misguided do-gooders.

In his wake, he barely heard Adrienne and certainly didn't take much notice of the information she called out to him…

"Thanks, Jor-El. We'll do what we can here, but we need to talk later. Please come back. There is so much we have to tell you."

She and Stephan had escaped from Hyesan's clutches finally, when the General had inevitably grown over-ambitious and been liquidated by his peers. They'd said their final goodbyes to Corporal Teo, who had decided to return to his family, and crossed into China, hoping to track down Letour. So far, they'd had little luck in their quest, but surely with Jor-El's help they might succeed… if only Letour had managed to survive.

Watching the somber figure disappear into the sky, which was just barely brightening, Adrienne hoped she'd have the chance to explain all this to the young superhero.

"He's a fine figure of a man," Marje remarked to the stranger, her curiosity tweaked by the female's almost furtive last words, but it was really none of her business, and, unlike her husband, she knew when to keep her nose out. Yet for all that, she couldn't help adding. "Younger than I'd expected."

Adrienne turned her attention from the heavens, a faint blush staining her dirtied skin as she wondered how Mrs MacDonnell would react if she knew what harm had been done to Superman. Her eyes locked with the older woman's inquisitive gaze, yet she found no censure there. How could there be when that knowledge was not yet in the public domain? They exchanged tentative smiles as she answered, "Yes, but it's what he does that's important."

Feeling thoroughly, but politely, put back in her place, Marje conceded, "Indeed yes! Now, just what can you do to help here?" she continued, returning to the immediate, more pressing task. "There's already some survivors who've managed to find there way here… some of the walking wounded, you might say. What we could really do with is a doctor." She studied the man who'd also arrived with the superhero, and who was now climbing the stairs to the porch.

"Then, it's just as well that we're both doctors," Adrienne said, introducing herself and her partner as he arrived at her side, apparently now recovered from his bout of airsickness. "Where have you put the injured, Mrs MacDonnell?"

"They're indoors. Come away in. I hope you don't mind, but I have a feeling you're both going to be busy. Oh, and I'm a doctor too, though not a medical one. But call me Marje, we don't stand on ceremony out here."

Marje led the way inside to a room which had been changed into something similar to a field hospital. The resourceful woman had been doing the best she could with her limited first aid experience for a number of muddied and bloodied survivors. Adrienne and Stephan took one quick look around them, then got down to work. The day that was slowly dawning was likely to be a very long one.


Now he had a fair idea of the direction in which to begin his search, Jor-El quickly found what he was looking for. Though he had to admit, that the figure standing on top of a vehicle and waving a torch into the darkness, did make his job considerably easier. Clearly Mrs MacDonnell had been true to her word and warned her husband of his imminent arrival.

"Ower here, laddie!"

The strange sounding, lilting words drifted to Jor-El on the wind. Boy, did everyone in this neighborhood speak with weird accents? And this one had to be the strangest of all. How was he supposed to liaise with someone he didn't understand? He'd managed so much better with the Chinese officials he'd met in Changchun.

Jor-El alighted by what seemed to be a military jeep, though it was difficult to determine since it was mostly caked in mud. So too was the gentleman perched on its hood — the one who spoke oddly. He appeared to be dressed in rain-gear very similar to the lady Jor-El had met at the house, only the color was streaked by rivulets of brownish goo.

"Come away here." The man beckoned Jor-El over, addressing the formal looking hero as he would any other of his acquaintances, and certainly not in awe of the latest, much talked about addition to his team. "Man, it's guid tae see ye, and no afore time! We've a difficult situation here, as ye can no help but notice."

Professor MacDonnell — Jor-El assumed this was he — turned his heavy duty torch to a spot in the terrain below them, revealing a fallen tree trunk whose stark branches another figure was trying desperately to hack in pieces with a type of machete.

"There's a puir soul trapped underneath," MacDonnell explained breathlessly, climbing down with caution from his perch, since the ground was so treacherous. "He's still alive, but no for long, if we cann'ae get him out."

The hero supersped to the tree and signaled for the other man to stop his actions, but Jor-El was too late. The human rescuer, knee-deep in sludge, had already downed his tools and was reaching beneath the trunk to grasp the casualty beneath the armpits and begin to draw him out. Jor-El, however, did lend a hand by lifting the weight of the tree, until both rescuer and victim were clear, then he watched silently as the stranger cradled the survivor, carefully cleaning the cloying mud from the unconscious man's face.

"Is he breathin', Letour?" MacDonnell had reached the group and was hovering over the two men on the ground.

"Yes, thank goodness," Letour rasped, his voice hoarse from trying to outshout the wind and rain. "But we have to get him back to the house where he can be taken care of. He's chilled to the bone, lying in that muddy trench, and there's no saying what internal injuries he could have sustained."

Letour sounded distressed by the possible fate of the man he'd just saved and Jor-El found himself quickly x-raying the body, not just for the victim's sake, but to ease the conscience of the brave Letour.

"No broken bones — just cuts and bruises, but he is suffering from hypothermia. If you'd entrust him to me, I can warm him with my heat vision, then get him back to the camp real quick." Jor-El placed a hand on the kneeling man's shoulder. "There's a couple of doctors up there who could take care of him."

For the first time, Letour seemed to take notice of the person who had come to his aid. "Jor-El?" he asked, but his question quickly ended in a harsh bout of coughing as his body tried to expel the dirt which had found its insidious way inside his mouth and throat. "Excuse me! Yes, you must take him; the sooner the better." He passed the injured man into Jor-El's waiting arms. His coughing had subsided, but his voice still sounded rough, even to his own ears. "But come back quickly. There have to be more survivors further down in the village. MacDonnell and I were on our way there when we found this guy."

Jor-El made his passenger as comfortable as he could, but before he took off, he said encouragingly to his fellow aid workers, "I'll be back. If you go on, please be careful. I'd hate to be rescuing either of you next."

"Dinn'ae ye worry about us, laddie. We're no so easily got rid off," MacDonnell said with just a touch of humour. "Oh, and see if ye can bring back some mair men. Now, ye're here, I expect things will go easier, but ye cann'ae be everywhere at once, so extra bodies winn'ae go amiss."

Witnessing the superhero's baffled expression as he listened to Mac's speech, Letour couldn't help but grin, almost cracking the slimy mudpack that coated his face, and causing Jor-El to halt in his tracks.

That flash of white teeth contrasting with the dirty visage sent a quiver of trepidation up the young Kryptonian's spine, but the smile was gone so quickly that Jor-El was left wondering what had caused his strange reaction. The casualty in his arms began to choke and all other thoughts fled his mind.

"Go!" ordered Letour, completely serious, once more. "And the translation of Mac's request is to bring back reinforcements. If this is any measure of what's ahead," he said, indicating the devastation surrounding them. "The further we get into the village, the worse conditions will be… not to mention the logging camp. You'll find us down there."

Immediately, Jor-El was airborne, zipping back to base. He had this strange notion that he had to return post haste. Now that he'd found MacDonnell and Letour, he didn't want to risk losing them, and that was a clear possibility. The idea made him feel sick to his stomach.


Unfortunately, given the scale of the catastrophe, Jor-El could only keep a distant check on his new acquaintances. There was just too much to do to allow them to work together on the same rescues. MacDonnell, he didn't fear for. Given the Scotsman's age and his obvious qualities of leadership, he was more often in the background, mobilizing his troops. Letour, however, was in the thick of things, seeming indifferent to his own safety.

There had been quite a few locals gathered around Mrs MacDonnell when Jor-El delivered the first survivor, and every one of them had been keen to join him in his search for more of their neighbors. He'd returned with two of the fittest and strongest volunteers, while the others had made their own way down to the front line. Consequently, Mac had been able to assign teams of a few people to certain search areas with Jor-El acting as the trailblazer and tackling the most difficult rescues.

And rescues there had been, though few. A child found living, sheltered beneath the body of her mother; two old crones, huddled in an air-pocket under an upturned boat; a teenager and his dog, caught up in the branches of the one still standing tree and a family, who'd almost been entombed in their house, but for the fact that they'd broken through the roof to cling perilously to the shingles, while around them surged the deadly sea of mud.

Miracles had happened. Some twenty or so people, living along the shoreline, had heard the roaring, thunderous approach of the slide and somehow managed to launch a few small boats which were found floating far out in the bay by Jor-El. Amongst these lucky few had been Li-Ying and her family, which had led to an emotional reunion between the esteemed cook and her employer.

But for all their successes, everyone knew the survival rates were low… and the super help had been invaluable. Thanks to Jor-El the living had been found more quickly and been transported with due haste to the waiting doctors, raising the odds that the more seriously injured casualties might recover.

Yet, as the rescue teams picked their hazardous way with great effort, deeper into the swathe of life-sucking sludge, dread mounted in all their hearts. Time was of the essence for all those still lost and time was passing too fast. The rising sun endorsed that painful fact, besides revealing the redesigned landscape in all its gory, harrowing detail to the tired eyes of the aid workers.

Momentarily, almost in synchronization, every shoulder slumped, every throat tightened and many shed tears, unaware. Even the super-powered Jor-El, returning from a trip to the makeshift hospital with the last of the 'boat' people, felt his resolve falter. Only he had seen the view from the air and the knowledge that the rescue effort was just too immense, hit him like a sledge-hammer. Surely anyone trapped under these acres of sodden earth and rock could no longer be alive and the prospect of pulling bodies from their unexpected graves almost broke his youthful spirit.

In the past few months, Jor-El had rescued people successfully from fires and road accidents. He'd landed a plane and had even attended a large train derailment in Europe. Quite a number of times, he'd even broken his mother's rules and stopped muggings and robberies. Yet on all those occasions he'd been assisted by competent, well-equipped emergency services and the police… not stuck in the middle of nowhere with exhausted and shell-shocked locals his only source of backup and advice. Perhaps his mother had been right and he was much too inexperienced for the superhero business?

No! Jor-El refused to think such negative thoughts. He had insisted on coming… and his mother had faith in him. Lois Lane wouldn't let herself be deterred by overwhelming odds, so neither would he. But what was he do to next? What would his father have done in these circumstances?

"Jor-El!" A husky voice cut through his downward-spiraling thoughts, a voice of authority, yet oddly compassionate. He turned toward the sound to see the man named Letour standing a few feet away, at the head of his small team of workers. The man looked exhausted, his soaking gray-streaked hair, disheveled and hanging over his face, his features and clothing indistinguishable beneath a thick coating of silt… yet it appeared he wasn't about to give up. "We have to keep moving. I know it hardly seems possible that anyone is still alive out there, but we have to search… and we really need you."

"Yes, of course. I'm sorry. I just… I…"

"Feel like nothing you can do will be enough?

The superhero nodded silently… tongue-tied; his forlorn figure wrapped in the cape, which no longer swished dramatically, but trailed from his shoulders like a dirty rag.

"It's not your fault, son." Letour spoke gently, hardly realizing how he'd addressed Jor-El. "This all happened before you arrived. Believe me, you have made a difference. On our own, we might have found the odd survivor, but these people are alive tonight because of you. You've done the best you could and that's all anyone can expect. If it makes any difference, I've been proud to work alongside you."

"Thank you." Tears filled Jor-El's eyes, but he stood taller, his back stiffening. "But you're right, we have to keep going. Is there any specific thing you think I should do?"

"It's difficult to recognize the terrain with all this mud down here, but perhaps an aerial view would help. You have x-ray and telescopic vision, right?"

"I do."

Letour walked closer, plodding steadily through the mire. "If my calculations are correct, I believe the shoreline continues north east from here. There are some more fishing cottages above the beach and the logging town is on the other side of the bay." He pointed in the general direction of where his memory thought it to be. "If there's anyone left alive, you're the only one who can find them. It's a big responsibility, but I'm sure you can do it. Just take your time and once you find the lake edge, just follow it round and I'm certain you'll discover those houses."

Jor-El nodded, his jangled nerves steadying, the sound of Letour's voice provoking a vague feeling of familiarity. Suddenly he believed he could do it. "North east, you say?"

"Yes, and not that far from here. We've only covered the main section of the village. Now that it's light enough, you and I can keep in touch visually. If you'd like my help."

Letour was the type of guy who would help out a neighbor whenever he could, but he sensed this time his offer was strangely different… and he wasn't exactly sure why. He felt a strange affinity with Jor-El and he held his breath as he waited for an answer. After all, most people would believe that superheroes didn't really need help from ordinary mortals, but in this case, it appeared he wasn't most people.

The mask covered a lot of Jor-El's face and, as with all the other rescuers, filthy mud did a good job of hiding the rest, yet his gratitude was clear. "I'd appreciate that very much. This stuff changes everything… It's hard to get any picture of how things were." Jor-El swept his hand over the barren wastes. "To tell the truth," he said quietly but with engaging candor. "I'm not very experienced with disasters on this scale and I can use all the help I can get."

Following the sweep of Jor-El's arm, Letour frowned and had to clear his throat before answering, but this time not because of the dirt he'd swallowed. "It's hard to believe, but this was once a beautiful place… a refuge from the outside world…" He shook himself. The time for recriminations and grieving would come later. Now they had to continue with their harrowing task and a shout in the background only emphasized that point.

"Hey, laddies, I've been on the radio tae Marje," Mac picked his way slowly toward them, then addressed the superhero in particular. "If ye're sure there's no mair of the living left round these parts, Jor-El, then we should head for the loggers' town. Marje tells me that some of them lumberjacks hae radioed her. Seems they've managed tae get their haunds on a few mechanical excavators from beyond the slide and that's where they're headed. Those machines should manage tae travel farther than puir Genevieve, but the trouble is they're nae quite sure where tae go. It's no easy tae get yer bearings in aw this mud!"

"Just what we were discussing, Mac," Letour said. "I told Jor-El to head north east. I'm sure he'll find the settlement and maybe even some fishing cottages."

MacDonnell, studied the land in all directions around him. Now that dawn was breaking, revealing far off peaks and the broad waters of the lake, familiar landmarks lent him a better sense of direction. "Aye, Letour. I'd have tae agree with ye. Jor-El, ye fly off in that direction and when ye find something, ye can come back fer us. Meantime, we'll mak our way on foot."

"Can I suggest something, Professor MacDonnell?" Jor-El still retained his ingrained manners; however, he continued without waiting for permission. "I doubt you'll get far walking and now I know where to look, it shouldn't take me so long. I think you'd best stay here and then I can fly you to where you're needed."

"Aye, that wuid mak sense… and the name's Mac, by the by. I could do with a wee breather too. I'm no so young as I once was," he said, the tiniest of grins breaking through his grim expression. Laughter didn't have much place in this terrible wilderness where so many had died.

"Jor-El, I'm assuming you could lift that boat we found with a rescue team inside it?" Letour asked, clearly thinking of the superhero landing the damaged plane in Australia. "You could transport us more quickly that way."

"I could! Good idea, Mr Letour." Jor-El realized he was beginning to hope again… to feel that perhaps they could snatch some more survivors from this miserable swamp, but he had to hurry. "Wait for me," he instructed as he launched himself into the air, a new enthusiasm bubbling up within him.


Chapter Twelve: When Did You Last See Your Father?

For the rest of the day, the rescuers searched tirelessly for survivors, but the area had been so obliterated by the mass of the slide that most of those who'd been buried had little chance of survival. Yet they had found a few lucky people at the logger's complex.

Some diners in the one and only restaurant had taken refuge in a basement which had been dug out of the hillside, a tiny underground refuge, which, sadly would have become their tomb, had it not been for Jor-El's x-ray vision. He had found them in time and had burrowed into the earth and brought them safely to the surface, where, once again, Letour had been waiting to lift the traumatized and injured onto makeshift stretchers. From there they had been carried to more stable ground on the two excavators.

Finally, though, even those tracked vehicles had been trapped in the mud, or secondary slides, and late in the afternoon, one of the teams had been almost killed by the shifting earth giving way beneath them. Thankfully, Jor-El's speedy intervention had saved the situation from becoming too dire, but one of the rescuers had broken his leg.

MacDonnell saw this occurrence as a warning that his men were worn out. He'd quickly conferred with rescue headquarters and it was agreed that the local teams should pull back to the medical camp and leave the work of recovery to the reinforcements which had begun to arrive around noon. It was a difficult decision to make, abandoning the chance that any of their own people might still be alive out there… and, more than anyone, Letour had fought against falling back. Only when Jor-El had crossed and recrossed the area, searching with all of his enhanced senses, and reported back that he could find no signs of life, did Letour consent to withdraw.

Jor-El and Letour were the last of the original rescuers to leave. Indeed, the superhero had first ignored the order, decreeing that being invincible meant he should stick around to assist the new squads. But, this time, Jor-El had been given an ultimatum by Letour, who'd stated he would only go if they left together.

It hadn't taken much insight on Letour's part to realize that the hero was dreading the thought of digging out the bodies. A young man, whether he was Kryptonian or not, shouldn't have to witness such horrifying scenes. Besides, Jor-El had given his all to ensure that those who had survived the first impact would live on, and that was what mattered most. Tragically, there was no urgency for the dead.

The Botanical Centre was strangely empty as Jor-El approached with his passenger. Sometime during the past few hours the rains had stopped and a fitful sun peered from behind slate gray clouds. The calmer weather conditions had allowed the helicopters to join the emergency ground crews and they'd set up camp on a flatter section of land a little to the west of the MacDonnells' homestead.

The noise of the rescue operations, however, still filtered through the heavy air; helicopters buzzing like busy bees around a hive, ferrying the injured and the displaced to hospitals and shelters far from the scene of the tragedy. There were only a few injured, mainly those whom the superhero and his fellow workers had found, but some shocked and frightened locals had appeared at the camp throughout the day. People who had been away from the village and the logging town, returning to find they no longer had a home… a family or friends, discovering they had nothing left but the clothes on their backs and what they carried with them. But, at least, they were alive. In their pain and grief, very few could find comfort in that fact.

There was little comfort either in the hearts of Jor and Letour as they made their way, slowly, toward the centre where a worried Marje sat waiting on the porch. Her husband had been brought home a little earlier by the military. He'd informed her, somewhat testily, that both Letour and Jor-El were as stubborn as each other and had refused to leave until Jor-El did another search of the area, just to be sure there was no one left who could be saved…

"Which, lassie, is a totally daft notion!" Mac had declared, stomping into the house and stripping off his outer clothes, leaving dirty puddles on her floor, which was already filthy due to all the traffic that had passed through during this dreadful night and day. "Can they no see that a'body who's still under that muck cann'ae still be breathing? It's been too long… much too long…" Mac's shoulders drooped and his voice ended on a gulping, tearing intake of breath. "Letour's goin' tae make himsel' ill, Marje, and he isn'a a well man to begin with… And I mightn'a know all there is tae know about superheroes, but I'm thinkin' Jor-El's no that invulnerable either. He's pushed himsel' tae his limits, if ye were tae ask me… not that anybody is askin' me… Both their hearts are breakin'. Ye can see it in their eyes…"

"And yours isn't?" Marje asked, going to her husband and wrapping her arms around him, despite the mud and the stink of damp, cloying decay. "Oh, Mac, what are we to do? So many of our friends are gone…"

"Aye, lass. It's worse than ye could ever imagine. Nearly a' the village folk… But, at least, Li-Ying and her family are safe." Mac's head came up, and for the first time he looked around him, the stillness of his house registering in his brain. "Where is a'body?"

"The authorities moved the injured to their own camp. I believe they're flying them to hospitals in Chanchung… once the doctors have looked them over."

"Whit are they takin' them sae far away fer? This is their home!"

"Mac, they have no homes. Have you looked from the balcony? There's nothing left but a sea of brown mud. But before you get too upset, I've told Li-Ying and the Commandant in charge of the rescue operations, that she and her family have a home with us. To tell the truth, I think the Commandant was relieved; it means he has to find shelter for a few less people… and some of the other locals have opened their homes to their friends. So don't be thinking that everyone is leaving."

The Scotsman sighed, but this time in relief. "Guid! Because we're goin tae need a' the help we can get tae rebuild this place!"

"You're not thinking of leaving? A fair swathe of our forest has disappeared," Marje ventured tentatively.

"Leaving? Have ye lost yer senses, lass?" Mac stood back to stare at his wife. "There's still forest out there… and whit's gone will grow back. The people need us more than ever, Marje, and maybe they'll listen to our warnings about over loggin' now."

Marje frowned sceptically. "For a time… maybe."

"Aye, ye could be right, but I'm no budgin'. Of course, if ye wanted tae leave, I wuidn'ae stop ye…" Mac held his breath, waiting for an answer.

"Don't be daft, Mac. You think I care any less than you? This is our home, the only home we've ever shared together. The MacDonnells don't cut and run when the going gets tough."

For the first time in many long hours, Mac smiled a genuine smile. "That's my lassie! Oh, jings!" he groaned. "Dae ye know how hard it is tae laugh with half a mountainside stickin' tae yer face?" Mac breathed in deeply and noticed the pungent smell emanating from his body. His nose twitched in disgust. "And I smell like a slurry pit. I should tak a shower."

That had been almost thirty minutes ago and now Mac sat dozing by the fire, a glass of his treasured 'water of life' clasped in his fist. Marje had tried to pry it from his fingers, but even in sleep, he was still a determined old coot!

His wife, on the other hand, might be feeling tired, but she was too anxious to nap. Instead, she'd pottered about the living room, tidying away part of the chaos, but even that hadn't soothed her troubled heart. Her mind was still out there with Letour, worrying about what could be keeping him from returning. She knew he had to be almost spent… and that young Krytponian boy…

Now she'd seen Jor-El up close, she knew, without a shadow of doubt, that he was just a teenager, and as she'd moved outside to sit and watch for their return, she wondered where Jor-El lived on Earth. Superman, his father might be gone, but did he have a mother somewhere who fretted about his wellbeing while he was off doing superthings?

Since the people of Earth had lost their first hero, they'd been a little more appreciative of the man who had come to take his place… and yet, in one way, perhaps that hadn't been such a good thing. The media had been more respectful and hadn't tried to pry too much into Jor-El's private life. Certainly, the new hero had never been beset by the malicious gossip which had at times dogged his father. Yet, keeping their distance from him might have made life a little lonely for the youthful visitor from a far off planet.

Marje hoped he had friends here… people to look out for him, to support him and to sooth his bruised spirit when he returned from disasters to wherever he called his home. Everyone deserved to have someone waiting for them.

With that sentiment, her troubled thoughts returned once more to their own Letour. He was such a fine, caring man… and he had nobody, except herself and Mac. No one should be so alone in the world as Letour; a man without memories, almost without an identity of his own; a man so traumatized he was afraid to seek out what he'd lost.

Mac and she had done their best to give him a home, a sense of security, hoping that his memory would return, or that he'd gain the confidence to return to America where he obviously came from. Perhaps being back in his own country might jog his memory. She could ask Jor-El to fly Letour to the States… if he'd agree to leave here, that was.

Of course, she'd talk to Mac about her plan, though she was pretty sure he'd back her up. He was always attempting, in his uniquely unsubtle way, to suggest that Letour should search for information about himself. Yet, for all that her husband was as tactful as a herd of elephants, he wasn't necessarily wrong.

Just maybe, this time, between the two of them they could persuade the man, who had become a part of their family, to accept a lift back home from the superhero. She had no doubt that Jor-El would agree to help… After all, wasn't that what he said he was here on Earth for.

For some time, Marje had been watching the two figures, suspended side-by-side in the sky, gradually moving in her direction and, as they touched down, she rose to greet them. This time, when Jor-El flew in, there had been no grand entrance… no flourish of the cape, nor folded arms pose to set her heart beating faster. Just a weary youth, fretting over the state of his companion.

"Hurry and come into the warmth," she called to both men and held her breath as Letour tripped, but relaxed again as Jor-El's hand reached out to hold him. "You must be totally exhausted… and before you go telling me, young man, that you're super, I'll tell you to save your breath. Under all that mud you're as white as a sheet… both of you. What were you thinking of, Letour? That you're invulnerable too?"

Marje's worry sharpened her voice as she hurried down to help Letour climb the steps.

"Marje, I'm fine, really. Worry about all the others we've left behind." Letour's voice was raw, deadened by the ordeal he'd worked so hard to relieve.

"I know, but the injured are being taken care of… and the others will be looked after by a higher power than I. Right now, all I can do is make sure that you're well. So come in and lets get you cleaned up… and you as well, young man. I can't send you back to whoever is waiting for you in that state."


Matthew Kent stuck his head and shoulders under the faucet of the old steel sink, hoping to sluice away the mud and dirt from the upper part of his uniform, at least. His first plan had been to swim in the ocean on the way home, but he was too concerned for his new friend, who was barely managing to stand on his own in the shower cubicle, to leave so quickly. Besides he wanted to check up on the injured whom he'd managed to rescue… and, of course, to offer his services in retrieving the bodies of those he couldn't save.

A shudder coursed through him and his throat contracted. There were just too many of the latter, and it hurt like hell to acknowledge that fact. He might be able to clean the traces of the disaster from his body, but the memory of these last horrific hours would remain imprinted on his soul for a long time to come.

"You do what you can, Matt, and that's enough!"

He could hear his mother's voice inside his head, but somehow, right at this moment, he didn't believe her mantra to be true, though he had to admit that many of those who hadn't survived were probably dead by the time he reached China… had indeed died minutes after being swamped by the landslide. He had done as much as was possible… yet knowing that didn't help assuage his guilty hurt.

With the arrogance of youth he'd believed he could make a difference… now he'd learned that sometimes his efforts were little more than futile, and that knowledge threatened to overwhelm him. But Matt had inherited his mother's doggedness along with his father's compassion; despite his distress there was no way he would leave without finishing the job.

Standing straight and shaking the water droplets from his head and neck, he stared at himself in the mirror above the sink and decided his ducking hadn't improved matters much. He was now streaked instead of caked and though he might be invulnerable, it appeared he wasn't immune to feeling itchy.

He contemplated taking a short flight to the lake and immersing himself in its waters. Surely the whole volume of the lake couldn't be contaminated by the slide and he could be there and back in a matter of minutes; however, just as he decided on this course of action, he heard a stumble from within the closed cubicle.

"Mr Letour," he called out. "Is everything all right?"

There was a slight moan and then the rasping voice answered. "Yes, I'm fine, Jor. I slipped. No great damage done, though I expect I'll have another scrape to join the others I've picked up today."

Matt frowned, though in surprise, not in anger. Mr Letour had shortened his name to Jor; a habit only used by the family and once again Matt experienced a strange feeling of deja-vu.

"If you're waiting for your turn, I'll be out in just a moment," continued the disembodied voice, barely audible above the noise of running water. "Though I'm finding this mud pretty hard to shift. It's set like concrete."

"No! Oh, no. Take your time. I was thinking I might take a swim in the lake to clean off, but I didn't want to leave you if you were feeling unwell."

"Not unwell," Letour answered, though that wasn't exactly true. "Just done in. That's the trouble with being a little older. Please, feel free to do whatever you think's best. I'll be OK."

"Well, if you're sure. It won't take me more than a few moments. I'll be back."

With a swoosh and a gust of wind, Jor-El shot out of the bathroom and through the living room, causing Marje who was back to tidying her house to ask of her dozing husband, "What was that?"

But a disgruntled snore was her only answer. Mac had never stirred. So much for a hurricane rousing the dead, but as she watched her outside door slam, she guessed the cause. The superhero had left, and without a goodbye, which didn't seem to be in keeping with the young man's mannerable ways. Oh well, perhaps superheroes didn't stick around for thankyous or cups of Oolong tea which she had prepared, knowing it was one of Letour's favourites.

Oh, and that French doctor Adrienne was going to be disappointed. She'd wanted to talk to Jor-El about something that she deemed important, though Marje could only speculate on what that might be. Nevertheless, her instincts were telling her that those two didn't turn up here on chance alone. It was all very mysterious, but nothing that Marje could figure out on her own, so she automatically went back to her housework.

She was beginning to feel the strains of the day and her back ached as she bent down to pick up some dirty dressings which had fallen beneath the table. For a moment she leaned heavily on her broom. Her bed was going to be very welcome this night, though not yet. She still had to rouse Mac and, more importantly, check that Letour had suffered no hurts… at least, no physical hurts. Each one of them would have their demons to fight after this horrifying ordeal, and Letour more than most, since Mac had told her he'd been at the forefront of most of the rescues.

Letour might try to keep himself to himself but Marje had recognised long ago that he was an especially sensitive soul — it was why she'd grown so fond of him.

The door opened behind her and in strode a much cleaner young hero, though he was dripping all over her floor. So she'd been right about his sudden leave taking being out of character.

"I'm right glad to see you're back, Jor-El, but if you don't mind, I'd rather you didn't drip all over my newly mopped floor." she said, gruffly, trying to disguise the fact that her heart was aching for the shadow of pain she saw in his eyes. "I was hoping you'd stop by so we can tell you how grateful we are for all you've done for us."

Jor-El looked sheepish as he scanned the spreading puddles at his feet. "I'm sorry, Mrs MacDonnell… I'm always getting in trouble for that…" The poor boy's stare froze at his obvious faux-pas, like a mouse encoutering a snake. "I'll just go outside…" He gestured with his hands nervously… "and dry off."

He was out the door in a flash and, after sounds like that of a spinning dervish floated into the house, he marched back into the room, drying the mess he'd made earlier with his heat vision.

"You'd be a mighty handy person to have around the house," Marje remarked, keeping the conversation light. She didn't want the young man to bolt.

"Aye, ye're a pretty useful laddie tae have anywhere," a voice from the fireplace chirpped up, as Mac finally awakened from his slumber. "Come intae the house and rest up. Ye might be super, but ye've been workin' hard for hours. Ye deserve a wee libation and a warm before ye head off home… and dae ye no have Letour with ye?"

"Mac, you lummox, you've been fast asleep this past hour. Jor-El brought Letour home, and he's in the shower." As Marje spoke the noise of running water died away. "Maybe you should go and see how he's doing, Mac. He doesn't look too well. I'm wondering if he's getting one of those terrible headaches."

"If you don't mind, Mrs MacDonnell," Jor-El interrupted just as Mac put down his glass and lumbered to his feet. "I'd like to check up on Letour. He's helped me so many times today and I'd like to return the favor."

"That's a very nice thought, Jor-El." Marje smiled at the boy in the black uniform, which wasn't totally clean, but was a great improvement on some minutes ago. At least the blue S shield on his chest was glinting through the dirt. "I'm sure Letour would appreciate your concern…"

"And a wee bit help, nae doubt," Mac added, happily sinking back into his seat. He was so tired, it almost hurt to move and Letour must be feeling even worse than he. These past hours Mac had witnessed Letour doing things that were almost beyond the realm of a normal man. Of course, it had likely been one of those adrenalin surges that doctors write about… but the man and super laddie had worked so well together. "Ye gang on through and see tae him."

Mac sipped the last of his drink as he watched Jor-El walk across the room and disappear down the back corridor. Mac's stare was contemplative.

"What's going on in that scheming head of yours, Mac?" His wife's question made him jump.

Turning his face to Marje, he smiled innocently. "Now whit makes ye think I'm plotting anything?"

"Just knowing you is enough. You're thinking of asking Jor-El to help find out about Letour's past."

"Aye! And dinn'ae tell me the thought hasn'ae crossed yer mind, 'cause I know ye too well too, lass."

"Well, we think Letour is American, and I'm sure you've noticed that Jor-El also talks with an American accent, so he most likely has his base in America, though no one knows exactly where. But I thought he might not mind taking Letour back with him to the States."

"I've been thinkin' the exact same thing. Course, Letour mightn'ae agree tae go, but it's up tae us tae persaude him. I'm fond of the laddie, and I'll fair miss him, but he's never goin' tae remember wha he is if he stays here."

Marje moved over to her husband and slipped her arm around his shoulder. "Oh, Mac, I don't want to see him go either, but we have to think of what's best for him." The couple shared a sad smile.

"So, we're agreed? Jor-El disn'ae leave without Letour!"


Meanwhile, Jor-El had tapped lightly on the bathroom door and waited a few moments. When he recieved no answer, he knocked a little more loudly and asked shyly, "Mr Letour, may I come in?"

"Just a minute," Letour answered hoarsely, his words followed by a harsh cough. Then the door opened slowly.

Jor-El slid inside and, for the first time, he saw the older man without a thick coating of dirt. Letour was wearing a robe, with a towel slung around his neck, as if he'd been drying his hair. His frame was wiry rather than thin, and fresh purple bruises could be seen on his skin where the robe parted, but it was Letour's face which attracted Matt's attention — a face lined with past suffering, yet somehow familiar.

Matt's heart raced unexpectedly.

"My God! 's impossible," he gasped, staring at the man before him, while his thoughts spun wildly out of control.

Letour's eyebrows rose in question and he glanced down at himself deprecatingly. "I know I've picked up a few cuts and bruises, but nothing serious." He rubbed at his chin. Mac had given him an electric razor, which he'd learned to use, but he hadn't shaved since… oh, Friday morning, and he knew he didn't look good with a twelve o'clock shadow. "I'm tired and achy, but apart from that, there's no need for you to worry." Letour finished off with a reassuring grin.

Anywhere in the world, Matt would recognize that grin. It didn't matter that the man's hair was now streaked with gray, that there were dark hollows beneath his eyes, nor that he had lost some weight… Matt knew that smile. He'd grown up in the sunshine of that smile, and basked in the love that had prompted it.

So often Matt had dreamed of a meeting like this, only to be disappointed when daylight came. But this was no dream… this was reality.

"Dad! It's me. Matt!"

"Excuse me?" This time the older man's eyebrows drew together in a puzzled frown. "Who's Matt? You're Jor-El of Krypton. I've read about you."

"Yes, of course I am, but you know that's just a cover," Matt reasoned, his voice rising in excitement. "Jor-El's just my name when I'm in the suit. I didn't like Superboy and I didn't want to take your name…"

"My name?" While Letour spoke a muscle jumped in his jaw. "I don't understand."

"Superman! Dad, what's wrong?" Matt's sense of elation was quickly leaking away. There was something very strange going on. "It's me… Matt." He pulled the cowl and mask from his face, hoping for some sign of recognition from his father… but his action seemed to reinforce Letour's confusion.

Could Matt be wrong and this man only resembled his lost father? Did Matt's subconscious still long so much for a father that he was suffering from a strong case of wishful thinking?

"I'm sorry…" Letour's voice was now a thready whisper. "I don't think I know you." His eyes clouded with pain. He put out a hand to steady himself as he felt the floor shift beneath his feet. The young superhero caught his hand. "I have this problem… remembering things…"

Letour clung to the hero's hand as if it were a lifeline. Even by his past levels of headaches, he knew that the migraine approaching was a doozy. His vision shrunk to that of a long tunnel with the boy in black at the end of it, staring at him anxiously. He didn't know why it should be so important, but he wanted to reassure Jor… or was it Matt… Only his voice wouldn't cooperate and all he could force passed his throat was a groan as he fainted away…


Matt's panicky cry accompanied Letour into the abyss.

The shout was so loud that it could be heard in the living room. Immediately, Mac and Marje rushed into the bathroom to discover Letour lying on the floor with Jor-El crouched over him — the superhero's fingers searching frantically for a pulse in Letour's neck.

"Whit happened?" Mac asked, his tone thick with apprehension. "Did he pass out?"

Jor-El glanced up, his face without the mask confirming both the MacDonnells' suspicions that the hero was a very young man, but mostly they noticed that his skin was blanched with shock and his stare was accusing.

"You tell me?" Matt demanded, fear stripping away caution. "Why is my father here… and what have you done to him?"


Mac had stood frozen in the doorway for a few moments, while, peering round her husband's shoulder, Marje's mouth had dropped open in puzzled surprise as the boy's features registered in her brain.

Yet astonishment, questions and explanations were shelved while Letour was made more comfortable. Between the three, they managed to install the unconscious man in the MacDonnell's spare bedroom. The hero carrying him, with just a little support from Mac, and Marje following along behind like a mother hen.

Once, during the process, Letour awoke and none of the three could ignore his bewilderment which almost bordered on hysteria. Thankfully, Marje's familiar Scottish lilt managed to calm him and, after swallowing the painkillers she'd given him, he began to sink into an exhausted sleep. Yet, momentarily, he forced his eyelids to remain open and focused on Jor-El who was waiting by the door.

"Don't go," Letour whispered. "Stay…"

"I will," Jor promised. Wild horses wouldn't drag him away from this place without getting some account for his father's presence. In fact, he didn't plan on leaving without his father.

A peaceful smile tugged at the corners of Letour's mouth. He might be totally confused but, as he gave into sleep, this time he knew the boy of his dreams was real… and if the boy was a reality, perhaps the woman was also…

Marje stood up from the corner of the bed, tucking the quilt around Letour's shoulders. It wouldn't do for their friend to get pneumonia, just when they were about to discover his heritage. If she'd heard correctly, Jor-El had suggested Letour was his father… but wasn't Superman the new hero's father?

She cut off her suppositions in their prime. What they all needed was hard facts and glancing at Jor-El, she was aware he too was in need of answers. "Come on, Jor-El. Let's go into the living room." She touched his arm kindly, as she spoke. "Letour… your dad will be asleep for some time. He gets these migraines which aren't very pleasant, but they do pass and he'll feel better when he wakes up… just a little weak. You can speak to him then."

Reluctantly, Matt allowed himself to be led from the room.

"Dinn'ae worry sae much, laddie," Mac added. "Marje is right, yer faether will be just fine. Right now, I'm thinkin' ye've some questions ye'd like answered… and we've a few of our ane."

"You don't deny that he's my father?" Matt asked stiffly.

"If ye're askin' if we knew Letour wis Superman, then no, we didn'ae," Mac answered reasonably. "But yer claim does hae a ring of truth about it, and it wuid explain a few things." Mac stared at the young man. "Marje, didn'ae I tell ye earlier that Jor-El had Superman's chin? Ye notice it more in the flesh," he concluded, sounding quite pleased that his powers of observation had been verified.

"That's hardly surprising," Marje remonstrated with her husband, though her brain was trying hard to process the revelation. "Jor-El here has never denied being Superman's son. And Jor-El would be a family name… after your paternal grandfather, is it?"

Matt squirmed, feeling a lot like he was under a microscope. This woman seemed to know a lot about his origins…

"Yes. We have similar customs on Krypton…" Actually Matthew's middle name had come from a Kryptonian, though not a family member.

"Now isn't that interesting. I always say that people are pretty much the same no matter where they come from. Don't look so shocked that I should know so much about you." Seeing that their young visitor was beginning to squirm, Marje quickly added, "I promise there's nothing sinister in my interest. There's often not a lot to be done at nights out here and I'm afraid I've grown a little accustomed to trawling the WorldWideWeb…"

"Humph!" snorted Mac, waving in the direction of the now secure computer. Clearly Marje had been using it while he was out; probably to update their friends and colleagues back in Edinburgh of the ongoing situation. "Yer addicted tae that machine, Marje."

"Addicted is a little strong," she replied, feeling stung, but she continued more gently, as she crossed to the stove where an old teapot was keeping warm. She needed time to get her facts straight. "Why don't we all sit down and have a nice cup of Oolong tea while we talk. Letour always said it had a calming influence."

The familiarity of Mrs MacDonnell's mention of Oolong tea smoothed Matt's suspicions. This couple didn't look like they were the kind of people who would keep anyone a prisoner… and no one could keep Superman a prisoner without the use of kryptonite. Matt certainly hadn't felt the toxic effects of kryptonite in this place, but he couldn't deny there was something terribly wrong with his dad.

Unsure of who to trust, Matt kept his own council for the moment, and took the chair that was offered him at the table. He waited for the MacDonnells to join him.

"I think the first thing ye should know, Jor… ye dinn'ae mind if I call ye Jor?" Mac asked as an afterthought and didn't wait for an answer. "Is that yer faether disn'ae hae any memories. He thinks he's someone wha's called Letour, though that's about all he knows." Mac took a long slurp of his tea. "Neither me nor Marje hae been able tae persuade him tae find out more about himsel', and it's no for the want o' tryin'!"

"That's true, Jor." Marje nodded. "He's been living here for over a year and when we realised he had amnesia, we wanted to contact the American Embassy, but he would have none of it. I even suggested we try one of these Internet sites… and I can tell you that didn't go down well at all! We believe he's scared to death to find out the truth, and if he does have any flashes of memory he ends up with a migraine. So, in the end, Mac and I thought it best to leave it up to him. We felt that when he was ready to learn more about himself, he would. Sadly, though, he hasn't felt able to confide in us." Marje also drank from her cup and noticed the young man watching her closely. "There's nothing wrong with the tea, Jor. We're not the villains here, though if Letour is your father, then someone has definitely hurt him very badly."

"Superman did go missing in North Korea, which isn't so far from here I guess," Matt admitted and decided to take a quick sip of his tea. All he could taste was the clear tang of Oolong, and he didn't suddenly curl up in excruciating pain from a dose of kryptonite. It seemed his first instincts about the MacDonnells might be correct and they hadn't hurt Superman but had instead taken care of him.

"Aye! I first encountered Letour on the other side o' the mountain. He was hikin' through this province, pickin' up work here and there when he could. He fixed up Genevieve fer me, and I offered him a job. He's been here ever since, but he could hae come ower fae Korea, and that wuid explain his reluctance tae contact anyone in authority. He's probably in China illegally."

"That sounds like a plausible explanation. Only something else is wrong. Mac, you've said a time or two that Letour could do the work of ten men — my husband is prone to slight exaggeration, Jor — but Letour is not super-powered, nor invulnerable. So something very nasty must have happened to him in that god-forsaken country, apart from what caused his loss of memory." Marje paused, wondering whether to go on. Oh, well. In for a penny, in for a pound! "And it doesn't explain what happened to that nice Mr Kent who went missing with him."

Matt could feel a burning blush staining his cheeks and he hadn't his mask to hide behind. He just hadn't bothered to put it back in place. Quickly he made a point of draining his mug, hoping to hide his awkwardness.

Marje smiled inwardly. The Internet was a wonderful tool, and she'd had some time to herself this afternoon when the medical team had moved out and after she'd made her report to her folks back home. However, she felt the young man wasn't quite ready for her to voice what she suspected she'd discovered. Besides, she still could be wrong. "Another mug of tea, Jor?"

"No! No, thank you, Mrs MacDonnell." Matt stood abruptly. "You know, I think I might just go check on how those survivors are doing, and offer my help with the recovery work. "You did say my fath… Letour wouldn't wake up for sometime… so I could…"

"But whit about yer questions, laddie? And we've one or two of our ane we'd like answered!" Mac looked clearly troubled. Nothing had been settled yet.

