The Longest Road: The Roads They Walked Alone

By Raconteur <raconteur27@yahoo.com>

Rated: PG — 13 (note: this story includes significant depictions of violence)

Submitted: March 2007

Summary: When faced with the most difficult challenges of their lives, both Lois and Clark learn that the longest roads in life are the ones you must walk alone.

Author's Note: This story picks up immediately where "The Longest Road: Belief and Sacrifice" left off. It will make more sense if you read that story first. Don't worry, that story is only about a tenth the size of this one. I'd like to thank my beta readers, Ray and Avia for all of their wonderful suggestions and their patience with me over the years it took to write this. I would also like to thank my wonderful General Editor, Tricia, for all of her help shepherding this through the process of archiving. Any and all comments welcome.

***

"I'm pregnant," Lois whispered through tears.

Martha hugged her daughter-in-law tightly, her own emotions swirling about in a chaotic storm. "You should sit," Martha said gently as she led the younger woman to the sofa. On wobbly legs, Lois managed her way to the couch before collapsing under the weight of some unseen but unmistakable pressure. Martha sat down beside Lois and hugged her as her slender frame shook with sobs.

When the tears finally stopped flowing, Martha gently asked, "Are you sure?"

Lois looked at her and nodded feebly, trying to maintain a brave face as she calmed herself down enough to speak. "I felt sick, and I thought it might be kryptonite, but it wasn't. I didn't want to believe it, but I took the test, and it was positive, and I couldn't stop staring at it and thinking that there's no way I could do this without him." Her lip trembled and her voice broke. "How am I supposed to take care of this baby without him? I'm not ready, I can't, I don't know how. God, I'm so scared," she confessed.

"It'll be all right," Martha crooned.

"I don't…I don't know what to do…" Lois whispered.

Martha's heart sank; she was unsure what to tell the younger woman. She tried to put herself in Lois's place. Her husband was gone, she felt alone and scared, asked to fill shoes that were daunting under the best of circumstances, and now this. Martha had wondered whether Clark would be able to have children or if he would face the same difficulties she and Jonathan had. She'd hoped desperately that Clark would be able to have a family, but never had she imagined this would happen. Her heart ached both for her son who wasn't here and who couldn't even know what was happening—that he would be a father—and for her daughter-in-law, who was faced with the possibility of raising their child alone. "You're going to be fine," Martha tried to reassure her. "And we'll be here to help you, no matter what. We'll do whatever we can to help."

"I don't know what I would do without you," Lois admitted.

Martha hugged the younger woman tightly. "Shhh, everything will be okay," she promised. "But you should try to rest." She stood up to collect a thick quilt from the old wooden rocking chair and wrapped it around Lois's shoulders. Her daughter-in-law looked so small, so fragile wrapped up in the faded, old blue and white quilt. The quilt was Clark's favorite; it had been since he was a little boy. It was worn at its edges and rounded corners and threadbare in places from years of use, abuse, and trips through the washing machine. Several of the squares were much brighter than the others, replacements added on over the years for those spots that had been torn or tattered. Lois held the beaten up quilt tightly around her shoulders as though she were cold. The sight tugged at Martha's heartstrings and she felt the deep aching that she'd grown to know well over the years — the pain of caring so very much for someone who felt as though they were facing the world alone, the pain that came from having to stand back and watch, knowing it was a burden she couldn't fully share. Martha would do what she could, but she couldn't make things right. She knew that.

"Let me get you some tea," she said quickly before adjourning to the kitchen. She returned a few minutes later with two mugs in her hands.

Lois gratefully took one of the cups with a quiet 'thank you.' She sat on the couch with her legs tucked underneath her. She held the cup of herbal tea in her hands and sipped it in silence, her eyes closed. After a long moment, she began to speak, at first in a whisper, as though she were trying to find her own voice. "I used to wonder what it would be like. I wasn't even sure it was what I wanted, but I knew Clark would be an amazing father, and I found myself wanting to give him that. I thought I'd just follow his lead, learn as I went…"

Martha leaned back in the rocking chair opposite the couch, sipping her own tea. "You'll be a wonderful mother," she replied.

"That's easy for you to say." Lois gave her a weak smile. "You're the world's best mom."

"Heavens, no," Martha replied with a genuine smile. "I was terrified when we found Clark. I had no idea what to do. I was overwhelmed, but we managed. We learned. And we're pretty happy with the way he turned out." Her tone became serious. "I know this is hard, but I promise you won't have to face this alone."

"I just…I know I should be happy, but I'm so afraid…" Lois admitted.

"I know," Martha replied.

***

Ching paced stiffly with long, measured strides across the gymnasium. He lectured in his stern, disapproving monotone, a sound Clark had grown quite familiar with over the weeks. Clark felt a drop of sweat roll down his forehead, over the bridge of his nose and fall to the ground, followed by another. He tried to still his arms but they trembled despite his demands that they stop. His muscles burned as his arms shook, aching and cramping further with every second. He closed his eyes.

"You should not be under the impression that your new station will be one of privilege. All men and women of New Krypton are equals. But you are not merely a citizen, you are also a servant. The people have rights to make certain demands of you. Everything from law to social niceties and tradition will serve to remind you of that fact. Do you understand?"

"I get it, Ching," Clark hissed through clenched teeth, his face inches above the ground, his arms bent at ninety-degree angles, his body ramrod straight. A tremor began in his calves and worked its way up his legs, seizing the cramped muscles in flurried bursts of twitches and spasms.

"Do you understand?" Ching replied, placing a foot on Clark's back.

With an unceremonious thud, Clark fell to the mat, drawing in a deep breath. He exhaled as the burning slowly leeched its way out of his muscles. "I understand," he replied raggedly.

"Good, get up," Ching responded crisply.

Clark dragged himself to his feet, wiping the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. He stood up straight at attention, and with his hands in front of him at sternum height, elbows bent at right angles, he placed his right fist against the open palm of his left hand and bowed ceremoniously.

Ching returned the gesture. "Now go, there is work to be done on the bridge."

"Do you always step on the backs of your equals, Ching?" Clark demanded. He stared down the other man. Ching was more slender in build than Clark, but he still cut an imposing figure. His determination and control and his perpetually harsh expression ensured it.

Ching regarded Clark silently for a moment. "If it is what I must do to make them my betters, to ensure that they are men and women I would be proud to salute and honored to follow."

"We can end the drill instructor routine. You don't have to hide the fact that you don't like me." Clark pressured him, unwilling to let the subject drop.

"Whether or not I like you is irrelevant. It is my duty to serve, Kal El. But it is not you I serve. It is not even Zara that I serve. I serve your offices, no more. It matters not to me who you are, or whether I like you. My duty is to serve the people of Krypton above all others." The tiny tic of his eyebrow in his otherwise stoic expression belied the fact that Ching was quite agitated. He turned to walk away.

"You and I both know that isn't true. You're in love with her, and you're convinced that I'm trying to take your place."

"That's absurd," Ching snapped.

"Well, yeah, it is. I'm not trying to steal Zara from you," Clark replied.

Ching's eyes narrowed as he glared at Clark. "You could not begin to understand…"

"Why don't you try me?" Clark replied icily. "You think I don't know what it's like to be kept apart from the woman I love? You think I want this? These are your rules, not mine. I'm just playing the game because you asked for my help. If I could get out of the whole deal and let you take my place, believe me, I would."

"So that is it, you would give up your duty, your responsibilities, just like that?"

Clark groaned in frustration. "What do you want from me? Do you want me to pretend that I'm glad to be here, that I don't miss my friends or my family or my wi…or Lois? I came here to help, that's all. When my work is done, I'm going home. End of story. I'd rather not have to deal with the passive aggressive act until then." Clark strode out of the gymnasium without even waiting for a reply. His jaw was sternly set, his brow furrowed. He was angry and he was tired. All he wanted was to go to his quarters and be alone. Alone, with only his thoughts to keep him company, he could escape from this place, at least for a little while.

Instead, he made his way to the showers, relieved to find them mercifully deserted. He peeled off his black uniform slowly, his muscles tired and knotted. Purple, green, and yellow bruises had formed on his arms and on his sides from countless hours of combat training. The more substantial of them were old and fading, nearly unnoticeable. He'd learned quickly, and the mistakes that had led to those painful lessons were not repeated. Clark winced slightly as he stepped under the stream of hot water; the bruises and strained muscles were still tender. Pain blossomed deep in his limbs and slowly drained away as the hot water relaxed his body. He slowly scrubbed away the sweat and grime, at the same time clearing away the thoughts and frustrations of all things related to the Kryptonians and his mission. His thoughts drifted to Lois, as they always did. Only in his own head, when he was thinking of her, did anything make sense. He had to hold onto those thoughts, those memories, those dreams, just to stay sane. She was the anchor that kept him connected to the world, without her, he was just drifting, purposeless.

After a long while, his body rejuvenated by the hot water and his bad mood suitably appeased by having a few minutes of quiet to himself, away from the pressure of the tasks that lay ahead, Clark turned off the water, dried off and put on a clean uniform. He walked down the corridor and passed the door to his quarters with a wistful glance. If only he could just go inside and go to sleep. He would dream about her, he always did. Dreams so real, so vivid, he would swear he was awake. Dreams in which the sound of her voice, her laughter, the warmth of her embrace, the feel of her skin against his, the silk of her hair, the taste of her lips, all surrounded him, wrapping him up in feelings so intense he could barely stand it. He lived for his dreams. And he mourned the ends of the nights, grieved for the dreams interrupted, and cursed the waking world that waited for him.

But the dreams, no matter how real, how amazingly intense they were, were doing nothing to help him get home to her. It was what he did in those waking hours that he loathed so much, all the training and preparing for a responsibility more daunting than any he'd ever contemplated, that mattered. He had to do everything in his power to get this right if he wanted to get home.

At the end of the long, narrow, winding corridor, the door to the bridge waited for him. It glided open silently as he approached. The sparse crew paid him little mind and continued with their tasks. Only Zara seemed to notice his arrival.

"Kal El," she began, her tone grave. "We have news from New Krypton. The situation grows more dire by the day and we are still weeks from our arrival. I will speak with several members of the Council via communicator later today. I would like you to be present."

Clark merely nodded. Over the weeks, they'd received scraps of information about the situation on New Krypton — none of it was good. Skirmishes had begun in the outlying regions of the settlements. Saboteurs and guerrilla fighters had launched attacks on the relatively defenseless frontiers of the civilization. Nor had denied connection with the armed attacks and had claimed that only an administration under his guidance would be able to restore peace to the colony. The divisions in the Council were growing deeper. A powerful group of Councilors was demanding Nor's immediate confirmation as First Minister. Nor, for his part, had made a public plea to Zara to return from her foolish quest and help him heal the wounds of their world. As slick as an oiled serpent, he seemed to slither into every possible mess and come out unscathed. He'd trumped up a state of emergency, creating chaos on their planet and then promised with false earnestness to restore peace and order. Apparently fear and apprehension had driven a fair number of people into the camp of his supporters. The death toll from the attacks was steadily mounting and the Council was paralyzed by its divisions. He and Zara were expected to step into the vacuum and set things right. Countless lives depended upon them.

Clark walked slowly to the thick paned window and gazed out at the retreating stars. He found his own sun, a little brighter than the others because it was so much closer, but otherwise, undistinguished from his vantage point. Pulling the chain out from under his uniform, he stared down at the perfect little gold band that hung from it and silently wished that Lois were with him. She would know what to do; she would have helped him through this.

***

Lois considered her reflection in the mirror; she turned profile and regarded herself carefully. She placed a hand on her stomach, as flat as ever. Soon it wouldn't be. She felt a lump form in her throat as she thought about the tiny life growing there. A life she and Clark had created. A life created by their love. A life he didn't even know existed. Tears pricked at her eyes and she cursed the fates for their cruelty. She knew Clark would have given up anything to be here with her at that moment. If only he'd known. He deserved to be there, to see their child born, to watch their baby grow up. She wondered when she'd feel it kick, or hear its heartbeat and knowing that Clark wouldn't be there clawed at her soul. She could imagine the awe in his expression and picture in her mind the way his eyes would light up when he listened to the baby's heartbeat, or felt it kick. Dammit, it wasn't fair. He should have been there. He had every right to be there. Instead, she would have to do this without him. She had to bring their child into the world without him, had to raise a baby, wondering if he or she would ever get to know Clark.

She had to stop thinking that way. Clark was coming back to her. From her conversation with Zara, it seemed that the trip would take months, at least, so she couldn't be sure he'd be back before the baby was born, but he would come back, she knew that. Deep down, she knew that Clark was going to find a way to come back home. This baby was going to have a daddy that loved him or her very much. Until then, she'd have to do her best. She'd have to do everything she could, even though she was scared, even though the thought of being a parent terrified her. She loved this baby, this tiny little life that she'd known about for only a few hours. This baby was a link to Clark, but it was so much more. One day, it would be a tiny little person of its own, and he or she would look to Lois for love, support, and guidance and Lois knew at that moment she would do anything for this baby.

She silently made her way to the front porch of the farmhouse. Martha and Jonathan had gone to bed long ago, insisting that she stay the night. She looked up at the star filled sky on a warm, breezy Kansas summer night. A few dark clouds drifted lazily across the inky sky, lit up by countless little pinpricks of brilliant light. She looked up at the little star Clark had pointed out to her so many nights before. She spent hours each night staring at it, hoping and praying to any deities that would listen to send her husband back home to her safe and soon. Lois wondered where Clark was, and whether he was scared. She wondered if he thought about her as much as she thought about him, or if he was being kept too busy. She wondered if he dreamed the way she did, those vivid, breathtakingly, heartbreakingly vivid dreams. Lois wondered if he woke up in the middle of the night, surprised to find himself alone, swearing that just moment's before, he'd been in lying in his lover's embrace. She wondered if he whispered her name in his sleep because the sound of it soothed his soul the way the sound of his name soothed hers.

Lois stared up at his star, the bright little spark blurred by the tears in her eyes. She pulled out the chain around her neck and held the large gold ring between her fingers, its smooth surface flawless and perfect to the touch. "Come back to me," she whispered. She placed her hand against her stomach. "Come back to us."

***

Clark left the bridge of the ship unsure of what had just transpired. The conversation he and Zara had just had with several of New Krypton's councilors had been brief and bewildering. Things were discussed only in the vaguest of terms, since most were certain that Nor or his followers would intercept the communication. After a rather stiff and formal 'welcome and thank you' from the councilors, they'd immediately begun bickering over what to do regarding Nor. Recent attacks by rebel forces on the colony's communication systems had meant that there had been no video feed, which had made it harder to keep track of all of the councilors. Several seemed rather skeptical of him and his intentions. A few seemed to consider him merely a convenience, but he thought there were others who seemed truly grateful for his help. From their brief conversation it became apparent that the attacks on the colony outposts were growing more vicious and more frequent. They were still a month away from New Krypton and all parties jointly wished for a safe and quick arrival of the ship and its crew.

Clark made his way to his quarters. The crew would be gathering soon to eat, but he wasn't hungry. He'd been skipping meals and it certainly wasn't helping him keep his strength up, but he just didn't feel much like eating. He shut the door to his room behind him and sat down on his bunk. The room was sparse, sterile and annoyingly functional. He pulled out the picture of Lois that was tucked away in the little cabinet by his bed. A small smile started to tug at the corners of his mouth. He looked down at the image of his wife, the likeness of her reclining on his sofa, absorbed in a sheaf of papers she held in her hand. She'd been completely oblivious to him and the camera, unaware of the fact that he'd been watching her for long minutes, absolutely mesmerized by her and that he'd decided to take her picture. It wasn't something he felt compelled to do often, but he remembered how he felt just then, knowing it was one of those perfect moments, unwilling to let it merely pass by, getting lost in the jumble of countless memories imperfectly remembered.

So without her knowing, he slipped away and found his camera, returning to quietly snap a picture of her, concentrating intently on her work, her long, perfect, legs stretched out in front of her, wearing one of his dress shirts much better than he ever could. The top few buttons were undone, exposing the flawless skin of her neck. During dinner, he'd clumsily spilled half a glass of red wine on her blouse and skirt. It was a rather absurd thing for a superpowered being to do, but it hadn't been entirely his fault, she'd distracted him! He'd apologetically offered to get her something else to wear, but she insisted that she could manage to find something herself. Her choice had no doubt been made as a particularly pleasant form of torture for him. How could she dress like that and then insist that they work?

A small frown played at the corners of her mouth, but her expression was totally open, unguarded. He'd hesitated before taking the picture, knowing that if he did, he wouldn't merely record the moment, he'd obliterate it, too. The flash, the sound of the shutter, they would break the spell. But it had been worthwhile. Taking the picture had even been worth Lois's annoyance at the fact that he'd been too busy playing freelance photographer to get any work done. Now, he had a tangible reminder of that Friday evening, lounging around his apartment with Lois, proving that all he needed was a jug of wine, a loaf of bread (or in that case, authentic Chinese food) and her.

His frustration grew as he contrasted the simplicity of that evening, of the way everything had seemed to make perfect sense in that moment to the way things were now. Everything seemed backwards and mixed up; nothing made any sense at all and things didn't seem to be getting any clearer. He prayed for the craft to hurry up and get where it was going; he was going stir crazy on that ship. It felt like they did nothing but sit around and wait. His patience for all the training and preparing was growing thin and he wanted it to end. The sooner they got to New Krypton, the sooner they could get rid of Nor and the sooner he could go home. It wasn't that simple, but thinking about things in black and white terms made them easier to stomach. He wanted to go home. He wanted to go back and take Lois flying again. It'd been a month since he'd been flying, but he wouldn't have cared if he never did it again, just so long as he got to be with Lois.

***

Martha tiptoed quietly past Clark's room, hoping not to wake her now superpowered daughter-in-law. She avoided the fifth step, which tended to creak loudly. Martha didn't know if Lois had been a light sleeper before the power transfer, but from her last few visits, Martha knew the younger woman hadn't been sleeping well and the smallest things would startle her awake. In the first weeks since Clark had left, Lois had visited them on a number of occasions. Things were at least a little easier when they were all together, though the togetherness could also merely highlight Clark's obvious absence. When she came to visit, Lois always stayed in Clark's room. The first few times it seemed like staying there had been too much for her. Being surrounded by reminders of Clark was difficult for her and Jonathan; she didn't imagine it was any different for Lois. At the same time, it was a comfort. The mix of emotions all jumbled up inside created confusion and turmoil in all of them.

She reached the base of the staircase and quietly made her way to the kitchen in the dark. It was summer and the days were quite long, but it would still be a while before dawn broke. Martha turned on the light in the kitchen and jumped back, startled.

"Goodness you frightened me," she said to the somber looking young woman sitting at the table. She hadn't expected to find her daughter-in-law sitting in the kitchen, alone and in the dark at a quarter to five in the morning, but she wasn't really surprised by the fact that Lois had been unable to sleep.

"Sorry," Lois replied. "I guess I couldn't sleep."

Martha merely nodded. "How do you feel?"

"Tired, nervous, scared…" Lois admitted.

"Why don't I make us some breakfast and…"

"No," Lois interrupted. "I mean, thank you, but I really don't think I could eat anything."

"It's all right," Martha said gently. She sat down at the table.

"Yeah, they say that morning sickness passes, but frankly it doesn't seem to know the difference between morning and middle of the night…"

"No, I meant the being scared part."

"Oh," Lois replied. She looked up over Martha's shoulder. "Good morning," she said.

"You're both up early," Jonathan replied.

"Well, there's work to do," Martha answered.

"That there is." Jonathan smiled.

Lois stood up. "Let me help." Martha's heart felt just a little lighter at the sight of her daughter-in-law taking a brave first step back toward normalcy.

"The chickens do need feeding, and I think you'll be able to hold your own against the rooster," Jonathan said.

***

"Are you sure you're okay doing this?" Jonathan asked from under the tractor.

"I'm fine," Lois replied, easily balancing the tractor a few feet off the ground.

"I appreciate the help," Jonathan said as he finished changing the oil. "This is much easier than using a jack."

"Well, I knew these powers would come in handy," Lois replied. "Big shoes to fill, though."

"You're doing just fine," Jonathan said.

"For now, I guess. I'll start to show in a few months, and Ultrawoman will have to disappear."

Jonathan merely grunted. "Just a little while longer," he muttered. "There, got it." Jonathan slid out from under the tractor. He wiped the grime from his hands and dropped the wrench back in his toolbox, chewing his lip, deep in thought. "I guess that's the only thing you can do," he said at last.

Lois lowered the tractor back to the ground. "I mean, it's not like Ultrawoman and I can just coincidentally be pregnant at the same time. I don't need to make an announcement for anyone out there ready to connect some dots."

"Speaking of announcements, does anyone else know you're pregnant?" Jonathan asked.

Lois simply shook her head. "I came here as soon as I found out. I'll need to tell Perry."

"Don't forget your parents."

She groaned and looked away. "I hadn't even thought of that. I didn't tell them Clark and I got married, but I guess this will be a little harder to hide."

"Are you worried they'll be upset?" he asked gently.

"Honestly, I don't know what to expect from them," she confessed.

Jonathan placed a hand on her shoulder. "If there's anything Martha and I can do, just ask," he said.

Lois placed a hand on top of his and smiled tremulously. "I know," she replied. She blinked back tears for about the millionth time in the last twenty-four hours. And she'd thought the constant crying was behind her. Just when she thought she was beginning to pull herself together — almost at the point where she'd be able to sleep through an entire night without waking because the pain in her chest where her heart used to be was so consuming she couldn't breathe, or to last just one minute without thinking of how much worse it was than the one before — a new challenge, daunting and confusing, loomed large over her. How was she going to do this? The panic threatened to wash over her in waves. 'Calm down, Lane,' she tried to tell herself. 'One step at a time.'

"I'm sorry," she said at last. "I feel like I've been constantly falling apart on you guys."

Jonathan pulled her into a tight hug. "Lois, you're stronger than even you realize. Few people could endure what you're going through…and all the good you've done as Ultrawoman during a time when most anyone else would be too wrapped up in themselves to even think about helping others. And this, well, I'd be more worried if you weren't terrified. Becoming a parent can be a pretty scary thing, especially when you weren't expecting it. But you'll have help. We don't want you to feel like you have to go through this alone."

"Thank you," she murmured. "And I don't. Feel like I'm doing this alone. I don't know what I'd do without you and Martha." She hugged her father-in-law tightly, grateful for his strength and support.

***

Leaving Kansas early in the morning meant getting into the Daily Planet about on time for any regular employee. Sure, she was hours late for Lois Lane, but it wasn't likely to raise too many eyebrows. Everyone had gone out of their way to well, get out of her way, as of late. That wasn't an entirely fair assessment. It was mainly the junior staff, the ones who worried about irritating a fragile, yet ever combustible Lois Lane, who gave her the wide berth. The Planet veterans didn't really seem to know how to act. They'd seen enough of Mad Dog Lane to know the tell tale cues and to know that they were nowhere to be seen. Lois wasn't looking for an argument or openly fuming these days, she also didn't seem likely to snap at the first person that decided to make a nuisance of him or herself. No, Lois seemed more likely to break like a sliver of glass than to snap at anyone. And that's what had her colleagues confused. They'd learned how to avoid an angry Lois Lane and how to stay off her bad side, but they had no idea what to do with a Lois Lane who looked and seemed just like she'd lost her best friend because she literally had.

Most everyone in the newsroom would say that Clark's disappearance had resulted in them losing a friend, but no one would claim to be in the same category as Lois Lane in that regard. Lois was just a different person with Clark in her life. While none of them had known Clark before he started at the Planet, there was no mistaking the profound impact she'd had on him, either. They were just better people because of each other. Perhaps some of them were expecting Lois to revert to form in his absence, but there was really no way she was going to go back to the way she was before Clark entered her life. She certainly wasn't the Lois Lane of two months ago, either. Instead, this Lois seemed merely to be grinning and bearing whatever life threw her way, doing a heck of a lot more of the latter than the former. Things just seemed so burdensome to their once tireless colleague.

It was hard for them to know what to say to her. Condolences weren't really in order. While some suspected that Clark might be dead, no one dared breathe a word aloud to that effect. They couldn't reassure her that all was being done to locate him, because there was just no way of knowing. Superman apparently had promised to search for Clark, and while the hero's word was better than gold, this was no ordinary missing person's case. Clark had been dragged into some otherworldly war zone, likely to be used as bait. There was never any news of progress or disappointments, new leads to consider and trails that had gone cold. She was literally in the dark and powerless to do anything. Her coworkers didn't pretend to have any words of comfort and strength that would magically make things better. They were too smart for that. As a result, they didn't say much at all. They'd ask how she was doing, offer sympathetic smiles and the like, but there wasn't much else they could do.

The usual smiles and subdued 'hellos' were the order of the day as Lois stepped off the elevator and into the newsroom just after nine that morning. She made an earnest attempt to return pleasantries, but the fact that her heart wasn't in it was apparent to everyone. Without bothering to stop by her own desk first, she made her way to the editor's office. With a brief knock, she opened his door, not bothering to wait for a formal invitation.

Lois drew in a deep breath as she entered the cloistered confines of Perry's office. Perry looked up as she closed the door softly behind her.

"Morning, Lois," he said, clearly trying to sound lighthearted.

She wondered how she should break the news to him, but figured that directness was as good an approach as any. She could count on Perry to maintain a confidence; a month after the fact, her marriage to Clark was still unknown to virtually everyone who wasn't present. Perry had assured them that he would file the certificate with a judge who was a close personal friend and who was the very model of circumspection. True to his word, Perry filed the paperwork and nothing happened. Not one media source had reported on the very recent nuptials of Clark Kent, hapless alien abductee, and Lois Lane. She hadn't told her parents about the wedding. She realized it was sad that she didn't feel much like sharing that with her own family, but she wasn't that close to her parents and there was no way she could make them understand the reasons for it without going into a great many things they were better off not knowing.

Perry, on the other hand, was more of a father to her than her own father. It only seemed natural that she was telling him about the baby before her own parents. Of course, she hadn't actually said anything yet, and the long, drawn out silence was quickly becoming awkward.

"Lois, are you all right?" he asked.

"I'm pregnant," she blurted out. Well, she had decided to be direct.

"Oh," he said, as though incapable of forming actual words. "Oh," he repeated, this time with more emphasis. Perry stood up and started to walk around his desk toward her. "Well, uh, are you okay?"

"A bit shaky," she admitted. Lois gave him a tremulous smile. "But lucky for you, I think I pretty much cried myself out for at least a good week."

Perry seemed to stop dead in his tracks. "Honey, I'm so…I mean, I…" he began, clearly unsure what to say.

She quickly realized what he thought she'd meant and rushed to clarify. "Not sad crying," she explained. "Mostly just scared. I mean, this isn't exactly the ideal situation and I can't go five seconds without wishing Clark were here, but I, I want…this, you know?"

Perry nodded with a slight smile and stepped toward her to envelop her in a warm embrace. "I guess congratulations are in order then," he said.

"I think, for now, they should be pretty quiet congratulations," she replied.

"Of course. No champagne and funny hats, then," he said with a smile. "Well no champagne for you either way," he amended.

"I don't think it would have an effect," she said offhandedly. "Not that I'm going to test that theory." She chewed her lip, realizing that there was a lot that neither she nor anyone else knew about superbeings carrying superbabies. Well, that would have to be remedied as soon as possible, though that was easier said than done. The insistent churning of her stomach served as a reminder that she was certainly susceptible to morning sickness like any other pregnant woman. "I should probably get to work," she said at last.

"Take good care of yourself, darlin'," Perry repeated his now familiar paternal advice.

"Still superpowered, remember, Perry?" she resisted more out of habit than any actual protest and he nodded in recognition of that fact. She smiled as she retreated from his office; feeling as though a weight she hadn't even known was pulling her down had been lifted. Talking to Perry hadn't eliminated her questions or concerns, but telling him had made her feel better anyway. She only wished the same would be true of telling her parents.

***

The quarterstaffs met with a thunderous crack that echoed through the gymnasium. Clark defended against a flurry of attack combinations, successfully beating back Ching's offensive. He exhaled in a sharp hiss as he blocked an overhand attack. Clark tried to take in a deep breath, but for some reason, he couldn't ease the burning that spread in his lungs. He felt his legs buckle as the same fire that blossomed in his chest consumed his muscles. With closed eyes and clenched teeth, he repelled the attack, but was unable to counter. Leaning on his quarterstaff, Clark breathed heavily, his chest rising and falling with the exertion. He could hear his heart pounding in his ears, his blood near boiling in his veins. He just couldn't get enough oxygen; it was like trying to breathe in space. Clark fully expected a merciless assault to rain down upon him, but none was forthcoming. He glanced up to see Ching with his staff at the ready, apparently also taking a much needed break. Ching was also breathing heavily, though he seemed in better condition than Clark.

"I don't know why I'm so winded," Clark confessed.

"They've been slowly reducing the oxygen content in the ship's atmosphere," Ching explained nonchalantly. He stood on the balls of his feet, shifting his weight nimbly from one foot to the other. Apparently at least one of them had gotten a second wind. Ching moved more quickly now, preparing himself to do battle again.

"New Krypton had a proto-atmosphere when we landed there. Over the last thirty years, we've worked to create an atmosphere that we can actually breathe. Unfortunately, it's nowhere near as oxygen rich as the one to which you are accustomed. Our facilities are all oxygenated, but you must be prepared to fight in rather inhospitable places where the air is thin and the climate unwelcoming." The usual condescending tone was absent from Ching's voice.

"Ready?" Ching asked with slightest twitch of a smile. He readied his staff in the 'en garde' position. Their little break was over. Clark took a last deep breath and launched an attack combo — he might as well go on the offensive while he was fresh.

***

Ellen Lane paced in the living room of her apartment. It made Lois nervous. Then again, she would have been nervous regardless of what her mother was doing. Nevertheless, Lois still really wanted her to stop.

"Mother, please." Lois gestured at the open space on the couch next to her. Her father was seated in a chair across from the sofa — a safe enough distance from Ellen, or as safe as they were going to get with all of them in the same room.

Ellen sat down. "It's just that I know that this is a difficult time for you and I wish you would turn to me—us, instead of always turning to Martha and Jonathan."

With a sigh of exasperation, Lois rolled her eyes. She tried not to, but she couldn't help it. At least she wasn't nervous anymore — now she was annoyed. "Mother, their only son is missing. Have you at all considered the possibility that I might be turning to them because they need it as much as I do?"

"I'm just saying that we want to be here for you, and you push us away as you always do…" Ellen started off into what was going to turn into a tirade unless it was quickly nipped in the bud.

"I asked to see both of you today, didn't I?" Lois countered.

"Princess, what did you want to talk to us about?" Sam asked impatiently.

Lois looked down. God, this was so much easier with Martha. Even telling Perry had been a million times easier than this. "I'm pregnant," she said softly.

"What?!" Ellen exclaimed. The older woman nearly jumped off the sofa.

"Pregnant? Are…are you sure?" Sam asked.

Neither of her parents seemed particularly thrilled by the revelation. Then again, this was her family, what was she expecting? "I'm sure, Daddy," she replied. Lois looked up to make eye contact with her father. He frowned slightly.

"Did Clark know?" Ellen demanded.

"What?" Lois was thrown by the question. "No, no he didn't know. I just found out."

"Well, he seems to have impeccable timing anyway," Ellen snipped. She got up and started pacing again, threatening to send Lois over the edge.

It probably would have been a good time to try that counting to twenty thing before getting really angry and shooting your mouth off, but counting would have only irritated Lois more. At the moment, she was both ticked off and really, really impatient. "Are you insinuating that Clark would have left voluntarily if he had known?" She demanded, her voice eerily even.

"I'm just saying that men are men, they run away from their responsibilities. I should know!" Ellen exclaimed emphatically. "I was a fool for marrying your father, a philanderer who broke every promise he ever made."

"Can't you wait until I'm actually out of earshot to bad mouth me behind my back?" Sam grumbled loudly.

This was going even worse than she'd expected. "I will not sit here and listen to you attack Clark. He is the most decent and caring person I've ever known and he's probably going through hell at this very moment." The words were uttered forcefully, but Lois could feel the quiver in her throat, her voice about to break.

Ellen's expression softened. "What about you, Lois? What about what you're going through? That's all I'm concerned about. Even if he didn't mean it, he's putting you through hell, too. Leaving you here, unmarried and pregnant…"

And so went Lois's very last nerve. She leapt to her feet. "That's what you're worried about?!" she asked angrily. Tears pricked at her eyes, but the only thing she felt at that moment was fury. "I can't believe you, I can't believe the nerve…"

"Princess, that isn't what your mother meant, she's just worried about you…" Her father suddenly attempted to step into the role of peacemaker — a duty he'd never performed well.

"How dare you?" Lois demanded, ignoring her father outright. "How can you be so petty? Even if you aren't happy, can't you try to be supportive?" Lois started for the door. There was no way she could stay and deal with this.

"Lois, please…" her mother tried to interrupt. Lois stopped and turned around. "I'm not the one passing judgment on you, but people talk and the man who got you into this mess isn't here to straighten it out…" Ellen Lane was doing nothing to help her case.

Lois took several long steps back away from the door and into the living room. "Mess? I'm pregnant, not dying. I'm going to have a baby. But all you seem to care about is the fact that the baby is illegitimate. Well guess what? Clark and I were married. We eloped." Lois had no idea why she was saying what she was saying. She knew that it didn't matter, that it shouldn't have mattered and that she previously had no intention of telling her parents about the wedding. But now that she'd started, she saw no reason to stop. She'd been angry with her parents before, but couldn't remember being this angry with them in a long time. Something inside her had snapped. Suddenly, she needed to turn her mother's self-righteousness back on her.

Halfway between where Ellen Lane was standing and the doorway that meant freedom, Lois paused and stared her mother right in the eye. "I got pregnant on my wedding night," she said, trying to mask the tremble in her voice. Her mother and father both remained mute, probably still stunned by the news of her wedding. "So you see, the baby was conceived in wedlock." Lois turned to walk out of the apartment.

"Honey, wait!" Sam called after her as he stood up, but Lois didn't stop.

"I hope you'll sleep better knowing your grandchild won't be a bastard," Lois said without turning around as she opened the door and walked out of the apartment. Behind her, she heard her mother break down into tears, but she couldn't bring herself to feel anything other than anger and contempt toward her parents at that moment. Tears pricked at her eyes and she angrily wiped them away as she stormed down the hallway and out of the building.

She ducked into an alley at the first possible instant and spun into the suit. Without a coherent thought in her head, she flew to Clark's apartment. Lois landed softly on the balcony and let herself in. At the moment, she was paying rent on both of their places, but she wouldn't be able to afford to do that indefinitely. She'd decided not to renew the lease on her own apartment when it expired in two months. It was a nice apartment with a great location and she'd miss it, but there was no way she could bear to give up Clark's place. Everything in it was his and everything reminded her of him. It was one of the few places she could go and be surrounded by memories of him. She could almost feel his presence here in the imprint he'd left on the place. In the stillness, he seemed to echo in the silence of this space, like he wasn't really gone, as if at any moment, he'd walk through the door or land on the balcony and be home again.

She took a deep breath. His smell had faded long ago, but she could still imagine it lingering in the air. With a tremulous sigh, she made her way to the bedroom. She changed out of the Ultrawoman costume mechanically and crawled into his bed, curling up in a ball under the blankets. Tears welled up in her eyes again and she didn't fight them.

***

"Center yourself and purge the mind of any errant thoughts. Take a deep breath, and focus."

Clark inhaled deeply, his eyes closed, and his mind clear. The gymnasium, the ship, everything began to disappear.

"Good, exhale," Ching instructed in an even monotone.

Clark let out the breath he'd been holding in as Ching's voice faded away. He felt as though reality was tuning out as he retreated deeper into his own mind. Every muscle in his body was relaxed and he felt his mind seem to disconnect from his physical being. He focused on that single point, growing until it filled his consciousness, blocking everything else out. And then that single point exploded into a chaos of light and fury and sound and pain. Clark clapped his hands over his ears, screwing his eyes shut tighter, but he was unable to block out the blinding light. His skin was on fire with the charge of every disturbed electron in the air, he could hear the metal of the ship hum and creak as it sped along. He was connected to every sound wave, every particle of light and every physical thing that surrounded him. And it hurt.

Then it stopped. He slowly lowered his hands and felt himself collapse on the mat. He could hear the sound of his own heart pounding and heavy, labored breathing. From the depths of oblivion, Ching's voice became clear again.

"It is all right, Kal El," Ching counseled. "Crossing the total consciousness barrier is a difficult task and one that will take time and practice to learn. We train for years to do it and you have made substantial progress in only a few weeks."

Clark opened his eyes, looking straight up at the ceiling of the gymnasium, willing it to come back into focus. Eventually, the ship stopped spinning and the blurred images became clear again. With a ginger shake of the head, he slowly stood up and stretched his now aching muscles.

"Zara is in her quarters and wishes to see you." The edge that had been so noticeably absent these last few days, crept back into Ching's voice. The issue of Zara was still a sore point for him. The ever-present crew, their over-developed senses of propriety, and single-minded dedication to their missions were still keeping Ching and Zara apart. Clark wasn't to blame, but he seemed to present an irresistible scapegoat for their situation.

Clark merely nodded, unwilling to get into another shouting match with Ching over the issue. He left the gymnasium and headed for Zara's private quarters. He passed Ensign Rul, who greeted him with a slight, deferential bow, as he made his way through the maze of hallways to Zara's room. He knocked softly on the heavy door.

"Come in, Kal El," she called from within the room. He opened the door and entered her quarters. The room was Spartan and identical to his own. Zara stood up from her desk and turned to look at him. She wasn't wearing the simple, utilitarian black uniform that every member of the crew wore while on duty. It was late in the evening, (or so the clocks suggested, time was relative in space) and Zara wore a long, white dressing robe — simple, but made of a rather impressive fabric, like silk, only more fluid.

"You wanted to see me about something?" Clark asked.

Zara smiled. "Yes, I wanted to see how your training is coming along. You and Ching have been working long hours."

"Well, as Ching likes to point out, I have a lot to learn," Clark replied in perfect Kryptonian.

"How is the meditation training?" she asked.

"Like everything that's ever happened since the beginning of time, happening all at once," he responded.

She smiled again. "Yes, that's a fairly accurate description of the total consciousness barrier, but your progress has been quite remarkable, Kal El."

"Clark," he corrected.

"My apologies, Clark," Zara repeated. "Even Ching is impressed by your aptitude."

Clark merely arched a brow.

"I know that things between you are tense," she began.

"Probably because Ching doesn't like me," Clark replied succinctly.

"Well, there is the jealousy."

"There's nothing for him to be jealous of!" Clark exclaimed.

"Are you certain?" Zara asked.

"Of course I am," Clark replied, a note of irritation creeping into his voice.

"The subject seems to make you uncomfortable."

Clark sighed. "I'm just tired of feeling like I should feel guilty for something. I haven't done anything wrong. I love Lois. I always will. Besides, you and I do not and will not have an intimate relationship."

"We must," Zara replied.

"Huh?" Had he missed something somewhere? Just what exactly did Kryptonians consider a 'sham marriage' to be?

"Our relationship is not a romantic one, but it must be an intimate one," Zara clarified, but not really. "You will have to trust me, as much as you've ever trusted anyone and I will have to do the same. You will be asked to place your life in my hands, to trust the fate of New Krypton and its people to my judgment and I will do the same. To the world, we must always appear as of one mind. Despite any disagreements we may have, we will always have to stand united. The fate of one of us is the fate of both of us. There can be no pretenses between us, no formalities. We are far beyond decorum. In public, we owe one another complete loyalty, in private, complete candor."

"And hasn't Ching shown that he's completely loyal to you, too?" Clark challenged.

Zara nodded. "He has, but my duty requires that my full attention be paid to the people I serve."

"You love him."

"And in a different world, that would be paramount, but I cannot allow my feelings to interfere with my responsibilities." Zara's words were rehearsed and mechanical, as though she'd been repeating them to herself for some time, trying to make herself believe.

"You know that whole bit about serving your office and not you is a lie." Clark wasn't about to let her go unchallenged. "First Minister or not, Ching would lie down and die for you."

Zara looked away. "I know how he feels," she admitted. "And he knows my feelings. I'm afraid that will have to be enough."

"Well, so long as we're all being completely honest…" Clark repeated her words back to her. He opened the door and left her quarters.

***

"I don't know why I did it, Martha," Lois confessed. She paced around the ceiling in Clark's apartment, the cordless phone in hand. She didn't know why she was pacing. Pacing around the ceiling just seemed more…proactive. Even if she couldn't control the events in her own life at the moment, at least she could openly flout the laws of physics.

"Is it such a bad thing that they know about the wedding?" her mother-in-law gently inquired.

"No," Lois admitted. "It's not that. I mean, it's fine that they know, but it was like I was seventeen years old again and having to justify every detail of my life to them, you know?"

"I do," Martha replied. "My parents weren't exactly thrilled with me dating Jonathan. They kept reminding me that I was a Clark, and would never be content to be a mere farmer's wife. But I hoped that if they met him, they'd see what I saw in him. I thought that since they were my family, they would have to understand. They didn't."

"That must have been awful, what did you do?" Lois asked. She'd never heard anything of this before and it took her by surprise. How could anyone not see how much Martha and Jonathan Kent loved each other, how perfect they were together?

"It was awful," Martha agreed. "And I, actually, didn't do anything. It was Jonathan who told my mother to stuff a sock in it."

"Oh my god." Lois found herself giggling. She stopped pacing and looked down at the couch below. She floated gently down and flopped on the sofa.

"Well, my mother didn't find it nearly as funny as you seem to," Martha replied. "What I realized from that was that I loved Jonathan, and that was the important thing. I didn't have to get their approval, I knew it was right."

"Did they ever come around?"

"Eventually," the older woman answered. "And once the shock wears off, honey, I'm sure your parents will come around, too. You've got a good head on your shoulders. Even if it takes them a while, they'll see it and they'll know that you're doing what's right for you."

"Thank you," Lois replied, the gratitude heartfelt.

"Anytime. Should we expect you for dinner tomorrow night?"

"I'll be there." Lois felt her spirits lift a little.

***

"Things are not well here." The somber voice of Councilor Shai sounded tinny through the communications system. "Rebel groups continue to attack the outer settlements, our supply and communication lines are being disrupted, various guilds have gone on strike and the Council is paralyzed. Rae Et's supporters grow in number and legal proceedings for your removal have been initiated."

"We are still over a week away," Zara replied dismally.

"Then you will come home to find our world at total war. We've begun calling people to active duty. Just guarding against saboteurs will strain our resources."

"How do you think the people will respond to our return?" Ching asked.

"There are still many who are loyal to Zara and among them, there are those who are prepared to welcome Kal El, but support for our position must be further galvanized. If the attacks continue at this rate and with this intensity for long, the people may well demand a change in leadership. They are afraid."

"We are returning with all possible speed," Zara said.

"And we anxiously await your return. An Interceptor has been launched to rendezvous with your ship and escort you back to New Krypton. For now, I fear I must go." Shai begged his leave of them.

"We thank you for your help, Councilor," Clark replied in earnest.

"I look forward to welcoming you, Kal El. Safe travels to you all."

With that, the communication ended and Ching, Zara, and Clark were left standing in the communications bay of the ship. "The closer we get, the more we're in danger of being attacked by forces loyal to Nor and Rae Et," Zara explained.

"Will they try to intercept us?" Clark asked.

Zara shrugged. "We don't yet know the extent of military support they have, but I would not place it outside the realm of likelihood."

"Then we should be prepared," Clark mused.

"I will place the crew on heightened alert and personally monitor all communications," Ching replied.

Zara nodded in approval. "And we should all get more rest while things are still calm. Clark, your training?"

"Is largely complete," Ching answered dispassionately. "He's mastered the meditation techniques and proved himself more than adept with all major weapons styles."

Clark was almost taken aback by the forthright praise from his generally ill-tempered teacher.

"Good," Zara replied. "Because we all need the rest." The three exited the communications bay and headed toward their respective quarters.

***

Zara walked quietly down the corridors of the ship. She'd been unable to sleep and the restless hours spent doing nothing in her quarters had left her in an agitated state. Without conscious thought, she'd made her way toward Ching's quarters. A small stream of light from under his door indicated that he was awake. Not really knowing why, she knocked softly, hesitantly.

"Enter," came a voice from within.

She opened the door and stepped in to find Ching sitting up in bed, reading. "I'm sorry, I did not mean to disturb you," she said as she turned back toward the door. This had been a mistake, Zara thought to herself.

"Please," Ching replied as he placed the book on a shelf. "It is no disturbance. Stay."

Zara merely nodded and turned back around. Ching looked down at his bare chest. "I should get dressed," he said.

'I've seen you a lot more naked than that,' Zara thought to herself, but she turned her eyes away as he stood up and pulled a uniform out of the bureau and put it on. "I noticed your attitude toward Kal El has changed."

"He has surprised me with his ability to learn. And the crew respects him. That is the most important quality one seeks in a leader," Ching replied with no trace of embarrassment or reluctance in his voice.

"But you still do not like him."

"That is irrelevant." Ching finished dressing and turned to face her. "He has proven an able student of both weapons and strategy. He still allows his passions to rule him, but he will learn."

"And you will be confident following him?"

"That is my duty, to advise him as best I can and to obey his orders," Ching said.

Zara looked down. Without looking at him, she began to speak. "If I asked something of you, if I asked you to do something, would you do it for me?"

"Without hesitation," he replied simply.

Zara nodded, seemingly satisfied with the answer. Her head down to avoid making eye contact with him, she regarded her advisor, confidante, and the person she loved most dearly in the world, carefully. With practiced nonchalance she probed further. "Would you expect me to do the same?"

"Do what I asked you without hesitation?" he asked, a frown on his face. "I suppose if your life were in danger, I would hope that you would allow me to protect you without questions."

"That is not what I mean," Zara clarified, wondering if Ching were dodging the question.

"Then I am afraid I do not understand the question," he replied. His hands were clasped in front of him, his posture stiff and formal. Ching never was one to slouch, avoid eye contact, or mumble in the event that he needed further clarification or did not have the answer that was expected. He had too much respect for those he served to behave in such a manner.

Ching's directness was usually welcomed, but just this once, she wished that he would drop the formality and forget for one instant that he worked for her. "Ching," she began, an almost pleading note creeping into her voice as she abandoned all pretenses. "We have known each other since childhood. I loved you even then. I love you more now, but our relationship has never been one of equals. I ask, and you do, but you never ask of me in return."

"Because I cannot. We are not and can never be equals," he said. She thought she heard a note of sadness in his voice.

"My birthright does not make me your better," she replied, certain of the truth of her statement.

"No, it does not," he agreed. "But we serve very different things."

"We both serve the people of our world," she challenged.

Ching shook his head. "I have sworn my life to your service. You cannot do the same for me. You cannot place me above any other citizen. Your duty is to the good of all, mine is to you. There is no conflict between the oath I've sworn and the passions that would rule me. My heart, body, and soul are yours."

His words touched her deeply. "How can you say that, and not even hope that your devotion is returned?"

Ching smiled a sad, but knowing smile. He stepped toward her and took her hand in his, indulging in the intimate gesture despite his words. "My devotion needs no response and expects none. I know that you belong to the world, to hope to claim you as my own would be selfish."

"I want to be yours again," she whispered and lifted his hand to her lips.

"I know," he replied. "And it means more to me than I can say."

***

Lois paced nervously in Perry's office. They'd discussed her options thoroughly and rationally, but she was still uneasy. "You're sure this will work?" she asked her boss for the thousandth time.

"Positive," Perry replied. "Everything's set. I've got the headline for tomorrow's paper and the story complete with quotes. Making Ultrawoman disappear for a while is the only sensible thing to do, you're the one who said it first."

"I know, but I just can't imagine walking away from this. I feel like I'm letting everyone down."

"You're doing what you have to," Perry insisted. "You shouldn't ever feel bad about putting the baby first, that's what parents do."

"You're right," she replied.

"So where do we go from here?" he asked.

"I figure I'll announce the pregnancy in a few weeks—another month or so and I won't need to make an announcement. And after that…well, I've been talking to Clark's parents, and we all think that me moving to Kansas makes the most sense. I want to have the baby there."

"I don't want to lose my best reporter," Perry replied wistfully.

"I've hardly been your best reporter lately."

"Aw, heck, you can out-write the rest of the staff with both hands tied behind your back," Perry drawled. "Stay on as a columnist. That way you can live in Kansas and get paid to have opinions."

Lois laughed. "I'll think about it," she promised. She looked at her watch. "I need to get going."

"Meeting with a source?" Perry seemed hopeful.

She shook her head. "Doctor's appointment." The editor arched a brow. "Sort of," she clarified.

***

"Bernie?"

Bernard Klein turned around in surprise, nearly knocking over an Erlenmeyer flask full of an amber liquid in the process. "Lois, you startled me!"

"I've been calling your name for a while now," she replied, confused.

"Oh, well, what can I do for you?" he asked as he lifted up his safety goggles.

"It's a bit complicated, but I've been on a directness kick lately, so here goes nothing, and please, don't breathe a word of any of this to anyone," Lois began.

Bernie nodded politely. "I've got Top Secret government clearance, no need to worry about a thing."

"Clark is Superman."

"Oh my," Bernie replied. He stepped back, bumping into the lab table.

"I'm Ultrawoman."

"Oh my," he said again, slightly more emphatically, as he groped for the countertop to steady himself.

"And I'm pregnant."

"Oh my!" He lost his balance and almost slipped to the ground. Trying to catch himself, he managed to knock over the flask, shattering it and send the liquid spilling all over the countertop. He jumped back awkwardly to avoid the chemical.

"I'm so sorry!" Lois exclaimed.

"It's all right, not a problem," he assured her. "But just a suggestion: lab? Not the best place to deliver Earth shattering news."

"Uh huh," she replied, her eyes fixated on the chemical eating into the countertop.

"But wow, a baby, huh? That's great."

"It is," Lois replied with a slight smile.

"I didn't even know Superman would be able to have children with an Earth woman," Dr. Klein mused aloud.

"To be honest, neither did we," Lois confessed.

"How fascinating, a half Kryptonian pregnancy…" he began.

