Smart Teens

By Susan Young <groobie@charter.net>

Rating: PG

Submitted: December 2005

Summary: The Smart Kids have grown into teenagers. What happens when one of them falls prey to addiction again?

Thanks to Carol Malo and Gerry Anklewicz for beta-reading this story and offering their invaluable advice. Thanks to Janet Owens for her work as general editor.

I dedicate this story to the gifted and talented students at Vista Heights Middle School. Sometimes smart kids do stupid things.

***

Phillip Manning was smart, and the people of Metropolis were stupid.

What else could explain the fact that, once again, people believed the lies that the Daily Planet was printing? Phillip flipped loudly through the paper, scanning for the shortest article available. He hated his history teacher for torturing him week after week with this asinine assignment. "Current events is the history of the future," she loved to say. Screw her. He didn't have a future anyway, and he hated thinking about his past.

Phillip cast his eye across the mailroom towards the pile of work he was intentionally ignoring. His job was just as stupid as his schoolwork. He reached into his desk to pull out a pair of scissors. Shredding dusty documents in this windowless room could wait until tomorrow; he had to finish his homework.

Not that he cared about passing his classes; if he had a choice, he would drop out of that high school filled with dim-witted losers who knew nothing worth knowing. But decent grades meant he was eligible for the work-study program that had bought him access to the mailroom at Star Labs. And that was worth everything.

He shook slightly, but willed himself to hold out just a little longer. He couldn't get caught here; keeping his job was too important.

His eyes rested on a brief story about Superman's latest heroic effort written, of course, by Clark Kent. 'Gee, another quote from the big guy. How did he manage that?' Phillip rolled his eyes. Were people really so blind? He cut the article out anyway and began filling in his form. He usually chose to do his reports on stories written by Mr. Kent, just as a way of keeping track of what he was up to. The information might be useful someday. Still, it irritated Phillip to know for a fact that Kent was a big, fat liar and had gotten away with it for so long.

The minor fibs like the ones in the current edition of the Daily Planet proved Clark Kent had a major character flaw. Clark was outside the bank while Superman freed the hostages. Clark was attending the press conference while Superman was giving the speech. Clark was writing his story while Superman happened to drop by with a few more details. Clark Kent was a habitual liar.

What really appalled Phillip, however, were the blatant deceptions the public at large swallowed like candy. He had been sure Clark was going to be busted two years ago when Diana Stride had set out to prove his real identity. But no; somehow, Mr. Kent had managed to project a hologram of Superman, and despite the totally obvious wobble, people bought it! A few days ago, again, he had been sure that Kent's secret was done for when the Dirt Digger published a photo of Superman and Lois Lane in bed together. But people chose instead to accept a carefully worded statement filled with a bunch of b.s. about trust, honor, and truth. Unbelievable!

How could the world not know Clark Kent was Superman? Phillip let out a derisive snort. He'd known that since he was twelve.

Phillip sighed in relief as he glanced at the clock, noting his shift was finally over. It insulted his intelligence to get academic credit for opening letters, delivering mail, and sending old files through a shredder. He was convinced the school's work-study program was little more than the business community's way of getting free labor for menial tasks. The only reason he had signed up was because he had thought it would be better than being trapped inside a classroom, his ears assaulted with the droning of a teacher's lecture. It hadn't taken him long, though, to discover the true benefit of his job at Star Labs.

He dropped the scissors back into his desk and shoved the finished current event assignment into his bag, letting his fingers pass briefly over the small leather pouch contained within. Another brief shudder urged him to run, but control was imperative, and instead he walked slowly through the hallway, nodding goodbyes to coworkers who had never cared enough to learn more about him than his name. Freedom was a cool breeze on his face as he escaped the sterile building and headed for the closest dark corner. Ducking into an alley, Phillip slipped into a sheltered area behind a dumpster and sank to the ground. His eyes darted around to ensure his privacy as his hands fumbled to empty the contents of the pouch. Looking past the track mark scars, he found a vein and pressed the needle into his arm, using the plunger to flood his body with the drug.

A familiar rush glowed through his body. Phillip felt smart.

***

"All my toys are broken." Mindy Church pouted.

It was all Superman's fault. Once again, Metropolis' resident superhero had butted his way into Intergang's business. Sure, her hired help had messed up on their own, taking hostages at that bank when all they were supposed to do was steal the contents of one teensy-weensy safety deposit box, but they might have gotten the job done anyway if that chronic do-gooder had left them alone. If only there was a way to defeat him. But she had tried that before. Infecting him with that Kryptonian virus last year had been a brilliant idea, but somehow he had overcome his illness. She didn't know how, though. Maybe he had help?

Her eye caught the edge of a gossip magazine and she pulled it to her, scanning the article she was interested in. Lois Lane was having an affair with Superman? Hmmm. The Daily Planet had proven the accompanying photo had been doctored, but did that necessarily prove that the story itself was untrue? Mindy laid the paper down and pulled out her manicure set, placing her feet onto her desk as she began to file her nails. It was a soothing habit, setting her mind at ease and opening it to possibilities. She often did her best work while preening herself. And if it added to her reputation as a vacuous bimbo, she was perfectly content — that strategy had taken her all the way to the top of one of the largest crime organizations in the world.

Mindy had lived in Metropolis long enough to see the connection between Lois and Superman. He had given Lois Lane an exclusive interview when he had appeared three years ago, and had continued to grant her a steady stream of quotes for her string of front- page articles. Whenever that nosy reporter poked her head into a life-threatening situation, Superman always seemed to pull her out. Plus, both of her Billys thought Lois could be used as a way to get to Superman. But did that mean they were just friends, or were they doing it? Was Lois the kind of person who would cheat on her husband, forsaking the sanctity of marriage?

A joyous peal of laughter rang through her office. Sanctity of marriage? Mindy loved it when she made herself laugh.

Her thoughts turned to Lois' husband, her partner at the Daily Planet. Clark Kent was a little hottie, assuming someone was interested in the slightly geeky thing he had going on with those glasses. 'It's called laser eye surgery, people!' She undressed him in her mind to imagine what Lois might see in him. While it might be fun to add him to her collection, Clark didn't possess the things that appealed to her more than anything: money and power.

But Lois' first fiancÚ had enjoyed plenty of both — Lex Luthor, the third richest man on the planet. Mindy smiled at the thought. Sexy Lexy. Oh how she wished she had been able to sink her teeth into that checkbook. Since Bill Church, Sr. was one of the richest men in Metropolis at the time, he had gotten an invitation to Lex and Lois' wedding, and Mindy had joined him as his date. From the third row in the church, she had had an excellent view of that disaster. But what could have caused Lois to reject Lex at the altar? Had she found out he was a criminal?

'Who cares?' From Mindy's point of view, rich criminals were the best men to marry — they tended to die or get thrown in jail. Either way, she didn't have to sleep with them for very long. A bazillion dollars had slipped through that woman's fingers! 'Lois Lane is an idiot!'

That was probably the best evidence Mindy had to prove the affair rumors weren't true. Lois was too stupid to know who was good for her. Whatever. Mindy had more important things to think about, like getting rid of Superman once and for all. 'But I'm not in the mood for thinking right now.' She needed a new toy. Mindy pressed a button, signaling a hunky blond bodybuilder to her office. She batted her eyelashes. "Make me not bored, Hans."

***

"Oh Clark, that feels so good!"

Lois Lane sank into the pillows and basked in the pleasure her husband was offering. His large, warm hands kneaded her flesh, working the tension out of her muscles. Her shoulders relaxed, unburdened by the weight of the past week.

"My pleasure, as always." Clark Kent smiled. He bent down to kiss her left cheek, tucking errant strands of hair behind her ear. It felt wonderful to share this moment with her, free from the pressures of the outside world. They'd need to be more careful in the future; he didn't want to see their names in the paper any time soon. Unless, of course, it was as the co-authors of a Kerth award-winning story.