"I don't think we need to worry about those yet, Mac. Jor will be back, won't you? I doubt he's going to leave without talking to his dad again."

"No, of course not." Matt was definitely torn. He'd made a promise to be here for Letour, yet he needed time to think… and to maybe try to contact Uncle Bernie. Mrs MacDonnell seemed to have made a connection to Clark Kent, but surely she couldn't be near to the truth. He'd been careless to allow the MacDonnell's to see him without the mask! What he really needed was to talk to Mom. She'd know what to do. "If he does wake, you will tell him I'll be back?"

"Of course we will," Marje said warmly. She'd been a silly old fool, teasing the young man the way she had. She'd lived far too long with Mac, and now she'd scared Jor half out of his wits. The poor boy didn't know her or Mac and couldn't know they were to be trusted. "Off you go and do what you have to do, and don't worry about your dad. We'll take good care of him. After all, we think of him as one of our own."

At Marje's last words, Mac laughed. "Aye, that we do, and if ye're his laddie, that makes ye one of the family, too."

Matt didn't know if that was a good or bad thing, but one thing he did know, he had to try to contact his mother and he couldn't do that with an audience, but could he safely leave his father here without fear of him being spirited away again? Matt decided he could hover overhead and keep an eye on what was happening in the house. He nodded his head to the two people who were watching him closely.

"Oh, and Jor-El, before you go, you might want to put your mask back in place," Marje said helpfully. "You don't want anyone else seeing your face."

"Thank you," Matt replied, doing as he was told. How could he have almost forgotten that? He stretched his neck to make sure everything was back in its proper place. "I'll be back!" he added in his best sonorous tone, before flying out the door. Oh boy, he was beginning to sound like that alien in an old movie he'd watched with his mom and dad. The movie with the actor who had become a governor and run for president.


Left behind, Mac sent his wife a disgruntled glance. "Why did ye encourage him tae leave when he hasn'ae agreed tae take Letour… or is it Superman home?"

"Mac, that boy isn't going to leave here without his father. He just needs time to think. After all, he's had a huge shock, finding out he's not an orphan. Not that I think he ever was an orphan… He said he'll be back and I'd bet my life he will. I think he's gone to get some advice."

"He's gone tae check up on the rescue camp…"

"That was just an excuse." Marje had crossed to the computer and was logging on again.

"Wha is a superhero goin' tae be asking for advice?"

"I'd say his family, but that's just a guess, though an educated one now."

"Dinn'ae be talkin' in riddles, woman! He only has a faether, and according tae him, his da's sleeping in our wee room. I cann'ae stand it when ye're bein' mysterious."

"I'm not being mysterious, Mac. Come over here and look what I found."

She beckoned him over, and realizing he wasn't about to get any explanations unless he played things Marje's way, he ambled over reluctantly. However his reluctance disappeared as he peered at the on-screen article with a small family photograph attached.

"Where did ye find that?" he demanded, the hairs on the back of his neck bristling.

"It wasn't easy, believe me. I had to go into the old archives of the Metropolis Star. The Daily Planet ran the story but didn't have any photographs… which I found strange."

"It's an obituary." Mac read the blurb, shaking his head in amazement and his wife's leap of logic. "But whit made ye go searching fer this?"

"I didn't… not at first. After the military teams arrived and cleared everyone out of here, I was left with nothing to do. You've no idea how frustrating it is to wait at home for news. I decided to distract myself with reading about Jor-El and that led me onto Superman. There's a lot of conspiracy theories out there about his disappearance and alleged death, but only a very tiny mention of the reporter who went missing at the same time. I guess I just got curious. I went looking and discovered that picture of the family taken at the memorial service for Clark Kent." Marje stood up and, taking her husband's hand, she took him back to the little room where Letour slept on, oblivious to the fact that his identity had been discovered along with his secret one. "I didn't put two and two together until I saw Jor without his mask just now. It is him, isn't it?" she asked, though her question was practically a statement.

"Oh, aye, I'd say so." Mac nodded, still feeling slightly shell-shocked. "The laddie in the picture might be a few years younger, but now we've seen Jor-El's whole face, I'd say they're the same person."

"So if Jor-El is telling the truth, and this is his father, then Letour is both Superman and Clark Kent." Marje was whispering, though she'd no idea why. The man in the bed was still fast asleep and the superhero had gone.

Unfortunately, that wasn't exactly true. High above them Jor-El hovered. He'd stopped to activate his transponder, hoping his uncle could patch him through to his mother. Now, however, Marje's assumption that he'd left became reality. As Matt overheard the conversation he took off and flew faster than he'd ever attempted before. The seriousness of this situation couldn't be addressed through a satellite connection, no matter how sophisticated… and he was fairly confident the MacDonnells had his father's best interest at heart. Besides, Matt wasn't sure his father was strong enough to survive a flight to Metropolis.

No, he had to tell his mother face to face that he'd betrayed the family's secret… that he'd found his father… and bring her back to China immediately.


Chapter Thirteen: To Wake From Dreams

While her son was in China dealing with the landslide, life for Lois had to continue as if it were just another normal day. She hadn't the luxury to worry in public about his welfare. Other than assign the story of the rescue mission to one of her best reporters and profess a genuine concern for anyone caught up in the horror, Lois could show no particular interest.

At first, she'd found it difficult to hide her agitation, but Bernie had kept her up-to-date with Matt's progress, as he'd promised, plus MNN soon began broadcasting footage from the scene and reporting on Jor-El's rescue efforts. Judging from both these sources, it seemed her anxieties for Matt's safety had been unfounded and she'd been able to direct her attention to work related matters, at least, for most of the time.

However, as her day at the Planet ended and she returned home, family matters rose up to trouble her. Lois could no longer ignore the fact that her son was far from home, handling life and death situations which were too intense for a boy of his age. Her concerns shifted from Matt's physical wellbeing to that of his state of mind.

The latest film-shots from the disaster zone had zoomed in on Jor-El while he dealt with the devastation, and Lois almost wept at the distressed droop of his shoulders… the bleak set of his mouth as he searched again and again for living survivors, but brought out only the dead.

There was a fleeting moment when a figure just beyond Matt's shoulder caught Lois' attention. The tall man was turned from the camera, and like all the others was coated in dirt, but something about him drew Lois' gaze. A strange presentiment scuttled along her nerves, yet within seconds the camera returned to the superhero and the feeling was lost. As she stood bereft in her living room, staring at the image of Matt on her TV screen, she was conscious of another person by her side. Sara's hand slipped through Lois' arm and the girl leaned closer.

"Poor, Matt," Sara whispered. "Being a superhero isn't very exciting sometimes."

"No, it's not. Sometimes it's heartbreaking work. Sara, I want you to think long and hard before you decide to follow in your brother's footsteps." Lois took hold of her daughter's hand and squeezed, but her gaze remained riveted on the TV screen.

"Was it like that for Dad?"

"Oh, yes. Even for your dad." Lois rested her head on her daughter's… her dark hair contrasting with Sara's fairer tresses in the glinting overhead light. "There were times he'd come home heartsick because he'd been too late, or someone had died no matter how hard he'd tried to save them… and once you kids came along, he had to hide his sorrow until we were alone. Mind you, that was a trade off he was very willing to make just to have you… and I think you helped him in a way." A bitter-sweet smile touched Lois' face, and she slid an arm around Sara. "But his life as Superman wasn't always easy, though he believed with all his heart that the good times far outweighed the bad, and I guess Matt feels the same. Now Matt's going to need a lot of reassurance and kindness when he comes home."

"And we'll see that he gets it. I even promise to divert Vicky…"

"Ah, Vicky. Do you think she bought our cover story?" Lois frowned, moving back a little to look into Sara's eyes, hating to be back in a situation where lies were part of her family's life.

"Why shouldn't she, Mom? People stay overnight at friends' houses all the time."

"Matt doesn't," Lois announced. "And what if she finds out that he wasn't in school today?"

"Mom, as far as Vicky's concerned Matt went off to school this morning, and she's not that interested in checking up on his movements every second of the day. As long as you don't blow it by acting suspiciously, she won't think anything is wrong."

"Hey, I'm the one who's supposed to be a blasé, hard-bitten investigative reporter… you're a kid. When did you get to be so good at this game of misdirection?"

"What can I say. I have your genes!" Sara grinned. "But don't be so hard on yourself, Mom. You're upset about Matt."

"And you aren't?" Lois returned Sara's grin. Since Matt's debut, Lois had learned just as much about Sara as she had about her son, and all of it good. Sara was inventive and resourceful… and one day she'd make an excellent hero. Lois didn't doubt that.

"Matt's going to be fine, Mom. Now come on, Grandma says dinner is ready."

"OK, I'll be good. Let's go eat or else Vicky will be through here demanding that we hurry up, and we don't want her paying too much attention to Jor-El. Oy! I can't believe she's got a crush on him. She's far too young."

"Mom, every young girl has a crush on him. He's so… heroic and you've got to admit Matt does look great in the suit. If I didn't know he was my brother, I might too… and didn't you have a crush on Superman when he first showed up?" Sara's eyes were twinkling as she continued to tease. Clearly, Sara's mission was to brighten Lois' spirits.

"Busted!" Lois admitted, though she did add in her defense. "But I admired his intrinsic compassion and his morals."

"Come on, Mom. Be honest, you wanted to jump his bones!"

"Sara Kent, wash your mouth out with a bar of soap," Lois said in mock disapproval, barely suppressing a laugh. "OK, I might have found him attractive, but I was a grown woman. Vicky is just a child… she shouldn't be fancying anyone."

"Mom, you're living in the dark ages, but don't worry. Vicky has crushes on all the latest pop idols; she changes her mind every couple of weeks."

Lois finally let her laughter out. "Oh, I know. But once she does find out Jor-El is Matt, she's going to be very disappointed."

"Disappointed!" Sara snorted. "I'd say mad. Vicky has your temper, Mom."

"You're not wrong, Sara. Vicky's going to blow a fuse about being kept in the dark. I know I did."

"Come on, you two!" Martha's voice drifted from the kitchen, interrupting the mother and daughter chat. "Your dinner is on the table."

"Just give us a moment, please, Martha," Lois called back. She was very grateful Martha and Jonathan had invited themselves over for dinner. Her in-laws would help keep the conversation light, and distract energetic Vicky. "Sara, I just just hope it isn't too long before I can sit down and tell Vicky the truth about her amazing birthright."

"Well, if Matt and I are anything to go by, she should start to get some of the powers in the next couple of years. But you know, Mom, I don't think you should wait so long to come clean. It's going to be hard keeping Matt's absences a secret if he's doing stuff like this all the time."

"You, don't, huh?" Lois was tempted to smile a little at Sara's serious manner, wondering who was the adult here. "It looks like you've given this a lot of consideration. Actually, I was hoping that Matt wouldn't be doing so many huge rescues in the future, but I suppose there's no way of stopping him now. As for telling Vicky, why don't we just play that one by ear?"

"I think that's a good idea, Mom."

The two linked arms and headed toward the kitchen.


A little time after dinner, Martha and Jonathan said goodnight and headed home, taking Vicky along with them. Lois felt ambivalent about letting her go, feeling that she was already missing one of her children, yet she couldn't deny that Vicky's presence might make the situation a little awkward if Matt were to come home in deep despair. They certainly had to rethink their strategy on the aftermath of these longer absences; it just wasn't practical or fair to parcel Vicky off whenever Jor-El took it into his head to tackle a cataclysm of epic proportions.

Not that Vicky objected to spending a night with either set of her grandparents. She loved the chance to be spoiled, though admittedly in differing ways. Her Lane grandparents always showered her with special treats, but her Grandma Martha understood when she needed to talk about her problems — like when she'd got 97 on her English test and she'd wanted so much to get 100 — and her Grandpa Jon simply gave the best hugs. When she was around him, she felt closer to her daddy.

She might only have been little when Daddy had died, but she remembered things about him… how he would take her on his knee and read to her… how he would tease her and call her Princess Tory and make her feel the 'specialist' girl in the world. Being with Grandpa Jon was almost as good. Sometimes she would close her eyes and dream she was with Daddy, but it wasn't the same.

Yet, attuned as Lois was to her children, she was oblivious of how deeply Vicky had buried her longings for Clark. The child hid her feelings well behind a wall of bubbling vitality and an insatiable curiousity about the world she lived in. If any members of the family suspected her loneliness it was the elder Kents, and they chose to spend as much time as was possible with the baby of the family, hoping to fill the hole in her psyche.

Now the clock moved ever closer to midnight, and reluctantly Sara heeded her mother's words and headed for bed. She'd wanted to keep company with Mom, but she had gymnastic practice on Saturday mornings, though she doubted she would be able to concentrate on her training if Matt hadn't returned… but that wasn't going to happen. By the time her alarm clock went off, her brother would be fast asleep in bed, recovering from his heroic feats, and their world would return to normal, or as normal as life could ever be in this household.

Left alone in the dark of night, Lois' anxieties returned with a vengeance. Yet there was no actual grounds for her trepidation. Local news had relegated MNN's coverage of the disaster to the occasional, short report, which was a sure sign that nothing of further interest was taking place in China. Besides, as she drank yet another cup of coffee, Lois reflected that Bernard had assured her he'd received no emergency call for help from Jor-El.

She checked her watch… that information had been over an hour ago. It was now close to 1.30am. Could she phone Bernie again? Almost on cue, the phone started ringing, and Lois snatched it up.

"Hello!" she barked into the mouthpiece.

"Lois?" came the timid reply. "It's Bernard here…"

"What's wrong?" Lois jumped up. "Something has happened, hasn't it?" She began pacing. Oh, my god! She should never have let him go… she should have demanded he return immediately! "Give it to me straight, Bernie. Some thing's wrong with Matt!"

"No, Lois. Nothing is wrong with Matt. I was just finishing off here at Star Labs and I thought I'd give you a call… just in case you were still awake and worrying. I've just spoken with Matt and he's fine… very busy, but… well, he's a little dejected, I think…"

"The rescue isn't going to his plans?" Lois asked more quietly.

"Not much."

"I got that from the TV coverage. Bernard, most of these people died within minutes of the slide. Superheroes aren't gods! They can't turn back time."

"No, of course not, Lois. But Matt is young. He expects so much… and he has managed to save a number of people." A yawn accompanied Bernard's words down the phone line. "I'm heading home to try to get some sleep, and I suggest you do the same. Oh, and if there is one bright spot in all the horror in China, it's that Matt seems to have linked up with some very competent local rescue services. So I don't think you have anything to worry about on that score…"

"I'm sure you're right, Bernie. But it sounds like he'll come home feeling pretty low, fretting about all the people he couldn't save."

Another stifled yawn assaulted Lois' ears.

"Yes, Lois. Like father, like son," Bernie averred ruefully. "But you should go to bed. Matt is going to need your help when he returns. Try not to worry over much. Goodnight, Lois."

"Night, Bernie, and thanks for the call. It's much appreciated. Sleep well."

"Oh, I will. This old body of mine is crying out for its bed. But you know I'd do anything to help you and the kids."

Tears filled Lois' eyes as she said goodnight to her old friend and ally. Together they had been through so much, but he was in his seventies. What would her unique family do when he was gone? Thankfully, that wasn't a current worry, so she took his advice and went to bed. But sleep evaded her.

As she tossed and turned, that fateful night from four years ago returned to torment her. Yet, conversely, on that occasion she hadn't worried. She'd grown accustomed to Clark's absences and hadn't suspected she had anything to worry about till later… when feelings of foreboding had seeped into her soul, when echoes of terror and pain had driven her crazy with anxiety until they too had ended abruptly…

No! She plumped her pillow vigorously and refused to let herself believe that this was a similar circumstance. She had no telepathic connection with Matthew as she had had with his father, but she also had no proof that he was in any danger. He would be coming home soon, and though he might be traumatized by the sights he'd seen, he would be safe, and she would be able to hug him… In time, he'd come to accept that he'd done the best he could.

Lois had fallen into a restless sleep when the tempest flew into her room.

"Mom!" Matt said in something a little louder than a whisper. He'd been in such a hurry and hadn't thought to check the other rooms, but he didn't want to wake his sisters at this moment. He leaned over his mother's figure and spoke directly into her ear. "Mom, come on, wake up."

Turning in her sleep, Lois pulled the covers over her head.

"Mom, I need you to get up," Matt demanded, promptly pulling the covers back again. "It's me, Matt! Please, Mom." He touched her shoulder.

The urgent voice penetrated the foggy pictures that flitted eerily through Lois' dreams, though for some moments she fought its request. She'd only just surrendered to sleep. "Matt?" she questioned, still partially unconscious. Then the fact that her son was shaking her registered in her brain and she bolted upright. "Matt, honey, you're home!" She flung her arms around his neck. "Oh, Matt, I've been so worried about you. Are you well?" Lois turned on her bedside light, the easier to check him over. "You look OK… but was it bad, honey? They said on the news that many of the residents had died instantly."

"Yes, Mom, it was bad… but not all of it. Mom, you have to get up and get dressed."

"If you want to talk about it, we can go downstairs and make some hot chocolate… you always like chocolate." Matt had inherited his mother's sweet-tooth, though thankfully he would never have to worry about those extra inches. "But I don't have to get dressed for that. Just let me put on my robe." Lois was sliding her legs out of bed, when her son interrupted.

"No, Mom, you don't understand. I don't want chocolate. I want you to come with me to China!"

Lois decided Matt didn't look too despondent, but perhaps he was putting on a brave front. She was his mother and it was her job to look beyond the exterior.

"Oh, Matt, there's no need for that. I'm sure you've done what you can for these poor people, even though it wasn't as much as you expected… and if you want us to cover the story for any particular reason, then maybe Uncle Jimmy would be a better person to take with you. You know I don't report the news anymore," she added with a tiny hint of nostalgia for the young Lois whose life was dedicated to chasing down stories… but time had moved on. She'd moved on.

Clearly, Matt was getting very perturbed by Lois' lack of cooperation because he pulled his cowl from his head and his fingers started combing through his hair. It was a very Clark-like gesture. "Mom, please listen to me. I don't want anyone to cover any stories… this isn't for the Planet. It's for us. I've found him, Mom! I've found Dad!"

"Found who, Matt?" Through the rushing noise which suddenly assaulted her ears, Lois wasn't sure that she'd heard Matt correctly, but she felt her world tilt.

"Dad!" Matt repeated, wondering why his mother wasn't sharing his joy. "It's amazing! It's the best thing in the world. But maybe you should sit down again." He took hold of his mother's hands, which were for some reason pushing against the air, as if an imaginary foe was threatening her. "Mom, you don't have to be scared."

"Don't play games with me, Matt." Lois' voice was low and thick with apprehension.

"I'm not, Mom. Dad is alive." Matt had been rehearsing his speech as he flew home, but clearly he hadn't told it right because his mother looked frozen in shock. Her eyes glared at him and her hands tightened in his, her nails digging into his palms. If he wasn't invulnerable, she might have drawn blood.

"Matt, what are you saying?" At last, Lois took her son's advice and sank onto her bed, but mostly because her legs refused to hold her up any longer. "I don't think this is funny."

"I'm not joking, Mom. I would never joke about finding Dad. You know that." The note of indignant hurt in his voice convinced Lois that her son at least believed he had found his father… but how was that possible?

"OK, Matt. You found someone who looks like your father…"

"No, it is him, Mother. I know it is." Matt's voice was certain. "He might not look quite the same, and he doesn't appear to know who he is, but he's in Jilin Province in China, and he helped me during the rescue."

Lois searched her son's face as he stood resolute before her. There was absolute candour in his eyes. "He's doing super rescues in China?" Lois' brow drew down in a puzzled frown. "I know China is sometimes a no go area for the world press, but surely the media would have discovered that? And why hasn't he come home?"

Matt sat down on the bed by his mother's side, forcing himself to calm down. Speed was of the essence; he didn't want to lose his father again, but he knew how difficult it must be for his mom to make sense of what had happened… He didn't understand what had happened.

"I didn't say super. Mom, he was part of the local rescue team. He's strong but he isn't super… I don't think." Matt saw the tracks of tears glint on his mother's cheeks. She was crying silently and the sight brought tears to his own eyes. "He calls himself Letour and he didn't recognize me, Mom. In fact, when I tried to talk to him, showed him who I was, he got sick." Matt finished on a sob.

"Sick?" Lois asked, managing to utter just that one broken word.

"He fainted. The people he lives with told me he gets that way quite a lot, but they said he'd recover."

"Which people?" Lois felt like she was wading through deep water; at any moment she might lose her footing and be washed away in the maelstrom of her emotions. She desperately needed to keep control.

"The MacDonnells. They run a botanical test laboratory out there. I think Dad's been staying with them for a while. I guess they've been looking after him."

There was a few moments of silence when the only sound in the room was that of Lois' tortured breathing, as she attempted to adjust her life to its new parameters.

Was she no longer a widow? But if that were true, why had Clark not found his way home? He'd always said he'd come back to her. As long as he had life left in his body, he'd promised to return. So why was he not here, and why had she lost her bond with him?

Something was very wrong with this scenario. Matthew had said Clark was ill… probably amnesia or more, by the sounds of it, but she wouldn't find out what the problem was sitting here wallowing in her home. Energy began to return to Lois' limbs and an ember of hope sparked within her heart.

"I believe you, Matt. I'm sorry if I seemed so obtuse, but it's a lot to take in." Lois rose and headed for her closet. "I'll get dressed and we'll leave. Your dad is still at this botanical place?"

"Yes. He was sleeping when I left. According to Marje… that's Mrs MacDonnell, he gets these migraines. They knock him out for quite a long time."

"Huh! You're father never had a headache in his life," Lois snorted as she pulled a pair of warm sweats from a drawer. Flying with Matt got cold sometimes and they would be traveling fast. "Actually, that's not strictly true. If kryptonite was involved…" Lois' tone sharpened. "There wasn't any kryptonite around in that laboratory?"

"Not that I sensed. I didn't feel ill or anything."

"Well, Bernie always assumed my genes would give you some immunity to that horrible rock. But your father is susceptible, believe me. They could be storing kryptonite in that laboratory."

Matt shook his head adamantly. "It's not that kind of laboratory, Mom, and I'm sure they're good people. They seem really fond of Dad." Matt gave the situation a few moments of thought, then decided to be better safe than sorry. "But I think we should hurry, just in case I'm wrong. We don't want to lose track of Dad again."

"No, we definitely don't!" Lois' voice was muffled as she pulled her top over her head and slid her arms into the sleeves, but her growing enthusiasm was obvious. Then she craned round the closet door, realizing they had a problem. "But, Matt, I can't just leave like this. What about Sara?"

"And Vicky," Matt added. In all the activity, he'd completely forgotten about his sisters.

"No, Vicky is already at your grandparents. We've got to take Sara there too. She's too young to be left home alone."

"Fine. You finish dressing and I'll go wake her." Matt strode toward the door, but was halted by his mother's cry.

"Matt, try to break the news a little more gently than you did to me…"

Lois' stricture was unnecessary, though, as a figure clad in blue pajamas appeared in the doorway, her hair sleep mussed, yet her eyes clear and alert…

"Mama?" Sara reverted to the childhood name for her mother, betraying her nervousness. "What's this about Daddy? Did I hear right?"

"Sara, sweetheart, you overheard what we were talking about?" Lois hurried across the room, enfolding Sara in her arms. She felt her daughter's head nod against the crook of her neck.

"Some. I couldn't sleep very well," Sara spoke without leaving the shelter of her mother's embrace. It was as if she needed an anchor in a changing world… a better world… if she hadn't misheard… if Matt wasn't mistaken. "I heard a woosh and I knew Matt had come home… but I've never heard a woosh from Matt before. Normally, he can't fly so fast."

Momentarily, Lois held tightly to Sara, then leaned back to look into her face. "Matt has some news for us. It's very scary news, but good news, really good… we think."

"Then it's true, Matt? Daddy is alive?"

Matt moved closer to his mother and sister. "I'm sure, Sara. Only something is wrong with him. He's sick and he's forgotten who he his. I didn't know what to do, which is why Mom has to come back with me to China. She'll sort everything out."

"Yes, of course. Mom, you've got to go, now, as quick as you can." Sara was coming to terms with the fact that her father was still alive. Her love for her father and her need to have him back in her life cut through all the mystery of why he'd stayed away. There would be a reason and they would discover the cause when he was safe at home. "You can drop me off at Grandma's house on your way." Sara grabbed her mother's robe from off the bed where Lois had discarded it and put it on, tying the belt firmly round her waist in preparation for leaving. "I'll explain what I know to Grandma Martha and Grandpa Jon, but, Mom, go already. Bring Dad home."

Lois cringed a little inside, daunted somewhat by her children's belief in her ability to set matters right, and at their blind faith that their father would wish to return. What if Clark had stayed away because he didn't want to be with her anymore?

But that was a crazy thought. They might have had a few differences of opinion over their years together, but they'd loved each other deeply… completely. After four years without him, Lois still loved Clark with all her heart and Clark's love had been as strong as her own… perhaps stronger. So why was she acting so faint-hearted?

Because without him you've lost your belief in happy endings. But your children have faith. Grab hold of that faith and hang on with all you have. The ember in her heart flamed, melting the sliver of ice that had formed at its core four years ago.

Get used to fighting again, girl! You're going on an adventure; the most important trip of your life to bring Clark Kent or Letour, or whatever name he might be going by, back where he belongs.

Lois lifted her arms aloft and held them out toward her son. "Come on, Matt. Let's get going," she demanded, impatience taking over. "We still have to take Sara to Grandma's before we head for China. So, why are we still standing here?"


Chapter Fourteen: I Will Always Love You

When Jor-El returned, Marje and Mac were absentmindedly eating a light snack, neither of them exactly enjoying the food, yet knowing they ought to eat to keep their strength up for the hard work that lay ahead of them. They were surprised by the short space of time he'd been gone. Though they'd heard about superspeed, they'd never actually encountered it before so hadn't expected him to return quite so soon. However, they weren't completely shocked by his passenger.

"That was a quick round trip, Jor-El," Marje said, rising from the table. She noted with some amusement that the hero was once again wearing his mask. Marje, however, believed in plain-speaking. "And this will be Mrs Kent, I presume?" She offered her hand and an encouraging smile to the woman who had arrived in the arms of the superhero.

Matt had warned his mother during the flight that he'd given away his true identity, so Lois wasn't too taken aback by the woman's words. The problem was what exactly these people intended to do with the secret, but for the moment Lois decided to leave that question on the back burner. She'd come here to see for herself if the man who was sleeping in the next room was actually her soul mate.

"I don't suppose you'd be prepared to accept that I was Ultrawoman?" Lois asked with a touch of sarcasm.

"Oh, if you mean the super lady in the pink leotard, then I'd say Mac would be prepared to welcome you with open arms." Marje laughed, hiding her own nervousness. "We happened to be back home in Scotland when she appeared on the scene, and Mac was smitten, let me tell you."

"Marje! Dinn'ae embarrass the lassie," Mac said, blushing furiously.

"Oh, it isn't Mrs Kent who should be blushing, Mac. She was just doing her job, you were the one who was drooling."

"I wuidn'ae say drooling exactly, Marje. There's no anything wrong in appreciating a lovely woman and Ultrawoman was a wee stoatir! I'm sorry, Mrs Kent is a wee st…" Mac tried to defend himself but realized he was digging himself into a deeper hole. "I'm sure I wisn'ae the only man who thought it either," he added lamely.

Lois looked, bemused, from one stranger to the other. Firstly, she was having difficulty understanding what the man was saying. She believed she'd just been paid a compliment, but she couldn't be sure of that… and secondly, she wasn't prepared to indulge in a conversation about a persona she'd adopted for a few days in what seemed like another lifetime. Besides, they were wasting time.

"Look, you both obviously believe you've discovered a secret about my family, but I'm not prepared to discuss that at this time." Lois folded her arms across her body in an action which was a mixture of defiance and defense. "Jor-El brought me here because he believes that my husband, Clark Kent, who went missing four years ago, is staying with you."

Immediately, Marje felt contrite and threw a warning glance toward Mac. "Mrs Kent, forgive us, we didn't mean to upset you by blethering on like a couple of silly old souls… and as for your secret, you don't have to tell us anything." Marge took another step forward, slowly, assuringly. "It's really none of our business, but you should know that neither Mac nor I wish your husband any harm, and that applies to any of his family. He's a rare good man is Letour. We wouldn't dream of doing anything that would cause him hurt… and that would include keeping any secrets which we might have stumbled upon."

Lois regarded the couple suspiciously, wondering if they were indeed trustworthy. Clark had taught her to look for the good in everyone, yet she'd been without his influence for many years… besides, Clark had been wrong. Some people were evil. Yet, just like her son, she really didn't believe that of these two strangers who were in turn, watching her apprehensively. Marje spoke again.

"Would you like to see him, Mrs Kent? I believe he's still asleep. At least he was when I checked on him a few minutes ago. Sleep is good for him when he gets these attacks." Marje gestured with her arm toward a door in the back of the room. "He's right through there. Jor-El, you know where to go. Perhaps you could take your mo… Mrs Kent in." Marje corrected herself, deciding that tact was best at this time.

This was it. The moment. Lois was just a few steps away from finding out whether Matt had been mistaken, yet she was afraid to take those steps. Only not knowing was killing her slowly. Lois lifted her chin and walked in the direction of the doorway. Matt was at once by her side, his hand touching her back, encouraging her, comforting her.

"It's OK, Mom," Matt said softly. "Everything will be fine. You'll see."

Then the door was before her and Matt was reaching to open it, while the MacDonnells held back, not wishing to intrude on a very special moment.

Without a murmur, the bedroom door swung wide and Lois stepped inside, followed by Matt, who closed the door, shutting the outside world from his parents' reunion.

The air in the small room was still, broken only by the soft, uneven moans from the man in the bed. Lois held her head erect, until little by little she lowered her gaze to the sleeping man. For the woman who'd secretly dreamed of this moment, time stopped…

"Oh, God. Matt, you're right," she whispered. "It is your father."

Her words dropped into the silence like stones into the depths of a well. She edged closer, as her disbelief was replaced with longing. Her hand reached out. She was close… close enough to touch him and yet she was afraid that if she made any move her dream would shatter and once again she'd wake up in her bedroom back home, needy and alone.

Yet the warmth of Matt's figure by her shoulder confirmed this was reality. She moved nearer still until the edge of the bed hit her leg. Now tears were coursing down her face as she studied the beloved face which rested on the pillow beneath her.

Clark was different. His skin was so pale, even against the white linen, and age had lined his face… or was that the result of the painful headaches she'd been told about? A few fresh scrapes and scratches marred one hollow cheek and the sole arm that was above the covers, but Lois didn't think they were anything to worry about. He'd probably picked those up during the difficult day of rescuing people.

That was so Clark. Even without superpowers, he would always try to help. All doubt disappeared from Lois' heart… almost as if it had never existed.

The man in the bed might have acquired furrows around his eyes and mouth, his hair might be streaked with gray, but it was still thick and luxuriant, and his body seemed to have lost some of its bulk, though she couldn't quite tell because of the blankets tucked so warmly around him… but he was Clark. Partner and best friend, husband and father, and simply the man she would love for the rest of her life.

She wanted to call out his name, to pull him into her arms, to hug and kiss him awake, but she was cautious not to rouse him from a much needed rest. Instead, she reached out gently and touched his hair, letting her fingers linger in its silky depth. Oh, how her senses remembered the feel of his hair, the warmth of his skin, as she allowed her hand to cup his injured cheek.

Even that small intrusion seemed to unsettle Clark as his breathing quickened and his limbs moved uneasily beneath the covers. "Ssh. You're safe now," Lois crooned, keeping her voice low, but he didn't appear to hear her and the lines on his forehead deepened.

"Use your telepathy, Mom." Matt's voice came softly from behind her in the darkened room.

Lois shut her eyes and concentrated for a long moment, then she turned a little to address Matt. Sadly, she shook her head. "There's only static. The channel is closed. It's no use."

"I know, Mom. It's a long shot, but just… just try it one more time. He's probably forgotten how," protested Matt, pulling off his mask. There shouldn't be any barriers between himself and his father. "You just have to get his attention, Mom."

Again, Lois closed her eyes. Though she doubted she could reach Clark, she decided to humor her son. It was such a long time since they'd used their telepathic link, Clark wasn't the only one who might be rusty. However, into the void she sent her thoughts. 'It's OK now, sweetheart. I'm here with you. I love you.'

No words came back to her, only the annoying, monotone hissing.

"It's no use, Matt," Lois sighed, turning fully to face her eldest child. "We'll just have to wait until…

"No, Mom, see? He heard you." Matt's face was shining, though he struggled to keep his voice low.

Almost too fearful to look, Lois glanced back to Clark and her tears turned to those of joy as she noticed what Matt had already seen.

The face that had been creased with worry and pain was now settled in repose and his breathing was calm and even. Not only was his countenance one of peace, but a small smile replaced his frown. Clark sighed loudly and shifted to face Lois.

"Oh, Clark," she whispered with a tremulous smile, placing her hand on his. "You've come back to me." She sank down on the edge of the bed to watch him sleep…

There were still many questions to be answered, but for now she had reached her safe haven, and that was so much more than she'd ever hoped for in this lifetime again.


Time had no meaning for Lois and Matt as they waited for Clark to wake up, but, too soon, the door opened a crack and Marje leaned in, bringing outside concerns into their sanctuary.

"I don't like to interrupt," she said, her quiet lilt apologetic. "But there are two people out here who you might want to meet."

Jor-El lifted his finger to his mouth in a shushing motion, crossing to the door to exclude the intruder. Yet Marje held her ground.

"I know you think this isn't a good moment and, under normal circumstances, I'd agree. But I think this is important. Jor-El, they're the two doctors you brought here earlier, and they've come back to look for Letour. They say it's very urgent that they speak with him."

"He's still asleep, Mrs MacDonnell, and you said yourself it was best to let him rest." Matt objected. "If we wake him too soon, he might still be sick."

"That's what I told them, and that you were with him." Marje inched in the door, trying to see past Jor-El's body. She was curious to discover what was happening, but anxious for her friend too. "The doctors agree that he should be left in peace, for now, but they want to talk to you and your mother… er, Mrs Kent."

A rosy glow flushed Marje's cheeks at her latest slip up and Matt couldn't help but smile. This pretending was stupid. Matt would stake his life that the MacDonnells were trustworthy. Hadn't his father's life been in their hands for quite some time and hadn't they kept him safe? However, he wasn't at all sure about those doctors. Why were they so interested in finding Letour?

Matt was just about to ask his mother for advice when, alerted by the sound of her name, Lois turned her attention to the little altercation by the door. "What is it, Matt?" she asked, raising her voice only slightly, and now she blushed as she realized she too had made a mistake. Oh, what did it matter, it appeared the Scottish couple were already friends of the family.

"Mrs Kent, Doctors Ducos and Janik are insisting they speak with Jor-El and you," Marje answered for herself. Actually, the newcomers had only mentioned the superhero. It was Marje who decided that Mrs Kent should be included. The laddie might need his mother's support.

Lois shook her head in puzzlement. She was sure she'd never heard those names before. "Who are they?"

"I rescued them yesterday, Mom, when their car was trapped in a sinkhole. After I got them out, they told me they were doctors and were on their way here to offer medical help, so I gave them a lift." Matt made the flying sign with his hand. "I'd no idea they were interested in anything else."

"Then you didn't hear the woman ask you to come back because they had something very important to tell you?" Marje saw the boy's confusion and went on. "I guess your mind was on other things at the time… and I don't blame you. That landslide was too big a task for even an army of superheroes. I can't tell you how thankful I am, laddie, for all you did, and especially for saving my friend, Li-Ying." Taking advantage of Jor-El's bashfulness at being thanked, Marje leaned up and placed a motherly kiss on his cheek, further embarrassing Matt, then she returned to current business. "I know you're both still wondering if you can trust me and Mac, but I really believe you should see these doctors. They seem very determined to find Letour. Call me suspicious, but that makes me think they might know something about him."

Lois gave the question some consideration. Clark appeared to be pretty much out of it for now, but she wanted to be right by his side when he awoke. Of course, she could ask Matt to stay with his father, though she doubted he would let her face any strangers alone… notably medical people who appeared to have knowledge of Letour's history.

She sighed as she decided they couldn't pass up any opportunity to learn what might have happened to Clark in these last four year. Meanwhile, there seemed to be little point in being coy with Marje MacDonnell. "Matt, I think we've got to meet with them. If they can shed any light on how your father came to assume the identity of Letour, then that has to be a good thing. Mrs MacDonnell, we'll be right out."

During the conversation, no one noticed the man in the bed lift his weary eyelids, nor saw his gaze focus on the woman sitting by his side. If only for an infinitesimal moment, Letour's eyes widened. His dream was back, but the accompanying dull throb in his head warned him this was different. Normally, he felt no pain during his dreams…

Was it possible that he wasn't dreaming?

He glanced around carefully. This was the MacDonnells' spare room and their guest bed. He'd spent enough occasions in there recovering from one of his headaches to recognize it.

The situation felt pretty similar to those earlier times. He felt pretty similar; the same aching in his head and joints, the dread lethargy in every muscle. Only this time it wasn't Marje who was taking care of him, it was his dream woman…

He desperately wanted to stay awake, to ask her if she were real and why she was here, but his body betrayed him and, inescapably, he sank into sleep again. Yet before he lost consciousness he managed to squeeze her hand.

Immediately, Lois' attention was dragged back to Clark. "Sweetheart?" she cried out expectantly. "Clark?" Her grip on his hand tightened. "Clark? Are you awake?" Lois waited, praying for another sign. She decided to try a different tack. "Letour, can you speak to me?" When no answer was forthcoming, her shoulders drooped in disappointment.

"Don't be upset, Mrs Kent. He drifts in and out of consciousness for a wee while after he's been ill. He'll come out of it in time. Try not to worry," Marje said kindly, recognizing that this lady was on the very edge. She decided a distraction might be called for here. "I'm pretty sure you have time to have a little chat to the doctors before he's fully awake. Come away now. Let him sleep."

"But he squeezed my hand," Lois offered, her voice sounding small and mournful. "Matt, I felt it. I'm sure he did."

"I don't doubt it," Marje agreed. "And I believe he dreams about you too. I've sat where you are now a number of times, and I've heard him talk to a woman in his dreams. He pleads with her not to go. One time, not so long ago, I even heard him whisper her name… Lois. That's you, isn't it? Of course, I didn't make the connection till today."

Hope dared to bloom in Lois' soul. "So, he remembered me?"

Marje felt like kicking herself. She had wanted to let Lois know that Letour hadn't completely forgotten, but now she had to disappoint the poor woman. "Not exactly," Marje answered apologetically. "When he woke up, I asked him who Lois was, but it was clear he had no idea. He panicked, just like all the other times we've tried to get him to talk about his past. He always shuts himself off, like he's terrified of voicing his thoughts, then he makes some excuse and runs away… he seems to find that fairly natural."

A wry laugh found its way through Lois' sobs. "He's had a lot of practice. OK, Mrs MacDonnell, we'll take your advice." Unable to resist, Lois bent down and placed a light kiss on Clark's lips, but unlike the fairy tales, her prince did not awaken. Then, tenderly tucking his hand beneath the covers, she rose. "Where are these doctors of yours?"

"Oh, they're not mine. I just met them yesterday for the first time." Marje held the door open as mother and son walked through. "And, please, do you think you could call me Marje? Letour… I mean, Clark does."

Lois rolled her eyes. In her opinion, the jury was still out on whether she ought to be on first-name terms with the MacDonnells. Granted, they had given her husband a refuge… probably, but she'd feel a lot more charitable toward them if they had gotten in touch with the American Embassy and arranged for Clark to be sent home.

Until she had all the facts, she was reluctant to concede they had had no real idea where Clark's home actually was, nor that he had a very stubborn streak. If Clark had refused to cooperate with their suggestions, there wasn't really much else the MacDonnells could have done.

The big mystery appeared to be why Clark had taken such an aversion to finding out about his past, but perhaps these doctors would be able to answer that question. Lois certainly hoped so.


The atmosphere in the living room was charged with tense expectancy. When Lois had first arrived with Matt she'd been somewhat distracted, but part of her mind had acknowledged the homey feel of the house… even if it was a little busy. It was obvious that the wooden building was both used as a home and a workplace, yet it had not felt oppressive. Now that had changed. She could only surmise that the two new people in the room had created the difference.

Lois moved a little closer to her son; not for her own protection but in an effort to shield him from whatever these doctors had planned. Jonathan's fear of laboratories and personnel in white coats didn't seem quite so irrational at this moment. What if they had kryptonite with them to attack her son and her husband. Could she fight them off? It was a long time since Lois had had to use her self-defense skills, but she was prepared to go to any lengths to save her loved ones. And judging by the way Marje MacDonnell had ranged herself alongside Matt and herself, Lois was finally willing to admit the woman was firmly in their corner.

"I'm told you want to speak to us." Lois was the first to break the silence.

The female doctor had been checking out Jor-El, who, thankfully, had had the presence of mind to replace his mask and cowl.

"We wanted to have a conversation with Jor-El," Adrienne explained, glancing at the woman who'd accompanied the hero. "Preferably, in private," she suggested, pointedly.

"Whatever you want to say to me, can be repeated in front of my… friend… friends." Matt stated, careful not to emphasis the connection to his mother this time.

"I beg your pardon, Jor-El, but I don't think that would be such a good idea," Stephan Janik said, while stepping centre stage into the middle of the room. "What we have to say is of a delicate nature and involves your father…"

"We don't mean to be rude, but we don't know these people," Adrienne added, trying to make amends for Stephan's curt manner. There were times she regretted her partner's lack of people skills.

Jor-El set his hands on his hips and straightened his stance. "But I do know this lady," he said, gesturing with his chin toward his mother. "And I can assure you she is trustworthy."

For a second or two there was complete silence in the room while the two 'opposing' camps reviewed their positions.

"If I can mak a wee suggestion," Mac put in with the hint of a wink to his three companions, hoping to break the stalemate. "Marje and I wuid be happy enough tae leave ye alone, if that wuid help?"

Marje bristled at her husband's suggestion and was about to disagree when Lois spoke up.

"Thank you, but I don't think it would help." Contrarily, Lois found she was unhappy at the thought of the MacDonnells' withdrawal. "You mentioned you were searching for Letour?" As the female doctor nodded, Lois plunged on. "Marje and Mac are his friends. As I think this conversation is all about Letour, and since he is too ill to speak for himself, I believe he'd be happy to be represented by them."