Lois tried to cut him off before he could begin waxing scientific. "Well, I'm glad the issue interests you because…"

Bernie merely continued, "I wonder if the pregnancy will proceed like any other…"

"Wanna chance to find out?"

"Huh?" He seemed to have been shaken out of his reverie at last. "What? Oh, wait, you don't mean, do you?" Bernard Klein suddenly grew very nervous. "I'm not an obstetrician; I don't even have human patients."

"But you're Superman's personal physician, you're the only person in the world qualified. Even if the pregnancy is completely normal, I'm not, and any doctor will figure that out. I wouldn't ask if I didn't really need your help, but I do."

"I guess you're right," he conceded. "But I have to warn you, we're both going to be learning this as we go."

They set up a time for a preliminary check up. The entire process was quite awkward, as Lois had expected it would be. On top of the fact that she knew Bernie as a friend, there was a reason why he'd never practiced medicine. Bernard Klein was a lab rat, through and through; human patients were just not his forte. Nevertheless, he was the only person in the world with scientific knowledge of Superman's physiology and was thus the only person at all qualified to monitor this pregnancy. Even if she knew of another physician she trusted enough with her and Clark's secret, she'd no doubt have to bring Bernie into the process in order to get the necessary background information on Kryptonian biology. Asking Bernie to be her doctor simply reduced by one the number of people who'd have to be brought in on the secret. In thirty years, Lois had been the only person Clark had ever told about himself, in the six weeks since his departure, she'd already told three people, but was hoping not to have to divulge the information to anyone else.

"Thank you, Bernie," she said gratefully as she prepared to leave.

"Sure, no problem," he replied, briefly glancing up from the notes he'd pulled out on Superman. "I still can't get over the fact that Clark and Superman are the same person, I mean, I never would have guessed it…"

She smiled. "Yeah, it took me a while, but I was a lot madder when I found out."

"Not surprising." Bernie smiled. "Say, how long have you had these powers? I mean, you're not from Krypton, too, right?"

"No, I'm just a plain old regular person. I got the powers last time because of that red kryptonite laser. This time…"

"Electricity transfer, right?" he finished.

"Right," she confirmed.

"So it was planned that you'd take over for him…while he was away?" A note of sympathy crept into his voice.

"That was the plan," Lois replied. "That and he figured I'd be less likely to get into mortal danger with superpowers."

"I'll bet," Bernie said with a laugh.

"But Ultrawoman will be taking a sabbatical for the rest of this pregnancy."

"Smart plan," he concurred. "I'll see you on Tuesday, then. But call me if you need anything before that."

"Thanks," she replied with a smile. "I really appreciate it."

"Anytime, Lois."

***

"Welcome home, Zara, and welcome home to the crew of Star Runner Five, and welcome and good tidings to Kal El," a voice announced over the communicator.

"Thanks and good tidings to you, Lieutenant Commander," Zara replied. Clark, Ching, and Ensign Parth, the navigator, were gathered with her in the communications bay to receive the transmission.

"Our path is clear and there are no signs of trouble," Ensign Parth confirmed.

"Our information suggests the same. We shall escort you the rest of the way to New Krypton. I anticipate that we will arrive within three days."

"Very well, Lieutenant Commander," Zara replied. "Lines of communications will remain open between Star Runner Five and Interceptor Six One, please keep us informed of any changes or causes of concern."

"Aye, Ma'am," the Lieutenant Commander replied and the transmission ended.

"Now that the escort is here, we should take the crew off heightened alert," Clark mused aloud.

"Aye, sir," Ching replied with unfamiliar deference to the other man. He depressed a button on the communications console and spoke into the microphone. "All crew, revert back to normal shift schedules. We are standing down from heightened alert. That is all."

Ensign Parth turned toward the other three. "Ma'am, sirs, I should return to my post."

"Of course, Ensign, good work," Ching replied.

"And I will relieve the pilot of her duties," Zara added. With polite bows, she and Parth left for the command bridge.

"If I, too, may beg my leave to return to my post," Ching began.

"Ching?" Clark turned to the other man in puzzlement.

"Your training is complete, sir, and you've proven yourself able to lead. It is now my turn to follow your orders."

***

"First Superman, now Ultrawoman," Ralph proclaimed loudly as he strolled into the bullpen, shaking his head with dramatic disapproval.

"Shut up, Ralph," Jimmy replied as he crossed the other man's path.

"Aw, come on, Jimbo, everyone knows you're just defending Ultrawoman because you're in love with her," Ralph retorted.

Jimmy stopped abruptly and turned around. "Listen, both Superman and Ultrawoman have helped us and asked for nothing in return. Superman left to stop a war, and I know Ultrawoman's reasons for leaving are as good as his. You're nothing but a loudmouthed jerk with no right to talk…"

"It's all right, Jimmy." Lois had heard the fight from across the newsroom and intervened to defuse the situation.

Jimmy had been struck dumb when she'd told him she was pregnant. After a long moment of silence, he'd rushed to congratulate her, all the while trying awkwardly to figure out if she was happy about it. She assured him that she was, but he commented nonetheless that it wasn't fair that she had to do this without Clark and that it wasn't fair that Clark wasn't here and didn't even know that he was going to be a dad. She was hard pressed to disagree with his logic. Lois also told him that as a result, Ultrawoman would be retiring from service for the rest of the pregnancy, and that she wanted him to know before it was announced. Again, he seemed grateful that she felt comfortable keeping him in the loop. In reality, she appreciated the part he played in her support network — the only thing that kept her functioning these days.

She placed a hand on the young man's shoulder. Seemingly mollified, he mumbled that everything was fine and continued on his way to the darkroom. Ralph, however, continued to linger, looking as sullen as a struck puppy.

"Don't you have work to do?" Lois asked in exasperation. Without waiting for an answer, she returned to her own desk.

She'd barely begun to work when Perry's voice, booming across the newsroom commanded her attention. "Lois, my office, pronto." Lois looked up to see the editor standing in the doorway, a mug of coffee in his hand and a look of consternation on his face.

Lois made her way to his office. They entered and he closed the door behind them. "If Ralph's mother weren't on the paper's board I'd have fired him ten times over by now," Perry grumbled as he put the coffee mug on his desk and sat in his chair.

"It's okay," Lois replied. "I bet at least half the people in Metropolis are thinking the same thing he is."

"That isn't true," Perry said emphatically. "The people of this city trust Ultrawoman the same way they trust Superman, they know she'll be back because she promised she would."

"You make being a paragon of honesty and virtue sound so easy," Lois replied.

Perry winked. "Fake it, honey."

The comment elicited the laugh it was no doubt intended to draw out. "I really appreciate everything you've done for me and Clark," Lois said. "I wouldn't be able to keep this up without you."

"Hey, I back my reporters one thousand percent, no matter what."

"You're going well beyond the call of duty, Chief," she said.

Perry grunted. "Yeah, but I like you two more than most of my reporters," he said with an affectionate smile. Perry got up and walked across the office to hold the door open for her. He replaced the smile with a more fittingly dour expression. "Now get back to work."

***

Clark watched the rapidly approaching landmass with bated breath. For the first time in months, he could stare outside the windows of the ship at something other than the darkness of space. They were closing in on New Krypton and the planetoid now filled their field of vision. He could just barely see the outlines of the main colony. The sky over New Krypton was orange and cloudless, the ground the color of rust. Thin blue rivers like veins stretched out over the dry terrain. The ship noticeably slowed as they approached.

"Sir," Ensign Parth called to him. "You'll want to take a seat for the landing; it might be a bit rough."

"Thank you," Clark replied as he took his seat on the command bridge. He glanced over at Zara, who was expertly bringing the ship in for a landing.

"We have clearance for our approach," she stated calmly.

"The escort will remain in a holding pattern until we've landed," Ching announced. "We will be on the ground in a few minutes, everyone. Final check of landing systems."

"All systems are operational, sir," Ensign Rul responded from her seat at the bridge.

They remained in silence for the remaining few minutes of their flight. Clark couldn't believe that the trip was finally over and that he'd once again be able to set foot on solid ground. Of course, this solid ground wasn't the planet he'd called home for the last thirty years.

The ship landed and docked noisily and the crew broke into enthusiastic, but controlled applause. "Very nicely done, everyone," Ching said loudly.

The communications system clicked on. "Welcome home and good tidings to the crew of Star Runner Five. Good tidings to you, Zara, and a warm welcome to you, Kal El."

"Thanks and good tidings, Command," Ching replied. "It is good to be home."

The pressure lock was secured and the exterior doors of the ship slid open. The crew lined either side of the corridor to the exit, standing at attention. Ching gestured for Clark to proceed. He and Zara made their way down the corridor side by side, with Ching just behind them. They walked through the long tunnel to the command bridge of the colony's docking station.

"Take my arm," Zara whispered to Clark softly as they walked toward the waiting welcome party. Clark obligingly held out his arm stiffly and Zara looped her arm through his, her hand settled at the bend of his elbow. Zara nodded in approval and gave him a slight smile. They finally reached the end of the seemingly infinite corridor and stepped through the doorway to the command bridge. Zara allowed her hand to slip from Clark's arm and they stopped in unison and bowed respectfully to the collection of Councilors and officers gathered at the bridge. Their crew stood at attention behind them, under Ching's watchful eye.

"Thanks and good tidings to the esteemed Councilors and Guardians who toil endlessly so that New Krypton may prosper and her citizens be free and at peace," Clark said, repeating the phrase Ching had drilled into his head.

"Thanks and good tidings to my esteemed brothers and sisters who work side by side and whom I have the pleasure to serve so that our people may be free and at peace," Zara recited her own salutations, different from Clark's because she had already accepted the duty to serve New Krypton.

"Welcome and good tidings to you all," Councilor Shai responded. His eyes were as dark and fierce as they had ever been, though his body was now frail and bent and his hair thin and gray. "On behalf of the Council, I extend thanks to you, Kal El, for answering our call. With your arrival and Zara's return, the Council will be able to confirm its new First Ministers and place upon your shoulders the mantle of governance that you might take up the responsibility to our people and serve at their pleasure."

"We welcome the Council's decision," Zara replied.

Shai nodded. "First, you shall rest, and the Council will be convened. Lieutenant Commander?"

Ching stepped forward. "Esteemed Councilor?"

"Assemble your guards and see Zara and Kal El to their quarters. Watch over them as we are not safe even here."

"Aye, sir," Ching replied with a solemn bow. "Parth, Rul," he called to his two subordinate officers, who followed him as he led Clark and Zara down another hallway.

***

Lois chewed her lip as she regarded the sentence she'd just typed. It wasn't quite right. She held down the 'backspace' key and the blinking cursor gobbled up the previous two and a half lines of text. She frowned and started typing again; her fingers flew over the keyboard, tapping out an uneven staccato, punctuated by the louder sound of her thumb hitting the space key at the end of each word. It still wasn't right. Holding down the 'backspace' key again, she consigned the offending words to oblivion. She paused and stared at the bright monitor and the five paragraphs of a story that certainly wasn't writing itself.

Without the sounds of her own typing to fill the air, the other sounds of the newsroom managed to work their way to the forefront. In the background she could hear a copy machine in the copy room as it rattled off page after page. The coffee machine whirred and hissed almost silently on the other end of the bullpen. Reporters and editors yelled back and forth as eight different conversations unfolded simultaneously. A dozen people having more luck than she with the writing process typed like maniacs on their keyboards, filling the bullpen with the clattering of plastic keyboard keys.

Over the din of the newsroom, her computer's hard drive whirred, as though patiently waiting for her to give it something to do, to make it part of the magical process of crafting an award winning article. Fat chance. Lois's fingers were not busy typing. They hovered over the keys, waiting for inspiration. She closed her eyes and tried to block out the million and one distractions that the newsroom afforded its staff during any given moment in the workday.

A soft sound intruded upon her ruminations. It didn't quite sound like the computer fan, or at least it didn't sound like the computer fan did when it was working properly. The computer wasn't subtly trying to tell her that it was on the verge of crashing was it? She strained to listen to it, distilling it out from all the other sounds in the newsroom, willing the rest of the newsroom to go quiet.

There it was: fluttering, faint but unmistakable, and certainly not imagined. She'd been listening for that sound for weeks now. And there it was, as if it had always been there, waiting for her to hear it. Tears immediately formed in her eyes and soon threatened to spill. She tried to move or speak, but could do neither. Lois was struck dumb. As far as she was concerned, the whole world had come to a grinding halt and there was nothing left in it save that miraculous, whisper soft sound.

She sat frozen for several minutes, aware of nothing except the sound of the baby's heartbeat. After a long while, she finally dared to breathe, afraid that even that slight sound might drown out the heartbeat and she'd lose the ability to tune in to it. But the sound stayed with her. It was with her all afternoon, bringing a smile to her lips; one that finally reached her eyes. One felt throughout every fiber of her being.

Later, curled up under the covers and with the phone to her ear, she tearfully relayed everything to Martha, keeping an ear tuned in to the sound of the baby's heartbeat. She couldn't believe how much this simple thing could affect her. She'd known it would happen, and soon. It wasn't unexpected, but it caught her off guard nonetheless. She spent hours that night just listening to it. And wishing Clark were there with her. Lying in his bed, she could picture them sitting together, all through the night, just listening to that wonderful sound.

***

Clark saluted Parth, who maintained his vigilant watch outside Zara's quarters, and knocked on the door. "Enter," she called from within. Parth opened the door for him and Clark walked inside. The rooms were nicer than the ones on the ship—with real beds and furniture instead of bunks and metal chairs—but they were still simple, functional, utilitarian, and soulless. Zara was pulling on the long, black mantle over her uniform.

"It's almost time," he said.

"I know," Zara replied as she adjusted the heavy, metal cuffs on her wrists. "Shai suggested that the vote might be close. Most of the Councilors are glad to have your assistance, but some are still skeptical."

"I don't exactly blame them," Clark replied.

There was another knock at the door. "Come in," Zara called.

The door opened and an older man Clark hadn't yet seen stood in the hallway. "Good tidings, my daughter," he said with a smile.

"Father!" Zara exclaimed as she ran across the room to embrace him.

"It is good to see you, again," her father said as he hugged her. "We have missed you terribly."

"It is good to see you, too," she replied. She stepped back. "I'm sorry, I forget myself. Kal El, this is my father, Tek Ra."

Clark bowed deeply and respectfully. Tek Ra bowed in response. "I am very pleased to meet you, sir," Clark said.

"And I am honored to meet you at last, Kal El, son of Jor El and Lara. My thanks to you for responding to our request. Though I knew that if you were a man like your father, you would not deny us your assistance."

"I hope that in some small way, my coming will help bring peace to your people," Clark replied. "I owe at least that much to my parents and their memory."

"This world is sorely in need of peace. I trust that you and my daughter will do all that you can to restore it. I am certain that you will want to know more about your parents, who they were, what they were like. I will tell you all that I can, later, when there is more time. For now, come, let us away, for the Council awaits the two of you." Tek Ra walked ahead of them as once again, Clark took Zara's arm, as protocol demanded. They walked, surrounded by guards, toward the Council Chambers.

***

"You're leaving?" Jimmy exclaimed incredulously. "You can't leave!" He paced anxiously in the conference room.

"I have to, Jimmy," Lois explained. "I need to be with Clark's parents."

He stopped abruptly. "But you don't have to leave the Planet to do that, you can be there in like five seconds, right?"

"I want to have the baby there," she replied.

"Oh," was all Jimmy could manage.

"I'll still come by to see you and Perry, I just need to get away from here for a while. You understand that, right?"

"Sure," Jimmy replied. "I guess that makes a lot of sense. So when are you leaving?"

"Two weeks. It'll be announced tomorrow."

"Oh," he said again.

"I'm going to miss you," she said at last.

"Me, too. I'm gonna miss you too, Lois."

***

"The emergency session of the High Council of Elders will come to order. With the seats of First Ministers still vacant, I assume, as elder of the Council, the responsibility of presiding over these proceedings." Shai's loud voice boomed throughout the cavernous Council Chambers. Like the rest of the central compound of the colony, the chambers were made of a reinforced metal and were utilitarian and almost militaristic in design. The large, semi-circular room resembled a lecture hall, with small desks crammed close together on the inclined floors. At the front of the room was a speaker's podium, where Shai stood, and behind it were the two vacant chairs of the First Ministers. To Shai's left stood Ching, Zara, and Clark. Slightly more than half of the seats in the chambers were full, noticeably absent were Rae Et and her followers.

"In the absence of our protesting brethren, have we a quorum present?" Shai demanded.

The Council Guard stepped forward. "Yes, Councilor, barely," he said.

"Then we shall proceed with the day's order of business. We have gathered here to vote on the accession of Zara and Kal El, heirs designate, to the positions of co-First Ministers. Are there any who oppose the motion?"

"We are not aware of Kal El's credentials. How can we determine his fitness for the post?" A young councilor seated near the back of the assembly called out.

Ching stepped forward. "If it pleases the Council, I am here to speak to the issue of Kal El's credentials. I have known Kal El for several months now and am responsible for his training. I can assure you that he has demonstrated the necessary aptitude in training to assume his tasks, but moreover, his conduct on his adopted planet speaks for his character. In his world, he was known as a champion for the causes of peace and justice. At great cost to himself and to the people who took him in as a child and raised him, he left that world behind to bring peace to ours. He has demonstrated that his moral character is unimpeachable and that he is willing to make great sacrifices for a noble cause. As servant to the people of New Krypton, I give you my word and stake my reputation on his worthiness as a leader."

If he hadn't already been silent, Clark would have been stunned into silence. Ching's glowing praise made it sound as if he thought the world of him, as opposed to Clark's long held perception that Ching barely tolerated him. He supposed there was something to be said for praise from those who usually begrudge it. Ching was no sycophant, nor was he a liar. The only explanation was that he believed the things he was saying about Clark. Clark figured you didn't have to like someone to respect them, and though Ching's attitude toward him had changed ever so slowly in the last few weeks, he was still surprised to know that the other man actually did respect him.

"Councilor, are you satisfied as to Kal El's credentials?" Shai inquired.

"I am satisfied that Lieutenant Commander Ching's word is as good a vouchsafe as one could want," the councilor replied.

Another councilor stood and spoke. "I and others have spoken with Kal El during his journey to New Krypton and our opinion of him was favorable. I believe his desire to help us is honest and that despite the fact that he was denied his proper training, he is equal to the task. If the Lieutenant Commander is willing to guarantee his fitness, then I, too, am satisfied.

"Then if there are no further objections," Shai continued. "Let us proceed with the vote, first on the issue of the accession of Zara to the position of First Minister of New Krypton. All in favor?"

The aye votes were quickly tallied. "All opposed?" Shai demanded. Zara's confirmation was easily assured. "Now to the issue of Kal El's accession…"

"Hold!" a voice from the back of the chambers boomed. A lanky, thin man with slicked back brown hair and a neatly trimmed goatee rose to his feet. "I object to these proceedings," he stated calmly.

"Nor, you have no standing to object," Shai responded angrily.

"On the contrary, I have all the standing required. My name has been put forward as an alternative to Kal El. Unlike him, I am one of you, my place is here on New Krypton, its people are my people." Ching signaled discretely to his guards before placing himself in front of Zara.

"Bad form, Commander," Nor chastised him. "I am a free citizen of New Krypton, in violation of no laws, besides, you don't think I came alone, do you?"

"He is right, Commander, you have no authority to arrest or remove him from these premises," a voice from the assembly added.

"He is a threat to the First Minister," Ching growled.

"This body is corrupt and it turns to a mongrel betrayer of the people to rescue it from its own failings. The decisions you make here carry no weight with the people. But if you insist on carrying out your charade, so be it. When he fails to protect our people from danger, do not say that you were not warned."

Clark stared at Nor — a man who had been his enemy in theory long before this meeting. Nor's face was expressionless, his eyes dark and unreadable. Clark guessed the only reason that Nor wasn't being attacked by Ching's men was that the Council, fragmented as it was, threatened to splinter even more over the issue of Nor. Several of the Councilors previously had seemed hesitant to blame Nor for the attacks on the settlements and outposts. Some had hoped that a negotiated settlement could be reached and had registered their support for Kal El on the condition that peaceful methods toward solving the problems be attempted first.

Nor and the men on either side of him left the assembly hall, unimpeded by the guards. A commotion rose up among the Councilors. They murmured among themselves about the significance of Nor's unexpected appearance.

"Secure the chambers!" Ching ordered his forces. "And sweep the perimeter." The guards rushed to comply as Ching returned to Zara's side.

"There will be order in these chambers," Shai demanded. "Let us return to the vote. On the issue of the accession of Kal El to the position of First Minister of New Krypton, what say you? All in favor?"

Clark waited in trepidation as the vote was taken. It was going to be close.

"All opposed?"

The nays were tallied and Shai mulled over them for a long moment as Clark, Ching, and Zara waited with bated breath. "By a majority of a quorum of this body, Zara and Kal El have been confirmed as its First Ministers. Their accession is immediate." Shai pounded his gavel.

***

The announcement that Lois Lane was leaving her position as an investigative reporter wasn't particularly surprising to the veteran members of the Planet, though they and the rookies alike had a tough time imagining a Daily Planet without Lois Lane. What was surprising, to every member of the staff save two, was the reason — she was pregnant. Most couldn't help but think that when it rained, it poured for Lois. On top of losing her fiancé, she was now facing the intimidating task of raising a child alone, and Lois didn't strike any of them as the maternal type. Nevertheless, there was no challenge they would have placed beyond her and the way she'd held up in Clark's absence had been no less than inspiring.

Announced that morning, news of Lois's impending departure fueled the gossip machine all day long. Eduardo, and several of the other reporters stood around the coffee machine and spoke in low tones, constantly scanning the newsroom for Lois's presence.

"I can't believe it," Eduardo began as he sipped his coffee.

"First she loses him four days before they're supposed to get married, now she finds out she's pregnant," Stephanie, the society columnist who had replaced Cat Grant, mused aloud.

"Unless she knew before he was taken," Rick, one of the younger Sports reporters, replied. "I mean, she really doesn't look pregnant yet, but what do I know?"

Eduardo shrugged. "I guess it's possible."

"If it were me, I'd have fallen apart a long time ago," Stephanie confessed. "I don't know how she does it."

"I guess she just doesn't have a choice," Rick said. "What else is she supposed to do?"

"What really gets me," Eduardo said, "is Clark. He's out there somewhere, maybe dead, maybe not, but most likely he had no idea that he left his fiancée knocked up."

"Oh that's real sensitive," Stephanie shot back.

"Hey, all I'm saying is that any way it comes out, this situation sucks. Say Clark is okay, and he comes back. Suddenly, the world's biggest Boy Scout has been a deadbeat dad, and he didn't even know it. Say he isn't, say he's dead, and Lane's stuck raising the kid all by herself. Chances are, she'll never know what happened to Kent. Let's just say I don't envy her."

Rick nodded in seemingly reluctant agreement.

"And a few months ago, if you'd asked me to name the one person who had everything and had it all together, I would have said Lois," Stephanie replied sadly.

***

"Lois, you with me here?" Perry asked. He sat on the edge of his desk, frowning

Lois mentally shook herself and turned her gaze away from the door. She tried to tune back in to what Perry was saying. Sometimes she hated this superhearing. "Sorry, I was a million miles away," she replied.

"I noticed. Something wrong?"

Lois shook her head. "No, it's nothing."

***

"So this is another big day, I guess?" Clark asked as he adjusted the high, stiff collar of his heavy black mantle. He looked at his reflection in the mirror in his room. Behind him, Zara stood, wearing an equally somber and regal looking black outfit. She seemed uneasy. He was downright nervous. Yesterday, they were voted leaders of the planet, today they were supposed to get married. He had to hand it to the Kryptonians — they were efficient.

"A wedding, an accession ceremony, a civil war to avert, it should be rather eventful," Zara replied.

"Is it supposed to be this tight?" Clark asked as he tried to fit his index finger under the collar to tug it loose.

"You'll get used to it," she replied.

He turned around. "I didn't put this thing on backward, did I?" he asked as he looked down at the get up they'd put him in.

"You look fine," Zara replied with a smile.

"You, too," Clark said. "I mean, you look good, very…regal."

"Ready to go?" she asked.

"I'm not allowed to say no, am I?" he asked.

Zara shook her head.

"Then let's go," Clark replied.

Accompanied by several guards, they walked down the corridors. Just past the Council Chambers there was a large, well-lit room, where councilors, officers, and officials had gathered. Clark looked through the doorway into the most sumptuously decorated room in the entire colony. Large, ornate rugs covered the floor, and on the blue walls hung portraits of people Clark presumed to be important figures in the civilization's past. The vaulted ceiling was painted with constellations of stars. Comfortable looking chairs lined the room and at one end, on a raised platform, stood an immense crystal altar. A middle aged man, dressed in a long white robe, with a solemn expression upon his face stood in front of the altar, his hands folded in front of him. Around the room stood others, wearing similar white robes or black military uniforms like the ones the ship's crew had been wearing.

Clark and Zara stopped at the threshold and bowed before entering the room. The room's occupants all ceased talking and bowed in response. They took their places — the guards standing at all the entrances and the others sitting around the room — as Clark and Zara entered the room and walked toward the altar. Following Zara's lead, Clark knelt in front of the altar.

"We are here to witness the rites of union and accession of our First Ministers," the somber looking man in the white robe announced. "As Chief Jurist of New Krypton, I verify the legality of their selection, accession, and union. As they will be united to one another, so shall they be united to our world. As they are bound to one another's service, so are they bound to the service of New Krypton. As they place the other above themselves, so too must they place New Krypton above themselves. As they protect one another, so too must they protect New Krypton and its people.

"Zara, do you accept the duties of union to Kal El and the mantle of First Minister?"

"I do so, gladly," Zara replied. She raised her hands up, her head still slightly bowed. The Chief Jurist delicately removed the heavy silver cuffs from around her wrists and placed them upon the altar behind him. He then opened one of two boxes on the altar and removed the larger, heavier cuffs within. He placed first one and then the other on Zara's still outstretched arms. Zara lowered her hands.

"Kal El, do you accept the duties of union to Zara and the mantle of First Minister?"

"I do so, gladly," Clark said. He raised his hands just as Zara had and the Chief Jurist opened the second of the two boxes and removed the other set of wrist cuffs to place on Clark's arms. They were large, awkward, and surprisingly heavy.

"Now rise," the Chief Jurist commanded. Zara and Clark stood up and turned toward the assembled group. "I present to the people of New Krypton, their First Ministers, Defenders of our Civilization, Servants of the People, and Guardians of a Sacred Trust."

Clark surveyed the room; the notion that he was supposed to lead these people hadn't begun to settle in. Beyond that, it was just surreal. Then again, so was the notion that he was technically married to Zara. He wondered how the Kryptonians would react if they knew that he was already married. He looked at the crowd of expectant faces, all eyes on him and Zara.

Ching stepped forward, a grave look on his face. He held his hand against the tiny communicator on his ear. "Sir?" He broke the solemn silence. "My humblest apologies for the interruption, but we have an incoming transmission over all channels."

"What is it, Lieutenant Commander?" the Chief Jurist inquired.

The color drained from Ching's face. "It is from Rae Et…on behalf of the renegade councilors…they've denounced the appointment of Kal El as illegal…they've declared themselves outlaw, and reject the authority of the colony over them." Ching frowned. "They're planning secession."

A murmur rose up in the group. "We are declaring this gathering adjourned," Zara commanded, easily slipping into her role as leader. "All military personnel stand by for orders, the Council will hereby be placed on notice — an emergency meeting will be convened post haste." A wave of anxiety washed over the group as the dignified air of the ceremony dissipated and was replaced by unease.

A door that Clark hadn't realized was a door opened up in one of the walls. A man in a black military uniform strode grimly into the room. He immediately turned toward Clark and Zara. "Sir, Ma'am, Commander Talan is en route from patrols in the Outerlands and requests an audience with you to brief you on the situation with the renegade councilors. It is most urgent."

"Of course," Clark replied. He wasn't sure he wanted more urgent news at this point, but the situation was so confusing he was grasping for any kind of information to shed light upon the recent events.

"Lead the way, Sergeant," Zara ordered the soldier, who complied with a polite bow. He walked through the doorway again, with Clark and Zara in tow. Ching quickly ordered a subordinate to place all forces on alert and followed them. To Clark's surprise, a military briefing room stood empty just on the other side of the doorway. The sergeant requested permission to take his leave of them and exited a door on the opposite side of the room, so that only Clark, Zara, and Ching remained in the room. Unlike the gathering room they'd just exited, the briefing room resembled the rest of what Clark had seen of the colony — modern, utilitarian, and sterile. Bright lights reflected off the metal walls and surfaces. A large conference table dominated the room. Along the walls were communications systems and display screens.

"Apparently the Commander's Expeditionary Forces took significant fire on their patrols. They were ambushed and suffered some casualties," Ching explained. "Whoever is responsible for the attack had at their disposal heavy firepower, ordinance unlike that which we've seen from the rebels so far."

"What was Commander Talan's assessment?" Zara inquired.

"The attack was planned and carefully carried out with superior intelligence. And the perpetrators were either extraordinarily brave or very foolish, or both."

"Why?" Clark asked

"Because Commander Talan's Expeditionary Forces are the most formidable among our military and because the Commander is one of the most respected leaders and tacticians in the history of our command."

"And he's a man you trust?" Clark asked, looking at both Ching and Zara. Ching arched a brow but before he could say anything, the door on the other side of the room opened. Commander Talan entered the room with long, measured strides and Ching saluted his superior. Clark tried quickly to disguise his shock and sheepishness. He blamed his gaffe on a combination of stereotype and the fact that the Kryptonian language had no gender specific pronouns. Commander Talan returned Ching's salute and turned to the new First Ministers.

"Sir, Ma'am, I bring bad news," she said. Talan's expression was grim and serious, though Clark thought she looked like someone who was rarely anything other than serious. The Commander stood sharply at attention, a full inch or two taller than Clark. She was slender, but broad shouldered and leanly muscled, cutting an imposing and formidable figure. Her blonde hair was pulled back severely and her uniform was covered in mud and soot. Her gray eyes, under a furrowed brow, surveyed the situation quickly and efficiently. Her features were sharp, angular and hard, mirroring a demeanor that implied nothing of softness. She was beautiful, breathtakingly so, and intimidating.

Talan was likely a few years older than Clark, he surmised. Having grown up on New Krypton, she had probably been familiar with hard work, discipline, and sacrifice from early childhood. The lessons of trying to eek out an existence in an unforgiving world had etched themselves into everything from her posture and the measured way that she spoke to her movements, which were graceful and efficient, but suggested conscious control and restraint. Every sane person on any planet would be struck by Talan's appearance. In that, she had one thing in common with his Lois. Either one could walk into a room and command the attention of everyone in it.

"What is it, Commander?" Zara asked.

"Synchronized and well coordinated attacks by the rebels. My forces were led into a trap. They knew how many soldiers we had and what sort of arms we were carrying and their attack was planned accordingly. My forces sustained some casualties, two dead, seven wounded, three critically, but the impact on the civilian population was far worse," she recounted the attack dispassionately. "While we were under fire, they attacked civilian installations in the outposts at Ebam. Scores dead, many children. We fought back the attack and are evacuating the survivors to the main colony." Clark thought he saw a flicker of anger and sadness in the Commander's cold, gray eyes, but it disappeared quickly.

Zara nodded grimly. "Do you suspect that the rebels had inside knowledge of our military deployments?"

"I do not know," Talan confessed. "But I am requesting permission to assemble a reconnaissance force to patrol the Outerlands. These attacks were timed, they coincided with several smaller assaults and were planned to send a message to the people of New Krypton. I do not doubt that they were coordinated by Nor and the renegade Councilors."

"But we have no information on where they are, do we?" Clark asked. He knew he wasn't going to like the answer to his question. Their situation seemed to grow more dire by the second and he was at a loss as to what to do. Not for the first time, he wished that a Superman enforced solution were possible, but this time, he'd have to solve a major world crisis without the benefit of godlike superpowers.

Talan shook her head. "No, sir. The transmissions could have been sent from anywhere on New Krypton and previous attacks were so dispersed as to give us no indication of where they are headquartered."

"And it's your opinion that the reconnaissance team will be the best way to gather information on them?"

"It is the only way to fight them, sir," Talan replied simply. "And it must be kept confidential. If the rebels are receiving information from within, we must limit their access."

Zara looked at Clark, who nodded slightly. "Then permission is granted, Commander," she said. "All forces have been placed on deployment notice. You are free to call up all the units you need."

"Thank you, ma'am," Talan said.

The video communications system informed them of an incoming message. Ching quickly prepared the system to receive the signal. A large display came to life and they were immediately face to face with Shai's somber visage. "Kal El, Zara, the rest of your Advisory Council has been convened," he said.

"We are on our way," Zara replied. "Commanders? Please accompany us," she said to Ching and Talan. The transmission ended and the four exited the briefing room, walking briskly down the corridors toward what, exactly, Clark wasn't sure. Zara and Ching, however, led the way ably past the Council Chamber and through the labyrinth of offices surrounding it to another conference room. Around the conference table sat another somber looking group, among them faces both familiar and unfamiliar to Clark. Everyone stood as they entered the room.

Shai greeted them solemnly. "First Ministers, we are assembled to provide you with whatever information and assistance we can. Kal El, you are already acquainted with your military advisors, Commander Talan and Lieutenant Commander Ching. I will serve as your liaison to the Council. This is Trey, your Chief of Staff," he said, gesturing toward a well groomed, silver haired main who nodded politely in greeting. Shai continued the introductions. "General Commanders Goren and Flad, chiefs of the Air and Ground Commands." The two older men in black military uniforms bowed slightly. "Rab Dun, the colony's chief engineer." The thin, middle-aged woman nodded, a grim expression on her face. "And Lieutenant Enza, your legal advisor." The last was by far, the youngest at the table, a woman who was at least a few years Clark's junior. She wore a military uniform and the same somber expression as the others. She looked about Lois's height with dark hair and eyes and soft features that had been unnaturally hardened by a life full of tribulations.

Clark looked around at the handful of people gathered in the room. These were the people who would advise him and Zara as they tried to navigate a solution to the planet's problems. He was going to rely on their wisdom and experience and he would have to convince them of his ability to lead their people. Clark had had the entire weight of a world on his shoulders before, but somehow, this time he felt it more acutely. Perhaps it was because he felt so out of his element, or perhaps it was because he wasn't bringing anything uniquely helpful to the table — this wasn't a problem that a red cape and super strength would solve. He could command respect and cultivate an air of authority as Superman and that made defusing the most complex situations possible, but how could he do the same as Kal El when he didn't have any idea what it meant to be Kal El?

The group sat down together around the table and immediately, they began discussing the current situation and likely next steps. For now, he'd have to follow along, learn the game, and ask the right questions until he was comfortable enough leading. Every waking moment of his two months en route to New Krypton had been filled with mental and physical training for the task of leadership, but he still felt woefully unprepared and out of his league. Thankfully Zara was able to provide the direction and leadership needed. She'd been raised to do it and it showed.

***

He checked his surroundings again in irritation. His source was late and he was tired of sitting on a hard bench outside the Hall of Records pretending to feed the pigeons. Annoying, brainless, little, disease infested rats with wings. Every once in a while, one would get too close, pecking at some invisible speck of nothing idiotically and he'd kick the disagreeable thing. They were undeterred. No matter how many times they'd find themselves on the wrong end of his size twelve wingtips, the blasted things would keep coming back, still cooing stupidly and pecking at nothing.

He checked his watch again. Didn't the darn clerk realize that he was a busy man? He had places to be, sources to meet, leads to follow, or at least, make up. Digging up dirt was both Jerry Schultz's passion and his profession. He'd made a career doing it, and it showed. Jerry had slimy friends in places both high and low. Well, 'friends' was too strong a word. Not one of them would have so much as blinked before selling him out for the right price and he wouldn't have had it any other way. People with scruples were no use to him. No, his relationships were built firmly on a foundation of 'what's in it for me?' Folks who were always looking out for number one were much more predictable and much easier to influence. So long as he treated his sources well, they took care of him. So long as they were useful to one another, the relationships flourished. That's the way tabloid reporting worked. Plain and simple.

He'd found himself in the enviable position of covering all the seamy, tawdry details of Superman's departure. Well, such details didn't really exist, per se, but he wasn't above vague allegations and insinuations that couldn't be proven to be false. The bit with Lane and Kent was just icing on the cake. He despised "investigative journalists." They were such arrogant jerks, so certain they were better than everyone else—above it all. Blah, blah, public trust, yadda yadda, yadda, fourth estate, sacred duty, and all that nonsense. Journalism was a business, just like any other. What Jerry wrote sold. And it made him a lot of money.

He'd almost felt sorry for Lois when he heard about the pregnancy. Almost. Hey, it was still just business and he needed to find an angle to the story. Pregnancies out of wedlock just didn't sell papers the way they used to; especially when the parents to be were engaged and should have been married months ago were it not for the interference of a psychotic billionaire criminal mastermind brought back from the dead in a plot that Jerry couldn't have thought up in a million years. Man, he would have sold his soul (if he'd had one) to nab that story — even if it was true. Sure, there was the human interest side of it all — woman loses fiancé, finds out she's pregnant, and faces having to raise the baby alone, all the while hoping against hope that her beloved would find his way home — but who cared? Stories like that certainly wouldn't send copies of the Dirt Digger flying off the checkout stand shelves and he wasn't writing Hallmark made for TV movies, here, or trying to earn a spot in Oprah's Book Club.

"You won't believe what I've got," a triumphant voice exclaimed from over his shoulder.

Jerry turned to look up at the smug young clerk. "So why don't you say it louder so that everyone knows and that way it's of no use to me and I won't have to bother paying you for it!" he hissed.

Nick sat down on the bench, thoroughly stung by Jerry's rebuking of him. 'Good,' Jerry thought. He didn't have time to baby-sit wet-behind-the-ears court clerks. He wordlessly shoved a manila folder toward Jerry. Jerry took the folder and flipped through the contents. Now that the court systems were all on a single computer network, he only needed to know one unscrupulous clerk in order to get all the vitals on someone — outstanding arrest warrants, criminal records, driver's licenses, the works. Any clerk could forge a judge's signature on a request for records from another office and they'd show up promptly. He looked at what Nick had managed to dig up for him. Birth certificate, driver's license, a couple of parking citations, a record of a jury summons…so far, nothing unusual. Wait a second, what was that? The last item in the stack. A marriage certificate.

Lois Lane and Clark Kent's marriage certificate.

Jerry let out a low whistle. This was big. Really big. Lois Lane and Clark Kent had been married by Perry White the very day before Clark disappeared and just four days before they were supposed to get married for real. Why had they eloped? And why hadn't they told anyone? A slow smile spread across his face. This was good. This would make his copy sing. Really sing. He didn't need the reason for their sudden and secret wedding. The story would probably sell better without it — you couldn't give them all the facts, speculation was 2/3 of the fun of gossip. That, and the story would be enough to put Lane's feet to the fire. The reasons would come out in due time and he might well be in a position to make this a series instead of a one shot deal.

"This is good stuff," Jerry said at last. "Way to not screw up, kid. Check's in the mail as usual." With that, he clapped the young man on the shoulders, got up, and walked away.

***

Klein frowned enigmatically as he scribbled something in that illegible handwriting of his on the damn clipboard he always had with him. Lois had tried x-raying it a few times, but even when she had figured out how to x-ray through the right paper thin layers to where Bernie was writing, she was thwarted by his completely unintelligible script, written backwards from her perspective. His chicken scratches made her handwriting look like that of a third grade penmanship teacher's. How he ever deciphered his own notes was beyond her.

"Everything looks all right," he muttered without bothering to look up. He finished writing and hooked his pen into the clipboard. "You could stand to gain a little more weight, though. You're actually a few pounds lighter than what you said your normal body weight is. Not a problem yet, but remember, get plenty of sunlight and eat." Lois merely sighed. She knew she had to take better care of herself. The superpowers meant that her lack of food and sleep wasn't doing her any harm, but she wasn't the one she was worried about here.

"You don't have a choice here," Bernie continued sternly. "If you want the baby to be healthy, you have to take care of yourself. And I don't care if you aren't hungry or tired; given what you've told me about Clark's childhood; it's likely the baby has to be nourished the old fashioned way. Also, it'll be a good idea to reduce your level of stress. You know that didn't sound like the most outrageous request ever in my head. Well, at least try to reduce your level of stress."

"You'll be very proud to hear that I've taken a desk job," Lois replied.

"You? A desk job? I never thought I'd see the day…" Lois could understand Bernie's surprise. She herself could scarcely believe it. She hated thinking of herself as weak and fragile and in need of protection. If she'd been asked a year ago whether she would have taken a desk job in the event that she'd gotten pregnant she would have scoffed at the very idea. Lois Lane was not a china doll and she would have continued investigating until she'd gotten too big to crawl through windows on breaking and entering missions or to chase down the bad guys effectively.

Especially now that she had superpowers, she shouldn't have had the slightest concern. But unfortunately, that wasn't the way things worked. Being without Clark was taking its toll on her. Constantly worrying about him — about whether he was safe, about whether he was scared, about whether he was being asked, as a leader, to make decisions no one should ever be forced to make, about whether she'd ever get him back, about whether he'd ever forgive himself for missing this — was wearing her down, and it showed. Pregnancy itself wasn't a picnic, even with superpowers, though Bernie assured her that the fatigue and nausea would pass as she got into the second trimester.

Lois had an exciting, stressful, and amazingly rewarding job that she loved passionately. But she wasn't doing it very well these days. She was distracted, and her reporting suffered for it. Also, she needed to get out of the newsroom. The bullpen had always been like home to her. Its familiar sounds and smells — reporters yelling to copy boys, editors yelling at reporters, everyone yelling at everyone else over the next big scoop and saving column inches in the morning edition, all over the sounds of dozens of hands flying over keyboards at rapid clips, producing thousands of words every minute, the smell of linotype and news room coffee sitting heavily in the air — were comforting, like a security blanket. She couldn't imagine the wide-open bullpen ever seeming anything but inviting. But recently, she'd felt caged in there, like a trapped animal, disoriented and pacing anxiously around the invisible boundaries of her own prison. Lois couldn't take the newsroom anymore. She didn't need the sympathetic glances of her colleagues or the break area gossip or the constant din and hum, which seemed blaring to her overly sensitive ears. Her beloved newsroom was making her jumpy and skittish and she needed to get away from it.

"And in Kansas," she added helpfully. "You're looking at the planet's newest columnist, already slated to be syndicated in dozens of papers across the country."

"Hey, that's terrific!" Bernie replied enthusiastically. "So I take it you'll just be zipping in to town for appointments and stuff?"

"Yeah, oh wait, I didn't even think…the flying, is that okay for the baby? I mean, I know women aren't supposed to fly late in their pregnancies, is it dangerous?"

"Oh no, you don't have anything to worry about there," Bernie reassured her. "Flying late in pregnancy is bad because of the change in pressure. That really isn't something that affects you, or the baby, thanks to your aura. Flying under your own power isn't a problem. Also, the x-ray vision? It doesn't really use x-rays or anything of that nature and is completely harmless."

Lois sighed with relief. "Those are both really good things to know."

"So then, you'll take care of yourself, eat right, rest, and try to lower your stress level, and I'll see you back here in a month. We'll be able to do an ultrasound then, but I imagine you'll be able to see the baby much better yourself before then."

"Right. Thanks, Bernie," she replied with a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes.

"You're welcome, Lois. Call if you need anything."

She nodded and quietly left his office. She walked down the corridors of the office building on the STAR Labs campus and stepped outside into the oppressive, muggy heat of an August day in Metropolis. The humid air hung thickly all around, had she been without her powers, it would have clung to her skin, making her feel warm and clammy, just like all the other denizens of Metropolis not so blessed with invulnerability. The heat radiated off the hundreds of square miles of blacktop and reflected off the glass of the forests of skyscrapers crammed into the neat city blocks, creating a pressure cooker that ensured the city was set to simmer in its own steam all summer long.

In just a few weeks she'd say goodbye to Metropolis and its unbearably hot summers and streets choked with pedestrians and traffic jams and construction sites, and to all of the millions of city sounds that pulsed day and night, that gave the city it's vibrant and constant rhythm. There were times when Lois couldn't believe that she, a life long city dweller, was moving to a little farm in Smallville, Kansas. There was no question, however, that she needed to do this. She needed to be closer to the Kents. She'd have to work out with Bernie the logistics involved with the end of the pregnancy and labor, but that was something that they still had time to consider. For now, she needed to be near the people who could help her through this, who were experiencing the same pain she was, but who worked so hard to live their lives as best they could in his absence. She needed to be with her family.

Lois pulled the chain around her neck out from under her blouse and held the large gold band between her fingers. She paused as she gazed at it, a gossamer thread that connected her to Clark despite the distance between them. The corners of her mouth turned upward in the faintest hint of a smile as the familiar tattoo invaded her consciousness. The sound never ceased to give her pause whenever she heard it. It humbled her, left her in awe.

The smile faded, though the sound remained, singing steadily its tempo, almost too quick to measure. The individual beats blended together to create a low hum, like a purr. Lois loved to listen to it. The sound made her feel connected to something, to something greater, more important. It connected her to the baby, and it connected her to him. Just like the ring she wore around her neck did. He was always with her. No matter the distance.

***

It was late when Clark and Zara finally called an end to the meeting with the Advisory Council. Wearily, they'd made the very short trip from the meeting room to the Ministers' Residence. Clark was just starting to get his bearings about him and he'd realized that the Ministers' Residence was right at the heart of the main colony, in the same complex as the Council Chambers, the seat of the Court, and the bureaucratic offices. The next ring around the seat of governance was comprised of civilian housing, as well as schools, meeting halls — all the things that held a community together, even when the community was a rough hewn colony carved into an inhospitable place like New Krypton.

Radiating out from the center of the colony were different wings, dedicated to military and civilian manufacturing and production, the Ground and Air Commands of the Kryptonian forces, the scientific research labs, and the university. Kryptonians held learning in such high regard it bordered on reverence. They knew that it was through their science that they had managed to survive, and the dedication to that science was stronger than ever. Similarly, those placed in charge of instructing the next generation of scholars were admired above all others. The tasks involved in keeping their colony alive, however, had militarized Kryptonian society; every Kryptonian citizen was a soldier as well as a scholar.

It was a society that valued integrity, discipline, and knowledge — all very admirable traits, but he wondered what they'd given up to achieve this. It wasn't that Kryptonians showed no love or kindness, he'd seen both of these. While they may have been more formal and more reserved than the people he'd lived with his entire life, they demonstrated these things, even if that demonstration was subtle. What they lacked were joy and wonder. Theirs was a society that couldn't hold the universe in awe since they spent most of their life in a heroic struggle against it. And simple pleasures seemed beyond them. How could you run barefoot through summer grass as a little kid if your world didn't have grass, or seasons for that matter? How could you lie on your back and watch clouds float across the sky if your atmosphere couldn't support clouds, or sustain the breeze necessary to send them drifting through the sky? What Kryptonians seemed to lack was the ability to be happy for no reason at all. Their lives were spent trying to win points to tally on the cosmic ledger in a battle against a hostile universe that would concede to them nothing. That left very little time to goof off, do nothing productive, and just enjoy the time alone or in good company.

Clark sat down on the corner of the bed in his chambers. The guard had directed him and Zara to their private quarters at the end of the hall and had bid them a good evening. They'd entered together walking first through the sizable study, with its pair of large desks, and complicated communications system to find a large, round, room with soaring, vaulted ceilings. Bookcases, tall bureaus, and ornate dressers stood against the walls. Soft lights from all around bathed the room in a warm glow. A large bed, covered in pillows and thick blankets was the focal point of the room, drawing the eye of any observer immediately to it. On either side of the bed stood identical night stands.

"That's a bit presumptuous, isn't it?" Clark asked as he regarded the bed skeptically.

"Actually it isn't," Zara replied. "The designers tried to presume as little as possible; there are separate bedrooms on either side of this chamber." She gestured toward more of those almost invisible doors, well hidden on opposite sides of the room. He walked over to one and with a simple touch, it slid open. Behind the door stood a much simpler looking room, not unlike the one where he'd spent the previous night. A smaller bed stood against one wall. Opposite it was a large desk. A small table and two chairs sat unobtrusively in one corner and at the other end of the room was the door to his washroom.

It was late now and he was alone in his darkened room, having bid Zara a good night a short while before. He'd taken off his heavy mantle with its stiff, uncomfortable collar and had changed for bed. While it looked rather absurd, he'd had to keep the heavy wrist cuffs on — Zara had informed him that while he could remove them to wash, at no other time was he to be without them. They were a symbol of his service to the people and unlike all other servants of New Krypton, at no point was his time his own. There was no separation between private and public personas. At every moment of every day, he served New Krypton. Well, it wasn't as though he was going to settle down, join the PTA, get a mortgage, and a timeshare here. His personal life, who he was, was still on Earth.

He held the ring between his thumb and fingers and looked down at it. How simple, how perfect it was. How much it reminded him of its owner and of everything waiting for him a million worlds away from this place. How much it represented everything he wanted, and everything he was supposed to have. He read the inscription in it, long ago memorized, and the words gave him comfort. 'I have loved you from the beginning.' And he had loved her from the beginning. He'd loved her from the moment he'd met her and he would love her every day of the rest of his life. He would love her long after. Whatever happened, that was the one thing that could never change.

"I love you," he whispered quietly, just as he did every night. He let the ring—warmed by his hand—go. It hit his chest with a soft bounce and hung there on the end of its chain.

***

"A visitor to see you, sir." Clark's head snapped up as he looked around for the source of the voice. He recognized it as Rul's, but he was still very much alone in his quarters. 'Probably some hidden announcement system,' he mused as he tried to adjust the collar on his greatcoat. He scratched as his neck where the harsh fabric had been chafing his skin, leaving a red ring around his throat. His eyes darted across the room in search of an intercom, but if the device existed, it was hidden from view. He opened his door and entered the antechamber, where Zara sat engrossed in the military briefing reports that had been prepared in the scant hours since they'd retired for the evening. It was early in the morning, but the nights of little sleep were likely to become routine.

"Good morning, Kal El," she said without looking up from the communications screen in front of her.

"Did you hear that?" he asked.

"Ensign Rul's announcement? Yes, I imagine she is on the other side of the door."

"Right," Clark replied. He opened the door to find, as expected, Ensign Rul waiting for him. She bowed politely and he returned the gesture.