The scandal sparked by the photo of an intimate Lois and Superman had died down, and he no longer caught looks of sympathy on his colleagues' faces. It had embarrassed him to play the part of cuckold, but there had been little choice. 'Thank goodness that photo was fake.' The thought provided him with little comfort, though; by all rights, it should have been real.

"Honey?" Lois brought Clark out of his musings. She rolled onto her back and beckoned him to lie beside her. "Hey, it's over now. Everything's going to be okay."

"I know, but I'm still a little on edge. When I think about all the people who suspect the truth…"

"But that's all they can do. They don't have any proof. And you'll see — in a few weeks, no one's even going to remember this story." She tried to offer support by rubbing a soothing hand up and down his arm.

"I know. We just have to be more careful." He changed gears, trying to lighten the mood. "You're just so irresistible; it's hard to stop myself from sweeping you off your feet whenever I see you."

Lois beamed. "Yeah, well, save that for when Superman has to do it literally to bail me out in public. But I'll take the metaphorical version in private any day."

Clark waggled his eyebrows as a wicked gleam was mirrored in Lois'. His secret was safe for now. He turned his mind to more playful thoughts.

***

"I'm worried about Phillip."

Aymee Valdes dropped her backpack to the ground as she sank onto the concrete step outside of her high school's front entry. She had expected some of the day's tension to drain from her as she met her friends in their usual after-school hangout, but found it still coiled within her.

"Here we go again." Karen Sanchez pulled her arms from around her boyfriend's neck and placed them behind her, leaning back as she looked upward.

Unwilling to break all contact, Dudley Nickolas snaked an arm around her waist as he looked towards Aymee. "Yeah, come on; give the guy a break."

"Didn't you two see him in class today? He was totally out of it!"

Karen voice dripped with sarcasm. "I obviously wasn't watching him as closely as you were. What a surprise!"

Dudley quietly laughed and joined in. "Just get it over with already."

Aymee's hands went to her hips. "What?"

"Oh, come on. You've been in love with Phillip for years. Why don't you just ask him out instead of obsessing about every little thing he does each day?" Karen slid one of her hands onto Dudley's leg possessively before she continued. "It's not like he already has a girlfriend."

"I am not in love with him!" Aymee protested a little too loudly. "I care about him as a friend. We've all been friends for years and we're supposed to look out for each other. And if you cared about him at all, you'd help me figure out what's wrong with him."

"Fine," Dudley said. "Maybe he's been a little moody lately. But that's not really new; I mean, he's been like that for as long as I've known him."

"I guess he hasn't been hanging around us as much lately," Karen said. "He's probably just busy. He's been putting in a lot of hours for his work-study program."

Aymee analyzed that observation. "You know, I think Phillip started acting a little strangely about a week after he got that job. Do you think someone there found out about us?"

Dudley and Karen looked at each other and considered the possibility. Dudley shrugged and softened his voice. "Maybe she's right. He's always had the hardest time covering up how smart he is. If anyone realized how much we remember, we could be in a lot of trouble."

Their collective past was a subject the friends rarely mentioned. After the experiments with Mentamide 5 had ended, the former "Smart Kids" had no longer been able to think with the extraordinary artificial capacity of their drug-laden brains. But that hadn't meant they were stupid, either. The four of them had been gifted students long before the Smart Stuff had entered their systems, not that anyone at the Beckworth State School seemed to care. They had been labeled "problem kids," and that's all that most adults ever bothered to see in them. People had assumed since they were no longer taking the drugs, they had gone back to "normal," whatever that was. But in whispered conversations, the foursome had come to realize that they all still harbored secrets in their memories, mental hard drives filled with answers to unasked questions. Such knowledge could be dangerous in the wrong hands. The kids had quickly decided not to challenge conventional wisdom; it was safer to keep their thoughts to themselves.

A door slammed behind the group of friends and Phillip rushed past, offering a slight head nod and a brief, "Hey." He turned to the left at the end of the stairs and started heading down the street. The threesome looked at each other, concern reflected in their faces. None could quite believe that Phillip hadn't stopped.

"I'm going to talk to him," Aymee said, gathering her things as Dudley and Karen wished her good luck. She gave a short wave and rushed to catch up.

***

"Phillip, wait!"

He cringed. 'I don't have time for this,' Phillip thought. He had tried to slip past his former friends, but was hardly surprised that Aymee hadn't accepted his non-verbal message. She was always butting into other people's business, especially his. There had been a time that Phillip had liked Aymee's attention, when he had smiled as she stared at him from across the classroom. But then she had turned into a traitor, just like Dudley and Karen. And Superman.

Friends were supposed to stick together. Phillip couldn't stop his mind from flipping through a scrapbook of memories. They had banded together at Beckworth to create the family that each of them was lacking. They had escaped from the school together to stop Dr. Carlton from using them as lab rats. They had held onto each other as they suffered through the tremors of Mentamide withdrawal. Phillip silently berated himself for having naively believed their bond would never change.

But it had. Phillip was alone. 'Nobody cares about me.'

Sure, the others still pretended they were his friends. Dudley and Karen still lived with him at Beckworth, but they were too absorbed with each other and spared little time for anyone else. Aymee and her sister Inez had gotten out of the place; their mom had gotten a job thanks to some obvious interference by Clark Kent, and now they were living in a nice apartment in a decent neighborhood.

Phillip soured at the thought of Clark Kent, the man who people in this city practically worshipped. He had been one of them three years ago. What child wouldn't look up to a flying superhero and believe everything he said? Superman had made a noble speech to him about how it felt to be different, never quite fitting in. He had pretended concern, convincing Phillip to give up the drug and go back to being a kid. Nothing special. Phillip had grabbed onto Superman's words as if he were a son reaching out to his father. Well, that analogy had proven all too true.

Just as his real father had abandoned him, Phillip hadn't seen Clark Kent since that incident three years ago. No letter, no phone call, no e-mail, no visit; no contact of any kind. Kent had gotten his story and moved on to the next while Phillip was trapped in his meaningless existence. The man in disguise was no better. Superman routinely did charity work for groups around the city, but hadn't once come to support Beckworth. Each year he played Santa for orphans at Christmas time, but never for the ones at Beckworth. Phillip brushed the beginning of an angry tear from his eye.

'Helping the orphans at Christmas.' Phillip let his brain work, waiting with anticipation to see where the thought would lead. Superman wasn't the only famous figure that tossed a few scraps of compassion to the needy during the holidays. Last year, Mindy Church had made a big deal of throwing useless crap to the kids down at King's Street.

The synthetic Mentamide 5 in his system assisted his mind in assembling scraps of information gathered through years of quiet observation, scanning through newspapers, and overhearing rumors on the street. At last, the pieces clicked. Mindy Church was rich. Mindy Church was the head of Intergang. Mindy Church could get everything he needed.

"Hey." A small hand touched his arm to catch his attention.

Phillip breathed in impatiently and turned to Aymee, returning a curt, "What?"

"Nothing, it's just, I thought maybe you'd want to talk."

"Did I do anything to give you that impression?"

"Well, no." Aymee tried a new approach. "Look, it just seems like something's going on and I want to help."

"I don't need your help." Phillip placed a look of fake contemplation on his face. "If I remember correctly, the last time I needed your help, you ended up betraying me to a couple of reporters."

Aymee reeled back, truly shocked. "I didn't betray you. You know I didn't say a word to anyone until they told me about what the Smart Stuff was doing to us. It was going to kill us if we kept using it. I had to trust them. I couldn't let you get hurt."

"You should have trusted me." Anger flashed in Phillip's eyes before danger set in, and he leaned close to Aymee's face. "Lois and Clark lied to you. Mentamide couldn't have killed us; I fixed the flaw myself. If you had stuck by me, we could have had anything we wanted." He backed away and gave half a laugh. "It's my fault, too. I believed the wrong person."