Adrienne and Stephan exchanged questioning glances. It appeared they weren't exactly sure how to proceed.

Marje, on the other hand, had no such doubt and she inched nearer to Lois, forming a united front against the newcomers. "Mrs Kent, Mac and I will stay as long as you want us to."

"Mrs Kent?" Adrienne inquired, her eyes narrowing as she studied the slight, attractive woman who commanded the room. The name sounded familiar to her.

"Yes. I'm Lois Kent. My husband was Clark Kent, the reporter who went missing in North Korea with Superman." Lois watched the reaction of the doctors closely, hoping to gain some clue as to their intentions. She decided a little plain speaking was in order. "But you knew that already, didn't you?"

Adrienne bit at her lip nervously, recalling the old press stories of another missing person, which had finally filtered through to Hyesan's bunker. But there had been only one man who'd been brought to the complex… Superman.

Of course, Hyesan could have ordered this Clark Kent killed on the spot, yet that didn't seem like the General's style. She also remembered how he'd personally questioned Superman on his arrival, but the Man of Steel had resisted every violent interrogation, until Hyesan had lost patience and ordered the surgery carried out forthwith. Once those chips were implanted in Superman's brain, there was no way the hero could ever answer any questions on the source of his power… or his past. One, albeit mammoth, session under Abelev's knife and Superman had been lost… but hopefully not irreversibly.

However, in Adrienne's opinion, if this reporter had been captured, Hyesan would have at least attempted to use the poor man as a hostage to force the Kryptonian to talk. Killing Superman's friend out of hand would seem like a waste of resources to the psychotic General: it just didn't wring true.

Perhaps the man had died accidentally, but she'd talked with Teo a few times after they'd freed Letour and he'd never mentioned this Kent, and Teo had been there when Superman was taken.

Knowing how paranoid the North Koreans were about security, Adrienne doubted that Kent had ever been in Korea, but why would the media lie about such a thing… and why was Mrs Kent here now, sitting with Letour? Jor-El she could understand. After all, he'd already admitted he was Superman's son… Letour's son, but what connection did Lois Kent have to the superhero?

Lois Kent! Adrienne wracked her brain for information. Lois Kent was… Lois Lane! Lois Lane and Clark Kent of the Daily Planet in Metropolis. They were friends of Superman. But hadn't there once been a scandal linking this woman romantically with Superman? The world press had had a field day with the news that the Man of Steel was having an affair with his best friend's wife. Of course, it had shocked the uptight Americans that their hero should be so base, but the French understood passion…

"Dr Ducos? I think Mrs Kent wuid like an answer tae her question," Mac prodded, losing his patience with the long silence. Mrs Kent wasn't the only one who was interested in the answer. "Whit dae ye ken about her man?"

"Pardon?" Adrienne turned, startled by the strange sounding voice so close to her right ear. "I don't understand," she stuttered, playing for time to sort out her jumbled thoughts.

"My husband is asking what you know about Mr Kent's whereabouts?" Marje added, helpfully.

"Leave her alone!" Stephan came at once to his partner's defense. "We know nothing about Mr Kent. There was only Superman brought to the…"

Stephan halted abruptly, realizing he'd just admitted to being involved in the hero's disappearance. But did that really matter? Hadn't he and Adrienne come all this way to try to put matters right? It had been naïve of them to believe they could do that without confessing their part in Superman's imprisonment.

"So you admit you were responsible for my father's disappearance?" Jor-El asked, taking a menacing step forward, his cape billowing behind him with his sudden movement. Though his words sounded ice cold, his eyes glinted eerily red.

Lois glanced sideways, her stomach knotting at the sight of her son. She'd never seen his eyes blaze in quite that way before, nor his jaw set so sternly as it was now. Matt was filled with righteous wrath. These people had stolen his father from him and, clearly, he was tempted to take revenge. Yet, as much as Lois wanted to tear them limb from limb, she couldn't allow her normally gentle son to give in to his baser instincts. That had never been Clark's way… and it couldn't be Matt's.

Besides, these two doctors didn't look threatening. If anything, they seemed guilty and afraid. Lois quickly placed a restraining hand on Matt's arm, wincing internally at the feel of his tightly corded sinews beneath her fingers.

"Jor-El," she said firmly, employing the same tone as she would at home when he'd forgotten to do his chores. "We have to remember that these two doctors came here to talk with you, so I think we should listen to what they have to say before making any rash judgments." Inwardly, Lois didn't feel quite so magnanimous toward these doctors, but she watched with satisfaction as Matt relaxed a mere fraction, before turning back to the strange pair. "But I warn you, don't try anything. Even if you have some way of incapacitating Jor-El, you're still outnumbered."

Adrienne looked astounded. "Mrs Kent, I can assure you we have no way of attacking Jor-El. He saved our lives! We don't want to hurt him, or anyone for that matter. Believe me, our only intention is to find Letour and try to undo the harm we caused him."

"Dr Ducos, since you freely admit to being the source of Letour's problems, you'll understand if we find it difficult to believe you're here to help him." The staunch Marje harrumphed disparagingly, clasping her hands tightly together to stop them from shaking.

"I do understand," Adrienne said anxiously, her pale skin flushing as she rushed on. "And neither of us are pretending we're completely innocent, but we weren't exactly given a choice."

"What Adrienne is trying to say is that we didn't capture Superman. A power hungry Korean General called Hyesan thought up the whole idea." Stephan quickly backed up the woman who'd come to mean so much to him. "He saw an opportunity to kidnap Superman and he took it. He had this crazy notion that he could brainwash Superman into becoming his own personal weapon of mass destruction. Our mistake was that we already worked for this General on his 'retraining' project and he used our expertise to try to bend Superman to his will."

"I suppose I can guess what this 'retraining' project entailed. So, where is this General now?" Lois asked sarcastically, not willing to believe their excuses of coercion.

"He's dead. Killed by his own government," Stephan explained, staring intently at his fingernails and resisting the unseemly desire to start chewing them. "They weren't too happy with him when his grand plan for Superman failed…"

"Failed?" Jor-El interrupted. "How did it fail?"

"It didn't fail completely." Stephan raised his head, perversely proud of that dastardly achievement. Even now he was reluctant to admit that his chemical calculations had been completely wrong. "But even when Superman had completely forgotten who he was, the guy was a hero. No matter what we tried, he refused to accept any order that would cause harm. A weapon's not much good if it won't kill or maim."

Lois' voice was filled with dread as she asked the ultimate question. "What happened to him then?"

"Superman, you mean?" Adrienne spoke softly. "The General ordered him killed and his body disposed off…"

Lois drew in her breath sharply and Jor-El caught her as her legs gave way. She knew that statement was untrue; she'd seen the proof with her own eyes, but what dreadful things had happened to Clark in the intervening years? A scraping noise sounded behind her as Marje dragged a large chair across the floor. Lois allowed Matt to lower her onto the cushions, but her hand still clenched her son's.

"But we couldn't let that happen," Adrienne hurried on with her explanation. Seeing Mrs Kent's reaction, she was now fairly certain that the conclusions she'd arrived at were correct. "We saved him. We set him free. Stephan and I, with the help of one of the guards, smuggled Superman out of the bunker, took him to the border with China and told him to run and never look back."

"Letour! Ye told him he wis called Letour, and ye abandoned the laddie tae fend fer himsel' in a strange land, even knowin' he wis sick? Whit kind of people are ye?" Mac asked incredulously, his hand ruffling the sparse hair on his crown.

"It wasn't the best of plans," Stephan admitted, his gaze back to studying his nails. Yet if he and Adrienne had done anything to be proud of, it was helping Letour escape. Once more he raised his head and stared at the others with some defiance. "But we did what we could, and even then we risked everything. Hyesan would have killed any one of us without a flicker of an eye for disobeying him… or even if he just felt like it. The man was a psychotic killer. He gave us an order to get rid of Superman. We had no time to reverse the mind-altering process, so we did the only thing we could. We gave Superman a new identity and tried to make sure he'd never fall into the General's hands again."

"If this General was as insane and evil as you say, why did he never come looking for Superman… and why are both of you still alive?" Lois might be in shock, but her investigator's brain was still active.

"Because we convinced Hyesan that we'd carried out his orders. Till the day he was assassinated, he believed the Man Of Steel was dead," Stephan announced with some satisfaction.

"Wuid the wee matter o' a missin' finger have onything tae dae with yer persuading this General?"

A light had switched on inside Mac's head and he'd blurted out the question before giving it proper thought, but at the sight of the stricken look on poor Mrs Kent's face, he regretted it immediately.

"It was the only idea I could come up with at the time. Since we didn't have a body, I believed a finger was a small price to pay for his life." Stephan shrugged pragmatically.

Lois gaped at the male doctor, deciding she despised him. The implications of what she'd just heard made her sick to her stomach. Clark's hands! His beautiful, gentle hands. Mutilated! Maybe she shouldn't have restrained Matt when he'd been tempted to use his superpowers.

Matt! She looked quickly up at her son, who was staring threateningly at the doctors again. Good! This time she wouldn't hold him back, but thankfully a less emotional mind prevailed.

Marje placed a warning hand on Lois' shoulder as she spoke up. "That explains why Letour is here in China, but why are you here? Surely you haven't been searching for him to do him more harm?"

"No, definitely not!" For the first time, Adrienne's voice was filled with genuine conviction. "We've been seeking Letour since Hyesan died and we were allowed to leave North Korea. We want to right the wrong that was done to Superman."

"Are ye telling us ye can reverse what ye did tae Superman?"

Distractedly, Lois watched Mac's eyebrows rise toward his non-existent hairline as he asked his question with a great deal of incredulity. The world around her slowed, while she waited to discover whether her husband could be cured… But, in her heart, at this moment, she couldn't bring herself to care overmuch. No matter what happened to Clark in the future, they would be together. She would take him home and together they could rebuild their lives… rediscover their love. Nothing else really mattered.

But Jor-El couldn't contain his boyish exuberance. "You can make my father well?"

Once again Adrienne and Stephan exchanged uneasy glances until, eventually, Stephan clarified the prognosis. "I assisted with the surgery carried out on Superman and Adrienne was in charge of the drug treatments he underwent. We believe that with our help some of the results can be undone. But, since all the procedures were ground-breaking science, there is no way we can guarantee a total cure."

"Ground breaking science-fiction, if you ask me!" Marje gave her opinion scathingly. "Seems to me you tested your madcap theories on an innocent victim."

"Aye, lass, ye're right! And ye ca' yersels doctors? We should hae ye struck off and hauled afore the Court of Human Rights." Mac pointed an accusatory finger at both doctors, who wilted under the judgmental stares of Superman's friends.

"We admit we've done wrong, and we expect to have to pay for our crimes." Adrienne resisted the temptation to defend the indefensible. That wasn't the reason for their quest. "But please allow us to try to help Superman first. We can't be sure how much we can reverse his condition, but we are his only hope…"

"Are you?" Lois demanded, standing tall to confront the people who had treated Clark so atrociously, her eyes sparking fire. The MacDonnells' condemnation had finally roused her from her almost trance-like state. "As far as I'm aware, Superman had his own highly qualified physician."

"I beg your pardon, Mrs Kent, but I doubt any other physician would have the knowledge to treat Superman in this case," Adrienne stated reasonably.

Lois, however, was not prepared to listen to reason. "And you can't expect us to just place Superman back into the hands of the very doctors who injured him. How can we trust you?"

"You can!" The somewhat shaky voice came from the back of the room and every glance turned toward the sound. Letour stood in the doorway, gripping the wooden frame to hold himself erect. The noise of raised voices had awakened him and his curiosity had forced him from his bed to investigate. "Dr Ducos and Dr Janik, it's good to see you both again. I've often wondered if you were safe."

At the sight of Clark, Lois stood transfixed, but she quickly got herself under control. There was too much at stake here for her to fall apart. "Do you know these people, Letour?" she asked gently, remembering only at the last moment not to call him Clark. Oh, how she wished she could run to him and take him into her arms, but it was obvious that he was still very fragile and the last thing she wanted to do was cause him to collapse again. Neither did she want to betray his secret identity to these Frankenstein-like doctors; she'd already accepted the MacDonnell's were in on the act.

"Yes, of course." Letour gave a tremulous smile as he answered, completely unaware that he was breaking his wife's heart twice over.

Lois felt like weeping at the sight of his dear, sweet smile. But how could he recognize these awful people who had brought him nothing but pain and suffering and not remember the woman who'd shared his love, borne his children and whom he'd called his soulmate?

"These are the doctors who rescued me and saved my life," Clark elucidated patiently. He didn't quite understand why, but he felt it important that these people should get along. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them. You wanted to know if you could trust them… well you can… Lois."


Chapter Fifteen: My Prayer, and the Answer You Give

Letour was taken aback by the strangled gasp that came from the woman called Lois, not realizing that her reaction was only audible to one other person in the room. She intrigued him, and he felt an overwhelming desire to talk with her, only the insidious mists were returning to cloud his brain, while the lethargy that always followed his migraines was draining his will to stay upright. He staggered toward her on legs that felt more like rubber than muscle and bone and was grateful to the young man in the clingy black suit who hurried to lend him his arm.

For a few seconds his focus was redirected to the man at his side. Letour felt he should know this person. Hadn't they spent many hours together, working to save those who'd been buried beneath the mud?

Yes, it was coming back to him. The terrible disaster of yesterday and the brave rescue efforts which had followed, spear-headed by this caring youngster. This was Jor-El, the Kryptonian superhero… the son of Superman.

But Letour knew something else had happened later… something important, when he'd finished his shower. This son of Superman had called him dad! But that was impossible. He was Letour and he had no family… and yet, how would he know? Though, even without his memory, he was certain of one thing, he was no super man.

"You called me Lois!"

The lovely woman was talking again and she sounded almost as confused as he felt. "I just felt that might be your name… Isn't it?" he asked.

"Yes!" Lois nodded her head, her smile encouraging, yet she was almost afraid to ask her question. "Do you know who I am?"

Letour returned his concentration back to Lois. He had to admit he liked what he saw. She really was a beautiful woman, and she had this glow about her that seemed to speak to his heart… but he wasn't sure he'd met her before. That thought saddened him. Slowly he shook his head, which was a mistake as the coils of pain snaked up his neck and tightened round the pathways of his brain.

"I might have seen you before… but I'm sorry, I have amnesia, you see," he added quickly, hoping to wipe away the disappointment that shadowed her eyes. He had no idea why it should be so, but her sorrow upset him. "But I did know your name…" For a fleeting moment he was certain of his facts, then his voice failed as he struggled to fight off the resumption of his headache.

"Dad, what's wrong?" Jor-El tightened his grip on his father's arm as he watched him grimace in pain. His dad was sick again, just as he had been in the bathroom earlier.

"I'm sorry," Letour repeated again, allowing himself to be helped to the chair next to where his Lois was standing… His Lois! With that thought came such joy, but rushing behind his elation came needles of steel that stabbed at his eyes and scraped along his every nerve ending. How could she be his Lois when he didn't know her… except in dreams? The pain intensified until he could no longer keep silent. He doubled over and his groan sounded like a thunder clap assaulting his eardrums.

"Oh, my god," Lois ground out, leaning over him, stroking his brow where beads of sweat collected and ran down his face. "What is happening to him? Tell me!"

"It's another of his attacks," Marje answered, anxiety sharpening her lilting voice. "But it's worse than normal. Mac, get a glass of water and painkillers… and a bowl. He'll probably be sick," she explained, looking directly into Lois' eyes, her expression filled with sympathy.

"Please, let me?" Adrienne asked, from close behind the little group huddled round the chair. "I can help him."

"Haven't you done enough?" Lois threw the scathing words back over her shoulder, not even deigning to glance at the woman.

"Probably. But I know what's happening. He's been conditioned to feel pain when he tries to remember," Adrienne said urgently. "This is why this attack is stronger than before. He's being physically confronted by his past and his mind is trained to reject the images."

"Are you suggesting his pain is psychosomatic?" This time Lois did stare at Dr Ducos, the desire to knock the physician clear across the room for what she had done to Clark warring with the need to bring him relief.

"Not completely. There are certain physical causes for his headaches, but I believe I can lower the pain to manageable levels, but you have to let me act quickly. I'm not sure how much longer his body can withstand such trauma."

Lois felt rent in two. Giving control of Clark over to this female went against every instinct she had; she just didn't trust either of these doctors, yet it was clear from Clark's huddled form that he needed medical aid… and he needed it fast.

"Mom?" That one uncertain word from Matt told Lois he felt as torn as she. Yet, preoccupied by her concern for Clark, she didn't notice enlightenment dawn slowly on the doctor's face.

"Lois, lassie, I think ye have nae choice." She felt a hand touch her back and lifted her eyes to meet the concerned gaze of Mac.


Another pain-wracked moan from Clark prompted her decision. She rose and yielded her position to Dr Ducos. "Do what you can… but I promise you, if you hurt him again I will see you rot in some prison somewhere for the rest of your life."

Adrienne nodded. "Thank you," she said briefly, trying to sound reassuring, then she was passing orders to her colleague. "Stephan, I need a sedative. See what's in that medical bag we got from the rescue centre. Liquid diazepam will do if there's nothing else."

Stephan hurriedly began his search, while Adrienne squatted down in front of her patient, gently taking his head within her hands. "Letour, can you hear me?"

Clark made no sign of recognition, having retreated far inside himself. His eyes were shut tight, yet anguish and terror were evident in every plane of his face and in the rigid contours of his body.

Adrienne tried once more, knowing her words would shock those listening and yet aware she had no other choice but to regress to the days of his conditioning. She pitched her voice loud enough to reach her subject through his pain. "Specimen, can you hear my voice?"

There was a barely perceptible change in the man in the chair.

"Listen to my voice, Specimen, and open your eyes."

In the room, only Stephan moved, having carried out Adrienne's request. The others were frozen in horrified amazement. Again Lois had been tempted to floor Adrienne at the name Specimen, and she'd been grateful for Mac's hand poised on her shoulder reassuringly. Thankfully, Marge seemed to be fulfilling the same role as mentor to Matt.

Agonizingly slowly, Clark's eyelids lifted and he stared directly into Adrienne's face, clearly unaware of anything or anyone else around him.

"I know you are in great pain, Specimen." Adrienne kept her voice level and friendly, as if she were chatting with a colleague during a coffee break. "Soon the pain will lessen, but first, I want you to remember that your name isn't Specimen… it's Letour."

This time Lois protested audibly. "Hey, wait a minute…" But she halted as Adrienne raised her hand for silence.

"Mrs Kent, stop," Stephan cautioned quietly, though not unkindly. "Specimen was merely a trigger to gain his attention. Superman was brainwashed over a long period of time and we have to use caution. We can't overload his system with too much information. Adrienne does know what she's doing, and she was the one who gave him his identity as Letour, after the treatment. He will recognize that."

And it seemed that Stephan spoke truly as Clark answered, his voice devoid of all emotion. "Letour. I understand."

"Good, that's good, Letour," Adrienne continued. She turned slightly to accept the hypodermic from Stephan. "I'm going to inject you with something that will relax you and take away some of your pain. Don't be afraid."

Clark didn't move as the needle pierced his skin, yet Lois flinched. Witnessing the fact that he was now completely vulnerable hurt more than she'd ever thought possible.

"Letour, I want you to pay attention to my voice… only my voice," Adrienne instructed, swabbing down the injection puncture and covering it with a dressing.

Jeez! Lois thought, did all these psycho-babble freaks use the same methods. She just prayed that Adrienne Ducos had Clark's best interest at heart, and was not so self-serving as Maxwell Dieter.

"Letour, the pain you feel is easing; your illness is manageable. Breathe deeply and be calm. Let go of the headaches. They are not totally real. They are brought on when you try to delve into your past life. Your illnesses were induced to stop you from remembering the things General Hyesan wanted you to forget."

Clark nodded.

"Do you remember the General?"

"Yes. I didn't like him."

There was no inflection in Clark's tone and yet Lois felt like applauding. She was fairly sure that not liking the murderous General would have been an understatement on her part.

"General Hyesan was a wicked man, Letour, and he hurt you very badly. Neither Dr Janik nor I can fix what he did to you here and now, but we'd like to try someday. Would you be agreeable to that, Letour?"

"If you think it best."

Lois was screaming inside. She so dearly wanted to push Ducos aside and comfort Clark for the terrible things that had been done to him by order of this General, but unfortunately, she was way out of her depth. She had no choice but to rely on these doctors, at least, until such time she could return Clark to Metropolis and Dr Klein's care.

"However, in the meantime, Letour," Adrienne went on steadily, "you will be able to control the fear and pain you experience when you believe you have knowledge of someone from your past, way before your days spent in the bunker."

"But I can't remember my life before the bunker," Clark stated plaintively.

"And yet you feel you should?" Adrienne asked.

"I feel I want to. I think I have dreams." A tiny note of longing had crept into Clark's voice and his eyes seemed more focused. Thankfully, for all concerned he no longer appeared like a robot.

"Yes, I believe you do. You had them in the bunker, too. It infuriated Hyesan. I think he felt I wasn't doing my job to the fullest of my ability, and perhaps he was right." Adrienne allowed a less professional note to creep into the conversation, hoping to form a rapport with her patient and also to persuade Mrs Kent to believe in her. "My heart was never really in taking away your hopes and aspirations. Besides, you hung onto them with all your considerable strength, even though you paid a high price for your tenacity. But that was in the past and now, I want you to listen to me again. I don't want you to shut out these dreams anymore. Embrace them and trust that they will lead you in the right direction."

"What about the pain, Dr Ducos?" Clark's attention was definitely caught. "Will it disappear?"

"I'm afraid I can't make it go for good or completely because there is a physical cause too… but you can learn to control it instead of the other way round. And I can arrange for pain medication. It's all I can do at this time, but I'm hoping with your friends and family to support you, your life will improve."

"Family?" Clark's whispered word was full of wonder.

"Perhaps," Adrienne agreed kindly.

Clark nodded again, a small almost imperceptible motion, but his eyes now reflected understanding and his own quick intelligence. Though it was obvious to the onlookers that he was still trying desperately to conquer the pain.

"Good, Letour," Adrienne said warmly as she patted his arm before rising. "Try to relax. The drug should kick in soon to help you. Close your eyes and rest."

"No, I've been resting enough." His voice was frail, yet there was a doggedness in his manner that couldn't be ignored. "I have too many questions and no time to wait for answers."

The note of desperation in Clark's latter statement sliced into Lois' soul. She could see how close his health was to breaking down and as always when he was in trouble, she strove to save him. Crouching down beside him again, Lois said as lightly as she could. "Letour, perhaps you should listen to Dr Ducos' advice. You do look tired, and neither Jor-El nor I are going anywhere." From the depths of her soul she dredged up a shining smile to give to him. "You can ask your questions later and we'll answer all that we can."

"And you won't disappear again?" He watched her face, his breath catching in his throat as he waited for her answer. The very thought of losing this woman before he had a chance to get to know her was as distressing as the migraine.

"Never," she said softly. Clark's anguished question almost destroyed Lois' composure, yet she needed to be strong for his dear sake. Taking his large hands within her smaller ones, she smoothed her fingers over his roughened skin. They were the hands of someone who toiled outdoors and she smiled whimsically, reflecting that Clark had unknowingly returned to his Kansas roots.

Suddenly, her touch alighted on his ugly stump, and Clark instinctively tried to recoil. These days, he was seldom conscious of his disfigurement, but the thought that Lois would perhaps be repulsed by his missing finger made him cringe.

But his fear was unfounded. Lois gave him a tender glance, but refused to release his hand. She gently explored the skin which stretched over the remaining bone. "Does it hurt much?" Her expression showed no revulsion, only a sympathetic concern.

"No. Not anymore." He returned her gaze and her smile. "I've had time to get used to it, but I know it doesn't look too good."

A charming blush stained his skin and Lois was transported back in time. Although Clark had never been exactly vain, he had liked to look good. He'd always dressed well, and even those outrageous ties had somehow managed to blend in with whatever he was wearing.

"Jor-El told me how you pulled people from the mudslide during the rescue mission. Your hands saved lives, so they are strong and beautiful," she reassured him, her fingers continuing to move lightly over his skin. "And you shouldn't give this another thought."

Her glance strayed over Clark's head to Janik, who had admitted to removing the finger and she was pleased to see him blanch. These doctors might be essential to Clark's recovery, but there was no way she had to approve of them. Though Ducos might have brought Clark some relief, she wasn't about to forgive or forget that they were the cause of his illness in the first place. But she did need to speak with them. She wanted to know everything Clark had gone through, and just what they meant when they said they could reverse the situation.

However, Lois doubted Clark was ready to hear a blow-by-blow account of his torture. His eyes were closed, his lashes brushing his heavily shadowed cheek bones, but his breathing sounded easier and his hands lay loosely in hers. There was little doubt in her mind that his pain had lessened. Perhaps now would be a good time for that all important discussion with the doctors, but she'd already promised Clark she would stay with him.

"Letour," she whispered, and felt her heart lighten when his eyes opened immediately at the sound of her voice. "I have to go talk to those… to your doctors, but I didn't want to disturb you or leave without letting you know."

Panic flared in his eyes. "You said you wouldn't go!"

"And I won't. I'm only going outside for a bit." A mixture of sensations surged through Lois' veins; excitement that her leaving would trouble him so, yet dismay that his nerves appeared to be stretched tight as a drum. "Would you like Jor-El to stay with you?" Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her son start to protest and she gave a tiny shake of her head to warn him to be quiet. "Even if you doubt my word, Letour, I can't leave here without Jor-El. I came by superhero airlines and it's a return flight."

"I would never doubt your word, Lois," Letour said quickly, settling into the large winged chair, more at ease than he had been in such a long time. "I'd come with you, if your conversation isn't private, of course, but I'm not sure I want to move from this comfy chair, or even if I could."

"Fine, because you don't have to." Lois gave his hand a tiny squeeze, afraid to try anything more demonstrative for the present. "Try to sleep for a bit and when you feel better, you and I can have a nice long chat."

The corners of his eyes crinkled in a laugh. "I've spent most of the time you've been here sleeping, but I would like to get to know you better."

"I promise, you will. In fact, count on seeing a lot of me in the future."

"Will you help me?" Letour asked, his eyebrows lifting wearily. Though not totally sure what Lois could do for him, he was willing to place his trust in her.


It was the answer he hadn't known he was seeking. The answer to his prayer that he was no longer alone. His eyes closed and he slept, content at last.


Chapter Sixteen: The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men, and Women, Gang Aft Aglae

Darkness hid the scarred landscape from view as Lois led the doctors and the MacDonnells out onto the porch. At her request, Marje and Mac had accompanied her, leaving Matt to watch over his father. This night had been full of traumatic surprises for Lois, and she would have liked to keep Matt by her side, but right at this moment Clark's need was greater than hers. Besides, she knew Matt wasn't above using his superpowers to keep an eye on what was happening outside. Superman might have often disapproved of eavesdropping, but Matt was her son too!

Meanwhile, she was certain the Scottish couple would be very willing to supply any backup she required. There were important decisions to be made, but first she needed more information. Taking the bull by the horns, she folded her arms and swung round on the two doctors. "So, let me get this straight," she plunged ahead with her interrogation. "Superman was abducted by General Hyesan — who is now conveniently dead — imprisoned, operated on and forced to undergo some weird form of conditioning in order to turn him into a one man army?"

"That's an abbreviated version of the facts, but mostly true," Stephan admitted glumly.

"OK. I also know that for all that to happen Superman had to be vulnerable. So, what did they use?" Lois asked bluntly, reluctant to offer any clues. She had to find out if Clark had been incapacitated in the usual way or if there was another fiendish weapon out there which could be used in the future against her son.

"It was kryptonite." Again it was Stephan who spoke up. "They delivered it in the form of a gas, pretty much using the same technology as some rogue American Colonel did during the New Kryptonian invasion."

"I'm surprised the Koreans even knew about that," Lois huffed, leaning back against the rail of the porch. It had been a very long night and she was beginning to feel heartsick and weary. "And how did they get their hands on kryptonite?"

"The black market," Adrienne almost whispered. "You can get anything you want if you have enough money and the right contacts. Hyesan had both."

"But whit wuid the Koreans want kryptonite for?" Mac's gruff burr sounded doubtful. "Superman wisn'ae a threat tae them."

"No? Think about it," Stephan said. "North Korea was considered to be part of the 'Axis of Evil', as Western governments termed it."

"But Superman didn't work for any government. He tried to stay clear of politics!" Lois exclaimed.

Stephan shrugged his narrow shoulders. "Superman chose to make his home in Metropolis; the KWP saw that as a declaration of his intent to support the West against the Communist Block. Simply put, he became their enemy and they were afraid of his power."

"That's crap! Superman stood for truth and justice. He believed in life and would never have killed anyone. He came to Korea without a qualm to help rescue people from the devastation caused by the earthquake,"Lois cried out, pushing herself off the wooden balustrade to confront Janik.

Stephan recoiled, but he tried to explain patiently. "I didn't say I agreed with them, but the National Defense Commission believed he'd come to spy for a future invasion force. They're a paranoid lot who believe the American government and its allies want to destroy their regime, and Hyesan was the most maniacal of the bunch. He was a megalomaniac who thought he could take over power in Korea and hold the rest of the world to ransom if he could enslave Superman. The superhero was doomed the minute he flew into Hyesan's range."

"You make it sound like Hyesan was stalking Superman," Lois said dismissively.

"I don't think that's such a far-out idea, Mrs Kent," Adrienne offered her point of view, but kept her head bowed as if she was too ashamed to look directly into Lois' eyes. "He certainly saw the earthquake as a sign that fate was on his side…"

"And he managed to put his plans for Superman into action almost immediately, even before his superiors knew what he was really up to," Stephan added. "Mind you, they didn't object to putting Superman out of action, and if Hyesan had managed to recruit him into the North Korean military, the General would have been rewarded. As it was, his plot against Superman backfired and brought about his downfall." Stephan shoulders drooped tiredly and he rubbed his hand across his eyes. "But all that is ancient history, Mrs Kent. Wouldn't you prefer to know what we can do for Superman in the future?"

"After what I've just heard, what makes you think I'd let you do anything more for Superman?"

Stephan's gaze locked with Lois'. He looked surprised at the barely hidden venom beneath her words. "I didn't realize that would be up to you, Mrs Kent. I know you were a close friend of Superman, but shouldn't he be the one to decide what happens next?"

"Stephan!" In the cover of the shadowed stoop, Adrienne gave him a warning nudge. "I think it's reasonable that Mrs Kent should be concerned for her… friend. After all, we did work for Hyesan…"

"But Letour has vouched for us. We saved his life and helped him escape. Whether she approves or not, if she wants her friend back then she has to put her suspicions aside. You and I are the only people who can return Superman to some form of normality."

Stephan sounded truculent, but Lois wasn't paying him too much attention. She'd heard the pointed hesitation in the female doctor's words. Did the woman suspect the nature of her relationship with Superman? Lois felt she was walking through a minefield.

"What exactly is it that you can do for Superman?" Marje asked, venturing a question of her own. Though she understood Lois' reluctance to place any faith in these people, she felt there was little to be gained in hashing over the past.

Adrienne looked grateful for Marje's input and found the courage to explain how they planned to treat Letour. "As I said before, I can help him cope with his pain while he rediscovers his past…"

"You can't undo the brainwashing?" Lois demanded and regretted her harsh tone when she saw Dr Ducos quail. Not that she had much sympathy for the woman, but she did realize that Marje was trying to build bridges for Letour's sake. With an effort, Lois softened her voice. "If that's possible?"

"It's highly probable that process has already begun." Since this was Adrienne's field of expertise, her tone became more confident. "Now that your h… now that Superman is aware of the programming he will very likely fight it himself."

Lois' mobile eyebrows arched. There it was again; Adrienne's almost mistake, yet Lois forced herself to ignore it for now. "He can do that?"

"It won't be easy for him, but Superman has a very strong will. Our methods might have controlled his conscious mind, but we could never influence his dreams… or his principles."

"So, that would be why I heard him speak Lois' name while he was dreaming?" Marje mused, somewhat intrigued, in spite of being horrified by the whole scenario.

"Yes." Adrienne warmed to her subject. "I'm sure he often dreamed about the life he had prior to his kidnapping, but I doubt he had any recall when he awoke."

"No, he didn't," Marje admitted. "And if I asked him about the dreams, he'd get sick."

"The conditioning at work," Adrienne said with a knowing nod of her head. "But that ought to improve in the future. It will take time, though. Superman is going to need a lot of support in the months ahead."

"Months?" Lois' voice rose in shocked disbelief. "But you said that now he knew about the problem he'd be able to deal with it." She realized she'd become so used to Superman's rapid powers of recovery that she'd expected to have Clark back in next to no time. A surge of disappointment threatened to overcome her.

"Unfortunately, the problem isn't only the brainwashing," Stephan volunteered. "We mentioned the surgery, but we didn't go into detail. Superman has kryptonite-coated chips implanted in his brain."

Again Stephan became the focus of attention.

"Whit are ye sayin', man?" Mac came at Janik, his hands balling into fists. He couldn't remember a time when he'd felt quite this angry.

Lois forgot to breathe. The world began to fade around her, but Marje was by her side. "Courage, Lois!" Marje whispered. "He needs you to be strong."

That was all the encouragement Lois needed and her spine stiffened. "Would you like to expand on that statement, Dr Janik?" She was surprised by how polite and reasonable she sounded when inside she was raging.

"I'll do what I can. There are two chips affecting the limbic system near the temporal lobe…" Stephan tapped his own head, deciding to drop the medical terminology. "The theory was that the chips in conjunction with the conditioning could block his memory and change his personality… his sense of identity."

Swallowing the bile that threatened to choke her, Lois put aside her feeling of dread and asked only one question. "Can they be removed?"

"Yes! That's the reason we've been looking for Letour," Adrienne answered eagerly. "It's a difficult procedure, but Stephan is confident he can do it, and I have every faith in his ability."

"But you can hardly expect me to share your faith," Lois declared with feeling, her foot tapping angrily on the wooden decking. "Somehow I doubt either of you ended up working in North Korea because you had exemplary records."

"You're correct, Mrs Kent." Adrienne had the grace to blush again. "We both have made mistakes in our time, but neither of us are killers, nor are we incompetent. In fact, since Stephan assisted at the implantation of these chips, he's probably more qualified than anyone else to remove them."

"Assisted? What happened to the other surgeon?" Lois jumped on that point, though she wasn't really interested. However, if she was to agree, she would prefer the head honcho.

"Let's just say that Abelev isn't available and even if he was, he's a weasel." The disgust in Adrienne's voice was evident. "He actually enjoyed working for Hyesan. Mrs Kent, Stephan is your best chance. I believe…"

Lois' hand cut through the air, silencing Dr Ducos. "Don't! It's obvious you are naturally biased toward your partner. But I need to think about this."

Turning her back on the group, Lois walked along the wooden porch till she reached the corner of the house. Her hands clasped the rail tightly while her eyes stared unseeingly out into the night. For some moments, she prayed for a simpler life where she wouldn't have to make such crucial choices alone… But Lois never shirked her responsibilities and Clark needed her to be strong.

Bizarrely, she did believe what Ducos and Janik had told her. After all, if they were the bad guys they would hardly have spent their time searching for Clark. That still didn't mean she'd agree to them carrying out any further surgery on him, not without supervision and not in China. If they were serious in their intention to help Clark, then they could come to Metropolis and work with Bernard Klein.

The decision was made, the details could be sorted out later. Lois strode back to the group. With her natural vitality bubbling up inside her, she was anxious to get this show on the road.

"Right, people, this is what we're going to do…"


Regrettably, Lois' plans hit a roadblock the moment she reentered the MacDonnells' house. She was glad to see Clark dozing peacefully in his chair, but the the look Matt sent her was as bleak as the darkest storm clouds. Obviously, her son had been listening in to the conversation on the porch, and just as clearly, he wasn't amused by what he'd heard. Neither was he prepared to keep his opinion to himself.

"You can't seriously be going to allow Dr Frankenstein and his partner to mess with Dad's brain again?" Matt's words were harsh but, thankfully, he kept his voice low. Though his control made him appear more judgmental.

"Matt, I have no choice!" The two doctors had gone to rest in the centre's small bunkhouse where overseas volunteers normally slept, allowing Lois to answer openly. Yet, she surmised, even that fact was probably a case of closing the stable door after the horse had bolted! At least, in Dr Ducos' case; the jury was still out as far as her partner was concerned.

"But they hurt Dad!" Matt's tone rose an octave and he pulled his cowl from his head one more time, revealing the expression of a worried, sullen teenager. "How do you know they won't do the same again?"

"I think that's unlikely," Lois walked quickly to his side and drew him away from his post by his father, toward the wood-burning stove. Her weariness sapped at her energy, allowing the colder night air to leech into her bones. "I doubt they'd have freed your father only to spend so much time searching for him later…"

"Aye, Jor, laddie, if they'd meant him ony real harm, they'd never hae let him go." Mac backed up Lois' opinion with his own brand of Scottish pragmatism as he followed mother and son toward the radiating warmth.

"But maybe they wanted to steal him from that General so they could control him themselves," Matt suggested, hunching his shoulders defensively, while his hands seemed to dig into non-existent pockets. To him the situation was cut and dried. He hadn't yet learned that most people's characters were neither black nor white, but mostly shades of gray.

"That disn'ae mak sense. They could hae escaped intae China at the same time as yer faether to carry on their devilish plans." Mac lowered himself into his easy chair by the fire, shimmying his hips into the cushions. With a satisfied sigh, he gestured to Lois to take the opposite seat… just where her husband had sat the night before to enjoy a game of chess. God! That seemed like a whole lifetime ago. "Sit yerself doon, Lois, afore ye drop, and, Matt, be a guid laddie and fetch more seats fer Marje and yersel'. I dinn'ae know about anyone else, but I'm fair weary. These past twenty-four hours hae been a wee bit hectic."

"Tell me about it," Lois said, feelingly, as she began to shiver. "Is it just me, or is it getting more chilly?" At once, her gaze strayed to Clark, concern furrowing her brow. "Do you think we could find a blanket for… Clark?"

"Och, aye. At this time of year, the damp gets intae yer bones. It plays havoc wi' ma lumbago." Mac pointed at the chair he'd indicated a few moments before. "Ye'll find a tartan rug ower the back o' that chair. Ye can use that."

Lois nodded, and within seconds was laying the cover gently over Clark's lap. When she was satisfied it would keep him warm, she took up Mac's offer of a seat, and smiled as her son also did as the Scotsman instructed. "Mac, I see we've both done with pretending."

Mac gave his guest a twinkling grin and a wink. "Well, ye're a very sensible woman and ye know friends dinn'ae play games with ane another."

Momentarily, Lois let her eyelids droop as she reviewed the situation with the MacDonnells. When she opened her eyes again, they showed acceptance and a fair amount of relief. "You're right, Mac," she conceded. "I'm truly grateful for your support tonight… and I'd like to thank you and Marje for all you've done to keep Clark safe and happy. Goodness knows what might have happened to him in these last years, if it hadn't been for you taking care of him." A shudder coursed through her body when she thought of Clark wandering this vast countryside sick and alone.

"No need to thank us," Marje stated matter-of-factly. "It was our pleasure to help him. That husband of yours is a very likeable man, Lois." She sat down in the rocking chair which Matt had brought her at superspeed, shaking her head in amusement that he'd managed to find the old rocker in one of the storerooms. "And thanks for this, Matt. I'd almost forgotten I'd stored it away."

Suddenly, remembering his manners, Matt's cheeks turned bright red. "I'm sorry. Perhaps I was wrong to go looking through your stuff. But there were only the hard dining chairs left, and you look really whacked… not that you look bad or… anything." Matt stuttered to a stop.

"I'd quit while ye're ahead, Matt," Mac said, grinning. "I'm sure we a' look a bit worse for wear."

At that thought, Marje stood up again. "Perhaps we could all do with a cup of coffee. I don't know about anyone else, but I could do with the caffeine fix!"

"Mrs MacDonnell, I'll do it."

"You're a guest, Matt. I can manage…" Marje's words ended on another laugh as she realized she was talking to the empty air. Matt was already in the kitchen. "Matt, you'll find a jar of instant coffee in the larder. It's the door to the left of the sink… but the narrow door. The other one leads to outside." Marje shouted her instructions, then laughed more loudly as the young man appeared before her with four mugs of coffee, cream and sugar on a tray. "My, you must save your mother a lot of hard work."

"I wouldn't know about that, Marje. You should see his room!"

"Ah, so even superheroes forget to keep their rooms tidy?" Marje said, adding a little cream to her coffee and taking a tiny exploratory sip. "But you do serve up a nice cup of coffee."

Matt finished handing out the coffees. "Mom, I think we've more important things to talk about than the state of my bedroom." His lower lip pouted and he sighed in annoyance.

"Aw, laddie, just ignore them," Mac recommended sympathetically, though barely managing to hide a grin. "Women can hold half-a-dozen conversations aw' at the same time. Sit doon and they'll soon be back on track."

"Forgive me, Matt," Marje smiled. She couldn't remember when she and Mac had experienced such an amazing night, and following as it did on the horrors of yesterday, she could appreciate how Alice in Wonderland must have felt when she disappeared down that rabbit hole. "It's just pretty overwhelming to discover that Superman has been living with us… and to see how his family deals with normal life. And, just in case you both need reminding," Marje's glance passed from Matt to Lois, "your secret is safe with us."

"I think we'd already worked that out, Marje." Lois finally let the tension ease from her body, but she still had some major concerns. What if Matt was right about Ducos and Janik? Taking a deep breath, she decided to give Clark's new friends a chance to offer their impressions. "And, since you've been looking out for Clark all this time, do you think he's healthy enough to stand a trip home, and should we trust the doctors?"

Mac and Marje exchanged speculative glances, then Marje spoke up. "We've always believed he should go home. Even when we didn't know who he was, we advised him to contact the US Embassy, but because of the attacks we didn't have the heart to push him too much."

Mac was nodding at his wife's words. "Aye, that's true. If we'd known wha he really was, we'd hae done more, but…"

"You couldn't know," Lois said quickly, not wanting this kind couple to feel guilty. Boy, she'd certainly changed her attitude. Just a short time in Clark's company and she was already mellowing.

"And we cann'ae change the past," Mac said sadly. "More's the pity."

There was a moment of commiserating silence as all four reflected on that sad fact.