"My apologies for any disturbance, sir," she said. "But you have a visitor."

"Who is it?" Clark asked.

"His name is Tao Scion," She replied.

"I haven't met him, have I?" Clark asked.

"No sir," Rul said. "He is a physician."

"All right."

"And a friend of your father's," she continued.

"What?" Clark exclaimed.

"Tao Scion says he was a friend of Jor El's, many years ago, before your father died," she replied.

Clark felt his mouth go dry. "Take me to him, please," he managed.

Rul bowed again. "Of course, sir."

They started down the hallway, Rul a half step ahead of Clark, subtly leading the way to the receiving room, where his visitor was waiting. Clark swallowed uncomfortably, his throat dry. Anticipation grew in him, forming a hard knot in the pit of his stomach. He'd met a few people who'd made vaguely sympathetic noises when mentioning his parents, but if this man truly was a friend of his father's maybe he'd finally get some answers to the questions that had plagued him his whole life. He appreciated the globe his parents had left him, but it couldn't slake his thirst to know more about them — who they were, what they were like.

At the end of a long hallway, many twists and turns from their starting point (which Clark was quite sure he couldn't find from here) Rul opened a set of double doors to the receiving room. The room's only occupant, a severe looking old man with a shock of white hair turned to regard them. He wore long white robes in ethereal contrast to the simple black military uniforms Clark and Rul were wearing. His expression was set grimly and the worry lines etched into his face were so deep and frozen that his entire face seemed carved of stone.

His darkened mood, however, soon lifted and the harsh lines relaxed until a genuine smile crept across his face. He stared at Clark in disbelief. "By the fates," he muttered softly to himself as he shook his head. He walked toward Clark, each step more hurried than the last until he was practically running toward the younger man.

"Sir…" Clark began before finding himself in a distinctively un-Kryptonian embrace.

Tao Scion stepped back, still smiling. A younger man might have felt sheepish about throwing the First Minister and Commander of the Forces of New Krypton into a bear hug but Tao Scion was too old and too practical to concern himself with such things. His smile faded a little, sadness creeping into his expression.

"From the depths of time, Jor El and Lara stare at me through those eyes," he said. "How they would have longed to see the man their son has become. Come on, Kal El, there is much that this old man must share with his former patient." Tao Scion put an arm around Clark's shoulder. "I was there when you were born, you know," he began with a chuckle.

***

"Lois, honey, I have no idea how this scumbag found out, but when I figure it out, well, fire and brimstone won't begin to cover it," Perry seethed.

Lois stared distantly at the full color scandal rag in her hands. The headline screamed at her "What Were They Hiding?" in 72-point typeface. The photo to go along with it came from their aborted first attempt at a wedding. She felt the bile rise up in her throat at the memories the image evoked. The insert boxes suggested tawdry possibilities from the expected and silly speculation of a 'shotgun wedding' to the more sinister suggestions that Clark's disappearance had nothing to do with the New Kryptonians and everything to do with being a dad-to-be with cold feet or that the baby wasn't Clark's. She was sure there was more puerile drivel inside, but she didn't have the stomach to open it up and check for herself. She dropped the offending tabloid on the corner of Perry's desk and started to pace.

God, she wanted to scream. She could feel the blood reach a simmer and then break the boiling point in her veins. Couldn't she get just one lousy, measly little break here? Were the Fates really out to get her that badly? She tried to take a deep breath and stared through the blinds out into the bullpen. What was it Bernie had told her about stress? Right, it was bad. Something to be avoided. Good luck with that one, Lane.

"It's no one's fault," she said, surprised at the calm in her own voice. How did she sound so calm? She certainly wasn't calm. "The marriage certificate was a public document; sooner or later, someone was going to run across it. We knew it would happen." Right, resignation. That was why she sounded so calm. She was resigned. She continued to look out onto the barely restrained chaos of the bullpen, about a billion light years from where she was standing at that moment.

"If you want, I'll call the lawyers, I think you've got enough here for a libel suit." Perry was already picking up the phone and searching the mess that was his desk for the General Counsel's phone number.

"Don't," she said, glancing over her shoulder at her editor. "The last thing I want is to make a big deal of this. I don't want to drag myself and the Planet through a lawsuit over this garbage."

"All right, we'll do it a different way. What are you thinking? A press release, something like that?"

"That's my thought," she concurred. "Something simple, we'll tell them that Clark and I eloped because the last time we tried to have a normal wedding, we ended up with a catastrophe instead. We did this to make sure the wedding actually happened this time. I mean, it isn't really a lie, is it?"

"You've given this some thought, haven't you?" Perry responded with a wry smile.

"I…yeah," she confessed. "After not very gently breaking the news to my parents I figured I might need an explanation. Although I've been banking on the whole hormonal pregnant woman excuse to get me off the hook with any future weird behavior," she said, a sardonic laugh escaping her lips.

Perry shook his head. "You're something else, you know that?"

"Tell me about it," she replied.

"I'll draft something up, give me a sound bite and it'll be out by close of business." Lois barely heard him; she was too focused on the sight of a glum young man crossing the newsroom.

"Jimmy," she said suddenly.

"Huh?" Perry replied.

"What do I tell him? He already thinks I've been keeping everything from him. And he's done nothing but stick up for Clark and me since this whole thing happened. How do I explain why I didn't tell him?"

"He'll understand. It might take him a while, but he'll figure it out," Perry replied gently. "And if he doesn't, he'll get over it."

***

Clark sat in rapt attention, listening to Tao Scion recount story after story about his parents. He had no idea how much time they'd spent talking, well, he'd mostly listened, Tao Scion did the lion's share of the talking. Clark had always been drawn to the human angle of every story, so it was rather ironic that when it came to his own history, all he had were a few images and a vague outline, no back-story, no depth, nothing that would help him understand his birth parents as human beings. Tao Scion was quickly filling the gaps. A true raconteur, he spun yarn after yarn, anecdotes that wrapped and wove themselves into a rich tapestry that finally gave some depth to the people who had died saving his life.

He'd offered to tell Clark about the last few years of Krypton's life, but Clark had practically begged him to tell him about his parents first. The history he could get from books and lectures from Ching. Tao Scion had recounted how he and Jor El had been friends from childhood and had gone to school together, staying friends through adulthood. He was finally getting a picture of his parents from the viewpoint of someone who cared about them very much. Clark noticed the older man begin to look uncomfortable, as though he was equivocating on whether to broach a particular subject.

"What is it?" Clark asked.

"Pardon? Oh, nothing, now where was I? Well, your parents, you see…when your sister…"

"MY WHAT?!?!" Clark felt all the breath rush out of him as he bellowed. The whole world had been knocked off balance and he struggled in great confusion to regain some sense of equilibrium. He looked around frantically, as though expecting somehow to find her here, hiding in this very room. "Why didn't you…where is she…is she here…can I see her… why didn't anyone tell me I had a sister? Where is she?"

Tao Scion opened his mouth to say something and then closed it, swallowing hard. "I'm sorry…" he began.

"She didn't make it. But why…why didn't they save her, too?" Clark demanded almost angrily. He felt tears well up in his eyes, tears for one more human connection robbed from him without him even knowing it. "Why me, why couldn't they save her, too?" His voice was a bare whisper.

"No one could have saved her, I'm afraid. Please know that I tried…"

Clark shook his head in confusion. "I don't…"

"Your sister, Keir El, died years before you were born, Kal El. She fell ill and there was nothing we could do for her. Her death destroyed your parents. For a long while, I doubted either would ever recover." He regarded Clark mournfully, tears in his penetrating blue eyes.

Clark closed his eyes, trying hard to assimilate yet another tragedy into his understanding of his birth parents. Tao Scion's gentle voice invaded his dark ruminations. "They did, though. Thanks to you. Neither one of them would have had the will to do what they did, to carry on as they did, were it not for you. Not a day goes by that I do not thank them for what they did and what they gave up for us. When they would not send you here, I knew that they had something else planned, but to hear of your return, it was almost like having my old friend back from the dead. I cannot repay the debt that I owe him, but I hope to try. Anything you need from me, you will have, Kal El."

***

Lois chewed her pencil thoughtfully. She normally wrote at her computer but the words weren't exactly forthcoming today. She thought she'd just try putting lead to paper to see if that helped get the brain in gear. Unfortunately, it didn't. Writer's Block was for novelists and sappy poets, not journalists with deadlines to meet. She dropped the legal pad and half mutilated pencil stub and paced around the den. Martha and Jonathan's den was a perfect place to work most of the time — quiet and full of character. It was a far cry from the newsroom, but it had its own bucolic charm.

She'd left without any fanfare — a farewell party would have been nothing less than obscene and was out of the question. One day she was there, the next day she wasn't, which was probably for the best. In any event, the newsroom had lost most of its appeal, for her anyway. It was full of well-meaning reporters who were suddenly in the business of treating her with kid gloves and it was driving her nuts. The newsroom was also the predominant haunt of a young photographer whose trust she had betrayed. The entire situation was frustrating. It wouldn't exactly have been eloping in secret if they'd told everyone. That point wasn't entirely fair, she admitted to herself. Once she'd confided everything else in Jimmy, the only reason she'd had for keeping the wedding secret was because she wanted to. It was something that was still just hers and Clark's for the most part — only the people who had to know knew about it.

But that didn't change the fact that her friend felt betrayed. If he was trusted enough to keep Superman and Ultrawoman's secret, why couldn't he be trusted with this? Well this train of thought certainly wasn't going to help her write her column, she noted wryly to herself. Restless, she headed to the kitchen for a warm glass of milk, certain that Bernie would approve. Now that the morning sickness had passed, pregnancy wasn't treating her too badly. Granted maternity clothes weren't exactly Lois's style, but she could cure weird food cravings better than any pregnant woman since our ancestors crawled from the primordial soup and began seeking out watermelon and fried rice when expecting. When you can be anywhere in the world in two minutes flat, how hard is it to get Belgian chocolate, real camembert, or spicy pad Thai? Also, no back pain, no sore feet, and no fatigue made her a committed disciple of the superpowered approach to pregnancy.

Remembering stories from friends and acquaintances and their pregnancies, she'd heard time and again just how darn cute the dad-to-be was in his efforts to be helpful. She'd heard all about finding a 24 hour Chinese restaurant, giving backrubs, or reading every single one of those 'What to Expect' books and subsequently driving his wife mad with his newfound expertise on the subject of pregnancy. At the time, the stories, of course, warranted eye rolls, which due to rules of decorum, had been politely suppressed and replaced with feigned looks of interest. But maybe it was just one of those things you had to experience to understand. Frankly, Lois felt any more concern or doting than she was already dealing with would be just plain suffocating, but she didn't doubt that she'd get a kick out of seeing Clark reading baby books and shopping for baby clothes and things for the nursery. She smiled wistfully.

Lois opened the fridge door and found the milk. She heard sounds of footsteps on the staircase, not up to the second floor, but to the attic. It was quite late and Martha and Jonathan were usually asleep by this hour. She frowned slightly and cautiously scanned the attic with her x-ray vision. The frown slowly turned into a tiny, tremulous smile. She drew in a shaky breath, tears welling up in her eyes. Lois exhaled slowly and closed her eyes, willing her legs to stop wobbling like jelly. When it didn't work, she decided to float up the stairs instead.

"Need a hand with that?" she whispered.

"Huh? Lois, I didn't hear you come in," Jonathan replied as he turned around, favoring her with a broad smile.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you," she responded as she took the cumbersome cardboard box from his hands.

"Well since you're up here, I could definitely use a hand getting some of these boxes out of the way," he said, nodding toward the large stack of boxes piled in front of them. Lois obligingly helped her father-in-law move the storage boxes until the object of their quest was in reach — Clark's old bassinet.

They gently removed it and examined it carefully. The old, white wicker bassinet was in much better shape than Lois would have imagined. "I just remembered this was up here," Jonathan explained. "I figured I'd come up and see if you could use it."

"It's beautiful, thank you," she replied softly. She touched it hesitantly, another gorgeous, tangible, and painful link to Clark. Tears pricked at her eyes.

"You know, I've been thinking," Jonathan mused aloud. "This house could use a nursery. We'll add another room, fix it up nicely for the baby. What do you think? I could use your help."

She was still trying to assimilate the surprise of her own reaction to seeing Clark's bassinet. She'd barely even heard what he'd said. It took a while for it to register. "Wow, I'd love to, I mean, I don't know the first thing about construction, but…"

"Something tells me you'll pick it up real quick," Jonathan replied with a wink.

Lois felt a lump in her throat begin to form. She smiled, certain her eyes were bright with tears.

***

Clark walked down a darkened corridor toward the command room where the Advisory Council had gathered. He'd been called from the other side of the compound and knew that everyone would already be assembled and waiting for him. He passed a sentry who saluted crisply, and rounded a corner to the double doors to the command room. The guard quickly opened the door for him. The assembled group stood as one as he entered.

"Kal El, we have troubling news," General Commander Goren reported.

Clark took his place beside Zara and they all took their seats again. "What is it, Commander?"

"The mining colony at Renmo has been attacked. Commander Talan's forces have been redirected there, but initial reports suggest massive casualties and destruction."

"Scorched earth," Rab Dun said simply, her expression grimly set. "They're destroying our resource base because the colony cannot survive long without it."

Ching suddenly turned toward a bank of monitors against one wall. "We have an incoming transmission," he said. Suddenly, Talan's voice filled the room.

"First Ministers, Commanders, the rebels have abandoned Renmo. They've destroyed the mines and landing pads and blocked the roads. The settlement is completely inaccessible except through the Northwest Pass. Supply stores have been almost depleted. I'm requesting a full scale evacuation."

"Casualties, Commander?" Flad demanded of the disembodied voice.

"Heavy, sir," she replied. "And growing worse by the moment. Approximately two thousand survivors."

"Put your engineers in contact with General Command, whatever you need is yours," Commander Goren responded. "Ching, assemble a team, requisition every transport you can find. Tell General Command to make this priority one and put all forces on high alert."

"Aye, sir," Ching replied before exiting.

"Councilor Shai, please inform the Council of the heightened alert," Zara began. "Commander Goren, we leave the main colony under your command." Zara stood up and everyone else did likewise.

"Ma'am?" Goren looked at Zara questioningly.

"Kal El and I will accompany the escort, I'm certain Ching can use an additional crew."

"But it isn't safe," Flad protested.

"Nowhere is, Commander," Clark replied.

"Rab Dun, go to General Command, see that their extraction plans are suitable."

"Of course, Ma'am." Rab Dun bowed slightly.

"You know your responsibilities, you are all dismissed," Zara concluded.

***

Clark stood at the launch dock, glad to be rid of the heavy mantle of his uniform, but uneasy with what he'd traded it in for — a gun, or the high tech Kryptonian equivalent. He waited anxiously, hands clasped in front of him as Zara was briefed on their flight plan. Around him, other pilots and crews prepared for their mission as mechanics performed final tests on the crafts. Across the dock, he spotted Enza, his legal officer. This was certainly an unusual place for a lawyer. And a lawyer with a little kid, no less. A small girl of three or four accompanied Lieutenant. Enza. She crouched down beside the child and hugged her. The little girl began to cry and only cried harder as Enza let go and stepped back. A guard stepped forward to pick up the sobbing child. Enza waved at the little girl and watched the guard walk away with her.

"Ready?" Zara asked, startling him.

"Yeah," he replied. They began to board their ship. "I didn't know Enza had a daughter."

"She doesn't," Zara replied. "The child is her niece. Enza's family lived in one of the outer settlements. Her brother and his wife as well as Enza's parents were all killed in a rebel raid. The child was the only survivor." Clark glanced back at the young woman, now boarding her own craft, but said nothing.

***

"Would you hand me the level?" Jonathan asked, his hand outstretched. Lois scanned the mess around them, quickly finding the tool in question. She grabbed the level and handed it to her father-in-law. In the last few weeks since they'd begun the project, they'd made real progress. Jonathan assured her that she was instrumental in that progress — heck she could knock down a wall in two seconds, x-ray the floors to find all the wiring and pipes, spot weld anything and carry up all the 2 x 4s and cement bags without breaking a sweat.

They worked more slowly than necessary to keep from arousing the suspicions of any neighbor that just happened to pass by. The seclusion of the farm, however, rendered this point largely moot. Going slower also meant that she actually learned something about what they were doing.

They'd knocked out an upstairs wall in order to extend the second floor above the den. They'd leveled the floor and were in the process of putting up the new nursery's walls. Lois had to admit to being impressed by how the project was developing. She and Jonathan made a good team.

"Do the honors?" Jonathan asked, looking over his shoulder as he held a beam in place. She smiled as she grabbed a handful of nails from the pocket of her paint and spackle spattered old jeans. He held the cross beam steady while she effortlessly tapped in the nails with a finger.

He stepped back to admire their handiwork and checked it again with the level. "All right, all the vertical load bearing beams are up. We'll finish with the cross beams and then the window borders."

Lois nodded, putting her hands on the small of her back and stretching. "Sore?" Jonathan inquired politely with a smile.

"Nah," she assured him. She smiled, thinking about how amusing it must be to watch a five months pregnant woman doing construction work. While the superpowers made most things exponentially easier, it was tough to have them and not be able to help. Life was pretty quiet out here so it wasn't as though calls for help were keeping her up at night. But that didn't mean that people weren't calling, it meant she was too distant to notice. She felt pangs of guilt when she thought about it. She hadn't taken on Clark's powers for her own benefit, but she knew that she didn't have a choice. Once or twice a major emergency had drawn her out to help surreptitiously. It was dangerous, she knew, but it was a calculated risk.

"Coffee break?" They both turned around to find Martha carrying a tray of coffee and blueberry scones. "Lois, I've laid out the paint samples and carpet swatches downstairs for you to look at whenever you're ready."

"You're the best, Martha," Lois replied as she took the mugs of coffee, handing one of them to Jonathan.

"Yeah, but I hear those scones are a close second," Jonathan added with a wink. He liberated one of the scones from the tray. They did look amazing.

Lois took a gratifying sip of her decaffeinated coffee. The idea of decaffeinated coffee had once struck her as absurd, but over time, she'd realized that she actually really enjoyed the taste of coffee, almost as much as the buzz it tended to produce. The caffeine no longer affected her and it was better to simply avoid it, but she still enjoyed the soothing taste of a nice warm cup of coffee. "My ultrasound is tomorrow. I'm flying to Metropolis, would the two of you like to come?"

Martha positively beamed at the suggestion. "Oh honey, we wouldn't miss it for the world!"

"We're honored that you want us there," Jonathan said.

Lois smiled, glad but hardly surprised by their excitement. She depended on Jonathan and Martha. Often times, they were the only things that kept her sane. They made things…bearable. It didn't sound like much, but given that she'd been certain Clark's departure was going to destroy her and leave nothing of her left, it was more than she'd hoped for. She still thought about him—sometimes it seemed like every second—and at no point was he ever far from her thoughts or her heart.

She'd spent countless nights lying awake in his room, trying to draw comfort from the familiar things surrounding her. There were all sorts of things that would trigger memories of him, of his laugh, his smile, his touch. Sleeping was difficult. She couldn't imagine how she'd slept all of those nights without him before their wedding. Now, after that one night, it felt wrong to lie there at night knowing he wasn't there next to her.

By day, life in Smallville had settled into a nice routine. She wrote her weekly column, but it was often like pulling teeth. She told herself that she just needed to get her bearings. She'd gotten to know just about everyone in town and they welcomed her into their community right away. But there was still the talk. Lois had already heard about the infamous small town gossip and having superhearing just meant that she was able to confirm its notorious existence early on. She didn't try to eavesdrop, but sometimes it was difficult to avoid hearing things. It wasn't that anyone ever said anything malicious, but there were always the hushed comments about 'poor Lois,' and was she gaining enough weight and the speculation of what effect all the stress and strain would have on the baby as well as the general walking on eggshells. She did notice, however, that the big breaking story about her and Clark having eloped was received with some relief. Small town notions of propriety, after all, carried the day around here.

Not everyone had welcomed the news. Jimmy still seemed upset with her, as evinced by his failure to return her last few phone calls. Perhaps she should try to straighten that out while she was in Metropolis. Going back to Metropolis filled her with a certain degree of anticipation and dread. It was funny that she found it less painful to be here, where everything related to Clark, than in Metropolis. Perhaps it was because Metropolis to her, at some point, began to represent the life that she and Clark had planned to build there. The thought crept into her mind, unbidden and unwelcome. She felt that ache in her chest as pain tightened its grip around her heart.

Tomorrow was just another day that he wouldn't be there for, even though he had every right to be. It was another thing taken away from him without his even knowing it. She knew that when he returned, regrets and a longing for the things he'd missed would plague him. She tried to never entertain thoughts about him never coming back, because when she did, it was all she could do to not go catatonic. No, Clark was coming home. She just didn't know when. It wasn't fair. Sometimes she wondered if Clark was being punished for being such a good person. How much could one guy be expected to take? Lois sipped her coffee in thoughtful silence.

God, she missed him.

***

The craft began to descend slowly. He looked around out the windshield at the other transports floating downward toward the barren plateau between the craggy peaks jutting up, breaking the line of the horizon. The ship touched down roughly in the high wind, jostling its passengers slightly. He undid the safety restraints and grabbed the supplies as the craft's door opened.

Clark and Zara descended to join the other crews. Ching was already organizing the effort. Word had come from Talan that she and her troops had begun escorting the survivors though the Northwest Pass. Without fuel, they'd been forced to move on foot. Smaller, agile vehicles had been dispatched to retrieve the wounded. The rest of them had come as far as they could by way of their bulky transports. They would make the rest of the way on foot, accompanied by small supply vehicles which could navigate the terrain, to rendezvous with Talan and assist in the evacuation. It was a half-day's trek to where Talan's forces expected to establish a camp for the night.

The rescue party, well armed and supplied, moved with surprising speed. The air was cold and thin and the wind stung bitterly, but no one complained. They continued through the desolate, rocky pass in quiet. Clark felt his lungs struggle to draw oxygen from the fragile air. The sky began to turn from dusty orange to dark purple as night fell. The weak sun, which provided little warmth but at least gave some light, descended into the distant mountains.

After what seemed like an eternity, they reached the encampment. The soldiers had established a perimeter while Renmo's survivors had gathered at the camp's center, recovering from their exhausting exodus. Having only recently arrived, the confusion was just starting to settle in. Families would begin looking for wayward members and neighbors would seek each other out to see who had made it through the ordeal. The soldiers greeted the evacuation party with relief and sincere appreciation. Supplies were made available and sentries were relieved of their posts so that they could at last eat and rest. Ching began to organize his men for the task of taking over the camp's protection.

Clark approached him through the chaos. The officer stopped giving orders to his forces to listen to him. "Ching, I'll take the medics to set up a triage in the camp. Any of the seriously wounded that we can get out of here tonight with the supply vehicles need to be identified."

"Aye, sir," Ching replied. "Medics, you are now under Kal El's command."

"I'll also need two of your troops to find the lost children," Clark added.

"Lost children, sir?"

"Yeah, orphans, those separated from their parents in the evacuation. We need to find their closest relatives and make sure they're taken care of."

"Right away, sir," Ching replied. "Anything else?"

"A couple of people to help us unload and distribute the supplies," Clark added. He looked over at where Zara had already begun the distribution process and was in significant need of help.

"Very well, sir." With that, Clark and his small band of soldiers made their way toward Zara and began assisting the relief effort. He looked around the camp, dismayed. The worst of the wounded had already been evacuated, but all around him were people whose very lives had been shattered. Many of them regarded him and Zara curiously, amazed that their evacuation merited the attention of the new First Ministers. Clark knew that Zara's demand that they go along was unexpected and unorthodox, but he was grateful for it. He needed to see this, to see the horrible, messy reality of this war if he was going to stop it. When the initial work was completed, he walked around the camp, talking to whoever felt up to talking with him.

He'd been standing watch when Talan approached him some hours after his arrival. She'd been meeting with Ching for several of those hours. "Thank you, Commander," Clark told her. "You've done good work here."

"I only wish we had arrived at Renmo sooner," she replied, staring out at the darkened camp.

"I know," Clark said. "I know how that feels." Talan regarded him quizzically. "You should get some rest before morning. Ching's forces will be on watch," he said.

"Thank you, but I'll hold my post," she replied, intending to relieve him of his watch. "Goodnight, sir."

Clark nodded. "Goodnight, Commander." He started to walk away.

"Sir?" She called after him. He stopped and turned around. "They're all very grateful that you came."

Clark smiled slightly and walked toward his tent. Ching stood guard outside it, not for a moment forgetting his duty to the First Ministers. He saluted Clark as he approached.

Clark returned the salute. "Is Zara asleep?"

Ching looked puzzled. "I do not presume to know, sir."

"Good night, Ching," Clark said with a slight shake of his head.

"Good night, sir."

Zara was, in fact, not asleep. She sat awake in the tent, reviewing maps and the briefing reports that Talan had prepared at some point between securing the settlement, launching a massive evacuation, and setting up this camp. Zara glanced up briefly at him to verify that the new person in her tent was in fact, her ceremonial husband and not some unknown intruder, before turning back to the digital maps projected in front of her.

"You've seen things like this before, haven't you? On Earth?" She said without looking up.

"Yes," he replied. "Not exactly like this, but I've seen wars, refugee camps, natural disasters, you name it."

"I haven't," she admitted. "I've had so much training, and life here has already been very difficult for my people, but this is different. Before, we suffered together because we had to in order to survive. This pain, someone, a human being, caused it intentionally. I've heard all sorts of reports, been briefed on every atrocity, but I've never come out to see them for myself."

"You want to know if it gets easier, don't you?"

"Does it?" she asked.

"Not really, no. You learn how to do your job, to not dwell on it in the moment, but the anger and the frustration are still there. You still wonder how anyone can cause all this pointless, stupid suffering."

"I think we've underestimated you, Kal…Clark. All this time, we've tried to compensate for what we saw as a lack of training for your birthright, but here, you've done so much more than any of us could."

"I haven't done anything…" he interjected.

"You have. These people, our people, they trust you. You've proven to everyone here in this one day that your place is as First Minister."

"Thanks," he replied.

***

"Mr. and Mrs. Kent?" Martha and Jonathan looked up at the harried looking, middle aged man in a lab coat.

"Yes, we're…" Jonathan began…

"Lois is waiting for us down the hall," the man they could only guess was Dr. Klein said. They followed him down the corridors. "Sorry for the cloak and dagger bit," he whispered. "We're just trying to keep this all…well…"

"We know," Martha assured him. "And we appreciate it, Dr…?"

"Well we know, I mean, I know, no one else knows, you know?"

"Yes, no…thank you, Dr…?" Jonathan began, throwing in his own attempt to get the good doctor's name.

"Any time, sir. I may be government sponsored, but I still know how to keep a secret," the curious doctor replied with a wide grin. "That was a joke, of course, I mean, I wouldn't do anything to jeopardize the integrity of the secret."

"We're sure you won't," Martha said, a note of impatience almost creeping into her voice. "Dr…?"

"Einstein's afro! Where are my manners!" Martha and Jonathan shared a smile as realization finally dawned on him. "I didn't ask you folks if you'd like anything to drink. We have coffee and some great herbal teas. They keep the best stuff up in Data Processing on ten, but I manage to get a few bags of it every day."

"We're fine, Doc," Jonathan assured him.

"But we would appreciate one thing," Martha added.

"Sure, what is it?"

"Your name."

Their erstwhile host smacked a hand against his bald head. "Bernie Klein," he said, rubbing the spot on his head where he'd apparently hit himself harder than expected. He juggled his clipboard to extend a hand to them.

"Very nice to meet you, Dr. Klein," Jonathan said warmly.

"Call me Bernie," the scientist responded. "Anyway, we're right here." He nodded toward a reinforced door. He punched in a combination on the keypad lock, swiped his ID card and then submitted himself to both hand and retina scans in order to open the door. "And this is just the way to the break room. You should see how much security we have for the labs!" he joked. He led them to the makeshift exam room where Lois was waiting, sitting on an examining table in a blue hospital gown.

"Hey, you made it," she greeted them.

"Just barely," Martha replied with a smile. "I'm half expecting secret government agents to jump out of the ceiling and arrest us."

"Oh, don't worry, those guys have the day off," Bernie reassured her. He turned on the ultrasound machine and monitor and looked over at Lois. "Ready?"

"Not getting any readier," she said, lying back on the exam table.

"Okay, cold gel time," Bernie announced. He applied the gel to her abdomen and then placed the transducer against her skin. "All right, here we go. But while I've got you here as a captive audience, I'll say that I'm pleased with your weight gain but you're still a bit below average and I highly doubt Lois Lane has ever been below average at anything in her entire life."

"Very funny, Bernie."

Bernie smiled and turned the monitor so that Lois and the Kents could all see it. "And we have contact, Houston," he said as the fuzzy image on the ultrasound monitor settled on the baby. He pointed at the screen. "Here's the heart and this little string of pearls here is the spine. Have you already peeked, Lois?"

Her breath caught in her throat. It was a long moment before she managed to answer Bernie's question. "I've resisted the temptation and I swear it's killing me."

"But you want to know the baby's gender?"

She merely nodded.

"Congratulations, mom, it's a boy," Bernie said. Lois looked at the monitor, at her son. Tears formed in her eyes and slipped down her cheeks. She looked up at Jonathan and Martha, through the blur, looks of awe and wonder on their faces as they got their first look at their grandson.

"Everything looks perfect," Bernie said with a smile.

***

Clark trudged along near the back of the procession as it made its way through a particularly narrow part of the pass. He heard his communicator signal him and he fumbled to dig it out. "What is it, Ching?"

"The weather ahead looks particularly unpleasant, sir. It might slow us down a bit."

"Do you suggest we wait it out?" Clark asked.

"No, I think the best thing is to push through. The sooner we get to the transports, the better, sir."

"I trust your judgment," Clark replied.

"Thank you, sir."

They pushed forward slowly through the cold and biting wind that stung exposed skin like a swarm of wasps. The exceptionally versatile Kryptonian clothing was surprisingly warm, but being out here was still a miserable experience. Clark looked around him at the people silently marching through the pass, cold, hungry, tired. He noticed a young girl, no more than fifteen or sixteen, carrying a little boy. She struggled to carry the child, who was crying piteously. He made his way toward them and offered to carry the boy. The girl looked up at him gratefully and handed him the little boy. Clark continued walking beside the girl, whose name was An Me, knowing the little boy would want to stay as close as possible to the one person Clark guessed was his only living family left in the world.

"It's all right," Clark soothed, wrapping the blanket more tightly around the little boy. "It's all right." His cries subsided to a small whimper. It wasn't much further. Soon Clark would be able to get the little boy someplace warm and safe, at least safer than this place.

***

Lois leaned against the ladder on the metal fire escape, simply waiting. And waiting. Since when did Jimmy work all hours of the night, anyway? She glanced at her watch in irritation. It was just after eight. So it wasn't that late. And it wasn't like she was expected, either. She glanced down at the ground below her, thankful that Jimmy's fire escape led down to a dark alley away from the main street. It didn't look like the safest place ever, but it was unlikely anyone would see her up here. She turned her head toward the sound of an approaching car. Finally, he was home. It took him a few moments to park and enter the building, but before too long, she could hear the locks on his door being opened and the lights were then flicked on inside.

Jimmy dragged himself in, dropping his keys and his coat by the door somewhat carelessly. Lois tapped at the glass of the window, startling him. He looked out and saw her, and he didn't seem pleased.

"Can I come in?" she asked.

"Whatever," he replied.

She opened the window and climbed in. "You should lock that, you know."

"I usually don't have a problem with people hanging around on my fire escape," he said acerbically. He wandered into the kitchen and grabbed a cold slice of pizza out of the refrigerator along with a can of soda.

"How have you been?" she asked.

"Don't do that," he snapped, slamming the can of soda on the counter, causing it to fizz and splatter all over the Formica and onto his clothes. Lois looked down. She knew that was coming. Small talk hadn't exactly been a good strategy. "Don't try to pretend nothing's wrong," he said as he wiped his hands on his jeans.

"Jimmy, I'm…"

"You're what? You're sorry? I don't get it, Lois. I don't get you. Why didn't you tell me? Why did you tell me everything else, all about Superman and Ultrawoman and everything, but not this? I thought you trusted me."

"That's not the point," she replied and immediately regretted it.

She saw anger flash across his face. "What the heck does that mean?"

"It means this isn't about you," she said, her voice gentle even though she knew the words stung. "I do trust you. You're one of the closest friends Clark and I have and I trusted you with a secret that could cost the people we love most their lives if the wrong people found out."

"And that's supposed to make up for this?" he asked bitterly.

"No, it isn't. I'm sorry you found out the way you did. I wanted to be the one to tell you, I swear."

Jimmy looked thoroughly unconvinced. She couldn't remember ever seeing him this angry. "Then why didn't you?"

"I told you, Jimmy. This wasn't about you. It was about me."

He merely snorted in response.

"It was about me being selfish. I didn't tell you because I wasn't ready to. It didn't matter that I trusted you or that you had every right to know. I didn't say anything because I wasn't ready to talk about it. Because I can't even think about it without wanting to break down in tears and cry and never stop." She felt a quiver in her throat and tears pricked at her eyes. "I haven't been able to talk to anyone about it," she continued. "I told my parents—mainly just because I was ticked off at them—and I haven't spoken to them since. I don't talk about it with Martha and Jonathan, either."

Jimmy said nothing and simply looked down at the puddle of cola on the countertop. She took a shaky breath and continued. "It was my idea; I practically begged Clark to go along with it because I thought it would prove that I would wait for him. That I'd still be his, no matter how long it took him to come home. But some part of me…that I don't like very much, some part of me that was scared and selfish and ugly wanted it because I was afraid he wasn't coming back. If I couldn't have him forever, I'd have him for as long as I could. Right then, I accepted the possibility that he wasn't coming back. And I hated myself for it." She looked down and noticed that at some point, she'd untucked the chain around her neck and was playing absently with the large gold band on it.

"That's his wedding ring, isn't it?" Jimmy asked softly.

"Yeah," Lois admitted without looking up. "He has mine with him." She wiped away an errant tear.

"I'm sorry," Jimmy mumbled. "I shouldn't have gotten so mad."

She looked at him with a tremulous smile. "You had every right to be angry. I should have told you."

"Friends again?" Jimmy asked.

"We'll always be friends," she assured him. She walked around the counter to hug the young man tightly. Neither said anything for a long moment. Lois finally broke the silence. "I'm covered in cola now, aren't I?"

"Yeah," Jimmy admitted.

***

They finally made it into the windswept clearing at the foot of the Pass where the transports were waiting. Zara was already there, giving orders to make the evacuation run more smoothly. The refugees of Renmo were loaded into the transports as pilots prepared to take off. Clark carried the little boy, who'd fallen asleep, toward one of the transports, the boy's sister walking right beside him. He shifted the child slightly in his arms, careful not to wake him. He wasn't very big, but when you didn't have any superpowers, kids started to get heavy after you'd been carrying them for a few hours.

Clark found himself bone-weary after their trek. Being exhausted with superpowers was one thing — a few hours of good sleep and some sun always did him a world of good. Right now, however, every fiber of his being throbbed with a dull ache and he knew it would take more than a power nap to rejuvenate him. He'd been without his powers for five months now and despite serious physical training on the journey to Krypton, he had so far not been asked to do anything particularly heroic physically. The time would come, he knew, and he wondered if he would be ready.

It had felt good to help, though. Really good. For the first time since he'd left Earth, he actually felt useful, like he was doing something worthwhile. The evacuation was a fairly small event in the grand scheme of this war, but it didn't feel that way to these people and it didn't feel that way to him, either. Despite all the suffering around him, it had helped to know that he could help, even without his powers. He couldn't do as much as he wanted to, but that was true even when he had his powers. He was doing everything he possibly could. He had to hope that it would be enough.

She would have assured him that it was. When he first started being Superman, it was her insistence that whatever he could do was enough that kept him going. She couldn't have had any idea how much her words had affected him, no doubt because she had had no idea at the time that she was talking to Superman. Once she'd learned the truth, she'd been even more adamant about it. He felt a faint smile twitch at the corners of his mouth at the memory. God, he missed her.

"Kal El!" Clark turned around to find Talan behind him, a grim look on her face.

"An Me, I want you to take your brother and get in this transport, all right? It will take you back to the main colony." He handed the sleeping boy to his older sister.

"What about you?" An Me asked, a plaintive look of concern on her face.

Clark put a hand on her shoulder. "I'll be there in a little while," he promised. He touched the sleeping boy's head gently and watched them board the craft.

"What is it?" he asked Talan.

"Attacks on Terian," she replied. "The farming settlement is under heavy fire."

When it rained around here, it poured, he thought grimly to himself. "How far is it from here?"

"Three days on foot."

"What about the transports?" Clark asked.

Talan shook her head. "Not enough fuel to get there and back home. Besides, the rebels likely took the settlement's air defenses first. These transports would be no match for them."

"Commander!" Talan and Clark both turned toward the sound of Ching's voice. He and Zara were running toward them.

"What's happening?" Zara asked as they approached.

"Terian is under attack," Talan explained.

"Has General Command heard of this?"

Talan nodded grimly. "They received the distress call when we did. They'll send the main force, but it'll take them a full day to group and deploy. We'll reinforce them."

"I'll have the Expeditionary Forces stand by. We'll be prepared to deploy within the hour, Commander," Ching said.

"I'm going with you," Clark said.

"Sir, this is a fight, not a rescue," Talan said.

"I know that," Clark replied. "And I'm going with you."

"Sir," Ching began. "I highly recommend you accompany Zara back to the colony."

"Ching is right," Zara added.

"You're a pilot," Clark told Zara. "You can help them get back to the colony. I'm of no use to you." He turned to Talan. "This is still your command, I will follow your directions, but you are not leaving here without me."

"Very well, sir," Talan replied. She saluted and retreated quickly. Shouting orders to her forces as she hit the ground running.

"Come with me," Zara said to him as they watched the soldiers rush to prepare for the mission.

"What?" Clark asked.

"You'll need supplies," Zara replied simply.

"Right."

They began walking quickly toward their transport. "If you weren't the First Minister, Councilor Shai would have you strung up for this."

"If I weren't the First Minister, I wouldn't be here," Clark reminded her. "Besides, I'm not going to send them out into harm's way while I stick to the easy jobs."

Zara opened the cargo hold of the transport and threw a pack at him. He caught the heavy pack, nearly stumbling backward, and placed it on the ground. "There are no easy tasks here, Clark." She handed him a smaller bag.

"I know that," he replied as she handed him a large, sheathed knife. She checked the condition of a rifle before handing it to him as well. He looked down at the weapons uncomfortably.

"And you also know that your responsibility is to lead our people. This coalition may not survive your death."

He smiled wryly at her dark, yet somehow funny, comment. He didn't imagine she'd actually meant it as a joke, though. "It's good to know you're concerned."

She allowed herself a slight smile, but her expression soon turned serious again. "Be careful," she said sincerely.

"I will," he promised. "You too, get them home safely," he said, nodding toward the transport.

She waved slightly before getting into the cockpit of the transport to begin her preflight system check. He shouldered his heavy pack and figured out how to carry or stow the rest of his gear. His stride rendered completely awkward by the additional bulk he was carrying around, he headed back toward Talan and Ching. This was going to be a regular pain without superpowers, he thought to himself as he tried to adjust the straps of his pack.

***

The red sun had set hours ago; at least, he estimated that it had. It was hard to figure out how long they'd been going, but they were all exhausted. He and Ching hadn't slept at all for the last two days and he knew that Talan's forces were even more fatigued. The wind picked up but he regarded it only as a minor irritant that dried the eyes and made it difficult to see where he was going. He was too tired to be cold, he realized. The good news was that they'd finally begun to make their descent and with no looming mountains on the horizon, it looked like the worst of the journey was behind them. Of course, that meant that the battle was in front of them and he didn't doubt that the climb would pale in comparison.

The column of disciplined, but weary, men and women made its way down the steep path. As the path had widened, they'd easily gone from single file to walking two abreast, Talan at the head of the column and Ching at the end. Clark found himself roughly between the two, walking off to one side of the two perfect lines as several of the junior officers also did. They scanned their surroundings wearily, trying desperately to stay alert to potential dangers. Slowly, the wind died down and cold air's edge seemed to fade away.

He noticed Talan fall back from the lead. She stepped off to one side, waiting as the lines marched past. He caught up with her and she began walking beside him. "There's a clearing not too far from here, protected on two sides. My intention was to stop there for the night, sir."

"That seems wise," Clark replied.

"I have attempted to contact General Command to receive an update on the status of our forces," she continued. "There was no response."

"Could the communication system be down?" he asked, a knot of anxiety settling into the pit of his stomach.

"There are supposed to be safeguards against such an occurrence," she responded. "I will try again when we establish camp."

Talan's estimations had been accurate. They reached the clearing only a few minutes later. It was warmer here and the air wasn't as thin. Soldiers began the task of establishing a camp without so much as a single order from an officer. They'd been doing this every night for weeks and had it down to an exact science. Talking about it would have been a waste of time. Clark made his way to the center of the camp, where Talan and Ching were busy establishing their command post. Exhausted, he dropped his pack and found that it hurt even more to have it off. All the muscles that had gone numb with the strain were now screaming at him. After a few long moments, the pain subsided to a dull and constant ache. He stretched gingerly.

"Any luck?" he asked Talan.

"I'm afraid not," she replied. "We have to press on, though, and trust that they will get there."

"Indeed," Ching replied soberly. "Have the junior officers determine a schedule for the watch. Kal El and I are more rested than any of your forces, so we'll take the first shift."

Clark made his way to one of the exposed corners of the camp and settled in for his watch shift. It would be a few hours before he could sleep, but at least he could sit and eat something and be free of that pack. He craved a hot meal and a hot shower but knew it would be a long time before he'd have either one. He knew that military food in his world was supposed to be quite awful, but he couldn't imagine it being as bad as what soldiers on New Krypton ate — stale, little fibrous bars full of nutrients and roughage and nothing else, certainly not taste. He dug one of the unfortunate little bars out of the smaller pack, which he was still carrying and ate it in silence.

He stared out at the silent landscape, thankful, at least, to have a full stomach now and air that didn't sting his lungs when he tried to extract that tiny amount of oxygen from it. It was still cold out, but that was probably a good thing — it helped him stay awake. His uniform kept him warm enough and the lack of wind was a blessing. He leaned against the rifle in the crook of one arm and pulled out the chain around his neck. He stared down at the ring on the end of it.

"Sir?"

He nearly jumped out of his skin at the sound of the voice. He was on his feet in an instant. "Commander Talan…" he began.

"I'm here to relieve you of your watch, sir," she replied.

"Thank you." He tucked the chain back under his uniform. "Good night."

"Good night, sir."

Clark walked toward the cluster of tents in the center of the quiet encampment, eager to get some sleep at last.

***

Morning found him in more pain than he'd been anticipating. He stretched as he woke up, imagining the fibers of all of his muscles ripping and fraying under the strain. Pain blossomed in each of his limbs, sending unwanted signals of discomfort racing along every single nerve length, jumping from synapse to synapse to relay a message that was quickly getting old: Man, it hurts.

Around him, the camp began to stir as soldiers packed up and prepared to begin the long day's journey. Tents were broken down and breakfast was consumed quickly. He looked around at the well organized process, moving just as efficiently as last night's creation of the camp. To his surprise, he spotted Talan exactly where he'd left her the night before. He walked toward her.

"Good morning, sir," she said, her back still toward him. She continued to stare out into the distance.

"Good morning, Commander," he replied. He stood next to her, but she took no further note of him. "Have you been here all night?" he asked.

"Of course," she said simply.

"You didn't sleep," he asked, puzzled.

"No, sir."

He arched a brow. "When was the last time you slept, Commander?"

"Six days ago."

"How…exactly…?"

"Meditation, sir. Far superior to sleep."

'Sure, if you could get past that total consciousness barrier,' he thought to himself as he recalled his attempts to master meditation on board the ship that had brought him to New Krypton. He and Ching had still been working out the bugs in the whole meditation process. He'd been informed that a true master of Kryptonian meditation could achieve the benefits of a full night's rest in just half an hour of meditating. They could force their bodies to endure unspeakable pain and fatigue, encouraging the mind to ignore hunger, thirst, cold, and every other unpleasant sensation for long periods of time. It wasn't a permanent shortcut around human needs; abusing meditation for too long and not getting sufficient nourishment and rest could prove damaging and even fatal. But for at least a while, a person extensively trained in meditation could bring the body to completely obey the mind's will.

He'd been skeptical of it at the time, although it wasn't all that weird compared to the way he normally operated — Superman could go days without food, water, or sleep, but that was because his body managed just fine without those things for a lot longer than a human being's. These Kryptonians still needed food, water, and sleep; their brains just managed to convince them that they didn't. Talan was obviously a master of the highest caliber, but he wondered if at six days, she was pushing the limits of her tolerance.

"Has there been word from General Command, sir?" she asked, turning at last to look at him. Her expression was guarded, as it always was, but her concern was evident, nonetheless.

Clark shook his head. "I'm afraid not."

"If they are in danger, we are too far away to help, and Terian still needs our assistance," she mused. "We have no choice but to go forward."

***

"Lois Lane," she said into her cell phone as she cradled it between her shoulder and ear. She wiped the dust off her hands and cautiously made her way out of the nursery and toward a quieter part of the house. She didn't imagine she would have a problem hearing the person on the other end, but she didn't want to compete with an electric drill to be heard.

"Lois, how are you?" She recognized Perry's voice immediately.

"Fine, Perry, you?"

"Good," he replied. "I, ah, got your column here."

She waited for the other shoe to drop. The column hadn't been her best work, she knew that. It was a passable piece on campaign finance reform and the impact of money on politics — it was an election year, after all. Yeah?" she said at last, wishing he'd just get the upbraiding over with already.

"It's well written and well researched, it's just that…Lois when you were an investigative reporter, I had to remind you daily to keep your personal feelings out of your stories. Objectivity, you know? Now we're paying you to have opinions and I just don't see any of you in this piece."

"I know, I'm sorry, Perry," she admitted glumly as she paced in the hallway. After all these years, it still hurt to receive even gentle criticism from her mentor. She rubbed the small of her back, more out of uneasiness than any actual aches or pains.

"Honey, your whole career, you've poured yourself into everything you do. You write with more passion and more talent than anyone I've ever known. You have to find your angle, find what you're passionate about and write that."

"I know," she said again.

"If you need to take some time away, until after the baby is born…"

"No, Perry," she replied firmly. "I can't stop writing. But you're right, about everything else. I just need to find…I don't know…I just…"

"Take a few days; think about what you want to do with this assignment. And then give me one of those Trademark Lois Lane pieces that has half the town talking for a week," Perry said enthusiastically. She smiled slightly to herself, knowing that Perry's faith in her and her abilities was entirely genuine. He wasn't merely humoring her.

"I will," she said.

"Take care of yourself, darlin'," Perry said before hanging up.

She hung up the phone, Perry's words slowly sinking in. How exactly was she supposed to find her passion? Ever since Clark had left, she'd just been going through the motions — getting through one day and then the next, clinging to the hope that each passing day would bring her that much closer to seeing him again. She tried to remember what it was like before he came to Metropolis; her personal life had been nonexistent, but she'd been a damn good reporter back then. Sure, she and Clark were better as a team than each was alone, but that was because they each brought a lot to the equation. Before Clark, she'd been a top investigative reporter; heck she'd been the youngest Kerth winner in history. She had a shelf full of Meriwethers. All she needed to do was find that Lois Lane again. Find the Lois Lane who could sense a story when no one else could. The Lois Lane who could beat every other reporter in town to a scoop. The Lois Lane who was never out of her league, out of her element, or in over her head.

Where the heck was she?

Lois stifled a sigh. Maybe a nice flight would clear her head.

***

Jonathan pulled back the covers and slipped into bed beside his wife. Martha had her reading glasses perched on her nose and the latest popular science book in hand. Without looking up, she asked, "How is she?"

"She seemed okay."

"Out on the porch still?"

"She just got back from flying," he replied with a nod.

"I just wish there was more we could do." Martha placed her bookmark in the book and put it on the nightstand. She took off her glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose. She moved closer to her husband and he put his arm around her slight shoulders.

"We're doing everything we can," Jonathan assured her.

"I think it's the keeping busy that keeps me from falling apart," she confessed.

"I know." And he did; he knew exactly what she meant. "I spend all my time worrying about Lois and the baby and the harvest and the nursery. There isn't enough time for us to worry about us."

"Not during the day anyway. There isn't enough time for us to be afraid of him not coming home, or to be angry about what he's missing, or so scared that something will happen to him. That he'll need us and we won't be there for him and we won't even know."

Jonathan could hear the tears in her voice and held her just a little bit tighter. "Shhh," he soothed, feeling a lump form in his throat.

"Oh god, let our boy come back to us," she whispered.

***

The sun dipped down toward the horizon, taking with it the pathetic bit of warmth it had provided. Clark looked around. They had descended out of the mountains and their claustrophobic rock formations and into a large valley, which had once been intentionally flooded by the New Kryptonians. An artificial waterway, carefully carved, wended its way lazily through the valley. By New Krypton standards, it was positively fertile; grass grew on the ground in sparse carpeting. Small plants sprung up in clumps. The ground was damp, almost as though it had rained recently. The valley was still and silent.

"We will rest here for a while," Talan said to the assembled group. "It is only a few hours to Terian. We will make our move under the cover of night." The soldiers dutifully set up a perimeter and made camp.

Clark tried to think of things to do and ways to be helpful, but what could he do? He may have spent years being Superman, but he didn't know anything about wars and battles. He disarmed bad guys safely and quickly; he wasn't G.I. Joe.

"Kal El." Clark didn't hear Ching come up behind him. "Are you prepared sir?"

"I'm not sure how to answer that," Clark said.

"I asked you once before what you believe and what you are willing to sacrifice for it."

"You're asking me if I'm ready to kill. I'm not."

"To save innocent life. You will not kill to protect the innocent," Ching said.

"There has to be another way."

"And what if there is not?"

"There's always another way!" Clark exclaimed. Ching remained impassive.

"Of course there is, when you are all-powerful and invulnerable. This world is not that simple."

"I won't kill."