"What are you talking about? Phil, please, you're kind of scaring me."

Almost talking to himself, Phillip Manning came to a conclusion that had been gnawing at him for three long, painful years. "Lex Luthor said I was special, destined for greatness. He said everything was in my grasp: power, privilege, wealth. I should have listened to him. Lex Luthor was right."

"No! Lex was crazy; he was a criminal."

"Lex was smart. But I can be smarter."

"You're not serious. You can't mean…"

Phillip turned away from Aymee and began to walk purposefully down the street. But he spared a second to look over his shoulder and took in the crushed face of his childhood friend. "If you're smart, you'll stay out of my way."

***

"Well, make it quick. I have a hair appointment in ten minutes."

Mindy Church crossed her arms and shrank away from her intercom into her comfy leather chair and frowned. Why should she have to take care of a common thief? Wasn't that what security people were for? Sometimes she wished she didn't have to run the Costmart store her Billy had set up as his legitimate cover; how was one person supposed to keep up with all the little details? For the sake of her illegal operations, though, she understood the shopping warehouse was a necessary evil.

'Twenty-pound vats of mayonnaise are evil. Makeup is divine!' Mindy scribbled a note to the purchasing department.

A knock sounded, then her office door swung open to reveal a teenage boy trailing half a step behind a beefy security guard. "Sorry to disturb you, Mrs. Church, but this shoplifter is refusing to cooperate with us. He says he'll only talk to you."

Sighing to herself, Mindy mentally reviewed her bag of tricks. Teenage boys were even easier to manipulate than grown men. As with anyone, the key was finding the right bait to lure in the fish. Mindy selected "dumb blonde" mixed with a little "mommy."

"Honey, what happened? Did you forget to pay for something before you left the store?"

"Yeah, right. I had to steal that CD three times before your watchdogs caught me." The boy edged towards her and lowered his voice. "You're not the airhead you pretend to be. Send the goon away so we can talk in private."

Mindy widened her eyes at the teen's boldness. She caught the guard's eyes and motioned with her head to the door. "Out!"

The guard began to open his mouth, and then closed it again as he escaped the room. It was best not to challenge her authority.

Rather intrigued, Mindy took a moment to size up her unanticipated visitor. The teen was slouching casually in a rumpled rock band t-shirt and faded black jeans. With a passing glance, he would blend in with the hoards of bargain shoppers who flowed through her store's doors. But his eyes…

She understood the look in his eyes. They burned fiercely of humble beginnings, emotional betrayal, unbearable loss, fierce determination, a need to control. She saw those eyes every night as she wiped layers of makeup off her face.

"All right, you have my attention."

The young man fished a neatly folded piece of paper from his front pocket and casually flipped it to her. With an indifferent yawn, he sat in the chair opposite her desk and watched as Mindy opened the note and reviewed its contents — a photocopy of a newspaper article from three years ago.

"Hmmm, I vaguely remember this. One of their broadcasts interrupted my favorite soap opera." She looked up at her visitor and mentally calculated his age. "I suppose you were one of these smart kids?"

"I still am."

Mindy glanced down again to continue reading. She noted, with minor irritation, the Lane and Kent byline. "Yeah, so what's it to me? This says Lex Luthor had the drug and research notes destroyed."

"True, but what it doesn't tell you is how the paper investigated that story. Luthor didn't know that Lois Lane and Clark Kent had stolen a sample of the original drug from Dr. Carlton's office. They sent it to Star Labs for testing, and the lab techs created a synthetic version of Mentamide 5. The lab notes were gathering dust in a cardboard box up until two weeks ago."

"I'm still waiting to hear why I should care."

Phillip Manning set a smile on his face. "I got a job in the mailroom at Star Labs a few weeks ago. As I was shredding old files in the back room, the formula for Mentamide 5 caught my eye. I knew right away what I had when I saw it. So over the next few days while I was delivering mail around the building, I stole some ingredients and recreated the drug."

Mindy was pleased with herself for concealing any outward sign of interest. "Does your stuff work the same as the old stuff?"

Mindy waited for the real reason the teen had gone through the trouble of meeting her, and she wasn't disappointed to see a slight frown crease his brow. "Not quite. I mean, it still makes me smart, but not as smart as the real stuff. And I don't feel exactly like I did back then."

'Here's the pitch.' Mindy knew she was close when the boy looked at her with a steely gaze.

"I need the real ingredients in order to make the drug work the same."

"And I suppose you think I can get them?"

"Mrs. Church, I have faith that your, shall we say 'talents,' can get you anything you want."

Nodding, Mindy acknowledged the teen's assessment. "Fine, but I still don't see why I should help you."

Another photocopied article was passed to her, detailing the miserable robbery attempt her henchmen had pulled downtown two days ago. "When you help me get what I want, I'll help you get what you want."

Mindy drummed her well-manicured nails along the top of her desk. She considered his words. Then she pressed a button and spoke into the intercom.

"Cancel my hair appointment."

***

"I've seen that pig before."

Aymee Valdez stepped off the elevator with her unusual leashed pet and heard the smile in Lois Lane's voice. After a brief look around the Daily Planet's bullpen, Aymee quickly moved in the direction of the reporter's desk. As she arrived, Lois stood and pulled the teenager into a friendly hug.

"Aymee, how are you? It's been so long!"

"Fine, thanks." Aymee showed little enthusiasm.

After her confrontation with Phillip, she had run back to her friends, revealing her fears to them. Dudley and Karen had become convinced that Phillip needed help, but brainstorming options hadn't generated much of a list. Aymee knew they needed some outside assistance. And there was only one outsider in whom she felt she could confide.

But any thought of Lois Lane always left Aymee a bit off center. She had been put under Lois' guardianship for a few days three years ago, something she had never quite been able to comprehend. It took other foster families much longer to qualify for a placement; the speed with which the reporter had accomplished the feat was a testament to her tenacity. However, while in her care, it had been clear to Aymee that Ms. Lane had only cared for her in order to get the story on the Smart Kids.

During their short time together, however, Aymee had developed a connection with the reporter. Despite their initial conflict, Lois had taken a genuine interest in her. Aymee had grown to like Lois and had appreciated Lois' help in ending the Mentamide experiments.

Still, it was difficult for Aymee to completely get over Ms. Lane's questionable motives for taking her in to begin with. Lois Lane had used her.

So while Aymee was grateful the reporter and her partner had helped her mom improve her life, allowing Inez and Aymee to rebuild their family, she was also relieved that there had been little contact between the two of them since they had parted ways. It was easier for her to deal with Lois' absence from her life than to have to sort through her conflicted emotions.

Reuniting with her now, though, Aymee could see a difference in the previously brittle reporter. There was sincerity in her smile, brightness in her eyes, joy in her demeanor. She just seemed happier now.

Socrates snorted and Aymee pulled her thoughts back to the present. She was here for Phillip's future; there was no need to dwell on her past.

"You look worried, Aymee. Is something wrong?" Lois had a look of concern on her face.

Aymee exhaled a breath she was barely aware she had been holding. There was no longer any doubt in her mind that she had made the right choice. She had faith that this was one adult who could be trusted.

"We should probably talk in private." Aymee paused to scan the room with her eyes and found Clark Kent sitting at his desk with a guarded look on his face. Then she headed towards the conference room, quietly adding, "We need your partner, too."

***

Lois motioned to her husband as she followed Aymee Valdez into the conference room, marveling at the passage of time. Could three years really have come and gone so quickly? The beautiful young woman in front of her had been a child when last they spoke, a realization which sent a stab of guilt through her heart. Aymee had been her child for a few days, and yet Lois hadn't bothered to keep in touch with her over the years.

Half-hearted excuses tried to vie for prominence in her head. Aymee had a real mom. Lois didn't "do" Christmas cards. There was never enough time in the day to send off a quick e-mail. Lies. All lies. Lois' conscience knew the truth: she was embarrassed by her actions back then.