Marje took a larger sip of her coffee, and grimaced a little at its temperature. There hadn't been time for the kettle to boil, so Matt must have used his heat vision. Life with the Kents must be seriously bizarre… and yet, for the sake of the family, she focused her mind on the present problem. "I think it's high time for Clark to stop hiding away in the back of beyond and go home. As for the doctors, I'm not sure what to think. I'd say they were telling the truth, but I only met them for a short time while they helped with the injured, before they were whisked off by the government's rescuers. They did seem genuinely concerned by the tragedy, though. Matt, you met them first. What did you think?"

Matt's gaze snapped up from the contemplation of the liquid in his mug. He looked a little surprised that someone was seeking his opinion. He was used to that in his superhero guise, but Mrs Macdonnell had called him Matt… and when did he start thinking of himself as two different people?

"Matt?" Lois smiled reassuringly at her son, silently thanking Marje for her diplomacy.

Clearing his throat, Matt began hesitantly, trying hard to be objective. Mom and the others were waiting for his point of view and they didn't want to hear an outburst from a hurt and bitter kid. "They seemed OK, and they were really grateful that I'd pulled them out of that sinkhole. Actually, I thought they were nice," he admitted, a little grudgingly. "He was kinda funny… reminded me a bit of Uncle Bernie, only I couldn't laugh because I was in the suit. They told me they wanted to help treat the injured, so I guess I thought they were good people… but that was before I knew what they'd done to Dad." No matter how hard he tried to be open-minded, Matt found it hard to get past that fact. "And I don't know how you can forget that, Mom!"

"I haven't forgotten, Matt!" Lois hissed, laying her mug carefully on a side table when her instinct was to throw it across the room. Yet, such an outburst wouldn't really help the situation, though it might make her feel better. She hadn't mellowed that much, but this wasn't her house and this wasn't her crockery… "Believe me, I know exactly where you're coming from, but the fact remains that they are probably the only people who can give Dad back to us. He's the important one here, Matt, no matter that I'd like to see these doctors brought to justice and locked away forever."

"Aye, laddie, and dinn'ae forget that yer Da does seem to believe in them, so maybe ye should give them a chance," Mac proposed.

"And it's not like I'm just abandoning your dad to these people, Matt," Lois said, forcing herself to remain calm. "Whatever they do, they'll work under the supervision of Bernie at Star Labs. Believe me, I don't plan on leaving them alone with him for one second and I'm counting on you to keep an eye on them. We'll take Dad back home with us and if the doctors are telling the truth and they want to help, they can follow us to Metropolis."

There was the sound of a sudden movement behind them as Letour pushed himself out of his chair and walked slowly toward the group by the fire.

"Metropolis?" he asked. He'd wakened a little earlier, yet hadn't felt strong enough or motivated enough to move. The quiet hum of an intense conversation had penetrated his brain and he'd instinctively tuned in on the words. They were planning his future… without his permission. Indignation gave him strength. "Excuse me, but don't you think I should have some say in your plans?"

"Clark!" Lois cried out, jumping up in surprise and hurrying to his side. "Are you OK?"

"Clark?" he echoed the name. Who was Clark? Who was this woman?

Lois could have kicked herself. She must be more tired than she'd thought; losing control and calling him Clark, which was too much too soon. He had no idea he was Clark! Yet there was no way to take it back… and she wasn't sure she wanted to, though a wave of disappointment struck at her core as she took in the puzzled expression on his face. Obviously the brainwashing was at work and Clark had lost all memory of her again. She felt like sobbing, but she wasn't about to give in to despondency. She'd fight with all that she had and for as long as it took to give Clark back his life.

However, Lois' assumption about Clark wasn't totally true. As he stared into her anxious face, their earlier conversation trickled in disjointed images into Clark's mind. Words echoed in his ears. Someone had told him to heed his dreams… Someone had mentioned… family.

"I think I'm OK… a little confused, though. You're Lois, aren't you?" He smiled as his question banished the shadows from her eyes, and for a moment he couldn't look away from her. Then his glance took in the rest of the room; facts falling into place in his mind. "And Jor-El is Matt… and I'm…"

"Clark Kent," Lois quickly interposed, not wanting to touch on the subject of superheroes for the present. Somehow she thought that the realization he'd once been Superman might be too much for Clark to accept. "Do you remember that we spoke before?"


Lois could almost see Clark's thought processes ticking away behind his eyes and she waited with worried anticipation for the pain to kick in, but instead, his gaze remained clear, fixed on her face. "You're not in any pain, are you?" she asked in trepidation.

A few seconds passed as he closed his eyes, checking out his state of health. "I have a headache… but it's not too bad," he added, hoping to banish the little lines that were drawn between her eyebrows. Then, once again he looked around as if he were searching for something else… someone else. "Isn't Dr Ducos here, though? I was sure she'd come, and Dr Janik too. I always wanted to thank them for what they did for me."

A surge of anger shook Lois. Thanking the doctors wasn't high on her agenda, but she had to remember that Clark didn't see things in the same light. She swallowed her ire and concentrated on reassuring Clark. "They are here, but they've been helping treat the survivors for most of the night and day, so they're resting. You can talk to them later." She linked her arm through his, and led him to the fireplace, coaxing him down into the chair she'd vacated, and perching on its large arm. "Do you think you feel up to having that chat we spoke about earlier?"

Sitting by this fire was very familiar to Clark, only his life had changed irrevocably and he wasn't yet comfortable in his new guise… or was it his old one? It all felt very surreal. He understood that this woman and this boy were related to his past, but he just couldn't figure out the details.

"I think that might be a good idea." Clark said, balancing tense and upright on the edge of the seat and regarding Lois anxiously. "I still can't remember much, but from what I've managed to work out, the dreams I've been having aren't random, they're really memories?"

"That's right," Lois replied encouragingly. "I'm afraid I don't understand everything myself, but I'd like to help you work things through. Do you remember your dreams?"

"Only parts," he answered, his shoulders drooping dejectedly. "Though I think you're in a lot of them… and sometimes a boy and a girl… or maybe girls." His stare switched to the boy in the super suit. "But the kids seem a lot younger than you'd be… Matt?" He tested out the name and felt a sense of accomplishment as the teenager responded with a nod and a grin.

"That's because it's been a while since you've seen us, Dad," Matt said, forgetting his chagrin over the doctors in euphoria at being reunited with his father. "It's great to have you back to normal, Dad."

"How long?" Clark whispered. Matt's youthful presumption that he was back to normal was a little optimistic. Clark felt like he was literally swimming through the sea of mud that had inundated the village below.

"Four years, sweetheart." Lois' compassionate voice sounded close to his ear and her hand lay gently on his arm.

"Four years?" Clark sprang out of his chair, almost unseating Lois, but he didn't notice. The number four resounded in his brain, sending him reeling across the room. How could he have lost so much of his life? Were they telling him lies?

"Clark?" Lois regained her balance and stood, almost afraid to move. Her reunion with Clark seemed to have been going as well as could be expected, but now she wasn't so sure. Oh, god, she was even wishing Dr Ducos was present. Then Clark was turning toward her and she held her breath.

"Four? How is that possible? I can remember being Letour…" Clark's eyes glazed over as his attention seemed to turn inwards, and his voice could barely be heard above the crackle of logs burning in the fire. "They told me I was Letour and they sent me across the river into China. They told me not to look back. I spent a couple of years running away, though I never really knew exactly what I was running from… Then, Mac found me and brought me here." A final tremor shook him, then he had himself under control. "Would someone like to fill in the missing parts?"

Lois would have liked nothing better than to agree to his wish, yet she was afraid of triggering another attack. Ducos had mentioned that Clark himself might have begun the process of reversing his 'conditioning', but how could she be sure, and she couldn't risk inflicting such suffering on him again.

"Clark, perhaps that's not such a good idea right now." She took a few steps toward him.

"On the contrary, Lois, I think, since you're talking about transporting me back to Metropolis, that it's essential." Even Clark winced at the lack of emotion in his voice and he wasn't surprised at the hurt look on Lois' face.

She felt like she'd been slapped, and tears sprang to her eyes. This wasn't how she'd dreamed their meeting would be, yet she wasn't about to fall at the first hurdle, nor was she about to let him off with his cavalier statement. "You could be right, but I was only considering your health, Clark. It might have slipped your mind, but you've been brainwashed into experiencing great pain when you're confronted with your past."

Now it was Clark's turn to feel rebuked, and he had to admit that Lois had every right. "Lois, I'm sorry. I have no idea why I spoke that way. It's just very hard to come to terms with the fact that I've lost a year of my life and spent the last three leading a totally different existence… and yes, I do remember the headaches. In fact, I'm trying very hard not to give into one right now!" He suddenly realized that was true; the pain was hovering on the edges of his consciousness, waiting to strike. "But before you start to feel guilty, that's not your fault," he added, sincerely, sensing Lois' turmoil. "You can't always treat me with kid gloves, especially when I act like a spoiled kid. I am sorry for being so crass, but I'd really appreciate some input on what happens to me?" Clark ventured a tiny lopsided smile. "Maybe we could start again?"

Lois nodded. Perhaps reversing brainwashing was like removing a bandage; it was best done in one quick yank. "Will you sit down?" she asked tentatively.

Clearly, Lois was still very unsure, and Clark couldn't help but feel like the biggest heel on Earth. Causing this woman hurt was the last thing he wanted. He smiled and sent her a soulful look. Another stab of remorse shook him as tears filled her eyes. "Lois, please don't cry. I'll sit down, and I'll listen." Matching his actions to his words, he slipped past her and this time took the arm of the chair, patting the cushions to invite her to sit. "Maybe you could tell me what you know about me?"

"Clark, no. You're hardly recovered. You won't be comfortable there."

"Lois, please. I'm fine, and you look worn out. Sit with me, please?"

Lois hesitated for a second, then she took her position by his side, yet her thoughts were spinning. Just how much of their past should she reveal? However, for the moment, she was saved from her dilemma by Mac who spoke up.

"Ye, know, it's nae exactly surprising that ye dinn'ae remember much about whit happened tae ye in that bunker. They say the mind blanks out trauma. If I were ye, I'd nae be sae keen tae remember whit these lunatics did tae me."

Mac certainly had a point, yet the ghostly memories revived unbidden in Clark's brain and he struggled to hold on to his composure. "But I do remember, sort of… hazy images. I can remember being watched, and a man in uniform with dark eyes filled with hate and thin lips calling me… Specimen." His voice choked and he was grateful to feel Lois' small hand squeeze his arm.

"I don't think we should dwell on that part for now," she soothed, letting her hand linger on his arm. "And those doctors are the only ones who know the details anyway. I think we're all pretty much aware of the consequences… and that's enough."

"You're probably right, Lois. Maybe when I'm feeling stronger I can confront the demons, but I'd prefer to hear about happier times first." He turned his head to look at her. "Please, tell me?"

Whether Lois was confident this was the correct procedure or not, Clark was waiting and she hadn't the heart to ignore his appeal. "OK, but before I do, I want you to know that if I do cry, it's not always because of something you've said or done, but because you remind me of the past… and I've missed you so much."

"Am I your husband, Lois?"

His eyebrows rose in that oh so familiar way, bringing soft tears to Lois' eyes. "You guessed?" she murmured, yet hoped against hope that he'd had a flashback.

"It wasn't exactly difficult. You called me sweetheart."

So, he'd had no flash of recollection. Disappointment washed over Lois, but when he smiled tenderly at her, her heart beat quickened.

"And Matt calls me Dad and you Mom, so I figured we had to be…" His eyebrows creased, as if he'd been hit by a sudden thought. "Unless we just…"

"No! Oh, no." Lois hurried to reassure him, extending her left hand to show off her wedding ring. An unbidden, unpleasant question about where Clark's wedding ring had gone, invaded her mind, but she crushed it instantly. That ring had such emotional attachments… but it was only a piece of metal, after all, and it could be… would be replaced. "We've been married for seventeen years."

"Wow!" Clark seemed most impressed. "And we have other children?"

"Two girls, younger than Matt." Lois was watching his face intently for any signs of distress, so she noticed instantly when his eyes darkened. She felt the muscles of his arm grow tense beneath her fingers.

"How could I forget them?" In his jaw, the tic beat nervously and his voice was so low, she had to strain to hear his words.

"Clark, you didn't forget," she stated with conviction. "Someone stole your memories, but perhaps telling you about your past isn't a good idea. I'm no psychiatrist, but maybe it's best if you remember naturally… by yourself…" Once again the look of devastation on his face brought her to the brink of tears.

"No! Lois, please don't stop!" He laid his hand on hers, holding on as if she were his only lifeline. "You don't understand how frustrating and frightening it is to not know. It's like I'm standing on the edge of a precipice, too scared to move in any direction because one false step could send me toppling into the abyss."

Turning her hand over, she linked her fingers with his. "Actually, I know exactly how that feels. I had amnesia once… and you were there for me."

Clark relaxed a little. "You did… and I was?"

"Yes, you were very supportive, even though I didn't always appreciate your help. Oh, and by the way," Lois confided, leaning closer, "this is the second time you've had amnesia, though the last time was caused by a… sort of accident, and it only lasted a day or too before your memory returned. You told me I inspired you to remember."

"Then that just confirms you should tell me everything. Please, Lois. I'm tired of living in limbo."

Lois nodded slowly, finally agreeing, then she began her tale, choosing her words carefully. "You were raised in Kansas by a couple called Martha and Jonathan Kent."

"My parents?"

Lois nodded again and smiled.

"Are they still alive?" he asked with some hesitation.

"Oh, yes, and they know we've found you and are waiting for you to come home."

"Home? You mean Kansas?"

"No, our home is in Metropolis and your parents live there now too. They moved when… when you disappeared. They wanted to help me raise the children."

"I'm glad you weren't alone, Lois." Clark was still staring into Lois' face, bemused by the animation that appeared to light her from within. "That you and the kids had people to care for you. Do we have any more family… and friends?"

"My parents, Ellen and Sam Lane, and my sister, Lucy. We're not so close to them as we are with your parents, but we're… close. And you have lots of friends. Jimmy and Perry are our best friends, really like our extended family. Oh, and Perry is also your boss."

Clark's eyes glinted with anticipation and a slightly muted excitement. "I have a job?"

"Of course! You're an investigative journalist for the Daily Planet. We both are. We were partners… But now I've moved on to an editorial post." Even now Lois couldn't stop a small tinge of discontentment creeping into her voice at the mention of her career change. "It made it easier to look after the kids."

"You miss chasing down stories," Clark reiterated with a surge of intuition. "Were we any good?"

"The best! They called us Hottest Team in Town… and we won many awards."

"Disn'ae surprise me ane wee bit," Mac declared, happily. He'd been enthralled by the story of Letour's past, even though he was aware Lois was only giving the abridged version. "And that explains why ye were always diggin' round at the logger's camp. Ye were searching fer proof that they were up tae nae guid. Ye might hae lost yer memory, but ye haven'ae lost yer instincts."

Everyone laughed and nodded in acknowledgment, then an awkward silence fell on the room until Clark's next question emphasized the truth of Mac's words.

"Why was I in Korea, Lois? It's a long way from Metropolis to follow a story and I'm pretty certain General Hyesan didn't abduct me from the US."

"No." Lois felt a sense of panic tighten her throat, but she resolutely pushed it away. "You went to North Korea to cover the earthquake. It was a really unexpected phenomenon, an earthquake in that part of the world… and one on such a huge scale. It took the world's scientific community by surprise." She found herself babbling.

"Doesn't the Planet have a correspondent in Asia who could have covered the quake?" Clark probed.

"The North Koreans wouldn't let the media in." Lois was approaching the hub of the problem… the reason why Clark was Hyesan's target, but she believed he was much too fragile to learn about his second identity. Taking a deep breath, she decided it was easier to go with Perry's explanation. "So when Superman offered to take you with him, you jumped at the chance."

"I suppose that's the publicized account, Lois." He dropped her hand and appeared to distance himself. "But I thought I deserved the truth."

"The truth?" Lois' thoughts whirled like a carousel and the others in the room seemed to fade into the background. Clark held her complete concentration.

"Lois, I've lost my memory, not my wits. You didn't say I was born in Kansas… you said I was raised there by Martha and Jonathan… Was I adopted? And before you go thinking up crazy excuses, I'm not blind either." Clark's hand waved toward Matt, who squirmed uncomfortably in his chair. "Yesterday I met a superhero, Jor-El, who's admitted to the world that he's related to Superman. Later, in Mac's bathroom, he pulled off his mask and told me his name is Matt and that he's my son. Now, either I raised another man's child, which means you've been unfaithful to me, and somehow I doubt that, or Clark Kent and Superman are the same person, just as Matt Kent is Jor-El!"

"I could have been adopted," Matt suggested helpfully. He didn't understand why his mom wasn't telling his dad all the facts, but he was willing to play along.

"Matt!" Clark frowned warningly at his son. "You could have been, but, somehow, I doubt that too."

No, half-truths were no longer an option; Lois recognized this fact. She rose with a grace she was far from feeling and faced Clark. "Yes, you're Superman. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to deceive you. I was only trying to protect you. You've been so sick…"

"I understand." Leaning forward, Clark took hold of Lois' trembling hands, clasping them lightly. However, his voice when he spoke sounded a little flat. "I do understand, but it's a lot to take in… though I think I might survive."

"I guess the band-aid theory is correct," Lois said with a tiny laugh.

Clark never blinked at Lois' bizarre statement. "I guess."

"How do you feel?" Lois asked very quietly.

"Like I've been hit by a truck! One thing is for sure, I'm not exactly super."

"There's a reason for that, Clark." She stood before him, clinging to his hands for dear life. Suddenly, she felt very afraid, though she couldn't pinpoint why. "You have a doctor in Metropolis who might be able to help you… and Ducos and Janik seem to think they have a cure for your… illness."

"Metropolis?" Now fear stalked Clark. He'd read about the biggest city in the world, and he felt small and insignificant… and now he knew there were people waiting there who loved him… people who would be understandably full of expectations. "Lois, I'm not sure I'm ready for that. Maybe I should stay here for a bit, while I try to come to terms with all this information…"

"But it's your home, Clark, and you should come to terms with it at home." Lois jumped in trying desperately to keep her voice steady, but a gaping hole was opening at her feet.

"Is it, Lois? It's not that I don't believe you…"

"Your home is with me and the children." Lois lifted their clasped hands to her chest. "Can't you feel our connection?" Her breathing grew shallow as she waited for him to answer.

Seconds ticked by in silence while Clark stared deeply into his dream woman's eyes, willing her to understand his disorientation. "I feel it, Lois, but I don't know it. I'm not the same man you married… and I'm afraid I never will be."

"Then you don't want me anymore?" Lois' skin had turned deathly pale. She'd never contemplated rejection… never from Clark. The trauma of the long day and night finally got to Lois and she reacted as she had so long ago… before he had shown her how to love, and taught her the meaning of faith. Lois dragged her hands from his and taking to her heels, she ran out into the chilly night.

Matt, jumped up, inadvertently, sending his chair flying backward. "How could you do that, Dad?" he demanded, disbelief and disparagement in equal measures saturating his voice. "Hurt her like that? Mom was on such a high, knowing we'd found you! And the rest of us… we're your family. We've been missing you and thinking you were dead for four years!"

"No, Matt, I didn't mean I didn't want…" Clark took a few steps toward his angry looking son. But he spoke to an empty space as Matt flew off to find his mother and offer her comfort.

The door slammed closed, almost drowning out Mac's snort of disapproval.

"Laddie, that wis hardly the wisest thing I've ever heard ye say."

Turning his bewildered stare on his friends, Clark threw his arms wide and tried to explain. "But I never meant that I didn't want her. More the other way round, actually." He finished on a sorrowful note.

Marje stood and closed the small space between herself and… Clark. She didn't wonder that the poor man felt so confused, she was having a hard time remembering to call him by his correct name. "Clark, I know you have to be feeling overwhelmed, but staying here really isn't a good idea." Marje slipped her arm through his and spoke to him as she would to a younger brother. After all, that was how she'd come to think of him. "Finding out about your life this way has to be scary, but you owe it to yourself and the people who love you to go home. I'm sure it's the only way you'll ever get your memory back."

"But what if I never do, Marje?"

Clark's voice sounded small and crushed and Marje's kind heart ached for him. For the first time ever, she dared to wrap her arms around him and hold him close. "Then you'll make a new start… with your family."

"Laddie," Mac had risen from his chair and joined them. Resting his hand lightly on Clark's shoulder, he gave his friend a gentle shake. "There's nae doubt ye've been through mair than any human being deserves…"

That brought Clark's head up. "But that's the problem, I'm not human. If I had been, none of this nightmare would have happened!"

"Dinn'ae haiver! Ye might no hae been born on Earth, Clark, but in my book, ye're a lot mair human than the gouls wha harmed ye! And dinn'ae ye forget that."

Marje leaned back, her resolute gaze locking with his troubled one, daring him not to heed her words. "You've more human kindness in your little finger than most people have in their whole bodies, so don't go obsessing about being from Krypton. Mac and I are from Scotland, and you don't hold that against us," she teased, hoping to lift his spirits a little, and was pleased to see a glimmer of a smile flash across his face. "Even after four years of absence, Lois didn't hesitate to come all this way to find you and take you home. Now it's up to you. Clark, there are some things in life worth fighting for… some people too… and I'd say that Lois and your children are definitely worth taking a risk for. Otherwise you'll only live half a life… and you admitted you were tired of living in limbo."

"Gang hame, lad. That's whaur ye need tae be." Mac's brogue grew even more pronounced as emotions surged through him. "Marje and I will miss ye, but this wis never yer place. And dinn'ae be worrying about not remembering. Ye're already halfway tae falling in love wi' that bonnie lassie a' ower again. I've been watching the way ye look at her."

As Clark recognized the truth of Mac's words, hope flickered in his eyes and his backbone straightened. There was no doubting that Lois had a profound effect on his senses; probably she always had.

"Mac's right," Marje said feelingly, holding back her tears at the thought of him leaving. "Life is hardly ever easy or fair, and you've had it harder than most, but you didn't let the villains beat you, Clark. You might not have super powers now, but you're definitely not faint hearted. You've spent these last few years helping strangers and fighting for their rights. Now it's time to fight for yourself. Don't let Hyesan win. Claim back what he took from you… it's the only way you'll ever find contentment."

"You think?" Clark asked, but he already knew the answer. Mac's and Marje's pep talk had lifted a huge weight from his shoulders.

"Ye hae tae ask, lad? Haven'ae ye realized by now that Marje is always right!" Mac was grinning from ear to ear and he patted Clark's back enthusiastically. "Get oot there and apologize tae Lois for acting like a big galoot. And if ye're lucky, she might even forgive ye in the next year or twa!"


Chapter Seventeen: Homeward Bound, I Wish I Was.

As Clark stepped outside, he felt the cold wind on his face. The rain had stopped a few hours ago, but clouds still hung over the mountains, dark and brooding against the blackness of the sky above, cloaking the moon and stars.

If it hadn't been for the light shining through the windows of the house, Clark would have been blind, and how was he supposed to find Lois and Matt out there in the gloom. For all he knew, they could be on their way back to Metropolis, and that realization left him feeling very depressed and abandoned.

He really did want to go home. How could he have been such a lunkhead? And an even worse thought came to mind… was it one of his less endearing character traits?

His eyes narrowed as he walked carefully down the stairs and across the yard, searching with both sight and sound. The breeze snatched at his clothes. Thank goodness Marje had left one of Mac's old robes lying across the bed for him. Wrapping the plaid wool garment closer to his body, he moved off to his left, heading for his little abode. He could start there and work his way around the perimeter. Surely they wouldn't have left without saying goodbye, and yet he could hardly blame them if they had.

The sound of dry sobs attracted his attention and he hurried toward his cottage, stumbling heavily over a broken branch that had been blown in by the wind. An arm came out of the darkness to steady him, and Clark lifted his eyes to find Matt's stern visage confronting him.

"Go back, Dad! Haven't you hurt her enough?" The young man ground out, barring the way.

Matt's feelings were in disarray. He'd had such high hopes for this reunion. There had never been any doubt in his mind that his parents should be together. So, how could they have so suddenly fallen apart? How could his father have been so callous?

"Matt, I never meant to hurt your mother. You have every reason to be angry with me, but I've come here to apologize. I need to speak to your mom… explain why I acted like a fool." Clark held on to Matt's arm, while his eyes searched the young face for some sign of understanding. "Please, won't you give me a second chance?"

Clark watched the rigid superhero facade collapse in on itself, leaving Matt a needy teenage boy who desperately sought a happy ending.

"I promise, Matt. I'll be very careful," Clark said trying to sound reassuring. "You can stay to listen and if at any time you feel your mother's in danger from me, then please throw me out."

Matt's ambivalence was written clear across his face, but the situation was resolved as Lois appeared in the doorway and called out.

"It's OK, Matt, honey. I'm OK." Lois swiped at the tear tracks on her face, while she tried to control her ragged breathing. "Let him pass."

Still uncertain, Matt stepped aside then walked closely behind his father into the little house. Lois moved backward, careful not to touch Clark as he entered, afraid that at the smallest contact she'd forget her pride to throw her arms around him and grovel… and groveling was not Lois' style. The moment both Clark and Matt had passed her by she closed the door, shutting out the gusting wind, muffling its noise.

"I see you've found my place," Clark said, cautiously.

"You live here?" Lois asked, wandering around the small space, lifting up the odd ornament here and there. She nodded in approval. "Very homey."

"That's mostly, Marje's work. I never truly felt at home here, but it was safe."

Yet, as always, Lois had little use for smalltalk, and she delved into the main topic of contention. "Why did you come looking for me, Clark? Haven't we said all there is to be said."

"No, Lois." Clark shook his head determinedly. "You ran out before I could explain… not that I blame you for doing that," he hurried to quell Lois' fiery reaction, realizing without question she was naturally feisty. "Sometimes, what I try to say comes out all wrong. I guess I'm just not good with words anymore, which probably surprises you, since I was a journalist once upon a time."

A little grin twitched at Lois' lips. "Actually, strange though it seems, you were never great with words when it came to your personal life, though you did get better with practice."

"Maybe I need more practice… if you would agree to coach me?" Clark decided to heed Marje's advice and be daring.

"Coaching might be difficult if we're half a world apart," Lois said doubtfully.

Clark took a few hesitant steps toward her. "I think I might have been a little hasty in making that decision, Lois." Clearly, Lois wasn't about to make his apology easy as even in the dim light, he could see her face remained impassive. "It appears Metropolis is my home… and it will probably help me remember if I'm surrounded by things… by people who are familiar." On the word 'people' his eyes softened and his voice was reverent.

"I think that's the recognized treatment for amnesia."

"Lois, I should never have refused your offer to take me home, but I can't deny I find the prospect scary." Clark braved closing the gap to his wife… His wife! That thought didn't seem so strange as he'd thought it might. "I'd like to try to explain why I baulked, if you'd be prepared to listen?"

"This is nice," Lois said, distancing herself as she studied a small silver, two-handed cup.

"It's a quaich. A Scottish drinking cup. It's just ornamental really. I guess Marje wanted to make me feel at home," Clark explained, taking the object gently from her hand and returning it to its place. "The trouble is, I never really did… feel at home, I mean." Clark kept hold of her hand. "I think this feels very much at home though." He lifted their clasped hands to indicate what he meant.

Lois refused to look into his face, appearing to be thoroughly engrossed in studying their interlinked hands. "Then why did you reject me?" she asked in a very small voice.

"I didn't! I know it might have sounded that way," Clark clarified quickly as Lois' gaze rose to challenge him. "Lois, I'm not afraid of you, or Matt… or, at least, not much. But I am pretty anxious about returning to Metropolis and…"

"You're scared of what you'll have to go through to get your memory back?" Lois queried. "Well, I can understand that completely. It sounds like a huge procedure, and I have to tell you it scares me too."

"No, Lois, that's not it. After living as a non-person for so long, I think I'd go through almost anything to remember…" Clark's hands fisted automatically, trapping Lois' fingers, but she never flinched. "But what if it doesn't work, Lois, or if it does work and I'm still not… cured. What if I'm still not the whole man you married?"

Lois decided that she must be very dense this evening because she really couldn't contemplate what Clark was hinting at… unless… "Clark, I don't care about your finger!"

"Lois, I'm not talking about my finger… or the fact that it's missing, though I suppose it does have some relevance."

"You mean you couldn't appear as Superman with only half of one of your fingers? Not when Clark Kent has exactly the same injury." That spark of inspiration came from Matt, who'd been watching his parents closely. "I admit it's a bit of a problem, Dad, but not something we couldn't fix. You could wear gloves or something when you were in the suit."

A small bark of ironic laughter escaped from Clark. "Actually, Matt, I hadn't thought that far ahead, and it's not exactly what I was meaning. I'm not super anymore… and what if I never am again?" Clark turned back to Lois and his eyes glinted with the sheen of tears. "So much has happened to me, Lois. What if I never regain the powers?"

"Dad, that's crazy!" Matt crossed the floor to his parents, thinking he had the answer to allay his father's fears and his smile shown in the darkened room. "You have kryptonite chips in your brain. Once they're removed your powers will return. It might take a while, but Mom said they always have before."

However, a light was beginning to dawn inside Lois' brain about the cause of Clark's reticence, and once again a mixture of anger and sorrow overtook her. Anger at the regime who had subjected her dear 'lunkhead' to such physical and mental torture, and sorrow that the most compassionate man in the world should have been so demoralized that he could doubt himself… and her.

"Clark, I want you to listen to me, really listen," she said as she pulled him toward the one chair in the room and pushed him down into it. "Matt could be right, but we have really no idea. In the past, you've always recovered from kryptonite poisoning, but you've never had it embedded inside you for such a long period of time. So who knows whether you could ever be Superman again… and I know that might upset you… but I want you to know that I don't care…"

"Lois, I don't really remember, but it seems to me that you fell in love with a man who had superpowers…" Clark remonstrated.

"No. I'll admit that I was attracted to Superman, at first, but I truly fell in love with Clark, my partner and my best friend, and because of these superpowers I lost him. Frankly, I could do without them now." Lois let go of his grasp and took his face between her hands, smiling tenderly down on him. "I don't know what the future will bring, Clark, and right now, it really doesn't matter. I married Clark Kent, not Superman, and more than life itself, I want my husband back."

A glimmer of joy sparked in Clark's soul, yet he had to be certain. "Are you sure, Lois? The new me might disappoint you."

"I've already met the new you and you certainly don't disappoint me." Lois dared to bend down and brush her lips over Clark's. It was only a fleeting kiss, gone before it barely had a chance to be registered, yet its after-glow lingered in both their souls. "Clark, I know you're scared, and you have every right to be. I understand you have to be feeling very unsure of the future, but do you think you can place yourself in my hands for a while? I have enough strength for the both of us."

Clark's eyes were awash with tears, but for the first time in such a long while, they were tears of relief and happiness. "Somehow I feel we've been here before, Lois. But yes, I can do that… with all my heart, Lois. With all my heart."

In the background, Matt smiled as he slipped past the door and took to the sky in pure elation. His father was coming home!


A capricious moon had begun to peak shyly from behind the clouds when Lois and Clark had bidden each other goodbye. Though Lois knew they'd only be parted for a short time, her heart had been heavy, and she'd had to fight back more tears when, very briefly, Clark's hand had cupped her cheek. Yet that familiar gesture had given her the strength to leave with her son.

On the journey back to Metropolis, however, her mood mirrored the steely gray of the ocean far beneath them, and she couldn't help but be slightly apprehensive about what was happening at the Centre in Jilin. Was Clark still sure of his choice to return home? She didn't think she could take another disappointment.

And yet, there had been no option. Jor-El couldn't carry two passengers, and one of those still in a fragile state of health. They'd finally settled on the plan that Lois would return first to warn the family of Clark's return, while he packed the few possessions he'd accumulated over the last year or so and said goodbye to the MacDonnells.

She knew that particular farewell wasn't going to be easy for Clark. They'd been his rock, his shelter in the storm of his life, and when she'd left she'd sensed he was experiencing some anxiety and dread at the thought of bidding the Macs goodbye.

Yet for all that, she'd felt he was resolute. He'd made his decision in his little cottage and she doubted he'd change his mind. It was just her paranoia that was making her uneasy… that and the fact that she always shared Clark's pain.

"Don't worry, Mom," Matt said in her ear as they approached the western seaboard of the USA. "I'll have Dad back home before you know it, and you'll be so busy telling Grandma and Grandpa and getting everyone over to the house, you won't have time to freak out."

"Matt, I am not freaking out!" Lois announced, with some bravado. "And I'm not sure a big reunion is a good idea. I really don't think your dad is well enough for that."

"What? Mom, you can't leave Grandma and Grandpa Kent out; that's just not fair. And what about Sara and Vicky?"

"Oh, I don't mean them. I'll phone Martha and get them to come over with your sisters, but I think that until we see how your dad reacts to meeting them we should leave it there. I wouldn't want him to have another attack, and, to be honest, I don't think Vicky should see something like that… or even Sara."

"Oh, Sara will be fine, but you're probably right about Vicky. She doesn't know anything about this, or even about Dad being Superman."

"And she doesn't need to know now. In fact, no one ever needs to know that. Your dad isn't Superman anymore, and as I told the MacDonnells before I left, I think it would be best to tell the media… when it gets out, of course, and it's bound to get out, that you found Clark Kent on your trip to China, and they totally agreed with me. To the rest of the world, Superman is still dead."

"I know, Mom. I heard you and Dad talking to Mr and Mrs MacDonnell."

"OK, but that reminds me, just where did you go when you left us alone in Dad's house?" Lois leaned back against her son's strong arm to watch his face.

"Mom, I was so excited that he'd agreed to come home, apart from the fact I could see you two wanted to be alone, I just had to go flying."

"Matt, your Dad isn't ready to accept 'that' sort of thing from me yet."

"But you did kiss him, and I'll bet you did it again!" Matt's face was a mixture of pleasure and embarrassment. No doubt his Mom and Dad would be back to the touchy, feely stuff before too long. Four years ago it used to make him squirm, but he was sixteen now and understood about that sort of thing, so it wouldn't bother him quite so much. Yet a guy didn't really expect his parents to act like teenagers!

"Well yes, we did. Sort of getting to know you kisses, but it was nice… very nice."

"Mom, I don't think I want to know that. Look, there's LA. We'll be home soon."

"So it is, but I'm still waiting for an answer to my question."

If his mom had been standing, her foot would have been tapping and Matt knew there was no way he was going to get out of this. "Actually, in my excitement I got a little carried away and ended up on the dark side of the moon."

"Matt! You haven't been outside the atmosphere before. That's out of bounds. How could you have been so thoughtless? That would have been a real show stopper — find my husband, only to lose my son! What were you thinking about?" Lois demanded, fear for Matt dampening her joy at finding Clark.

"That's just it, Mom. I wasn't thinking. I'd no idea I'd gone so far. I'd been holding by breath and when I found out I was beginning to run out of oxygen, I was pretty shocked." Matt saw his mother's eyes start with fright. "I turned right round and came back, and as you can see, I'm fine. No damage done. In fact, on the way back, I heard a call for help and found another family clinging to the branches of a tree floating way out on the lake. So you see, I was fit enough to do a successful rescue. I took the four of them back to the field hospital and checked up on how the rescue effort was going. They've actually found a few more survivors, so it's been a very good night."

"I'm glad you were able to save some more people, but how did you overhear our conversation if you were busy doing all that?"

"Mom, I'm not sure you're ready to hear about that. We're nearly home, so maybe you should wait till you're sitting." Matt's voice was filled with an expectant awe.

Lois glanced down as the land passed below her. They'd been flying into daylight and as a result were at a fairly high altitude, but she was beginning to recognize the terrain. "Matt, just tell me now!"

"I didn't mean to eavesdrop, Mom, and I didn't, not really, but I could hear everything Dad was saying inside my head."

"Inside? Telepathy! Kryptonians can speak to each other telepathically," Lois recited the words she'd heard so long ago during the New Kryptonians' first visit.

At the time, their telepathic connection to Clark had made her feel very jealous and insecure, as if she'd been relegated to the fringes of his re-established Krpytonian citizenship. Of course, she'd been totally wrong. Clark loved her and nothing could change that… not association with his own people… nor the past four years of separation… without his memory. Clearly, there were very hard and painful experiences ahead for Clark, but they'd get through the problems together.

"You mean I'm telepathic too?"

"It would appear so, don't you think?" She kept a close eye on Matt's face, wondering how he would take another manifestation of his differences, but she needn't have worried.

"Cool!" A large grin split Matt's face, but actually he'd been smiling for most of the trip home. Now, however, a doubtful grimace turned down the corners of his mouth. "But why didn't Dad try to talk to me that way before?"

"Matt, you were only twelve when he went missing and you were just beginning to grow into your powers. He was so concerned about teaching you how to control the physical stuff, so you wouldn't hurt anyone or give the secret away, that telepathy probably never occurred to him."

"I guess. But this is so cool! I could use telepathy instead of Uncle Bernie's transmitter."

"I'm not sure that's an option," Lois said dampening Matt's enthusiasm a little. "Telepathy only works with another Kryptonian and you haven't exactly had a two-way conversation with Dad. Besides, where were you when you actually tuned into your father?"

Matt thought back over the latter part of the night. "I guess when I was flying the family from the lake to the rescue center. Maybe, a little bit before."

"So, the connection doesn't appear to be far ranging… but your dad isn't really chatting to you, which might mean the range could be extended if he could concentrate on transmitting. Right now it seems like he's just leaking thoughts…"

"No, Mom. He was speaking, not thinking… and I heard you, though there were gaps in the conversation. How could that happen?"

"Well, I'm no expert on all things Kryptonian, but I'd say that speech is just verbalized thoughts, and as for hearing me, your dad and I always had some sort of telepathic connection. We couldn't exactly hold conversations, but we were 'aware' of each other's feelings, especially in times of trouble. It was losing that connection four years ago that made me believe he had died." Lois' voice wavered; the nightmare of the past still having the power to send chills down her spine.

"You think those chips and the brainwashing blocked the connection? But that doesn't make sense. Nothing has changed with that and Dad is transmitting again."

"Only to you, Matt, and you're half Kryptonian, so you have the ability to tune into his wavelength or whatever is used in telepathy. And your dad has changed… some. I'm sure he's still unaware of his telepathic power, but he is acting like some sort of conduit, which enabled you to overhear. Maybe Uncle Bernie might have a more comprehensible explanation. You should ask him."

"OK, I will. But you think if Dad got well, I could actually talk to him telepathically?"

"It's a possibility," Lois replied, again looking pensive. "Matt, I don't want to be a killjoy, but we shouldn't pressure your father too much for now. It could take quite some time before he's back to the way you remember him…"

"And maybe he won't ever be exactly the same?" Sometimes Matt's insight surprised his mother. "Don't look so shocked, Mom. I don't care if he never gets his powers back, just having him home is enough… and you have no idea what sort of things he knows. If it hadn't been for Dad, I'd never have saved so many people last night."

"It wasn't only the superpowers that made your father a hero, but I'm glad you understand, Matt." Lois smiled and raised her hand to touch her son's face fleetingly. Like most other sixteen year old boys, Matt wasn't keen on too many shows of emotion from his mother. "And, you know, if you want to explore telepathy, you might want to practice with Sara."

"I never thought of that. I wonder if it would work?"

"There's only one way to find out, but we're back in Metropolis." Lois pointed a little way ahead to the familiar streets and buildings. "Perhaps you should be checking to see if the area is clear so we can land."

"Right, Mom." Matt carefully began searching the ground below. Morning had arrived in the city and there were early commuters heading off to work. The last thing they needed was an audience watching Jor-El returning Mrs Kent to her home, but fortunately he spotted a lull in the traffic. "Hold on. This is going to be quick."

Seconds later, Lois stood a little shakily in her family room and wondered how it appeared more welcoming than when she'd left. It was still a little untidy, since she been too distracted to tidy up after the kids last night, yet it was home… Lois' and Clark's home.

"I'll leave you to call Grandma Martha," Matt said, dropping an unexpected kiss on his mother's cheek, "and I'll go get Dad. It won't take too long."

"Wait, Matt!" The boy halted in his tracks at Lois' instruction. "You've been flying around for twenty four hours. Are you sure you're fit for another round trip to China, especially when you're going to have to fly very carefully bringing Dad home."

Once more a sparkling grin lit Matt's expression. "Mom, stop being such a worrywart! I'm fine… really." He levitated off the floor and did a double backward flip, showing off a little in his excitement. "See!"

Lois couldn't help but return Matt's grin. "OK. I guess you're flying on adrenalin, or the Kryptonian equivalent. Get out of here… and Matt, please take care of yourself… and him."

Again Matt surprised Lois by returning and pulling her in for an extra hug. "I promise." Then he was off on what he reckoned was the happiest trip of his life.


Clark laid out his few possessions on his bed, prior to packing them into his worn backpack. He'd acquired more and newer clothes since he'd arrived here with Mac, but it was still a meagre amount, especially since one set was covered in mud and probably beyond repair.

He glanced up and looked around the room. It was small, and even smaller with both Mac and Marje crowded inside, yet it had been his base in his confusing existence and, at the last minute, he was loathe to take his leave.

His eyes rested on the quaich, slivery bright in the moonlight. "Do you think I could take this with me? I'd like a memento of my time with you guys."

"Of course you must," Marje answered, pleating a hankie and trying hard not to sniffle. "We gave it to you to keep."

"And dinn'ae be thinkin' that ye're getting' awa from us completely," Mac mentioned, sitting down in the chair, his tired body still full of aches and pains. His work in the weeks ahead would be excessively difficult, and he'd be without his trusted assistant, yet, not for one moment, did he think to suggest that Clark should stay. "Ye ken, Marje and I haven'ae had a holiday in years, so we've a fair amount o' time saved up. Whit dae ye say, lass, once we hae this mess cleared up, that ye and I mak up fer lost time and hae a break?" He caught hold of Marje's hand as he spoke, pulling her to his side, recognizing she too was feeling very ambivalent about losing Clark.

"I think that's a fine idea. We've been talking for ages about how we should go home to Scotland to visit our families… and we really should, but now we have an extended family," Marje said a little hesitantly, "and if you'd allow us, Clark, we could maybe come to see how you're doing in Metropolis."

Clark stilled and his glance passed between his friends, while a slow smile dawned on his face. "I'd like that more than anything," he replied, then his lopsided grin slid somewhat as another thought occurred to him. "But you don't think that once these doctors are finished with me I might forget these last few years… might lose you both?" That prospect frightened Clark and he found himself, suddenly, in Marje's arms again.