"Then it is better that you not go with us. Do not put yourself in harm's way if you cannot make that choice. I will not risk the lives of my men and women any more than I must and if they have to worry about you because you will not defend them and you will not defend yourself, you are a liability that I cannot accept on the battlefield."

Clark turned away. He didn't know what to say. He knew that everything Ching was saying was true. If he wouldn't fight, others would be unnecessarily risking their lives to protect him. But could he send others to do what he couldn't? And could he sit back and do nothing while the innocent people in that settlement were attacked and slaughtered? What did he believe? And what was he willing to sacrifice? Clark looked over his shoulder, but Ching was no longer there. It was now dark and the soldiers all around him were quietly preparing.

For war.

He walked around the perimeter of the camp aimlessly. He felt his insides tie themselves up in knots. A wave of nausea hit him like a dump truck. He doubled over and unceremoniously lost the contents of his stomach. Very Superman-like, he thought derisively to himself.

The hours managed to pass too quickly and too slowly. The waiting was intolerable, but he certainly didn't want the battle that was to come. He sat quietly on one edge of the camp, looking back at the mountains they'd recently scaled, jutting out into the thin atmosphere. The sky was black and the stars looked exactly the same from New Krypton as they did from Earth. That seemed wrong somehow. He didn't know how the stars were supposed to look here, but it didn't make sense that New Krypton's sky would be like the sky that stretched out over Kansas or even Metropolis. There was no moonlight, and so the night was much darker, but were it not for the absence of crickets chirping, he could have been in a field anywhere on Earth. He picked at the sparse grass that grew under his feet. It wasn't Kentucky Bluegrass, or crab grass, or Bermuda grass, but it was still just plain old grass. Like home, but not.

A slight commotion rose up in the camp behind him. He turned around. Talan solemnly exited her tent, stooping to pass through the opening. The same serious yet inscrutable expression was on her face that was always there. A group of junior officers gathered around her, most of them significantly shorter than she, awaiting her command. "It is time."

Preparations began immediately for their departure. No one said very much, but in the quiet, the fear and the anxiousness of the young men and women around him were apparent. They were trained and experienced and they believed in what they were doing. That didn't mean that rushing headlong into a battle wasn't a frightening experience. He looked at the rifle in his hands. A horrible, ugly weapon of death he never had any intention of using. So why carry it, he wondered. He thought again about what Ching had said. He couldn't reconcile the fact that the man was absolutely right with his own beliefs. He couldn't kill. It wasn't in him to do so. He'd spent months on the ship on the way from Earth training with Ching to be prepared in the event he found himself in a fight and here he was. It wasn't about the training, though. All the training in the world couldn't have changed his mind.

So why the heck had he demanded that he be allowed to go along on this mission? What exactly did he hope to achieve? Getting himself killed certainly wasn't going to help anyone. Zara had been absolutely right — he had been brought here to keep the Council together, to provide political leadership, not to play Rambo. And yet, how could he stay safe in the colony, behind miles of maze-like corridors and sterile rooms while the people out here suffered and died. He may have been waging a war, but they were fighting it. It was their blood that was shed every time the Council made a decision. The strategies and objectives were decided by quiet, civilized men and women, dedicated to the greater good, but they weren't the people who bled the ground red out here. Maybe it was that Clark couldn't find it in himself to let them do that alone. He couldn't stay distant when other people suffered. But what help could he offer them?

Clark had seen a lot of death in his life. More than any person ever should. He was not prepared to cause it.

***

After a few hours of marching, he was actually glad that he'd thrown up earlier. Now, it was merely the fact that his stomach was completely empty that kept him from doubling over again and being sick. His stomach churned painfully and a wave of nausea washed over him. He kept marching because there was nothing else to do. Talan silently brought the force to a stop. Gesturing wordlessly to her lieutenants, the group was divided into squadrons. Her officers knew what to do. Leading their teams, they disappeared quietly into the night. Talan fell back to Clark's position in the column.

"Sir, I want you to lead the guard unit. Protect our position and set up a perimeter once we've retaken the settlement."

He knew she was giving him a way out. She realized that he was of no use to them in a battle and she was giving him a way out of it that wouldn't risk her troops. "Commander," he began.

"Sir?" Her tone was curt yet not disrespectful. Her gray eyes narrowed. With a simple, deferential word she was asking him if he was challenging her command. He said nothing in response. Recognizing his tacit acceptance, she returned to organizing her own forces for the battle ahead.

The squads broke up and the guard unit found itself left behind. Ahead of them, Clark could hear the sounds coming from the settlement. They weren't the typical sounds of life in a community. He heard men's voices calling loudly, even drunkenly. Sporadic gunfire rang out — not loud enough for a battle, though. Terian was under siege and it sounded like Nor's men were having a good time, Clark thought disgustedly.

They held their position on top of a hill near the settlement, looking down at the target. This wasn't the pitched battle they were expecting. If forces had been sent from the main colony, it seemed that they hadn't fared well. Given the difficulty they'd had communicating with General Command, though, Clark assumed that help had never arrived. The several hundred troops under Talan's command were the settlement's only hope.

He overheard the commands given by Talan and Ching over the communicators. Simple instructions were quietly given to ensure a coordinated attack. As the forces moved closer to the settlement, they grew more cautious. Scouting the area, Talan relayed the rebel's strongest and weakest positions, reorganizing her plan of attack accordingly.

"On my order," she said softly, though her voice was heard on every officer's communicator. "Teams Three and Four strike the sentry positions. Guard unit, defensive position. Everyone else, you are aware of your orders. Attack, now." It was almost perverse, Clark thought to himself, how calmly and easily she commanded an offensive. She was leading young men and women into a situation that would likely kill some of them and she did it without hint of fear or hesitation. Clark looked back at the twenty or so young soldiers, most barely older than children, who were his charges. He gave them a slight nod and they scattered to their positions, preparing to provide support for their comrades, just as they had been trained.

The sound of gunfire became louder and more insistent. The unpleasant din of occupation was replaced by the sound and fury of large scale fighting. The air around him seemed to explode with pain and rage and death. Brilliant flashes of light and smoke illuminated the night's sky. The confusion hurt his ears and nearly blinded his eyes. In the mess, he could barely tell what was being attacked, let alone who the good guys and bad guys were.

The thick, acrid stench of smoke filled his nostrils. The explosions rattled the very ground beneath his feet and seemed to make his bones shake. He could hear the cries of the wounded, and the confused orders being shouted. He and his team slowly moved forward to protect the advancing assault, drawing ever nearer to the circles of hell. He could now make out distinct voices in the din. Nor's men cursed and raged in their panic, lashing out violently at their hidden attackers. Disorder and chaos easily overtook them. From his position outside the battle, gripping his rifle tensely, he could tell that Talan's well-disciplined forces were carefully avoiding any attacks on the buildings where civilians could have been hiding.

He saw the wounded on the ground, calling piteously for help. He watched those who risked their lives to provide aid to the injured and comfort to the dying, out of gallantry or courage or shock or friendship for a comrade. The firefight quickly became a street to street urban battle as Nor's men took to hiding in civilian buildings and alleys for protection. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a thick column of smoke appeared off to one side. Nor's men had set fire to the crops. Terian was a farming settlement and they were laying waste to it. The fire roared as it cut through the fields, destroying these people's livelihood and a main source of support for the entire population of New Krypton.

Now, a hundred meters from the gates of the town, he realized that he had orders to give. The rest of the way to the settlement was flat and open and exposed. A violent knot formed itself in the pit of his stomach. "Secure the entrances and stay together," he said in a low voice. Crouched down, they moved quickly but carefully toward the gates. Nor's men were too busy fighting within the city to attack the rearguard as it approached the settlement's entrance, but Clark didn't want to lose anyone out of carelessness.

It seemed like they were exposed on that long stretch of field forever, but the first of his troops made it to the gate and the rest quickly followed. With more relief than he'd expected to feel, he threw his back up against the hard masonry of the gate. His pulse thundered in his ears, louder even than the sounds of the battle. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and tried to keep back the rising taste of bile in his throat.

He looked inward to the settlement and the chaos bubbling up within it. He hardly knew where to focus; there was so much going on all around him. He glanced across the town cum battlefield and tried to figure out what he was supposed to do. What he could do. A loud explosion shattered the air. Almost in unison, he and his troops all ducked in search of safety. Well, that answered the question of whether battle would be more terrifying without superpowers. At least, he thought, it meant he wasn't dumb enough to think he was invulnerable.

He was afraid.

He had no interest in dying here, but more than that, he had a responsibility to protect the people who served under him, to not get them killed. He also had a responsibility to the people in this town. He wiped at his eyes, which had begun to sting from the smoke. In front of him he saw several soldiers carrying one of their own, moving toward them. The soldier they were carrying was badly injured and the other two weren't in the best of shape, either. The man had a deep cut on his forehead; blood covered half of his face. The woman was limping badly. They both struggled to run, anchored down by the weight of their comrade. Without so much as a thought in his head, he ran toward them. They looked up at him with the relief in their eyes that he'd seen in thousands of pairs of eyes as Superman. He took the unconscious man from them, draping him over his shoulders and carried him as quickly as he could back toward the gate.

Two soldiers he recognized as medics approached him and began to tend to the wounded. He gingerly laid the injured man on the ground and looked up at the rest of his forces. He glanced around quickly as he tried to formulate a plan. He needed to create a safe space for the wounded and for any civilians they could find. They could move back outside the gates, but then they'd be completely in the open. If Nor's men advanced, he wouldn't be able to protect against them.

He spotted the homes closest to the gates, still set back a ways from the heavy fighting. "Secure these buildings," he told his forces. "We'll set up triage there and bring in any civilians we can find." The troops obeyed without hesitation. The houses were quickly swept and secured and the wounded moved inside. The soldiers moved from building to building in small teams, searching for civilians as well as Nor's men who'd sought shelter in other people's homes. Several soldiers maintained their posts by the gates.

Clark moved about fitfully, trying to both give orders and figure out exactly what was happening. On his communicator, he could hear Ching and Talan coordinating their assaults on the rebels' strongholds, the chaotic exchange of information almost dizzying. The wounded began pouring into their makeshift hospital from all parts of the settlement. Teams of soldiers arrived, protecting large groups of civilians who'd been evacuated from the worst of the combat zones. Young men and women, trying to hide their exhaustion and fear, asked him for orders. He directed them as best he could, never really sure if he was doing the right thing.

Talan and Ching pressed forward, recapturing the settlement house by house and street by street. The area he was supposed to secure and the number of wounded and non-combatants he was supposed to protect grew. Fire from laser rifles exploded around him, hitting buildings and walls, sending bits of brick and mortar tumbling. Every now and then there would be a large explosion and he would feel himself jump, holding his own rifle a little tighter.

The sound of gunfire from within one of the houses cut through him. He stared in horror, his mouth agape. He'd just sent soldiers into that house to look for civilians.

He'd sent them into a trap.

He raced toward the house, several other soldiers joining him immediately. Clark moved toward the door but was forced to take cover. He closed his eyes and kept his head down as rifle fire burned through the air all around him. Inside, he could hear the moans of the wounded, begging for help. He glimpsed inside through a hole that had been punched in one of the walls. Several wounded soldiers lay just inside. A small group of soldiers joined him around the doorway, among them a junior officer.

His pale blue eyes darted around as he scanned the building. He wiped at the grime and sweat on his face nervously. "Sir, I can go in and help them, I just need cover fire," the young officer said anxiously.

Clark nodded grimly. The soldier began to stand up, but Clark grabbed his arm. "I'm going with you," he said. Clark looked at the other soldiers. They knew what they were supposed to do. He waited long moments for a break in the fire, drew in a deep breath and ran into the house, the officer right by his side. They crouched low as they approached the wounded, and rushed to drag them to safety. All around him, he could hear the gun fire. Bits of wall seemed to burst in clouds of mortar and dust. A burning pain tore through his shoulder, cutting flesh to ribbons. He gnashed his teeth and groaned as pain blossomed in the wound and radiated outward. His arm seemed to go numb, but he kept dragging the wounded soldier. He kept his head down as he finally stumbled back through the doorway and out of the hellish confines of the house.

Medics raced toward him and the wounded, who were quickly evacuated. More soldiers had gathered around the house. The young officer who had gone in with him, whose name he dimly recalled as Ev Mir, was already preparing an assault on the building. Clark wanted to stop them, to keep anyone else from getting hurt in that building, but he knew that if Nor's men weren't captured, they'd do further harm.

He walked slowly away from the building, hardly aware of the fact that he was still in a combat zone. The world around him began to sway slowly, and he closed his eyes in hopes that the dizziness would pass. He exhaled a long, ragged breath and felt the screws of pain twist deeper into his shoulder.

"Sir, you should let me look at that." A voice intruded on his thoughts. He slowly opened his eyes to see the fuzzy outline of a young man standing in front of him.

"I'll be fine," Clark protested. He stumbled and nearly fell, but a pair of hands stopped him.

"Please, sir, come with me," the voice insisted politely again. Clark merely nodded and allowed himself to be helped back toward the medics' base of operations.

***

Clark grimaced as the young medic worked. He glanced at the wound several times — the rifle fire had cut across the top of his shoulder, leaving a deep wound that bled a lot and hurt like hell, but it wasn't going to kill him. He looked around at the wounded and the medics trying desperately to help them. Among the civilian population of the settlement, they'd found a few doctors, who were tending to the most critically wounded. A chill passed through him as he spotted several bodies covered in sheets. Casualties of the battle.

"You've lost a lot of blood, sir, and suffered some nerve and ligament damage," the medic explained as he bandaged the wound. "It should, however, heal."

Clark flexed his hand painfully, the length of his arm stinging. "Thank you," he said, realizing he didn't even know the young man's name.

"Rayid, sir. Ensign Rayid," the young man supplied helpfully. The serious expression on his dark brow retreated momentarily and the young medic almost smiled.

"Thank you, Ensign Rayid," Clark repeated. He began to stand up.

"Sir, you should stay here," Ensign Rayid protested.

"There are more seriously wounded people who need our help," Clark said. The Ensign merely nodded in understanding. With great pain, Clark pulled the sleeve of his uniform back into place over the bandage. He flexed his hand again experimentally. It hurt, but he could still use his arm.

As he exited the building he saw Ev Mir, leading several men in handcuffs and shackles toward the gates. "What happened, Lieutenant?" Clark called out to the younger man.

Ev Mir looked up at him and Clark could see the deep cut running across his cheek, his face covered in blood and grime. "We took the building and captured them," he said, nodding toward his four prisoners. "We found two of our own dead inside and lost one more in the raid, sir." Ev Mir turned away and continued walking. Clark felt his heart sink. People he had led, people he was supposed to protect had died because of the decisions he'd made. He felt the dizziness and the nausea sweep over him again.

***

By morning, Nor's forces had largely been subdued. Pockets of resistance remained, but the majority of the settlement was under the control of Talan's forces. It was clear that the town had been left in the hands of a large group of thugs and that their leadership was long gone. In their absence, the thugs had held the settlement under siege, terrifying to population and taking whatever they'd wanted. Compared to all expectations, Talan's victory had been swift and clean.

Soldiers took turns patrolling and sleeping. Clark was physically worn out and mentally way beyond exhausted, but sleep eluded him. He wandered through the settlement in a daze, unmindful of the fact that it still wasn't a safe place. He'd helped the soldiers put out the fires in the fields a few hours earlier, but most of the damage had already been done. The crops were all destroyed.

To his surprise, Clark saw Ching approaching him. "Sir, we have word that some of the rebels may still be in this area, they will likely attack the civilians in hopes of using them as leverage," Ching said grimly. "Our forces are already on alert and patrols have increased. Please do be on your guard, sir."

"Thank you, Ching," Clark replied soberly. The news of a continuing threat forced him to forget his own fatigue. He continued his patrol through the streets, although now ever more watchful, expecting danger to come find him.

For several hours, he patrolled, but found nothing. Exhausted, he made his way back to the gates. Before arriving there, however, something on a small street caught his attention. He wasn't able to say what it was, or why it had attracted his notice, but years of being Superman as well as an investigative reporter had taught him to trust his instincts when something didn't feel quite right. He cautiously walked down the deserted street, knowing that doing this alone probably wasn't very smart, but he couldn't risk the time it would take until help arrived. He wasn't sure why he knew that, he just did.

He looked furtively between the small buildings, not sure what he expected to find. Finally, the sounds of men's voices gave him pause. They were speaking in low tones and he couldn't quite make out what they were saying. The sounds were coming from behind one of the houses. He crept ever closer, hoping not to draw their attention. Subconsciously, he gripped his rifle tighter, ignoring the pain in his shoulder that resulted.

Clark put his back up against the building and inched closer to the sounds of the voices. He heard the sound of a window being pried open. They were going into the house. He prayed that it was empty. The screams of a child from within told him otherwise. He raced around toward the back in time to catch the last of the invaders trying to climb through the window. Clark hit the man in the ribs with the butt of his rifle. Before the man could recover, Clark punched him in the face, knocking him out, and dragged him to the ground. He grabbed the man's gun before slipping into the house.

Inside, one of the other goons was hovering menacingly over a woman and two small children. The woman kept the children behind her, backed against a corner, as she stared at her attacker, fear evident in her eyes. The other was apparently sacking the home in search of valuables. He silently crept up on the first thug. He caught the woman's eye and placed a finger against his lips, hoping that the woman and the children wouldn't give away his presence. He held his rifle up and moved ever closer to the intruder, his heart slamming against his ribs, his mouth dry.

The thug turned to call out to his partner. "What's…" When he noticed Clark's presence and the gun steadily trained on him. He spat out a slew of words no one had bothered to teach Clark, which led him to assume that they were inappropriate to use in polite company.

"Drop the weapon," Clark said.

The man hesitated for a second, but he had been caught off guard and off balance. If he had tried to turn his weapon on Clark, Clark could have killed him long before he would have had the chance to aim or call for help. This was assuming Clark was prepared to kill, which the other man could only assume was true. He lowered his weapon. Clark forced him against a wall. He calmly instructed the woman to pick up the attacker's gun and aim it at him while he restrained him. Deciding it was more important to get the woman and her children to safety than to worry about the three attackers, he quietly made his way to the door to make sure it was safe for them to leave. He opened the door and cautiously looked around before signaling the woman to follow him. She picked up the younger of the two children, both of whom were crying loudly and took the other by the hand. Clark picked up the older child as he gently shepherded them toward the door.

"Can't you shut those…" A loud voice came from another room. Clark tried to get them out the door faster, but was rewarded by the heat of a laser rifle shot singing just past his head. Another shot just barely missed the woman, who was between him and the attacker. In one motion, Clark pushed the woman and the children behind him and shot at the attacker. It was only by blind luck that he ended up hitting him in the thigh. The attacker cursed and fell to the ground.

They raced out of the house to find that soldiers had already started to head toward them. The soldiers stormed the house to take the three rebels into custody. Clark was still carrying one of the children, who were both still crying hysterically. He tried to reassure the little girl, just as her mother tried to sooth the girl's younger brother, but they were rightfully terrified. Several soldiers approached to take the woman and her children somewhere safer.

Clark hated to admit it, but he was relieved to have someone else looking after them. His nerves were shot and he doubted there was anything he could do for the family at that moment. He stepped back to watch the soldiers frog march the three captured rebels out of the house. It felt like he was watching something happen on TV; it wasn't real. Or at least, it didn't feel real at that moment.

"Kal El? Sir?" He turned around to find Talan calling his name.

"Sir, are you all right?" He regarded her curiously. For a moment, he could have sworn that there was concern in her cold, gray eyes. He said nothing. Dazed, he began to walk away. She fell in step beside him, matching his long stride easily.

"You did well today, sir," she said in simple praise.

"Before I came to New Krypton, I had seen a lot of awful things in my life. But this isn't the same. None of that prepared me for this. I gave an order that got three people killed. I shot someone today. This wasn't exactly my best day, Commander."

"And how many lives did you save?"

"We aren't keeping score here. I don't get to kill someone for every person I save, it doesn't work that way."

In two quick steps she was in front of him, cutting him off. "Of course it doesn't, but you have to do what you can to protect those around you and to accomplish your mission. You did that, sir. This is still a war and people are going to die; all we can do is try to limit the suffering and end it as quickly as possible."

"Believe me, I know that. But it cannot change the fact that I don't feel like I did the right thing here."

"I understand that, sir." She awkwardly stepped out of his way.

"Do you?" he challenged.

"Every morning, I begin my day with the knowledge that it is highly likely that I will kill someone today or that I will give an order that will kill someone today or that I will be killed today, perhaps even all three. It is not an easy way to live and it took a long while to get used to it."

"I'm not sure I want to," he replied.

***

Lois touched down gently on the porch. Four straight nights spent flying had done little to help her figure out what it was she needed to do to get her writing back on track. Floating up among the stars, she somehow felt even further away from Clark than she normally did. She was certain she was just imagining it, but for whatever reason, up there, she felt like she was losing him. Like he was slipping away from her. She tried to banish the thoughts and the pain they brought.

She stood out on the porch for a long while, unbothered by the brisk autumn air. She stared up at the endless Kansas sky and searched for his star. Just like he'd shown her, she found the right constellations and traced a line to the tiny little star. It wasn't his star, but it was the closest one to the weak red sun New Krypton orbited, he'd explained.

She placed a hand against her protruding abdomen and tuned in to the sound of her son's heartbeat. The sound gave her peace, even when nothing else would. Lois had never figured herself for the maternal type, but over the last few months, she'd grown ever more thankful for her pregnancy and ever closer to the child she was carrying.

One thing she'd become certain of during the last five months was that life just kept going. Whether or not you wanted it to, whether or not you were ready for it to. You had to keep going along with it, even when you didn't know how. Even when you were sure it wasn't possible. You couldn't stop one day from moving to the next, no matter how much you wanted to.

He was still the first thing she thought of every morning, she still found herself turning around, expecting him to be there. She caught herself all the time, about to call his name, as though he were just in the other room. Night time was the worst. She would fall asleep and dream of him, of sleeping in his arms, of making love with him.

The dreams were hazy now, as though a fog had settled on her mind, preventing her from seeing him clearly. They were like memories, growing dim with time no matter how hard she fought. At the beginning, she could have sworn the dreams were real. That he was there with her. Months later, the dreams were dreams. Confused, muddy, so quick to disappear. That didn't mean she didn't wake up nights surprised to be alone, reaching to his side of the bed to find it cold and empty. She would fight a losing battle to remember, to remember the dreams, but she couldn't hold on to them. Their gossamer threads slipped through her fingers no matter how hard she tried to grasp them. They'd leave her feeling bewildered, and painfully alone. With each dream, she seemed to lose something that she couldn't even remember. And it hurt like hell.

No, she wasn't at the stage where she could contemplate tomorrow without him. Right now, it was all she could do to get from one hour to the next, to just learn to live today without him. Tomorrow would come, but she couldn't worry about it. She didn't have the energy.

She didn't have much energy for writing, either. With all that worrying, who had time to write? It wasn't that she didn't try. Lord, she tried to write, but she couldn't get two sentences to link together, couldn't get her thoughts to make any sense. Five words in, whatever thought had been in her head was replaced with 'God, I miss you, Clark.'

And so it went. The baby grew, the work on the nursery proceeded, the corn ripened and was harvested, the summer turned into fall, the world kept going. It didn't care if she wasn't ready to go with it.

She wasn't going to get any sleep tonight, she knew that. Leaving a note for Martha and Jonathan on the kitchen table inside, she went back out to the porch and launched herself into the night's sky. She'd go to his apartment; she kept the lease up on the place, giving up her own apartment instead when the lease on it had run. Lois didn't go to his place often. Most of the time it hurt too much, but right now, it was exactly where she needed to be.

***

"Aren't there actual wounded you should be helping?" Clark asked through gritted teeth as the young medic repaired the torn sutures in his shoulder. They were alone in the sparse room Talan had directed him to just an hour earlier. It had been an officer's quarters in the settlement's barracks, but it now stood empty.

"I should think that First Minister Zara would have me thrown in jail if I allowed her co-First Minister to die out here from blood loss or a simple infection, sir," Ensign Rayid replied with a lopsided grin. "All done."

Rayid began putting away his supplies. Clark admired the young man's handiwork, impressed. It still hurt like hell, though. He winced as he tried to move his arm.

"You will have to restrict your activities to far less heroic behavior for at least a few days," Rayid said, not looking up from his medical supplies.

"Thank you, Rayid."

"I assure you, sir, my actions are motivated by self interest. I should hardly want to be thrown in prison for not taking care of our leader." Rayid flashed another grin.

Clark couldn't help but smile. It was something he hadn't done in a long while. "What led you to become a medic?" he asked, genuinely curious. The young man certainly had a talent for it, but he wondered how he'd come to this profession.

"My fiancée and I had just completed our studies to become physicians. We were about to begin our apprenticeship when the military called for volunteers. She went, I followed." Clark could see wistfulness in the younger man's eyes as he remembered something fondly. The light in his eyes dimmed and his smile faded. "She was killed a few months ago."

"I'm sorry," Clark replied, wishing he could offer more than hollow words.

"The settlement where her family lived had been attacked. She demanded that she be able to go with the rescue party. They were ambushed at the settlement. She was trying to save someone when she was killed." Rayid looked away and drew in a shaky breath. He looked up and Clark could see tears in his green eyes.

The young medic cleared his throat. "My unit was on maneuvers not too far away, but I had no idea that she'd been in the settlement. Her father set out at once to find me. He did not so much as take time to grieve himself. The second I saw him, I knew. I knew. At that moment, I was certain it was going to kill me. I did not think I would survive losing her. She was amazing. The most brilliant person I have ever known. She studied medicine because of the challenge. Because she was wanted to conquer and defeat pain and death. Because she could think of no greater calling in this world."

"She sounded like an incredible person," Clark said. He felt a tightness in his chest; he knew he would never be able to go on even breathing if anything happened to Lois.

Rayid smiled, tears shining bright in his eyes. "She was. I love her so much."

"How do you…" Clark stopped, wishing he hadn't said anything at all. He didn't want to push the young man, to force him to relive any more painful memories.

"Keep going? Because I believe in what she believed in. Because I love her. Nothing can take that away. Not even this war. 'Suomit te alun di dolei ein te alun di paulei.'"

'Love is something you give, not something you surrender.' It was a Kryptonian saying, more poetic than most of their rather practical aphorisms. Clark merely nodded in understanding.

"It has been a long day, you should get some rest, sir," Rayid said, his tone formal and deferential again.

"So should you, Ensign," Clark replied.

"Aye, sir." Rayid nodded. He quietly gathered his equipment and left the room, closing the door behind him.

Clark lay back on the cot, feeling too tired to sleep. Exhaustion had seeped into every cell in his body. Every muscle and bone ached and throbbed. His head swam with unpleasant images and memories he'd sooner forget. After a string of sleepless nights spent in the merciless New Kryptonian wilderness, it felt so odd to be in a room, with a roof over his head and a bed underneath him, sheltered from the cold and the wind, a hot meal in his stomach, and no long, grueling day of marching ahead of him. He felt anxious and unsettled, as though something were still wrong. It didn't make any sense. It didn't seem right to go from a vicious firefight to sleeping in a bed again. It was crazy.

He took the chain out from under his shirt and stared at the ring on it. He wondered what time it was on Earth. What was Lois doing? Was she thinking about him, too? Did she dream about him the way he dreamt of her?

Kryptonians didn't exchange wedding rings, but he wondered if Rayid had something to remember his fiancée by — some little token or memento that had been hers. He knew that unlike the young medic, he never would have had the strength to keep going, let alone to keep fighting a battle that had claimed the life of his beloved. How could you have faith in a world that had taken so much from you? He closed his eyes and after a long while, a troubled sleep claimed him.

***

"Something is not right, Ching," Talan said grimly without looking up from the reports scattered in front of her.

"Ma'am?" Ching looked at her questioningly. He stood with his hands clasped in front of him. All around him, soldiers worked to reestablish communications with General Command and to gather information on what had happened in the settlement. He'd arrived in the communications center a few moments ago, having been summonsed from a much needed sleep. He hadn't been surprised to find Talan working; she had a reputation for never sleeping more than a few hours a night, but he knew that it had been over a week since she'd slept, so he suspected she needed the chance to get some rest as well.

"Four months ago, I would have expected this sort of outcome — a settlement terrorized by a few dozen undisciplined thugs," she said the last word with disdain. "Short work for our forces, but this does not comport with what I have grown to expect. How could so few rebels have overpowered this settlement's defenses? Where are their commanders? And where are the forces that General Command must have sent? They could not have anticipated our deployment and they would not have allowed Terian to fall. Something is gravely wrong."

***

"My dad's gonna kill me," she said for the seventh time since they'd gotten into the car. Jennifer glanced over at her boyfriend as he concentrated on driving. The long country road was poorly lit and a thick fog had settled around them.

"It's okay, we just fell asleep watching a movie," Chris replied.

"Right, like he's gonna believe that. It's three in the morning!" She sighed nervously and out of the corner of her eye, caught Chris grinning. "What's so funny?"

"Nothing," he replied, but kept grinning. She smacked him playfully on the shoulder, feeling her own mood lighten just a bit. They approached the bridge over the river.

"Ow," he said, pretending to be hurt. He rubbed his shoulder. Jennifer rolled her eyes and looked out at the deserted road in front of them. Except it wasn't deserted. A car was coming straight toward them, on the wrong side of the road, it's headlights off.

"Look out!" she yelled. Chris swerved to avoid hitting the car and laid his hand against the horn.

"What the heck was that?" he seethed. Behind them, on the bridge, there was a loud crash.

"Omigod," Jennifer said under her breath. "Chris, stop, turn the car around."

Chris pulled over and the two teenagers jumped out of the car. They immediately ran back toward the bridge, where the car had plowed itself into the guard rail. An obviously distraught man climbed out of the driver's side of the car.

"I…I fell asleep, I can't…I'm sorry, I didn't see him…I didn't see…oh my god…"

"Who? You didn't see who?" Chris demanded.

Jennifer looked down at the river. She reached out and grabbed Chris's arm. She swallowed, trying to get her mouth to produce some moisture so she could speak. "There," she said, pointing at the water.

"Holy…"

There was a motorcycle sinking in the water, its rider nowhere to be seen.

"He…he fell…" the driver of the other car stuttered. He ran a shaking hand through his thinning hair.

She saw a look of both desperation and anger flash across Chris's face. "Stay here," he growled at the other driver. He glanced at her, too, as though the warning were meant to apply to her as well. He then took off running to the base of the bridge and the water's edge.

'Yeah right,' she thought to herself. She'd gotten a higher score on the life guarding test than he had. She was going to help. She ran after him. Jennifer caught up with him at the bank of the river. He said nothing to her as they both scanned the water. An eternity seemed to pass in just a few seconds. She felt her heart hammer in her chest. Where was he? Why couldn't they find him?

"There!" Chris cried out at last. He pointed at a figure drifting downstream. They ran down the bank toward the rider's unmoving form. Chris ran ahead of her and she sprinted in an attempt to keep up. He was in the water first, running in without breaking stride. She followed on his heels, splashing into the river, her system shocked by the frigid water. She was in waist deep instantly and dove forward. Her lungs constricted immediately and she felt like she couldn't take in a deep breath. All her muscles seemed to freeze and spasm at once as she tried to coordinate her arms and legs.

Jennifer quickly overtook Chris. She was on the swim team and he wasn't, so she was a much faster swimmer than he. Her strokes more efficient, more rhythmic, she relied on technique, whereas he just used brute force to push ahead. Never taking her eye off the prone figure of the motorcycle rider, she finally reached him. She treaded water as she flipped him onto his back. He didn't seem to be breathing. One arm around his body, she started tugging him toward the shore. Chris caught up with her and helped her drag the man to the riverbank. She let her boyfriend hook his arms around the unconscious man and pull him to shore. The water was so cold she felt like her whole body was going numb. But her limbs continued to pull and kick. She gasped for breath, finding it difficult to draw air into her lungs.

"We need to get help," she managed.

***

Lois flew through the cloud cover back toward Kansas in the hours between night and morning. She'd found herself just as restless at Clark's as she would have been anywhere else. After a few hours, she'd given up her pacing through his apartment and decided to fly back to Kansas.

"We need to get help."

She froze as she heard the words coming from below. Lois didn't really understand how her superhearing worked, but just like a person's ears always pricked up when their name was said, no matter how softly, she seemed honed in on the word 'help.' It would cut through the everyday din of the world like a clarion bell and alert her to the fact that she was needed. She scanned the ground below her and hesitated for a fraction of a second. This probably didn't require superpowers, but they certainly could use help.

She flew down, landing far enough away to go unnoticed and quickly made her way to the riverbank. The two teenagers struggled to drag the man to shore. She rushed to help them. They laid the man down on the ground. The two teens shivered, water dripping from their hair and clothes.

"He's not breathing," the boy said through chattering teeth.

"We'll do CPR," Lois explained calmly. "Can you guys help me?"

The girl nodded. "We…we were lifeguards."

"Good," Lois said. She scanned the man's body for injuries and surreptitiously used a gentle amount of heat vision to try to warm him up. He had several broken ribs, which would make CPR a bit tricky, but not impossible. Lois took her cell phone out of her jacket pocket and tossed it to the boy, who caught it.

"Call for help," she instructed.

The boy nodded. Lois turned to the girl and gave her quick, simple instructions for two-person CPR. They got to work immediately. Lois kept an ear for a pulse and constantly scanned the man to insure she hadn't missed any serious injuries. She performed the chest compressions carefully. Finally, after several rounds of CPR, she heard a weak heartbeat.

"We've got a pulse!" she said. Almost immediately, the man began sputtering and coughing up water as he struggled to breathe. They rolled him on his side and Lois draped her jacket over him.

"An ambulance is coming," the boy announced as he tossed the cell phone back to Lois.

She looked at the two shivering teenagers. "Is your car around here?"

The boy nodded.

"You should both get in the car and get warmed up, you'll freeze out here."

"But we…"

"It's okay; I'll stay with him, just get yourselves warm and dry."

They boy put his arm around the girl and the two shivering and dripping teenagers walked back up the embankment toward the bridge. Lois used another gentle burst of heat vision to warm the man up again. His pulse was steady, but his breathing was raspy. Long minutes passed before she heard the ambulance sirens. If it wouldn't have raised suspicions, she could have taken him to help much quicker, but she'd vigilantly monitored his condition and decided the best course of action was to wait.

The ambulance finally pulled up to the bridge and the paramedics emerged with a stretcher. They made there way down toward her and quickly began their work. She stepped aside to let them do their jobs and quietly made her way back to where the cars on the bridge were parked. She spotted the two teenagers standing on the bridge together, wrapped in blankets. The young man stood behind the young woman, his arms wrapped around her as they watched the paramedics work down below.

"That was a very brave thing you two did," Lois said as she approached them.

"Is he going to be okay?" the boy asked.

"I think so," Lois replied. "Not many people would have had the courage to jump in that river after him." It was an act of heroism. Of incredibly brave, selfless action to benefit another. These two kids were bona fide heroes. A thought struck her like a bolt from the blue. Forget the stuff she did as Ultrawoman, these kids were the real heroes. Their story was so much more interesting than hers could ever be.

"We're good swimmers," the girl said, brushing the remark off as though Lois had merely complimented her backstroke technique.

"You're not from around here," the young man said. It wasn't a question.

"No, I'm not," Lois admitted. "I live in Smallville."

"That's a long ways off, couple of hours' drive," the young man replied.

"My name is Lois Lane. I'm a reporter, well a columnist now, for the Daily Planet. I want to write about this, about what you two did tonight, if you'll let me. I want to interview you."

"Interview us?" The young woman's voice was small and she seemed amazed by the concept of being interviewed.

"Ms. Lane," the young man began.

"Call me Lois."

"Lois, I'm not sure about this…"

"Just hear me out…I'm sorry, I don't even know your names," Lois began.

"He's Chris, I'm Jen," the young woman replied.

"It's nice to meet both of you," Lois said. "Anyway, I want to write my column this week about you two, about what you did here tonight. I think people will want to read about this, about how two ordinary kids can be heroes."

"We're not he…"

"You jumped into a freezing cold river and saved a man's life tonight, trust me, I know a little something about heroes and you guys are the honest to goodness real deal. I know it's late and you're both tired and probably freezing, but if you'll meet me later, we can discuss this."

The two exchanged a long look. "There's a diner in town at the corner of Oak Street and Church Road. We can meet you there at three this afternoon," Chris said.

***

"Sir, you're needed at once." Ching's voice came through the closed door. Clark yawned and stretched painfully, immediately regretting the movement as a jolt of pain skittered down his arm. He scrubbed a hand through his hair and slowly sat up.

"I'm coming," he called out to Ching. He stood up and opened the door.

A grim-faced Ching stood on the other side. Didn't the guy ever relax? "Commander Talan wishes to see you, sir."

Clark followed Ching out of the building and across the settlement. It was almost evening now — he'd slept for most of the day. All around them, people went about the process of putting their lives back together. A few soldiers stood guard. Others helped the settlers in various clean up efforts. Most slept in the tent city that had formed in the center of the settlement. They made their way to the settlement's communication center and found Talan inside, conferring with several soldiers.

She looked up as they entered. Clark was surprised to see that she looked completely rested, no dark circles under her eyes, no slumping posture that spoke of fatigue and pain. She'd even managed to get cleaned up and now looked every bit the part of the fastidious military commander. There was no sign anywhere that she'd spent the last week trekking through the mountains and all of the previous day in a vicious firefight. Her eyes, as always, gave away nothing at all. A fact Clark found disconcerting.

"Sir, we have been unable to establish radio contact with General Command. There is nothing wrong with the equipment here, and as far as I can tell, nothing wrong with the relays or the transmitters. The problem is on their end."

"Could it just be a technical issue?" Clark asked.

"I highly doubt it, sir. It has been days. If it were merely a technical issue, it would have been resolved by now."

They were interrupted by a breathless soldier bursting through the doorway. "Ma'am, sirs, you should come quickly."

"What is it, soldier?" Ching demanded.

"The forces that had been sent by General Command. They're here."

The three leaders followed close on the young soldier's heels. They made their way out of the communication's center and back toward the edge of the settlement and the gate Clark had spent so long defending the night before. Just outside the gates, a group of men and women, perhaps thirty in all, staggered toward the settlement. Haggard, weary, and wounded, they nearly collapsed at the settlement's threshold.

A man with bloodshot eyes, three days' worth of stubble and a torn and dirty uniform approached them. He was clearly in charge. "Ma'am, I am Captain Brul Ro of the Expeditionary Forces." He bowed slowly. "These are my forces, or what is left of them. Of the two thousand sent to liberate this settlement, we remain. We humbly await your orders."

"Captain, what happened?" Talan asked.

"Sabotage, ma'am. The transports were rigged with explosives. They were detonated about halfway between our starting point and our destination. The explosives attached to my ship malfunctioned. The ship was damaged, but my pilots were able to crash land it in the mountains. That was three days ago. We set out on foot for the settlement."

"By the Fates," Ching murmured. "And the other transports, they were all destroyed?"

"Every one of them, sir."

"I cannot believe we have been so stupid!" Talan exclaimed. "Ching, get the Captain's forces food and lodgings, then place all of our forces on immediate standby to deploy."

"What's going on?" Clark asked.

"This town, it was so poorly defended. It was left under the control of a few dozen brigands, without orders or officers. There was never any intent to defend it. It was a decoy."

"They wanted to draw as many forces away from the colony as they could," Ching continued. "The communications system. They must have hit General Command, to keep them from radioing for help."

"Or from warning Captain Brul Ro's pilots."

"Then the main colony…" Clark began.

"Is likely under attack at this very moment," Talan said grimly.

***

"You will be all right?" Ching asked in earnest. The force commanders and a few advisors had gathered in the communications center with the settlement's leaders.

"We will," the settlement's governor responded with a curt nod. "We can spare three transports, but I'm afraid no more. We will have to begin refortifying the settlement immediately."

Talan checked the blade of her knife before replacing it in the sheath on her belt. "We have no choice but to leave those too wounded to fight. We can spare a few medics, though. The rest of my staff and my forces will evacuate the settlement before the day's end."

"Ma'am?" Enza stepped forward. Clark looked at their young legal advisor. In the chaos and the din of battle, he'd almost forgotten that she was still with them.

"You will leave with us, Lieutenant," Talan replied. "We have called up several thousand forces from around New Krypton. They are deploying as we speak."

"But my work here is not done. I have victims to interview. We cannot prosecute without the evidence."

"The evidence speaks for itself in the haunted, the wounded, and the dead. Their testimony is louder than anything you or I could ever say. You have your orders." Talan looked up from her maps, her brow furrowed. Clark could tell that there was no point in arguing with her.

"Aye ma'am," Enza replied.

"Then we are all of accord. Thank you, governor. Ladies and Gentlemen, you are all dismissed," Talan said. She turned to Clark. "Sir, by your permission, I will take my leave."

"Of…of course," Clark stammered slightly, a bit surprised when a commander so obviously used to barking orders and having them obeyed asked for his permission.

Everyone streamed out of the communications center. In the middle of the settlement, under the weak sunlight and a rusty sky, crews worked to refuel and check the transports. Talan's weary forces were packing and preparing to depart.

"Are you ready, sir?" Ching asked as they walked through the settlement.

"Yes," Clark replied, unsure what else to say. He watched as a now familiar scene, troops packing up in preparation to head out, unfolded in front of him. A few paces ahead, Talan and Enza walked, speaking in low tones, but not low enough to avoid being heard.

"Do not question your orders, Lieutenant."

"I do not. My orders are to investigate and prosecute the crimes committed during this war."

"This war is a crime!" Talan snapped with uncharacteristic anger. "You will deploy with your unit," she said in a much calmer tone.

"My only duty is to the law. My orders are to protect that law and with all due respect, ma'am, I do not serve you or any other individual. I serve the law."

"And in a war zone, your duty is subsumed to the dictates of military necessity. We are needed at the main colony and there is no time to discuss the niceties of our respective duties. We leave in two hours."

***

Lois stirred the cream into her decaffeinated coffee. It wasn't likely that the caffeine would have actually been a problem, but for any normal pregnant woman, it would have and she did need to try to keep up the appearance of normalcy. At least she could have real cream and sugar. She sat in a booth in the back of the diner, drumming her knuckles on the table top. The front door opened with a jingle and her two teenaged interviewees entered. They looked around at the few patrons at the counter before spotting her. She waved them over.

"I'm glad you guys agreed to come," Lois said.

"Yeah, well, the only way I managed to avoid getting grounded was by telling my dad a Daily Planet reporter wanted to interview me," Jennifer replied with a shrug.

"So what do you want to know?" Chris asked as the two kids sat down opposite Lois in the booth. They held hands, their fingers casually interlaced.

"Everything," Lois said. "What was going through your head when you decided to jump in after the guy, what it was like, were you afraid?"

"It was cold…" Jennifer answered. "I felt like I couldn't breathe…"

"We were lifeguards at the community pool this summer," Chris added. "But I never had to save anybody before. I don't know if the training really helped. I just knew I had to do something. It's a good thing Jen was there. She's a much better swimmer than me."

"But I couldn't have gotten him out by myself."

"You guys made a good team," Lois replied as she scribbled in her notebook. She glanced at the two teens to see them exchange a smile and a knowing look.

"I think if you hadn't shown up, we would have had a tough time remembering how to do the CPR right," Jennifer said. "I didn't even ask, is the man going to be okay?" The concern was evident in her voice. She nervously tucked a long blonde strand of hair behind her ear.

"He had some broken bones, a concussion, and a dislocated shoulder, but he'll recover. He's in the county hospital and the doctors say he's pretty eager to meet his rescuers," Lois replied. She'd gone to the hospital early that morning to find out about the victim's condition.

"That's good," Chris said. "So Ms. Lane…"

"Lois."

"Lois. What's the most famous reporter in America doing asking a couple of kids in Kansas about a traffic accident, if you don't mind me asking?"

"I wasn't sure you'd recognized me," Lois said with a smile.

"You discovered Superman, almost married Lex Luthor, and your husband was abducted by space aliens," Jennifer supplied helpfully.

Chris shot her a look. Jennifer bit her lip. "I'm sorry, I guess you don't want to talk…"

"I guess I've been doing a pretty lousy job of keeping a low profile," Lois admitted sheepishly. "But I'm here in Kansas to be close to my family and I'm in this diner, talking to two pretty amazing kids because Superman claimed he was leaving a world full of heroes, and you're living, breathing proof of it."

***

Clark threw the last of the gear into the transport. Troops filed into the crowded vehicles and took their seats on the long rows of hard benches. Clark looked around to see Ensign Rayid jogging toward them.

"Sir!" the young medic called. "If you keep that up, you will tear those stitches again!"

Clark smiled faintly. "Ensign, how are you?"

"Well, sir, thank you." Rayid replied. "Is it true, sir? Is the colony under attack?"

"We don't know," Clark responded truthfully.

"I have been ordered to stay here. Should I not return to where I am most needed? I can be of help to you, sir." Rayid looked over Clark's shoulder toward the transports.

"Your help is needed here," Clark said with a slight shake of his head.

"Then I will do what I can," Rayid replied. "Thank you, sir, for everything."

Clark smiled. "I should be thanking you."

"What you've done here, sir, your people appreciate it. To know that you are one of us, that you bleed out here, like one of us, to save our people…I cannot express what it means to us."

"I'm just glad I can help a little," Clark replied. "Take care of these people, Ensign, and take care of yourself. We need more men and women like you in this world." Clark bowed.

Rayid bowed humbly and deeply in response. "Thank you, sir, and may fortune be with you always."

"And with you." Clark said.

***

"Lois, this is fantastic!" Perry's voice boomed over the phone.

Lois beamed and sighed inwardly with relief. "Thanks, Chief."

"This just screams series; 'Lois Lane's World Full of Heroes.'"

"That's what I was thinking," Lois replied. "Well, not that name, but…"

"What's wrong with the name? I like the name," Perry replied.

"Oh I don't know," Lois said as she absently tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, reminded of another name she had yet to pick out. She'd been putting it off as long as possible, hoping against hope that he might be back before the baby was born.

"Well, we can discuss it later," her boss replied and it took her a moment to remember he was talking about the column name. "So how's everything else?"

"Good. We're up to taping."

"Taping? Taping what?" he asked.

"The walls. We finished the insulation and the sheet rock, now Jonathan says we have to tape," she explained, not really knowing what taping entailed, but certain the process would be expertly described by her father-in-law.

"I'm impressed."

"You should be," she replied glibly.

"So what's next?" he asked.

"Painting. I think we're going with the yellow ducks," she said, smiling to herself.

Perry chuckled softly. "Darlin' you sound positively over the moon!"

"You know what? I am. I mean, none of this has been easy, and I certainly never imagined things happening like this, but I'm so happy about my baby. My son," she whispered the last part, still amazed by the fact that she was going to be a parent.

***

They sat in silence, the soft droning of the transports the only sound. All around her, soldiers dozed or meditated. No one spoke. She looked around at the dozens of weary and resigned faces. They had learned to quell the physical manifestations of their fear. Even the youngest and most inexperienced among them had now known weeks of hard fighting. Life in times of peace had itself been difficult and treacherous. It had given them some preparation for what they'd had to face.

Physically, they were exhausted, but they were strong. They had learned to survive with little food and even less rest. They were a disciplined, capable, fighting force, down to the last man or woman. But fighting had a way of infecting you and poisoning your soul. In battle, you learned to survive, to do what needed to be done for the mission. Battle gave your life meaning and purpose. It made you part of something bigger than yourself and in doing so, it killed what was good in you. War was not a creative force. It only destroyed. And when it was gone, when it had taken all it could, it left behind bewildered and angry survivors. People who no longer knew their purpose or place in the world, people who had lost their innocence in battle and their meaning in its absence. Without war, they could no longer make sense of their lives. And they were the lucky ones. The unlucky lost everything and would never have the chance to rage at a world that made no sense.

Talan knew the seductive poison of war well. It was an intimate and constant, if unwanted, companion. She had no taste for bloodshed, took no pleasure in the kill. But kill she had. She had shed blood for months, years, often mechanically and almost effortlessly. Some part of her conscious mind always maintained control in the firefight. She never killed in rage or confusion, regardless of war's shroud of chaos. She killed when she was forced to — when the protection of innocent life, or the lives of her forces, demanded it. While she took no joy in death, even she felt the clarity of necessity in battle, the exhilarated response to everything around her, heightened senses, blood racing through her veins. The adrenaline was toxic and to many, addicting. For too many men and women it was difficult to recognize the destructive nature of the feelings and to detach themselves from them.

Outside the transport, more ships joined them. She could hear the monotone rattle and hum of the ships as they made their way. It was only a few more hours until they would arrive at the main colony. The journey may have been a fool's errand or even a suicide mission, but if there were any way they could save those people, they had to try. She looked around and caught Kal El's eye. He looked nervous. In the beginning, they all did. She assumed that at one time, she too had been nervous and afraid. Was she still nervous and afraid? She didn't think so, at least, it didn't feel that way. Talan tried to remember the last time she'd felt afraid. The only thing that came to mind was the memorial for her parents. She had been barely more than a child when they died, but the memories were so vivid, so real. Surely she had known fear since then. So why couldn't she remember it?

Talan wondered about Kal El; about whom he had been, what he had left behind. Her line of work may have been anti-social, but she had learned through her years certain things about people. Every person, without exception, loved something, feared something, and had lost something. She wasn't sure how, but she knew that for Kal El, even before he came to New Krypton to become the First Minister, the stakes were higher than for others. Talan did not envy Kal El or the work he had to do; her own responsibilities were more than enough. She stifled a sigh and closed her eyes. With the time remaining, she would be wise to take the opportunity to meditate and prepare.

***

"Commander Talan," a voice came over the transport's communication system. Talan got up and walked toward the pilot's cabin. Clark looked up as she passed, realizing that he'd dozed off. A lot had changed in the last five months; before, he'd never been able to sleep on a plane. They had always made him nervous and uncomfortable. He was still nervous and uncomfortable, but it had nothing to do with the fact that he wasn't the one doing the flying or even that he no longer could fly under his own power. His old life, his old fears and concerns, seemed so far away. Sadly, he realized, they were. Along with everything he loved.

Everyone he loved.

Lois.