At that time in her life, Mad Dog Lane had been in charge. Lois' character had been swept aside by clouded judgment, a rabid pursuit of the story, an insatiable need to control. She had abused the Social Services system so that she could get her hands on a material witness. And at the time, she had not felt a twinge of guilt about what she had done.

But now, seeing Aymee through new eyes, Lois understood. The story wasn't everything; people were more important than words on a page. Clark had taught her that. She couldn't help but glance his way. Clark had chipped away the Mad Dog veneer she had carefully hid herself behind, opening a passage into her soul. He had helped her to let people into her heart and to express the caring and giving nature that had always been within her. Though three years ago she hadn't believed she'd ever have kids, she now hoped with everything she had that one day she would be the mother to Clark's child.

Lois looked at Aymee as a mother would. And she saw pain. In an instant, the maternal instinct she never believed she had kicked in. She wanted to take that pain away.

"Thanks for talking to me. I'm sure you're busy…" Aymee began.

"Come on, we always have time for you."

Clark entered the room and pulled the door closed tightly behind him. There was something about his stance, though; something about the way he looked at their visitor that struck Lois as not quite right.

Aymee wound Socrates' leash through her fingers. "I need your help. I didn't really know where else to turn." She gave half a laugh and said, almost to herself, "Funny. There was a time when I could have thought my own way out of this problem."

"Well, I've learned over the years that it's always good to rely on your friends." Lois put a sympathetic smile on her face.

"Yeah, sure. I relied on my friends three years ago and look what happened."

"Hey, it all worked out in the end." Lois observed the question in Aymee's face. "How much do you remember from all of that?"

"We all remember things." Aymee glanced at Clark and caught his eyes. "Secrets we probably shouldn't know."

Lois could almost feel the nervous energy flash through her husband. The subject of the Smart Kids hadn't come up since Lois had learned about Clark's other identity; clearly, something had happened between Superman and the children in their shared history. And she knew the one thing that always put him on edge.

But it had been three years since the truth about Superman must have been revealed to the kids, and it appeared they had kept the knowledge to themselves. Surely that meant something.

"Why are you here today?" Clark asked. There was a slight bite to the tone, a rudeness Lois felt her husband probably didn't intend. Her guess about the past had been confirmed by his reaction.

"Phillip's in trouble. Lately he's become a completely different person. I think he might be on drugs and I don't know how to get him to quit. I'm really worried about him. People do stupid things when they're high. I just don't want him to get hurt."

Lois tried to calm Aymee's fears. "Hey, we'll do everything we can to make sure Phillip gets the help he needs." But when she looked at her husband, she could see his fear would not be calmed that easily.

***

"Shhh…" Dudley whispered as he nibbled little kisses along Karen's neck.

"Quit it," she said. "They're going to catch us!" Karen broke away from her boyfriend to slow things down between them. This was certainly not the first time the two of them had fooled around — they were with each other practically every day. But lately their relationship seemed to be getting more intense. And Karen was feeling pressure from all around her to do more.

The school's health education teachers had tried to convince her that abstinence was the only acceptable choice she could make in the face of her raging teenage hormones. But she knew many of her classmates had not made that choice. It was clear from the conversations she constantly overheard in the girls' bathroom. It was obvious from the behavior of teenage couples tucked behind corners that weren't fully hidden from view. And whenever Dudley's hand slipped an inch beyond what she was comfortable with, she was reminded that he was having a hard time keeping his sexual feelings in check.

She understood her unauthorized presence in the boys' dormitory didn't exactly send the right message to him. But there was really no harm; she wasn't going to do anything there other than round a few bases with Dudley before stopping short of home. She was only fifteen.

The same age her mother had been when Karen was born.

Karen didn't talk about her mother very much; she'd go weeks without even thinking about her. But sometimes, after the lights went down at the Beckworth School and she tucked herself into bed for another night, she thought about her. Her mother should have been the one to embrace her in a hug, tuck her into bed at night, and kiss her fears away. Her mother should have been the one to help Karen push away the pressures of the world.

But that would have been a different life. A life without teen pregnancy, homelessness, and drug addiction. A life with stability, security, and love.

Beckworth provided some of that life for her. Since coming to the school, she had been freed of the constant upheaval of moving from one foster home to the next. Even when she was younger, she knew none of those caretakers would ever be her family. Rebelliousness and anger prevented her from embracing any of the people who had come into her life, and she had inevitably been pushed out of each of those homes. She had no illusions now that she would ever be adopted; she wasn't a cute little newborn free from problems and emotional baggage. No, she'd be kicked out of the system at eighteen with a few bucks and a housing voucher. She had to make it on her own.

And she couldn't do that with a child. She wouldn't make the same mistake her mother had.

There was security in her life, too. At least she knew each day that she'd have a bed to sleep in, three meals to eat, and an education to fall back on. All of the things her mother hadn't had.

Of course, Karen also had a different kind of security than most kids lived with, but she didn't complain about that. Ever since she and her friends had broken out of the school, new measures had been put into place to prevent it from happening again. Now and then she'd catch a sideways glance from a staff member, a reminder that the past had not been forgotten, and an assurance that she was being watched. The reminder of that monitoring was enough to keep her in line.

A quiet creak from the window, a shadowed movement across the room, and the appearance of Phillip Manning beside his bed were reminders, though, that she had the ability to think her way through those security measures if she ever set her mind to it.

Karen nudged Dudley in the arm and motioned across the dorm room. Her boyfriend dragged his eyes away from her chest long enough to notice Phillip, then shook his head.

"He's on drugs again, isn't he?" Karen asked the question, though the tone of her voice made it sound like a statement.

"Probably." Dudley sighed.

"Why didn't we just tell Aymee before? She's obviously worried about him."

"Well, it's not like we have proof. Besides, she figured it out. And Phil would have killed us if he found out we said anything to her. You know how he feels about her."

Karen offered a half-hearted agreement. "He doesn't think he's good enough for her. He wants her to believe he's perfect. And in the meantime, he's messing up his life and making both of them unhappy."

Dudley let a silent moment pass, and then said, "I think it's more than weed this time." Karen looked sharply at him as he continued. "He's mean, really angry, and even more withdrawn than usual. I've seen him shake in the morning as the stuff's wearing off. He's hooked on something bad."

"How long has this been going on?" Karen whispered harshly.

"I don't know. Maybe a week?" Dudley saw the anger well within his girlfriend. "Well, what did you expect me to do, call the police?"

"I expected you to tell me! We have to help him, and we have to tell Aymee. I don't care what Phillip thinks. He needs help, and we're the only friends he's got."

Dudley tried to hold onto her arm as Karen got off of the bed, but she stood just out of his reach in an angry stance. Then she pointed at him, then at Phillip, as her eyes flashed a clear sign that she expected the two boys to have a conversation.

'Well,' Karen thought as she marched from the room, 'at least my virginity's safe for another night.' Dudley would be sitting in the dugout for the foreseeable future.

***

"Well, this is just sad."

Clark Kent observed his wife close the folder full of background information that Jimmy Olsen had gathered. He sighed in agreement. Reviewing the statistics on teenage drug abuse for the last hour had been depressing. And despite all of his powers, Clark understood there was no way for him to help someone who didn't acknowledge he had a problem.

Physically, Clark couldn't feel the allure of illegal substances. Despite growing up in middle America rather than the inner city, Clark had seen others get involved in drugs. Smallville High had had its share of joints passed behind the stadium bleachers, but Clark had never taken anyone up on the opportunity to get high. When he was a teenager, Clark had been afraid of his emerging powers, unsure of his own biology. He had guessed that drugs wouldn't work the same on him as it had his peers, and he had not held any interest in putting that theory to the test.

The moral upbringing his parents had instilled in him, no doubt, had also influenced his decision to stay clean. For the millionth time in his life, Clark silently thanked whoever had placed his fragile childhood into Jonathan and Martha Kent's hands. His adoptive parents couldn't have loved him more, and the strength of their family bond helped shape the man he grew up to be.