"Don't you go talking up trouble for yourself, Clark," she said, rubbing her hand comfortingly up and down his back. "I doubt that's going to happen…"

"Aye, and even if it did, ye'd just hae two weird-sounding strangers showing up at yer front door, ready tae remind ye of yer adventures in China," Mac announced with a broad smile.

"Besides, Lois has promised to keep in touch, just in case you're not up to it yourself for a little while. Surgery isn't something you recover from overnight, you know," Marje said. "It might take a little while till you're feeling stronger, but it will happen. I know it will." She gave him a final pat, then stepped back. "Now let's get your bag packed so you're ready for your son's return."

"Aye, if the lad's on schedule, he should be showin' up any minute now."

But seeing how shell-shocked Clark still appeared, Marje began folding his things into the bag. "I'll try laundering your last set of clothes and send them on, but I don't hold out much hope for their recovery." She laughed as she busied herself, her hands eager, yet her feelings reluctant. The centre wouldn't be the same without Letour, and yet Letour was gone forever… The bureaucrats of this land would say he'd never really existed. Only she hated that thought. It somehow diminished the man Clark had been these past few years, and Letour deserved recognition; a quiet man who'd become a much valued part of their small community, and it seemed that Mac appreciated this fact too.

"Aye, Letour. Ye'll no mind if I call ye that one last time?" Mac rose stiffly and came to shake Clark's hand. "I couldn'ae hae wished fer a better man Friday. Ye've been an asset tae oor wee conservation project, and I've been proud tae call ye my friend." He pumped Clark's hand a few times, though he kept his head bent, afraid to show his leaky eyes. "Ye'll be missed, lad."

Before Mac had a chance to embarrass himself by breaking down and sobbing, a gust of wind accompanied Jor's return and a second later, a still joyous Matt was opening the door.

"Hi, Dad. Are you ready to go yet?"

Clark looked up, and though his heart lifted at the sight of the young hero who was his son, for a totally opposite reason, a large lump choked his throat and cut off his voice. "Yes, Matt," Marje answered instead, pushing the little drinking cup down amongst the softer clothes to protect it, though baggage was probably treated more carefully when traveling superhero airlines. She zipped up the bag and handed it to the young man, who slipped it over his shoulder. "Now, get away home, Clark. Your family are waiting for you." Once more she let her hand linger on his back and her voice lowered. "Try not to be afraid. You want to be with Lois and I know she won't let you down. She'll take good care of you, until you can take care of yourself."

Clark nodded, managing a breathy whisper. "I know, Marje." He sent her a small smile, full of sincerity.

The little group walked slowly outside, but Clark couldn't resist taking one last look at his Fortress of Solitude. Now where had that strange name come from? It sounded familiar… and was perhaps appropriate.

Yet as he felt Jor-El's arm slide around his waist, he realized that wasn't quite true. Here he had never been alone. So, how did you say goodbye to two people who had befriended, trusted and protected the stray alien they had known absolutely nothing about? Clark had no words, but he stopped his son's hand and crossed the few steps back to the Macs who were standing close together, supporting each other.

Silently, Clark wrapped an arm round each of them in a three-way embrace. For moments they stood close together, huddled against the sharp mountain air. Then Mac broke the spell.

"Laddie… cheil, this isn'ae goodbye forever. Ye'll be seein' us just as soon as maybe. Now that bonnie wife of yers is waiting fer ye at hame." Mac, took a step back, placing both his hands on Clark's shoulders. "It's time fer ye tae move on, but we winn'ae forget ye, ever. Ye can be sure of that."

"I know." Clark felt like he was an echo. "I can never thank both of you enough for what you did for me… and I wish I could say I'll never forget you either… but I just can't know…"

"Oh, there ye gang, haivering again!"

Matt had walked up behind his father. "Dad, there's no way we're going to let you forget the Macs… sorry, Mr and Mrs MacDonnell, I mean."

"Oh, Matt, the Macs is just fine… or Mac and Marje would do just as well," Marje said, a grin fighting back her unashamed tears. "After all, I hope we're your friends now too… and if you're ever in this part of the world again, please drop by. You know you'll be welcome, and we're pretty isolated here… at least, we are under normal circumstances."

"I will, Marje," Matt spoke brightly, though he couldn't help but be moved by the emotions that were evident between his father and this couple, and watching carefully, he saw Marje start to shiver. "It's getting really cold out here for Marje and Mac and, Dad, we really should get going. I know Mom will be wondering where we are. I can't fly as fast as normal either with a passenger."

"OK. I guess this is it." Clark allowed his son to lift him into his arms. It felt a little strange, a grown man in the arms of a boy… yet this was no ordinary boy. "Goodbye for now, Marje and Mac, and take care of each other."

"We will!"

"Aye, dinn'ae worry about us. We'll be fine."

The MacDonnells shouted in unison into the shifting shadows of the night.

"Mom says she'll email you when we get home," Matt replied, rising higher into the sky, but his father was silent.

Below Clark, the only people he was totally accustomed to faded quickly into the gloom, yet strangely, he had no misgivings. Something… no, someone was drawing him home. For the last four years, she'd haunted his dreams and now she was his reality. Lois was his beacon, lighting his way. He'd placed his future in her hands… and he was not afraid.


Chapter Eighteen: Memories Can Be Beautiful…

Clark wandered round the living room of the house Jor-El had brought him to. The young superhero had spoken with his mother for a few minutes, reassured Clark he would see him very soon, then flown off once again. Left alone with Lois, Clark felt her gaze follow him as he studied the layout of the room, letting his glance stray over the various ornaments on shelves and tables, and the pictures that adorned the walls.

Wonderingly, he was reminded how Lois had done the same in his little cottage just a short time ago, though he owned only the odd knick-knack and definitely no pictures. Yet she'd seemed just as interested in his things, as if she could learn something about him from the place he lived in.

Now he employed the same tactic, discovering with a feeling of pleasure that he approved of the room's decor.

"It hasn't changed much in the past four years," Lois said, sensing his thoughts. "I mean, I've had the wallcovering refreshed and stuff, but I stuck with the same color scheme. It might sound sad, but I couldn't bear to change what we chose together."

He glanced over at her, gently smiling. "Not sad. I think it's kinda sweet… and I like this room. Thank you."

While he'd been talking he'd come to rest in front of a tall cabinet where a number of strange glass ornaments were displayed. On closer inspection these oddly shaped objects turned out to be awards…

"Kerth Awards," Lois explained, "for Journalistic achievement."

Clark looked closer, noticing some had Lois' name on them, while one bore his own name and a couple had Lane and Kent proudly etched on their surface. He was not wholly in tune with this guy called Clark Kent, but since he'd won an award, he guessed he must have been fairly successful at his job. Still, seeing both their surnames linked together like that warmed his soul.

His gaze drifted over the other shelves, to a delicate silver figure of a young girl in a gymnastic pose mounted on a wooden plinth. He lifted it up carefully and read the inscription, his heart lifting instinctively with pride at the name Sara Kent.

"Sara? Your… our daughter?"

"Yes," Lois took a few steps closer. "You encouraged her to take up the sport years ago. You'd be proud of her, Clark. She's very good… and she doesn't use her powers… not that she has the full range of superpowers yet. Just a few."

His hand lingered reverently on the tiny statue as he set it down. He nodded, but didn't speak, unsure that he was ready for a discussion on 'superpowers' just yet. Restlessly, he passed on to the wall which was covered with family photographs and walked slowly down the line, hoping for some glimmer of recognition, but felt the inconvenient stirrings of another headache instead. Disappointment surged through him and he couldn't suppress a sigh.

"Does anything seem familiar?" Lois asked, her voice edged with dejection, anticipating his answer.

"No, not really," Clark replied, turning quickly to her and hating the tears which he saw shimmering in her eyes before she had a chance to compose her expression into one more hopeful.

"Try not to brood about it," she said, with forced optimism. "They put you through a lot to erase your memories; we can't really expect too much too soon. Why don't I make us some Ooling tea… You do like Oolong tea?"

Her tentative question brightened Clark's expression and he was glad to be able to offer her one small consolation. "As a matter of fact, I do."

"See, there you go, they couldn't make you change your taste in tea!" Outwardly she laughed, but inside her heart was aching.

He looked so lost, walking slowly around a home which was clearly alien to him, and a sense of deja vu overtook her. They'd been here before. The first year they'd been partners at the Planet he'd lost his memory and she'd taken him to his apartment, hoping against hope to jog his memory, yet he'd remained oblivious then too… at first. But this time was so much worse; he had a much longer journey to take to return to her… further even than the reaches of outer space and the Nightfall asteroid.

She had to escape, if only for a few moments, before she depressed him further by breaking down into to a whirlpool of gut wrenching tears… and she'd promised him she was strong enough to endure. "You continue exploring and I'll go make us some tea." She waved her hands airily in the general direction of the pictures. "If you have any questions just store them up till I get back…"

Then she was gone, leaving Clark alone and feeling bereft. Yet he couldn't blame her, he knew she'd gone off to cry. He wanted to comfort her, but didn't quite know how… and yet Marje had told him to be brave, so he found himself following in the direction she'd gone. He passed through what was obviously the dining room and saw two sets of doors at the other end. One was the entrance Matt had brought him through from the back patio when they'd arrived, and the other was a set of white swing doors.

He headed toward them, discovering his process of deduction had been correct, as he heard muffled sobbing from beyond the barrier of the doors. He quickened his step and pushed into the kitchen. Lois was standing with her back to him, hovering over a stove, waiting as a brightly enameled kettle came slowly to the boil.


She swung toward the sound of his voice, and displayed ingenuously to him the tears that coursed ceaselessly down her cheeks.

"Oh, Lois," he whispered, shaking his head sadly.

Neither knew who took the first step, but, instantly, they were locked in each other's embrace, sharing their tears and their turbulent emotions, and so they remained, until the shrill screech of the kettle broke the spell.

Lois stood back and gave him a teary smile, as she swiped at her damp face with her hands. "Would you look at me, bubbling like a brook. You'll be wishing I never talked you into coming home…"

"No, I never would wish that," Clark reassured her, feeling a twinge of regret that Lois had stepped out of his arms. It seemed his body recognized Lois, if his mind did not. "And, you didn't talk me into coming home. I made that decision myself… OK, with a little prompting from Mac and Marje, but they just reminded me I was being an eejet!"

"You do know, you're going to have to teach me a new language if you start talking like Mac, though I get the general drift of that one. They were right too!"

"They very often were. Which I have to tell you can be very annoying at times. But dinn'ae worrrry aboot a language barrier, I've been told I've nae got the tongue fer speaking Scots," he parodied laughingly, and normality was once again established between them while Lois put the final touches to their mugs of tea.

"Why don't we make ourselves comfortable in the living room for a bit, while we drink this," she suggested. "There are actually a few things I have to tell you before the family arrives." Again her heart lurched at the flash of fear she saw in his face. "Clark, I'm sorry. Maybe it's too quick to introduce you to the family. I really should have considered…"

"No, Lois, it's fine. Remember the band-aid theory?"

"Yes, but you… we're all tired. It could have waited till morning."

They'd reached the living room and Clark sat down on the nearest couch, and was a little hurt when Lois chose to sit opposite him… and yet, that wasn't such a bad thing. He could watch the emotions play out on her lovely face. Somehow he knew he would never get tired of watching her.

"You might not have noticed, but here it is morning," he pointed out, with a nod toward the two large windows, where sounds from the busy street were mutedly intruding on their conversation.

Lois nodded. "To tell the truth, I'm not sure what time it is… or even what day it is… and, right now, I'm not sure that it's important. But we do have to establish some facts before the kids arrive."

Clark laid his mug cautiously on the coffee table and sat back slowly, trying to play for a little time to banish his panicky misgivings. Yet time was something he didn't really have as Matt would probably be arriving home any moment with the rest of his family. Right! The band-aid theory it would have to be.

"I guess we can expect Matt to have them back here any time now," he started the conversation casually. Excitement tightened his stomach, but it was overlaid with the fear that he would disappoint those who were hurrying to meet him. Yet he managed to find another smile for Lois, hiding his anxieties fairly well, he thought.

Yet not well enough from someone who obviously knew him inside out. "Actually, not too soon. For one thing, I already called Martha… your mom, and asked her to give us some time to ourselves. She understands completely and even though Matt will be champing at the bit to get back here, both your mom and dad know how to placate him. We have a little time, so please, try to relax." She accompanied her plea with a tender glance. "Oh, and once they do leave your parents' place, they have to drive over. No super flying…"

"Too many passengers, or no cloud cover for Jor-El?" Clark mused, gazing out the windows at the expanse of clear blue sky, framing the rooftops of the houses opposite. For the first time in many years, he felt a little envious of the birds.

"Neither. Not really. It's because of Victoria." Lois noticed Clark's eyebrows lift in question; so many of his habits had remained the same. It gave her hope for their future. "Vicky was very young when you disappeared and she didn't know your secret… about Superman, I mean. And when Perry came up with the excuse why both Superman and Clark Kent disappeared at the same time, we all felt it was better to let Vicky believe the story. I suppose we were all struggling to come to terms with losing you, and it just seemed like another mountain to climb to explain the truth to a four-year-old child. So, we put it off till later…"

"Only later it just seemed to get harder?" Clark suggested with a wry grin. "I'm not sure why I find that familiar, but I do."

Lois leaned forward on the comfy cushions of the couch, wishing she'd taken the seat beside Clark, but not sure what excuse she could give for changing places. "Take it from me, if anyone should understand that, it should be you. But yes, there just hasn't been an appropriate moment, or even the need to sit Vicky down to explain… not when Superman seemed gone forever… though Matt and Sara don't agree. Their powers started to kick in when they were twelve or so, but that still gives me a few years to have that chat with Vicky."

"Victoria is how old?"

"Eight… but she'd remind you she was eight and three quarters That is very important for an eight-year-old, you know."

Lois and Clark exchanged grins and a wonderful warm feeling invaded Clark's body. "I don't know exactly, but I'm glad you told me… and I'll remember."

There was a moment's silence, though not an uncomfortable one, then Clark pushed himself up from his seat and edged round the table, sitting down by Lois' side.

"But Superman is still gone, Lois, and might always be."

It seemed Lois was pleased by Clark's move because she slipped her hand inside his. "We spoke about this in China, and it really doesn't trouble me. But we do need to re-establish Clark's return from the dead, and we'll start with our family and then our friends. The public can wait till later. But that also brings up a good point."

"Lois, what excuse did you come up with… to explain why Clark went missing?" He nervously played with Lois' fingers, but wouldn't look at her face. Somehow he knew this story was going to disturb him…

And, obviously, so did Lois, as she moved closer until their shoulders were touching. "We didn't say anything, not right away, but people at the Planet were already beginning to question why you weren't at work… so Perry went with the first thing that came to his mind… and we stuck with that. There was still a chance you'd come home… but Perry's reasons would have fitted in with that too, so we chose to publicize the fact that you'd gone with Superman to report on the massive earthquake and that both of you had disappeared."

"I guess it worked," Clark said sadly. "And you and the kids needed that protection. If it had ever gotten out that Clark and Superman were the same person, you'd all have been in danger from any lunatic who wanted revenge… or worse…" He shuddered, and Lois tightened her grip on his hand.

"We knew that. I always knew that. Right from the start…"

Clark bent his head to stare into Lois' face. "Yet it never stopped you. You are a remarkable woman, Lois Lane." His hand came up to cup her cheek, and he tenderly traced the faint lines that the years had etched around her eyes. "I think it will be my greatest pleasure to learn to know you all over again."

Clark's gaze was hypnotic and Lois whispered, almost afraid that sound would destroy this moment of shared wonder. "To fall in love with me all over again?"


At Lois' wide-opened stare of shock, Clark couldn't help but give a tiny teasing grin. But his face quickly stilled into earnestness.

"It's too late for that. I'm already hopelessly in love with you… all over again. I think part of me never forgot… only I was foolish enough to believe it was a dream. Can you forgive me, Lois? For leaving you alone? For not fighting my way back to you?"

"Clark, there is nothing to forgive. It wasn't your fault… and I once read that where there is love there is no blame." Lois turned on the sofa until she was facing her husband… her love. "We 've been given a second chance. Please, I don't want to spend our time speaking of recriminations or despair. I want us to be happy again, Clark. We still have mountains to climb, but we can do it together."

"I was right. You are an amazing woman. Are you sure you weren't the one with superpowers in this partnership?" Like a bee to the honey-pot, Clark was drawn to explore Lois' lovely mouth with his own, yet their voyage of discovery was, for the present, doomed to failure. Disappointedly, he pulled back. "But, speaking of mountains, I think our first is about to arrive…"

Clark just had time to stand, and Lois just an instant to wonder how he had known the others had arrived outside, when the door burst open and Sara and Matt almost fought to be first into the room. A smile turned up the corners of Lois' mouth, but it wavered slightly as she felt Clark tense up. He was standing so close to her back that she even sensed his breathing quicken. Without a word, she pulled one of his hands into her own and held on tightly.

"Matt, no fair!" Sara hissed, pushing at her brother. "You've already met Dad again…" Sara's voice faltered as she caught sight of the man standing by her mother. Abruptly, she halted while the rest of the family crowded in behind her, then they too stood frozen in shock, gaping at the person they'd thought was lost to them forever.

The fraught situation troubled Lois, as she felt Clark's hand begin to tremble in hers; one of his attacks could be imminent and she opened her mouth to say something… anything which would relieve the tension, but someone else got in before her.

"Dad?" Sara asked tremulously. This man looked a little differently than she remembered, but he appeared so sad… so scared, and she wanted, more than anything in her life before, to banish those fears. "Daddy!" Her voice was soft yet her tread quick and sure as she crossed the space between them and, when her mother moved out of her way, she threw herself at her father, never doubting that he would catch her. "This is the best ever, Daddy. You've come home."

Clark was rather taken aback by the joyous onslaught, but his arms, of their own violation, encircled the girl's lithe form. Her head fitted just beneath his chin and he thought she might be tall for her age.

Watching, Lois smiled through her tears and forced herself to speak. "Clark, this is Sara our oldest daughter…" She finished on a gulping sob.

For a moment, Clark rested his cheek on his daughter's smooth hair, breathing in her fresh scent. The pain in his temples roused, but he wouldn't allow it to encroach on this meeting. Lifting his head, he stared down into her raised face, into her soft brown eyes… so full of expectation, and his resolve faltered.

"I'm very happy to be home, Sara… but, I'm sorry…"

"You don't remember. I know. I've been told." Sara finished for him. "But it doesn't matter. We can make new memories."

How had he missed the fact that Sara's eyes were also full of kindness and understanding? "Yes, I'd think I'd like that," he said, deciding that Sara had her mother's eyes.

Unknown to Clark, however, Lois would dispute that fact. Of all her children, Sara most reminded her of Clark. Meanwhile, she'd placed her hand on his shoulder, drawing his attention to the others who still stood close to the door.

"And Matt, whom you met earlier when you arrived with Jor-El." Lois shot Clark a quick glance, hoping he'd follow her lead and realize that if Vicky didn't know he'd been Superman, she was just as oblivious to her brother's secret identity. "Though you didn't get much of a chance to say hello."

Matt was perfectly accustomed to playing the game in front of his younger sister and he sauntered across the floor and stuck out his hand to his father. "Hi again, Dad. It's really great that you're here, but I guess you're feeling pretty weird, so we'll talk more later," he said, taking hold of both his father's hands and shaking them thoroughly, when what he really wanted to do was give his dad another hug… but he'd already had his turn in Jilin and there were others waiting to welcome Clark home. "You have to say hello to Grandma. Come on, Grandma." Matt gestured for his grandmother to join them, too young to appreciate that equal measures of disbelief and hope had rendered Martha incapable of movement.

Yet Lois had been studying her parents-in-law, afraid that this moment would perhaps be too overwhelming for each of them. Martha and Jonathan weren't getting any younger and both had taken Clark's loss very hard. If it hadn't been for the fact that she'd needed their help to raise the children, Lois sometimes suspected that Jonathan, at least, might have given up… perhaps even the indomitable Martha.

Lois was also puzzling over the question of her youngest child's behavior. Why hadn't her ever-inquisitive ball of energy not come running into the house demanding to meet her father? Surprisingly, it appeared Vicky was hiding behind her grandparents.

But Lois' mind was distracted when Martha took a few steps into the room and the lighting revealed her face… pale, drawn… yet awestruck, her gaze totally transfixed on her son.

Martha's hand went to her mouth, muffling the words she repeated over and over, reverently, like a prayer. "My boy… my boy!"

It was Jonathan who brought Martha to Clark's side and who spoke first. "Matt here tells us you've lost your memory, Clark, but you'll always be our son. Nothing can ever change that fact… and we want you to know how proud we are of you… and how good it is… so good it is to see you again. Welcome home, son." Clearly, Jonathan had run out of steam and he could only stand and stare, his big chest heaving emotionally.

But Jonathan's silence freed Martha from her trance and she raised her hands to grip Clark's arms, almost as if she were checking to make sure he wasn't a mirage. "Oh, Clark, you've made us happier than we ever dreamed possible… you always did. I know we might be strangers to you, but I'd really like to give you a hug… if it wouldn't upset you?"

The ache in his head was easing under this gentle woman's gaze. He couldn't exactly say he recognized her, but as with Lois, he felt a connection…

"I think I'd like that too," Clark ventured, and that was the only encouragement Martha needed.

Leaning up, she stretched her arms around Clark's neck and buried her head against his chest. Within seconds, she felt Jonathan's big arms wrap themselves around both herself and Clark. Her body shook with the force of her sobs, yet her heart sang with elation. This was her son's homecoming… this was the best day of her life.

Yet there was one small person in the room who wasn't quite so sure this was a good thing. Victoria Kent had halted just inside the door and had used her grandparents as a shield while she'd taken stock of this stranger who was supposed to be her father. He didn't look like her father. Of course, she'd only been four when he'd gone, but he didn't really resemble the dad she knew from her vague memories… or his photographs.

Back then, his hair wasn't gray, nor so long, and he'd been strong. Strong enough to lift her clean to the ceiling and swing her round like she could fly. This man didn't look like he could do that. He was too thin, but she had to admit she'd grown some too. These days, she'd probably be too heavy.

Now that she'd lost the protection of her grandparents' bodies, she sidled closer to the posts at the foot of the stairs and continued to watch the proceedings. It looked like the rest of her family were prepared to believe this man was Clark Kent… and she wanted to believe it too… really she did, but Lois Lane's reporter's instincts ran thickly through her veins and she needed proof.


Her mother's voice sounded near to her ear and she turned her startled glance toward her mother, who had crept up to the other side of the stair rails while she'd been engrossed in studying this Mr Kent… or whoever he was.

"Aren't you going to come and say hello to Daddy?" Her mother's voice was cajoling, her eyes sympathetic.

"I don't know," Vicky stuttered, sounding a little petulant, though inside she felt only confusion. "And I don't know him." She pointed to the man who stood in between her grandparents.

"That is your father, Victoria," Lois said kindly, walking round the stair's foot and sitting on one of the lower steps so she was eye-level with her daughter. "I know this must be hard for you, because you haven't as many memories of your dad as the rest of us. But I wouldn't lie to you about something so important."

"Then where has he been all this time… and why doesn't he know me either?"

This time it was Martha who answered as she turned to face her grand-daughter, but kept her arm firmly round her son. "Oh, sweetie, we tried to explain. Some bad men captured your dad and held him prisoner. Then they hurt him and took away all his memories. It's not his fault that he doesn't know us…"

"He doesn't even know himself," Sara added her opinion, somewhat impatiently. She couldn't wait to begin the process of getting to know Dad again, and Vicky's suspicion was only getting in the way.

"And how could he come home if he didn't know where his home was?" Matt pointed out reasonably. Sometimes he had a soft spot for his little sister. "If Jor-El hadn't recognized him and brought him back, he'd still be lost in China."

The youngest Kent considered that information for a second or two and decided her sister and brother might be right this time round. It was enough to draw her from her position by the stairs. She sensed her mother rise and follow her as she walked toward the stranger.

"Are you my fa…" but for a budding investigative journalist that was perhaps giving too much away. Uncle Perry had told her to always keep the subject 'all shook up', whatever that meant. Uncle Perry was always quoting Elvis when he wanted to make a point… so she decided to be direct. "Are you Clark Kent?" she asked, folding her arms and staring belligerently up into the stranger's face. He looked tired, but she thought she caught a twinkle in his eyes.

Clark regarded the flaxen-haired girl who stood her ground so staunchly before him, while wondering, vaguely, which part of the family her fairer coloring had come from. His natural instinct was to search his mind for a memory of this child, but he knew that down that path lay only searing pain. Besides, Victoria had probably changed some over these last years. His best plan was to accept the present and move on from there, but whatever he chose to do, he decided he better do it quickly as her frown showed she was obviously growing impatient.

"I wish I knew the answer to your question, Victoria. I think I might be, but I honestly can't be sure." Clark felt a stab of dismay as he saw his daughter's face fall. "I wish I could tell you more about myself." He ended forlornly.

"You got my name wrong," Vicky informed him.

"Oh, I'm sorry." Clark brightened, thinking he'd made only a very small mistake. "I guess you're called Vicky?"

Vicky's fair brows drew down in a deeper frown. That wasn't exactly the answer she'd been hoping for.

"Vicky," Lois laid her hand on her daughter's shoulder. "This is your daddy, but he's ill, and even though you want him to remember, it's impossible for him to do so now. But we're going to visit Uncle Bernie tomorrow to see what he can do for Daddy and soon they'll be other doctors coming to Metropolis who are going to help too. Please, Vicky, can't you just believe what we're telling you and not give Daddy a hard time?"

Some seconds of silence filled the room while Vicky thought about her mother's words. Finally, she relented just a little. "Did these bad men hurt you a lot?"

Clark dropped to his knees in front of his small daughter, wanting desperately to reach her and yet he had no frame of reference… only his intuition. "They tried very hard, but you know, I don't think they succeeded as much as they hoped. I might have forgotten your name… all of your names." Clark let his gaze shift over the rest of his family before coming back to rest on Vicky. "But they couldn't make me forget how to love… and I think… no, I know that when I look at you, I love you very, very much." His voice was full of awe as he raised his hand toward Vicky's face, but didn't allow it to touch her… not yet. "Do you know what I would like a whole lot?"

Vicky shook her head, her bottom lip trembling.

"I'd like a hug from you. I'd like that more than anything in the world. Do you think you could find one for this stupid lunkhead who's forgotten all the most precious people in his life?"

All the members of the Kent family held their breath as they waited for Vicky's reaction. They understood how a rejection would slay Clark to his very soul. Yet they needn't have worried. Vicky was Lois to a tee… with a fiery exterior, but with the bravest, most loyal heart of any of the family.

"I think I could do that," she said slowly as her arms rose to lie on his shoulders and she stepped into his open arms.

So he'd forgotten his special pet-name for her… along with all the other things… but it was just a name. The closer she'd got to his face the more she'd recognized him. There was that little mole just above his lip… Sara had one just like it. And when he'd asked for a hug, his eyebrows had quirked the way they always had.

Yes, this was definitely her daddy. He stood and hoisted her high, laughing up into her face… She'd been wrong; he was still strong enough and, once again, she felt she was flying.


Chapter Nineteen: And Yet… What's Too Painful To Remember

The first day of Clark's new life with his family had been long, exciting, but very tiring, given the fact that he'd hardly rested since the mudslide. Yet equal measures of joy, adrenalin and rampant curiosity had kept him going. But, finally, the whole family's energy had run down and Lois had persuaded Vicky and Sara to go to bed. The girls had protested a little, but they'd eagerly kissed and hugged both their parents, then gone upstairs. Their exit had been quickly followed by Martha and Jonathan saying a tender, teary goodnight to head for home, promising they'd return early the next day.

Matt had reluctantly gone to patrol the skies of Metropolis, but he'd assured his mother that he'd be quick, intending to leave the care of the city to the police and emergency services during the night. He would only intervene in a life-and-death situation. Even superheroes could exhaust their strength, and Matt realized he was emotionally drained. Lois wasn't completely happy with the compromise, but she trusted her son knew his limitations.

Lois and Clark were left alone, and though she felt they needed to talk, she couldn't ignore the dark shadows that were quarried beneath his eyes, nor the lines of pain that furrowed his forehead. If she was honest, she too was feeling the strain of trying to pretend that the future would be rosy, when, in truth, their future was a minefield and they had only their newly formed fragile connection to find their way through it.

Clark watched Lois intently as she walked around the living room, absentmindedly tidying away the clutter. Lois had asked Sara to move in with Vicky for the night and Clark had been offered Sara's room. Clearly, Lois wasn't ready to have him return to their bed and he'd felt too unsure of his ground to make any demands… His body might feel like it had been run over by a truck, yet vague, almost forgotten urges coursed through him… but it was too soon. He refused to offer Lois anything less than his whole self.

Instead, he spent the hours of the night pacing his daughter's bedroom until at last he ventured downstairs searching for something to drink, only to find Lois in the kitchen. Obviously, she, too, had been unable to sleep. Clark halted at the foot of the stairs, debating whether to quietly return to bed or to continue on and confront Lois, but his wife gave him no choice.

She looked up and smiled crookedly. "Couldn't sleep, either? There's some freshly squeezed juice in the fridge." She held her glass aloft, showing it half-filled with orange liquid. "Or there's still some coffee in the machine, though I guess it's a bit old by now."

Clark moved into the center of the room. "Actually, water will do." He glanced around at the cupboards, unclear where to find a glass.

Lois stood up and fetched him both glass and water, then placed it before him on the counter. Clark's hand toyed with the glass. He lifted it to his lips and took a very small sip. "To tell the truth, needing a drink was just an excuse. I was just too… restless to stay in the room."

"I knew it! The room's too small. It reminds you of something horrible from your past… I should have thought of that." Lois' hands tapped nervously on the table top. "Clark, I'm sorry…"

"Lois, no! That's not it at all." Clark caught her hands and stilled them. "You've seen the tiny cottage I lived in in Jilin. Sara's room's fine… and Sara should really be sleeping in it. I could always have… one of the couches. They look pretty comfortable," he ended, pleasantly, though the idea didn't thrill him.

"No, Clark. This is your home too, and I won't have you sleeping in the living room. I should have listened to you years ago. You always wanted to extend into the roof space. Matt has a bedroom up there, but there's enough space for a guest bedroom…"

"Guest bedroom?" Clark's insecurity made his question sound harsher than he meant it to be. "Is that what I've become, Lois? A guest?"

Lois turned her hands in his and lifted them to her face. "No, never. I'm sorry if I've made you feel that way." She brused her lips over the back of his hand. "You're my husband. Even when I believed you dead, I never thought of you in any other way. I still don't."

"And I never meant to make you feel at fault. I'm the one who's crazy here." He gave their joined hands a tiny shake and laughed ruefully. "My body feels like it's in the right place… here with you. It's just my memory that won't play ball."

"Memories are overrated," Lois stated and moved one of her hands from his grip, to let it rest lightly in the hair at the back of his neck. Under her fingertips she felt Clark shiver. "You know, we probably can't sleep because you aren't in the right place…"

She looked up at Clark from beneath lowered lashes and he thought she'd never appeared more beautiful. "Lois, where is my right place?" he whispered.

"With me," she answered simply, her voice just as quiet.

His eyes glowed darkly in the dimly lit kitchen. "Lois, I don't want to presume…"

"Neither do I, and I'm not suggesting anything more than just being together," Lois explained. She could see desire flicker in the depths of his gaze and the tic in his jaw pulsed beneath his skin, yet the aura of a lost soul still clung to his bearing. "We should take this slowly. Explore how we feel before taking the next step…"

She was leading him toward the stairs and he followed, mesmerized by her beauty, her voice and her love. He agreed with everything she said. When they made love, and he was sure that someday they would, he wanted to have remembered everything about her. "There's no rush, Clark. We have all the time in the world."

She was still smiling as she opened the door to their room and drew him inside and to the bed. Together they sank down onto its cool, clean surface and soon were resting close together with their arms entangled. They were at peace and, at last, sleep came to claim them.


A few nights later, Clark turned in his narrow bed one more time, stifling a groan and dragging the covers over his head to blot out the murky light of dawn, which seeped through the window. He felt utterly worn out and yet, it was so difficult to sleep alone… without Lois.

Since the day of his return, Lois' presence had very quickly become necessary for his comfort, but, for all that, he'd reluctantly agreed to leave the family home, if only temporarily. It had seemed like a good idea at the time.

Dr Klein wanted to run a barrage of tests before allowing Adrienne and Stephan to carry out the surgery which hopefully would lead to his recovery, and Clark had gone along with the suggestion that it would be easier to do these tests if he were here in Metropolis General Hospital. Over the years, Star Labs had expanded its operations and had opened a medical research unit in Metropolis' largest hospital, and it was to this state-of-the-art wing he'd been admitted.

Tomorrow, Dr Janik and Dr Ducos were due to arrive in the city and Bernard Klein wanted to be ready to give their proposed treatment the go ahead, but only if the foreign doctors managed to convince him of their competence. After listening to Lois' account of what had happened to Clark, and seeing the results of the brain scans, Bernie had refused to let them near his friend unless he was sure the two could successfully remove the implants.

Clark, however, hoped the surgery would be carried out as soon as possible. The thought of the complex operation might worry him, but he had lived in this twilight world for too long, so he was prepared to take any risk. The first flush of dizzying elation that his reunion with his family had brought him had dimmed slightly, leaving him frustrated and, at times, almost dejected.

Lois, his parents and, most of all, his children delighted him, but he wished he knew more about each of them. The Kents were a very close-knit unit, and though they tried their best to include him in their lives, in his darker moments, he couldn't help but feel he was a stranger.

He loved them. There was no doubt about that, but he wanted to remember the years he'd spent with them; years watching his kids grow into the great youngsters they were today, the time of his own childhood when his parents had taken care of him, and, most of all, he wanted to remember meeting Lois and forging the ties that bound him to her.

He had fallen in love with her again, but he couldn't dismiss the feeling that his relationship with her and with his family had arrived like a gift, all wrapped up and sealed. He should feel grateful, but he wanted so much to unwrap the parcel to see what was inside… to discover how they'd lived and loved before he'd been snatched away.

And he had tried, but every time he attempted to prod his memory to any degree, the dragon awoke, breathing fiery pain. He'd tried to control the agony, and on some occasions he'd actually succeeded, especially when Lois or Martha was there to talk him through an attack, but sometimes Dr Klein… Bernie, he'd been told to call the doctor… had to resort to administering pain medication to him. Clark loathed the fact that he was so weak, and he hated seeing the look of disappointment on the faces of his family, even though they tried so hard to conceal their feelings for his sake.

Mostly, the family were just happy to have him home, and they never ceased to tell him so by words and deeds, but even that had an adverse effect on Clark; they were so good and he believed they deserved more of an effort from him. Yet, he'd been warned not to castigate himself.

What were the words Lois repeated? 'On a long journey, take small steps'. That saying had become their mantra.

She had shown him a globe, which she told him had traveled with him in his space ship all the way from Krypton, his home planet, to Earth. The navigational globe which had brought him safely to Kansas and the only parents he'd ever known… only now he didn't know them. But he was trying not to dwell on depressing thoughts for the moment.

At first the globe had appeared quite unremarkable, just a map of the Earth. Yet when Lois had brought the sphere closer to him, it had begun to glow and its surface transformed into the terrain of another world, while within his head the word Krypton resonated. He'd attempted to focus on Krypton. If he couldn't remember this world, perhaps he could recall his home planet, yet nothing… not even the familiar headaches had stirred.

However, that wasn't surprising, since he'd soon learned, from the amazing holograms of his birth-parents, that he'd been sent away from Krypton as a baby to save his life from the horrifying cataclysm that had destroyed his world.

He'd replayed the holograms a number of times, partly because he found it very difficult to get his head around the fact that he'd begun life on a far-off world, and partly because he hoped that the bizarre revelations would trigger the memory of when he'd first watched them as a grownup.

Yet, the messages' only result had been to reinforce Clark's and Lois' determination to prevail. When Jor-El and Lara had been faced with chaos, they hadn't panicked nor thought of giving up. Instead, they'd drawn strength from each other and continued with their task which would eventually save the life of their beloved son.

Lois and Clark would do no less. Without discussion, both had chosen to remember Jor-El's words… 'On a long journey, take small steps', and frequently each would verbalize that homily to the other.

That Clark, at least, was on a long journey, there could be no doubt. A journey back into the light of recognition. And he had made some small steps. There had been a few breakthroughs.

Sometimes, when either Lois, his children or his parents talked to him of the past, fuzzy pictures would flash into his mind, yet he'd never managed to hold onto these dreamlike visions; a pond by a homey wooden farmhouse, a campfire on a deserted island where Lois and he had talked and shared an embrace, a tiny baby in a bassinet in a room that was probably their dining room, a courthouse where the same baby had tried to catch sunbeams while Lois and he sat with hands fast clasped. Those scenes and many others had paraded before his eyes, yet the more he tried to capture them, the further they moved away, and then the dragon would stir…

He just wanted it to be over, which was why he was waiting here in a hospital room for the doctors to arrive.

Clark gave up even the pretence of sleep, switching on the low lighting and raising the top of his bed by means of a control panel fixed to the cabinet by his bed. The light glinted off a pair of glasses that sat on the table top, and he reached over to pick them up, letting his fingers rub over the gilt frames. It had been quite a surprise to discover that Clark Kent had worn glasses when he seemed to have excellent vision, but Lois had explained they'd been part of his disguise, distinguishing the mild-mannered reporter from the stoic looking superhero. Glasses, slicked back hair and a gaudy costume had kept the secret of his dual identity for almost twenty years. Frankly, he was amazed, but if it worked then he wasn't about to complain. Mind you, it meant he had to get used to wearing glasses again, but perhaps he could get a new pair. Lois had dug them out from a box in their closet, but his face had thinned down and these were now a little slack.

He popped them on, looking at the room around him and unwittingly triggered another of those flashbacks, and not a pleasant one either.

For some moments, he was transported back to another small room in a laboratory, a memory which sent chills up and down his spine. He shook his head to clear it of the unwanted apparition. Yet the comparison persisted, which wasn't too strange, since he'd managed to work out that this particular memory came from a time after they'd implanted the chips inside his brain. His recall of this period might be hazy, but it did exist.

Of course, his present room had an adjustable bed, even a television, a private restroom… a large window, which Dr Klein insisted should be kept clear of blinds to allow the sunshine in, and most importantly of all… a door which wasn't locked.

This was no prison cell and Bernard, Adrienne and Stephan were intent on helping him return to his former self, though the jury was still out on whether his superpowers would ever return. Bernard was running tests on that particular question along with all the others.

The sun broke through the early cloud cover and streamed through his window, lifting his dark mood, while outside he could hear the staff arriving for the morning shift. Hopefully, that meant that Lois would visit soon on her way to work. Lois' and his family's visits were the highlight of his days and, thankfully, they made sure that he was seldom alone.

And just as Clark had hoped, the door to his room swung open and Lois' head popped round the edge.

"Oh, hi, sweetheart, you are awake. Did you sleep OK?" Clark nodded, not wanting to worry her with his insomnia, while Lois went on. She looked like she was a woman on a mission. "Do you think you're ready for a new visitor?" she asked, holding the door open. Yet without waiting for a reply, she smiled and stood back to let a man enter.

The older man limped in slowly, leaning on a cane. His hair was thinning and the little that was left was gun-metal gray. His eyes were sharp, sparkled by a keen wit and his lined face was split by a large grin as he walked toward the bed. When he spoke, Clark could detect a southern drawl in his deep voice.

"In the name of the King, it's good to see you again, Clark." The newcomer reached the bed and stretched out his hand to lay it on Clark's shoulder. "You gave us a scare, son. Boy, did you give us a scare!" he said, shaking his large head from side to side, tightening his grip on that shoulder and, all the time, grinning like he was fit to burst.

Clark felt a memory fight its way into his conscience and his voice rushed ahead of his brain. "Elvis?" he asked, breathlessly.

The stranger threw back his head and guffawed with real pleasure at Clark's question and even Lois laughed aloud.

"Not quite, son, not quite. Elvis Presley was the King of Rock and Roll and my hero, but he died some years back. Me, I'm just the editor of the Daily Planet… or, at least, I was until I had my surgery." The man knocked his cane against his leg, but not with any great force. "These old joints of mine aren't what they used to be, though they tell me I'll soon be running round like a spring chicken with these replacement hips. Meanwhile, Lois here has been keeping the ship afloat. Actually, she has for the past couple of years… but once I was your Chief. Perry White, Clark, and I'm sure pleased to see you again."

The stranger stuck out his hand, somewhat gingerly, and Clark took it. "Lois tells me I worked for you for a long time, Mr White. I'm sorry, for getting your name wrong, but I'm sure she's also told you I'm a bit confused."

Perry shook Clark's hand, a strange tinge of dismay shading his eyes, yet he gave another laugh. Clark decided he liked the sound of that laughter. It was so filled with energy. Clark was sure Mr White had been a great Chief.

"I was a lot more than your boss, Clark. In fact, you and Lois were… I mean, are like my family… and your kids call me Uncle Perry. They sure are great kids." Perry used his cane to pull up a chair and lowered himself into it carefully. "But, son, you weren't too far out when you guessed I was Elvis. I have this habit of quoting the King, you see. I suppose, over the years, you've listened to more Elvis stories from me than you've had published in the Daily Planet, and that's saying something." Mr White kept on grinning. "And the name's Perry. You haven't called me Mr White in over twenty years. Oh, and I promise no Elvis stories for the time being. Even I know when they're inappropriate. But, Clark, you have to know that when Lois told me Matt had found you, I was happier than… oh, than I would be if I discovered the King was alive and well and living in Nebraska as a mailman!"

Clark couldn't understand why a famous singer should be hiding away in Nebraska working as a mailman… unless the guy was suffering from amnesia too, but it did seem obvious that Mr Whi… Perry, was thrilled to meet him again.

"Thanks… Perry." Clark tried out the name and found that it rolled easily of his tongue. He wished that his memory worked as well as his instincts. "I'm pleased to meet you… again. Maybe once I get past this surgery I might even remember why I feel so good about it."

"This is nice," Lois said. "But now we've got the reintroductions over we can get down to why I brought Perry here to see you… apart from the fact that he refused to stay away any longer."

Lois sat on the edge of the bed, and Clark moved over to give her more room. She pushed his rumpled hair back from his forehead, allowing her hand to linger. Then she leaned over and brushed her lips across his. As she drew back, Clark went with her, not wanting to relinquish the glow her kiss aroused in him.