He pulled the ring out from under his collar and curled his hand around it tightly. Not for the first time, he wished she was there. He could have used her help, her advice. She always knew what to do. But he realized this time was different. He had confessed his failings and his shortcomings to her before, but did he want her to know what had happened here, what he'd done here? Was that a burden he was prepared to share with her? Could he trouble her like that? Perhaps more directly, could he bear the fact that she'd be disappointed in him? That she'd never look at him the same way again?

"Sir?"

He turned around to see Talan standing behind him. He slipped the chain back under his collar.

"We are a few minutes from the target, sir. We have confirmation of the rebel presence. The Interceptors are prepared to engage the enemy vehicles and positions. Several strike teams will be deployed to secure a perimeter. The rest of us will seek out the main colony. We do not know their numbers, but this is our best chance to free the colony."

Ching joined them, a nervous frown on his face. He carried his rifle at the ready. "Soldiers, prepare to deploy. Remember this is civilian territory, so proceed with caution and do not engage if it will unduly jeopardize the lives of non-combatants."

Clark felt the transport slow and begin to descend. "Commanders, we have confirmation of hostilities on the ground. Interceptors have engaged enemy aircraft and positions," the pilot announced.

"Ladies and gentlemen, you have your orders," Talan announced. The soldiers undid their safety restraints and stood up as one. The transport hit the ground clumsily and the doors opened. Soldiers rushed out toward the chaos on the ground. Clark started to follow, feeling his throat go dry and his stomach tie itself in familiar knots. He felt someone grab his arm, holding him back. He turned around.

"Kal El, we will stay on board," Ching said.

Clark looked at him, puzzled. "Why?"

"Because it is safer, sir."

Clark blinked. Was Ching nuts? "But my people are out…"

"And it is your sworn duty to serve them, which you cannot do if you're dead. It is my sworn duty to protect you, which is what I'm doing."

"Zara is out there," Clark replied, knowing he was playing a trump card. He expected more of a reaction from Ching, but the brief look of concern that flitted across his face was the only display of an emotion other than exasperation that he'd ever seen from Ching.

"It is unlikely that the rebels have compromised the First Ministers' Residence. We will sweep the area and if it is secure, enter from above. If fortune should at all be on our side, Zara will have stayed there," Ching explained. 'Fat chance,' Clark thought to himself.

"Commander Ching, the escorts have arrived. We will begin our approach," the pilot said. The transport lifted off again. They flew for a few minutes in silence. Clark wondered what they would do if they couldn't access the First Ministers' quarters. His concerns were quickly laid to rest.

"Sirs, the Residence remain secure," the pilot said. The transport landed roughly on the roof, jostling its few passengers.

"The escorts will provide cover. We will have to run to the emergency access. Stay close and keep your head down, sir," Ching instructed.

The transport doors opened slowly and Clark waited anxiously as the gate lowered. He could see the emergency access just ahead of them. The air all around them was thick with smoke and the sounds of battle. He felt a pang of guilt as he thought about the soldiers down in harm's way as he raced for safety.

"Now, sir!" Ching commanded as the gate dropped. Clark gripped his rifle tightly as the two ran side by side for the access door. Clark threw his back against the wall as soon as they reached the door, his pulse thundering in his ears. He breathed hard, his eyes darting all around at the chaos on the ground and in the air. Ching quickly disarmed and unlocked the reinforced door and they raced inside. They ran down the darkened corridor, their boots hammering loudly against the metal floor. They passed through several more locked doors and down flights of stairs before they found themselves in the familiar complex of hallways in the Ministers' Residence. The lights, however, were all out.

"There is a communications command point in your situation room. We can reestablish communications in the colony from there and try to assess the situation," Ching explained. They entered the situation room and Ching immediately set to work. Clark found himself standing idly and impatiently as Ching worked. The lights slowly flickered and came back to life.

"I did not return power to the entire colony so as not to alert anyone to our presence. I can reestablish visual monitoring of the command facilities, but the primary communication system has been destroyed."

"What can we do?" Clark asked.

"The secondary system can only be reestablished at one of three places in the colony," Ching said without looking up. "The nearest one is on the lower level of this compound. I am not authori…Sir, you need to see this."

Clark stepped toward the bank of monitors and looked at the screen Ching had indicated. On the screen he could see Ensigns Parth and Rul and several dozen children sitting in a dark, bare, windowless room. "Where is this?"

"The bunkers underground. They must have taken shelter there. Someone has shut down the ventilation system, though," Ching replied grimly. "They are trapped inside and the oxygen level is steadily decreasing."

"What?"

"Parth and Rul are instructing the children to meditate and slow their breathing."

Clark found himself holding his breath. He watched on the screen as the two young ensigns began talking to each other. "What are they doing?"

"Deciding which one will sacrifice their life to slow the oxygen depletion. The other will protect the children as long as possible."

"What? Ching, we have to stop this," Clark urged.

"You have to do it, sir, I do not have access. Go down into the lower level, to the communication center, and bring the system back online." Ching tossed him a hand held communicator. "I will guide you through the process."

Clark nodded grimly and raced out of the room. He rushed down the corridors to the stairwell and taking the steps three at a time, made his way to the darkened labyrinth of the subterranean level. He felt his heart slamming against his ribcage as he ran to the communication center. He fumbled to open the door and rushed inside, slamming the door behind him.

"Ching, what do I do?" he demanded breathlessly into the communicator. Ching talked him step by step through the process of bringing the regulatory and communications systems online. The whole thing took a few short minutes, but they stretched into an eternity.

"We are back on line, sir," Ching said at last. "I've contacted Parth and Rul and reopened the ventilation system. I will try to reestablish contact with General Comm…" Ching trailed off.

"What is it?"

"You are not alone, sir," Ching replied. "I have three unidentified individuals entering the corridors of the lower level. They are armed, and they are not ours."

Clark swallowed roughly and stared at the heavy door to the communications room, wishing, not for the first time, that he wasn't without his powers. Before, he would have been able to see through that door to find the threat, and of course, he would have been invulnerable to it. "What do I do?" he asked into his communicator in a harsh whisper.

"There should be an earpiece and infrared vision lenses in there with you, find them. The three intruders have split up. I'm going to turn off the lights on the lower level and then guide you out, sir."

Clark found the equipment Ching had mentioned. With the power out and with Ching still able to monitor the floor and relay information to him, he would have the sensory advantage over the intruders. Now if they stayed split up, he might stand a chance. He put the bulky goggles on just as the lights faded out and the entire room went pitch black. He put the earpiece in his ear and immediately heard Ching's voice.

"Sir, can you hear me?"

"Yes."

"Good, I've isolated their communications frequency and I'm jamming their system. They can neither see nor communicate with one another." There was a long pause. "Just a second, sir. It appears that one of the intruders is making his way toward the communications center… As he approaches the door, I will tell you when. On my command, open the door, forcefully."

Clark drew in a shaky breath. This didn't sound risky at all, he thought sarcastically. It was a good thing the door opened outward and wasn't one of those pocket doors that just sort of slid into a compartment in the wall. He put his hand on the door latch and braced his shoulder against it.

Ching's voice was deafening in his ear. "He's twenty meters from you…ten…five…now!"

Clark threw the door open wide, feeling it collide with the intruder. He heard the rebel fall to the metallic floor with a loud, echoing thud. Before the intruder had a chance to get to his feet, Clark managed to knock him unconscious with the butt of his rifle.

"There is a supply closet ten meters down the corridor; you can lock him in there." Slinging his rifle over his shoulder, Clark dragged the unconscious man to the closet and unceremoniously dumped him inside. He closed the door and locked it behind him.

"The closest exit to you is an emergency hatch down the corridor back toward the way you came. You'll have to open a wall panel to expose the ladder. The door is disarmed."

He started back the way he'd come, scanning the walls for the panel Ching had mentioned. "Sir," Ching's voice startled him and he nearly leapt up in shock. "One of the other intruders is making his way toward you. I have him on my monitors. There is a doorway ten meters from where you are and right under a monitoring camera. Hide there. He will approach from your left. I will tell you when. You're going to have to neutralize the threat."

"What about the other one?" Clark whispered.

"He is not in the area, sir."

Clark gulped. He found the recessed doorway and hid there, though he was sure the sound of his heart hammering in his chest was audible to anyone in the corridor. He took a deep breath and held it.

"He is rounding the corner, sir," Ching said breaking the silence. Clark had to remind himself that he was the only one who could hear Ching's voice. His would-be attacker had no idea he was walking into an ambush.

Clark heard the sound of footsteps echoing against the floor as well as soft cursing. There was a sudden clang and he realized that the intruder must have stumbled in the dark.

"Now sir!" Ching yelled.

Clark leapt from his hiding place and through the goggles, saw the blurred outline of the rebel, just as he was getting back to his feet. Clark hit the other man across the face with the butt of his gun, sending the rebel back to the ground with a loud thud. Clark grabbed the other man's weapon and ran toward the exit hatch, unconcerned about the noise he was making.

"It's just ahead of you, sir…there!" Ching yelled.

Clark stopped and looked up. The outline of the hatch visible. In front of him was a thin wall panel, with a latch on one side of it. He tried the latch. It was stuck.

"It won't open," he hissed.

"Break it, sir. The panel is designed to break away if it malfunctions."

Clark drove the butt of his gun into the panel, causing it to shatter and splinter. He knocked away the fragments with his gun and with his hands, unheeding the cuts he received as he clawed at the material. He felt his heart thunder in his chest and sweat pour down his face in rivulets. He finally removed enough of the panel to expose the ladder and with bleeding hands, climbed the ladder to the hatch. The hatch opened easily and he lifted himself up onto the upper floor. He squinted his eyes shut, pained by the bright light. Stupid. He should have removed the goggles before he climbed up to a floor that still had functioning lights. A pair of hands grabbed him and he panicked.

"It's all right, sir." He recognized Ensign Parth's voice and breathed out a shuddering sigh of relief as the young man assisted him to his feet. Parth closed and locked the exit hatch beneath him.

"Well done, sir," Ching's disembodied voice congratulated him. "All the doors and hatches to the lower level are now armed, the intruders are trapped."

Clark felt his heart still pounding in his chest as he caught his breath. He may have gotten out of that particular jam, but things were far from over.

"We should rejoin Commander Ching, sir," Parth said. Clark nodded and followed the other man down the corridor, knowing a long, unpleasant battle was still ahead.

***

"Lois! We haven't seen you in here in ages!" Maisie exclaimed as Lois walked through the door to Maisie's coffee shop. The patrons at the counter, all of whom Lois now knew, looked up as well. Gus, who ran the local hardware store, grinned at her over his copy of the Daily Planet.

"Great column, Lois," Gus said.

"Thanks, Gus," Lois replied. The readership of the Daily Planet in Smallville had expanded considerably when Clark started writing for the paper. Lois was honored that everyone kept reading the Planet even in his absence.

"We've all read it," Maisie continued. "Just amazing. I felt like I was there with those kids. Anyone ever tell you you've got a way with words? You should never have given up on writing books, you know." Years ago, Maisie's comment would have caused her to be taken aback, but Lois just smiled. In a small town few things remained secret; Lois's novel writing hobby was not one of those things. Lois sat down at the counter among the other patrons.

"Yep, great angle, too. It's about time someone wrote about all the good things kids do, not just the rotten stuff," Roger Owens, the local vet, added as he sipped his coffee.

"So what can I get you?" Maisie asked as she placed a glass of water in front of Lois.

"Pumpkin pie and decaf with real cream and sugar," Lois replied.

"Pumpkin pie? I thought Martha's pumpkin pie was the best in the county," Maisie replied with an arched brow.

"It is, but there won't be any of it until the great pumpkin massacre next week after Halloween," Lois said.

"Pumpkin pie it is then. Do you want some ice cream on that, you're eating for two after all," Maisie asked.

Lois managed a smile. "I think the pie is enough."

"So what brings you into town?"

Lois turned around on her stool toward the source of the question: Anne, the fifty-five year old school teacher, church organist, pinochle champion, and all around town gossip. "More baby stuff," she replied. The small talk about the baby and the column and the way the Smallville Tigers' football team was doing this season continued for an hour or so. People came and went as they always did on Saturday afternoons.

Most of the time, Lois found the attention of small town scrutiny intrusive and exhausting, but she'd come to understand that the interest in the baby and in her work was an expression of genuine concern. This was a good town, full of good people who cared about each other and cared about how their neighbors were doing and what the kids were up to. She still missed the comfortable anonymity of urban life, but during the weeks after Clark's departure, she hadn't even had that in Metropolis. Here at least, she had a network of caring people, even if they often seemed a bit nosy.

***

The atmosphere in the situation room was tense; the anxiety in the air palpable. After a week of grueling marches and chaotic battle, and his experiences in the subterranean level only hours before, Clark found the sensation of waging a war from within this closed space bewildering. The chaos was largely outside of this isolated, insulated room. In here, the tension was still thick, but decisions were made with detachment as the battle was fought on monitors in distant parts of the colony. They watched and directed, gave orders and planned strategies for a war fought without sound and in pixilated images on little screens.

Parth looked up from his station. "Sirs, we have word from General Command."

"What is it, Ensign?" Ching said as he moved to the younger man's side.

"They've re-secured the sector; the rebels are making a general retreat."

A cheer rose up among the young soldiers who had gathered to secure the situation room. A door on the other side of the room opened and Clark looked up to see Zara enter with her entourage of commanders. She limped slightly and like all the others, looked weary and fatigued from battle. The soldiers all crisply came to attention.

"All hail the victorious Commander," a sergeant declared in voice stentorian.

"All hail!" The cheer went up.

Zara didn't smile, but bowed solemnly. "By your sacrifices, we will survive," she said. "Welcome home, Kal El." She looked directly at Clark and then at Ching. "And the brave soldiers who serve with you."

Clark glanced at Ching, who had yet to take his eyes off Zara. Around them, officers began giving commands to soldiers around the colony to take up defensive positions and prepare status reports, but Ching remained impassive. The slightest muscle in his jaw twitched and Clark could tell that inside him, emotions were warring, but they remained far beneath the surface.

Commander Goren, who stood at Zara's side, looked older and wearier than he had when Clark had left, just over a week earlier. "First Ministers," he announced gravely. "Commander Talan will want to brief you on the colony's status."

Commander Goren led the way as Zara and Clark followed, and Ching a step behind them. As they walked through the corridors they passed dozens of soldiers and civilians racing from one place to the next in the chaotic effort to secure the colony and survey the damage. They approached the receiving area outside of General Command. A group of soldiers turned a corner and came toward them and into the open space. Among them was Enza. One sleeve had been torn off her uniform and around her bare arm was tied a blood soaked bandage. She carried a rifle in her injured arm, a look of world weariness settled upon her face.

"There she is, little one," an upbeat voice called from his left. Clark turned to look for the source. He saw a young soldier holding the hand of the little girl he recognized as Enza's niece. The little girl squirmed away from her protector and ran through the crowd of people directly for her aunt.

"Enza!" she cried.

Enza stopped in her tracks and fell to her knees. She dropped her weapon and gathered the little girl up in her arms. "Thank goodness you are all right," she murmured. The little girl burst into tears. Between sobs, she whimpered in confusion, demanding to know why Enza had left her and why bad things had happened.

"Shhhh," Enza soothed. She stood up, the little girl in her arms and walked away, completely unaware of anything except the child. Clark watched the bittersweet homecoming, silently cursing this war and the harm it was doing, but thankful that Enza and her niece had been reunited.

"First Ministers," Talan's clear voice carried across the room. She bowed deferentially and gestured for them to follow her into the Advisory Council's chambers.

***

Zara paced nervously in the corridor. She looked down the hallway to the single door and the sliver of light that spilled out from underneath it onto the floor. She could hear her heart thundering in her chest. All day, she had waited, agitation building. As the battle had raged over the last few days, she'd at times wondered if the colony would survive. Her mind had been preoccupied with saving her people. She'd had little time to think of Ching. And when she had, she'd worried endlessly. If the rebels had managed to attack the main colony and to have sabotaged their communication system, surely they had set up a trap for the forces that had gone to Terian. As they had fought to defend their home, as she'd made decisions in the course of tense battles which had cost people their lives, she had tried not to think of him. The possibility that he might have been dead had threatened to render her catatonic.

When word had come that he was alive, she'd felt the cold hand of fear release her from its grip, and for the first time in days, she'd felt like she could breathe again. But all day, she'd been forced to suppress her relief at his presence. She'd wanted to throw her arms around him, to draw him into her embrace so she could prove to herself that he was really there. Yet duty and decorum had required that she do no such thing.

An hour earlier, he had bid her goodnight. "A pleasant night to you, Madam," he'd said. His tone and language as formal as possible, as it always was when he believed the expression of emotion to be inappropriate, but she could hear the slight waver in his voice. He had looked at her for a long moment, as though warring with himself over whether to leave it at that. After a reluctant pause, he'd bowed and left.

So here she was. Outside his quarters, late at night. She drew up whatever courage she could summons, walked to his door, and knocked softly.

"Enter," his familiar voice came from the other side of the doorway. She opened the door and stepped inside, wondering at her own timidity. Why was she so nervous? How could the ease and familiarity of years have evaporated, leaving them as awkward strangers?

He looked up from his book and she could hear his breath catch in his throat. She felt a sudden relief that she was not alone in this feeling of anxiety. He closed the book and stood up. Before he had the chance to put his uniform back on, before he had the opportunity to create the distance of duty and obligation between them, she threw her arms around him, holding on so tightly she thought she'd never be able to let him go. For a brief moment, she feared she would be rebuffed, but she felt a long, shuddering sigh escape his body as he enfolded her in his arms. One hand threaded itself in her hair as he held her close. She felt him brush the barest hint of a kiss against her temple.

She pulled back slightly. "I'm sorry, I forget myself," he muttered, and she could feel the walls going up between them. She framed his face in her hands and kissed him fiercely, passionately. His body went rigid, and she felt a stab in her heart as she anticipated his rejection. But suddenly, he was kissing her just as hungrily, his mouth meeting hers pull for pull. Her hand trailed its way to the smooth, warm skin of his chest. He tore himself away with a groan, his breathing shallow.

"We cannot do this." He ran an agitated hand through his hair and she could see him struggle to tamp down his emotions. He closed his eyes and turned away. Years ago, perhaps she would have mistaken his posture —his back to her, his body stiff —as a closed door, but if Ching had actually wanted them to stop, he would have been direct. Polite and deferential, but direct. No, she knew that he had turned away from her because his heart and his head were at war and his head was losing. She realized, with a small smile, that perhaps they weren't as strangers to each other after all.

She wrapped her arms around his lean waist and placed her head against his shoulder. "If we begin this, I do not trust myself to stop," Ching said quietly.

"And who said anything about stopping?" she murmured.

He turned around and placed his hands on her arms. "Zara, what we want, we can never have. You belong to…"

She interrupted him by lifting up her hands and removing the heavy metal cuffs. She set them aside and rubbed at her now bare wrists.

"What are you doing?"

"I've worn these every moment of my life for thirteen years," she replied, "to remind me that I am not free. That I cannot give myself to whom I choose."

"Nothing has changed," Ching said quietly.

"Everything has changed. In the last few days I have seen more of death and dying than I ever imagined possible. I wondered whether you were all right, but I had to force myself to stop, because every time I thought about the possibility of you not surviving, it nearly killed me. On so many occasions I was certain I was going to die…"

"I should have been here," he chastised himself.

"Shhh… I thought that in those moments I would lament having failed in my duty to protect my people. But all I could think of was you. All I could think about was the fact that you would go on, believing that you came second in my life."

"Zara…"

"You have never been second," she whispered, not trusting her own voice. She closed her eyes as he pulled her into his arms.

"I cannot ask you to place me above your duty," Ching replied despondently.

"And I cannot fulfill my duty without you."

"We both know that this cannot be." He rubbed a soothing hand up and down her back.

"We were not always so afraid to try," she reminded him.

His hands stilled. "We were barely more than children. We were naïve."

"We were honest," she countered. "We could not deceive ourselves into believing that duty was enough."

"What choice do we have?" he asked, the resolve fading from his voice.

She reached up to touch his face and softly kissed his lips. Reluctantly breaking off the kiss, she looked up at him. He took her hand in his and held it to his lips. He closed his eyes. "I do not want to ask you to live a lie."

"We already live a lie. At least now we can be honest with ourselves. Can you do that? Can you spend your days pretending not to love me? Pretending there is nothing between us?"

"I have been doing the same for years," he admitted.

"And if that is the price, it is well worth it," she murmured as she kissed his neck. She trailed kisses along the line of his jaw to his ear and captured the soft lobe between her lips, sucking on it gently. She felt him draw in a sharp breath and wrap his arms around her more tightly. He titled her chin up and brushed his thumb softly over the outline of her lips before lowering his head to kiss her.

She struggled to shed the heavy mantle over her uniform and it fell to the ground in a pool of superfluous fabric. She wrapped her arms around his neck, tangling her hands in his hair. Their kisses became more passionate and the heat and tension in her grew. Her tight grip on control was coming loose and she welcomed it.

Ching pulled away and she suddenly felt bereft. He rested his forehead against hers, still holding her close. "Are you certain you want this?" he asked.

"More certain than I have ever been before."

"I…I do not want to cause you pain," he confessed, closing his eyes.

"Our lives are full of pain. Love is the last thing from which we should be protecting ourselves." She expected him to go through the endless litany of reasons why they shouldn't, why decorum and duty were aligned against them, why good judgment would counsel caution, why it would be improper, imprudent, and unsound to proceed. And she had no arguments to counter with, save one. It was tearing her apart inside to see him every day and to not be with him. She was certain it was doing the same to him.

Zara felt him sigh and braced herself for the impending words of wisdom she had no interest in hearing. She tried to prepare her heart, though she knew what he was about to say would wound her terribly. Could she have honestly expected anything else, though? Could she have suspected that her beloved, steadfast and dedicated to his duties, would forget his calling on account of his heart?

He kissed her forehead. She closed her eyes, waiting for the dreaded words. She opened them with a start as he bent to hook one arm behind her knees. He picked her up easily, holding her securely against his chest. Ching crossed the small room with Zara in his arms and laid her down on the bed. "I love you," he whispered as he leaned down to kiss her.

"I love you," she said simply, drawing him into her arms.

***

"What time is it?" she murmured.

Her lover's arms around her tightened just a little and she leaned back against his broad, warm chest. He dropped a kiss on top of her head. "It is still early," he said. "We have time."

She placed her hands on his, interlacing their fingers. It had been so long since she'd known his touch. Too many years had passed in which they had pretended that the distance wasn't killing them slowly. They lay in silence. Fear crept into her heart. Would they retreat from this newfound intimacy? Would they pretend that their vulnerabilities, laid bare the previous night, were still safely ensconced, deep in their souls, permanently hidden from the world? She could hide these things from everyone else, but not Ching. She could not tolerate having to maintain the pretense with him.

"I love you," he said, as though in response to her unspoken fears.

"I love you," she replied.

***

Clark looked up from the report on the screen in front him as the door opened. "You didn't get much sleep last night, did you?" he asked with a sympathetic smile as Zara entered the First Ministers' study.

"What?" she asked, a horrified look on her face. He wondered instantly if he'd said something wrong. His Kryptonian was pretty good now, but there was always the chance of making some unknown faux pas.

"I just mean, you were already gone when I left to meet with Councilor Shai this morning," he stammered.

"Right," she agreed with a sigh of what he was sure was relief. There was definitely something he wasn't getting here, but he figured he was better off not pressing the matter. "Well, there is so much we must do, we hardly have time to rest." She approached the table and began scrolling through the documents.

"We have about five minutes before the meeting with the Advisory Council. General Command wants an hour of our time this morning. And we're scheduled to preside over a full meeting of the High Council. We need to address the people tonight." he rattled off the laundry list of tasks still in front of them.

"Are the briefings from the emergency services ready?" she asked

"Here," Clark replied, handing her his communicator.

She regarded the screen for a moment. "The casualty counts?"

He sighed. "They're updating them hourly."

"And?"

"Thousands," he replied grimly. "Maybe tens of thousands." He heard her draw in a sharp breath. "We lost two thousand soldiers when the transports sent to Terian were sabotaged. The flight bay at General Command was also rigged with explosives. A lot of civilian casualties, too. They won't have exact numbers for a while. The medical staffs are pretty overrun at the moment. Or so I'm told. After the sabotages, they don't want us leaving the Residence without escort."

Zara nodded, but did not look up from the communicator in her hand. "We hardly have time to be tended to like children."

"It isn't like we don't spend most of our day with Ching anyway," Clark replied.

Zara coughed loudly. "Pardon?" she managed hoarsely.

And suddenly, it made sense. He would have sworn the night before that Zara had not returned. He himself had gone to bed very late and had not slept at all. He was certain he would have woken if she'd entered the chambers. In the morning, when he left, there was no sign that she had been there at all that night. Of course, it was perfectly reasonable, and he was almost struck that he hadn't thought of it before. Last night, if there had been any way in the world he could have been with Lois, he would have been. Being Kryptonian, and thus very good at pretending they didn't have feelings, didn't mean that Zara and Ching should have been any different.

A surprising sense of jealousy stabbed at him. Zara could be with the one she loved and yet he was forced to endure, unable to even see his wife. They'd dragged him across the universe, talking about sacrifice and selflessness, which was all well and good, but apparently only for him. They got to behave like teenagers while he was left to wonder if he'd ever see his wife again.

That wasn't fair, though, and he knew it. His circumstances were different from theirs. A lousy situation that no one could control was keeping him away from Lois. Zara and Ching had imposed upon themselves their limits and it was obvious that last night of all nights was the one when those limits would disappear. Last night wasn't the kind of night you wanted to be alone. He knew that. Clark tried to keep any sign of recognition from crossing his face. "Ching is supposed to escort us everywhere," he said.

"First Ministers, your escort is here," a disembodied voice announced from the invisible speakers somewhere in the walls of the room.

"That would be him," Clark said.

***

Councilor Shai pounded his gavel on the podium. "There will be order in the High Council!" His voice resonated in the large chamber. The councilors grew quiet. He turned to Zara and Clark, seated behind him. "First Ministers Zara and Kal El shall preside over this meeting of the High Council, at whose pleasure they serve." He bowed solemnly.

"How was the attack on our home allowed?" a councilor demanded as he stood up.

"Our honorable brothers and sisters, we are working at this moment to determine the nature of the attacks," Zara replied.

"Was it sabotage?" another councilor spoke up.

"We have not ruled out any possibilities," Zara said.

"But it was Nor's men?" came a third voice.

"We have every reason to believe it was," Zara replied. A murmur rose up in the gallery. "Their attacks on outlying settlements had increased just prior to this attack. We had deployed our forces to the aid of those settlements when this attack was launched."

"Why were our leaders not here to protect us from this attack?"

Clark spoke up for the first time. "Zara and I went Renmo, to try to help the refugees. Some of us were diverted to Terian when we learned that settlement was under attack. We returned here as quickly as we could."

"But it was too late! Thousands have died here!"

"And thousands more outside this colony," Clark admitted grimly.

"We are doing all that is possible, your military commanders are doing all that is possible," Zara tried to assure the councilors. "Nor's forces…"

"Nor denied all involvement with the attacks. He claims that he can defend us from the rebels!" Zara and Clark both turned toward the source of the criticism, Jen Mai, a middle-aged man suspected of being sympathetic to Nor's cause.

"Nor is a liar and a brigand!" A young woman councilor stood up. "Those who would consider his position are traitors to our people!"

"Are you accusing me of treason?"

"Do you deny it?" The Council exploded into a verbal brawl as Councilors took sides and argued defiantly.

"Esteemed Councilors! There will be order in these chambers!" Zara declared loudly, but the shouting continued. Standing just to her side, Ching nodded slightly at the head Council Guard, who then signaled the Guards all around the chamber. The Guards moved toward the aisles, preparing to prevent the altercations from becoming physical.

Shai pounded his gavel once again. "We will have order!"

The presence of the Guards, as opposed to any action on their part, proved sufficient. The Councilors restrained one another to prevent the seemingly impending riot.

"Everything is being done to protect the colony and to determine the identity of the attackers and bring them to justice," Zara declared forcefully. "Nor has personally declared that he is no longer bound by this Council or its rulings and has made himself an outlaw. We did not banish him, he chose banishment for himself. Nor is in open rebellion and it is our duty as First Ministers to protect this colony and its people from all who threaten it with force."

"We should be negotiating with Nor. Together, we may be able to end the attacks," Jen Mai declared.

"The blood of our people is on his hands! We cannot negotiate with him!"

Shouts erupted and chaos ruled the Council once again. An older member of the Council who had remained silent and poised until now finally stood up. Those immediately around him fell silent, and soon the din in the chambers died down. He stood calmly, his appearance unperturbed and impeccable; his silver hair perfectly coiffed.

"Councilor Alon, have you something to say?" Shai asked magnanimously, obviously pleased to bestow his favor upon a member of the Council who was capable of maintaining decorum.

"Thank you, Councilor Shai," Alon replied. Clark knew Alon only through reputation. He was one of the most senior members of the Council and highly regarded by all for his level headedness. "I have had the distinct pleasure of knowing First Minister Zara for some time, and we are all, I am certain, confident in her ability to lead and to make wise judgments. First Minister Kal El appeared as something of a mystery to us, only a few months ago. I have now heard, however, from the people of Renmo and Terian what sort of man he is. By his actions, by his leadership and his personal courage, he has won their trust and respect and has so won mine as well. If it is the belief of the First Ministers together that Nor poses a threat to our people, I am inclined to agree."

***

"Lois, this one's even better than the last. The suits upstairs just told me that you're going to be syndicated in forty more papers, starting next week. Everyone wants to get their hands on this."

"Well, never underestimate the power of the feel good story of the week," she replied.

"This is a lot more than just that, darlin.' You made this story come alive. You've always been the best writer I've had, but I didn't know you had this in you. It's gripping, but not melodramatic."

She'd been particularly struck by the story — one of a family of volunteer firefighters in a rural community. They'd had a tradition stretching back four generations of protecting their community. Now, father, son, and daughter were maintaining that tradition, though funds for the department had dried up, just as they had all across the country. Professional firefighters were the norm in big cities and in suburbs, but many small townships depended on their volunteers, even though they could not afford modern equipment.

A few months ago, the subjects of her story were nearly killed in a backdraft in a warehouse fire. All three suffered significant injuries and had been hospitalized. All three had required physical rehabilitation, but somehow, all three were back on the job as soon as possible. She had hoped the column would draw attention to these rather quiet heroes. "I guess I've just had a different perspective, lately," Lois said. Her ears pricked up at the sound of footsteps outside. She glanced through the door. It was Martha, coming back from town. "Anyway, Perry, I've got to run."

"All right, darlin,' take care of yourself."

"You too." With that, she hung up the phone. Lois stood up from the sofa and made her way out to the driveway.

"Hi Lois!" Martha said with a smile. She carried a paint can in each hand as she walked from the truck to the house. Lois quickly relieved her of the heavy burdens. "Oh, thank you, dear," Martha said gratefully.

Lois brought the rest of the paint and supplies into the farmhouse and took them up to the nursery. She returned downstairs to find Martha in the kitchen, making tea.

"Remember," Martha began sternly. "You're not supposed to go anywhere near that room when we're painting it. I don't care if you are invulnerable, paint can't be good for the baby."

"I promise," Lois replied, holding her hands up in surrender.

"I'm just glad that you and Jonathan got the walls and insulation up so quickly. It's getting cold and having a big gaping hole in your house in the middle of winter isn't ideal."

"It is getting pretty cold, isn't it?" Lois mused. She filled a pair of teacups for Martha and placed the cups on a tray. She picked up the tray to carry it to the living room when the phone rang.

"I'll get it," Martha said.

Lois carried the tray into the living room, intentionally tuning out her hearing. She picked up one of the teacups and settled back down on the sofa. Martha appeared from the kitchen, an uneasy expression on her face, holding her hand over the receiver of the phone. Lois regarded her mother-in-law somewhat quizzically. "It's your mother," Martha said in the barest of whispers.

Lois's face fell. The absolute last person in the world she wanted to talk to was her mother. They hadn't spoken in months — not since Lois had told her parents about the pregnancy. Since then, she'd been dodging her mother's phone calls. It was cowardly, especially for a woman with superpowers, but Lois didn't much care. She had no interest in speaking with her parents — some traumas were better left alone and not relived and her attempts at connecting with her parents fell into that category as far as she was concerned.

Lois realized that she'd lapsed into silence for several moments as she debated what to do. Her conscience warred with itself to little avail. She knew that her uncertainty and hesitation were probably written on her expression, so she was unsurprised when Martha informed Ellen Lane that Lois had stepped out and that she'd relay a message on to her.

An involuntary and unbidden wave of relief washed over Lois as her mother-in-law hung up the phone. "I'm sorry," she said. "I shouldn't have put you on the spot like that. It's not your job to lie to my mother."

"Don't worry about it," Martha replied matter-of-factly. "I know that dealing with your family has been difficult."

"But I'm going to have to deal with them sooner or later."

"You won't get an argument from me there."

"I just don't think I'm ready yet," Lois confessed.

***

The door to their private chambers closed behind them. Clark let out an agitated sigh and ran a hand through his hair. "I don't even know what happened in there."

"The Council is at odds with itself. There is no telling who will stay on our side and whose confidence has been lost." Zara replied, her tone impassive. "There is much work to be done in rebuilding the colony. We should concern ourselves with that for now."

Clark paced anxiously. "I know. But if we put all of our resources into rebuilding the colony, what about the outer settlements? Can we protect them? Do we have enough people?"

"We will have to activate more reserves. There is no denying that the impact on our people will be significant, but we have no choice." She approached Clark and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Clark, you have done incredible things for our people. You must trust yourself if you are to convince them to trust you."

"I know," he said as he looked away. He appreciated the fact that she'd started calling him 'Clark,' in private. It was a simple gesture of friendship and understanding. As much as he had to be 'Kal El' in his public persona, it was nice to have at least one person remember that before he was the First Minister and Commander of the forces of New Krypton, he was simply 'Clark.' "This is just so much bigger than anything else I've ever had to do before…I mean, I had to bash an asteroid once, but I just had to fly into it really fast. This…" he trailed off.

Zara shook her head. "Sometimes it is easy to forget the amazing things you did even before you came here. I cannot imagine what a change it must be for you, though, to no longer have such incredible powers."

"Superman was a lot easier than this," Clark replied. "I definitely made mistakes, and I had a lot of tough choices I had to make, but somehow, I managed to avoid the really big mistakes. Here, everything is life or death, and not just of a few people, a whole world."

"I imagine you saw terrible things at Terian," Zara said.

Clark nodded. "War doesn't get easy to deal with. Even if you're the good guys. You and I haven't talked much about it these last few days, have we?" he observed. And they hadn't. Since the end of the battle, they'd been too busy looking forward at how to rebuild and protect the colony to dwell on what had happened. "I'm sure what you saw here was no better."

"It was difficult," Zara admitted. "Until now, the war had been distant, and there had been some hope of protecting the people here from it. For us to have been struck so close to our center of power, in the one place we were supposed to be safe, was a shock. I'm not certain we will recover from it soon, and I know it will cause people to question our ability to keep them safe."

A knock at the door interrupted them. "Enter," Zara called. The door opened and her father walked into the room.

"Daughter," he said, relief evident in his voice. "I came as soon as I could." Zara rushed to her father's side. Tek Ra placed a paternal hand upon his daughter's shoulder and smiled. Clark had seen the two hug on one occasion, when he'd first arrived on New Krypton. Otherwise, they had maintained the dignified formality that Kryptonians typically exhibited.

"Kal El, I am glad to see that you are well," Tek Ra said.

"Thank you, sir," Clark replied.

"Let us adjourn to the reception room," Zara said. The three exited the room and walked down the hall toward the large reception room.

Two teenaged boys leapt up from their seats in the room, aspiring to the gravitas that their father exuded. Zara's brothers Tem Ra and Dek Ra — identical twins — snapped to attention. In their ill-fitting uniforms, the pair of skinny seventeen-year-olds hardly looked like military men.

"Greetings Kal El," they both said. They bowed solemnly in unison in the presence of commanding officers.

"Greetings," Clark replied.

"At ease, young ones," Zara replied with a slight smile. Off her brothers' identical scowls, she continued. "I hope you have been paying attention to your studies."

"We received top marks on the pilot's exam," one of the brothers, Clark was fairly certain it was Dek Ra, said.

"And still we haven't been cleared to attend training," Tem Ra piped up.

"You are both still young," Tek Ra counseled his sons.

"We are the same age Zara was when she went to pilot training," Tem Ra replied.

Even highly logical, stoic Kryptonian teenaged boys were just teenaged boys, Clark thought to himself — always eager for an adventure and incredibly sensitive to perceived slights based on their age. He also knew that Tek Ra doted upon his boys. Tek Ra had been forced to guide his eldest, his only daughter, along a dangerous path. From a young age she'd carried too much responsibility upon her shoulders and there was nothing he could have done to lessen her burden. He jealously guarded his sons for that reason. Zara's calling had been out of his hands and there were many things he could not protect her from, but whatever he could do to protect his other children from a similar situation, he did.

Zara turned to her younger brothers. "I do not believe it wise…"

"We knew it!" Dek Ra and Tem Ra said in startling unison.

"We knew that you were behind the delay in our training!" Dek Ra continued. "Why must you always hold us back?"

"That is no way to address one's elders or one's superior officers," Tek Ra cautioned sternly.

"She is still our sister," Tem Ra grumbled.

Tek Ra frowned. "And she is the Commander of the Forces of New Krypton."

"You are both young and I do not want to place you in harm's way," Zara explained gently.

"You cannot protect us from this. If we do not go, others will go in our place," Dek Ra replied.

"Besides, it is not as though the colony itself is safe. We have to fight." The twins had a habit of finishing each others' thoughts and sentences.

"Kal El knows that we are right," Dek Ra continued, pushing forward.

Clark had no intention of letting the conversation move down that path. "You wouldn't be trying to play one First Minister off the other, would you?" he asked sternly.

The two boys shared a shamefaced expression. "No sir," Dek Ra replied.

"You will continue your training here," Zara said, an air of finality in her tone.

The rapid click of boots on the metal flooring announced Ching's arrival in the reception area. "Sir, ma'am," he said as he turned to Clark and Zara and bowed briefly.

"You can train with Ching," Zara said.

"What?" the boys exclaimed.

"Pardon?" Ching looked positively bewildered.

Zara turned to her lieutenant. "Commander Ching, Dek Ra and Tem Ra are now under your direction.

"Excellent," Ching replied crisply. "There is much to be done around here and I am certain we will find plenty for both of you."

"Was there something you needed?" Clark asked.

"Zara," Ching replied. "I um, I needed to speak with… if I might have a moment of your time, ma'am," he stammered.

"Certainly," Zara responded. "Boys, go see if Ensign Parth has any work for you to do," she instructed her younger brothers.

"Aye, ma'am," they replied sullenly and walked off.

"Father, Kal El, we shall return shortly," Zara added before turning to leave with Ching.

When everyone else was gone, Tek Ra turned to Clark. "I have heard great things about the work you have done."

"I was just glad to be able to help. Ching and Commander Talan are the ones who are really responsible for any good that has happened these last few days."

"I have felt for some time that you are a good man. But beware that your grace is not mistaken for weakness. You have enemies on the Council. I do not know who, but be careful whom you trust."

"The Council is divided…"

"I do not mean those in open opposition," Tek Ra interrupted. "I mean those who hide their intentions. Your father developed a great many enemies because of his conviction to his beliefs and his refusal to lower himself to the petty politics of the treacherous personalities around him. Many of your father's enemies and their successors have, no doubt, selected you as their next target."

"Rae Et," Clark said, repeating a name he'd known for months now. She had tried to kill him as a baby in order to position her own son, Nor, to take his place.

"She has declared her opposition to the Council, but remaining members of it are likely among her supporters. They will stop at nothing to undermine you."

"Who are they?" Clark asked.

"I do not know," Tek Ra replied. "Which is why you must be ever-vigilant. Your life, and my daughter's, are both at stake, as is the fate of this world. You are safe nowhere."

Ching and Zara returned to the room. "I know you are all quite busy," Tek Ra said. "I will go and allow you to return to your work." He turned to Zara with a slight smile. "Besides, you know how your mother worries."

"Thank you for coming," Zara replied. "It was good to see you."

"I will return soon to check on your brothers," Tek Ra assured her. "Kal El, my friend, you have my best wishes."

"Thank you, sir," Clark replied.

Tek Ra turned to Ching, with a father's pride shining through his expression. "Ching, I have always trusted in you; take care of my children." Clark realized that Tek Ra was not referring exclusively to his sons.

"Of course, sir," Ching said with a modest bow.

***

"Ready?" Jonathan asked.

"Keep your eyes closed," Martha admonished.

Lois complied, but felt it necessary to add, "you know I can still do the X ray vision thing with my eyes closed."

Jonathan chuckled.

"Well, no cheating," Martha replied.

Lois heard the door open. "Okay, you can open them now," Jonathan said.

She opened her eyes and drew in a sharp breath. "It's beautiful," she said at last, gazing around the room in wonder. They'd picked the color scheme and the theme for the room together, but she was still amazed by how Jonathan and Martha, in the span of a few short days, had transformed the new room into a warm and welcoming nursery. She'd been banished from the room for that time period, not allowed to spoil the surprise they had in store for her.

The walls were a cheerful yellow and a white border with bright yellow ducks and fuzzy teddy bears wrapped around the room. Clark's old bassinet, lovingly restored by his father, stood in the middle of the room. A white rocking chair was placed next to the large bay window. A brand new quilt Martha had made was draped over the back of the chair. The rest of the baby furniture neatly lined the walls.

Tears welled up in her eyes and silently slipped down her cheeks. The room was so beautiful, so perfect. "I love it," she whispered.

***

Clark waited patiently outside of Tao Scion's quarters, his escort standing silently at the ready. The door finally slid open and the old physician grinned at him from across the threshold. "Come in, my young friend, come in," Tao Scion said.

Clark followed his host into the small apartment, waiving off his guard. "Thank you for meeting with me," Clark said to the older man.

"But of course," Tao Scion replied. He guided Clark to the living area and motioned for him to take a seat. "Not every old doctor gets to entertain the First Minister of New Krypton. Now tell me, what can I do for you?"

"I was hoping to get your advice," Clark said. "I spoke with Tek Ra the other day. He suggested that there are members of the Council who are still loyal to Rae Et, but he doesn't know which ones. You knew my parents better than anyone else, can you think of anyone who considered them enemies?"

"I have no doubt that Rae Et still counts among supporters members of the Council, but it is to her credit that she has maintained her distance from them in public. It is hard to say who among them is treasonous and who merely fears that yours will not be the winning side in this war."

"I'm beginning to wonder if that distinction means anything," Clark mused.

"Young fool," Tao Scion replied, shaking his head. "It is potentially the difference between weak allies and vicious adversaries. Neither is pleasant, but you should prefer the former to the latter."

"How exactly do I keep the former from turning into the latter? The Council is falling apart."

"There are those whom you will never convince of your right to lead. They will not follow you regardless. Ignore them. There is nothing you can do about them and there's no point in trying. It is those who have not yet made up their minds whom you must court. The Council has been infected by treasonous elements, but it is not rotten to the core, yet. There are still men and women of honor who hold places in that chamber. You can still earn their respect and their loyalty. The danger lies in knowing who the men and women of honor are, and who the mere pretenders are."

"And I feel like I'm at a loss here. Every day I wonder who's going to change sides. Who's going to turn on us?"

"I will find out what I can, but I cannot counsel caution strongly enough. Be careful, my young friend. I do not envy you and the path in front of you, but I do know that there is no one better suited for this journey. Believe me when I tell you that your parents would have been ever so proud of the man you have become and the choices you have made. You bring honor to the Houses of Lo and El."

***

Zara paced anxiously in the First Ministers' quarters. She was tense. She was always tense. A long, exhausting day at the end of series of long, exhausting days had done nothing to change that. There were so many things to worry about still. "Have the boys been causing you trouble?" she asked.

"I have assigned them to Ensign Parth. I thought it best to give the Ensign a true challenge before recommending him for promotion," Ching replied without looking up from his book.

"I am worried about them."

Ching closed his book. "As you are worried about all of the millions of other people in this world and the millions of details of everyday life in this colony. Madam, you worry far too much."

A look of exasperation settled on her face. "Would you stop being my advisor for one moment, Ching?"

Ching stood up, his hands clasped in front of him. "What would you have me be?" he asked.

She closed the distance between them, pressing a kiss to his lips in response. He didn't move. She pulled away from him, a puzzled look on her face.

"What about your husband?" Ching asked.

"Don't," she said. "Do not blame our separation on Clar…Kal El. He is no more at fault than you or I."

"And what if he should return?" Ching pressed.

"He is visiting with Tao Scion this evening. He should be gone for hours. Your jealousy is not becoming, my love."

Ching looked as though he was going to protest, but merely replied. "I do apologize. I have no reason to doubt your love or fidelity, nor do I have reason to suspect Kal El of anything, and yet I find that I envy him his place in your life. He can be a part of your life in a way that I cannot."

"His place here is causing him more pain than it is causing either of us. I can be near you. I can still touch you." She reached out a hand to touch his face. "He is separated from the one he loves. It is irrational to envy him and his position. For all we cannot have, we are still together."

He smiled knowingly and nodded. He tilted her head up and kissed her. She moaned softly into his mouth. Ching held her tightly against him. His hand threaded itself in her hair as he deepened the kiss. Her lips parted, granting his tongue access. She felt her heart thunder in her chest and her skin to grow warm everywhere he touched her. Zara marveled at how his touch never failed to cause something powerful, something eternal to stir within her. She had to touch him, to keep touching him. When she was with him, she was connected to something she couldn't begin to describe or explain. Something greater than any force she had ever known.

The sound of an opening door cut through her passion induced haze. Instantly, Ching tore himself away from her. She barely had time to feel bereft before the panic could set in. Zara looked across the room to see Kal El standing in the doorway, looking about as embarrassed as she felt.

"I'm sorry," he began. He fumbled to leave the way he had entered.

"No. I should go," Ching declared. He turned and walked to the door.

"Ching, I…" Kal El trailed off. Ching passed him without making eye contact and left the room.

"We should have been more circumspect." She turned away, unwilling to make eye contact with him. "I am sorry for having placed my emotions before my duty."

"Look, you should both probably be more careful about it." His tone was mildly chastising. "It's not like just anyone would walk in here, but still, I could have had an advisor with me. But don't apologize for being in love. I know how you feel about Ching, how he feels about you. It's the same way Lois and I feel about each other. Why would you want to deny yourselves that?"

The truth was, she didn't. She knew that what she had with Ching was the greatest thing in the world. "I cannot allow my loyalties to be divided," she replied, not sure if she was trying to convince him or herself.

"Too many people go through life never knowing this kind of love. Don't let it go," he said gently.

"You do not seem surprised by this," Zara said after a long pause.

"I've known for a while," Clark replied. "Ever since the day after we got back from Terian. When you didn't come back here that night."

"Oh." Zara blushed.

"I was concerned. If I found out, I figured others might, too. This doesn't change anything between us. I trust you and your commitment to our responsibilities. I know your loyalties won't be divided, but others might not.

"And they might exploit that to undermine us."

"If we were any two other people, I'd be overstepping my bounds here, but since you said yourself that we owe each other total honesty, I have to say this. You and Ching have to figure out how to separate how you feel about each other from your work. As Superman, I had to learn to do the same thing with Lois. I had to learn to pretend, in public, that she was just another person. I often failed, and people exploited it. They tried to use her to get to me. They put her life and the lives of others in danger. If your relationship with Ching becomes public, it'll do the same."

Zara looked away. "I know," she whispered.

***

Clark adjourned the meeting of the Advisory Council. As his advisors shuffled out of the room, he rubbed his temples, trying to process all the information that had been thrown at him over the last few hours. Reconstruction of the colony was proceeding, but slowly. So much machinery had been damaged during the battle that the repairing process was significantly hampered. Reserves had been called up and students were being asked to postpone their studies in order to fulfill military obligations.

Ching waited silently as Clark prepared to leave. His advisor and bodyguard was still under orders to make sure that neither Clark nor Zara was without constant protection. Clark knew that Ching was less than thrilled to be serving in his detail at the moment, but he was a complete professional. "What does the rest of the evening look like?" Clark asked as they left the briefing room.

"You have a meeting with the High Commanders and then the rest of your evening is open," Ching replied.

An idea struck him. "Let's schedule a sparring match," Clark said. "I feel like I'm getting out of practice."

"Certainly, sir," Ching replied. "I will find you a sparring partner, quarterstaffs will it be?"

"Are you not free?" Clark asked.

"For sparring tonight? I suppose I am," Ching said.

"Good," Clark answered. "It will be like old times."

"Old times, sir?" Ching asked as he followed Clark down the corridor.

***

"I see you have not forgotten your training," Ching said as he shifted his weight nimbly from one foot to the other. He spun his quarterstaff in one hand before returning to the ready position. Clark advanced and the sparring match continued.

Clark launched a series of quick attacks and bested Ching for the second time in a row. He swept Ching's legs out from underneath him with the quarterstaff, sending him to the mat. Ching stood up again before Clark could offer him a hand.

Clark hesitated before speaking. Ever since Tek Ra's visit the previous day, he'd been wondering about Ching's relationship with the family. "Have the boys been staying out of trouble?" Clark asked.

"As much as can be expected from those two," Ching replied. "They are good young men, but they have a penchant for trouble, they always have."

"You've known Tek Ra's family for a long time, haven't you?" Clark probed further.

Ching raised an eyebrow. "Most of my life," he responded simply.

"Were your parents…" Clark began trying to get more information from his counterpart.

"My parents died when I was a child. Tek Ra and Meiren brought me into their home. I was twelve. Zara was eight. I lived with them until few months after Dek Ra and Tem Ra were born. That is when I left for my military training. They were about four years old when I returned."

"And Zara?"

Ching frowned slightly. "She would have been about seventeen then. Why?"

"Just wondering," Clark replied. "There's still so much I don't know about any of you."

"There is little to tell," Ching said. "When I was seventeen, I went off for my training. When I returned, I was assigned to Zara's personal staff and have been part of it ever since."

"It must have been difficult, knowing that she would one day marry someone else," Clark ventured.