However, Clark understood the emotions that led some people down a dark path. He had felt isolated from others, like no one could possibly understand or accept the real him. He had wanted to escape — not only from his small town, but also from himself.

Lois tossed the folder onto the coffee table and moved next to Clark, settling in the crook of his arm. "I just don't understand why someone as intelligent as Phillip would let himself get involved in this."

"Well," Clark reflected, "sometimes smart kids do stupid things."

"I know, but that doesn't make it right." Lois looked up into her husband's eyes. "Do you think we should have done something? You know, maybe kept better track of them over the years?"

"We're not their parents. We did what we could, but there comes a time when everyone needs to bear some individual responsibility." A feeling nagged at Clark, though: the ache he felt when he was unable to save every victim from a disaster. He shook his head. "I know that's a bad excuse. I could have done more."

Lois bit her lower lip and downcast her eyes. "I'm not really proud of what I did back then. I should have handled things differently. When it was over, it just seemed easier to get Aymee together with her mom and let her forget about me."

"The kids figured out my secret."

Lois nodded her head, silently signaling that she had deduced that on her own.

"I tried to convince them that they were wrong," Clark continued, "and in the end they seemed to be unsure. Ever since then, I've kind of avoided coming into contact with any of them. I thought maybe they'd forget about it if they didn't see me. I should have handled that differently."

"Well, we all make mistakes." Clark saw Lois run a hand over her flat belly, lost in thought. He gave his wife the quiet space she needed as he softly cuddled her beside him. After a few moments, Lois threaded her fingers between his, signaling the continuation of their conversation.

"Do you think it's genetic?" Lois gazed at the folder, though Clark guessed that Phillip Manning had little to do with her question. "I mean, drug or alcohol abuse?"

Clark sat the two of them up straighter and turned his body to fully face his partner. "I believe that parental influence can sometimes have a more powerful effect than genetics. The lack of a stable home life could have led Phillip to turn to drugs." He used his hand to gently turn her face to his. "But you're not destined to repeat your mother's mistakes."

The catch in her voice as she held back a sob could not escape Clark's sensitive hearing, and he pulled his wife into a strong embrace. "I love you so much," Lois declared. She pulled back by a fraction to fix him in her gaze, willing emotion to pour through their connection. "You are going to be a wonderful father."

Clark smiled and brought a hand to her waist, purposefully running a thumb along her midriff. "And someday, you'll have the chance to be an amazing mother."

He leaned forward to press a comforting kiss on her lips. But the emotion wrapped up in their conversation enveloped them, and Lois deepened the kiss with a soft moan. As tongues dueled and hands tugged at clothing, Lois and Clark began to do their best to ensure that someday came sooner rather than later.

***

A string of curse words shattered the morning silence.

Phillip threw the empty syringe across the Costmart back alley, letting it ricochet against an aging brick wall. He ran his hands over his face and pulled his hair into his fists. His supply was gone.

How had he run out so quickly? His body trembled as his mind rebelled against the reality of going without the artificial stimulation. He wanted to go into his meeting with Mrs. Church at his mental best, but without the drug, that would be impossible.

Phillip tried to remember how often he had shot up on Mentamide 5 in the past couple of days, but couldn't seem to recall. Clearly he was making his way through his stash fairly quickly; the previous batch had lasted twice as long. It wasn't easy for him to palm the ingredients for the synthetic stuff as he made his way delivering letters and packages to his company's lab technicians. He couldn't keep that up for very long without getting caught.

He looked at his watch, noting the time. If this meeting went well, he wouldn't have to worry about making the fake stuff anymore.

Synthetic Mentamide 5 was okay, but it just wasn't the same as the real thing. Phillip remembered the power of the drug he had experienced three years earlier. It had caused his heart to race with excitement as it allowed him to think with razor-sharp focus. It had confirmed how much smarter he was than everyone around him and gave him a sense of superiority. It had taken away the loneliness of his little life and had exposed him to the world. But most of all, it had just made everything so easy.

Coming down off the Smart Stuff had been hard. The drug had caused a physical dependency; he and his friends had spent several days supporting each other as they shook off their addiction. But the emotional dependency had been much worse. No one had wanted to go from being smart to dumb.

In the end, the drug apparently hadn't caused any permanent damage to their bodies. But Phillip had to admit its influence had lingered in him much longer than in the others. Aymee, Dudley, and Karen had gotten past their addiction and had moved on with their lives. But Phillip was constantly craving the intoxicating feeling he had sampled a month before his thirteenth birthday.

Over the past three years, he had tried to recapture some of that feeling through the use of poor substitutes. Cigarettes had been his first choice: easily available for free by bumming a smoke from some of the Beckworth hard cases. But that had done nothing for him, and he had moved on to weed, also available from the school's older crowd. He had sampled the occasional harder drug here and there, but nothing had ever taken him to the heights of Mentamide 5.

So when he had stumbled upon the treasured formula in the shredding pile at Star Labs, he had viewed it as a light at the end of his tunnel. There was no question for him as to whether he should make his own drug; the only question was how long it would take. But the idea of recapturing that missing piece to his life could not be held in check, and it had only taken a few days for Phillip to acquire the items he needed and to sneak into an unused lab to whip up his creation.

The first hit was like water to a man dying of thirst. It pumped through his veins, poured through his body, enveloped his mind. It took away all pain and left pleasure in its place.

Ultimately, however, the Semi-Smart Stuff hadn't had the same kick as the real thing. Sure, it was better than anything else he had tried in its place, but there had been something missing. He wasn't quite as smart; things weren't quite as easy. And the crash as he came off his high kept coming far too quickly, leaving him desperately jonesing for more. With each high and low, Phillip's appetite for the real stuff had consumed him.

Glancing around the corner, Phillip saw the front doors of the downtown Costmart open. He left the alleyway, entered the building, dodged the warehouse shoppers, and made his way to the back of the store, where a security guard recognized him and let him into the private elevator. Phillip shifted nervously from one foot to the other as he descended, wary of the dangerous person in whom he was placing his future. But he felt he had no choice; letting go of the drug was not an option.

The elevator opened and a guard led him into Mindy Church's private office. "Wow, you don't waste a minute, do you?" she said.

"You said you'd have it today." Phillip tried to appear in control.

"Yeah." Mindy's lilting voice toyed with him.

"So, do you have it or not?"

"Of course I do!" Mindy opened a drawer, pulling out a vial and hypodermic needle. She moved to the front of her desk and sat lightly on the edge, letting her short skirt rise dangerously high. Then she dangled the drug just out of his reach and taunted, "Remember, I can get anything I want."

Phillip made a slight move to retrieve the items, but Mindy's hand made contact with his chest and pushed him lightly into a chair.

"So, I've got what you want. Where's your part of the bargain?"

"I need the drug first. I can't create the plan without it."

"Yeah, I figured you'd say something like that." Mindy leaned back slightly and pressed a button, signaling several armed security guards to enter the room. "So I guess I'll give you a little taste and lock the rest up here nice and safe. You bring me my stuff and you'll get the rest."

"Deal." Phillip tried to squash the thrill that rose in him. He was so close.

Mindy loaded the syringe as Phillip rolled up a sleeve. "I was a nurse before, so I know how to do this. Don't worry, honey, it won't hurt a bit." Phillip couldn't help gritting his teeth at her fake, cheery bedside manner.

She took his arm, checked for a vein, and swiftly injected the drug.

The rapid click of a room full of weapons cocking into position echoed off the walls. The innocent look was erased from Mrs. Church's face, replaced by cold steel. "Now think!"

Phillip rolled his eyes back into his head and let sweet pleasure flood his body. The genuine Smart Stuff was intoxicating, stimulating his senses, filling him with a sense of belonging. Like coming home to family during the holidays, he embraced the sensations that had been lost to him for three long years.