Some seconds later Perry cleared his throat, loudly. "Boy, I swear on my blue suede shoes that it's just like the old days, and I couldn't be more pleased."

Leaning back, Clark's eyebrows shot up in a silent question as he stared at Lois, but she simply gave a little shake of her head and smiled again. Clark noticed Lois smiled a lot these days and he decided he liked it.

"OK, kids, let's get this show on the road," Perry said and this time his tone was professional. "We've got to decide what we're gonna print in the Planet…"

"Excuse me?" Clark's head swung round so quickly to look at the newsman that a feeling of wooziness swept through him… or it could have been the feeling of dread that made his head swim. Lois had warned him that a public announcement would have to be made about his reappearance, but he'd hoped it could be postponed until after he'd gotten his memory back.

"Now, Clark, I know that's got to make you feel uneasy, but we really don't have a choice," Perry's deep voice was soothing, like he was accustomed to smoothing ruffled feathers… a circumstance which was easy for Clark to believe, since Perry had been the editor-in-chief of one of the world's most prestigious newspapers. "Lois and I would have liked to have given you more time, but since you've moved out of Hyperion Avenue, there's been some talk. Ralph Pinkerton called the Planet just yesterday, fishing to see if the rumors were true… and if Ralph can winkle it out, then anyone can. Mind you, the guy was always great when it came to uncovering tall stories. He just had difficulty verifying them."

"It's kind of hard to find proof when most of your sources are blowing smoke!" Lois exclaimed scornfully.

"Who's Ralph?" Clark watched Lois' lips turn down in a grimace.

"A sleazy reporter who worked for the Planet back in the 90s."

"Now, Lois, the guy did have some talent for sniffing out scandals." Perry felt he should give credit where it was due.

"Yes, and he didn't care if his 'scandals' were truth or fiction!"Lois retorted.

"I have to agree with you there." Perry set the end of his cane on the floor between his legs and gripped the top with both hands. "Anyway, Clark, he's now found his niche at the Dirt Digger, and, somehow, he's got word of your return. This time he isn't blowin' smoke."

"Something tells me that's not good?" Clark's gaze switched between Lois and Perry, and both looked a little worried.

"It's not exactly bad, Clark. We just hoped we'd be able to give you some time to adjust to getting your memory back before you had to face the press. I'm sorry," Lois commiserated as she let her hand trail down Clark's arm till she could link his fingers with hers.

"Actually, honey, I think the timing might be a good thing," Perry said, his brows drawing down in concentration. "Clark is still suffering from amnesia, so he can be naturally vague when it comes to questions about Superman. I know how you hate to lie, Clark."

"I do?" Clark asked, but instinctively knew the answer. "OK, I guess I do. But I also believe the secret of my other identity has to be kept… for the sake of Lois and the rest of the family…"

"And you too, Clark," Lois said, her hand tightening on his. "You're not super any longer and I can imagine how many criminals might like to take their revenge on you for sending them to prison. You'd be in great danger…"

"No more than you, the kids and my parents, Lois…"

"Whoa! I think we've established that too many people would be in danger," Perry interrupted, stifling a flush of amusement. He felt like he'd been transported back in time, seeing his kids squabbling over a point, and it gave him a cozy feeling inside. "It's more important to work out what we want to put in this article I'm going to write."

"You're going to write it, Perry?" Clark asked, sounding surprised. He'd gotten the impression that Perry was largely retired.

"Think the old man isn't up to the job?" Perry asked teasingly. "I wouldn't trust this story to anyone else, except Jimmy, of course. He'll partner me on this one."

"You mean Jimmy Olsen?" Clark had seen one of his own wedding pictures with himself and a young best man, and Lois had told him that was his closest friend, James Olsen, who was now a reporter for the Planet.

"That's him." Perry nodded. "He's in New York at the moment covering a UN meeting or he would have been to visit. He'll be heading home later today, so you can expect him to show up any time after that. Wild horses couldn't keep him away. In fact, if he wasn't such a professional, he'd have asked for another reporter to cover the UN story and come rushing back the minute he heard you were home."

"That's true. I'm sure he was tempted, but he didn't ask. We taught him too well." Lois nudged Clark's leg with her hip, while she smiled into face.

"OK, I guess I look forward to meeting him." Clark returned her smile, weakly. Another meeting with another old friend he wouldn't know didn't exactly fill him with confidence, though that was a worry for the future. "But what do we do now, Perry? Do you want to interview me, because I have to tell you I doubt I'll be able to answer many of your questions…" His shoulders slumped a little.

Perry gave Clark's words careful consideration before answering, but when he spoke his voice was firm. "No, I don't think an interview is necessary. The three of us should discuss what's best for the public to know and Jimmy and I will write it up for your approval. Believe me, we won't put anything in there that you or Lois don't want, but I'd rather stick as close to the truth as possible."

"Facts, plain facts!" Clark mimicked a voice from the past that echoed, unexpectedly, in his head. "Wasn't that what you taught us, Perry?"

"Never you worry about your lack of memory, son, you've still got reporter's blood flowing in your veins," Perry said on another laugh. "But let's get down to business. I take it you don't have any knowledge of how you were abducted?"

"No, Chief." Clark's admission sounded totally flat.

"OK. Then I suggest we just report that you and Superman were kidnapped by a North Korean faction, working outside their government's remit."

"Perry! No! We put the blame firmly on the North Korean regime. They had to have been behind Superman's abduction." Lois crossed her arms and set her chin firmly.

"Honey, nothing would please me more if we could. But we have no proof," Perry said, shaking his head dejectedly, but adamant still. "The Koreans would blame Hyesan and say he was a rogue General, and Clark doesn't remember enough to refute their claim."

"I remember Hyesan was in charge, but I never saw anyone else… not that I can recall. I doubt any of the Committee ever came to the bunker."

"What about Janik and Ducos?" Lois questioned belligerently, unwilling to allow the abduction of her husband to go unpunished. "They could corroborate Clark's testimony."

Perry cocked his head to the side and regarded Lois thoughtfully. "You sure you really want to go down that road, honey? You told me Hyesan's dead. Geez, the Koreans can even claim they executed him for his crimes, which would leave these two doctors in the frame. They could even be charged by the International Court of Human Rights with kidnapping and Superman's murder."

"No! I don't care what anyone else thinks, I can't let that happen," Clark forced himself up in the bed, staring challengingly at Lois. "Lois, I know you're angry about what happened to me… God knows, I am too. But if it hadn't been for Adrienne and Stephan risking everything, I'd be dead, and they kept Hyesan from coming after me. Corporal Teo too, and he's still in North Korea." Clark lifted a hand to smooth Lois' screen of hair, hoping he could also smooth her justifiable anger. "He wasn't like the other soldiers. Teo looked after me and if he hadn't joined Adrienne and Stephan, I doubt they'd ever have gotten me out. Actually, I dread to think what might happen to him when the Koreans discover I'm still alive."

"Actually, I wouldn't worry too much about that. I hate to hurt your feelings, son, but to those high mucky-mucks in North Korea, Clark Kent is pretty small fry." Perry said, shifting his weight in his chair. "I doubt they'll give you a second thought.

"Won't they be suspicious, Perry?" Lois asked. She'd been having a few sleepless nights over that particular worry since Clark had moved into the hospital. The idea that the North Korean regime might guess Clark's dual identity was not one she liked to contemplate.

"Why? We announced right from the beginning that two men went missing. They didn't question it back then, and if Hyesan was as secretive as I'm assuming, heck, maybe they even believed it," Perry suggested with a snort. "Hyesan is long gone, and if no one points the finger at them, then I'd bet a lifelong pass to Graceland that the Koreans are willing to forget the whole debacle. But these are all good reasons why we should try to keep the doctors and this Teo out of the story."

Lois touched Clark's cheek as she watched him visibly relax. "I understand how you feel, Clark, but don't expect me to think too kindly of your friends, though if they can make you well, I might be prepared to forgive them… in time."

"That's all I ask, Lois." Clark turned his head and placed a kiss on Lois' open palm and for a second or two all their immediate problems fell away… but Lois couldn't be distracted for long.

"OK, but does anyone have any idea how we're going to explain Dr Ducos and Dr Janik's presence in Metropolis?"

"Say they're colleagues of Dr Klein and he called them in because they're experts on the type of brain damage Clark suffered at the hands of his kidnappers." Perry offered a further explanation. "And if anyone does find out they were in North Korea… well, we can cross that bridge when we come to it…"

Lois sat up straighter, prepared to protest, but she was interrupted when the doctor in question walked into the room.

"Oh, Perry, I'm glad you're here," Bernie said as he closed in on the group around the bed. "Good morning, everyone. Did you sleep well, Clark?"

"Not too badly," Clark replied, remembering his resolve to keep his lack of sleep from Lois, but seeing an opportunity to make a break for home. He offered Dr Klein one of his most persuasive smiles. "I don't want to appear ungrateful, Doctor, but I think I'd prefer to be an outpatient."

"Oh, yeah! Can't abide hospitals either," Bernie agreed, but all the while he was fidgeting with a file he held in his hands. "But I really need you here longer. There are still one or two things I'd like to check out… but, Perry, you were right on when you mentioned Clark's brain damage…"

"Clark has brain damage?" Lois almost jumped off the bed to confront Bernard, who took a couple of backward steps in self-preservation.

"Lois, he has amnesia," Bernie said reasonably, while trying to regain his balance. "Do you know, total amnesia like Clark's is undocumented in any medical journal I've ever read, and very hard to achieve, I'd say. >From what I've been able to work out from the lab work I've done on your samples, Clark, they used a combination of implants and drugs for the control of psychosis… experimental drugs, I'd surmise."

"Bernard, we already know all that. Adrienne explained," Lois said impatiently, though her expression was stark with horror. "But brain damage… that sounds so permanent."

"I didn't say it was permanent," Bernie gave a small apologetic smile. "But to tell the truth, I can't be certain. You see, the Koreans got lucky… though I guess it wasn't so lucky for Clark…"

"Bernard!" Lois almost stamped her foot and she appeared ready to wring the poor doctor's thin neck .

"Lois," Clark said quietly, placing a warning hand on her arm. "Getting annoyed with Dr Klein won't help. Please, Bernard, could you explain what that means. I'd really appreciate knowing the prognosis, no matter how bad."

Bernie swallowed hard and quickly tried to make amends for his blundering remark. "The prognosis isn't necessarily bad. Clark, it's my opinion that you suffered a complete memory blackout due to a synergistic relationship between the kryptonite and the drugs they gave you…"

"What does that mean in English?" Lois demanded. She always hated when Bernard forgot that normal people didn't understand his scientific jargon.

"Sorry!" Bernie shrugged and blushed red, till his skin tone almost matched the spots on his snazzy bow- tie. "The kryptonite and the drugs reacted badly. I'm surprised you didn't spend that time in the bunker in a catatonic state."

Clark shivered. "I suppose I wasn't much more than a zombie. I certainly can't remember much about it. Mostly, my memories begin again after I was freed."

"That would fit my theory. Once the drugs were out of your system, you began to function more normally, but without your memories. At least, I do expect your memory to improve once those chips are removed…"

"That sounds like you don't expect my memory to return completely?" Clark slumped back in the bed. His face was blanched white and the light seemed to dim behind his eyes.

"Not immediately, no." Bernie gave his verdict quietly, realizing this was not the news Clark wanted to hear. "But that doesn't mean it won't return in time. I really can't say for sure. Clark, your physiology has always had the remarkable ability to repair itself, but from the tests I've run, I think that long term exposure to the small amounts of kryptonite within your brain have damaged the gene which allows you to process yellow sunlight into superpowers."

"Is that damage permanent?" Lois asked, not really wanting to hear the answer.

"I believe so," Bernie answered plainly. "But there's no reason why Clark shouldn't reach the levels of a normal healthy human being… perhaps even a little more. And I do believe that once the chips are removed, his brain could possibly repair itself. Even a human brain can reroute connections around damaged areas, and Clark always used a greater percentage of his brain cells than any human." Bernard smiled at both Lois and Clark. "I'd like to get a second opinion, of course, from these doctors who're on their way here, but I really am confident that Clark can recover."

"But not Superman?" Strangely that question came from Perry.

"Superman?" The seconds stretched out apparently endlessly while Bernard contemplated the possibility. Finally, he spoke with a sigh. "I'm sorry. I can't give you a definitive answer, but after all this time, the likelihood seems pretty remote."

The room and the two men faded from Lois' and Clark's awareness as their hands sought the comfort of the other's grasp. Perhaps both had known this sad truth. 'On a long journey, take small steps.' Perhaps some destinations would always be out of reach.


Chapter Twenty: With a Little Help From My Friends

James Olsen bounded out of the elevator car into the Daily Planet newsroom, unable to remember when he'd last experienced this amount of enthusiasm to work for the best newspaper in the world. He felt good; better than he had in years. The UN summit had finished earlier than expected and he'd managed to write up his cover story, e-mail it to Lois, and catch the 'hopper' back to Metropolis by late afternoon.

His first port of call had been to Metro General Hospital to visit the best friend he'd ever had… and one he'd believed had gone forever. A few days earlier, he'd been stunned by Lois' phone call telling him that Matt had found his father, and Jimmy's first instinct was to dash home to check that Lois hadn't gone off her trolley.

But, of course she hadn't! It was true. Clark was back, yet he wasn't exactly healthy. Jimmy had listened with growing horror as Lois had told him of Clark's missing years and how he was suffering from total amnesia. She'd talked, almost in code, about how Jor-El had brought Clark home, but that Superman was still missing and was most probably dead. Jimmy had understood. It hurt to know the big boy scout would never take to the skies again. In fact, CK must be devastated. But his best friend was back home and for Jimmy that was the greatest fact!

Jimmy looked toward the Chief's office, hoping to catch Lois before she left for home, but was surprised to see Perry behind the desk, looking like he was busily working at the keyboard. Intrigued to see Perry back to work so soon, James momentarily forgot about seeking out Lois and headed, instead, for the editor's office.

"Hi there, Perry," Jimmy announced as he breezed into the room. "What are you doing here already?"

Perry glanced up from the monitor. "Jimmy! I could say the same of you. We didn't expect you back till later."

"The UN council broke early. I e-mailed my story to Lois and came back as fast as possible. I couldn't wait to get to the hospital to see Clark. Boy, Chief, can you believe it? Clark is home! It felt great seeing him again, even if he isn't quite himself yet. And what a story!" Jimmy was shaking his head as his mind went over the information which Lois and now Clark had given him.

"Actually, Jim, the story is why I'm here. I'm writing it and I want your help. My writing skills might be a bit rusty."

"Naw, never, Chief! You'll always be the best. But the Planet is putting out the story of Clark's return?" Jimmy's jaw dropped for a second or two, before the light dawned. "Though I guess someone's got to do it, and Lois is probably too close…"

"Exactly what I told her." Perry nodded, smiling that Jim should catch on so fast. The boy had turned into a first-class journalist with a Kerth or two to his name. "I was hoping to give Clark more time before his story hit the media, but we've had Ralph Pinkerton rooting about, so Lois and I thought it would be best if the Planet published a legitimate account. No knowing what that loose cannon would come up with."

"That's a fact, and most of it would be a lot of bull. Ralph wouldn't know the truth if it jumped up and hit him in the face!" Jim said, his voice heavy with disapproval. "OK, so what exactly do we want the public to know?"

"Not too much. We need to play up Clark's amnesia so we can keep the facts to a minimum."

"Chief, we've got to mention he'd been abducted!"

"We will… but we keep the identity of his kidnappers vague… which should be pretty easy since Clark can't remember how he and Superman were seized…"

"What do we print about Superman?" Jim asked, then lowered his voice. Like everyone who'd been told the truth, he was still very careful to hide the secret. "Clark told me he's lost his powers and that it's probably permanent."

Perry's hooded eyes closed for a second and when he opened them they were wet with tears. "What that poor boy must have gone through…" His voice died away as a shudder shook his shoulders. "But we can't print any of that. We still have to hide Matt's dual identity and take care of Lois and the girls. We write that Superman and Clark were separated… and that's true, in a way, and that Clark doesn't know what happened to Superman."

"So, we keep quiet about how the North Koreans tortured Clark and let them get away with it?" James' fist clenched in anger and frustration.

"Not exactly, but Clark wants to protect the people who saved him, and, Jim, those people did put their lives on the line. I can understand Clark wanting to keep them out of the story. These doctors arrive in Metropolis any day now, and it wouldn't show much gratitude if they were charged with Clark's abduction and the disappearance of Superman. People still remember Superman with a lot of affection, and even if these two weren't officially charged, they could be subject to a lot of rough handling from the public." Perry caught Jim's gaze with his own. His tears had dried and now his eyes glinted with steely determination. "There's nothing Lois or I would like better than to lay the guilt at that rotten regime's door, but they're not here and we can't print any facts… and unsubstantiated ones at that… without incriminating the people who saved Clark. He won't allow it and I can't say I blame him either."

"I guess…" Jimmy pulled a chair up to the Chief's shoulder and sat down. "OK. So what can we write?"

"Well, this is the way I see it…" Perry leaned back and allowed Jim to read the screen. After a few moments, James made a suggestion. "Couldn't we mention the rogue General? Put all the blame on him. He's dead. The Koreans couldn't object to that… Clark could have gotten his information from the people who helped him escape. Actually, that's the truth, and it does give the public someone to blame."

"Yeah, and we can't keep quiet about Clark being in the hospital for treatment. Metro General is just too public. Ralph must have a source inside the hospital, 'cause no sooner than Clark was admitted, we got his phone call. No telling who it is. Could be an orderly or a nurse… hell, even a junior doctor looking to augment his earnings. But, Jim, even if this story has to be fudged… we stick as close to the facts as we can."

Jimmy laughed, leaning forward in his chair. "You bet, Chief. Isn't that what you always taught us? Right, how about we do it this way…"

He looked for permission from Perry, then pulled the keyboard toward himself and began to type and for the next forty minutes or so, both men concentrated on their story, sharing ideas and commandeering the computer when either thought of a better way to present the fuzzed information.

Finally, Perry and Jimmy both leaned back in their seats, confident they'd done the best job they could, when the door was opened with some force and both men turned to confront the intruder.

"Oh-oh! Hi, Lois," Jimmy said, glancing in amusement at the Chief, not noticing the phone that Lois was holding to her ear. "Have you come to check up on our work?"

Lois shook her head forcefully, while she covered the mouth-piece, and whispered one word… "Scardino!"

Perry raised one eyebrow quizzically and Jim asked, sotto-voce, "'Call me Daniel' Scardino?"

This time Lois nodded her head adamantly, and Jimmy asked again, "What does he want?"

But Lois ignored her friends, removing her hand from the phone. "This is a surprise, Dan. I haven't heard from you since you called to tell me you were sorry to hear about Clark's disappearance and that you'd gotten married. How is your wife, by the way?"

"She's doing fine, Lois, thanks for asking," the deep-sounding voice replied from the other end of the line. "And we have a little girl now. We called her Poppy. She's three years old, very cute… and has me wrapped around her little finger."

"Congratulations! Daughters can be like that. But I don't believe you called me up to talk about your family," Lois said, trying to steer the conversation away from small-talk.

"No, Lois. Straight to the point, as ever. We heard Clark is back," Dan replied, finally getting down to business.

"Who heard?" Lois decided to play ignorant, though to tell the truth, she'd been expecting this call, she just hadn't expected Daniel Scardino.

"I think you know who I work for, Lois."

"Actually, Dan, I don't. You seemed to move about quite a lot." Lois couldn't hide her sarcasm. It had always been a bone of contention between them that Dan wouldn't discuss his work with her. Even if she hadn't already fallen for Clark, she doubted a relationship between herself and Dan would ever have survived.

"You know I work for the government and that's enough, though I can tell you that I'm a desk jockey these days. I gave up being a field agent when I got married."

"That was decent of you, Dan," Lois said, warming a little to a man she had once shared a friendship with. "So, what can I do for you?"

"Lois, you're not going to like this, but I think you know it has to be done…"

"Dan, just spit it out!" Lois demanded, her toe beginning to tap out an impatient beat on the floor.

"According to our sources, Clark has recently been found alive and brought home." There was a few seconds of silence as Dan waited for Lois to corroborate his statement, but she stayed quiet. "He spent a long time in North Korea…"

"He was a hostage, Dan! It's not like he volunteered to stay." Lois voice cracked back at him.

"That's what we heard," Dan said quickly and somewhat sympathetically. "But, Lois, anyone who disappears in a country we consider an enemy state and then suddenly reappears has to be debriefed. We're not accusing Clark of anything, but he has to be questioned."

"Interrogated, you mean," Lois snapped scathingly. She was angry. Clark really wasn't fit to face a barrage of questions, but she couldn't see a legitimate way of denying a visit from a government agent.

"Please, Lois, don't get mad," Dan pleaded. "It's routine. It isn't personal. And I volunteered my services because I thought you might trust me. I know we parted company a long time ago, but I thought we respected each other, at least. Maybe I didn't understand your choice at the time, but I always thought Kent was a decent guy… a little sappy…"

"Dan!" Lois growled.

"OK, that was below the belt. But I do know the two of you were happy together. Believe me, Lois, I don't want to upset either you or Clark, but someone has to do the interview, and I thought you'd prefer it was me. If I was wrong, I apologize and I'll bow out, let another agent take over."

"No, Dan!" Lois hurriedly answered, relenting at last. "I'd rather you came than a stranger, but Dan, Clark is in the hospital. He's ill."

"I know, Lois. He has amnesia." There was an underlying edge of doubt in Dan's tone.

Lois heard it and shot back. "It's not a ruse! He really has lost his memory. You can talk to his doctors."

"I intend to, and if they confirm the diagnosis, then you and Clark have nothing to worry about. Lois, trust me. I don't believe Clark has been recruited to spy for a foreign power… and I doubt if my superiors do either. But he might have seen something, be able to tell us what's going on inside North Korea."

"I'm afraid your superiors are going to be disappointed. When Clark was found he didn't even know his own name and his recollection of his time in captivity is hazy…"

"Lois, don't say any more," Dan interrupted, sounding harsher than perhaps he intended. "Let me question Clark and form my own opinion. I really shouldn't be calling you, but I just couldn't arrive unannounced. I'll be in Metropolis tomorrow late morning and I'll go straight to the hospital. I'm gonna ask you not to warn Clark, but I guess what I don't know won't upset me."

Lois could almost visualize Dan winking and her words were accompanied by a reluctant smile. "Thanks, Dan. I appreciate the warning."

"I did it for old time's sake," Dan said, nostalgia softening his voice, then he quickly closed the connection. "Bye, Lois. Take care."

Again there was a pointed silence in the ditor's office,while Perry and Jimmy tried to wait patiently for information.

"Well?" Jimmy asked, his patience running out.

"Dan Scardino is coming to see Clark to 'debrief' him."

"Homeland Security was bound to be interested," Perry remarked, reasonably. "They have their sources too, you know, so word had to get back to them about Clark coming home. I'm surprised about Scardino though. He hasn't been sniffing around these parts in years." He studied his fingernails momentarily, before sending Lois a searching look. "Honey, do you think he's the right person for the job?"

"Perry, all that 'stuff' was years ago and Dan's a married man now. Besides, Clark didn't recognize any of us, so I doubt he's going to remember Daniel. And I do trust Dan. He wouldn't do anything to hurt me… or Clark."

"As long as you know what you're doing, then I guess it'll be OK." Perry shrugged, giving in graciously. "Now you want to see what Jim and I have come up with for the morning edition?"

Lois placed the phone on the desk as Perry swung the monitor in her direction and she began reading…



Those were the words that headlined Clark's story in both newsprint and online editions of the next day's Daily Planet, though it didn't grace the front page. However, the news generated more interest than Perry had expected. The citizens of Metropolis were genuinely happy that one of their own had survived the ordeal of being held hostage by renegades in a land they believed was unfriendly to their western way of life, and for a fleeting moment, Kent was regarded as somewhat of a local hero for escaping from his captors. The public sympathized with his years spent wandering lost and alone through Asia while suffering from amnesia, before being brought back to his homeland and his family. Disasters and tragedies very often sold more newspapers, but, occasionally, the public loved a story with a happy ending.

Other reporters and TV news teams showed up at the hospital, clamoring for access to Clark, yet they were turned away by security. Some brave souls even tried contacting Lois for information, but were quickly sent away with a flea in their ear, until she had her calls monitored. She also put a call through to the kids' schools, warning them to have their security men check for stray reporters, but it appeared the media had decided to leave the children alone. Martha and Jonathan received a few calls, but switched on their answering machinge, and reporters quickly got the message that the Kents were unavailable for comment.

Actually, the press also realized that the public empathized with Clark Kent and his family. The man had been through a terrible ordeal and most decent people didn't like victims hounded by the press.

And yet, around mid-morning, Jimmy drew Lois' attention to the TV screens which were situated around the newsroom. She left her office and came to stand by Jim's side, watching with surprised amazement as Jor-El landed in front of a TV crew at the entrance of Metropolis General Hospital.

Jor-El gave an impromptu press conference, stating he'd found Clark Kent when he'd gone to help with the mudslide in China. There he'd worked alongside a local man whom he'd finally recognized — from old photographs — as a friend of his father, the man who had in fact gone missing at the same time as Superman. Jor-El told of how he'd talked with the man who called himself Letour and soon worked out that the man was suffering from amnesia, how he'd persuaded Letour to return to Metropolis where he could be cared for by his family and perhaps helped to retrieve his memory. The young superhero answered a couple of questions, finished with a stern, yet heartfelt request to leave both Clark Kent and his family in peace, then quickly flew away.

"Smooth, real smooth," Jimmy commented, smiling up at the screen.

Lois nodded while she closed her mouth, which had dropped open while listening to her son. "And he never said a word."

"You got to admit that Matt has his wits about him," Jimmy said quietly, glancing around to make sure no one was within listening distance, but staffers had gathered in front of other monitors, leaving their boss and the Planet's top reporter alone. "He didn't give out any more information than appeared in the Planet, but a personal appearance by Jor-El will probably satisfy the newshounds, and the appeal to stay away was a master stroke. The public are firmly behind their superhero and they're not going to appreciate any reporter harassing you now."

"I guess," Lois replied hesitantly. "I wish he'd spoken to me first though."

Jimmy laid his hand on Lois' arm and led her back toward her office. "Why, Lois? He did fine all by himself. Matt's growing up, my friend, and you have to untie those apron strings."

"Do you think I keep him on too tight a rein, Jim?" Lois watched his face closely as he opened the door for her.

He lowered his glance and thought for a few seconds. He'd known Lois for twenty years or so, had supported her through the good and bad times, had shared her laughter and her tears, so he decided she deserved his honest opinion.

"I think that occasionally you're a bit over-protective, but I understand why. You lost Clark because of the powers, but it turned out you never lost him; he just went AWOL for a while. That was a scary time for you, Lois, and nobody comes through that unscathed. It's natural you should worry about Matt… and he is young." Jimmy watched as Lois walked over to the couch and sat on its worn surface.

"But you think I'm a worrywart," Lois stated, resting her elbows on her knees and dropping her head into her hands. Suddenly her head snapped up. "Oh, my god! I'm turning into my mother!"

"No, Lois," Jim's reply was edged with laughter. "You've had a lot to handle on your own. Most mothers just have to worry about booze and drugs, or girls… not their sons flying off to save the world." He crossed over to the sofa and sat beside her. "But you're not alone anymore. Clark is back, and he's going to be OK, Lois."

"You believe that?"

"Yes, I do. Clark might have appeared mild-mannered, but I don't think I ever met a stronger man… and I'm not talking superpowers. That strength will help him get through this, and he has you. I'd say it's guaranteed he'll be fine."

"You know, you're right." Lois patted Jim's hand. "I believe that too. We've always managed to get through whatever fate throws at us. Why should this time be any different. I guess I'm just a little tired."

"That doesn't surprise me either. You've been working here, running off to the hospital at every spare minute and still trying to look after the kids. I don't know where you get your energy."

"I surprise myself sometimes, Jim, and I'm not getting any younger!"

She stood up as Jim grinned at her last comment. As far as he was concerned, Lois didn't look a day older than when she'd first met Clark and fallen in love.

"And talking of the hospital, I need to leave. Dan will be showing up there soon and I want to be there." Lois began shutting down her computer and clearing away her desk.

"Lois, come on. There's no way Scardino is gonna allow you into that interview. In fact, didn't he kinda warn you to stay away."

"Jimmy, I'm not a fool. Dan won't even know I'm there, but I want to talk to Clark right after Dan leaves. I'll stay and have lunch with Clark and I'll be back to help get the online evening edition put to bed. But I don't want to be home late. I have to spend some time with the kids before going back to see Clark tonight."

Crossing to stand in front of the desk, Jimmy suggested cautiously. "Why don't you give the hospital a rest for this evening. Have some quality time with Matt, Sara and Vicky. I thought I'd like to visit Clark again tonight. There's a ballgame live on TV and we could watch it together."

"Kinda like old times, yes?" Lois smiled at Jim. "OK, you're on. I think the kids and I would all appreciate a night at home, and I'm sure Clark also thinks I'm fussing over him too much. But that means I really want to see him this lunch time, so I'd better get my skates on." Lois grabbed her coat and purse and headed for the door. "See ya, Jim."

Jimmy almost let her go, but his voice stopped her as she opened the door. "Lois, Clark could never believe you fussed over him too much… and as far as Matt's concerned, you should trust his instincts more. After all, he has yours and Clark's genes. I don't think there could be a better combination."

"Have I ever told you that I have the best friends? I don't think I'd have gotten through these last years if you hadn't been around to support me, Jim." Lois found herself tearing up and she swiped at her eyes. "Now I better skedaddle before I embarrass myself. Bye, Jim. Oh, and by the way, Perry won't be in today, so you're in charge till I get back!"

And with that Lois was through the door and hurrying for the elevators.


The pre-lunchtime traffic in the city had been fairly horrendous and Lois feared that Clark's interview with Dan would be over by the time she arrived at the hospital. Of course, neither Dan nor his partner — she was sure there would be two agents — would have accepted her presence during their questioning, but surely she would be able to guage how the interview had gone by the way Dan greeted her.

Her first idea had been to wait until she saw Daniel leave before slipping in to see Clark, but she'd discarded that notion while driving. Lois had good instincts and she believed she knew Dan, even though a lot of water had flowed under both their bridges in these past years. Daniel would give her some sort of feedback and she was fairly certain she'd know if she'd been stonewalled.

So, with that thought in mind she didn't sneak up the back stairs, but boarded the elevator along with a couple of nursing personnel and pushed the button for her husband's floor. The moment the doors opened she was confronted by an older Dan Scardino, still dressed a little less conservatively than she expected, but looking in good shape for his age. Marriage and parenthood must be good for him. There was another man a step behind Scardino, but Lois didn't pay him much attention, though she did get the vague impression of a regular government-type employee. Instead she smiled and held her hand out to Dan, who quirked an eyebrow and returned her grin.

"Hi, Lois," he said, taking hold of her hand and, perhaps, holding onto it a moment longer than was mannerable. "I might have known you couldn't stay away. You always have to know what's going on."

"That's why I'm so good at my job, Dan. You used to be a bit like that yourself." Her tiny smile robbed her words of their sting.

"Yes, but aren't we both stuck behind a desk now? I kinda thought you'd moved into editing the Planet these days."

"I have, but I still like to keep my hand in now and then. I guess you're pretty much the same, or you wouldn't be here." As she began walking toward Clark's room, she saw Dan turn to his partner.

"Mike, give me a few minutes, will you? I'll meet you in the lobby." The man called Mike nodded and took the elevator, while Dan caught up with Lois.

"You're looking good… really good, Lois. But then you were always a beautiful woman."

"Are you flirting with me, Dan? I'll have to remind you that I'm a married woman, and you're a married man."

"Not flirting. Just reminiscing. I realized a long time ago that I never stood a chance with you. It was always Clark…"

Lois nodded, though her eyes misted over for the younger, more innocent people they'd been back in the days when her path had crossed with Agent Scardino. "And it always will be," she added quietly. "But I guess you got over your crush."

"Lois, it was more serious than a crush!" Dan remarked, sounding aggrieved. "But you're right. I did get over my… feelings for you, and now I'm very happy with my wife and daughter, but that doesn't mean I'm blind. You are still a remarkable woman. I was truely glad for you when I heard that new superhero had found Clark."

"Thanks, Dan. I appreciate your concern and I'm happy you found someone too." Lois glanced over at the tall agent, her gaze sincere, but after a moment she returned to present business. "I'm assuming, since you were leaving, that you've already conducted your interview with Clark. Oh, and notice I repressed my curiosity and didn't try to butt in."

"I couldn't have allowed that, Lois. I'm probably out of line talking to you now, but Mike's a good guy and he won't say anything." Dan looked over toward the elevators. "I can't stay for long, but I wanted you to know we're both satisfied that Clark has amnesia…"

"You've talked with the doctors?"

"Yes. We even caught up with Doctor Klein, though we didn't really need the doctors' diagnosis to confirm that Clark has lost his memory. Lois, he doesn't look well… and he didn't remember that he and I had ever met." A genuine look of concern crossed Dan's face. "I'd no idea he'd been injured so badly. Does he remember anything of his past life?"

Lois stopped walking and turned to face Dan, allowing him to see her pain. Clark had never understood her attraction for Daniel, but then both men had acted like two dogs fighting over a bone. Yet, when she'd been feeling insecure about Clark's constant running off, Dan had given her a sense of self-worth. In his own way, Dan had been kind to her… and from the look on his face, he still felt something for her. "He has some flashbacks, but that's about all… and he 'feels' the same as he always did, if that makes sense."

"Perfect sense!" Dan's wide-mouthed grin spread across his face as he spoke. "The one thing we did discover is that Clark loves you and the kids and he's over the moon to be home, but he's a dead end for any strategic information we might want. It's a few years since he was a prisoner in North Korea and he wasn't exactly in a position to learn anything. As for his years in China — he doesn't know anything we don't already know. My partner and I will recommend that no further action be taken. Neither you nor Clark will be bothered by the department again."

Relief flooded through Lois and her smile brightened. "Thank you, Dan. I know 'this' had to happen…" Lois waved her hand in the direction of Clark's room. "And I'm glad it was you who came."

"So am I, Lois. Take care and have a good life." Dan touched her arm gently then strode to catch the elevator car which had arrived on the floor.

"I will, Dan," Lois whispered, watching the doors slide closed behind Clark's old rival. "Now I have Clark back, the sky could fall and it couldn't destroy my happiness." Lois turned and hurried to be with her husband. Arriving at his door, she took only a second to compose herself and pushed her way inside.

"Hi, sweetheart," she greeted him with a short, though tender, sweet kiss.

"Lois, this is a surprise," Clark answered, pushing himself up and taking hold of her hands. "I didn't expect to see you till evening. You just missed those government agents."

"Actually, I didn't. I saw them leave. How did your interview go?"

"OK, I guess. They asked me a lot of questions… which I had no answers for, mostly. Mind you, I think some of the questions were meant to catch me out… just in case I was pretending to be an amnesiac, though why anyone would want to do that, I have no idea. I hate not knowing!"

"I'm sure they were just doing their jobs, but they seemed satisfied your memory loss is genuine." Lois slipped one of her hands out of his clasp and smoothed his hair back from his forehead.

"One of the agents, Scardino, said we knew each other?" Clark's puzzled eyes looked into Lois' face, his eyebrows raised in question.

"That's true. We met up with him many years ago when we were investigating a story. He was on the same case and he hung around Metropolis for a couple of months." Lois' heart ached at Clark's confusion, yet she felt justified in glossing over the circumstances; there was no point in raising old misunderstandings.

"See, that's what I mean. I haven't a clue who was my friend and who wasn't." Clark's shoulders shrugged in self-derision.

Lois dipped her head a little. "I wouldn't say that you and Dan were friends exactly… Passing acquaintances is about all."

"Well, he seemed an OK guy. Strange dress sense though. Do security agents usually wear Haiwiian shirts?"

Lois allowed herself to laugh. "Oh, you could say that Agent Scardino is one of a kind, but at least we don't have to worry about government interfence anymore. He told me we wouldn't be seeing him again. Now, how about lunch? I know how you hate the hospital food, so I visited the deli opposite the Planet on my way over. It used to be called Callards, but it changed hands two years ago. The food is just as good, though." Lois picked up the paper bag she'd placed on Clark's cabinet, before giving him her welcome kiss. "Oh, and there's been a change of plan for this evening. I'm spending time with the kids, and Jimmy is coming in to see you. I think he wants to catch up."

"Not sure I can do much catching up. I mean, I have no idea who or what Callards was, but I did like Jimmy, so getting to know him again would be good." Clark took the sandwich Lois handed him and took a bite. "Mmm, this is good, honey," he said around a large mouthful.

"There doesn't seem to be anything wrong with your appetite, which means that maybe you'll put on some weight. You're still much too thin, Clark. But I'm afraid you can't rely on me too feed you… I'm not exactly the best of cooks."

Clark stopped eating and placed his hand by the side of Lois' cheek. "Something tells me I didn't marry you for your culinary skills." His finger smoothed over her skin, touching gently the tiny lines by her eyes, which the years of his absence had etched on her face. "I have no complaints, Lois. I don't think I could have asked for a more perfect partner."

"For a spaceman, you really are a romantic… still! And I love it." For some moments, the food was forgotten as they shared another deeper kiss, but Lois' stomach rumbled and they drew back laughing.

"You need to eat too," Clark said, pointing at Lois' lunch, still lying forgotten on top of his bed cabinet. "And I also think it's a good idea that you spend some time at home with the kids. You need to rest. These last few days have been pretty hectic. I don't want you getting sick."

"Yes, Clark," Lois said obediently and started on her food.

"Somehow I don't think that's your usual response, honey."


The two continued to laugh and eat together in perfect harmony, choosing to ignore the fact that tomorrow 'the doctors' would arrive and Clark's surgery would be scheduled soon.


Perhaps Lois had decided on the direct approach, but much later in the day someone else chose to sneak up the back stairs of the hospital. Very quietly and carefully, Ralph Pinkerton eased open the heavy door and peered round the narrow crack. He was on the right floor, but he needed to check his preplanned route to Room 11 where he had been told that he would find Mr Clark Kent. A corridor stretched before him with doors on either side along its length, and a distance away it opened onto a square area where the elevators arrived at the reception and nurses' station. He glanced at the nearest door and saw the number 15 embossed on its surface. It appeared his source had been accurate, and Ralph was only a few steps away from getting a major scoop. He felt so pleased that he decided he'd have to slip his contact another 50 dollars, which was pretty out of character for Ralph. Still, it wasn't very often he got the 'big' story… In fact, make that never… and in the process he could pay back Lane and Kent and Perry White for all the times they'd made him feel totally inadequate.

It never occurred to him that perhaps they'd been correct. He just had a different writing style than required by the Daily Planet, and he was much happier in his present position at the Dirt Digger. At least there they appreciated his ability to uncover scandals… and even if his stories weren't always totally accurate, Ralph believed in the theory that there was no smoke without fire, and in the next 30 minutes or so — that was how long he figured he had before anyone else came visiting — he was going to prove that Clark Kent wasn't all he pretended to be. After all, no one could be that much of a boy scout!


The afternoon for Clark had been long and fairly uneventful, Lois' visit being the highlight of his day so far. He fretted over the fact that, no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn't remember meeting Agent Scardino before, which was hardly surprising since Lois had told him they'd shared only a short term association with the guy. Yet Clark hated his blank past and so for the intervening hours he'd found himself trying to recall his former meetings with Scardino — Dan as Lois had called him with ease. That had to mean she'd been familiar enough with the man to be on first-name terms. How familiar, though, he had no idea. It was so frustrating not to remember his friends, whether they were casual acquaintances or best buddies and Clark found himself with yet another nagging headache.

He'd decided to call for the nurse to administer some pain medication when his door opened quietly and a short, balding man in a shiny shark-skin suit entered the room. The stranger's eyes glinted eagerly as he sauntered across the floor to the side of Clark's bed.

"Hi there, Clark, old buddy," the man said heartily, his gaze straying over Clark's private room. "Nice digs! How ya doin', bud?"

Lines wrinkled Clark's brow as he studied his new visitor, taking in the man's round face and rather pasty complexion, which was not enhanced by the deep burgandy suit and matching shirt he wore… and Clark didn't need x-ray vision to know those broad shoulders were assisted by padding. Yet the man was grinning in a friendly manner which did deserve an answer. "I'm doing OK," he announced, returning the smile tentatively. "… but I'm sorry, I can't really place you. Are we… friends?"

Ralph tried not to smirk triumphantly. Yes! His source had been correct and Kent was suffering from amnesia… or was pretending to. Ralph had no idea what could be behind such a pretence, but he was determined to investigate and this time he was in the driving seat. This time his byline would appear on the only interview with Clark Kent, recently returned abductee from a foreign land… and if the story didn't have legs, there was always Ralph's well-honed imagination. He was about to make Kent famous!

The tic in Clark's jaw pulsed nervously, yet manners prompted him to explain apologetically. "You probably expect me to know who you are, but I just can't remember. It's nothing to do with you. I can't remember anything…"

"Hey, I understand, my man." Ralph smiled kindly. At least, he hoped his expression seemed sympathetic, but it was hard to hide his mounting glee as he thought of scooping Lane and Kent. "No worries. I heard you're having problems with the old memory. I'm… Eduardo… Eduardo Friaz." At the last moment Ralph decided to go incognito. No point in warning the opposition of his visit, but he'd just blurted the first name that came to mind. Now he could only hold his breath and hope that Clark hadn't already come in contact with Friaz since his return… though that seemed unlikely, as Friaz had moved up-state to live with his daughter.

Seconds passed as Clark waited for further information, but none was forthcoming, Mr Friaz appearing more interested in removing a piece of lint from his immaculate sleeve. "Eduardo Friaz?" Clark prompted. "Sorry, the name doesn't ring any bells."

Ralph's head came back up, his expression smoothing out in relief. This interview was going to be like taking candy from a baby. "Oh, we worked at the Planet together… for years… got pretty close, too." He pulled up a chair and made himself comfortable, one leg coming up to rest on the other. "When I heard you'd come home I was happier than a pig in sh… well, you know," Ralph ammended quickly at Clark's raised eyebrows. Geesh, Kent always was a prissy dude! "Anyway, I was downstairs following up a story in the ER and I just couldn't resist taking a few extra minutes to say hi to my good buddy, Clark Kent. Did I do wrong? I'll go if you don't feel up to having a visitor." Ralph feigned concern, while managing to convey hurt at Clark's possible rejection. Boy, this acting stuff came easily, he decided, sliding his hands nonchalantly into his pockets.