"I do not wish to discuss this subject further with you, sir," Ching replied. The two men circled the border of the training mat, facing off.

"I just need you to stop seeing me as a rival," Clark said. "Zara loves you, she always has."

"I know that," Ching almost snapped. "Have I done something to cause you to question my loyalty, sir?" Ching demanded.

"No. You haven't. You've done your job better than anyone else ever could. And I appreciate the fact that you trust me to lead, but you still act like you don't trust me around Zara."

"I do apologize if I given that impression," Ching replied evenly.

"If I see it, others will see it. The last thing we need is for people to think that there are divisions at the top," Clark said.

"And you want to present a unified front to the Council, to your people," Ching finished.

"I don't have a choice. If our ability to lead seems compromised, it's the people who stand the most to lose. I don't begrudge you your relationship with Zara. I'm glad she has someone she cares about. So forget yourself, Ching, and forget your jealousy. I cannot win this war without you. I need you to trust me."

***

"Mother, I am tired of waiting," Nor spat as he paced. Two of his mother's flunkies stood at the doors to the room, staring forward blankly. Rae Et did not bother to look up at her son. She continued to pore over the information on her communication screen, a practiced look of boredom on her face. Nor continued with his tirade. "You called back my forces from the attack on the main colony. We could have won that battle and ended this! It has been weeks and we've done nothing but wait!"

"Are you quite through with this temper tantrum, my son?" she asked.

"Do not speak to me as though I were a child!" Nor snarled.

"Then do not behave as one. If you wish for the mantle of leadership, you must act like a leader. That requires patience. Your victory in battle was not complete. What you fail to realize is that what little you gave up in that one battle, you shall recover tenfold in winning the war. We have sown the seeds of dissension in the ranks. We have instilled a lack of confidence in the people. It will be easier to win this war by convincing others to align with us, as opposed to having to kill them all," she explained nonchalantly.

"Instead we engage in amateurish raids on poorly defended towns. I am not a mere thug. I am the rightful heir to the mantle and I have had enough of these games!"

"Our raids on these little towns are not amateurish. You mistake simplicity for a lack of planning. We are organizing our attacks to maximize political gain," Rae Et said, a note of exasperation in her voice, as though she'd explained all of this many times before.

"I am in no mood for the political mischief of your feeble-minded followers. I do not trust them."

"And there is no reason you should. We do not make alliances based on trust. The promise of reward and the fear of retribution keep my followers in line. And they are quite good at what they do." Rae Et looked up at last. She leaned back in her chair, her hands folded in her lap. "Now we will discuss strategy later. Send in Jen Mai."

"Mother…" Nor began impatiently.

"That is all, my son."

***

"Lois, are you sure you're all right doing this?" Jonathan asked again as they trudged through the snow.

"I'm sure," she replied. "I might be as big as a house, but the superstrength works just fine."

They continued across the field through the knee high snow to the dense patch of evergreen trees that grew at the edge of the farm. They wandered through the trees for a while, looking for the perfect one.

"How about this one?" Jonathan asked, pointing to a nine foot Douglas Fir.

Lois walked around the tree once. It was perfect. "Looks good to me," she said.

Jonathan lifted the axe off his shoulder and stopped. "Unless you want to do the honors?"

"It's all yours," Lois replied.

Jonathan swung the axe, the first of several clean strokes. The large fir began to sway and started to fall. Lois floated up slightly to guide the tree down in its descent. She picked the tree up easily by its base as they began the walk back to the farmhouse.

"I do this every year with Clark," Jonathan said after a few minutes, breaking the silence. "When he left home, we'd wait until he'd come back for Christmas to get the tree. The last few years, we waited until Christmas Eve, when he could come out from Metropolis. We'd put up the tree and hang the ornaments together."

"It just doesn't feel right to do this without him," Lois said. "I miss him, all the time, but it just feels worse somehow, now. I hated Christmas when I was a kid. I hated it until I met Clark. Everything I love about this time of year is all wrapped up in him. I never thought I'd spend another Christmas without him."

***

Clark lay on his bed, staring blankly at the ceiling. Tomorrow was just another day, right? Just like any other. Well, around here it would be. It didn't make sense, really. Even as a grown man, he always had a tough time sleeping on Christmas Eve. It didn't matter that the joy of waking up to a living room full of presents wasn't the same when you were twenty-eight. There was still something magical about Christmas Eve. He couldn't explain why looking out of his window in his parents' home on Christmas Eve at the farm, covered by a thick blanket of snow was one of the best things in life. He couldn't explain why the smell of a fir tree or nutmeg or anything else that reminded him of Christmastime would bring a flood of pleasant memories. Of firesides, and home, and warmth.

Christmas, to Clark, was about belonging. In a world where he'd rarely belonged, where he'd always been a strange visitor, Christmas was about family and permanence, and knowing exactly where he was supposed to be. In recent years, Christmas had also been about sharing that feeling with Lois. He wasn't certain if Lois was truly fond of Christmas yet, or if she was just humoring him, but he'd looked forward to an entire lifetime's worth of opportunities to warm her up to the holiday.

A knock at the door to his private quarters startled him out of his reverie. He stood up and opened the door. Zara was on the other side, a concerned expression on her face.

"Are you feeling all right?" she asked.

"I'm fine," he replied.

"Are you certain? You seem a bit sullen as of late," she pressed.

Clark sighed. "I left home seven months ago. I don't know, I can't really say I expected to be back there by now, but I also didn't really think about spending this time of year away from my family. Tomorrow, on Earth…it's a holiday, a time I always spend with my parents, and with Lois. I never expected to spend this day away from her ever again." Among the few possessions Clark had brought with him to New Krypton were a watch, set to Metropolis time, and a calendar. Simple things he kept track of because they made him feel a little more connected to home. Along with a few photos, these things were sometimes the only tangible reminders he had that a whole other world, separate from this one, still existed out there. That life there still went on without him.

He wondered if his parents and his wife thought about him as much as he thought about them. He wondered if this holiday was going to be as difficult for them as it would be for him. It was the strangest feeling in the world to have no one to share Christmas with. To have no signs of the holiday around him, to have no one else understand or recognize the coming of the day. For the first time in his life, Clark Kent hated Christmas.

"I am sorry that you cannot be with them," Zara said sympathetically. "Do you wish to be alone?"

"No, I should get some work done," Clark replied. He hoped that keeping his mind busy would distract him. It was probably a vain hope, but it was still better than wallowing, he figured.

"Good. Enza has asked to meet with you to discuss legal matters of some sort. I would attend as well, but I have to meet with Lok Dei and Fet Ri."

Clark recognized the names of the two councilors who were considered to still be on the fence as to whom to support. They both represented an outlying area to the south of the main colony. It was a rugged area, vulnerable to attacks and both councilors had expressed their concern that the government could not protect the region. It was a delicate situation and Clark knew that Zara's experience and understanding would be essential in negotiating with the councilors. "Be careful," Clark advised her.

"I will. Alon has agreed to be present. The other councilors trust him and respect his opinion. He may prove a key ally in negotiations."

"I hope so," Clark replied.

***

Martha stepped back away from the tree and put her hands on her hips. She eyed the tree critically. "It looks good," she said at last. The tall fir tree was covered not in designer department store ornaments but in a lifetime's worth of precious memories; the ornament from her and Jonathan's first Christmas tree, ornaments Clark had made out of Popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners as a child, mementos he'd sent from his travels all around the world, as well as some Martha had designed more recently after her art class in glasswork.

"And we have lights!" Jonathan declared as he plugged in the lights. The bright bulbs twinkled, lighting up the tree and the entire living room. The fire crackled in the background and the smell of gingerbread cookies filled the air. From the garlands on the banister to the stockings over the fireplace, everything in the house spoke of Christmas on the farm, but this year was still very different from the dozens of Christmases past that had been enjoyed here.

Martha dug into the final box of decorations. "Angel or star, Lois?" she asked as she held up the two tree toppers.

Lois hesitated for a moment before selecting the star. She floated up to the top of the tree and carefully attached the star.

"Perfect," Martha said. Her daughter-in-law floated down and stood beside her. Martha put an arm around Lois. "Merry Christmas," she said.

"Merry Christmas," Lois replied, a slight waver in her voice.

The phone rang, interrupting their silent admiration of the tree. Jonathan picked up the cordless handset. "Hello?" A frown formed at the corners of Jonathan's mouth. "Merry Christmas, Ellen," he continued.

Martha glanced at Lois and saw the younger woman bite her lip, probably in resignation.

"Let me check and see if she's around…" Jonathan said. He put his hand over the phone and looked at Lois. After a long moment, Lois nodded. Jonathan handed her the handset.

"Hello Mother," Lois began. "Merry Christmas…" Lois drifted toward the kitchen.

Martha moved closer to her husband and he draped an arm around her. She was relieved that Lois had worked up the courage to talk to her mother, but she knew it wouldn't be an easy conversation. The fact that she hadn't been getting along with her family had been a strain on Lois, even though the younger woman carried the burden with remarkable strength. From the moment she'd met Lois, Martha had known that she was an incredible person, but she'd never known just how strong Lois was until this long series of trials and tribulations had forced Lois to learn just what exactly she was made of.

***

Lois set her jaw as the tension built. She knew that her mother was trying her best, but apologizing was never Ellen Lane's strong point. "I know you're upset with us Lois, and perhaps we overreacted, but you're causing us to worry half to death…" Ellen continued. Lois felt herself tuning out, catching only one or two words in each sentence and letting her brain fill in the rest from familiar turns of phrases she'd heard a billion times before. Headstrong, independent, inherited those awful traits from her father — check, check, check.

"…and have you stopped to think about how we feel about this?" Lois braced herself for the mind numbing onslaught. "I don't…" her mother's voice seemed to falter. "I don't even know if I'm going to have a granddaughter or grandson…"

Lois felt her own consternation waver. She cleared her throat. "It's a boy," she said softly.

"A boy," Ellen repeated quietly. Lois could have sworn that her mother was crying. "Have you picked out a name yet?"

Lois felt tears prick at her eyes. "Not yet," she said. "I wanted to wait…in case…Clark comes home before the baby's born." She found herself holding his wedding band between her thumb and forefinger, playing with it absently. It killed her to think of picking out a name without him, of him not being there to see his son born. By delaying the decision for as long as possible, she held out hope that he'd be home in time. She looked down at her protruding abdomen. She was well into her third trimester and it showed, Bernie's initial fears about her slow weight gain notwithstanding.

Several months ago, she'd made a conscious choice. She'd decided that no matter how hard it was, no matter how much she missed her husband and no matter how afraid she was of doing this without him, she had to keep going. She had to be strong and she had to keep living, one day to the next. She needed to do it for her son. The only thing that kept her going at times, that kept her from becoming catatonic, was the fact that her child needed her.

But as dedicated as she was to doing her best for her baby, the thought of bringing him into the world without Clark there with her filled her with dread. Thinking of her son growing up without knowing his father made her tremble. So she stubbornly refused to think about it. Clark would be home. The logical part of her mind told her that time was running out and that junior would be here soon. The logical part of her mind had a bad habit of being really annoying like that. Now that she could blame hormones, she was inclined to ignore logic on occasion.

Stubbornness and hope got her through each day. But that meant a certain degree of denial, like refusing to even consider choosing a name for the baby without Clark there. Martha and Jonathan had both tried to delicately bring up the subject of names but she'd begged off on each occasion and they quickly ceased pursuing the issue.

"I know you love him," Ellen said, cutting through Lois's ruminations.

"My son?" Lois asked.

"Clark. I know you love him and…I do hope he comes home soon."

"I know he'll be back as soon as he possibly can. Not all men run away." She realized that she'd repeated a promise that Clark had made to her.

"I guess not," Ellen replied.

***

Clark walked down the empty corridors alone, save for his escort. He followed the complex, but now familiar, path to the conference room. The door to the conference room slid open as he approached. As he entered, he noticed Enza's niece slide off Enza's lap. Enza stood to salute, the young child hiding behind her aunt.

"Sir," Enza greeted him with a polite bow.

"Good evening, Lieutenant," he replied. The little girl peeked out at him curiously. Enza took the child's hand.

"I'm sorry, sir, I will call for someone to wait with her."

"No," the child said softly. "I want to stay with you."

"Thia," Enza began patiently. "I need to work."

"You just returned from a deployment, didn't you, Lieutenant?"

"Yes, sir," Enza replied.

"When?"

"Just this evening, sir."

"When was the last time you saw your niece?" he asked.

"Ten days ago, sir," she replied.

"I imagine she missed you a lot."

"It is very difficult for her," Enza admitted.

"Then perhaps she should stay," Clark said. "If that is all right with you."

Enza looked relieved. "Thank you, sir."

Clark squatted down next to Thia. "Hello," he said. "My name is Kal El."

Thia immediately took to hiding behind her aunt again. "It is all right," Enza encouraged her. "Say hello."

Hesitantly, the green-eyed little girl looked up at him. "Hello, Kal El," she said in a small voice. Clark smiled.

"Now can you play quietly while we work?" Enza asked. The little girl nodded.

For several hours Clark was briefed on the prosecutions of the rebels who had been captured in various attacks and the attempts to link the rebels and their crimes back to Nor. The rebels had all sworn allegiance to petty, local warlords, but their attacks and their behaviors were far too coordinated to truly be the work of unaffiliated groups. Someone at the top was clearly pulling the strings. Nor claimed that his movement was purely political and that he did not seek the support of the warlords or their forces, but there was no doubt in Clark's mind that Nor was personally directing the attacks. At the moment, however, nailing Nor seemed about as difficult as nailing Luthor had been.

"Setting aside the military aspects, the political ones are equally troubling. The problem of secession is a complex issue," Enza explained. "Secession under the colony's charter is illegal unless by consent of both the council and seceding parties, but if one of the outlying regions attempts to secede, it will likely tear the council apart."

"And I'm pretty sure that there are people out there who are counting on that scenario," Clark replied. He glanced over at the other end of the table, where Thia had fallen asleep in one of the large chairs. Enza herself looked quite weary; lines of worry seemed to form on her young face. He figured that she had been working for the last week and a half without respite. "It is getting late; we should continue this tomorrow," he said.

"Aye, sir," Enza replied.

***

Clark tried to keep his mind on the many tasks spread out before him, but found it difficult to concentrate His mind was about several trillion miles away from New Krypton. He pulled the chain out from under his tunic and looked down at the ring he held between his fingers for a long moment. As he often did, he wondered what Lois was doing. She wouldn't have been at work today. She had enough seniority to guarantee a few days off for Christmas. He imagined that she was with his parents. He would have given just about anything to be spending Christmas with them.

Stifling a wistful sigh, he tucked the chain back under his uniform and turned his attention to the screen in front of him. He immersed himself in the reports on every subject and from every corner of the planet that had piled up. Behind him, he heard a door open. "Good morning," Clark said absently without looking up.

"Good morning," Zara replied, stifling a yawn.

"How was the meeting with the councilors?" Clark asked.

"Long," she said simply. "I am not certain if it was productive, but it was certainly long."

"Well they haven't threatened to secede yet, have they?" Clark asked, looking up at last at his friend. Dark circles had formed under Zara's eyes.

"No."

"Well, that's victory enough for now," Clark concluded.

"The entire Belaar Valley is vulnerable," Zara said.

"What do you think of Lok Dei and Fet Ri? Are they honest?"

"I am not certain. I do not want to cast aspersions on members of the council in good standing."

"This isn't gossip, Zara," Clark replied. "If their purpose is to undermine us, we need to know."

"I know," Zara said wearily. "If their intentions are ill, though, they hide them behind concern for their people. I honestly do not know what to think of these two."

"Who are we certain is against us?" Clark tried to approach the question from another angle.

"Jen Mai is clearly loyal to Nor. He does not bother to hide his feelings," Zara mused aloud.

"And Ryle and Zell Thon seem to be sympathetic to his position," Clark added.

"Several others seem to blow with the wind. It is difficult to gauge their positions," Zara said.

Clark frowned. "Like Lok Dei and Fet Ri."

"Indeed. I will speak with Shai. He has always been a loyal advisor and my father trusts him entirely."

"What about Alon?" Clark asked.

"He seems thoroughly dedicated to preserving the peace and keeping New Krypton's society intact. He is also supportive of our leadership."

"It's good to know that we have a few allies," Clark replied.

***

Lois stared out at the snow covered fields that stretched out all around her. She leaned against an upright beam on the porch, quietly taking in the world around her. It was cold, but the air was still and the snow seemed spread out like a soft blanket over a sleeping world. It was late afternoon and getting quite dark. The sky was a deep violet and the first stars were shining overhead. She heard the door open behind her and heavy footsteps fall on the wood of the porch.

Jonathan came to stand next to her. He silently held out a steaming cup, which she took gratefully. Lois took a sip of Martha's wonderful hot chocolate. "Thanks," she said.

Neither said anything for a long while. "Nice night," Jonathan remarked at last, taking a sip from his own cup of cocoa. He cleared his throat. "Martha and I, well, we're glad that you're here with us. It's been so good to have you here."

Lois turned to her father-in-law with a tremulous smile. "I don't think I can thank you and Martha enough for everything you've done for me. I could never have managed any of this without you."

"We're family, we take care of each other," Jonathan said simply and she knew that he meant it. It was just that easy, but it meant so much to her. Jonathan put his arm around her. "And don't sell yourself short, Lois. You're probably the strongest person that I know and I'm not talking about the superpowers. Like Clark, you're strong where it counts."

Lois felt the tears threaten to fall. "I don't know about that," she whispered.

"Never doubt it," Jonathan said.

***

Zara walked briskly down the corridors, late to yet another meeting. Each day seemed to bleed into the next — endless meetings, often futile and frustrating, that stretched from dawn until the middle of the night. The pace was exhausting, but there was nothing that could be done about that. Her escort detail marched quickly to keep up with her.

"First Minister!" She heard a familiar voice call out. She stopped and turn to see Alon, standing in the doorway to a conference room. He jogged toward her.

"Might I have a moment of your time, ma'am?" he asked deferentially.

"Good afternoon, Councilor. I am late," Zara replied. "But please walk with me, and explain what it is I can do for you." Zara continued toward her next meeting, Alon now struggling to keep up. The elderly man paused in mid thought to breathe heavily as he explained the situation.

"Negotiations are going quite slowly with the representatives of the Belaar Valley," he explained. "I do not believe anything short of more forces and more resources will convince them of the government's good will."

"What they are asking for is impossible," Zara replied as they rounded a corner.

"They claim that they are asking for the bare minimum for subsistence, ma'am."

"And we are receiving requests for additional aid from all of the outlying settlements. Every one of the local leaders is demanding greater protection from the rebels. Kal El and I are dedicated to doing all that we can to protect each and every corner of this world, but we need them to be willing to compromise on certain issues," Zara explained.

"If it would be of assistance to you, I can try to speak with them again," Alon offered.

"I do appreciate it," Zara replied. She came to a halt and turned to face the elder statesman. "Your efforts have been most helpful, Councilor."

Alon bowed humbly. "I am honored to be able to help." Zara and her escorts continued down the hall, leaving Alon behind.

***

"Is this the last of it?" Lois asked quietly as she picked up another awkward and large piece of equipment.

"Yes, this is it," Bernie replied, looking around the lab nervously.

"Relax Bernie," Lois assured him. "There's no one there. If there was, I'd know."

"Right," Bernie said with a nod.

"Are you sure no one is going to notice that this stuff is gone?"

"Dr. Goodridge used to test fertility drugs on orangutans, but let's see, it's been about seven years since she kept live subjects in the lab, and Dr. Wakely's wombats are too small to need these fetal heart monitors and their litters are just too big anyway…"

"Bernie," Lois tried to steer the absent minded doctor back on track.

"Sorry, right. This stuff has never even been used. It was ordered a few years ago, but we've never had any need for it."

"Good. I'll take this back to Clark's apartment and come get you. Are you sure you know how to use these things?" While she'd hoped to have the baby at the farmhouse, they had decided it would be too difficult to get Bernie to where he needed to be once she went into labor. Instead, a few weeks before her due date, she'd fly the Kents out to Metropolis and they'd stay at Clark's until the baby was born.

"I've overseen the delivery of more than two dozen chimpanzees," Bernie said with pride.

Lois arched an eyebrow. "That was supposed to be reassuring, right?"

"It'll be fine," Bernie assured her. "But like you said, a hospital delivery for an invulnerable mom is out of the question. We'll have to deliver at the house and I'm no midwife. The monitors and the equipment will be a lot of help."

"Thanks," Lois replied. "I'll be back in a few."

***

Clark rubbed his temples as he quietly stepped away from the briefing room. Zara was still inside, discussing with Rab Dun and her crew of engineers the rebuilding of the main colony. He'd stepped out, claiming other matters which required his attention. It wasn't a lie, there were about million things on his plate and he was struggling to think about them all at once. He felt like he was treading water and only barely keeping his head above the surface. He was exhausted and not making any progress and the water level just seemed to keep rising.

He walked down the hall making a mental list of the files on troop strength and possible deployment orders he needed to review. He opened the door to a little caucus room and stepped inside, surprised to find Enza's niece, Thia, sitting alone at the table. An assortment of papers covered in a child's drawings was scattered across the table.

"Hello," he said, a half smile on his face.

She looked up at him before turning back to her drawings. "Hello Kal El."

"Do you mind if I join you?" he asked.

"No. Aunt Enza said I had to stay here and not get into trouble, but I do not think she would mind if you stayed, too."

He grinned. "I promise we won't get in any trouble."

Thia resumed drawing and he turned to the documents he had brought with him. After a long while, the little girl broke the silence. "Aunt Enza said you came here from another world."

"That's right," Clark replied, looking up from the digital screen.

"What was it like?" she asked, her green eyes wide with quiet wonder.

"Well, it is very big," he began. "When I was a little boy, I lived on a farm, but some people live in the mountains and the deserts, and in great big cities." He patiently explained to the fascinated young child what his world was like: how children there went to school, just like in her world, but that the sky was blue and the sun was yellow.

"I want to see your world," she whispered quietly.

Clark smiled sadly. He wanted to see it again, too. Behind him, the door opened and Enza entered.

"Greetings, sir," she said, seeming surprised to see him. "I did not expect to find you here."

"Good tidings, Lieutenant," Clark replied. "Thia and I were just keeping each other company." He had appreciated the company, even more than he'd expected. Clark had always loved children. Their wonder and their honesty were so refreshing. For months, he'd worked day and night, under intense stress and with little sleep. It had been easy to lose sense of what this fight was about. Especially in recent weeks, the battle had not been about people, but abstract concepts. He dealt with strategy and diplomacy and negotiations.

He hated being away from home and his family, but he realized that the other thing that bothered him about being here was how lonely it was. He felt isolated from people. Life on Earth hadn't been like that. Even though he was an outsider, even when he felt like he didn't really belong, he'd always been connected to people. He was part of their lives, and they were a part of his. Here, he didn't have that. There was something inherently aloof and distant about the position of First Minister. Compounding that, Kryptonian society wasn't exactly open and affectionate.

"I hope she has not kept you from your work, sir," Enza said.

Clark smiled. "Not at all."

Enza allowed a smile to break her stoic expression and turned to her little niece. "Thia, are you ready to go now?"

"Yes," Thia replied, collecting her papers in her small hands. She slid out of her chair and allowed Enza to pick her up.

"Say goodbye," Enza instructed.

"Goodbye, Kal El. Thank you for telling me stories."

"Goodbye, Thia," Clark replied as he watched the two leave the room.

***

Lois stood in the middle of the nursery, a small teddy bear nestled in the crook of her arm, her other hand on her protruding abdomen, feeling her son kick enthusiastically. "I'm not sure Daddy will make it back for your big day," she said softly. "If there was any way he could, he would. He'd do anything for you."

She heard footsteps approaching behind her. Jonathan appeared in the doorway to the nursery. She turned around and smiled at her father-in-law, hoping to hide the tears brimming in her eyes. "I still can't believe what a wonderful job you and Martha did with this room," she said hastily.

Jonathan chuckled softly. "Well, we just did the easy stuff. We were lucky to have someone with superpowers do all the hard work." He tapped the doorframe slightly. "You turned out to be quite the carpenter. I didn't know you had it in you, though I shouldn't have been surprised."

"I had a good teacher," Lois replied. She shifted her hand on her stomach to the place where the baby had just kicked. "He's been pretty active today," she explained. She walked toward Jonathan. "Here," she said, showing him where to place his hand on her stomach. The baby kicked obligingly and she saw her father-in-law's eyes light up.

"He's going to be a soccer player," Jonathan said with a grin.

"You have no idea how nice it is to be invulnerable right now," Lois replied, smiling. "Otherwise, I think this kid would have had me all black and blue on the inside."

"We're all very excited to meet you, little guy," Jonathan said. "We can't wait for you to get here."

***

"The councilors from the Belaar Valley are demanding additional forces and materiel to reinforce the region." Trey declared dispassionately to the small group assembled in the briefing room.

"We cannot acquiesce to this request," General Goren replied. "We lack the resources."

Zara gazed solemnly at the gathered advisors. "Leaving aside the threat from Nor's forces, there is still the possibility of local unrest in the region. Nor may not need to attack the Valley to take it from us."

Shai shook his head grimly. "That possibility is unacceptable."

Hanging silently in the air was the opinion shared by many in the room — that the loss of the Belaar Valley to Nor could be a turning point in the rebels' favor. The loss of the Belaar would doubtless prove to be catastrophic.

"We need more time," General Flad offered. "Work on securing and repairing the main colony is progressing according to schedule, but we need time."

"Then I will try to secure it," Zara replied. "I will personally go to the Belaar Valley and attempt to bolster support."

"A diplomatic mission may be exactly what is needed to acquire the necessary leverage, ma'am," Trey said.

"Trey, contact the governors of the Belaar Valley and arrange the visit." Clark spoke up for the first time in the meeting. "Commander Ching, please make the necessary arrangements in preparation for the mission."

"Of course, sir," Ching replied.

"Will you be going as well, sir?" General Goren asked, a puzzled look on his face.

"No," Clark replied. "I will stay here."

"And upon my departure, I will entrust Kal El with my decision making responsibilities in my absence. He will be empowered to act on my behalf," Zara added.

***

Clark looked up at the sound of a knock at his door. He got up and crossed the room to the door. The door slid open as he approached. Ching stood on the other side of it.

"Good afternoon, sir," Ching said, his hands clasped in front of him.

"Good afternoon, Ching. What can I do for you?" Clark stepped aside and motioned for Ching to enter. He thought the other man hesitated briefly before coming into the room. In the last few weeks, the tension between the two of them had slowly begun to dissipate, but Ching still seemed almost awkward around him.

"I wanted to inform you that all the arrangements have been made. Zara will leave in two days' time for a summit with the leaders of the Belaar Valley."

"Will you be going with her?" Clark asked.

"No," Ching replied. "I have selected the crew for the mission, but felt I could be of more use here. Councilor Alon will be going as well, though in an unofficial capacity."

"Good," Clark said with a nod.

"Well, sir, if you require anything, my staff and I are, as always, at your disposal."

"Thank you, Ching," Clark said sincerely.

***

"I'm ready to go at a moment's notice," Bernie assured her.

"Good," Lois said into the phone. "I'm going to fly Martha and Jonathan out to Metropolis tonight. We'll be at Clark's, so if you need us, you know how to reach us."

"Call me in the next day or two and we'll schedule your last appointment."

"Sounds good. Thanks Bernie."

"Of course, Lois. Take care of yourself."

***

Ching looked down at his sleeping lover, so peaceful in silent repose. He smiled slightly as he brushed an errant lock of hair away from her face. The last few weeks, as he'd come to terms with the fact that Kal El knew about them, he'd found a certain degree of peace. He had, over time, come to respect Kal El as a competent and dedicated leader, but he'd been unable to keep from seeing the other man as a rival of sorts. Only in the last few days had he realized what Kal El had been saying all along — Kal El had never wanted to play usurper in Ching's life. While his own attitude could have only been described as petulant, Kal El, on the other hand, had shown nothing but grace.

The other man had been absolutely correct — the threat to Ching's relationship with Zara came not from Kal El, but from Ching's own inability to control his emotions. He realized that now and could see the wisdom in Kal El's concerns. Since then, he'd found it much easier to accept his role in Zara's public life and to accept Kal El's. In the end, he realized, it didn't matter that he had to hide his feelings for her, or that Kal El would have a role in her life that he never could, what mattered were moments like this one. Moments of quiet and calm, when for the briefest of instants, he could wrap himself up in the precious things in this world. Moments when he could forget this ugly war and the horrible decisions they had to make. In these moments there was no sacrifice, no grief. There was only his lover, sleeping peacefully in his arms.

Her eyes still closed, she smiled at him. "Good morning," she murmured sleepily.

"Sleep," he whispered. "It is not yet morning." He gently kissed her forehead.

Zara stretched, still smiling. "I love that moment between waking and sleeping, when I can almost imagine that the whole world has faded away and there is only the two of us."

Ching smiled as he kissed her. "I find myself wishing for that to be true every day."

She opened her eyes and looked up at him. "Does it bother you that things will never be simple for us?"

"It did," he admitted. "But we have always known that things would be difficult. Even when we were children, we knew that."

"What would I do without you?" She asked as she reached up to touch his face. "Do you remember when you left to begin your training? I was so enamored of you, I was certain the separation would kill me, but you did not have time then for a silly little girl."

"I was intimidated by you," he said with a smile. "What is a young man supposed to say to the thirteen year old girl who will one day be his leader and his commander? And I came back, did I not? I came back and found that the girl I had remembered had grown into the most beautiful and captivating woman I had ever met. I begged and pleaded with every superior who had any influence to be assigned to your staff."

"You never told me that," she said softly.

He smiled. "I wanted you to think I had earned that coveted responsibility. Besides, I had no idea how you would have reacted had you known how desperately in love with you I was."

"I'm not certain the outcome would have been different. I realized then that the way I'd felt about you before you left had been mere childish infatuation and it could not compare to the strength of emotions I felt when you returned."

"And then we spent years avoiding the subject and pretending we were not in love."

"Your sense of duty would not allow you to seek any more from our relationship," she added with a wistful smile.

Ching smiled and kissed her again. "Are you claiming that your sense of duty was any less developed?"

"I suppose not," she admitted.

"I cannot believe we managed to pretend for so long," Ching replied. "It was sheer torture, you know."

"It was for me as well — trying to deny my feelings for you, knowing I was expected to marry someone else."

"I was not particularly pleased about that either…every rash and stupid thing I did under the influence of love…"

Zara smiled at him knowingly. "Are you saying that being in love with me rendered you irrational?"

That was exactly what he was saying. Ching prided himself on his level headedness, on always being rational and reasonable. These were highly valued traits in their society and they had always been a part of who he wanted to be, who he was expected to be. In reality though, maintaining that air of imperturbable rationality had become a struggle for him. In his youth, he'd learned to fight the streak of stubbornness and passion in his nature. Training and discipline had helped, but his love for Zara had always managed to cloud his judgment. As a young man, it had been exhilarating — giving in to emotions so strong they shook him, leaving him dazed and bewildered.

Ten years ago, they began their relationship in secret. Young and foolish, they'd thought about nothing more than the moment. They'd tried to escape their responsibilities and their fates. It was a love affair that never should have ended. But born of passion and confusion and fire, it burned too quickly and too bright.

"What are you thinking about?" Zara asked. He realized that he had been silent for quite some time. He wondered what he should say and settled on the truth.

"The first time we made love," he said. He saw her blush. "You were not always this timid," he teased.

"You were not always this brazen," she replied.

"I have spent ten years trying to forget this," he said as he kissed her. "I am not certain why I thought I could. I know what decorum requires, but I was a fool to believe that I could simply move on."

"But we could not have carried on," she reminded him.

He smiled again. "Especially since your father had me sent to the farthest corner of the planet."

He could see the laughter in her eyes and his heart soared because he had put it there. "He did let you come back," she replied, full of mirth.

"He did," Ching agreed. "He was quite forgiving."

"He loves you," Zara replied.

"Do you think he knows about us?"

"I would be surprised if he did not," Zara said. "But we do not speak of it."

They were silent for a long while, simply enjoying each other's company. "I love you," she whispered at last.

"I love you," he replied. "I always have. When I was younger, I thought that what I felt had to be love because it hurt so much. Being with you, being without you, both tore me apart from the inside."

"And now?" she asked.

"When I am with you, I feel at peace," he replied. "I've never felt this way before. It's nice."

"Is that all it is?" she asked jokingly.

"Well it is certainly better than the pain," he said with a smile. Their lips met in a slow, lingering kiss.

***

"Everything is in place," the disembodied voice assured her through the communication system.

"You have given this information to Jen Mai?" Rae Et enquired.

"Of course." The voice sounded indignant, which caused Rae Et to smile. "Every detail and every contingency have been accounted for."

"Good," Rae Et replied.

"Have you told your son?"

"There is no need. He will be informed when it becomes necessary."

"We will proceed as planned. I will keep you abreast of our progress."

"Very well. Have you decided on the cause for the 'accident?'" she asked smugly.

"Have you a preference?"

"Accident, sabotage, whatever. Surprise me." Rae Et leaned back in her chair, smiling to herself. True leadership, she understood, meant encouraging her subordinates to cultivate their talents, even their creativity. She folded her frail hands in her lap. Her body may have been old and bent, but her mind was still razor sharp and she commanded the respect of powerful men and women. More important, she commanded the loyalty of unscrupulous ones.

***

The entourage moved as one down the hallway like a funeral procession, Clark thought. Dressed in their formal black uniforms, he and Zara walked together, her hand resting at the crook of his elbow. With the other officers in their detail, Ching walked a few paces behind. They approached the docking bay, where Zara's ship and crew waited. At the bay, Shai and Trey waited to greet them along with several other councilors and advisors. The ship's small crew stood at attention nearby, prepared for inspection.

"Good tidings to our First Ministers," Shai declared.

"Good tidings to our gathered friends," Zara replied. Zara then turned to Clark and with the necessary flourish and protocol, bowed and formally transferred sole responsibility for governance to him. "To you, Kal El, I entrust my authority in my absence."

Clark merely bowed in response. "May your mission of peace bear fruit and may fortune be with you, Zara," he said, repeating the standard Kryptonian farewell.

"May fortune be with you, Kal El, and all of you, who toil in the service of peace and prosperity," she responded. Clark noticed her gaze fall briefly on Ching as she surveyed the gathered group. Clark glanced at Ching, who remained stone-faced and impassive.

Zara's crew saluted her as she boarded the ship and then followed her aboard. The ship launched as the assembled group watched in silence, their collective hopes for peace on board the Messenger speeding away from them.

***

"Just a second!" Lois called out as she made her way across the apartment to Clark's front door. She'd already X-rayed it and knew that Perry and Jimmy were on the other side. She opened the door to see her grinning friends.

"Hi Lois!" Jimmy greeted her enthusiastically.

"Hi Jimmy," she said with a smile as she hugged her young friend, as well as a nine months pregnant woman could.

"Wow, looks like the baby will be here any day," Jimmy said.

"Yeah, and it feels like it, too," Lois replied. Jimmy stepped inside, dusting the fat snowflakes from his jacket.

"It looks like it's really coming down out there," Lois said, gazing at the slowly drifting flakes of snow descending lazily through the sky.

"How are you, darlin'?" Perry asked as he followed Jimmy inside, carrying a large bouquet of flowers.

"Big as a house, but you can see that," Lois replied.

"You look terrific," Perry replied. "And these are for you." He held up the flowers.

"They're beautiful, thank you," Lois said. "I'll get a vase."

"Why don't you sit, I'll do it for you," Perry offered.

"Pregnant, not feeble, remember, Perry? Besides, thanks to the superpowers, I feel just fine. No aching back, no sore feet, no fatigue." Lois took the flowers to the kitchen in search of a vase.

Perry laughed. "That really is something."

"Make yourselves at home," Lois called from the kitchen. "Clark's parents just ran to the store, they'll be back soon. She returned to the living room, where Jimmy and Perry had taken seats on the couch. She sat down in the easy chair.

"It's good to see you again," Perry said, beaming. "We've missed you around here."

"Yeah, the newsroom isn't the same without you," Jimmy added.

"I miss you guys, too. And the newsroom," Lois replied. "It's been nice to be with Martha and Jonathan; they've been absolutely wonderful, but I miss Metropolis."

The door opened and Martha and Jonathan bustled inside, carrying grocery bags. "Perry, Jimmy, it's great to see you both," Jonathan said as he nudged the door closed without putting down the grocery bags.

"Hi Martha, Jonathan, it's good to have you here in Metropolis again," Perry replied.

"Here, let me help, Mr. K," Jimmy said as he got up from the sofa.

"Thanks, Jimmy," Jonathan replied.

"Do you guys need any more help?" Lois asked.

"No, we should be fine," Martha assured her.

As the other three busied themselves with putting away the groceries, Perry leaned in conspiratorially toward Lois with smile he couldn't contain on his face. "I have good news," he said.

"What is it?" Lois asked, her curiosity piqued.

"You know that the publishers love your column," he began. "They love it so much, in fact, that they want you to write a book."

Lois was stunned. It took her a moment to figure out how to respond. "What? Really?"

"Swear to the King," Perry replied. "They want a book on Lois Lane's World Full of Heroes."

"Wow," Lois replied inarticulately.

Perry grinned. "They're as excited about this as you are."

***

Zara rushed to the bridge of her ship, an anxious knot forming itself in the pit of her stomach. "Commander Rin, what's wrong?" she asked.

The harried commander toggled switches on the control panel in frustration. "The shields are down ma'am, and I cannot restore them."

Zara's mouth drew itself into a tight lipped frown as her mind raced. Sen, A young enlisted man behind her called out, "Commander, the circuits have been destroyed."

"Can you repair them?" Zara asked.

"It could take hours, ma'am," the young man responded.

"Try," Zara insisted.

"Aye, ma'am."

Zara shook her head grimly. "This has to be sabotage. How far away are we from the Belaar?"

"An hour's flight," the commander replied.

"Request all available flights as escort," Zara demanded.

Ensign Rul, the flight's communication's officer looked up at her two superiors, a grim look on her young face. "Ma'am, sir, the communications system is malfunctioning."

"Run a total diagnostic on the systems," Zara commanded the crew. "If someone disabled the shields and the communications system, it's unlikely they left the rest of the systems alone."

"It is likely that they mean to shoot us down from the ground," Commander Rin replied. "Evasive measures and the auto-pilot are also malfunctioning."

"Then we must land immediately," Zara replied.

"Aye, ma'am." Rin started a descent.

"Everyone to their seats," Zara commanded. She turned to Captain Voss, the co-pilot. "Go with the rest of the crew, I will take over."

"Aye, ma'am," Voss replied, before getting up to join the rest of the crew in the back of the ship. Zara took her seat next to the commander.

A light illuminated on the control panel in front of them. The commander told her what she already knew. "Ma'am, we have incoming fire."

***

The screen panel flicked to life, interrupting the briefing session. Every pair of eyes around the table turned toward the image of a young communications officer on the screen. "First Minister, sirs, madams, I apologize for the interruption, but Kal El is needed in the command center immediately."

"What is it?" Clark asked. "What's happened?"

"I do not know, sir, the commander has only told me that it is urgent," the young officer responded.

"Ching, let's go. Everyone, we will reconvene later," Clark said as he stood up.

The advisors did not move from their places as he and Ching made their way out of the conference room. Clark and Ching began to run as soon as they were in the hallway and quickly made their way to the command center. The commander was waiting alone for them. In silent understanding, Ching waited outside as the commander led Clark into the control room.

"What's going on?" Clark demanded breathlessly.

"Sir, we have lost contact with the First Minister's ship," the commander responded gravely.

"What?" Clark asked. He felt his heart thunder in his chest as myriad terrible possibilities ran through his mind. "When did you lose them, where?"

"We have the coordinates here," the commander said as he handed Clark a communicator. "Last contact was twenty minutes ago."

"Why did you wait to tell me?" Clark asked frantically.

"We had to ensure the problem was not a malfunction on our end, sir."

"Is there anyone on the way out there now?" Clark demanded insistently.

"Aye, sir, we're scrambling available planes now. Those coordinates are for a remote and isolated area, so we are mounting a massive response."

"How soon can I leave?"

The commander looked at Clark, puzzled. "Sir, you cannot."

"What do you mean? How soon before ships leave from here? I need to get out there." Clark didn't realize he was using the same tone he always used as Superman. Even without the powers, it was forceful and persuasive.

"I am sorry, sir, but safety protocol requires that if one of the First Ministers is endangered or incapacitated, the other should remain in a secure location until the crisis is resolved. You must stay within the colony."

"That's not acceptable!" Clark replied forcefully. He dragged an agitated hand through his hair. Ching. Clark realized that Ching was still waiting outside, unaware of what was happening. Clark exited the room and immediately found Ching waiting outside.

"They've lost contact with Zara's ship," Clark said gravely. All the color drained from Ching's face. Ching swallowed several times before he managed to speak.

"I have to go," Ching said hoarsely.

"They're sending ships now," Clark explained.

"I have to go," Ching repeated.

"Ching, we need to…" Clark began

"I have to go," Ching interrupted.

Clark could see the unadulterated terror and determination in the other man's eyes. On one hand, he worried that Ching's personal feelings would more than simply cloud his judgment; he was half crazed, and with good reason. On the other hand, Clark knew that if it were Lois, no force in heaven or hell would have kept him away. Ching was also Zara's personal advisor and chief of her security detail, sending him in search of Zara would not bring undue attention. Clark merely nodded. "Take whatever and whomever you need."

Ching's attention was already elsewhere. Clark could tell that he was mentally planning his mission. Uncharacteristically, without waiting to be dismissed, Ching turned and rushed away.

"Bring her back," Clark whispered.

***

The sound of incoming fire, scoring another direct hit against the ship, boomed in their ears. The ship rattled and shook as Zara's pilot struggled to keep it balanced. Zara hurried to turn off a malfunctioning engine and divert power to the remaining, working engines.

"We're losing altitude too quickly," Rin said through gritted teeth.

"I'm going to rotate thrusters sixty degrees and maximize power," Zara replied.

"Ma'am, I don't think I can hold that," Rin said warily.

Zara understood Rin's concern. Such a drastic maneuver was their best hope to slow the ship's descent, but it also made the craft significantly more difficult to control. "You can," she said simply. "Ready?"

Rin nodded grimly. Her hands steady when she was certain they should have been shaking, Zara flipped a series of switches, her hands moving deftly over the instrument panel. The ship lurched and slowed before shaking its passengers violently from side to side.

"Brace yourselves," Rin called to the rest of the crew as the ground approached them at too steep an angle. Zara stared silently at the ground, her jaw set. She tried to keep her mind clear. In the event that she survived the landing, she'd need to think quickly to get her crew safely out of this situation. But all she could think about was Ching. Having just rekindled her relationship with him, she was not ready for their time to be over. She was thankful, though, that even if she died, he would never have to wonder how she felt about him. If these were her last moments, she had no regrets.

She prepared the ship for landing and reversed the thrusters as the pilot struggled to control their descent. Zara tried to brace herself as the ship hit the ground, bouncing harshly and rattling the crew violently. She fought to maintain calm, when all she wanted to do was close her eyes, grit her teeth, and hope that it would all be over soon. Sparks flew in the main fuselage and the sound of tearing metal assaulted her ears. With one more jarring bounce the craft came to an abrupt halt. Despite her restraints, Zara found herself thrown painfully forward. She slammed back against the head restraint and there was nothing except black.

***

Ching sat in nervous agitation on board the ship. He tried to remain calm, but the waiting was driving him mad with fear. He tasted the bile rising in his throat and each breath was labored. The fear was threatening to render him catatonic, but he knew that he had to maintain some semblance of level headedness. He would be of no help to Zara if he could not keep his own nerves in check. He looked down and realized that he was gripping his weapon so tightly that his knuckles were bone white. They were still hours from the last known coordinates of Zara's ship.

Ching hoped that she was all right, but knew that it was unlikely that she would come out of this unscathed. There had still been no word from her ship and no word from the other ships sent to locate it. He set his jaw grimly, trying not to contemplate the worst possible scenarios. He was not ready to let her go. He never would be, but especially not now. Ching was not prepared to let any force in the universe tear them apart. He was not about to lose her.

He was sworn to protect her and he was failing. He wasn't with her when she needed him. Had he ever been? Had he ever been what she needed him to be?

He replayed in his mind the conversation he had had with Tek Ra, many years ago, just before he had been sent away from her. He'd stormed through the halls of Tek Ra's home with uncharacteristic ire. Tek Ra, on the other hand had remained stoic and calm.

Throwing his bag over his shoulder and preparing to leave, Ching had exclaimed, "I am in love with her!"

"I do not doubt it," Tek Ra replied patiently.

"Nothing will change that, you can send me to the furthest corner of this rock, and I will still love her."

"And what does that mean? You and Zara both know that what you want you can never have. That too, will never change." Tek Ra had placed a hand upon the younger man's shoulder. "Ching, my young friend, I have watched you grow into a fine man. You bring honor to the houses of your father and your mother, and to mine as well. If circumstances were different, nothing would make me happier than to see my beloved daughter married to a man like you, but Zara is not free to make this choice."

Ching had stepped away and looked downward. "And so I am supposed to simply let her go?"

"Yes," Tek Ra had said simply. "I had to, many years ago. She was just a child when I watched my daughter begin down a road she had to walk alone. I know that you love her, but neither your feelings for her, nor my own can ever come to stand in the way of her duties. We must learn to stand aside and let her do what she was born to do."

He had let her go, or at least, he had tried. Now, he knew that he never could. If something had happened to her, New Krypton would be thrown into chaos, but all he could think about was the fact that losing her would kill him. It would hollow him out.

***

Zara was brought painfully back to consciousness. Her head throbbed and she felt nauseated. She moved slowly, trying to push through the thick cloud of pain and disorientation. She took a slow, deep breath and opened her eyes. The ship's interior lights flickered, dimmed, and finally died. The control deck was a mangled mess. Rin sat slumped in his seat, his eyes closed, his head hanging to one side.

Zara fumbled to undo her restraints. With no small amount of difficulty, she stood from her seat, feeling a stabbing pain tear up her side. She placed a hand against her injured ribs. Limping from an aggravation of the knee injury she'd sustained during the attack on the colony months ago, she made her way to Rin's side. He was breathing shallowly and with great difficulty.

"Status check," she called out to the crew, wincing in pain as she did. "Who is injured?"

One of the two enlisted men, Sergeant Cor, carefully made his way toward her, a thick stream of blood trickling from his scalp down his face. Cor was a burly man with a weathered face that spoke of years of experience. He touched the wound on his head gingerly with a large hand. "No fatalities, ma'am," he said. "But Ensign Rul has a broken arm, and Corporal Sen's ankle is in bad shape. I've set it, but he can't walk on it well."

"And Captain Voss?" Zara asked.

"Cuts and bruises, ma'am, like me."

"Commander Rin will need medical attention." Zara looked at the unconscious pilot, his breaths coming in rasps. The landing hadn't been graceful, but he'd doubtlessly saved the lives of the crew. "Get the weapons and bring a stretcher."

"Aye, ma'am," Cor replied.

Zara searched the cabin for supplies, moving as best she could despite the limp and the growing pain in her side. She found provisions and bandages as well as the ship's portable transmitter.

Cor returned with the stretcher, Captain Voss following him in.

"How is he?" Voss inquired.

"I'm not certain," Zara replied as she made her way back to Rin's side. "We need to have him immobilized and get him away from the ship."

"We won't have much luck contacting help," Cor said as he helped her gently undo Rin's restraints. "The ship's main transmitter and radio are broken."

"We lost transmission well before the crash, it is unclear whether a rescue party will be able to track us," Voss added. They carefully transferred Rin to the stretcher.

Zara looked up at her two crew members as they secured Rin to the stretcher. "That may prove to be more of a blessing than a curse. Whoever was shooting at us is no doubt looking for us as well. We'll bring the transmitter, but it is not safe to activate it now."

Voss nodded in understanding. "What do you propose, ma'am?"

"We need to get away from the ship as quickly as possible. At this point it is far more likely that the first to find us will be enemies instead of friends."

Voss and Cor took their places at the foot and the head of the stretcher. "Are you certain you're both up to carrying the stretcher?" Zara asked.

"We'll be fine, ma'am," Voss replied as the two men gingerly lifted the stretcher. They carefully made their way through the twisted wreck of the ship out the exit. Corporal Sen and Rul followed, the young enlisted man leaning on the officer for support. The wind swirled around them as they stepped out into the unforgiving cold. Leaving the ship was less than ideal, but those who had shot them down doubtless knew who was in the craft. They wouldn't leave anything to chance. Staying with the ship would have placed the entire crew in even greater danger.

***

"Good news, ma'am," Jen Mai said with a slithering smile, his dark, beady eyes dancing with delight.

"What is it? Did you succeed?"

"We shot down the ship. Our scouts saw it descend somewhere in the mountains just north of the valley. It is only a matter of time before we find the wreckage."

Rae Et frowned. "Well, let us not celebrate quite yet. I will consider the mission accomplished once we have verified that Zara is dead."

Jen Mai's smile died. He cleared his throat. "If I might inquire, ma'am, why did we target Zara instead of Kal El? Would it not be easier to have Nor replace Kal El?"

She shot her subordinate an icy stare. "Are you questioning my tactics?"

"Not at all," Jen Mai stammered. "I simply…well, I feel I would be better able to serve you if I understood the proximate goals of the plan."

Rae Et allowed herself a thin, feral smile, the look in her eyes still menacing. "Very well, Jen Mai. Your obsequiousness is quite pleasing. We are targeting Zara because although I do not believe my son has any interest in wedding Kal El…" Jen Mai snickered but composed himself quickly under Rae Et's glare. "Our plan is not to have him simply slip into the role of First Minister. We have exploited the Council's weak willed vacillations and hesitancy. We have no desire to head up such a petty and bureaucratic body. The only viable plan is the complete destruction of the Council system. It must be stripped of its power. The easiest way to do that is to have the Council turn upon itself. With Zara disposed of, the Council will fall immediately to fighting. Zara is the strong hand in the First Ministerial pair. It is only because of her that many of the Councilors assent to Kal El's presence. Without her, he has no legitimacy."

"Remove Zara, and the Council will destroy itself for us," Jen Mai mused aloud.