The synthetic version was nothing. His job at Star Labs was nothing. His so-called friends were nothing. Intergang's safety deposit box problem was nothing.

***

"Dudley, what happened to your face?"

Dudley noted Aymee's concern as he and Karen approached her. They had arranged to meet on the front step of their high school after the last period of the day. Aymee had met with Lois Lane and Clark Kent the day before. The reporters had already arrived and were waiting to discuss their plan for helping Phillip.

Dudley cocked half a smile as his hand touched the corner of his mouth. "Karen convinced me to try and talk to Phillip about what's going on with him. I cornered him in the bathroom this morning and asked him if he was getting high again. He told me to shut up. I started to tell him that he could talk to me about whatever was going on, but he swung around and punched me in the face before he took off." He tried to make a joke. "I guess Phillip's not a morning person."

"You can say that again," Karen said.

Ms. Lane stepped forward to greet them and extended her hand. "Hi, kids. Thanks for meeting with us."

Mr. Kent joined his wife, also offering a handshake. "Sorry it's been so long."

"Not a problem. I'm sure you've been really busy." Dudley looked straight into Clark Kent's poker face. 'Does he know that I know he's Superman?' he wondered to himself.

Aymee interrupted his train of thought. "So, I think everyone agrees Phillip is in some sort of trouble. What do you think we can do about it?"

Karen gave him a stern look, reminding him of their discussion last night. "Yeah, Phillip's definitely hooked on something. We need to get him into rehab."

Lois Lane chimed in. "Clark and I have been doing some research and found a clinic that's willing to take him into a four week in-patient program."

"We'd have to arrange things with the officials at Beckworth, but I think they'll cooperate when they see it's in Phillip's best interest," Clark Kent added. "After that, he could transition into outpatient therapy for as long as it takes for him to get well."

"It will take time," Ms. Lane continued, "but Phillip can work through this. He just has to be willing to admit that he has a problem."

Aymee breathed a sigh of relief as Dudley watched an invisible weight lift off her shoulders. It was too obvious how much Aymee cared about Phillip. He hoped that things would eventually work out between the two of them, but knew that curing Phillip's drug addiction was the first priority. After that, maybe there would be a chance.

"So how are we going to get Phillip to go into rehab?" Karen asked.

Lois offered her opinion. "I think it would be best if you all confronted him together. He needs to see that people care about him and want him to do the right thing."

"Well, we have to find him first," Karen said.

"I think I can help with that." Dudley pulled a small metal box out of his pocket, extending an antenna and adjusting a knob. "I thought we might want to keep track of him, so I slipped a small device into his wallet before he got up this morning." A soft beep pulsed rhythmically as he smiled. "I wasn't the electronics expert for nothing."

"That's my baby!" Karen enthusiastically wrapped her boyfriend in a hug as Aymee rolled her eyes.

Dudley saw a silent conversation pass between Lois and Clark. He guessed that Clark was already trying to zero in on the sound from the tracking device, though Superman made no move that might betray his secret.

He decided to have a little fun with the superhero. Addressing the reporters, he said, "Maybe you two should be in charge of hunting him down. Just remember to let us know when you catch him. I'm going to turn around now and won't be able to see you leave, so you get on finding Phillip super quick."

Dudley stifled a small laugh when he heard Clark issue a quiet groan. 'Oh yeah, he knows that I know.'

—&-&-&—

"Like taking candy from a baby."

Phillip wore an arrogant smile on his face and waved the black velvet pouches in front of Mindy Church. The authentic Mentamide 5 had worked the same as it had three years ago, expanding his mind to see keys to other people's locked doors. With his enhanced abilities, he had been able to see flaws in the security system of the downtown branch of the Bank of Metropolis. Some electronics work, a bit of forgery, and a little misdirection had allowed him to exploit those flaws and take what Mrs. Church's idiot henchmen could not.

This is what his life should be like: unlimited freedom to do whatever he pleased. Beckworth was in the past; the world was his future. Once he secured the rest of the supply Mrs. Church had promised, he could use the drug to help him acquire all the money he needed to build his own endless supply of the Smart Stuff. He would be unstoppable.

Mindy Church curled her graceful hand outward, waiting for her prize to be delivered. As Phillip released the stolen property, Mindy smiled cautiously. "Let's just make sure you got what I wanted."

It occurred to Phillip that he didn't actually know what Mindy was after. He had been too caught up in the puzzle, the dare of committing the crime, the details of the plan. He hadn't bothered to even open the pouches once he had retrieved them from the specified safety deposit box. Now, though, he was curious to see what the head of Intergang had gone to such pains to acquire.

Mrs. Church swept the middle of her desk clean, then carefully opened the first velvet bag and gently shook its contents onto the mahogany. Phillip looked closely, and then cocked an eyebrow at Mindy to ask if she was serious. Her face betrayed no outrage and he felt compelled to take a piece into his hands. She made no move to stop him.

He didn't need a loupe to know the truth. "Costume jewelry? You had me steal a bunch of fake crap?"

An odd grin took over her face as Mindy ran her fingers over the outside of the second pouch, judging the contents within. "Let me tell you a little story," she began. "I'm a really important person, you know, and I'm rich and stuff, so everybody invites me to their parties. Well, I like parties, so I go to the fun ones. But my Billy always said that I have to go the boring ones too. You know, the ones with the stuffy old people that want my money for some stupid charity."

Phillip thought his head would explode if he had to listen to Mindy's fake bimbo voice one more time, but he tried to be patient.

"So anyway, I went to one a few weeks back to help people that have some sort of disease or something. But there was nobody fun to talk to, so I was wandering around until this woman accidentally bumped into me. And so I looked at her and could not believe what this poor lady was wearing! She had blue eye shadow all the way up to her eyebrows and no mascara and red rouge like she wiped it on with a paintbrush. But even more tragic was the hideous flower print muumuu that was hiding her probably okay figure paired with some of the ugliest jewelry you've ever seen!"

Phillip glared. "You're kidding me, right?"

"Oh, I wish I was kidding, but the evidence is right here. I mean, come on, have you ever seen such cheap looking faux earrings in your life? Really, how did this woman even get invited to this party? There's no way she had any money to give if she was willing to be seen in public like this."

Phillip desperately tried to hold on to his sanity and keep his fury in check long enough to get what he had come here for.

"But then, suddenly, I got a good look at her necklace." Mindy's grin got brighter as she opened the second velvet pouch and tipped the jewelry into her hand. She snapped the gold chain quickly around her neck and ran her fingers possessively down to the radiant green crystal dangling in the pendant setting.

Kryptonite. Nothing else on Earth glowed like that.

Mindy dropped all trace of her vacuous persona. "I found out her name was Jessica Trask. Her husband worked for some government agency that tried to kill Superman a few years ago. She said her husband liked to shower her with trinkets. Anyway, a couple of days before he passed away, Jason gave her this necklace and told her that she'd always be safe with it around her neck. That moron didn't even know what she had!" She smiled triumphantly. "Thanks to you, she doesn't have it anymore."

A tingling of the emotion Phillip had once identified as guilt tugged at him, but his drug-induced apathy won the war. "It looks beautiful on you. Congratulations. Now, can I get my stuff and get out of here?"

"Hmmm," Mindy seemingly pondered the question as three armed security guards entered the room. "I don't know. I kind of don't think I need you anymore. So maybe I'll just keep the stuff for myself. Who knows, maybe I'll want to be smart someday." She set the syringe down on her desk and nodded to her guards as they brought up their weapons. "Take care of him, boys."

"Wait!"

He couldn't let the drug slip away from him again. A distant voice within his head called to him, warning Phillip of his oppressive addiction. But that voice didn't matter. Mentamide 5 was everything.

Superman's secret was nothing.