"No, no! To tell the truth, I was feeling bored." Clark said politely while shifting in his bed, glancing specutively at the emergency call button. "Now the initial tests are over, nothing much is happening, and it won't… not until the doctors arrive tomorrow…"

"Doctors?" Ralph asked quickly, sitting straighter in his chair, his radar on high alert. "Which doctors?"

"The doctors who are helping me get my memory back," Clark prevaricated, once again feeling uneasy… as if he were walking a tightrope. Not knowing who he was talking to was becoming increasingly frustrating… and he couldn't rid himself of the gut feeling that this old friend wasn't quite so solicitous as he pretended to be. "You know, I'm beginning to wonder why I agreed to come into the hospital so soon. I could have been treated as an out-patient instead." He steered the conversation away from the sensitive subject of doctors Ducos and Janik.

"Hehehe!" Ralph couldn't restrain a snigger. "You probably needed the rest. Maddog getting to you? Man, I don't know how you live with her. She's something else!"

"Pardon?" Clark croaked, feeling the hairs on the back of his neck start to rise. He didn't remember the nickname, but he instinctively knew to whom this Eduardo was referring.

Unfortunately, Ralph didn't recognise the warning signs and he leaned back, tipping his chair onto its back legs. "Mad dogLane! Oh, I guess you've forgotten the nickname. She's like a pitbull… which is good for a reporter, but I can see how annoying it could be if you were married to such a snooping control fre…"

"If you're referring to my wife, I'd advise you to stop right now…" Clark said coldly. "Lois is one of the main reasons why I miss home so much."

The chair crashed down onto its four feet as Ralph backpedaled, suddenly noticing his interviewee was now regarding him with suspicion. "Hey, no offence meant. Lois is a good-looking woman… a very good looking woman… for her age… For any age… I guess… I mean, I wouldn't say no…"

Clark swung his feet over the side of his bed, his headache forgotten, his heart racing with the angry desire to throw out this obnoxious visitor. "I have no idea who you are," he gasped through clenched teeth, "or if we worked together, but I very much doubt you were ever my… good buddy!" Clark sarcastically repeated the other man's earlier words.

Ralph's hands came up to protect himself. Kent was usually a placid guy, but he was scary when he was angry. "OK, so I might have embellished a bit, but we did work together… and I thought you might want to say a few words for an old colleague… just a short quote. Come on…"

"A quote? I have nothing further to say to the press!" Clark's lips closed in a thin line of disapproval as he pushed himself up from the bed.

Behind them, the door opened and James Olsen almost ran into the room, shocked by the sound of the raised voices which had reached him in the corridor, but he was unprepared for the sight which confronted him. CK was standing, facing down a slightly cowering figure who Jimmy had no difficulty recognising… even from the back. He'd know that bald spot and loud, snazzy suit anywhere.

"Ralph Pinkerton, how did you manage to sneak your way in here?" Jimmy demanded, hurrying forward to insert himself between the two antagonists.

"What's up with you guys?" Ralph asked, pitching for indignation, but sounding pathetic instead, as his glance flitted between Kent and Olsen. "Can't I visit a friend for old time's sake?"

"But you're not exactly an old friend," Clark suggested, confidence in his judgment growing by the minute. He'd felt this guy was a phony right from the moment he walked into the room.

"Not exactly, CK, and he's definitely not on your visitor list, either." Jimmy squared up to the now flustered Ralph. "Were you hoping to get some intimate details to embellish another of your scandalous exposes, Ralph? I'm surprised you bothered. Facts don't feature too prominently in his stuff, CK."

"So I've heard." Now the truth was out and Clark was no longer feeling threatened; he actually felt a little sorry for Ralph, who was squirming like a fish on a hook.

"Hey, I'm a member of the press, same as you two!"

Jimmy laughed, his eyes dancing incredulously. "You can't compare that rag of yours with the Daily Planet, Ralph. Anyway, you're busted, and I suggest you leave before we call security."

"I'll have you know The Dirt Digger has a huge following and I was just doing my job," Ralph protested while he backed toward the door, looking crowded as Jimmy followed him. "Don't tell me that either of you haven't done the same when chasing down a story…"

An unwelcome question assaulted Clark's mind. Had he and Lois ever resorted to such underhand tactics to investigate a story? The notion that perhaps they had was unpleasant… unthinkable… yet Jimmy was talking.

"You might find this hard to believe, Ralph, but neither Clark, Lois, nor I would dream of writing the half-truths and downright lies which are published in that excuse for a newspaper you work for, and if we've had to go undercover, then you can bet your life that the people we were chasing were criminals or conmen. I doubt any of us have betrayed an innocent colleague the way you were hoping to do. Now get out of here."

At Jimmy's upright, outraged stance, Ralph finally caved. "OK. Don't stress. I'm goin'… I'm goin', but you can't blame a guy for tryin'," he mumbled as he scurried out the door, thoroughly routed.

"That was Pinkerton?" Clark asked, staring at the closed door. "He said his name was Eduardo and that we used to work together."

"Yeah to all of the above!" Jimmy nodded. "Ralph worked at the Planet once; so did Eduardo, and believe me, he's a much nicer guy, but he retired after having a coronary a few years ago. Never thought Ralph would sink quite so low."

Climbing back into his bed, Clark leaned against the pillows. "I suspected he wasn't on the level… and when he started talking about Lois in that way… well… I guess I lost it. I wanted to knock him out." He shrugged in self-derision and ducked his head. "Not exactly a sterling reaction from someone who was once Superman."

"Don't worry about it. Ralph is enough to make a saint resort to violence. I've felt like punching him myself a few times since he's been working for the Digger… and, take my word for it, Ralph's been thrown out of many places in the past few years. We should just forget about him. A sleazeball like Ralph isn't worth the hassle."

"Probably not." Clark's voice steadied and his gaze came back up, as he recognized a certainty. "But I don't think I would have used force in the end."

"I know you wouldn't." Jimmy smiled in agreement. "That was never your way."

"And it's good to know that we had ethics… even when chasing down a story."

"CK, you were the most ethical journalist on the planet, which sometimes frustrated Lois, especially in the early days," Jimmy added with a grin. "But Perry was right when he made you two partners. You complimented each other; Lois' fire and tenacity and your search for truth and justice. Whatever it was you found together, it sure worked. You and she put more bad guys away than any other reporters. Lane and Kent were the hottest team in town, and I was proud to work with you both." Jim blushed and pushed his hand through his hair, disconcerted at his glowing testimonial.

However, Clark was smiling. "Thanks, Jim. I think I needed to hear that. You have no idea how scary not knowing who you were can be."

"Glad I could help. Now, why don't I get the beers I left outside the door and you find the channel so we can watch the game. It's almost time." He pointed at the clock on the wall and fetched the paper bag, out of which he pulled some bottles. "CK, you still a fan of the Kansas City Chiefs? 'Cause I got to tell ya, they're about to get their asses kicked by the Bills tonight!"

Allowing himself to be distracted from the subject of his erstwhile visitor and his own uncertainties, Clark answered without thinking. "Yeah, and don't be too sure of the result." He clicked through the channels with the remote control till the correct picture appeared on the TV screen, then, after a moment of reflection, he laughed. "To tell the truth, I haven't a clue who I support, but I think I would have liked to play this game."

"CK, you know, there's something I've noticed…"

"What's that, Jim?" Clark took the proffered bottle, which Jim had opened, and had another thought. "Have these beers been OK'd by the staff?"

"See, you are still a boy scout, which proves what I was going to say. You're pretty much the same CK you ever were, even without your memory." Jimmy grinned at his discovery, feeling smug as he pulled over a bigger and more comfortable chair. "And stop obsessing! Not only has it been OK'd, but Bernie is joining us…"

"Bernie likes football?" Clark's expressive eyebrows rose again.

"To tell the truth, I'd say he likes hanging out with you more than the game. Normally, Bernie's a solitary guy; a bit of a workaholic, but you, Lois and the kids are the closest he has to a family. I think he just wants to keep you company."

Clark's reply was silenced by the door opening and Bernie scuttled into the room, wearing a peaked cap with Kansas City Chiefs displayed across the front.

"Have I missed the start?" the doctor asked, sitting down in the chair vacated earlier by Ralph.

Jim winked conspiratorially as Clark answered. "No, Bernie, you're just in time. Would you like a beer?"

"Yes, please." A bottle was opened and passed to Bernie, who took a swig and coughed… and coughed… and had his backed patted by Clark. Seconds later, Bernie's breath settled, allowing him to talk. "You don't happen to have a glass, do you?"

Fishing a water glass from the back of his cabinet, Clark handed it over to Bernard. "Will this do? It's clean."

"Thanks," Bernie grinned sheepishly. "I never did get into the habit of drinking out of bottles… beakers yes…"

Both Clark and Jim laughed at Bernie's confession, but the conversation was interrupted by the action on the TV as the game got underway and there was silence as the three concentrated on the play. Finally, Jim spoke up and his voice sounded almost reverent.

"This is just like old times, Clark. You've no idea how great this feels."

Clark nodded. "I'm not exactly an expert on old times… but, yeah, it does feel good."

That was the truth, Clark decided as he glanced over at his friends. As each day went by, he grew more comfortable in the company of the people with whom he'd once been close, and this afternoon he'd discovered something else about himself. He'd met two strangers from his past and he'd instinctively known which one had proved a threat and which one wished him well… which wasn't bad for someone with no recollection. Jimmy was correct. His lack of memory had no bearing on who he was… what he thought about and believed in; who he cared for and loved… In all the important details, he was still Clark Kent, and no one could change that.


Chapter Twenty-One: Home

One more time, Lois found herself rushing through the front doors of Metro General. Did fate always conspire to keep her from her husband's side? As usual, work had been the villain of the piece, this time in the form of the Stern brothers. After the Lesley Luckaby fiasco, Perry had persuaded Franklin Stern to take the Planet back into the fold; in fact, since Luckaby's and his goblin-like master's actions had been both fraudulent and criminal, the government had frozen the company's assets, so technically there had been no sale. Perry had had a long 'cards on the table' chat with the media mogul, resulting in an assurance from Franklin that he would never again seek to be rid of his flagship newspaper. Of course, in turn for his commitment, the Planet was expected to move forward into the digital era of reporting, which had never proved to be a problem, until the old man had died and his twin sons had assumed the reins of his empire. Neither brother shared their father's love of the publishing business, being more interested in the billions of dollars which it generated. However, they had honoured their father's promise to Perry, though demanding more revenue from the newspaper and forcing it ever more into the high-tech age. They'd convened a meeting with the Planet's board members to raise the ongoing question of discontinuing the printed newspaper in favor of the online version — a suggestion which Perry and the older generation of Metropoleans opposed strongly, and Lois found herself in agreement.

She knew the younger members of society preferred to read off their PCs and laptops, or mobile phones, or any of the other current devices which carried the news in this day and age. Yet, in her opinion, there was something to be said for the old-fashioned way of sitting with a proper newspaper in your hand at the breakfast table, or as you commuted into the city by bus or bullet-train for your daily grind at the office or factory. Who ever heard of the comfortable refuge of hiding behind a Palm computer or a tiny mobile phone? One day actual newspapers would disappear, but Lois hoped not in the foreseeable future, and so, under protest, she had decided to accompany the Chief to this important meeting. After all, Perry had covered for her this morning when she'd wanted to be at the hospital with Clark for the arrival of Adrienne and Stephan.

The foreign doctors had duly examined Clark and declared he was in good enough physical condition to undergo the difficult surgery, while Bernard had spent the ensuing afternoon questioning the doctors and studying their proposed procedure. If, for any reason, Bernard felt uneasy with either the doctors' credentials or their suggested course of action then the surgery would not go ahead. Lois was well aware that such a decision would devastate Clark. He was willing to take any chance to restore his memory; however, his wife and loved ones were not prepared to risk his health and perhaps his life, and Clark had reluctantly agreed to abide by their decision.

Lois was hoping to be with Clark when Bernie delivered his opinion, so she quickly headed for Clark's room. Yet, she found Dr Klein the moment she stepped off the elevator. He was behind the nurses' station in serious discussion with Stephan Janik and another man whom Lois recognised as the department's senior consultant surgeon. Adrienne was nowhere to be seen, and Lois assumed she would be with Clark. As soon as Bernie heard the ping of the elevator he made a bee-line for Lois' side, causing Lois to believe he'd been lying in wait for her. Oh, she so hoped that the news wasn't bad.

"Good evening, Lois. I was hoping you'd arrive soon." Bernie was tapping rhythmically on a clipboard which he clasped tightly to his chest like a shield, and Lois couldn't tell whether his action was due to worry or excitement. "Clark's been waiting for you too."

"Oh, Bernie, I'm so sorry. I was held up at work," Lois explained, not stopping on her journey to Clark's room. "There was an unexpected board meeting to which Perry was summoned and I couldn't let him go alone, but I tell you, I could cheerfully have strangled Joseph Stern. He just doesn't know when to give up! The other brother is ready to compromise, but Joseph is far too stubborn for the Daily Planet's good. I'm afraid I left Perry holding the fort, but at least most of the board members are on his side…" Lois' tendency to babble was in full flight. "I came as soon as I could."

Secretly, Bernard thought that Lois was also someone who never knew when to give up. It was one of the things he admired about her, though it scared him silly too, at times. Thankfully, Lois would most likely welcome the news he had to impart and he wouldn't have to experience her wrath this evening. With that thought giving him courage, he stretched out a hand and stopped her progress.

"Lois, I've reached the conclusion that Clark's surgery should go ahead… and as soon as possible. Most likely tomorrow, if I can book an operating room and get all the equipment that Stephan needs set up, which shouldn't be too difficult…"

"You've decided, already? And so soon?" Lois asked, stopping dead in her tracks, the faint furrows between her eyebrows deepening in a mixture of shock and apprehension. "I was sure it would take you a couple of days to investigate the doctors and the surgery."

"I guess I thought that too, but, Lois, there's no denying that Dr Janik is a genius. I have no reason to doubt his skills as a surgeon, even though he's been quite honest in revealing the difficulties he's had in his past. I can't say I approve of that episode in his life, but there's no doubt he regrets his mistakes…"

"Do you trust him to operate on Clark?" Lois demanded, staring up into Bernie's face, searching for the slightest glimmer of doubt. There was none.

"I'm not always the best judge of people, but I do understand science, and Stephan knows his trade." Bernard returned Lois' gaze stalwartly. "You know I would never entrust Clark's life to a hack. Besides, even you admitted that these doctors risked everything to free Clark."

An abashed flush spread over Lois' pale skin. "Oh, I do agree, Bernie… and they didn't have to show up here. If they were the guilty party in Clark's abduction, then they would have run for the hills, not spent the last few years searching for him. That's what my head tells me, but my heart is afraid." Uncharacteristically, she took hold of Bernard's free hand. "He's just come back to me, and I'm so terrified of losing him again. We're talking brain surgery here. He could die!"

Beads of sweat broke out on Bernie's forehead. He'd been worrying over this question since early afternoon and he had to admit there were no certainties, yet somehow his instincts refused to believe the worst. "I won't lie to you. With every surgery there is a risk, and, you're right, even more so with neurological surgery. This is a delicate procedure, and one with which I have no experience. Yet, I don't intend to let Clark die. I'll be there through the whole operation, and I've asked the consultant surgeon who's been treating Clark to be in attendance. He's a good man, Lois, and an old friend. Stephan's agreed to his assistance and has spent the last few hours bringing Marvin up to speed. If it helps any, Marvin also believes we can succeed in removing the chips."

"You told Dr Temple about Superman?" she asked, aghast.

Bernard squeezed Lois' hand and turned it in his own, shaking it slightly. "Of course not. Marvin only knows that Clark was experimented on by placing chips in his brain… and he's sworn to secrecy because of the doctor patient confidentiality… not to mention he's a highly ethical man." Bernard's voice was reassuring and not reproachful. Lois had been through so much and Bernard understood her anxiety. "Even if he did spot that the chips are tinged with green, I doubt he'll associate them with kryptonite. And even if he does, Stephan will explain that all the chips were coated in the stuff and that the General decided to use Clark as a trial run before inserting the chips in Superman. But I doubt it will come to that. Marvin is just interested in giving Clark back as much memory as possible."

"You and Stephan seem to have talked the whole thing through."

"I thought that's what you wanted me to do, Lois," Bernie said in his defense.

"Of course I did, Bernie." She still clung to her old friend, but both continued walking towards Clark's room. "And it does make sense. Kryptonite wouldn't be lethal to Clark, but it would to Superman. I'm just so frightened of how Clark will react when he recovers and realizes how much he has lost." Lois halted, and looked up at Bernard, her eyes huge, yet infinitely sad. "Superman was a part of him… and he's lost that forever."

"Lois, I don't think that will be a huge problem. If I've learned anything about Clark over the years, it's that he sees the good in life… and he has you and the children. I think that will be enough for him… and, speaking of Clark, he's been expecting you to show up. If you don't get in there…" Bernie nodded his head at the door a little way in front of them. "I'm sure he'll come looking for you. Your in-laws and the kids are there too."

"And Adrienne?" Lois asked, her curiosity about the female doctor's presence finally getting the best of her.

"Actually, no. She went back to the hotel at around five. Seemingly longhaul flights don't agree with her and she wanted to be fresh for tomorrow's surgery."

"Jetlag? I'm not surprised. She did look a little peaky when they arrived this morning. But is Adrienne taking part in the operation? I thought she'd just be observing."

"Adrienne is going to be the anaesthesiologist. She understands the effects of drugs on Clark's physiology… and seemingly it was she who administered the anesthesia before. So it just seemed natural for her to assume the role… that's if you don't object, Lois?"

"No, I guess not. To tell the truth, I still don't know what to feel about Adrienne and Stephan, but I expect it's best not to introduce too many outside medical personnel into the procedure." Lois offered the elderly scientist a rueful smile. "You must rue the day you agreed to become Superman's physician. We've put you through so much trauma…"

"Lois, never think that. I've been honored to be Clark's doctor, and yours and the kids'. It means a lot to me to be considered your friends."

Bernard's skin was turning red as a lobster, but Lois, even knowing how uncomfortably her old friend dealt with emotions, wasn't about to let him off the hook. "Friend! Bernard, we don't consider you a friend…" She couldn't repress a happy giggle at the startled look on the doctor's face. "You're part of the family, Bernie." Lois leaned up and planted a firm kiss on his pink cheek, then turned to precede him into the room, but Bernie pulled her back, looking, if possible, more embarrassed.

"B… ernie?" Lois questioned, faltering a little over his name; was there something he wasn't telling her? "Is something wrong?"

"Wrong? No!" Yet he did look shifty. "I just thought that… well, I don't think you'll think it wrong…"

"Bernie, get to the point!"

He gulped. "I asked the staff to put an extra bed in Clark's room, and I spoke to Martha and she and Jonathan are going to look after the kids tonight. I think she brought you an overnight bag too." Bernie fished a handkerchief from his pocket and finally managed to mop his brow. "I… we… Martha and I, thought it would be good for you and Clark to spend tonight together…"

His words were cut off by Lois throwing her arms around his neck and she sniffled into his collar. "Oh, Bernie, that's so sweet. See, I told you, you're family." And this time she was off, pushing her way through the door, her lips smiling and her eyes gleaming, determined that nothing else would distract her from reaching Clark's side.


Dawn crept over the skyline of Metropolis and as the city stirred into life, Lois' eyelids fluttered open and she stretched slowly in the bed, feeling pleasantly languid. As her eyes grew accustomed to the dim light of the small room, she realized this was not her bedroom and she grinned smugly, spotting the empty cot, which Bernard had so thoughtfully provided, but which she and Clark had decided was unnecessary. She was with Clark. His arm lay heavily, yet familiarly around her waist and his body was curled close to her back on the narrow bed, while she could feel his breath gently stirring her hair. The sound of his steady breathing told her that he slept on, and for the moment she was content to let him sleep. Today was his 'big' day.

For some minutes, she stayed cocooned within his embrace, while she contemplated the previous evening spent with the kids and her in-laws. Mostly, it had been a happy occasion, the adults in the family putting aside their concerns about the coming surgery to reassure the younger Kents that their dad, who had so lately returned to them, would not be snatched away again. Clark had put on a brave front for the sake of his kids, but when they'd eventually left, the crinkled laughter lines around his eyes had deepened into shadowed trenches, showing Lois the exhaustion and stress which he'd kept valiantly hidden. She was glad he was comfortable enough to reveal his true self to her, but her heart ached for him. He was counting so much on the success of this surgery… but how would he react if there was no improvement? Strangely, it registered that the recovery of his memory meant less to her than it did to him, yet she found herself praying that he wouldn't have to experience more disappointment. But if the worst did happen, then Lois vowed she would spend the rest of her life creating new, wonderful memories for Clark. As long as they were together, they could face any problem.

She lifted Clark's hand from her waist and pressed a soft kiss into his palm, part of her mind hoping that he would wake, but he continued to sleep. A wave of desire swept through her, yet she pushed it away. Although, their relationship had grown deeper each day since his return, it appeared Clark wasn't ready for intimacy. He had some strange notion that he wanted to come to her as a whole person and, in an odd way, that suited Lois because she had been wrestling with her own lack of confidence. With the 'death' of Clark, her sexual life had drifted into limbo, haunting her only in dreams. She was definitely out of practice and wasn't at all sure if 'siren' Lois could ever return. But, now, lying tucked within the cradle of his body, she felt her passions stir, which was probably totally inappropriate on this particular day… in this particular place. They would have all the time in the world to explore later.

Lois decided to ease herself from the bed and go in search of coffee when the sound of the door opening distracted her. Had the medical team come to prepare Clark for surgery already? Sitting up, she was surprised to see Adrienne standing in the doorway.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to intrude," Adrienne stuttered, beginning to back out of the room. "I can come back later."

Momentarily, Lois was tempted to let Adrienne leave. She wasn't sure she wanted to chat with this woman whose presence was a reminder of the worst four years of her life. Yet, Adrienne and Stephan had traveled a long way to help Clark, and he would want her to be polite, at least.

"No, wait!" Lois called in hushed tones. "Let me get my robe. I was just going to look for a cup of coffee. Clark is still dead to the world and I think that's a good thing. He'll need all his strength to face the rest of the day." She pushed her arms into the sleeves of her terry robe and tiptoed to the door, where Adrienne was waiting. "There's still time for him to sleep," she said, checking her watch in the light shed from the corridor. "But perhaps it was Clark you wanted to talk to?"

"Not really," Adrienne admitted sheepishly. "I have arrived too early, but I couldn't sleep… and I just wanted to check in on Clark. I'm sorry. I didn't know you'd be here."

"Neither did I. Bernie… Doctor Klein thought it would be good for both of us to be together. Keep each other's spirits up and all that." Lois ducked her head, pushing her mussed hair behind her ears, disarmingly. "Though I'm sure if Clark saw me now he'd run straight back to China," she added, muttering to herself.

Yet Adrienne caught the uncertain words. She was shocked. How could this lovely, self-assured woman doubt herself? "No, Lois! He never would. Through it all, he never really forgot you." The French woman frowned, trying to verbalize her thoughts. "You know, that always puzzled me; how Clark could withstand the brainwashing… everything we did to him, but now I've seen the two of you together, I think I understand. You lend each other strength. Even when you're apart."

"Love gives us strength. Clark once told me that love was the strongest life force there is, and it took me a long time to understand that, but it's true." Lois began walking again, continuing her search for that much-needed shot of caffeine, yet she gave Adrienne a searching sideways glance. "You and Stephan are a couple?"

A blush colored Adrienne's face, but a guileless smile lit up her serious face. "We are. I've never really had a boyfriend before, and I think Stephan had given up on finding someone. But we promised ourselves we wouldn't take time to become a real couple until we'd found Letour and restored his memory to him."

Lois wasn't exactly pleased to make small talk about Adrienne's blossoming love life, but there was something she was eager to discover. "Well, you've found him and after today you'll have fulfilled your promise… So, what are you two going to do afterward?" Lois' pregnant question hung heavily in the air.

"We're going to Africa," Adrienne replied with a hint of excitement, unaware of an ulterior motive behind Lois' interest. "I met up with an old friend of my father's when we were helping out with the mudslide in China. He's still a member of Doctors Without Borders and they're always looking for personnel to work in the worst trouble spots. So we decided it would be a good thing for us to take him up on his offer. Do some good for a change."

Lois' sigh of relief was almost audible. Somehow, she felt she was more likely to feel charitable toward the couple from the distance of a few thousand miles. "Good. That's good. They're a very worthwhile organization."

"I wish I'd taken my father's advice a long time ago…"

"Well, it's never too late, I suppose." Lois said without much conviction. She sidestepped a nurse who was manipulating a drugs trolley from an office. The medical staff were apparently beginning their morning routine, and Lois jumped at the opportunity to change the subject. "Excuse me, Sandi," she said, recognising the pretty nurse, "but could you tell me where I can find myself a cup of coffee."

"Good morning, Mrs Kent and Doctor Ducos?" the nurse returned with a bright smile and a question directed towards the younger woman. She hadn't been on duty when Doctor Klein's foreign colleagues had arrived, though she'd heard the gossip.

"Nurse Sandi, Dr Ducos… Dr Ducos, meet Nurse Sandi." Lois made the introductions. "Dr Ducos, the nurses have been looking after Clark so well I think I'm jealous."

"No need for that, Mrs Kent. Your husband is a very sweet man, but I'm sure you know that already," Sandi admitted laughingly. "If you're looking for coffee, there's a drinks dispenser in the family room, but that stuff is dire. You'd prefer the coffee at the nurses' station and we'd be happy to share with you. It was nice to meet you, Dr Ducos, and if you need anything, just ask. Now, if you'll both excuse me, I gotta get to work. My patients need their medication."

Lois and Adrienne stood aside to let Sandi go on her way, then they headed to the reception area where the duty nurse poured them both large mugs of coffee, offering them a doughnut, which they declined, and the use of the office behind the desk, should they need to chat privately.

"I do have something to discuss with you, Lois, if you could spare me a few moments," Adrienne said haltingly. It was clear she was still a little unsure of Lois' opinion of her, and with good reason.

"Will it take long?" Lois asked, still feeling ambivalent about spending more private time than necessary with this woman, besides she wanted to get back to the room before Clark awoke.

Adrienne seemed to shrink within herself, but she persisted, opening the door to the office. "Not long, but it is important… Please, I have something to give you."

"Sure, I guess I can spare a few minutes." Lois' tone of voice was flat, yet she passed Adrienne and walked into the room, hearing the door close behind her.

"Thank you. The nursing staff are very nice… competent too," Adrienne muttered, shying away from the true subject of the conversation. "Metro General seems to have an excellent clinical reputation."

"Yes. I think we've already established that point." Lois' impatience was barely hidden. "Is that all you wanted to say?"

"No!" Adrienne protested. "Stay with me, please. I know I've given you no reason to like or trust me…"

"Adrienne, I don't have time to discuss whether I like you or not, but believe me, if I didn't trust either you or Stephan this surgery would not be going ahead."

One wall of the little office was glass and looked out onto the floor but slatted blinds marred the view; yet for some seconds, Adrienne's attention seemed riveted on what was happening outside. "I suppose I can live with that," she said softly. "We don't have to be friends for Stephan and I to do our best for Clark."

Lois sipped her coffee experimentally. "I believe you will… and I don't dislike you exactly," Lois admitted grudgingly. "Which is pretty strange, considering, because I've been known to hold a grudge against those who attack my family. Make Clark well and who knows, we might become better acquainted."

"Perhaps this might help." Adrienne turned and took a couple of steps toward Lois, holding out a small package.

"What's that?" Lois regarded the item with suspicion. "I don't want a gift!" she objected, dumping her coffee mug on the nearest flat surface and spattering brown splotches over the files lying on the cabinet top. Distractedly, she tried to blot them dry with her hands. "I don't know what sort of life you've led, Dr Ducos, but you can't buy my approval."

"But it's not a gift. At least, not from me…" The French doctor's voice became insistent. "Please, just look…"

Concluding that it wouldn't hurt to look, with a reluctant shrug, Lois took the parcel, unwrapped it and shook the contents into the palm of her hand. Suddenly, the air around her became charged with expectancy. Her eyes focused on the small gleaming band of metal, while her heart shifted into an erratic beat. Instinctively… protectively, her fingers closed around the object. "Oh my god!" she said, trying to keep the wobble from her voice and her gaze rose to lock with Adrienne's. "Clark's wedding ring." Even without reading the inscription engraved inside, she'd know his ring anywhere.


"You took it from him? Just how long have you had it?" The questions were fired at Adrienne like bullets from a gun. "And why didn't you give it back to us in China?"

"Please, Lois, I can explain. I didn't take it… not back then. Hyesan wanted Superman stripped of everything that would link him to his past, so he ordered the guards to destroy the suit. To tell the truth, there wasn't much left of it when he arrived at the bunker." Adrienne shuddered as she relived those terrible times, but her voice didn't falter. "It fell to Teo to do the job… and if it means anything, I think Teo would have saved the suit too, if it had been possible. Only Hyesan wanted to see it burn. He held a little ceremony, of sorts, as he wiped the vestiges of Superman from the face of the Earth. He didn't know that Teo had searched the suit and found the ring in a secret compartment in the belt buckle. No one knew. You can have no idea how dangerous that was for Teo. If Hyesan had discovered his subterfuge… Well, let's just say that soldiers who disobeyed the General's orders didn't live long." Her tone dropped low, yet her expression was admiring at the thought of the Korean guard's bravery. "But Teo hid it and kept it safe, all that time. When Stephan and I left to look for Letour, Teo came to say goodbye, and he entrusted this to me. I would have mentioned it when we last met, but the ring was in our baggage, buried alongside all our possessions in the jeep and I didn't know then if we could retrieve anything… and we did have other things on our minds. After you left with Clark and things settled down at the disaster site, some Chinese rescue workers were kind enough to dig the jeep out of the sink hole. The ring was the first thing I looked for. Teo hoped that one day I could return it to its rightful owner, and I couldn't let him down, but I think that honor should be yours… and I know Teo would approve."

Fresh tears clung to the tips of Lois' lashes as she listened, without interruption, to Adrienne's narration, then she opened her hand once more. The precious ring, which seemed to have suffered almost as much trauma as its owner, sparkled in the over-head lighting. "Thank you, Adrienne… and I wish I could tell Teo how much this means to me… to Clark. Perhaps one day we can…" Yet she fell silent at Adrienne's brief shake of the head. Lois realized, sadly, that her wish might not be possible, but she refused to think gloomy thoughts… This particular homecoming was a good omen. "But I thank Teo from the bottom of my heart. Now I know everything will work out well… and I do trust you… and maybe some day things might be better between us," she finished on a hiccuping laugh. "Right now, I have to see Clark. I have something to do. But we'll talk later… Sit down with a proper cup of coffee…"

"I think I'd like that…" However, Adrienne was talking to an empty room, but she felt a lightness in her soul as she widened the slats of the blinds to watch Lois hurrying down the corridor. Today promised to be a momentous one and she had work to do. If only Clark's surgery was successful, then she, Stephan and Teo could perhaps be forgiven for the wrongs they had committed.


Lois pushed open the door of Clark's room gently, careful not to disturb him if he should still be asleep. After all, they'd talked long into the night, about everything and nothing… both afraid that this could be their last real conversation, yet both afraid to voice that dreaded fear. Sleeping late was a good thing for Clark, as it gave him less time to fret before they took him off to the OR. She was probably doing enough worrying for both of them, anyway.

While she'd been gone, Clark had turned onto his back, and a thin beam of sunlight had crept across the floor to brighten the foot of his bed. Soon it would reach his face and he would awaken. Lois glided silently to the side of the bed. Sentimental tears blurred her eyesight and she tried to blink them away. She had always loved watching Clark… even before they were a couple, though she'd denied that vehemently for a very long time. Now, she allowed herself to glory in the sight of his beauty. She supposed most men would be uncomfortable with that description, but she couldn't help herself; he was her beautiful Clark. And now, she was about to reclaim him as her own.

Lifting his left hand, she returned his wedding band to its rightful place. "Sweetheart," she whispered, her voice as warming as a caress from the morning sun. "A wicked man made it impossible for you to keep your ring safe, but someone else fulfilled your vow. I might never get to meet this Teo, but to me he will always be a hero. Just as you are my Superman… with or without the powers." Lois bent her head and kissed the ring, her tears falling on Clark's skin. He stirred.

"Lois?" His head came up lazily. "Lois?" His second question was edged with worry. Why would she be crying. "What's wrong?"

Lois straightened up to face him and the look of tender joy writ so clearly on her face calmed his anxieties. "Wrong? Nothing is wrong. I was just replacing something that had been lost."

It was then Clark noticed that Lois was holding his left hand. "A ring, you bought me a new wedding ring? Oh, Lois…" Clark swallowed hard, a lump in his throat preventing him from saying more.

But Lois shook her head. "Not a new one. Your wedding ring. Teo found it four years ago and rescued it, then he gave it to Adrienne, who gave it back to me this morning. She thought I should be the one to place it back on your finger."

Clark opened his hand and held it out, staring at the golden band. It felt so right… so… "Safe! As safe as my love for you," he whispered wondrously, not knowing where that thought had come from. He looked up to see Lois staring at him with her eyes wide.

"You remember that?"

"I've said that before, haven't I?" His brow creased, a sure sign he was trying to recall the circumstances. "Sorry. I don't know when, or why…"

"It doesn't matter." Lois smiled, masking a tiny frisson of disappointment. She stretched out her hand and placed it over his, letting her finger caress the ring. "It's in the past and we have the future…"

Clark nodded his head at their joined hands. "And that's part of the past too," He said uncertainly. "I suppose it doesn't look too bad…"

"Clark, stop! We can't change what happened to your hand… and you said you never thought about it now." She let her fingers stray from the ring to the stump of his middle finger. "Wearing your ring doesn't make a difference."

Whenever Clark faltered, Lois was there for him, holding him up, helping him to go on. "Yes. Yes, it does… but only for the better. You're right, sweetheart. What does the tip of a finger matter, when I have so much." Now it was Clark's turn to drop a kiss on their clasped hands. "I don't know what will happen today, Lois, but right now, I want you to know that I have everything I need."

Suddenly, Clark, realized that was true. He'd been concentrating so hard on what he'd lost, that he'd hadn't appreciated what he'd found… and strangely, as often happened between them, Lois tuned into his thoughts. "I understand, Clark, but don't feel bad. You have every right to remember your past, and according to the doctors, the surgery should work well. So I don't want to hear any negative thoughts…"

There was a soft swish of the door behind them and a younger voice interrupted Lois' stricture. "Hey, Dad, I'd listen to Mom, if I were you! When she gets that tone in her voice, you know she means business," Matt announced, walking into the room with his easy gait, so reminiscent of his father's. He regarded his parents with amusement, recognising that he'd butted in on an intimate moment. "If I'm in the way, you know I could always go and come back later."

"Matt, behave!" Lois ordered, side-swiping his arm as he came to stand next to her. "You know you're welcome, but I must admit I didn't expect you at this early hour." Like most other teenagers, Matt had difficulty getting out of bed in the mornings for school, though all the Kent kids had been excused from school today.

"Oh, orders from Uncle Bernie and the team. They want me to donate some blood, just in case Dad should need a transfusion," Matt confided, but rushed on as he saw the horrified look on his mother's face. "It's just a precaution, Mom. They cross-matched our blood yesterday and everything is set to go. I just thought I'd look in and say good morning before I go and let 'Uncle Dracula' do his thing."

Lois glance shifted from her son to her husband. "You knew about this?"

A guilty blush covered Clark's skin and his lips quirked apologetically. "We talked about it yesterday when you were at work. I'm sorry, Lois, I should have mentioned it last night, but I assumed Bernard would have told you…"

"And we spent most of last night pretending today wasn't happening. I know," Lois admitted, grudgingly, when another thought rose to trouble her. "Just how do they intend getting this blood from you, Matt. You're invulnerable."

At the thunderous look on his mother's face, Matt began to retreat toward the door. "Would you look at the time! Bernie's expecting me… I've got to fly… well, not literally."

"Matt!" Lois metaphorically stamped her foot.

"You know, Mom. The K thing. But don't worry, it'll only be a very short exposure. I'll be fine. It hardly hurt at all, yesterday, though that was just a green needle." In desperation, Matt, looked at his father. "Dad and I had this conversation with Uncle Bernie, so he can explain. See you both later." The door swung shut behind him, leaving his speechless mother with only one source of information… a source who was looking very uneasy. Lois turned, with that certain 'don't mess with me' look upon her face.

"Honey," Clark said, experimentally. "I really did think you knew about this, but you don't have to worry. Bernard explained it all to us. Matt is susceptible to Kryptonite, but it appears that your genes have given him some immunity."

"If he's immune, then that rock wouldn't make his skin pervious," Lois challenged. "And we know that's not true, because he's already been pierced by a kryptonite needle."

"Well, no, he's not exactly immune. But that puncture wound healed up immediately." Clark tried for a little optimism, but seeing his wife's expression, he decided to tread carefully instead. Clearly she was worried enough about his surgery without having the added concern of her son being exposed to kryptonite, which was completely understandable. "Bernie said some immunity. The two of them have been running tests, but I thought maybe you knew that." At Lois' deepening scowl, he tried again to placate her. "To tell the truth, I don't completely understand, but it seems Bernard's discovered that Matt doesn't suffer so badly, and recovers much quicker than I did from kryptonite radiation. Remember, this is all new to me. Until several days ago, I didn't know a thing about superheroes or kryptonite."

Lois, grudgingly, saw the truth of Clark's statement, and realized he was hardly to blame for Bernie's or Matt's previous actions. In fact, she understood Matt's determination to help his father. He'd risk anything to make sure his dad survived this surgery, and if Clark needed a transfusion then there was only one person who could donate that blood. She could hardly stay angry at her son for wanting to ensure that his father lived… nor could she really blame Bernard for doing his job… keeping alive any of the Kent family who needed his unique talents.

Very quickly, Lois let go of her annoyance, patting Clark's arm, which was stiff with tension. "OK, don't look so worried. I'm fine. I guess I was more upset about being kept in the dark than what I was being kept in the dark about… if you catch my drift. I'm sure Bernie knows what he's doing. He's never let us down before."

"That's not something I can remember, but I'll take your word for it, sweetheart," Clark replied with a relieved sigh, feeling that he'd just missed a bullet, and he was saved from any further confrontation by his door opening again, this time to allow Nurse Sandi into the room.

"Good morning, Mr Kent," Sandi said brightly as she brought a tray to the bed. The smells which wafted from under the covers enticed Clark's taste buds, and the nurse, seeing his eyes light up, continued apologetically. "I'm sorry, this breakfast isn't for you, Mr Kent. You can't have anything to eat because you'll be going to the OR later this morning, but Dr Klein suggested that Mrs Kent should have breakfast, to keep her strength up. It could be a very long day."

Accepting the tray, Lois sat and, giving Clark a sheepish glance, she started to unenthusiastically dip into the full breakfast. She really didn't have an appetite for the food, but Sandi was watching closely, a fussy mothering look on her face. However, as soon as the nurse was satisfied that Dr Klein's orders were being obeyed, she left the couple together with the information that the doctor would be in shortly with Clark's pre-op medication.

"I'm sorry, Clark," Lois said. "I really don't want this food."

Clark shook his head. "Bernie's right. You should eat what you can. One of us being sick is enough. I just wish they'd get this show on the road. This waiting is getting on my nerves."

The tray with its forgotten food was dumped unceremoniously on a trolley and Lois came to sit on the side of Clark's bed, encircling him in her arms. "I feel exactly the same, honey. But it won't be long now, and maybe we could think up a nicer way to pass the time than me eating food I definitely don't want, and you feeling envious watching me."

That brought a smile to Clark's face and he cocked his head a little to look at her. "Oh, and what do you have in mind, Mrs Kent?"

Lois moved very close to Clark until she could feel his breath on her lips. "Perhaps it would be best if I showed you…"


The orderlies lifted Clark with ease from his bed to the gurney which would transport him to the OR. The fact that this phenomenon didn't strike him as strange was testament to his loss of memory. He had no inkling of his once-dense molecular structure and Lois, Matt or Bernie hadn't given him much information on his past physiology. There would be time for that later — post surgery.

Clark was already feeling a little woozy, thanks to the medication, yet he managed to dredge up a smile for his wife and son as he was made comfortable on the trolley. They were standing close together by his side, Lois' free hand firmly locked in Matt's, while the other cupped Clark's face, stroking his cheek. In the week since his return, the gesture had grown very familiar and safe… and for an infinitesimal moment, he suddenly dreaded that he would never experience Lois' touch again.

Terror slithered through him, tightening his throat. Perhaps he'd been wrong to insist on this surgery, or at least, immediately. How could he bear to lose them so soon, or inflict such a loss on his family again?

"Sweetheart, you'll be back with us in a few hours. You'll see! Bernie and the others will take good care of you."

Had Lois read his mind? He'd been surprised by how often they'd been able to sense each others' thoughts. Was that another of the powers he'd lost? Maybe that was something he could investigate when he recovered? A strange calm settled over Clark and he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that he would survive. Lois had loaned him her strength once again and he wouldn't disappoint her.

"Of course I will, Lois. This is just the beginning…" he said, the medication slurring his words a little.

"Not the beginning, Clark. Our life together never ended. This is just the continuation of the…"

"Rest of our lives together." Clark finished her thought, and Lois bent over him and placed a lingering kiss on his lips.

He didn't need to die to go to heaven. Clark had heaven here on Earth.

"Lois, it's time."

Another male voice interrupted Clark's drifting reverie and opening his eyes once more he saw Bernard, hovering behind Lois' shoulder. He'd forgotten Bernie had come with the medical staff to accompany him to the OR. The old doctor seemed a bit of a worrywart, but even that thought made Clark feel secure. He was in good hands… but there was something else he had to say…

"Lois, I have loved you from the beginning." His voice seemed very far away, even to his own ears. "And I'll love you till the end."

"Dad, that beginning was only a few days ago, and don't go talking about 'ends,' because that's not going to happen."

Matt's voice sounded chirpy, perhaps too much, and Clark roused himself to study his son. Behind the joviality, Clark could see the spectre of fear shadowing Matt's eyes. Clark couldn't bear his son's pain. He stretched out a hand to Matt and the boy caught it quickly.