"Precisely," Rae Et replied.

***

"Sir, surveillance film suggests there is something on the ground ahead. It could possibly be the wreckage of the First Minister's ship."

Ching rose from his seat and approached the navigator. "Show me."

The navigator pointed out the images that had been gathered. "Here, sir. The region is too mountainous to allow a landing, but we can safely deploy here." The navigator pointed to a nearby spot. "It is a difficult hike, but can be covered in under an hour."

"Very well. Chart a course, Captain, and inform the other ships to continue surveying the area," Ching ordered.

"Aye, sir."

Ching looked over his shoulder at the twenty elite soldiers from the Expeditionary Forces seated in the main cabin. Heavily armed and anxious, just like their hundreds of compatriots in ships just like this one, they were prepared to do whatever it took to protect their First Minister. The ship began to descend. "Weapons at the ready, prepare to disembark," Ching growled.

"Aye, sir," their voices boomed in unison.

***

Clark paced uneasily in General Command. "Have we heard anything?" he asked for the umpteenth time.

"No, sir," the young communications officer replied. "The first ships are just approaching the coordinates where we lost contact."

The Commander of the Watch turned to Clark. "Sir, news of the deployment has spread. People, especially the Councilors, are going to begin asking questions."

Clark realized the difficult position he was in. He'd once been on the other side of this line, part of the press, demanding that information be released from the smoky backrooms where decisions were made. But this was a matter of war, of life and death. Then again, the longer he withheld information, the more likely that he would lose people's trust and confidence as an honest leader. "Confirm what's happened. But do not give any information about the time or the location," he ordered, wishing he was as certain as he managed to sound.

"Aye, sir," the commander replied.

The door behind him opened and a guard entered. "Sirs, Tek Ra and Mieren are here."

Clark nodded gravely. "Send them in."

Zara's parents appeared in the doorway a moment later. "What has happened," Tek Ra demanded, the agony written clearly on his face as well as his wife's. "Where is our daughter?"

Clark swallowed roughly. "General Command lost contact with the ship. A rescue mission is underway."

"How could this happen?" Mieren asked, her voice tremulous.

"We don't know," Clark replied unhelpfully, wishing there was something useful or comforting he could say. "I've sent Ching, with the best forces on New Krypton, to find her."

Mieren bit her lip and nodded. "Ching will find her," she said softly.

"He will," Tek Ra agreed.

"As soon as we hear anything, you will know," Clark added. "Until then, if there's anything I can do…"

"We appreciate your help, Kal El," Tek Ra said. "And we know that you are doing all that is in your power to bring her safely back."

***

"Steady," Zara cautioned as they climbed through a particularly rocky and narrow pass. She stood beside Rin's stretcher to hold it steady as Cor and Voss struggled to carry it while moving up the steep path.

Rin drew in a loud, ragged breath and turned toward Zara. Rin had come in and out of consciousness as they'd traveled. He wheezed as he tried to speak. "Leave me, ma'am," he gasped. "I slow you down."

"We will not leave anyone behind," Zara replied.

***

"Move! Move! Move!" Ching commanded his soldiers as they rushed out of the ship into the darkened night. Following their training perfectly, they paired off and began sweeping the area around the landing site. Once satisfied that the area was safe, they fell back into formation and following Ching's lead, headed toward the rugged hills ahead.

***

"Here," Zara said breathlessly to her exhausted and haggard crew of five. She stopped and leaned against the rocks at the mouth of a cave. It was late and it was cold. The cave would provide shelter from the merciless wind. It was also a far more defensible position than any other around them. With only one opening, there was only one place from which they could be attacked. The cave had an elevated position that made it easier to defend and would force any attackers into a vulnerable position.

Cor and Voss wearily carried Rin's stretcher into the cave and gently set it down. Rin had slipped back into unconsciousness. Sen, limping awkwardly on his ankle and Rul, still holding her injured arm immobile, followed. Zara watched as Cor did his best to tend to Rin's injuries.

"How is he?" Zara asked.

Cor pulled a syringe from the medic's pack and injected the medicine into Rin's arm. "I've given him something for the pain, but his injuries are quite severe. Well beyond my ability to help him."

"Keep him comfortable," Zara replied. "We have to hope that he can hold on until help arrives. We'll keep watch in shifts."

***

The door to her office slid open and Jen Mai appeared again. "What is it?" she asked. "Have you found them?"

"Not yet, ma'am. But we have reason to believe that Expeditionary Forces have been sent in a rescue mission."

Rae Et frowned. This situation had been foreseen and it could have proved a significant difficulty, but she was determined to turn it into an advantage. "Did you acquire those uniforms?"

"Yes, ma'am," Jen Mai replied.

"Tell your men it's time to get dressed. Oh, and Jen Mai, how attached are you to the village of Breksin?"

***

"Sir, here!" one of Ching's soldiers at the head of the column called out. Ching made his way forward through the ranks to see what his soldiers had discovered.

The wreckage of the ship.

Ching raced down the steep slope toward the ship. Breathless, he stepped through the door into the cabin. He peered around. The interior was deserted. Several soldiers followed him into the ship. "They are alive," Ching said quietly.

"Sir, the weapons and medical equipment are missing," a soldier called out.

"One of the stretchers is gone," another announced.

Ching scanned the ship, searching for any clues that would help him find her. He already knew that they had all survived the crash, but judging from the damage done to the rocks outside the ship, it had been a very rough landing. At least some of them were injured, likely one of them seriously. He looked down at the floor of the ship. Small spots of blood had been smeared on the metal flooring. Ching made his way to the control deck. He knew Zara. If they had had any advanced warning of the danger, she would have gone straight to the controls. She was one of the best pilots on all of New Krypton, if there was danger, she would want to do something to help and to protect her crew.

The control deck had sustained serious damage during the crash. He searched the mangled deck, but there was little information to gather from the destroyed circuitry and controls. He looked at the pilot and co-pilot's seats. He touched the back of the almost shattered pilot's seat and held up his fingers, sticky with nearly dried blood. The pilot's restraints had been cut away with a knife, which probably meant that he or she had to be assisted from this seat. If he had to venture a guess, he would assume that it was the pilot who was taken out on the stretcher.

Ching looked up at his crew, likewise gathering whatever information they could from the ship. "Let's go," he said simply. Outside the ship, Ching looked around, surveying the terrain. Zara, knowing that members of her crew were injured and unwilling to further jeopardize them, would have removed them from this immediate danger zone. There was no guarantee that the first to arrive at this scene would have been her own forces and not those of Nor's. She would have chosen a path that could be traversed by her small crew, probably all wounded and encumbered by a comrade on a stretcher.

To the south lay the valley and total exposure, as well as potentially hostile forces. To the north and the east were mountains too difficult to pass even by those in good health. That left the west, and a steep, but not impossible mountain pass. It would have provided them some protection against Nor's forces, if they were sent to find her. Unfortunately, everything she could do to protect herself from Nor would make it that much more difficult for Ching to find her, as well.

Ching turned to his communications officer. "Redirect all flights to this region. Have forces deploy to search in concentric circles, working their way out from this point. We'll head west."

"Aye, sir," the officer replied.

***

Zara struggled to keep her eyes open on her shift on watch. The pain in her side had been steadily growing worse and it hurt to breathe. She leaned heavily against the rock wall of the cave and peered out into the darkness. Deep inside the cave, away from the entrance, Sen tended to Commander Rin's injuries and kept watch over him. Rin's condition had worsened as the night wore on. Zara knew that he would not last long without medical attention.

The sound of footsteps outside the cave drew her attention. She felt her heart rate increase. With trepidation, she silently stood up, biting back the pain that came from moving. Zara crept toward the mouth of the cave, her weapon at the ready. She strained her ears to make out the voices in the distance.

"…no prisoners…shoot to kill…"

Any lingering doubts about the identities of the approaching parties were laid to rest. Certain the sound of her heart thundering was audible, Zara took a deep, silent breath and quietly retreated into the cave. She moved cautiously, desperately hoping to avoid making a sound. After what seemed like an eternity, she reached her sleeping soldiers and quietly roused them. The four mostly able-bodied members of her crew joined her in quietly approaching the mouth of the cave.

Their eyes were accustomed to the lack of light, but in the darkness it was still difficult to make out their would-be attackers. Zara could see seven of them all together but knew that if a firefight were to ensue, more would come quickly. Voss signaled to her silently. He was suggesting that he and Cor, the only two who had not suffered any significant injuries, leave the cave to draw fire elsewhere. Zara scanned the terrain, her focus settling on the narrow pass at the top of the path. From the high ground, the pass would be easy to defend, only one or two people could move through it at a time. The plan was dangerous, but their options were extremely limited. At her assent, the two soldiers slipped quietly away toward the pass.

***

Ching stopped dead in his tracks. He held up a hand, signaling his troops to be silent. "Did you hear that?" he asked his lieutenant.

"What, sir?" The young lieutenant looked around cautiously.

The sound of rifle fire, unmistakable, and much louder than before, pierced the air. With a wave of his hand, Ching ordered his soldiers forward toward the sound of the fire. "Call in for medical evacuation, then scatter to raid positions," he told his lieutenant. "But do not charge until you receive the order."

"Aye, sir," the junior officer replied.

Ching swiftly ran in front of his forces and toward the firefight. Maintaining his cover, he scanned the area, trying to determine where friend and foe had taken up positions. He counted a few dozen rebel troops, disorganized in their attack on several locations. The mouth of a narrow pass seemed to be the place of the fiercest fighting, but there was also fire being exchanged near the mouth of a cave. The cave was the easiest place to defend the wounded. It was likely that a few of the able bodied had taken position at the pass to draw fire, which meant those in the cave needed the most help. He quietly relayed the information to his lieutenant and the waiting forces before taking position behind the rebels to draw the fire of those attacking the cave.

Ching settled behind the protection of a large rock, took aim, and fired.

He caught the rebels by surprise and succeeded in his plan to draw their fire. The rebels fell into confusion, firing wildly in his general direction.

***

Zara cautiously looked out from behind the rock wall where she'd taken position. The steady, vicious fire that had been directed toward the cave's entrance had suddenly been diverted. She wondered if Cor or Voss had moved to divert fire yet again. Emboldened she craned her neck to see where the rebels were aiming. The pre dawn sky lit up by laser rifle fire, she was able to make out a solitary figure, racing nimbly from one position to the next as he brought a daring, brash assault on the rebel forces.

One hand fell unconsciously to her side, where the pain now throbbed mercilessly. She struggled to remain standing on leaden legs, but her eyes were fixed on that figure, whose movements could not have been more familiar to her.

She would have known him anywhere.

For the briefest of moments, the pain and the fatigue seemed to simply evaporate. She breathed his name in a silent whisper.

A blast of laser rifle fire reminded her that she was still far from safe. She retreated once again to a more protected position behind the protruding rock wall and prepared to return fire. She could no longer see Ching and fear and worry gnawed at her, but it would do neither of them any good if she simply sat watching him, too disoriented to fight.

Out of the corner of her eye, she glanced at Sen, by far the youngest of her crew. He cursed softly as his weapon malfunctioned. Zara jerked her head to the side to look at the corporal before turning quickly back toward the rebel position. She realized with horror that Sen was unconsciously leaning away from his protected position, probably seeking the tiny bit of light in the darkness that would help him see well enough to repair his weapon.

She looked down at their attackers. With horror, she noticed a rebel soldier creep forward and take careful aim. Her focus turned once more to Sen. He must have been completely visible to the rebels.

"Sen!" she called out as she lunged at his position. Zara felt the muscles and tendons and tissues in her side tear and scream in agony, seemingly ripped up by the sudden forceful motion. Sen looked up at her in confusion. She collided with him, knocking them both to the ground as a loud crack overhead followed by the tumbling of rocks and dust from the place just behind where Sen had been standing informed them of how close the shot had truly been.

Zara felt the white hot flames of agony consume her, radiating outward from her side. She struggled to draw in slow breaths, each tiny movement causing excruciating pain to flare up. With gritted teeth, she screwed her eyes shut, aware of nothing but the pain.

***

Within moments, as per his orders, Ching's own forces arrived, not from behind him, but attacking from either side, effectively surrounding the rebels. The ensuing firefight was vicious, but brief.

Lacking any options for retreat and having lost command of the high ground, the rebels surrendered to Ching's troops.

"Lay down your weapons!" Ching barked at the rebels. He signaled his lieutenant. "Round them up carefully." With that brief command, he raced toward the mouth of the cave. Two of Zara's crew had emerged from behind the pass once the fighting had ceased. Both were heavily wounded. Ching ran to the cave, calling out her name.

"Zara!"

He ran into the darkened cave, searching frantically. "Zara!" he called again. He stopped dead. Ensign Rul and a young enlisted man stood over the figures of two people lying on the floor of the cave.

"Commander," Rul called to him. "They're both wounded badly."

Ching ran to Zara. He knelt beside her. "Zara," he whispered breathlessly, his heart sinking. He swallowed roughly around the boulder that had formed in his throat. She turned her head slightly to face him, her eyes fluttering open.

"You came," she whispered.

Ching merely nodded, not trusting his voice to speak. He wanted to take her hand in his, to tell her that nothing in the world could keep him from going to her when she needed him. He wanted to promise her that he would never again fail to protect her, that he would never let her come to any harm. But he couldn't. He knew that.

He stood up and stepped back, looking for the first time at the wounded commander who lay on the stretcher next to Zara. Ching retrieved his communicator and gave a simple, emotionless order. "I need medical evacuation now. Two seriously wounded."

***

Rae Et stood outside her compound, the fierce gusts of wind swirling about her seemed to have no impact on her unflappable demeanor. Her expression, as always, was stern and inscrutable. She turned her eyes upward as a ship gently descended to the landing pad.

The ship's doors opened as soon as it had landed. Jen Mai strode out confidently.

"How did it go?" she asked almost disinterestedly.

Jen Mai smiled with self satisfaction. "Field commanders report that it has been burned to the ground."

"Good," Rae Et replied before turning to walk back inside. Jen Mai hurried to follow. "Brief Nor," Rae Et continued without bothering to look at her subordinate. "He will need to make a statement about these unfortunate events."

"Of course, ma'am," Jen Mai replied. "Is there anything else?"

"Yes, I'm beginning to hear word of fighting in the mountains near where Zara's ship was last spotted. I want to know what is happening there and why our commanders have not kept us informed."

"Very well, ma'am, I'll see to it at once."

"Do that," Rae Et concluded dismissively with a curt nod.

***

Ching stood back in a corner of the small medical transport ship, watching anxiously as the medics worked. "Will she be all right?" he asked, craning his neck to get a glimpse of her.

"We're doing everything we can, sir," one of the medics said without looking up.

Moments stretched into infinity as the medical crew did their work. Ching didn't understand their jargon or what was happening and the frustration was tearing at him. He fidgeted slightly, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He was trapped in the confines of this ship, without room to pace as he worried. He tried to maintain an outward calm, directing his energies toward being still and silent. He wondered for the hundredth time how much longer it would take to get back to the main colony. Outside, dawn had broken; signaling the end to what may have been the worst day of his life.

He shook his head. Had it really been just a day? The agony, the fear, and panic that came with her disappearance, the desperation of his search, and the anguish of finding her so terribly wounded all jumbled together. At once, it felt like years had passed since he'd first learned of the loss of her ship, and yet, he was still feeling all the terror and confusion at this very moment, his mind having not had the necessary time to process all that had happened.

***

Clark stood up as the ship approached the docking bay. He'd been sitting in silence with Zara's parents for the last hour, anxiety among the small group growing. They waited now with bated breath as the ship gently descended and docked. Immediately, the cargo door of the ship slid open and the crew rushed out with their two patients. The waiting medical personnel met them and a terse, staccato exchange, well beyond Clark's understanding, took place.

"Make way," the lead medic called out as they headed toward the medical facilities. Clark and Zara's parents reluctantly stood aside. The look of grief on Mieren's face was evident as she watched her daughter, unconscious, wheeled away from her.

They tried to follow, but were stopped by a pair of guards. "Ma'am, sirs, we cannot let you go with them," one of the guards said gently.

Ching exited the ship last. His eyes trained steadily on the group of medics rushing away from him. He gave no sign that he noticed any of the other people gathered at the docking bay. He walked slowly toward them, seeming to look past them. Ching shook his head slightly before finally looking at the people around him.

"Ching, what happened?" Clark asked.

"You can't see the blood," Ching muttered.

"Ching?" Tek Ra tried to get the younger man's attention.

Ching turned to Tek Ra, his eyes still vacant. "She was bleeding internally. She kept fighting, anyway. They think they stopped the bleeding."

"Oh my," Mieren gasped. Tears formed in her eyes. Tek Ra tightened his arm around her shoulder.

***

Lois sat bolt upright and looked around in confusion. In the darkness, she could see Jonathan, looking at least as startled as she felt. She glanced down and realized that she must have fallen asleep at the kitchen table.

"I should have known better than to think I could sneak in here without waking you up," Jonathan said good naturedly. "Sorry about that." He flicked on the kitchen lights.

"Oh, it's all right," Lois replied. "I didn't really mean to fall asleep here, anyway."

"Can I interest you in some tea?" Jonathan asked as he poured water into the tea kettle.

"Sure," Lois replied. "Couldn't sleep?"

"Nah," Jonathan said. "I still don't get how city folk can stand all this noise."

"I guess when you grow up with it, you just get used to it."

Jonathan placed two mugs of tea on the kitchen table and pulled out a chair to sit down. He picked up one of the open books in front of Lois. "Catching up on your reading?" he asked as he looked at the book's cover: "What to Name Your Baby."

"I figured I can't really put it off any longer," Lois replied quietly before taking a sip of her tea. She stared intently at the dark liquid in her mug.

"Well, the little guy will be here soon," Jonathan said in agreement. He turned back to the page she'd had open, somewhere in the S's.

"Part of me is still holding out hope that Clark gets back before the baby is born. That he's on his way right now and he'll get here just in the nick of time. That's the way it's supposed to be, isn't it? But another part of me worries that he won't be here. And it knows that I can't just keep waiting and hoping."

"The baby needs a name," Jonathan said simply.

"But this name is going to be with him his whole life. It's going to be who he is. What if I pick something the other kids will make fun of? What if he grows up resenting me for it? What if…" She let out an agitated sigh before finally whispering aloud what she was truly afraid of. "What if I pick a name that Clark hates? What if I name our son something he never would have picked in a million years?" She'd been worried for weeks now that she was not only doing alone yet another thing they should have done together, but that she was taking away something monumental from him, too. He was supposed to share this decision with her, and unlike the color they picked for the nursery, this was something permanent. She was blowing the whole thing out of proportion, she knew, but she suddenly couldn't think of a more important decision that she'd have to make.

Jonathan smiled and placed a hand on top of hers. "You won't," he assured her. "You'll pick out a great name and whatever it is, Clark will love it. And remember, you have plenty of people who are more than happy to give suggestions," he said with a twinkle in his eye.

Lois smiled tremulously, thankful for her father-in-law's gentle, constant support. "Was picking Clark's name easy?"

Jonathan smiled, the expression on his face distant, as though he was remembering something fondly. "It was. I gather Martha told you about how her family reacted to our getting engaged?"

"She mentioned you telling your future mother-in-law to stuff a sock in it."

Jonathan laughed heartily. "I did," he admitted. "And she told me, not long after, that she was looking forward to becoming a Kent, and not being a Clark any more."

Lois nodded, though without really understanding. She didn't exactly have the best relationship with her parents, but she was still attached to her name. She had always known that she would keep it, no matter what.

"Well, I told her that I did have the Clarks to thank for one thing: her," Jonathan continued. "In that way, they had to be all right by me. When we found Clark, we already had a long list of names we had thought about for when we finally had a baby. But I said we should name him after both of our families. Martha agreed. We'd made peace with her folks by then and the name just seemed to fit him." He took another sip of his tea.

Lois smiled, unsurprised that there was so much thought and history behind Clark's name. It had been a way for his parents to welcome him into their family. It was a silent promise that no matter where he was from, no matter how he had found his way into their lives, he was a part of both of them and he always would be.

"Anyway, it's getting late," he said as he stood up to take his mug to the sink and rinse it out. "Let us know if we can be of any help with the name hunt."

"I will," Lois promised.

***

Ching wearily drew himself up to attention as Clark approached. Dark circles had formed under his eyes and despite his perfect posture, he seemed weighted down with worry and fear.

"At ease, Ching," Clark counseled as he approached.

Ching merely nodded and allowed his body to relax. He wore his weariness like a mantle of lead, his shoulders drooping under its considerable bulk.

Clark stopped beside the door where Ching stood guard. Inside, the recovery room had been prepared for the First Minister and was awaiting her arrival.

"She is due out of surgery any moment now, sir," Ching said.

Clark nodded. "You haven't slept in days, you should get some rest."

"I cannot leave, sir," Ching replied resolutely.

"I will personally come and wake you when she wakes up."

Ching sighed. "Sir, please," he said earnestly.

"They won't let you see her when she's brought out of surgery," Clark said quietly.

Ching looked downward. "I know," he said.

For a long moment, neither said a word. Clark's eyes wandered as he looked down the long corridors in either direction, part of a seemingly endless, sterile maze that made up the hospital complex. He finally broke the silence. "I want you to take tomorrow off."

Ching looked up, his eyes meeting Clark's, a confused expression settling upon his features. "Have I angered you, sir?"

"No, of course not," Clark replied. "I just think you could use some rest."

"Sir, I cannot begin to apologize for my failures. Whatever malfunctioned in the ship, I should have caught it beforehand, I should have found her before this happened, I shou…"

"Ching," Clark interrupted forcefully. "You've done nothing wrong. You saved Zara's life. I won't belittle your feelings for her by telling you that you did your job well. You did everything humanly possible to protect her. I know that you won't get a moment's rest tonight because you're going to stand obstinately outside this door until you know she's all right. So take the day off."

Ching gave him a somewhat startled look. "Aye, sir," he said at last.

"Good," Clark replied crisply.

***

A soft rustling woke her as a gentle breeze flitted into the room, like a harbinger of tidings unknown. She sat up, her eyes focused on the large picture window in Clark's bedroom. The lights from a neighboring building and from a neon sign high overhead spilled into the room through the curtains, casting long shadows on the floor. With a judicious application of her powers she managed to stand in one simple, fluid motion despite her awkward shape. She walked to the window, pushing aside the billowing curtains.

The windows were closed.

She looked around, puzzled. A sudden gust of wind swirled up around her, causing her to shiver from the cold. She frowned. She shouldn't have felt the cold, but goosebumps were definitely beginning to form on her skin. She rubbed her hands up and down her arms. Lois continued to stare out the window, searching the sky for Clark's star.

She took a hesitant step forward, and then suddenly leapt backwards, her heart stopping as it jumped up in her throat. She blinked hard, silently begging her eyes to stop deceiving her. He floated down casually, much like he probably had every night for years, almost as if he hadn't been gone these last eight months, three weeks, and four days. The window opened gently and he stepped inside. In the dim light, she could see a small smile on his face.

"You don't leave these open for me anymore?" he asked almost wistfully, nodding back toward the window. "It hasn't been that long, has it?" Long shadows fell over him, but she thought she saw a look of sadness on his face.

She drew in a ragged breath, tears slipping down her cheeks. She felt her entire body shiver. He stepped forward, closing the distance between them, and wrapped his arms around her. Her body shook with sobs as she clung tightly to him. "You shouldn't leave the windows closed," he whispered, wrapping his cape around her. "You'll keep the cold locked in."

"Oh Clark," she sobbed, her arms wrapped tightly around his neck. She breathed in his familiar scent, drinking in the warm comfort of his embrace. His solid, reassuring presence was a balm to her wounded soul.

"Shh…it's okay, I'm here," he soothed. He caressed her cheek, wiping away the tears with the pad of his thumb. "No more tears."

She kissed him. Passionately. Hungrily. Desperately.

He smiled and sighed as he pulled away. "Look at you," he whispered gently, his hand slipping between their bodies to come to rest against her abdomen.

"You came home," she managed, biting back a sob, her voice tiny and thin.

He slowly fell to his knees in front of her, placing his head against her stomach. "Of course, I did. Did you think there was anything that could keep me from being here now?" he asked.

"I love you so much," she said, the end of her sentence swallowed up in a sob. She wrapped her arms around him and held him close, certain that if she didn't anchor herself to him, she wouldn't be able to continue standing on her wobbly legs.

"I'm here, sweetheart, I'm here," he assured her. "And I will never leave you again."

She closed her eyes as another tear rolled down her cheek. Her lips trembled and her body shook as she drew in a deep breath.

"I will always be here with you," he whispered. His words cut right through her, reverberating deep inside and she couldn't help but believe. He was her touchstone — her very definition of truth.

Lois woke with a start. She could feel her heart breaking in her chest. She looked at the empty space beside her in the bed, noticing the dark spots on her pillow where her tears had fallen. Silently, she slipped out of the bed and padded softly to the large window. She drew back the curtains to stare out into the night's sky. A thick blanket of clouds hung low overhead. Fat snowflakes drifted lazily toward the ground. Lois x-rayed through the gray barrier of clouds, searching, as always, for his star. She located it easily, having months' of practice under her belt. For a long while, she merely gazed up at it, so tiny and quiet from where she stood, wondering what was happening there, what Clark was going through at this very moment. She wished for the millionth time to be able to get a message to him. She wanted so badly to tell him about everything that had happened since he'd left, and to know whether or not he was all right.

All she really needed was to hear his voice, just once, assuring her that he was okay and that he'd come home to her.

***

The first thing she became aware of was the pain. Her head swam, her mind feeling disconnected from her body. She opened her eyes slowly, the light pouring in painfully. The shapes, backlit by what seemed to her to be blinding light, were fuzzy and indistinct.

"Ching?" she whispered hoarsely, her throat scratchy and dry.

"Your faithful aide is just fine, ma'am, and will be glad to hear that you're awake," a warm, distant sounding voice replied. Relief and sadness both washed over her. Where was she? Where was Ching? Was he truly all right?

"Commander Rin, my crew…" she continued

"The commander is still in surgery, the rest of your crew are recovering from their injuries," the reassuring voice explained.

Her eyes finally adjusted to the light and the man behind the pleasant voice was revealed to be Tao Scion. "Where am I?" she asked at last, looking around the sterile and almost empty white room, trying to focus despite the throbbing pain in her head and the wound in her side.

"Very much at home," Tao Scion said with a smile. "Ching and the rescue crew brought you back this morning. You were in surgery for hours. Your physicians have retired for the night, but Kal El asked me to stay with you in the event that you woke."

"Thank you," she replied. "I imagine that I'm a bit older than your usual patients."

He smiled, somewhat sadly. "Indeed, my charges are generally much smaller and younger, but you've been just as good a patient as most of them."

Zara noticed the old man swallow roughly. She frowned. "Tao Scion, is something wrong?"

"I am afraid I have bad news," he began gently.

***

"I am so very sorry," he said, his voice gravelly.

She stared dumbly at the physician for a long moment. "You…" she cleared her throat, her voice threatening to break. "You are certain?" she managed.

Tao Scion merely nodded. "Do you want me to tell your parents and Kal El?"

Zara shook her head slightly. "No," she whispered.

"Very well," he replied. "I will not say anything of it. Still, I should summon them; they will be relieved to know that you are awake. And you should try to rest."

Zara watched in silence as he retreated from the room. She turned her head to look away from the door and stared silently at the wall, overcome by a sense of sadness. She closed her eyes, willing herself to suppress the emotions she had no intention of dealing with at that moment. After a long moment, she managed to steady herself, rebuilding bit by bit, her composure. There was a knock at her door and it opened slowly. She turned to see her mother and father standing in the doorway.

***

The quiet, persistent, hum of the machines that monitored her condition and were supposed to make her more comfortable faded into the background. She smiled wearily at Kal El. He looked tired, but he returned the smile.

"Your doctors want you to rest a few weeks. No work, no stress," he said softly.

The thought of not having any stress or worries for a while, especially now, seemed tempting. A short while of visiting with her parents and a brief conversation with Kal El had worn her out entirely. Maintaining pretenses with them had been mentally exhausting.

She knew that people, especially members of the Council, had been talking constantly about what had happened since the moment word of her ship's disappearance had been announced. In just a short while, she and her crew had been rescued, and news of that spread just as quickly. For now, they had people to deal with the questions of inquiring councilors and citizens alike. A few days of quiet sequestration had been afforded her.

Kal El placed a gentle hand on top of hers. "You had us all worried," he said with a slight smile. "Take care of yourself and try to get some rest."

"Thank you," she replied gratefully, glad to have both his friendship and support, even though there was so much she was not telling him. She knew that he would manage just fine for as long as she was unable to fulfill her duties.

"There's someone else who wants to see you, if you're up for another visitor."

She looked at him questioningly, secretly hoping that her guess of whom he was referring to was right. He nodded slightly and she noticed the smile, not at his lips, but in his eyes. She allowed herself a slight, tremulous smile as Kal El quietly walked to the door and exited the room. Before the door could close behind him, Ching slipped inside.

He closed the door silently and stood perfectly still. For a long moment, no one moved or said a word. She doubted that either one dared to breathe. It was as though all the air had been drawn from the room.

"Greetings," she managed at last with a small smile.

A hesitant smile spread across his face. "Gr…Greetings," he said, clearing his throat. In long strides, he walked to her bedside and sat beside her. She reached out a hand to him and he took it with both of his. He closed his eyes and silently held her hand to his lips for a long moment.

"How are you?" he whispered.

"I will be all right," she assured him, not entirely honestly. Outwardly, she would be fine. She would be able to resume her life as though nothing had changed. No one would ever need to know anything else.

"I am so sorry." Uncharacteristically, he didn't make eye contact with her, keeping his head bowed.

"You have nothing to be sorry for," she whispered fiercely. "The ship was sabotaged, and from the looks of it, by an expert."

He shook his head. "And we should have caught it. We should have noticed."

"You saved my life and the lives of my crew," she said simply.

"I should have kept you safe," he disagreed.

"Ching there are things in this world even you cannot keep me safe from." She gave his hand a gentle squeeze. "I love you."

He squeezed her hand back in response. "I love you so much." He leaned forward and kissed her hesitantly, his touch feather light. "You are so beautiful," he said as he reached out a hand and gently touched her face.

"You are a better liar than you used to be," she said with a smile, knowing that her face was covered with cuts and bruises. She imagined that she was a ghastly sight, but he managed to make the words sound completely sincere.

"I never lie," he said, tucking a strand of her hair behind her ear. "And you are beautiful."

***

"I am sorry to disturb you, sir," Ensign Parth apologized as he entered the First Ministers' chambers.

"It's all right," Clark replied, standing aside to let the quiet young man into the study. "What can I do for you?"

"Reports are coming in, sir, of a disturbance in the town of Breksin, about the same time as First Minister Zara was rescued."

Clark frowned. "What happened?"

The young officer cleared his throat and looked downward before continuing. "It is not entirely clear. Intelligence is still being gathered and the commanders wanted to acquire a clearer picture before bringing this to your attention, but I felt there was something you needed to know immediately. The reports are rather gruesome. Wanton slaughter of civilians and widespread destruction. The initial accounts are that the attackers were members of the Expeditionary Forces."

"What?" Clark exclaimed, unable to believe what he was hearing.

"Survivors accurately described the uniforms of the attackers as being like those of the Expeditionary Forces, sir," Parth continued.

"This has to be a mistake…" Clark began.

"It is worse, sir," Parth interrupted uncharacteristically. "Several accounts suggest that the attackers were in radio contact with their superiors. A few witnesses reported hearing that the attackers answered to a commander named Ching."

Clark opened his mouth to vehemently protest, to declare with all the force of Superman's will that such a thing was not and could never be true and that he would never believe it. But he didn't. He said nothing and merely closed his mouth. What good would an outburst in front of a junior officer do? Who would Parth report to, and who would overhear? He had to choose every word carefully and watch his back even more so than usual. "I want information, everything we know," he said at last.

"The commanders intend to brief you within the hour. I merely wanted to give you as much advanced notice as possible, sir," Parth replied, his hands clasped together in front of him.

"Not a word of this to anyone, Parth," Clark cautioned.

"Of course, sir." With a bow, Parth excused himself.

Clark crossed the room in long, quick strides to his desk and punched the button on the intercom. "Get me Enza immediately."

***

Ching walked down the deserted corridor away from the medical wing. It was late afternoon and while he'd heeded Kal El's command not to work today, he had not yet gotten any rest. He was finally beginning to feel the exhaustion set in after the stress and tension of the last few days slowly drained out of his body.

Ching wearily wandered through the maze of hallways toward his own quarters, slowly becoming aware that the echoing footsteps in the halls were not only his own. He looked up as a pair of guards turned a corner and approached him.

"Sir," one of them said as the two came to a stop in front of him, effectively blocking his way.

"What is it, Sergeant?" Ching asked.

"Something has happened at Breksin, sir," the Sergeant replied.

"What?" Ching demanded.

"Please come with us," the other guard insisted.

Ching realized immediately that the situation was more dire than the two young guards would let on. His mind raced as he wondered what had happened. "Sergeant, explain," he said curtly.

"Sir, please," the sergeant replied quietly.

Ching frowned and shook his head wearily. Suddenly it became clear. The guards were not here to escort him to a meeting, they were not here to brief him on events. He was being taken into custody. "Let us go," Ching said at last.

***

"How is it that Zara survived?" Nor demanded angrily as he paced in his mother's office.

"Sir, if I may?" Jen Mai began.

"Shut up!" Nor snapped.

Rae Et pursed her lips, a look of amusement playing upon her face. "Son, calm yourself," she warned.

"I will do no such thing, Mother!" Nor continued his tirade.

Rae Et stood up, the amusement in her expression gone and replaced by a cold, hard gaze. She glared across her desk at her son, her jaw sternly set. Nor stopped his restless pacing, and folded his arms across his chest in petulant defiance. He jutted his chin out like a stubborn child, silently challenging his mother. "Despite the failure to kill Zara," she shot Jen Mai a look, and he squirmed uncomfortably under her withering stare. "The attack on Breksin was quite successful. The reverberations from that attack will likely be felt throughout the seat of power and the very foundations of that administration will be shaken."

"This has gone on too long, enough games!" Nor snapped.

"Nor, be silent!" Rae Et's voice boomed.

Nor scratched his bearded chin, looking like a chastised little boy. Her son may have been the figurehead of this uprising, but there was never any real question as to where the true power was. Even he, thick as he was at times, understood it. She had cleared the path for him, guiding his every move. He was the key to their triumph. She was content to let him play boy king. From the background, she would be the one pulling the strings.

"We will continue as planned," Rae Et continued calmly as she slowly lowered herself to her seat. "And Jen Mai, I will not tolerate future failures such as this one. Do not let us down again."

***

"Lois, are you sure you're up for five alarm chili?" Jonathan asked, a cautious note in his voice.

"I've still got the iron stomach," Lois replied as she set the plates on Clark's round dinner table. She tried to keep her tone light, as she had for the past few days. Her dreams for the past few nights had been unusually vivid. More often than not, she dreamt about him at night. But over the months, the dreams had lost something. They'd grown fuzzy and indistinct. She didn't hear his voice as clearly, didn't feel his arms around her. He was still there, but only as a reassuring presence, familiar, but far away. Now, much like the first few nights after he'd left, these dreams had been jarring enough to wake her and to leave her unable to sleep again.

"Five alarm it is, then," Jonathan called to her. She looked over her shoulder, a smile pasted on her face. Jonathan continued to add the cayenne and habanero pepper to the bubbling pot.

"Do we have any cream soda left?" Lois asked as she wandered back into the kitchen. She opened the refrigerator door and poked her head inside. A quick search produced the cans in question. She juggled them in her hands as she pushed the fridge door closed. "Hey, that smells terrific."

"Have a taste," Jonathan replied.

She placed the soda cans on the kitchen counter and took the spoonful of chili Jonathan was holding out to her. "Wow," she said as she sampled the chili, hot enough even for her invulnerable taste buds. "Whoa." A frown set on her face. She felt an odd muscle tremor in her abdomen, something she assumed would have hurt had she not been impervious to harm.

"Too hot?" Jonathan asked.

"No. It's not the chili," she responded, placing a hand against her stomach.

"What? What is it?" her father-in-law asked anxiously.

"I think that was a contraction," she replied, her brow still furrowed in consternation.

"Are you sure?" he asked.

"No, I don't know. I don't know what they're supposed to feel like," she said honestly.

"But you aren't supposed to be due for another week and a half," Jonathan murmured.

"Well, it looks like the little guy here is impatient. Or maybe Kryptonian pregnancies aren't as long as Earth pregnancies," she mused aloud, her hand still on her abdomen.

"Does it hurt? Should I call Bernie? What should I do?" he peppered her with questions.

"No, probably, and I don't really know."

"Maybe you should sit down," Jonathan replied.

"Good idea," she said with a nod and made her way slowly to one of the chairs at the table, Jonathan just a step behind her. He darted back into the kitchen and returned quickly with the cordless phone.

He punched a series of buttons in rapid succession. "Hello, Bernie?" he spoke into the receiver. "Yes, it's Jonathan Kent, we think Lois's contractions have started. Yes, we know it's early…no, we're not sure. Okay, all right, I'll tell her…thanks, Bernie." Jonathan hung up the phone.

"What did he say?" Lois asked.

"That we should wait, see if there's another contraction and figure out how far apart they are."

"Right, that sounds right," Lois said absently with a nod.

Jonathan looked down at his wristwatch. "Well, let's see, the last one was two minutes ago, so we'll time from then," he said. He paused and frowned. "How far apart are they supposed to be?"

"No clue, this is the first time for both of us." She managed a smile.

Jonathan turned the heat down under the chili pot and the pair sat at the table, waiting and wondering if the next contraction would occur soon, or whether it had been a false alarm. The front door opened and Martha entered, shaking off the light dusting of snow as she transferred the paper bag she was carrying from one arm to the other. "I'm back," she announced cheerfully. "They had these great bread bowls at the bakery around the corner and I figured they'd be perfect for your chili Jonathan," she said as she made her way toward the kitchen. She saw both Jonathan and Lois at the dinner table, wearing matching looks of surprise, and stopped. "What is it?" she asked. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Lois replied. "We…well, we think the contractions might have started."

"Contractions? Oh my! The contractions?" Martha exclaimed. "But you're not due for another ten days!"

"Apparently math is not the baby's strongest subject," Lois replied. She frowned again. "Speaking of which, I think that was another one. How long was it?"

Jonathan fumbled with his watch. "Seventeen minutes," he announced. "I'll call Bernie."

"Was that the second one?" Martha asked.

"The second one that I've noticed. I'm not sure though. I know they're supposed to hurt, but they don't, so I don't know if I've been having them for a while and just didn't feel them," Lois explained.

"Just relax and try to breathe deeply," Martha suggested. "The first stages of labor could take quite a while." She gave Lois a sympathetic smile.

***

"What happened at Breksin," Clark demanded as soon as his young legal officer entered the conference room. He stood next to the large table in the center of the room, but made no movement to sit down. Instead he began pacing restlessly.

"We are still investigating the matter, sir," Enza replied, a bit off guard.

"But we know that a town full of civilians was attacked, right?"

Enza nodded grimly. "Yes, sir."

"Did you know that Lieutenant Commander Ching was arrested?" he asked.

Enza's face fell. "No sir, I did not."

"The attack happened while Ching's rescue party was coming to Zara's aid, right?" Clark asked but he quickly continued without waiting for an answer. "Apparently survivors are claiming the attackers were from the Expeditionary Forces, and that they answered to Ching. As we speak, he's being placed in detention."

"I am certain a full investigation of the events is being launched…" Enza began.

"That's not good enough, Lieutenant," Clark interrupted. "The sabotage of Zara's ship, this attack on Ching, whoever is planning these attacks has the highest level of access in all circles of power."

Enza frowned, her arms crossed tightly across her chest. "You believe the attack was staged solely to dispose of Ching?"

"Yes," Clark replied simply. "You said before that you do not answer to the regular military chain of command, right?"

"No, I do not, sir. My duty is to the law, not the chain of command."

"But you are still my legal advisor, is that correct?"

"Aye, sir," she replied.

"And you must follow any lawful order that I give, correct?"

"Aye, sir," she repeated, her brow slightly arched.

"Good. I want you to drop all of your current responsibilities. From now on, your only duty is to this investigation."

"But, sir…" Enza started cautiously.

"Lieutenant, there is someone tearing us apart and killing us from within. I need to know who it is," he said forcefully.

She nodded slowly in understanding. "If I might ask one question, sir?"

"Go ahead."

"Why me, sir?" He could hear the uneasiness, the hesitance in her voice. Her question was not one of false humility. She knew enough to know that such responsibility in their situation could be a terrible thing. She wasn't certain she was equal to the task. But he was. "Surely there are counselors with far more experience…"

"Because I trust you," he replied simply. "I've seen what this war has done to your family and I've seen what you fight for, Lieutenant. There are very few people that I trust. You are one of them." Clark could see the look of surprise settle on her face. "I need absolute discretion in this matter. Tell no one about it."

"Of course," she replied. "Is there anything else, sir?"

He shook his head. "Good night, Enza."

She bowed humbly. "Good night, sir."

***

Lois bit her lip and sat quietly still for a long moment. "Was that another one?" her mother-in-law asked.

"Yes," Lois replied as soon as the sensation subsided. "It felt stronger though."

"Seven minutes apart," Jonathan said as he looked at his watch.

"Maybe you should walk around a bit," Martha suggested helpfully. "I've heard that moving during the early stages of labor makes it easier."

"Okay," Lois replied. She began to stand up from her chair at the table, but froze.

"What is it?" Jonathan asked, the concern evident in his voice.

"Are you all right?" Martha asked.

"My water broke," Lois replied deadpan.

The three glanced at each other in a brief moment of confusion. Martha turned to her husband. "You call Bernie—"

"I'll call Bernie—" Jonathan said at the same time.

Her in-laws began racing around the apartment, quickly preparing for the delivery with such speed that she had to wonder if Clark's powers hadn't rubbed off on them at some point.

"Bernie's on his way," Jonathan called out from the kitchen.

Lois felt herself get swept up in the nervousness and excitement that made all other pregnant lady mood swings pale in comparison. The entire apartment seemed to spin with the constant activity all around her. She felt an odd sensation of disconnectedness, the lack of pain, which should have been paramount in her mind, made it seem like everything was happening to someone else and she was just a confused, startled bystander. But her protruding abdomen bore evident testament to the fact that this was really happening to her. "Looks like you're on your way, whether we're ready or not, huh, kiddo?" she whispered quietly.

***

"Can I get you anything?" Jonathan asked Lois as she paced slowly in Clark's bedroom.

"No, but thanks," Lois replied.

"Do you want to sit down?" he asked helpfully.

"I'm fine, but I think I'm making you nervous," she said with a lopsided grin.

"Well this is a lot more exciting than when the calves are born on the farm every spring," he joked. His smile slowly faded. "I want you to know how proud Martha and I are of you. You've showed such incredible courage and we're so thankful to have you with us."

She replied with a wobbly smile. "Thank you," she whispered. A knock at the front door caused her to turn around. "It's Bernie," she said upon x-raying the door.

"I'll go give him a hand," Jonathan said as he stood from his seat. He walked across the apartment and opened the front door to find Bernie standing in the snow, struggling with some oversized contraption.

"Bernie!" he exclaimed. "What's all this?"

"Tesla coil," Bernie managed, grunting under the weight of the equipment.

"Let me help," Jonathan said as he grabbed on to the heavy item carefully. Whatever it was, it looked delicate. The two men gingerly brought the equipment into the apartment and set it down in the living room.

"What's it for?" Jonathan asked as he eyed the device curiously.

"Emergencies," Bernie replied enigmatically as he wiped his brow with a handkerchief and dusted the snow off of his shoulders. "I'm hoping we don't need it."

"What sort of emergencies?" Jonathan asked, his tone grim.

"I've never delivered an invulnerable woman's baby before. Heck, I haven't delivered a baby since I was an intern," Bernie began with a nervous laugh, but he soon grew serious. "There are several possible reasons why Lois's invulnerability might make delivery difficult. If that's the case, we'll have to transfer her powers to someone else temporarily until the baby is delivered."

Jonathan eyed the Tesla coil uneasily. "Transferring her powers, it won't be dangerous, will it?"

"No, not at all," Bernie assured him. "I should probably take a look at the patient."

"Of course," Jonathan replied. "Lois is in the bedroom." He stayed in the living room while Bernie Klein made his way to visit his patient. Jonathan wasn't certain, but he figured that at this point, he'd be more in the way than anything else. For now, it was time to play the waiting game and let the doctor do what doctors did.

***

Clark walked down the corridors toward a part of the military compound he had never before visited. Safely within a secure compound, he moved about freely without an escort. He approached a heavily reinforced door protected by two guards. The guards snapped to attention as he approached. He nodded slightly to them and one of the guards opened the door and held it for him as he approached. He walked through without slowing or breaking stride. On the other side, he was met by a grizzled veteran guard. The guard came to attention as sharply and crisply as a man half his age.

"Good evening, sir," he boomed.

"I want to speak with Commander Ching," Clark said.

"Of course sir," the guard replied with a nod and led Clark down a dark, gloomy looking hallway, past innumerable, identical doors. The guard stopped in front of one of the doors and unlocked it. He stepped aside to allow Clark to enter.

Clark walked into the cell and closed the door behind him. Ching looked up from where he was sitting on the edge of the cot in the otherwise bare room. He stood up to salute, but Clark waved him off.

"It's all right, Ching," he said quietly.

Ching nodded glumly, his eyes dull, and dark circles underneath them made apparent what Clark already knew — Ching had not had a moment's rest in almost a week. Ching rubbed his tired eyes, his face otherwise expressionless. "How is Zara?" he asked.

"She's fine," Clark replied. "I wanted to see how you're doing."

"I am fine, sir," Ching replied. "But you must know…"

"I know you had nothing to do with it," Clark interrupted.

Ching merely nodded, tight lipped. "My troops, sir. They are innocent. I was in contact with all my field commanders, my troops had no part in that attack."

"I know. I will see to it that they are cleared, along with you."

"Sir, you cannot let your personal loyalty compromise your integrity. Do not let me drag you down."

"Ching, if my integrity is not based on my loyalty to my friends and advisors, what is it based on? Would you not do the same if I were in your position?" Clark folded his arms across his chest.

"I would, sir," Ching agreed. "But the difference is, for both of us, the fate of New Krypton depends upon the perceived integrity of your rule. If I had to sacrifice to protect it, I would. You cannot do the same for me. Too much is at stake."

"I will not let this destroy you or your career. You will be cleared."

"There are far more important things to worry about than me, sir," Ching replied.

"I can't win this war without you," Clark said.

"You can, and you must. Whatever I could have taught you, I have. You are more than capable of leading. Distance yourself from this, sir. Allow an impartial investigation and abide by the judicial findings."

"There won't be an impartial investigation," Clark countered. "Whoever set out to get rid of you will see to it."

"Then so be it. But if you tie your fate to mine, it will destroy not only the two of us, but this entire world."

"I won't stand aside and let an innocent man be ruined."

"I know that it goes against everything you stand for," Ching said. "But you must remember, we do not need a hero, Kal El. This world has no use for super men, but it is in desperate need of a good man."

***

Martha walked back into the bedroom carrying a bowl of ice cubes. Her husband stood just inside the doorway to the room. "How is she?" she asked quietly as she came to stand next to Jonathan.

"She seems to be doing well," he replied. He nodded toward the window. "The snow is really coming down now."

"Good," Martha replied. "Then we can blame the snowstorm for why the baby was born here instead of at a hospital."

"Good thinking," Jonathan replied.

She took the bowl of ice cubes to the nightstand, unnoticed by Lois and Bernie. She set the bowl down, and smiled at her daughter-in-law, who was sitting up on the bed, leaning against a pile of pillows.

"Remember, nice deep breaths," Bernie reminded Lois. Lois nodded, a look of intense concentration on her face. She glanced up at Martha and gave her a quick, lopsided smile.

"How are you feeling?" Martha asked.

"A little anxious, but okay," Lois replied, looking far better than any woman in labor had any right to.

Bernie examined one of the monitors. "Another look, Lois? Umbilical cord okay? No detachment of the placental wall?"

"Everything looks okay to me. And this is way cool," Lois said. "Hi little guy."

Bernie laughed softly. "Now you're dilated to five centimeters, you still have a way to go, so resist any urge to push when you feel those contractions."

Lois smirked at her doctor. "You sure you know what you're doing Bernie, or are you just repeating things you've heard on TV shows?"

"Of course I know what I'm doing. Do you know how many chimpanzees I've delivered?" Martha watched the light banter between woman in labor and lab geek in this rather improbable setting. Of course, she knew that Lois was never one to do things the ordinary way.

She started to laugh, but her expression changed to one of concentration. "Another contraction," she said.

"They're getting closer together," Bernie said, a note of concern creeping into his voice.

"Is everything okay?" Martha asked.

Bernie set his jaw. "Normally, I'd administer something to help speed up the dilation," he mused.

"But that won't work on me, will it?" Lois asked, her tone making clear that she already knew the answer.

"No, it won't," Bernie admitted.

"So what do we do now?" Lois asked. Martha felt a hand on her shoulder and looked up to see Jonathan standing beside her.

"Well, for now, we wait," Bernie began. "You might start dilating further and everything will be fine. If not, you might have to do this the old fashioned way."

Lois arched a brown at him. "Old fashioned way?"

"Without superpowers," Bernie explained. "I brought the Tesla coil, so we can transfer your powers to someone else."

"So much for pain free childbirth," Lois replied. "Will that be safe for the baby?

"Absolutely. The baby will be fine. I can't administer an epidural, but I can give you some medication to reduce the pain. In any event, it won't be as easy as we'd hoped."

***

Clark bit his lip and looked away. "I'm so sorry, Zara," he said softly, his hands clasped in front of him.

She looked up at him from her bed in the sterile recovery room and merely nodded. So much for avoiding the stress of work. He could see the beginnings of tears form in her eyes, tears he knew she would never allow to fall.

"I…we are doing everything we can to clear him," he said.

"I know," she whispered.

Clark reached out hesitantly and placed a hand on hers. She curled her fingers around his hand and squeezed it. "Thank you," she said so quietly he barely heard her.

"Your parents want to see you."