***

Superman flew across the sky, listening for the distinctive beep that would alert him to Phillip Manning's presence. He had promised Lois that he would just track Phillip down and report on his location; he would allow the kids to take the lead on confronting their friend. He and Lois had concluded the teenager would be more likely to listen to the advice of his friends than a lecture from an adult.

Clark's mind recalled the lecture he had given Phillip three years ago. Lois and Clark had tracked down the Smart Kids' hideout with Amyee Valdes' help. Clark had burst into a backroom where the twelve-year old boy was threatening to inject a captured Lex Luthor with what he had assumed was a toxic dose of the Smart Stuff. Clark had explained his experience with growing up different and had persuaded Phillip not to harm Luthor and to give up the Mentamide. Yes, Phillip had listed to Clark's adult lecture back then.

What had changed in Phillip's life that would stop him from listening now?

Clark hadn't needed to ponder that question for long. Time had changed Phillip. Three years could mean a lot to a teenager. Phillip had grown from a prepubescent boy into a rebellious youth. As a child, Phillip had been forced to use drugs; as a teen, he was apparently making that choice all on his own.

'What a waste,' thought Clark. 'Phillip may have had a hard life, but that's no excuse to turn to drugs.'

For the second time in two days, Clark wondered if he should have done more to help the former Smart Kids. And again, for the second time in as many days, an uncomfortable feeling of wariness settled into his stomach. They knew his secret.

He had tried to convince himself that the kids had been fooled by his childish ketchup trick, but there had always remained a piece of his gut that had clung to the truth. It was the part of him that replayed boyhood warnings from his father every time an innocent onlooker caught a glimpse of Clark Kent doing something extraordinary. It was the area of his psyche that generated sweat-inducing nightmares of autopsy tables and dissection tools when people like Diana Stride tried to dig into his life. It was the same inner coward who had stopped him from being completely honest with Lois for so long.

Most people never saw that side of him. They only ever saw the Clark Kent who was an easy-going, well-liked, charming farm boy, always willing to help the people around him. And people never scratched the surface of his Superman persona to see that there was more to the superhero than incredible abilities, invulnerability, and a heroic desire to rid Metropolis of crime.

There were only three people in the world who could actually understand how vulnerable Superman really was. And while he loved his parents dearly, his life hadn't been complete until he had been able to share all of it with Lois Lane.

Criminals thought Superman could be brought down with kryptonite — that the easiest way to defeat him was to physically attack him with a piece of his home world. How wrong they all were. "Clark Kent is Superman" was a much easier weapon: an emotional attack that would ruin everything he truly lived for — his home with the wife he cherished so deeply.

And three years ago, that weapon had been placed in the hands of four smart kids.

The beep grew louder as Superman continued his path over the city he now called home. If the kids had learned of his secret five years ago instead of three, Clark would merely have moved on to someplace new. He had toured the world that way: slipping away under the cover of night any time his secret was suspected. He had nearly resorted to that default escape plan on a few occasions during his stay in Metropolis. And each time, Lois Lane had changed that plan. He loved her too much to ever leave her.

That love had put Clark into a unique situation. He had been forced to rely on a group of teenagers he barely knew to protect his secret identity — to protect the safety of his parents and wife. He had no power to keep them quiet. And though Lois often joked with him about his trusting nature, he just hadn't been able to fully trust the former Smart Kids. After all, middle school kids were not known for their ability to keep secrets: that age group tended to include the biggest gossips of all.

It was more than that, though. Clark doubted that he would have been comfortable with anyone discovering his abilities. He had been in control of his secret his whole life. But he had no control over what others might do if they possessed that knowledge. Even if the Smart Kids meant him no harm, how could four people stop themselves from accidentally letting a secret slip if that secret personally meant nothing to them? How could he expect, for the rest of their lives, none of them would ever say a word? It had been too impossible for him to believe.

So since he hadn't been able to run from the truth, he had chosen to avoid it. He had kept his distance from the kids, pursuing an "out of sight, out of mind" policy. If he stayed out of the kids' business, he had believed they would have no reason to get involved in his.

It was embarrassing to be afraid of a small group of children.

Maybe knowing they had not spread his secret should have helped alleviate some of his fear. But each passing year had only confirmed to him that the strategy of leaving them alone was working. Had it not been for Aymee's recent trip to the newsroom, Clark might never have taken a step towards seeing any of them again.

The reintroduction of the Smart Kids into his life had prompted Clark to confront his anxiety about the knowledge they possessed. Maybe he could repay their loyalty by extending his own measure of trust. Maybe he could count on them as his friends instead of guarding against them as potential enemies.

Superman was nearing the location of the tracking beacon when Phillip's frantic cry of "Wait!" rang in his ears. He found himself flying over the downtown Costmart and used his x-ray vision to scan for the boy, locating him in an underground office. 'How did Phillip get involved with Intergang?' Clark thought.

He attuned his ears to the teenager's voice and started to weigh his options. He would have to start by removing the bodyguards' weapons.

But the next sentence he heard stopped all thoughts from filtering though his brain.

"I know Superman's secret."

Panic-induced nausea slammed into his stomach as the taste of bile filled his mouth. 'No!' He could not let Phillip betray him. There was no time to waste. Clark calculated his best point of entry, dove from the sky into the ground, and burst through the concrete walls of Mindy Church's office.

***

Dust exploded from the wall as a flash of blue and red sped by him. Phillip turned to find the guns that had been pointed at his head a mere second ago were now crushed in Superman's fists.

A surge of relief coursed through Phillip's body. He might get out of this situation after all. He could take the Mentamide and flee, making a new life for himself.

The murmur of his conscience tried to drown out the shouting of the drug. He knew that last thought was wrong somehow. 'Let go of the Mentamide. Give up the drug. You're safe now.'

He tried to listen to his inner voice, but the drug in his system still had an oppressive effect over him. It fought his mind for control.

"No!" The cry of Superman's voice jolted his attention and Phillip watched as the hero crumbled to the ground.

A high-pitched giggle rattled through the office. "What's wrong, honey," Mrs. Church said. She was bent at the waist, hands balanced on her upper thighs, talking to Superman as if he were a child. "Don't you like my beautiful new necklace?" Mindy stroked her index finger down the chain, drawing the hero's attention to her chunk of kryptonite.

"No," he said again, although Phillip hardly heard more than a whisper. Phillip's vision darted to observe Mindy's triumphant gleam, then was drawn back to the man who had burst into a similar room three years earlier. But what a different situation they were in now.

Philip saw the agony projected in Superman's eyes very clearly, cutting much more deeply than words. 'Help me,' those eyes silently pleaded.

The red and blue costume faded from his view as those eyes captured his. Clark Kent needed his help. Not the arrogant superhero who flew in and out of people's lives. Not the nosy reporter who dashed from one story to the next. Not a substitute father figure who skipped out on young boys' lives.

Clark Kent was a person in trouble. Someone Phillip had the potential to save.

Mindy Church looked back and forth between Clark and Phillip and laughed again. "Oh, Superman, I hope you don't think this boy is going to get you out of this mess. After all, he's the one that gave me this lovely little gift in the first place."

For some reason embedded deep inside, Phillip despaired at the notion that Superman would believe he had betrayed him. Loyalty was important to him; his belief that others had been traitors against him three years earlier had led him down the path he found himself on today. "I didn't know." Phillip begged Clark to understand.

"Please! What did you think you were stealing, Girl Scout Cookies?" Mindy sauntered to the end of her desk and let her hands pass over the assorted collection of makeup, hairspray, and nail products that were neatly arranged on the corner. Her fingers deftly pulled out a pair of nail scissors, which she brandished as a weapon. "You're a smart kid, Phillip. Do you think you want to get on my bad side?"

He had no words as Mrs. Church sashayed to where Superman lay curled in a ball. With a dazzling smile on her face, she twirled the scissors in her hand, wound up in the air, and plunged the tool into Superman's arm.

Phillip watched in horror as blood spurt from Clark's limb and an anguished wail escaped the hero's lips.