"Don't worry, Matt. I don't plan on dying for many years to come. Just look after your mother for me till I come back. She has a tendency to get herself into some very tight spots."

The gurney was wheeled out the door and both Lois and Matt had to let go of Clark's hands to let the orderlies manipulate their patient into the corridor. Clark lost sight of his family for a moment as he was pushed down the corridor toward the elevator, so he didn't see them exchange a puzzled glance.

"Did you tell him that about me, Matt?" Lois hissed quietly.

"No! We decided we wouldn't discuss Superman much. Didn't we? And, Mom, I wouldn't dare tell him anything about you."

Bernie leaned closer to mother and son and whispered. "I'd say it was another of those little flash insights that Clark gets. There's nothing like facing a traumatic experience for concentrating the mind." The trio had fallen behind the gurney, which had arrived with its entourage at the elevator. "Lois I really need to go. The team is waiting for Clark, and the sooner we get started, the sooner this will be over. But don't expect this to be a quick operation. It's very delicate surgery…"

"We know, Uncle Bernie. You've reminded us of that a few times since yesterday," Matt said, leading his mother quickly down the passageway.

"I'm fussing too much?" Bernard asked, hurrying anxiously along beside the two Kents.

"Maybe a little," Lois said gently. "But we love you for it. Just take care of Clark and we'll let you fuss as much as you like."

They reached the elevator as the doors opened and Lois barely had time to kiss Clark's cheek before he was taken inside.

"Bye, Lois," Clark whispered, already feeling very sleepy. "Bye Matt. Take care of your mother and sisters…"

With surprising sprightliness, Bernie squeezed himself into a corner of the car. He would be inside the OR in a supervisory position and he took his promise to watch over Clark very seriously.

"Sleep well, my love. I'll see you soon…" Lois called through the closing doors, then, losing the will to be resolute, she slumped sideways against Matt, her head coming to rest on his shoulder.

"Mom!" Matt cried, holding her up. "Are you OK? Please, don't be scared. You heard Dad. He's coming back to us and he'll remember everything."

"I don't care if he remembers or not." Tears welled up in her woeful eyes. "I just want him back."

Matt felt his world shift beneath his feet. He hated to see his mother downcast and he sought for the words which would give her back her spirit. "Me too, Mom. But I really do think he'll be OK. He survived all those years with just the dream of you to keep him going. Now Dad has the real you, he's not about to give up," Matt said with a wisdom beyond his years, pressing a kiss on Lois' brow. "Come on, let's go get you some chocolate. You always feel better when you've had some chocolate."

"Thank you, Matt." Lois turned to hug her son, but now her grip was firm and her voice brighter. For a few seconds the two Kents clung to each other, then Lois pushed back, taking charge once more. "You know, we need to go phone Grandma Martha to tell her it's begun. Your grandparents are going to bring the girls over later, though I have a feeling Sara won't be able to stay away too long. She wanted to come over first thing this morning and I only convinced her to stay home to keep Vicky company. Come on. We can use the phone in your father's room… You know, I have no idea why everyone still believes I eat chocolate as comfort food. Maybe years ago, but I'm a grown woman!"

"Mom! It's not just kids who like chocolate…"


Chapter Twenty-two: The Power of Love

The afternoon sun spilled through the window of the townhouse on Hyperion Avenue, bathing those in the family room in its benign glow. Not for many years had Lois, Clark and their three children spent a Saturday afternoon at home, but from the muted giggles from young Vicky, the more serious hushed tones of her sister, the steady soft snoring of Clark and the comfortable silences from Lois and Matthew, all members of the family were content to be together.

Lois frowned at the screen of her lap top as she highlighted yet another mistake in a travel article for the Planet's Sunday edition. She hated editing non-news items, particularly badly written, long-winded ones. But it did mean she could work from home, while Perry, with Jimmy's help, dealt with the real editorial work of the newspaper; she refused to call the Planet a news-medium, which made it sound like some spooky supernatural publication. The Stern brothers' instructions be damned!

With a grimace, she saved the offending article for the present and leaned back in her chair, moving into the full gleam of sunshine streaming in the window. Matt and Jimmy had rearranged the furniture a few years ago so a larger work desk could be moved into the house and the only spare space had been in front of the two windows. From her position, she looked over at her family, and a smile relaxed her face. It was time for a break from work. After all, she was working from home so she could spend time with Clark and her children.

Six days ago, as she'd waited in Metro General for Bernard to come and tell her that Clark had come through the surgery successfully, she would never have believed Clark would be back at home. Granted, two dressings still covered the surgical wounds and his hair was barely more than a dark stubble, but everyone was amazed by his progress. Not exactly super-healing, but definitely more enhanced than a normal human's and Bernie and the medical team had seen no reason to turn down Clark's pleas to recuperate at home.

But if Clark was healing physically, his memory was no better than before.

Silhouetted in the clear light, Lois's brow creased sadly and she swallowed a sigh. It broke her heart to see the frustration in the depths of his eyes, no matter how he tried to mask his feelings. He always had a grin and a cheerful word for his children and his parents, but sometimes he let his guard down in front of Lois… yet, while she was still grateful to be trusted with his doubts and insecurities, she found herself hiding her own worries for his sake. She'd truly believed she wouldn't care if his memory never returned, but now Lois admitted she hadn't been honest with herself. She wanted the return of the man she'd married all those years ago. Their shared past had forged the bond they had today… and their past had been beautiful. Clark deserved to remember his history.

Thankfully, the prognosis on Clark's amnesia wasn't totally bleak. All the doctors had assured him that the return of his memory could take time, and perhaps Lois would agonize less if he weren't so exhausted. She was used to Kryptonians being superfit and brimming with life… sometimes overly so. Yet, since the surgery, Clark spent a lot of his time sleeping. Bernie said she was fretting for nothing. Over the years, the scientist had deduced that injured Kryptonians had the ability to sleep soundly while their bodies recuperated. Clark was certainly dead to the world around him as he napped on the couch. He'd found his way there after lunch, as he had the day before, only this was a weekend and the kids were home.

Matt was sitting quietly in the armchair in the corner, catching up on some homework he'd fallen behind on while carrying out his super duties. This had been Lois' fear, but she had to admit that Matt's school work wasn't suffering. She was proud of her super son, though she still had to play the 'heavy' parent on occasion. Despite his abilities, Matt needed to be treated like a normal youngster… and Lois wasn't such a doting mother to believe her son was perfect.

A muffled shriek drew Lois' attention to the girls, who'd cleared a space between the two sofas where Sara was trying to teach Vicky some of her simpler gymnastic moves. Sara's grace seemed effortless while Vicky was still in the ungainly colt stage, and she was giggling uncontrollably at her efforts to emulate her sister.

"Girls, shush! Your father is sleeping," Lois reminded her daughters. "If you can't be quiet, you should take your exercises upstairs. In fact, there really isn't much room there, perhaps you should…"

Lois' suggestion was cut off by the phone ringing and she reached to pick it up quickly, hoping Clark would not be disturbed. "Hello, Kent residence!"

"Lois? Is that you?"

The voice from the other end of the line was soft and lilting, and Lois had no difficulty in recognising her caller. After all, she only knew two Scottish people.

"It's Marge," said the voice, nevertheless.

"Marge! How nice to hear from you," Lois answered sincerely. She'd quickly grown to like this couple who had taken a very lonely vagabond into their family and made a home for him. "How's life in China? Are they beginning to repair the damage of the mudslide? Though I'm sure that's got to be a massive job."

"Massive, indeed," Marge agreed. "It'll be a long time before things are back to normal… if ever. They can never bring back the poor people who were lost, but the ones who are left are tough. They'll survive… and hopefully some lessons will be learned. Those loggers might be forced to obey the laws from now on!" Anger built in Marge's voice and Lois heard her take a deep, calming breath. "But don't get me started! Mac says I have a tendency to get on my soap box… and that's not what I phoned to talk about. Besides, Mac and I aren't in Jilin."

"You're not?" Lois was surprised. She'd only known the Macs for a very short while, yet she'd believed they were dedicated to the research centre.

"No. We're back in Scotland for now. Mac was helping with the cleanup when he took a little 'turn.' Nothing serious, but he's not as young as he was. The Centre's administrators suggested we take some of our overdue leave, so here we are, back home for a rest. Actually, it's good to see the old country and to catch up with family and friends… but I didn't call to talk about that either. How is Clark?"

"Clark's good, settling back in pretty well. Though it is strange for him… which is only to be expected… and everyone is very happy to have him home, of course."

"Well, of course… and it's understandable that it's going to take him a while to get used to being home. Metropolis is a big city after our little backwater. He's lived on his own for a long time, too," Marge said, kindly, feeling her way. "And the operation? Stephan was able to operate?"

"Yes. Clark had the surgery last week. He was discharged from the hospital the day before yesterday."

"Oh, my, that was quick."

For some seconds the line sizzled with the sound of silence, broken first by Marge. "And his amnesia? I'm taking it that maybe the surgery didn't go so well."

"Actually, Clark's recovering very well physically. Even his headaches seem to have gone," Lois said quickly, not wanting to worry the woman who'd obviously grown very fond of Clark. "Though he's sleeping a lot."

"That's a good sign. Isn't it?"

"Yes, that's what Bernard, our doctor, says." Again Lois sighed. "But so far his memory is no better… and, Marge, he's so disappointed." Lois turned away from her children to face the open window, keeping her voice hushed. At last, she let go of her worries, knowing she had a sympathetic ear. "Stephan and Adrienne told us we should be patient… that those chips were inside Clark's head for years and it will take time for his brain to recover… even from the surgery…"

"That does sound reasonable," Marge replied encouragingly. "I think it's much too early to start fearing the worst."

"I know… and I do try to stay positive and encourage Clark to have faith." Lois stared out the window at the world busily going by on the Avenue. "I just wish I could see a sign that they're right."

"I'll say a little prayer for you both. my dears. After all you and Clark have been through, you both deserve happier times, and I'm sure they're just around the corner." There was another pause, as if Marge was trying to decide whether to continue. "By the by, are our doctors still in Metropolis?"

"No, not anymore. They've gone to work with an aid agency in Africa, Doctors Without Borders. They've an idea that if they spend the rest of their lives doing good it might atone for the wrongs they committed. Personally, I'm not sure there's enough time in the world…"

"Well, I'm inclined to agree with you. Though I'm sure it's better working to help people than getting involved with another unscrupulous employer."

"I'll give you that, and it's much better than having them stay in Metropolis." Lois bit down on her lip and sat up a little straighter. "Listen to me! Marge, I sound like a crabby, ungrateful woman. I know they saved Clark's life, and I got to know them a little better while they were here. They're not bad people."

"In my experience, you don't need to be evil to do bad things. You just need to be weak and make some bad choices, and I'm sure Adrienne and Stephan fall into that category. Lets just be thankful they found the courage to do the right thing in the end. And, Lois, you're not crabby nor ungrateful, but you're probably under a lot of stress. You need to take care of yourself too."

"So my in-laws keep telling me," Lois concurred with a tiny grin.

"Good, they sound like sensible people."

"Oh, you'd like them, Marge."

"Maybe I'll get a chance to meet them and your lovely children sometime soon. Mac and I were thinking we might go back to China via Metropolis. But don't you worry, we'll be dropping in on you any day now. Mac has to get the OK from his doctors before we can think of returning to the Centre."

"That would be lovely. I know Clark would be so pleased to see you both again… and I would too. I'd like the chance to say a proper thank you for all you did for him."

"Thank you, dear, but it was our pleasure to help Clark." Lois was sure Marge was smiling. "Now I really should go. Mac keeps tapping his watch here. I'm sorry to say he's a typical canny Scott when it comes to counting the pennies. You have no idea how shocked he is by the cost of living in the old country these days!" A laugh tinkled down the line. "He sends his love to you and Clark… and give your family our best wishes too."

"Bye, Marge. Thank you for calling… and remember you're welcome here anytime."

"I will. Bye, bye… and, Lois, my dear, you keep on looking for that sign… You'll find it soon."

There was a click of the phone being replaced on its cradle on the other end of the line, yet for some moments, Lois sat very still. "Yes, Marge," she whispered to the blue sky above her. Slowly, she put down her own phone and turned to face the center of the room, in time to see Vicky launch herself into a handstand. The young girl swayed vertically for some precarious seconds, then her feet inched too far over her point of balance. With a scream, she tumbled down, twisting herself sideways to avoid falling flat on her back. Yet her momentum carried her directly into her father's body, from where she slid onto the cushions and finally to the floor.

The moment Lois saw Vicky start to fall, she was up and running, but she halted, momentarily, watching in horror as Vicky collided with Clark. Oh, my god, were either of them hurt? She continued on to the scene of the accident, but some of her worries were relieved when Clark sat up, somewhat startled.

"What was that?" Clark demanded, groggily, his hand automatically going to rifle through his buzz-cut hair.

Vicky climbed to her knees, seemingly no worse for wear. "I'm sorry, Daddy. That was me. I was practicing a handstand… and I fell on top of you. I'm not very good, yet," she admitted with a gamin grin.

Clark returned her smile, her face barely level with his own. "That's OK, Princess Tory. No damage done." He yawned and leaned back on his elbows, almost settling back to sleep when he realized his wife and kids were staring at him. "What's up? I'm not bleeding, am I?" He padded his bandages while he scanned his body, but could see no wounds nor feel any extra aches and pains.

"What did you call me?" Vicky demanded, accepting her elder sister's hand to get back on her feet. "Daddy! What did you say?"

"You mean Princess Tory?" Clark said, looking bewildered, his hand involuntarily returning to rubb at the edge of his gauze dressing.

"Yes, Dad," Matt replied, joining the group by the couch. "But you haven't said that since you came home."

"Huh?" Clark was still puzzled, unnerved by the four startled faces which studied him so intently.

Eventually Lois found her voice. "Matt's right. You never remembered your pet name for Vicky before." She sat down on the edge of the couch, careful not to jostle Clark any further, but her hand caught his fingers. "Don't scratch, Clark… Did it come back to you? Can you remember anything else?" She tried not to sound too desperate in her questioning.

"The name popped into my head. It just seemed right." Clark explained, his brow wrinkling as he tried to concentrate, while his free hand brushed over Vicky's fair hair. He started to speak slowly. "I called you Princess Tory because you were always asking me to read you a story. You refused to go to sleep until I read to you. I think fairy tales were your favorites… but I suspect you've outgrown those."

Vicky clapped her hands, whilst she bounced up and down on the balls of her feet. "See! You've got your memory back!"

"I'm not exactly sure about that, Vicky…" Suddenly, Clark's head swung toward the sliding doors into the dining room. "Matt was the baby left in the bassinet in the dining room…" He stared at his tall son, light dawning in his eyes. He'd remembered Matt's origins too.

"That's right!" Lois interrupted his train of thought, shaking her head and frantically eyeing Vicky, reminding Clark that his youngest daughter wasn't in on the secret. Clark immediately looked crestfallen, and Lois tried to cover his slip up. "We used your old bassinet in the dining room. When Matt first came along, we took turns to work from home. Of course, I didn't have the bigger desk back then." Lois ended weakly, yet she hadn't exactly lied. Thankfully, Vicky was so thrilled by her father remembering her nickname that she was oblivious to her parents' surreptitious exchange.

"What about anything else, Dad?" Sara asked, hoping to direct the conversation on to a less dangerous topic.

"I think so." Clark looked up at his other daughter and another picture invaded his mind… only this time, not a fleeting shadow but a brighter Technicolor vision. "A much smaller you in a pink leotard… and crying."

"Oh, that was my first contest. I was scared," Sara explained, smiling.

"And you didn't think you were 'pretty in pink', as I recall." Clark was laughing now, his confidence growing.

"That leotard was horrible… with its pink sequins and frills," Sara groaned and continued the tale. "I thought I looked like the Christmas fairy, but you made me feel better. You told me I would look great in any color… which I know isn't true now. You just said it to make me less nervous."

"Isn't that what dads do?" Clark inquired, his smile wide, his brown eyes twinkling.

Sara bent and wrapped her arms round her father's neck. "Oh, Daddy. I've missed you so much."

"Don't disagree with your father!" Clark teased gently. "I happen to think my girls would look good in anything." He returned Sara's hug and opened his other arm to Vicky, who wasted no time in casting herself onto his chest. "I'm not sure that I remember everything yet, but I know enough to know how much I've missed you both. You too, son."

Clark's glance lifted to include Matt, who was grinning broadly, then moved down to Lois. He was surprised to see the sheen of tears bright in her eyes, then he realized he too was crying. Letting his heavy eyelids close, he held on tight to his daughters and enjoyed the moment.

Lois dashed a hand across her face, futilely trying to dry her tears. She stood up slowly, making room for her children to gather about their father who at last had a memory of each of them. Her gaze shifted to the heavens, whispering to any deity who might be listening. "Thank you. Thank you."

She'd found the sign.


Clark lay back on his pillow, one arm still cradling Lois, while he slipped his free hand behind his head, his fingers tangling in his hairline. Over the past few weeks, his hair had regrown, still short, but thick and luxuriant, and, almost mirroring his hair growth, had come the general awareness of his past. Slowly, the memories had reformed in his mind, like old-fashioned negatives morphing into colorful images. Not every detail, perhaps, but definitely the important happenings in his life. His growing up in Smallville with the best parents he could ever have; his traveling the globe while he searched for his focus, and most importantly, the day his little tornado had stormed into Perry White's office and into his world, changing it forever.

A wondrous smile spread across his face as he turned to the woman at his side. At last, Lois and he had made incredible, fulfilling love. Together they had rekindled the fire, recommitted their bodies each to the other, forging again the bonds that had withstood enforced years of separation and traumatic mind games; a special connection that he knew now could never be rent asunder. Joy danced along every nerve-ending, filling him with an appreciation he had long forgotten.

His gaze softened while he relived the moments of the night. She had been understanding and tender… demanding and passionate… and always gloriously sexy. Almost imperceptibly, his head moved back and forth, amazed that he had held out so long since his return.

Lois stretched her hand out to him, as she spoke quietly, proving that she could read him like no other could. "Don't. It was my choice too…"

"Oh, Lois," he said, covering the hand that cupped his cheek. "I don't know why it was so important to me, but I wanted it to be 'me' who made love to you again… not a shadow of myself. If I'd known how it would be, I would never have waited."

"Wasn't it worth the wait?" she teased, pointedly touching the tracks of his tears.

"Yes, sweetheart. I seem to be doing a lot of crying these days, but these are tears of joy." He raised up on one elbow. "I can't believe I did something so right in my life that I found you a second time."

"Don't you remember? We're soulmates… nothing can keep us apart."

"I believe… I do believe you are the other half of my soul."

He leaned forward and caressed her lips with his own one more time, then watched Lois smile in sleepy response. Her eyelids fluttered close as she replied on a sigh.

"The best part of your soul…"

Lois slept, and he couldn't blame her. They'd consummated their love a number of times this night… which was no mean feat for a couple of forty-something-year-olds. Yet the excitement that coursed through his veins as a result would not let him rest. Leaning over, he pressed a kiss to Lois' smooth brow, then climbed out of bed, replacing the quilt carefully round her shoulders. He watched with a tender smile as Lois snuggled beneath the quilt, pulling his pillow into her embrace, as if in sleep she still sought the comfort of his lingering warmth.

Quietly, he left the room and headed for the kitchen. The house was silent and dark, but he made his way, his touch instinctive, down the stairs. In their respective rooms, his daughters breathed gently in sleep, though his lack of super-powers meant he couldn't hear them. Yet he knew they were safe, just as he was aware his son was not in the house. Matt was probably flying a patrol above Metropolis and Clark hoped, as every father does, that his son wouldn't stay out too late or meet up with too much trouble.

Clark laughed at the irony, while he opened the fridge door to find a carton of juice. Most fathers didn't have to worry about their sons facing quite the same problems as Matt might encounter, but Clark had faith in his son. After all, Matt's genes were an amalgam of a superman and the most brilliant woman in the world. Of course, he might be a trifle biased when it came to Lois, but taking into account all the challenges she'd experienced in life and come through undaunted, he thought his opinion was justified.

Taking a swig from the carton, he also decided he might be justified in checking in with his only son. He stretched out with his mind… searching for a connection. His powers might not have returned, but his senses had sharpened steadily since the chips had been removed from his brain. All things considered, life was more than satisfying, so perhaps it was time to discover if another of his abilities had been stolen from him by the toxic kryptonite…


On the Pacific Ocean floor, far beyond the eyes of men and super men, nature tolled a death knell. Sound-waves keened, far above the range of human ears, earth rumbled and cracked as great tectonic plates slid and ground one against the other, a giant's cauldron, roiling the waters above. Catastrophe ensued, churning the sea into monstrous tides which rushed outwards from the epicentre toward many shores.

Such an occurrence was not unknown; the last time had happened a few years earlier, only a few months after Superman had gone missing. Without the superhero to help them, the death toll had risen into countless thousands. Confronted by such horror and realizing they were now on their own, the people of the world had been shocked into action, promising that no such disaster would ever catch them unawares again. An early warning system had been planned, but, unfortunately, the countries most directly involved were too poor and had not the collective will to put such a scheme in place, and the rest of the world were too busy pursuing their own agenda to do more than talk. Besides, such huge calamities happened rarely. What chance was there that lightning would strike twice within so short a period? They had time enough.

Yet chance is a fickle master and Mother Nature ignored the platitudes of the humans who lived on the crust of her world. Without adhering to the scientists' assumed pattern, another underwater earthquake struck and once again the massive ripples threatened the existence of those caught in their path.

Jor-El hung in the clear blue sky above, mesmerized by the force of the waters beneath him. By the time he'd picked up the maydays from a couple of ships in the area and sped to their source, it was already much too late. The surging seas stretched on and on in a length that far outdid his powers of prevention. What was he supposed to do? If he rescued those in most peril, then surely others would be swept away by the tsunami's torrent. Superpowered he might be, but he was only one being. Some disasters were too big even for his capabilities.

An empty feeling of inadequacy froze his thoughts, just as it had on the night of the mudslide in China where he had found his father… and suddenly, just as it had then, composure seeped into his mind. A soft, empathetic voice of authority echoed in his head…

"Matt… Matt… Can you hear me?" his father asked silently.

"Dad? Is that you?" Matt replied, experimentally forgoing the medium of speech. This must be that telepathy thing his mother had told him about. With all the worry about Dad's surgery and his recuperation, they'd never really gotten to try it out.

"Yes, son. We're talking telepathically. I hoped it might work. It's a Kryptonian thing…"

"Wow! Mom mentioned something about it when I flew her home from China, but it's kinda a long story…"

"I should have known your mother would be on to it, though I think we need to leave explanations till later. Matt, I can see great heaving oceans beneath you."

"You can? Dad, it's terrible. How did you know? There are giant waves spreading everywhere and so many islands are lying in their path…"

"I picked up on your distress and I think I'm seeing everything through your eyes," Clark said, awe echoing in his words. "I thought I might be able to read your thoughts, but this is so much more. Son, there's no time to discuss this… Speed is important here. It's a tsunami and I once handled something like this. You have to displace the water big time… and you have to do it fast. Matt, dig a trench in the ocean floor… as wide and deep and as long as you can. It might not stop the wave completely, but maybe you can rob it of some of its killing power."

From the second Matt heard his father say dig, he was already in motion, diving for the surface, plunging into the depths until he reached the ocean bed. But still he did not stop. The black-clad boy stretched out his arms, his hands forming into claws, making of himself the strongest, speediest torpedo the world and perhaps the universe would ever know. Time seemed to stand still as a great ditch formed in his wake as he powered his way through the sand and rock that made up the hidden floor. Above him, almost imperceptibly at first, the rushing waters slowed. The surging tides turned in on themselves while the deeper eddying currents found another, safer path to take.

The country nearest the underwater quake would still experience unusually high tides, and some structural damage was unavoidable, perhaps even some injuries and deaths, but hopefully, Jor-El would be able to rescue those in immediate jeopardy. Inside his mind, Matt could hear his father's reassurances that what he could do would be enough… that he'd already done more than was super-humanly possible to avert unbelievable destruction.

And his dad had been right. Jor-El spent time rescuing fishermen whose boats had been threatened by the turbulent seas; carrying holidaymakers who'd been sunbathing, unsuspectingly, on a beach and some locals who lived close to the shore. Yet, not surprisingly, there were those who remembered the signs from the previous disaster and had alerted others and the emergency services. Warnings had also been passed to other lands lying in the path of the wave, enabling their local governments to evacuate the threatened areas. Much sooner than he'd anticipated and with a heart brimming with relief, Jor-El was able to leave the area and fly home.


Approaching Metropolis, Matt flew into the dim gleam of reflected light from the great city, angling his flight path toward the brownstone on Hyperion Avenue where his father was still awake. During his return flight, he and his dad had carried on a casual, though spasmodic conversation, and Matt had also noted that, apart from the original advice on the tsunami, Dad hadn't interfered with the more normal rescues, unless asked for his opinion. It gave Matt a sense of accomplishment to know his father trusted his actions. Still, Matt deduced his father was waiting up for him and he looked forward to swapping experiences with the original Superman.

He zoomed in on his street and the surrounding houses, checking to see if the coast was clear, but at this time of the night, all was quiet, except for the next-door neighbor's cat, Sparky, who seemed to enjoy stalking the neighborhood in the dark. If only cats could talk, the family's big secret would be exposed. The thought of 'Sparky's Confessions' showing up in the Dirt Digger made him chuckle and, dropping quickly from the sky, he entered through the patio doors of the dining room. His dad was in the kitchen, with two cups of steaming hot chocolate sitting before him on the table.

"Hi, Matt," Clark said. "Why don't you pull up a chair and relax. This is your mother's chocolate and mint blend; it's pretty good." He blew on the liquid in his cup and took another experimental sip. "Yup. Your mother always had good taste in chocolate."

Doing as he was told, Matt shoved his cowl back off his head and sat opposite his father. He sampled the drink, then sent his father a speculative glance. The chocolate was pretty hot even for his tongue and yet his dad seemed to be drinking it without any discomfort. Was Dad's invulnerability coming back? But before he could reflect further, Clark spoke up.

"So, how did things go with the aftermath of the tsunami?"

"Pretty well, Dad." Matt nodded his head in the affirmative. They'd chosen not to talk about the rescue on the way home, but it was obvious that his Dad was a little worried about him, though he was doing his best to appear cool. "It was good. No fatalities and most of the injuries were minor, but it could have been very different if it hadn't been for your intervention. Thanks for the advice. I was completely frozen when I saw that gigantic wave and I didn't have a clue what to do."

"No problem, son. I'm sure you would have worked it out, and I only knew what to do because I'd come up against that before in Metropolis."

"Metropolis? No kidding!"

"Oh, it was years ago. Not long after I first put on the suit, and, as usual, it was the result of Lex Luthor's machinations. He was after some arms contract." Clark stared into dark liquid in his mug, marveling that he could now recall past events fairly easily. "Your mother was almost caught in the floods, so I guess I had an added incentive to figure out what to do." His hands fisted on the table, but he was smiling. "She had a knack for getting herself into scrapes back in these days. I have to tell you, she kept Superman pretty busy."

"I guess Superman was the only person who could keep up with her." The two shared a silent grin of admiration for the main woman in their lives. "But you know, Dad, I'm not sure I would have worked it out… at least, not in time to stop the wave crashing into those islands."

Clark swallowed some more chocolate as Matt waited with bated breath for a sign that his father had burnt his mouth, but it never came. "Matt, you shouldn't put yourself down. I was a good ten years older than you before I became Superman. Not to mention I'd done a lot of world traveling. I'd actually seen a couple of smaller tidal waves before that one in Metropolis, so I kinda had a head start. It seems to me Jor-El does pretty well on his own, son."

Matt blushed furiously, but was thrilled, nevertheless, by his father's praise. "Thanks, Dad. But, you know, I think we could make a good team," Matt said, voicing the idea that had come to him on his return journey.

At his son's surprise suggestion, Clark sat back in his chair, his shoulders hunched and regret bleeding into his dark eyes. "I wish we could. But I'm just not super anymore. I'd be a liability."

A gasp of shocked laughter broke from Matt's mouth. "You are kidding, Dad? Aren't you? How could you be a liability?" Matt rifled his already tousled hair; the cowl played havoc with his dark locks. "You were the one who told me what to do and kept me going during that mudslide in Jilin… and you did the same again tonight. The run-of-the-mill stuff is easy, but I'm always coming up against the unexpected and that scares me sometimes. I mean, what if I make a mistake… like with that tsunami."

"You didn't make a mistake."

"No, but only because of you! I've made other mistakes before, though never anything too disastrous."

"Superheroes aren't infallible, Matt. I know I wasn't. But you do the best you can… and you do make a difference, son."

"See! You're the only one who really understands what it's like. If I told Mom about my insecurities, she'd ground me. That's why I need you."

"No you don't." Clark ducked his head and refused to meet his son's incredulous stare, allowing himself to wallow in a short bout of self-pity. "From what I can gather, you've been doing just fine these past months."

"OK, so I have been doing OK, but that doesn't mean that I couldn't use the help, or give you any excuse to withhold it." Matt's voice rose a little in anger. He was using his instincts here, fairly certain that this would be his mother's approach to dealing with Superman's show of depression. "What's the point of me going it alone when I can have your experience to back me up?"

And it seemed Matt's tactics were working as Clark glanced up with a crooked smile. "Have you been taking lessons from your mother on how to shoot me down when I obsess?"

"Hey, I'm a superhero. Lois Lane and Clark Kent are my parents. You should only expect the best," Matt teased, glad to see the gleam had returned to his dad's eyes. "Seriously, Dad, don't you think we could work together. I mean, it's not like you have to be there. We can use this telepathy thing, and you said you could see what I was seeing, so it would be like you were with me. Please. It sure would mean a lot to me."

Clark was still staring at his son, but his gaze was now a mixture of pride and gratitude. He'd begun this conversation with the intention of assuring Matt about his role as a superhero, yet he'd been the one reassured. "And it would mean a lot to me too. But you're wrong about your mother; she does understand and she'd never stop you being all you can be…" However, Clark allowed that subject to drop when the thought occurred to him that perhaps being mother to a superhero was different than being married to one. He'd have to ask Lois later. "She and I were lucky to get you, Matt. How did you get to be so wise so young?"

"Well, if you must know, Grandma and Mom both say I take after you…"

"I think there's a lot of your mom in there too."

"That's what I just told you." Matt announced, leaning over the table. "So do we have a deal? Partners?" He stretched his hand out for his dad to shake and waited.

Staring at his son's hand, Clark could only wonder about his good fortune. Gone was his self-doubt about his lack of superpowers. Lois would have no time for it anyway, and he recognized that, despite his tendency to obsess on occasion, he was an optimist at heart. Besides, there was so much to be grateful for in his life. A wife who loved him; kids who needed his care; parents to appreciate… and he still had a job to do. Two jobs, since Perry had been making noises about his return to work at the Daily Planet, whenever he felt comfortable.

Without further hesitation he took Matt's hand. "I think I like the sound of that deal."

They shook hands, but neither was content with the contact and seconds later they were hugging and backslapping each other, till Matt drew away. "Dad, how about we celebrate by going flying?" The quick surge of pleasure in his father's eyes didn't exactly surprise Matt, yet the pain which seemed to accompany the happiness left him unsure. "I know it's not the same… but you didn't seem to mind the flight back from Jilin."

"I had other things on my mind then." Clark shrugged ruefully, but he was tempted to take up Matt's offer. Now he had his memory back, he knew flying was the one superpower he missed above all others.

"Come on!" Matt said encouragingly. "Mom loves to fly, even if she can't do it under her own steam." With sudden insight, Matt decided his father might not want to be carried in his arms. That position could be pretty intimidating, especially for a man who was once Superman. "I'd prefer not to carry you though, Dad. You're not exactly a lightweight like Mom, and you're bigger. Why don't we just hold each other's arms?"

"One thing I've noticed. You've got your Grandma Martha's tact." Clark laughed. "OK. I think I'd like to go flying."

Clark stepped to Matt's right side and, after a moment or two of working out the method which would make both comfortable, the two Kryptonian males, one full-blooded, the other a hybrid, took to the skies, arm in arm. They hovered over the house, allowing Clark to become accustomed once more to the sight of seeing the world from a bird's-eye view. Slowly they began to soar above Metropolis toward the eastern seaboard, Matt wishing to distance himself from the city and its demands on his time. Tonight belonged to him and Dad.

They followed the coastline for many miles south, covering the area more slowly than either would have done on superhero's duties. Clark's arm, which had clung tightly to Jor-El when they'd first ascended, lost its tension, and he found himself glorying in the freedom of escaping the bonds of gravity. Clark's senses hungrily absorbed the muted sounds of the night which reached him from below, the cleansing smell of the ozone from the waters battling the earthy smell of the land and, lastly, the beauty of the stars sparkling aloofly in their firmament. All amazed him anew. He'd forgotten the wonders of this world to which he'd been sent; the warmth of being part of its great community… and for some time he was unaware of anyone or anything outside his own musings.

But Matt was paying close attention to his father and had realized that Clark had grown almost weightless, to the extent that Matt was merely guiding and not carrying his passenger. Taking a chance, Matt removed his arm carefully from Clark's, yet staying alert for any sign that his dad was falling. He need not have worried. Their forward momentum stopped, but both remained in the air.

"Dad," Matt said gently, not wanting to startle his father. "Look! You're floating."

Awaking from his meditation, Clark suddenly became conscious of his position. His stare shot to his son's laughing eyes before he plummeted toward the ground. Immediately, Matt caught him.

"Matt. I can do without the experiments, thank you!"

"Why? You were floating. Believe me, I'm barely holding you aloft. I know. I've carried quite a lot of people now. Enough to recognize that this is different. Maybe your powers are coming back, Dad."

"No, Matt. I seriously doubt that." Clark shook his head emphatically. "I've tried… I try every day and nothing works."

"I don't agree." Matt was shaking his head with just as much conviction. "Telepathy works."

"I was never sure that was a superpower. It was something Kryptonians could do without the benefit of a yellow sun."

"Well, after the surgery, Uncle Bernie says you healed pretty quick for a normal human."

"Not superspeed, though." Clark said dismissively.

"Floating works."

"Matt, I just fell."

"I've fallen from floating before. I float in my sleep and, just like you, I fell when I realized I was doing it."

"Yes, well, I wasn't sleeping." Clark was determined not to listen to Matt's theory.

"But you were daydreaming. Come on, Dad. Work with me here. Let's try it again," Matt pleaded. "I promise I'll catch you before you hit the ground. And anyway, we're over the sea. It'll be a softer landing."

"Hah! That is so comforting, Matt."

Matt's hands tightened on his father's arms. "Please. Just try. I won't let you get hurt. Mom would kill me."

"I'm not afraid of being hurt. I know you'll catch me." Clark lifted his head to the heavens. His voice was quiet when he finally spoke. "I'm afraid I'll fail. I don't want to lose hope that maybe someday…" The words died unspoken, but his son was not about to let him return to despair.

"Didn't you once tell Mom that taking a chance was what you two were all about?" Matt asked sharply, forcing his father to look at him.

"Your mother told you that?"

"Mom told us lots of things about you when you were gone. She wanted us to know you," Matt said more mildly. "You're back, Dad. Maybe not all the way with the powers, but in every way that counts."

In response to Matt's conclusion, Clark's cheeks paled, but something strong stirred inside him. Matt believed in him… looked up to him; had taken up Superman's mantle when Clark was no longer able to fight for truth and justice. Clark couldn't let his son down. Falling was the easier option. "OK. How are we going to do this?"

"Take my hands," Matt announced, deepening his voice.

The change in tone didn't surprise Clark; he'd changed his inflection too while in the suit. Wordlessly, he joined hands with his son and watched as Matt drifted backward till their arms were outstretched.

"Don't look down!" Matt instructed again, dropping one of his father's hands. Seconds passed, while both adapted to the tenuous link. Matt locked his gaze with Clark's and let go, holding himself ready to go to the rescue.

Momentarily, Clark bounced in the air like a swimmer treading water, then he gained some control, floating gently on the updraught. He smiled over at Matt and, for the second time this night, elation filled him. Throwing his head back, Clark laughed jubilantly to the world at large… which was a mistake. His concentration gone, he dropped like a stone, but Matt's safe hands were there to halt his plunge. Yet failure couldn't dampen either Clark's or Matt's spirits. Nothing could change the fact that, for a few minutes, Clark had floated.

Safely anchored to Jor-El's arm again, Clark said contentedly, "That wasn't bad for a first try, though I could have done without the last bit." A chuckle bubbled past his lips. "But I think I've had enough excitement for one night. Besides, your mother's awake and she's looking for us."

"You can hear her?"

"No. My superhearing is definitely not back… but I can sense her, and I know she wants us home. Come on, Matt."

With perfect accord, the Kents turned toward Metropolis, Jor-El flying faster than on the outward journey, while the ocean and earth passed beneath them in a blur. Soon they were walking through the darkened house into the living room where they found Lois, standing by the windows, searching the sky. The glow from the street lamps surrounded her like a silver halo, and Clark's heart missed a beat in memory. It had been the sight of Lois standing in the full ray of sunlight from those very windows that had attracted him to the brownstone so many years ago… and still the vision moved him.

At the sound of their footsteps, Lois swung round and took a few steps forward till she came to rest beside the couch. The silken swish of Lois' robe as she moved across the floor had sent Clark's temperature rising and she gloried in his heated gaze, but now was not the time to explore their rekindled love life. Clearly, Matt had something exciting to tell her, so she folded her arms across her chest calmly and waited.

Oblivious to the sexual tension between his parents, Matt switched on the overhead lights and collapsed onto the couch. "Sorry I'm late home, Mom, but there was a tsunami over in the Philippines that needed sorting out," he said, sounding like any other teenager sneaking in from a long night out. "Then Dad was waiting for me when I got back, so I thought he might like to go flying."

Lois nodded her head understandingly. Actually, she'd been wondering how long it would take for Matt to offer Clark a flight. "Good. Fathers and sons ought to do things together. Mind you, I was thinking of a spot of fishing, or going to a ball game. But flying is good too, I guess," she added, a little blase now at the fact that her family's recreational pursuits should include flying without the benefit of airplanes. "Did you enjoy it, Clark?"

"Oh, yes. It was terrific, Lois" Clark closed in on his wife, his eyes still dancing with appreciation of how lovely she looked in her burgundy-coloured robe, her hair tumbled in curls. Clearly, Lois hadn't been awake for long. "Almost as good as something else I rediscovered tonight…"

"Clark, don't!" Lois cried, sounding a warning, as she glanced toward her seated son. Yet she was unable to hide her sultry grin while she playfully slapped Clark's chest.

"My lips are sealed!" Clark laughed, rubbing the spot above his heart where Lois' touch had sent tingles anew along his sensitive skin. He slipped his arm around her back. "But it's true," he added, for her ears only, then said aloud. "Seriously, flying was wonderful, and I thank you for taking me, Matt."

Ignoring the teasing exchange between his parents, Matt twisted to face them. "Mom, it was amazing. Dad floated!"

Lois' expressive eyebrows rose, betraying her shock as she glanced between her son and her husband. "He did? You did?" Even her voice sounded slightly high-pitched.

"Well, yes. But only for a very short time," Clark explained quickly. "Then I lost altitude… actually I fell and if Matt hadn't been there I'd have gone for a swim."

"You took your dad out over the water?" Lois turned her attention back to Matt.

"We just did a general tour, Mom. And over the ocean was the best place to test floating. It's not so hard as the ground."

"Perhaps not for people who are invulnerable… and it depends on how high you were." Lois placed her hands on her hips as she interrogated her son. "I'm assuming you were pretty high."

"I suppose…" Matt stammered, wondering why his mother wasn't treating this information with as much enthusiasm as he'd expected.

"Lois, give Matt a break. We didn't start out with the intention of testing my powers. The floating was something Matt noticed while we were flying around. I didn't even realize I was doing it at first… it just happened."

Lois couldn't ignore the delight that filled Clark's voice, nor dismiss the happiness she saw shining in his eyes. In fact, she was pleased for him, but Bernard had been fairly certain that the powers would never return… Yet Bernie had been wrong before. If only… but she wouldn't go there. Clark would be so dejected to be let down yet again.

"Lois?" Clark asked, unsure of her reaction. "Is anything wrong?"

Indecision flashed in her eyes, then disappeared completely. As always, Lois would support whatever made Clark feel good about himself. "No, no. Of course not. Honey, I'm happy for you… really, I am." But that didn't mean she couldn't add a word of caution. She moved one of her hands to his shoulder and patted it gently. "Floating is good, and it might mean your powers will come back to some degree… but perhaps not all the way."

Clark gazed down on Lois with a brilliant smile, then placed a kiss on her brow, smoothing away the worry lines that had appeared with this conversation. "I know, honey. I can't deny I've been hoping for some improvement… but, to tell the truth, I wasn't expecting even this much. So don't worry about me; I regard floating as a bonus."

"I'm sorry, Clark," Lois whispered, the sound of her heartache echoing in her voice.

"Never be sorry for me," Clark said, his arm pulling Lois tight against his body, while his other hand stretched out to ruffle his son's hair. "I have everything I need. Almost losing everyone and everything I love just makes me appreciate them more. Tonight I realized that I'm the luckiest guy in the world." Lois had turned her face up to Clark and he couldn't resist dropping a kiss on her beautiful lips… lips that were now smiling warmly in understanding. Where else in this world, or any other, could he find such acceptance and such comfort? "I love you, Lois," he whispered against her mouth.

"Oh, boy!" came the not so subtle voice from beneath them on the couch. "Remember your son is in the room, will you?"

Clark drew back laughing. "OK. Your mom and I should take this upstairs." But his future plans were somewhat dampened by a huge yawn splitting his face. "You know, I think I'm beat."

"Uh-huh! Testing superpowers will do that to a guy," Lois countered, grinning back. "Come on, 'old man.' Time for bed."

Lois and Clark headed toward the stairs and as they began to climb, Clark spoke over his shoulder. "Go to bed, Matt. You have school in the morning and you should try to a few hours' sleep, at least. Otherwise you'll be falling asleep in the class."

Matt floated off the couch, switched the lights off at superspeed and followed his parents up the stairs. "Hey, Dad, you're getting to sound just like Mom," he stated in mock complaint.

"I am? You know, son, I don't see that as a bad thing…" Clark replied as the sound of three voices laughing in harmony drifted down into the empty room.