'What have I done?' Phillip asked himself.

"What do you think, boys?" Mindy addressed her henchmen as she gave a little curtsy. "Want to see what I'll do for Act Two?"

The bodyguards applauded for Mindy's benefit.

The cruelty he was witnessing did what nothing else had been able to do. Phillip's mind veered away from its dark obsession with Mentamide 5 and began to focus on creating a solution to the desperate situation. Phillip looked around the room and his drug-enhanced brain automatically began sorting objects into their component parts, seeking a dangerous combination that would help Clark Kent and aid in their escape.

He found the answer lying on Mrs. Church's desk. 'I can't!' his addiction lamented. But Phillip summoned the inner strength to push past his dependency. With the crime boss temporarily distracted by her small victory, Phillip lunged for the desk and grabbed the necessary components. Then he spun and threw the vial of Mentamide and a bottle of nail polish remover against the wall.

The resulting explosion knocked everyone to the ground, but Phillip had been prepared. He caught himself as he fell, then dashed towards Mindy Church. Pushing her onto her back, Phillip grabbed at the kryptonite and ripped the chain off her neck.

"Stop him!" Mrs. Church shouted. She tried in vain to hold him, but the teenager had leverage on his side and pulled away from her clutches. He stumbled backwards, and then righted himself. Quickly assessing his best alternative, Phillip scrambled for the hole that had been left by Superman's entrance. He slipped into the opening, stood under the open shaft, and hurled the necklace upwards toward the ground level. His luck held out as the small rock escaped the shaft and fell somewhere outside of the hole.

Ducking back into the office, he saw that his efforts had paid off. The bodyguards were huddled together in a corner in an attempt to distance themselves from the upright superhero. Mrs. Church remained on the floor, but her posture suggested she had conceded defeat. Upon seeing Phillip, however, fury flashed through her eyes. Phillip had made a new enemy.

Phillip ran to Superman's side. "Can you get us out of here?" he asked quietly.

Superman nodded his head, replying just for Phillip's ears, "I'll try." Superman pulled the teenager into his arms and lifted from the ground as the two of them floated up the shaft to safety.

***

"We can't find it anywhere." Dudley Nickolas and Karen Sanchez shook their heads as they approached the bench at the edge of Centennial Park.

"That's okay. Thanks for looking anyway." Lois Lane sat next to her husband and clutched his hand. She had sped to the park upon receiving Clark's phone call. He had only had the strength to fly the short distance from the Costmart and change identities before he had collapsed on the park bench in exhaustion. As promised, though, Lois had quickly taken the time to call the former Smart Kids and tell them the location of their friend.

"I'm sorry," Phillip Manning said. "I couldn't think of anything else to do with it. I just knew I had to get rid of the kryptonite as soon as possible."

"Hey, you did the best you could." Karen put a supportive hand on Phillip's shoulder.

Clark stood up from the bench. "You saved my life, Phillip. And you protected my secret. Thank you."

She noticed the teenager pale slightly. "I almost gave it up. I was so desperate to get my hands on the Smart Stuff that I nearly did something really stupid."

"That's what you were on?" Dudley looked at his girlfriend, who appeared just as shocked. "I knew it was something bad, but come on!"

"You had no way of knowing. Nobody did," Phillip said.

"Phillip!" Aymee Valdes ran to her friend and threw her arms around him. "What happened? Are you alright?"

"I will be." Phillip smiled, and Lois thought she saw a bond connect between the two teenagers.

Dudley interrupted. "You're going to need help."

"I know," Phillip replied. He looked at Clark and asked, "What's going to happen to Mrs. Church?"

Clark thought for a moment. "Well, nothing will happen to Mindy Church. At best, she could be charged with receiving stolen property, but she wouldn't be convicted because the kryptonite necklace is missing. She could be charged with misdemeanor assault on Superman, but Superman isn't prepared to testify about the effects of kryptonite in open court. Either way, talking to the police would lead them to your involvement."

Phillip lowered his eyes. "So what will happen to me?"

"I think there's a more important place for you to be than juvenile hall."

Dudley nodded and handed Phillip a brochure. "This place is supposed to be really good. There's a space waiting for you. You don't have to go through this alone."

Phillip looked at the brochure. "Getting clean will probably be even harder this time. But I need to do it."

"We'll always be here for you," Aymee said. Her embrace with Phillip had ended, but she appeared unwilling to lose all contact with him, holding on to his hand.

"And I'll be here too." Clark's face appeared relaxed for the first time in days. He looked at each of the kids before continuing. "I trust you all as my friends."

A look passed between the small group, an acknowledgement of the knowledge they shared.

Lois smiled and squeezed her husband's hand. Their secret was safe.

***

"Get out of here, you cowards!" Mindy watched her idiot bodyguards flee the office. 'They are so fired!'

Mindy stomped to her desk and fell into the chair. She had wasted two days of her life on that teenager's plan. 'I missed a hair appointment for him!' She checked her anger and considered which she was angrier about: Phillip's betrayal, Superman's escape, or the lack of her hot oil treatment. It was too close to call.

Pulling open a drawer, she hunted for her special manicure set. But a piece of paper caught her attention. She withdrew it and smoothed it over her desk, reviewing the formula for Mentamide 5.

She could always have another batch created. If the stuff worked, it could be a real advantage to her underground business.

She crumpled the paper and threw it in the trash. Despite what most people believed, Mindy was a very intelligent woman. 'I'm too smart to do drugs.'

Leaning back in the chair, the crime boss retrieved an emery board and began to smooth the edges of her fingernails. After a moment, though, she reconsidered and dug the formula out of the trash. She moved to her file cabinet, opened a drawer, and searched through the files. Finding the correct one, she dropped the scrap of paper into storage.

'Who knows? Maybe I'll need it someday.'

She closed the drawer and took her seat once more. A proof sheet stacked on top of her inbox called for her attention. 'Two- gallon jugs of chutney are on sale next week?' Yuck! When would that purchasing department ever learn?

Phillip Manning would have to watch his back in the future. Intergang did not forget to deal with its enemies. For now, though, Mindy had people to fire. And she would take great pleasure in doing so.

***

The tall man held the necklace in his hand, allowing the rock to radiate sparks of light that cast an eerie green glow across his skin. Kryptonite. It had to be.

He had been walking downtown yesterday, blending in with the rush of people heading to work, to shop, to play. They all had something to do, somewhere important to be. But not him. There had only been one thing on his agenda: stay out of trouble. Obey the terms of his bail.

He had been bored out of his mind. He had been so used to doing whatever he pleased, whenever he pleased. He and his wife had indulged in life to the fullest. But now he had been reduced to pretending he was nothing more than an honest, upstanding citizen outrageously framed for a crime he hadn't committed.

He suppressed a laugh.

Of course, he really had committed the crime of which he was accused, but that was the beauty of the American legal system: innocent until proven guilty. 'God bless the Constitution.'

There were only three people who shared his secret, who could debate his defense that he had merely been a pawn in someone else's scheme. His wife, of course, would say nothing. That only left Lois Lane and Superman.

Ben Franklin had once written, "Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead." He knew exactly who those two people needed to be. The question was, how?

He looked down again at the prize in his hand. He remembered how it had come into his possession. How something had glittered while it arched through the air, catching his attention as he had strolled past the downtown Costmart. How his curiosity had been sparked, leading him to cross over to where the object had fallen to the ground. How he had stuffed the necklace into his pocket as his eyes scanned the oblivious passers-by. How he had quickly left the scene in favor of the security of his own home.

Waiting like a good little boy for his shyster lawyer to get him off was stupid. Kryptonite and a gun could help him be proactive, could allow him to eliminate the two main witnesses for the prosecution.

Tim Lake closed his fist around the precious rock and smiled as a plan began to form in his head.

THE END

For Monique: You said you wouldn't do "that" anymore. May your promise live as long as the words on this page.