"They already know, don't they?" she asked.

He nodded. "I'll get them." He walked out to the hallway where Mieren and Tek Ra were waiting, wearing matching looks of concern. They stood up and hand in hand, walked toward their daughter's room.

Clark walked away. He found himself heading toward the docking bays. Soldiers, technicians, and mechanics went about their jobs. They stopped and saluted as he approached, but he continued walking toward one of the empty bays. He stared out at the desolate landscape beyond the solid buildings of the compound. A transport landed and troops descended from it in neat, ordered rows. They walked toward the compound, haggard and weary.

He watched as they marched past him, turning to salute crisply. Talan followed at the rear of the lines. She lingered behind as the troops continued on their way.

"Good evening, sir," she said. The smell of smoke clung to her mud spattered uniform.

"Where are you coming from, Commander?" he asked.

"The Belaar Valley, sir," she replied.

"I take it that it's pretty bad out there," he said quietly.

She wiped the soot from her brow. "If you can spare me for a few moments, I can get prepared and give you a full briefing."

Clark nodded. "I'd appreciate that."

Talan disappeared down one of the corridors. Clark turned back toward the docking bay. He realized after a moment that he was holding Lois's ring on its chain in his hand. Not for the first time, he wished that she was there with him at that moment. It wasn't just that he missed her; not a moment went by that he didn't miss her. He also really needed someone he could trust. The small circle of people he didn't suspect here seemed to constantly grow tighter.

Talan returned a scant fifteen minutes later, having cleaned up and put on a fresh uniform. Clark hadn't moved in that time; he stood watching the crews work. He looked up as she approached, quickly tucking the chain back under his shirt. Clark frowned slightly as he noticed the bruises on her face that had previously been covered by soot and dirt.

"Shall we adjourn to a conference room, sir?" she asked.

"Sure," he replied absently.

The pair walked down the hallway and entered a vacant room. As soon as the door closed behind them, Talan began to speak.

"I was informed that Lieutenant Commander Ching was arrested for the attack on Breksin. As part of my mission there, I surveyed the area. This was clearly the work of Nor's men. I recognized his commanders' signature in the destruction."

Clark motioned to the chairs around the conference table and both sat down. "So you think this attack was executed in order to frame Ching?" he asked.

She nodded curtly. "I am certain of it, sir."

"I agree," Clark replied. "How bad was the damage?"

"Near total," she said simply, her face expressionless as usual.

Clark chewed his lip thoughtfully. "What do you think is going to happen there?"

Talan frowned. "Politics is not my business, sir."

"I know that," he replied. "But what were your impressions?"

"I think that secession is a foregone conclusion. There seems to be a great deal of hostility breeding in the region, even though there seems to be no warm feelings for the rebels." She placed her hands on the table in front of her and Clark could see the cuts and scrapes that covered them, her knuckles still raw and bleeding.

Clark's eyes narrowed. "How much trouble did you encounter out there?"

"None near Breksin, sir, but we took some fire when scouting the region," she replied calmly as though giving him a weather report.

"Any casualties?"

"Nothing serious."

Clark stood up. "Thank you, Commander."

Talan rose to her feet and saluted. "Of course, sir."

"You aren't scheduled to deploy again soon, are you?" he asked as he walked toward the door. She followed a pace behind him.

"No, sir. I must brief General Command on the situation in the Belaar, and my troops are on garrison duty here," Talan explained.

"Good," Clark replied. "Your troops have been away almost since I arrived here. I'm sure they could use some time with their families."

"Indeed, sir."

"Do you have any family, Commander?" Clark asked, trying in his own mind to imagine his top field commander as something other than just a soldier. They stepped out into the empty hallway.

"A brother," Talan replied. "He and his wife have two children. And you, sir? If I might ask, did you leave behind any family when you came here?"

Clark looked away. It was a question he'd been able to completely avoid until now. Only Zara and Ching knew anything of the life he'd left behind. Most seemed to assume that he'd merely showed up out of the ether, born on the day he'd arrived on New Krypton with no life worth considering prior to his accession to the role of First Minister. "Yes," he admitted after a long moment of silence. "There are my parents — the people on Earth who raised me and…" He stopped. The look in Talan's eyes told him that she'd noticed the fact that he hadn't finished the sentence, but he also knew her well enough to know that she wouldn't comment on it.

"Well, it is late," Clark said. "And you have had a long journey. Have a good night, Commander."

"You too, sir," Talan replied before heading down the corridor in the opposite direction.

***

Lois looked up at Bernie as another contraction began. "That's another one," she said. She could see the frown lines set on the doctor's face. It had been hours and the contractions had grown closer together, but she still wasn't fully dilated. The plan for transferring her powers had ceased to be academic and was now looking like a certainty.

"There are no signs of fetal distress," Bernie said. "Which is good. But I don't think we should wait any longer. Jonathan, can you help me with the Tesla coil?" Jonathan nodded and the two men stepped out of the bedroom.

"Are you feeling okay?" her mother-in-law asked with a simple smile.

Lois nodded. "I'm all right," she said. She knew, however, that this was about to get quite painful. The two men returned carrying the large, awkward piece of equipment. They set it down beside the bed and the myriad other pieces of machinery that were buzzing, humming, and beeping. Jonathan stepped aside to stand next to Martha.

"All right," Bernie said, looking at her in-laws. "Which of you two is about to get super?"

Jonathan stepped forward. "I'll do it."

"I need you to stand over here," Bernie said, gesturing to the space next to the bed. "And hold Lois's hand. This won't hurt a bit." He started toggling switches on the Tesla coil. It began to hum as it lit up slowly. Jonathan moved to the side of the bed as Bernie instructed and took Lois's hand in both of his larger ones. He smiled warmly at her as if to silently say that everything was going to be fine.

"Here we go," Bernie said, as he flipped the last switch. The room filled with a bright, almost blinding light. A bolt of electricity shot out of the Tesla coil and struck the pair. Lois felt only a slight tingling warmth and then suddenly, everything was different. The light died, mercifully for Lois's now vulnerable eyes. She felt an avalanche of long absent aches and pains and suddenly a wave of violent muscle spasms that could only have been a contraction.

"Oh my god!" she exclaimed through gritted teeth. She exhaled sharply as a stab of pain radiated through her entire being. She placed her free hand on her abdomen, the other one gripping Jonathan's hand tightly.

Jonathan squeezed back slightly. "It's a good thing I'm invulnerable," he chuckled.

"Are you all right, honey?" Martha asked.

"I've been better," she hissed.

"All right, okay, drugs…" Bernie said as he rummaged through his things. Eventually, he produced a vial and a syringe and measured out a dose. "Here's the medicine to aid the dilation. I'll follow it up with the pain killer…unless you prefer natural childbirth."

"Of course not!" Lois snapped.

"Right, painkillers it is," Bernie replied, slightly frazzled. He gave her the first injection and then prepared and administered the second. "Remember, when the next contraction begins, fight the urge to push. It'll still be a while before you're fully dilated." Lois leaned back against the pillows and exhaled heavily.

***

"Good Lois, breathe, breathe, just like you practiced," Martha coached. She held one of Lois's hands, Jonathan held the other.

"Here we go," Bernie said. "Okay, Lois, you're fully dilated and effaced, on the next contraction, I need you to push."

Lois nodded. She felt the sticky film of perspiration on her face and her neck. Her damp hair was matted down. She felt the now familiar pain of a contraction begin and she pushed. Hard. Every muscle in her body tensed. She groaned, grimacing, her eyes shut tightly.

"Good, keep pushing," Bernie encouraged.

"You can do it, Lois," Jonathan said, squeezing her hand gently.

The contraction finally passed and she leaned back again, exhausted. She felt a damp cloth on her forehead as Martha gently wiped her brow. "Not again," she groaned as another contraction began far too soon.

"Keep going, Lois, you need to push again," Bernie said.

"Can't," she hissed.

"You need to push," Bernie repeated.

She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and despite all the pain and exhaustion, pushed. She pushed as hard as she could, drawing up whatever strength she had left.

"Very good, Lois," Bernie said. "The baby's head is crowning!" he announced triumphantly.

The words managed to cut through the dim fog of Lois's mind. She was almost there; she just needed to keep going for a little while longer.

"Come on, Lois," Jonathan said. "Big push."

She continued pushing, she had no idea for how long. The voices in the room faded away. The room too, seemed to disappear. The only things she was aware of were the muscles in her body screaming for relief and her own determination to keep on pushing.

Suddenly, above the hum of the machines and the sounds of encouraging voices came the clarion sound of a baby's cries. The pain seemed to disappear as she focused on that wonderful sound. In the background she could hear Bernie encouraging her to keep pushing. He stood up, a tiny little squirming bundle in blankets in his arms. He handed the baby to Jonathan, whose eyes seemed unusually bright. Lois watched, tears slipping down her cheeks.

"Lois, I know you've got more important things on your mind, but we're not done here." Bernie's voice interrupted. She continued to push as Bernie instructed. She tried to focus on what he was saying, but couldn't take her eyes off her baby.

"Your son," Jonathan whispered with a smile as he handed Lois her baby at long last. She felt Martha place a hand on her shoulder as she took her son into her arms. She rocked him gently and his cries quieted to a whimper. Lois looked at her son through tears, awestruck and amazed.

"My son," she whispered.

"He's beautiful," Martha said softly.

Lois looked up at Jonathan and Martha as they gazed at their grandson. She turned back to the tiny child in her arms, giving him a tremulous smile. He was so perfect, so beautiful. Her little miracle. "I love you," she whispered.

He looked up at her with his big brown eyes.

Clark's eyes.

She felt fresh tears prick at her eyes. God, she missed him so much. She wanted so badly for him to be here. For him to meet his son as he entered the world. Lois bit her quivering lip. She looked at him, knowing that every day she would look into his eyes and see Clark's eyes. She was certain she would hear Clark's laugh in their baby's laugh. Their baby was proof that she would always have a part of Clark with her, no matter what, but he was also so much more.

Her son needed a name. The temptation to name him after his father was so great, but she knew that she couldn't look at this little boy every day, seeing so many reminders of his father, and call him Clark without it breaking her heart anew each and every time. And yet she knew that she wanted to give him a name that would give him ties to his family. She realized how she could do that and at the same time honor two of the most important men in her life.

"Meet your grandson," she said to her in-laws, still standing beside her, beaming with pride. "Jonathan Clark Kent."

***

Clark paced in his quarters in the predawn hours. The intercom chimed. He turned and looked at it, puzzled, wondering who was trying to contact him at this hour. He sighed. It was likely an emergency. Clark crossed the room and held down the intercom button. "What is it?"

"Sir, Cadet Dek Ra is here to see you. He says that it is urgent."

"Send him in," Clark replied.

A few minutes later, there was a knock at his door. He opened it to allow Zara's young brother to enter. "I…I'm sorry to bother you, sir," Dek Ra mumbled.

"No, it's all right," Clark said. He stepped aside to allow the young man to enter. "Come in. What can I do for you?"

Dek Ra looked up at him, his normal bravado conspicuously absent. His eyes instead, full of questions. "What is happening? Why did this happen to Zara? Why Ching? What is going on?"

"We're trying to find out, I promise," Clark said honestly, knowing that the words rang hollow and provided no comfort.

"What can I do?"

Clark shook his head. "At this point, I don't think…"

"I have to do something!" Dek Ra snapped. "This is my world, too. And this is my family! Zara is my sister, Ching is like my brother. I have to…I have to do something." He wrung his hands in frustration.

Clark put his hand on the young man's shoulder. He chewed his lip, wishing he knew what to say. "Dek Ra, I am doing everything I can. If there is any way you can help, I will let you know. Until then, you just have to keep going. Take care of your sister."

Dek Ra sighed and ran an agitated hand through his short, dark hair. "I want to help," he said, his voice small.

"I know," Clark replied quietly.

***

Bernie emerged from the bedroom, removing his stethoscope and placing it around his neck. "Mom and baby are both doing great and getting some rest," he announced happily.

Martha smiled, relieved to hear that everything was fine. She felt Jonathan's arm around her shoulder.

"I called MetroGen," Bernie continued. "The snowstorm provided a good reason why the baby was born here. We should take him in soon, though; get a birth certificate and a check up."

"When should we transfer her powers back?" Jonathan asked.

"We can do it whenever she's ready. I'm sure she'll appreciate having the powers back. I doubt the pain is a lot of fun," Bernie mused.

"Thank you, for everything, Bernie," Martha replied, gratefully. "I don't know what we would have done without you."

Bernie nodded. "I well, I just, you know…" he stammered, embarrassed by the praise. "I'm happy to help," he managed with a slight smile.

***

The volumes of evidence piled in front of her demanded to be addressed. After days of work, she had barely begun the process of examining the pieces, but already she knew that they did not fit together. At least, not the way they were supposed to. Zara's ship had been sabotaged, but the mechanic's report suggested that everything had been in perfect working order just before departure. The people of Breksin claimed that their attackers were members of the Expeditionary Forces, but the field commanders corroborated each others' accounts of where each team was at the time and none were anywhere near the town.

Zara's flight pattern should have been classified, yet the timing of the sabotage and the success of the attackers in downing the ship and in tracking the crew, suggested that the plan was highly coordinated and based upon inside information. At this point, Enza was convinced that the saboteurs had inside access to numerous facets of New Krypton's military installations. They had access to intelligence, flight plans, materiel, and the First Minister's ship. Mechanics, technicians, communications officers, all had to be compromised in order to accomplish this and she suspected that there was someone high up, someone with access who could coordinate all of these activities. A politician, trusted advisor, high ranking military officer…someone had to be reporting to Nor.

The question was, who?

Enza touched the controls to brighten the lights over her desk. It was late and she had not rested much in days. A few hours of meditation had been all she had been able to spare. She tried to work in silence to avoid waking her niece. Enza sighed in frustration and leaned back in her chair.

She heard the padding of small feet behind her and turned around. "I'm sorry, did I wake you?" she asked her niece with sympathetic half smile.

"I had a bad dream," Thia said, rubbing her eyes with her tiny hands.

Enza knelt down beside the child. "Come here," she whispered, her arms outstretched. The little girl allowed herself to be enfolded in Enza's arms. Enza hugged her tightly. "Do you want to tell me about it?" she asked quietly.

"I thought you went away and I couldn't find you. You wouldn't come back," Thia whispered so quietly Enza barely heard her.

"I am not going anywhere, little one," Enza assured her. "I am right here."

***

The world slowly came back into focus as she opened her eyes. Every fiber of her being was engulfed in throbbing, persistent pain. She shifted uncomfortably in bed to sit up. As she did, she saw the bassinet at the foot of the bed and smiled. Her son lay peacefully asleep under a tiny blanket, his soft, brown hair covered with a little cap.

A knocking sound on the doorframe drew her attention. She saw Bernie standing in the doorway, a half smile on his face. "How are you feeling?"

She frowned as she stretched her sore back muscles. "Have you ever been shot?"

"Uh, no," he replied, shaking his head.

"Well, it kinda feels like that," she said, knowing not too many people would be able to make the comparison from experience. "But other than that, everything is great."

Bernie chuckled softly. "Well, your little guy is perfectly healthy; seven pounds, two ounces, nineteen inches long, with his dad's eyes and his mom's ears."

She smiled. "Where are Martha and Jonathan?"

"Oh, I told them you two would probably be resting for a while so I sent them out, I think they went flying," he said with a lopsided grin. "But don't worry, you'll get your powers back just as soon as you want them."

"Good," she said. "I've got even more newfound respect for every woman who has to do this without invulnerability, but that doesn't mean I want to empathize with them any longer than I have to."

"Well, I'll be around. Let me know if you need anything," Bernie replied.

"Thank you," she said. "For everything."

***

From inside the room she could hear a voice bidding her to enter. Enza pushed open the door and stepped into the hospital room. "Good afternoon, Commander," she said with a polite bow.

"Good afternoon, Lieutenant," Commander Rin replied, sitting upright in the bed. One of his eyes was still swollen almost completely shut and the bruises and lacerations on his faced had faded, but had not completely healed. His head had been shaved by the surgeons and a large bandage still covered the scar where they'd had to relieve the pressure from serious internal bleeding.

"How are you, sir?" she asked as she took a seat and prepared to take notes.

"All things considered, rather well," he said with a slight smile. "I take it you have some questions for the inquest?"

"I was hoping that you would be willing to answer a few questions as to what happened to your ship," she said, deftly dodging his question.

"Certainly," he replied. Rin folded his hands over his stomach. He seemed at ease, no trace of nervousness, though her own investigating had determined that he was a highly decorated pilot and given the extent of his injuries in the crash, it was unlikely that he was among the saboteurs. Of course, she was directed to conduct this investigation with a level of skepticism that almost bordered on paranoia. No one was to be trusted outright.

Enza asked him about the condition of the ship on departure and the timing and nature of the malfunctions, allowing him to give a narrative description of the events, interrupted on only a few occasions by her questions. "Sir, regarding the maneuvers you employed during the attack and crash landing…"

"I used standard evasive maneuvers while it was possible. When it became obvious that we were going to crash, I merely followed the instructions of my commanding officer—Zara—in bringing down the craft. I was knocked unconscious by the landing and did not regain consciousness until well after we'd been rescued, so I am afraid I cannot help you with those events."

"But regarding the landing, sir, Zara has recommended you for a promotion and a commendation for your efforts. According to her, your actions saved the lives of the entire crew."

Rin smiled slightly but shook his head. "I am afraid the First Minister is merely being generous and gracious in her praise. Were it not for her direction, I do not think we would have survived that crash. In the aftermath, she led the crew away from danger and saved all of our lives, including of course, mine."

"Thank you sir," Enza replied. "And thank you for your time."

"My pleasure, Lieutenant."

Enza slipped out of the hospital room and walked down the winding corridors of the medical center to the exit. She cut through the heart of the General Command complex on her way to the hearing room where the testimony of another officer was being taken for the official inquest. She produced her credentials for the guards and entered the hearing room as quietly as possible. Enza took a seat in the empty gallery, closed to spectators, but not to legal personnel on official business.

A panel of officers and jurists sat at a long table, firing questions at the lone figure seated opposite them. Commander Talan was before them, an imposing figure, even while seated. She looked straight ahead, her cold, gray eyes conveying no emotion as she spoke. Methodically, meticulously, she laid out every detail.

"And your impressions, Commander?" an officer of the inquest interrupted her narrative. He was older, balding and out of shape. He perspired noticeably under the bright lights of the hearing room, most likely designed to make the witness uncomfortable. Talan seemed entirely unaffected by the overly warm temperature and the near blinding light cast directly upon her.

"Sir, I have had the honor of commanding the Expeditionary Forces for over two years now. Lieutenant Commander Ching was a member of the Expeditionary Forces for a significant part of his career and is still called, when needed, to serve with the unit. He has acted as my executive officer on numerous occasions and has conducted himself with the utmost professionalism and regard for the laws of New Krypton."

"So you think that the charges brought against Lieutenant Commander Ching are out of character?" the officer asked.

"They are absolutely out of character and I do not believe them. Lieutenant Commander Ching has always made the protection of civilians a top priority."

"Is it his absolute top priority?"

"Well, sir…" she began.

The questioning officer interrupted her. "Yes or no will do, Commander."

"The question cannot be answered by a simple 'yes' or 'no.'" She replied, her tone forceful, and almost harsh. "In the case of the mission to rescue the First Minister, I believe — and here I must speculate — that his top priority was to locate and safely evacuate the First Minister and her crew. Given the remote location of the crash, I doubt he considered it likely that he would encounter any civilian populations on this mission."

"So you have no personal knowledge of his state of mind during the rescue mission?"

"No sir, I was not present."

"Why is that, Commander, given the fact that the Expeditionary Forces that performed the rescue are your troops?"

"Because I was leading a unit well into its third week of a deep reconnaissance mission, sir," she replied, obviously biting back the exasperation that any ordinary person would have felt toward the examiner.

"So even though you are widely considered the greatest field commander in the Kryptonian forces, you were unable to engage in a mission to rescue your First Minister," the officer stated while looking down at his notes.

"I was recalled immediately, but thanks to the efficiency and bravery of Lieutenant Commander Ching and his forces, my help was not needed," she replied crisply, turning the questioner's statement back on him. "Now we are still at war and I have troops to prepare, so if you require nothing further of me…"

"No, Commander, that is all. You are free to leave," the balding officer replied in a huff. "The inquest thanks you for your time," he added insincerely. The hearing adjourned and the panel and staff filed out of the room. Enza followed the line of people out the doors and into the corridor. Talan stood in the middle of the hall while the other people passed. She seemed to loom above most everyone else, impossible to miss. Enza felt the commander's eyes on her and knew that she could not merely slip away quietly. As the crowd disappeared, leaving the two women alone in the hallway, Enza approached her.

"It seems you have escaped service on the inquest, Lieutenant," Talan said. "Your integrity can thus remain intact."

"Commander, I know that you do not believe that what I serve is worthwhile…" Enza began softly in response.

"You serve a worthy goal," Talan interrupted. "I admit, your objectives and mine on occasion conflict, but I respect your work, though I am personally ill suited to carry it out myself. When it comes to this investigation, however, all I can say is that I know little of backroom politicking and care for it even less. This inquest is not impartial and it taints all of us who have any part in it."

Enza tilted her chin upward to look her superior in the eye. "I have to believe that justice will survive any such attacks, by enemies without or within."

"And what if it cannot?"

"Then you are wrong, Commander," Enza replied boldly. "And what I serve is not a worthy goal." In silence, she turned and walked away.

***

Clark stood just inside the docking bay, staring out into the night's sky. Through New Krypton's thin atmosphere, the dark blanket stretched above seemed littered with bright stars. The loading bays were quiet; the skeletal crew went about its duties, politely ignoring him. He stared up at Earth's sun. The one star in all the heavens that was allowed such a simple name. It would always just be The Sun, as if there were no others. As if the sky weren't filled with billions upon billions of stars just like it.

He felt his fingers curl around the ring on the end of the chain on his neck. He held the tiny band tightly and closed his eyes. He had dreamt about her again. Dreams so vivid they caused him to doubt which life was the real one and which only existed in his sleep. An uneasy feeling plagued him, haunting him like some unwanted apparition. He felt, he sensed, that she needed him. Clark couldn't be sure if she was in trouble or not. When he'd first left, he'd half expected that he would be able to tell, that some extra sense would keep him attuned to the world so that he could rest assured that Lois was fine.

Instead, his nights were disquiet. He couldn't shake the feeling that something wasn't right and that he was helpless to do anything about it. From a logical standpoint, it made perfect sense; Lois had a knack for finding trouble, and he was a natural worrier with no way of assuaging his own fears. Of course, Lois was now invulnerable, but old habits died hard and lord knew he managed to find trouble even with his powers.

He hoped that no matter what was happening in her life that she knew that he loved her and that he would return as soon as possible. His chances of making that return sooner rather than later seemed to be diminishing. The situation on New Krypton did not make him sanguine about the possibility of the conflict being resolved in mere months. Lois was waiting for him, would go on waiting for him, and like him, she would have to do it without any news, without any information to lift her spirits or give her hope that the waiting would eventually end.

Clark chewed his lip. He knew, deep down, that one of the reasons Lois had wanted them to get married before he left was because she wanted to let him know, in the strongest way possible, that forever was already theirs. Despite— or perhaps because of — her parents' relationship, Lois viewed marriage as permanent. She wasn't going to give up at it and she'd proved time and again, that she wasn't ever going to give up on him. But how long exactly, was she supposed to wait? What if he was away for years? Or decades? What if he never returned? How long was she supposed to spend alone, married to someone no more tangible than a ghost? For how long would a few years' of happy memories be companionship enough?

He knew that he could never be with anyone other than Lois; if he lost her, it would be the end. There would never be anyone else for him. But the thought of her alone for the rest of her life ate away at him, little by little. Each day he was away was another day that he was causing her pain. Another day she had to spend clinging to hopes built upon no more than promises.

"Sir?" the sound of a voice startled him. He dropped the chain, the ring swinging to bounce against his chest. He looked over his shoulder to see Talan standing behind him. "I am sorry, I did not mean to startle you, sir," she apologized.

"Couldn't sleep, Commander?" he asked.

"No, sir," she admitted.

"Neither could I." He resumed staring out at the stars. Silence reigned between them for a long moment. "Is something bothering you?" Clark asked.

"I believe the inquest to investigate the charges brought against Lieutenant Commander Ching is more interested in a speedy conviction than the truth."

"So do I," Clark said simply.

"An innocent man is about to be destroyed."

"This war has destroyed a lot of innocent people," he countered, but without conviction. "Ching doesn't believe he's any different. He's just one more person."

"Suffering hardly excuses injustice."

"No, it doesn't. And I haven't learned to weigh the value of lives in mere numbers," Clark admitted bitterly. "In my world, we have a saying: 'whoever kills one person, kills the world entire, and whoever saves one person, saves the world entire.'"

"We will continue fighting on his behalf, sir," Talan replied resolutely.

"We will," Clark agreed. "A whole world depends on it." He noticed the chain around his neck was sitting outside his uniform and he tucked it back under his shirt.

"What is it?" she asked.

"Pardon?"

"I'm sorry, I should not have asked," she replied hastily.

"No, it's all right," he assured her.

"On the chain you wear around your neck, there was something on the end of it."

He pulled the chain back out and held the little gold band between his thumb and forefinger. "We wear these on our fingers as a symbol of marriage."

"And that belongs to your wife…on Earth?"

He nodded.

"She is the world you left behind," Talan said quietly. It was a statement, not a question.

He nodded again. "She is my entire world."

"I do hope that you will be able to return to her," she said.

Clark smiled slightly. "Thank you," he replied.

***

Lois looked down at the tiny form squirming in her arms. She smiled as she nursed her son. It had been days since his birth and yet she had not yet come down from the feeling of absolute wonder and delight. She would sit up all night to watch him sleep, transfixed by the sight of his little chest rising and falling with each breath. He grabbed onto her hand, his little fist curled around one of her fingers.

She hoisted him up onto her shoulder and patted him gently on the back. He rewarded her with a tiny burp. "That's my boy, Jon," she said. Lois smiled and stretched out on her back, floating above the ground. It was more than just a relief to have her powers back. It turned out that nothing put Jonathan Clark Kent to sleep better than floating with mom.

From inside the bedroom, she could hear the front door open and Jonathan and Martha enter the apartment. "Hello?" Martha's voice came from the living room. Her mother-in-law peeked into the bedroom. Lois, still floating, responded with a simple wave as she tried to ensure that her son stayed asleep. Martha smiled at them before retreating back to the living room.

After she was certain Jon was soundly asleep, she laid him down in his bassinet and quietly went to join her in laws. She found the Kents tidying up the kitchen. "Need any help?" she asked.

"Oh no, we're fine," Martha waved her off. "Is he asleep?" she asked with a smile that lit up her face.

"Yeah," Lois replied. "Changed, fed, burped, and put down for a nap."

"Enjoy the quiet while you can," Jonathan said conspiratorially.

"No kidding," Lois replied. "I don't get how non-super powered women do it. How do they get up to feed a baby every two hours each night?"

"And let's not forget that your figure just bounced right back to normal after you got your powers again," Martha added.

Lois smiled. That was one of the best things about having the powers back. There was no way anyone could have guessed that just three days earlier, she'd been pregnant and as big as a house. Now, she looked much like she did nine months ago. It may not have been fair to all the women who had to spend months or more getting back down to pre-pregnancy weight all the while getting no sleep, but she wasn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth. She was thankful to do this the super powered way and she wasn't about to apologize for that. "I think we're about ready to head back to Kansas," she mused. "As much as I love the city, Clark's apartment isn't big enough for all four of us and I'm sure you're both anxious to get back to the farm."

"There's no rush," Jonathan replied. "If you need more time here, that's fine."

"No, I think we're okay," she said. "I'm not really sure I want to take him flying yet though, especially in this weather. I can fly out to Kansas and bring the pickup back out here. The three of you can pile in and I'll fly the truck back out to Smallville."

Jonathan nodded. "Sounds like a plan."

"Great. After Perry and Jimmy visit tonight we'll start getting packed up."

***

"I'm sorry, Lieutenant," Sergeant Lok Sim began as he checked the files in front of him again. "I don't seem to have the complete communications logs for that date."

Enza frowned sternly, trying not to look every bit the junior officer that she was. Her few years' of experience had been in legalistic settings, despite the fact that she was, technically, an officer of the Kryptonian forces. Giving orders had been somewhat outside the purview of her daily responsibilities. She preferred it that way. She'd been in battles and had had to fight, but she was still a lawyer, not a soldier. "How is that possible?" she demanded, a note of anger creeping into her voice.

"I'm not sure, ma'am," the sergeant replied, cowed by an obvious failure, not on his part, but on his unit's. "The logs are all here, but several minutes' worth of communications were lost. They are listed here as unintelligible static, though we know that there were indeed communications between field commanders during that time."

"And there is no way to retrieve the information?" she asked.

"I'm afraid not, ma'am. The information was never recorded."

Enza bit back a frustrated sigh. The records in question were vital evidence needed to exonerate Lieutenant Commander Ching. Those records could prove that he and his field commanders had not given any orders to attack Breksin.

"If I find any more information, shall I send it to the office of the inquest?" the sergeant asked, obviously trying to be helpful.

"No. Send it to me personally," Enza replied. "Understood?"

"Aye, ma'am."

***

"I really must advise against discharging you at this point," her physician said with a concerned frown.

Zara merely smiled and gave him a knowing nod. "I appreciate your concern, doctor," she replied. "But I would be more comfortable in my own home. While I will not take up my full schedule of duties, I feel it is important that I remain abreast of the critical issues we face at this time. I cannot do that if I remain cloistered in here."

"Very well, ma'am," the doctor replied, resigned to the fact that this was an argument he could not win.

"Thank you again, for everything. I owe you and your colleagues my life." Her tone was quiet. The words hung heavily in the air.

"It was our great pleasure and honor to serve," he responded with a solemn bow. "I wish you all the best in the difficult times ahead."

"Thank you, and all the best to you as well. Please extend my best wishes to Tao Scion, too."

"Of course ma'am." He smiled slightly.

She adjusted the cumbersome mantle over her uniform and quietly exited the room, walking slowly to hide her limp. Her wounds from surgery were healing nicely, but still caused her pain when she moved. Even the smallest efforts left her fatigued, but though her body was unwilling, her mind was restless. She could not remain sequestered in peace and quiet while the world around her cried out for those things. She had been kept in the eye of a storm, a place of eerie calm and tranquility in the midst of chaos and confusion. Outside the door, she was immediately met by a member of her guard. If he took notice of the slow pace she set while walking the halls, he said nothing of it.

They approached the medical facilities' docking bay and boarded a small vehicle to carry them the rest of the way to the First Ministers' Residence. Under other circumstances, it would not have been a long or difficult walk, but Zara was determined not to drain all of her energy merely walking home. There was a time to convey strength publicly and there was a time to conserve that strength for what really mattered.

***

Clark met Zara at the entrance to the First Ministers' Residence and waved off her escort. He greeted her with a slight smile and a softly spoken "welcome home." Alone in the corridors of the compound, he extended his arm to her and she took it with a look of gratitude on her face. She leaned against him as they walked slowly to their chambers.

He felt a twinge of regret, knowing that Ching should have been there in his place. Clark knew that he made for a poor substitute for the other man, but with Ching still under investigation, there was little that could have been done about that. Ching remained confined within General Command as the inquest moved along at a tortuously slow pace.

The doors to their quarters opened and he led Zara into the room. "Thank you," she said as she released his arm, stepping forward on her own gingerly.

"Is there anything I can do for you?" he asked, hoping to be of help, even if in only a small way.

Zara shook her head and smiled. "No, I will be fine," she replied. "I think I will rest for a while, but afterward, if you wouldn't mind briefing me on what I have missed, I would be grateful."

Clark frowned. "Your doctors recommended that you rest, not work," he replied gently.

"I know," she said. "And I know my limitations, but I cannot remain idle and useless while so much unfolds around us." He nodded in understanding.

***

Lois landed on the porch softly, her cape fluttering gently in the cold February air. She opened the front door and slipped inside, trying to avoid allowing the biting wind from swirling into the entryway. Ultrawoman had not been planning on resuming her patrols of the world's skies immediately after Lois had returned to Kansas with the Kents and Jon, but an emergency call had been too much to ignore.

She spun back into her clothes, carrying the dirty suit to the laundry room. It may have been the dead of winter in Kansas with two feet of snow blanketing the ground and several more inches on the way, but in Chile it was summer and it was wet. She'd been able to divert a potentially disastrous mudslide as her first major rescue since her return. Her help had been gratefully received although she knew that questions were still swirling in the air over where she had been and what had drawn her away. She'd been somewhat cryptic in her explanations, but tried to assure her doubters that she was here to stay.

With a slight, satisfied smile, she cleaned the mud from her uniform and dried it with her heat vision, working quietly to avoid waking the residents of the Kent farmhouse. It felt really good to be helping again. Parenting was proving to be a full time job, and just a few months off in the future, she had drafts due to her publisher for the first chapter of her forthcoming book. Granted, it was mostly a compilation of her columns along with some new material, but it was proving to be more work than she'd anticipated. Most columnists used several years' worth of material to create a book, she had to expand six month's worth. The format of her writing had to be completely revised and she needed to do follow ups with the subjects of her columns. She found herself looking forward to that aspect in particular. It would be nice to know what was going on in the lives of the heroes whose stories she covered.

The sound of her son crying suddenly caught her attention. She quickly put away her uniform and quietly made her way upstairs to the nursery. Jon lay in his bassinet, whimpering softly, discomfited by a wet diaper and an empty stomach. Lois immediately redressed the first problem and then the second. Over the course of a week, she'd become an old hand at changing diapers and tending to the needs of a newborn. It was an odd, but wonderful feeling. It was almost as if she possessed those strange maternal instincts. She still had plenty of questions and was learning as she went, but more often than not, she found her gut could be trusted. That fact was likely due to Clark's influence in her life; both as a strong, loving presence, and as an example as Superman. Being Ultrawoman was also a key factor. Her experiences, just dealing with all sorts of people every day, getting to see their hopes and dreams, as well as their fears and concerns, made her feel like she understood her fellow human beings just a little bit better.

She found herself smiling again as she settled into the rocking chair in the nursery, Jon nestled comfortably in her arms. She softly sang to him, lulling him gently back to sleep. His eyelids drooped over his big, brown eyes and finally closed. Lois watched him sleep in silence, letting long moments pass as she held him in her arms.

***

Enza stood in front of him, her shoulders drooping slightly, her eyes red rimmed. She had her hands clasped in front of her, her expression hardened to avoid betraying the sense of exhaustion and defeat he knew she must have been feeling.

Clark sat at the table in the conference room, his fingers drumming on the metal surface. He frowned, not in any way upset with Enza; he was well aware that she was doing more than everything humanly possible. "If the inquest were impartial, it would be trying much harder to find those missing communications," he mused. "They need them as much as we do."

"I agree, sir," Enza replied. "Without them, the case against Lieutenant Commander Ching is based almost entirely on hearsay."

"But I'm not sure they're willing to let a little thing like lack of evidence keep them from destroying Ching," he said bitterly. He frowned again, deep in thought, searching for another avenue left untested. "What about the uniforms? They must have been stolen."

"The supply sergeant assigned to the Expeditionary Forces has been singularly unhelpful. I have made a few requests for unrelated pieces of information in order to determine whether he would be likely to cooperate. I wanted to determine whether or not he would be obliging before doing anything to arouse particular suspicion from the council. As it is, sir, I believe he does suspect me."

"We'll have to go at it a different way." A slow smile spread across his face as an idea came to him.

"What is it, sir?" Enza asked, her brow arched.

"I think I know someone who can help us," he replied enigmatically. "Go back to other leads, Lieutenant. I'll take care of looking into the uniforms."

***

"Yes, Mother," Lois spoke into the phone, indulging an eye roll that her mother couldn't see.

"And everything's okay?" her mother asked for the billionth time.

"Yes, he's fine. I'll send pictures."

"Good. I mean, it's been almost two weeks now and I still haven't seen my grandson," Ellen complained.

Lois frowned and bit back a sigh. For someone who'd been less than enthused by the news of the pregnancy, her mother was now painfully impatient when it came to seeing her first grandchild. "I know, Mother. I'll bring him out to visit when he's a little older."

"I'm going to hold you to that," Ellen replied.

"I promise, I will bring him to visit you." Lois sighed in exasperation. She strained with her super hearing, hoping that if not Jon, someone, somewhere needed her at that moment. She would have taken a treed cat gladly. Anything to get her off that phone would have been welcomed. Luck was on her side. She heard the sounds from the nursery that told her Jon was starting to wake from his nap. "I've got to go, Mother, Jon is up."

Lois said her goodbyes and hung up the phone with an enthusiasm that almost made her feel guilty. She made her way to the nursery to find Jon in his bassinet, fidgeting restlessly under the blanket. "Mom owes you big time, little guy," she said as she lifted him up. He cooed in apparent agreement.

As she finished nursing him, she settled him against her shoulder to burp him gently. She patted his tiny back, but stilled her hand. She was hearing something. It was a radio news report, probably from a distant passing car. They were asking for Ultrawoman.

"Martha!" she called out, walking out of the nursery, still holding Jon. He began to cry irritably as she rushed into the hall, scanning the house frantically for her mother-in-law. She spotted Martha in the downstairs den. "Shhh, it's okay." She tried to soothe her unhappy son. He continued to cry as she made her way to the den. She almost bumped into the older woman, who had probably heard both the crying and her daughter-in-law calling for her.

"What's wrong?" Martha asked immediately.

"I have to go," Lois replied, hearing the note of panic in her own voice. "They need Ultrawoman."

Martha quickly took Jon from her without further comment. Lois just stood, frozen in place, staring. She hesitated, not wanting to leave Jon when he was crying. "Go," Martha insisted quietly. She soothed the baby, his loud cries fading to whimpers. Lois finally unglued her feet from the ground and left, breezing out of the house, changing into the suit in mid flight.

***

The chiming of a pleasant, familiar tone informed Enza that there was someone at her door. She stood from her desk, where she'd spent countless hours reviewing evidence, and tidily arranged her work to protect it from prying eyes. She answered the door, surprised to see Sergeant Lok Sim, the communications engineer she'd spoken with, standing on the other side.

The tall, square jawed soldier saluted her. "I am sorry to disturb you ma'am."

"What is it, Sergeant? Did you find more information?"

Lok Sim frowned and glanced from side to side. "I fear the information is rather sensitive. Perhaps we should not discuss this out in the open."

"My niece is asleep inside," Enza lied. Paranoia may have been an ugly trait, but it was also a necessary one.

The sergeant's eyes darted back and forth again. Despite his obvious discomfort, he continued. "The recordings you asked for. They were not improperly recorded. They were erased."

"Are you certain?" Enza demanded.

"Positive, ma'am," Lok Sim replied, his green eyes unblinking.

"Have you told anyone about this?" She looked him up and down, trying desperately to judge him, to make an assessment of him, his honesty, his trustworthiness, on nothing more than a few minutes of guarded interaction.

Lok Sim hesitated, his lips pressed together in a thin, hard line. He shook his head 'no.'

"Give me a moment to arrange for a secure conference room where we can talk freely," she replied, turning back toward her door. The moment she had her back to him she felt a strong arm around her neck and she was forced against a wall. The blade of a knife pressed against her throat.

"How do I know I can trust you?" he hissed. She could feel his breath against her skin. Her heart raced in her chest, her mouth went suddenly dry. She put her hands on his arm, but he was much bigger and stronger than she. If she fought, he would have no trouble killing her.

"Sergeant, what are you doing?" she asked, amazed she could actually form the words.

"You were not assigned to the official inquest. You specifically asked me not to go to them. How do I know that you are not trying to destroy evidence? To conceal what happened at Breksin?"

"I want the same thing you do," she managed, swallowing painfully. With each movement, she could feel the blade of the knife against her skin. "I want the truth. Someone is trying to bury it, you know that, otherwise you wouldn't be here, holding a knife to an officer's throat."

"I don't trust you," he replied. She could hear the nervousness in his voice. Funny, he wasn't the one a hair's breadth from death.

"I don't imagine you do," she said, her voice wavering. "But you know something is very wrong. No one except you and your commanding officer should have access to the communications logs, yet they've been tampered with. Someone with a great deal of power is trying to ensure that Commander Ching is held responsible for what happened at Breksin. Someone is desperate to keep the truth from getting out." She tried to lean back slightly to gain some literal breathing room from the knife's edge, but he held her in a firm, vise-like grip.

"It could be you," he countered. "You're the First Ministers' legal counsel, you're perfectly placed to betray them."

"Or I could be working to protect them." She felt his hand tremble slightly and tried not to wince. Enza knew she could save her own skin by revealing the truth, but that was only assuming that Lok Sim was a man of good will who was merely mistaken, and not a spy for Nor, sent to flush her out into the open. "And I can be no more certain of your good intentions than you can be of mine. Think about it. Is it not odd that the inquest is completely uninterested in what could be the most important piece of evidence in this case? Is it not likely that they're the ones interested in concealing the truth?"

She felt the knife ease away from her skin and let out a breath she didn't realize she'd been holding in. Her knees felt weak and she marshaled all of her strength to keep standing. With shaking hands, Lok Sim re-sheathed his knife. He looked at her, an oddly meek expression settling on his face. "Why would they be doing this?"

"I do not know," she replied honestly.

"But you believe the inquest is corrupt?" he asked, his eyes narrowed.

"I believe they are willing to sacrifice a good officer and his forces for some political gain," she answered.

***

Trey walked through the corridors of the legal chambers at a rapid clip. He was an infrequent visitor to this part of the colony, but he knew its layout well enough to navigate it with ease. He passed jurists in the halls, largely ignoring them as they went about their work, and finally found himself at the door to the office of the lead jurist for the special inquest. He entered without waiting to be announced. Few people would think to stop the First Ministers' Chief of Staff in order to attend to such petty details.

"Good afternoon, Trey," Pelmon said as he looked up from his desk. Trey merely nodded, tight lipped, at the portly, middle aged fellow. A broad, practiced, smile spread across Pelmon's expansive face, creating deep creases in his flabby jowls as he waved a chubby hand toward one of the chairs in front of his desk. Trey took the proffered seat across from the other man. Trey regarded him through narrowed eyes as Pelmon dabbed at the beads of perspiration on his balding head.

Pelmon's face was always full of color, as though all the blood in his considerable body had collected under the skin of his face. His office was kept several degrees cooler than most places within the compound, yet the man perpetually looked as though he were being roasted alive. The rumors among those jurists more prone to frivolous talk was that the man had sweated off at least ten pounds over the course of the inquest due to a malfunction in the cooling systems in the hearing room. Under the bright lights of the room, crowded with people, Trey imagined, with an inward amusement, that Pelmon must have been suffering terribly. Trey speculated idly whether the conditions had rendered Pelmon even more short-tempered with his witnesses and staff. Pelmon was never known to have had a particularly pleasant disposition, especially to those over whom he had authority and Trey somehow doubted that physical discomfort was something he bore well.

In a society which honored stoicism and forbearance, Pelmon was an anomaly. He was particularly ill suited to deal with the hardships of life on New Krypton. But if he was weak and soft of physical constitution, the man possessed a razor sharp intellect and a harshness of character that served him well. Trey had followed the expected path — a dutiful son, student, and soldier. He had risen to each new post over the course of his long career based upon the promise he had shown and the performance of his duties. Pelmon, on the other hand, had experienced a rather meteoric rise to the top of the legal guild. More than a few years Trey's junior, it was rumored that he'd been considered for the post of Chief Jurist and only denied the position because of the previous First Minister, Shir Om's, deep distrust of him.

"You wished to speak with me?" Trey asked, hoping to cut through niceties and deal directly with the matter at hand, whatever that was.

"Yes, indeed. I have been approached through…certain channels, regarding an opportunity to aid our people."

"What sort of opportunity?" Trey asked, his eyes narrowed.

Pelmon leaned forward almost conspiratorially. "The secession of the Belaar Valley is a foregone conclusion. The documents are being drawn up as we speak. The governors of the Belaar intend to claim that the High Council should not be able to object because of egregious misconduct and hostility toward the Belaar."

"You mean the attack on Breksin?"

"Of course," Pelmon replied matter-of-factly. "That incident will forever be a dark mark on our history. But the good news is that there is a deal that can be made. A swift conviction of the guilty complete with harsh sentences, to be carried out in the Belaar, and a promise to let the Belaar go in peace may bring an end to this war."

Trey leaned forward in his seat. "Who is making this offer?" He been denied

"Those who have the power to make such an offer." Pelmon leaned back, tenting his fingers in front of him.

"Rae Et?" Trey asked, though he already knew the answer. Pelmon did not reply. "They want Ching's head, in exchange for peace?"

"It seems a small price, especially given the charges he faces."

"He has not been found guilty," Trey countered.

"He will be." Pelmon's voice oozed with confidence.

Trey frowned. "Lok Dei and Fet Ri represent the Belaar, not Rae Et, what authority does she claim in making this offer?"

"The secession movement is allied with Nor. The area over which he will exert power will be considerable. Rae Et is extending this offer because it is better for both of us that our lands co-exist in peace. A war with the newly augmented secessionist territories can be easily lost. Let us work toward this compromise as a last chance for peace."

"This offer will have to be put before the Council and the First Ministers."

"Trey, I thought you were more circumspect than that," Pelmon chastised. "It is not yet time to put such an offer to them. With emotions running high after Zara's near fatal accident, we must lay the ground work for this arrangement carefully."

***

Clark looked at the two skinny young boys standing in front of him, their backs straight, their eyes unblinking as they stared straight ahead. Their jaws were sternly set, their faces freshly shaved though neither seemed to grow more than peach fuzz. "I need both of you to know that these aren't orders. If you don't want to do this, you certainly don't have to. But Dek Ra, you asked me about a way to help, and I think I found a job that no one is better suited to than you two."

"We want to help, Kal El," Tem Ra replied.

"Good. There are some equipment and inventory records I want to get, but I don't want to alert anyone to the fact that I'm looking for something."

Dek Ra's eyes narrowed. "You would not be creating some intrigue to make us believe that doing inventory is an important task would you? Sir?" He added the last part hastily.

"No," said Clark with a mild shake of his head. "This isn't some decoy mission. I need these files because I think someone has been stealing supplies for the rebels and I need to prove it."

Dek Ra nodded in understanding. "So what is it that you want us to do, sir?"

***

Lois trudged into the farmhouse, bone weary. It wasn't a physical exhaustion so much as a mental one. Even heavier rains in Chile had caused even larger mudslides. She'd remained there all day, doing everything she could to divert the mud flows, save homes, and most importantly, save people who were threatened by the slides. Disasters of this scale were always dangerous and required her total concentration. Now, however, she found it difficult to give that concentration. Her mind would frantically jump track and she'd begin thinking about Jon. About whether he was okay. And she'd fret, and worry, and get distracted.

That distraction could cost people their lives.

It was a sobering realization and one that didn't come a moment too soon. While working, the distant rumble of more earth and clay giving way under torrents of water, an ominous portent of potential tragedy to come, had shaken her out of her ruminations. Realizing that she was allowing her focus to drift, she quickly shook the mental cobwebs and redoubled her efforts, pushing all thoughts not relevant to her mission out of her mind.

She had worked, surrounded by tragedy, by desperate people who had lost everything, and frantic parents searching for their children. No matter how fast she was, she couldn't be everywhere at once. While helping some, she'd had to ignore the cries of others. People had died. She knew, somewhere, on some intellectual level, that the death toll would have been higher had she not been able to help, but it was a cold comfort. Eventually, she'd been approached by the official in charge of the local rescue efforts. He'd thanked her in that broken mess of jumbled English and Spanish in which they'd been communicating all day. International crews were on their way, so it was unlikely that they'd need her help for too much longer.

The promised crews arrived — serious, grim faced and efficient men and women who made jumping from one tragedy to the next, helping where they were needed, their business. Under the banners of agencies like the Red Cross and MSF, they organized, created task forces, and delegated responsibilities. A tidy, stern looking woman with a walkie talkie in one hand and a dozen different credentials worn on the lanyard around her neck flagged her down. Her short, jet black hair was streaked with silver, her face bore the deep frown lines that spoke of years of experience. She'd introduced herself as Evelyn Rodriguez, a local disaster relief coordinator with the International Red Cross. With a no-nonsense tone, she'd asked for a briefing on the situation, which Lois had provided. Ms. Rodriguez had thanked Ultrawoman for her help and her time and promised to keep in touch if further assistance was necessary, sounding like a person ending a business meeting as opposed to a first encounter with a superhero. Lois had to assume that for someone like Ms. Rodriguez, these types of situations no longer carried with them a sense of the surreal.

And with that, she'd gone home to Kansas. All throughout the short flight, her mind jumped back and forth between thoughts of the rescue and her deep desire to get home and see her son. She wasn't sure how late it was exactly when she arrived at the farm, but the household was quiet, everyone having gone to sleep. In silence, she floated up the stairs and to the nursery.

In the darkness, she watched her son sleep. Innocent, unaware, helpless. He needed her, just like those people today had needed her. Would she be able to take care of him, protect him, even though she hadn't been able to take care of everyone, protect everyone who had needed her? She wished she could be sure.

Jon began to whimper and cry. She quickly picked him up. Apparently, it was feeding time. Lois sat down in the rocking chair with her son in her arms and nursed him. She looked up at the sound of footsteps in the hall. The door opened a sliver and light spilled in from the hallway. Martha stood in the doorway.

"I didn't mean to disturb you," her mother-in-law whispered softly. "I heard Jon cry and didn't know you were home."

"I just got in a little while ago," Lois replied. "I'm sorry for just running out and leaving you with him. I bet he hasn't let you guys get any sleep at all tonight."

"It's no trouble," Martha said. "We're happy to help, and we know how important what you do is. Don't worry about it, that's what we're here for."

Lois smiled gratefully. "Thanks."

"We saw the mudslides on TV. How bad was it?"

"Pretty bad. We did everything we could, and the rescue teams were great, but you know, people still get hurt. There are people we still can't help."

Martha merely nodded. "Well, unless you need anything, I'm going to go back to bed."

Lois looked down at Jon and smiled. "I think we're fine. Thank you for taking such good care of him."

"Any time," Martha replied. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight."

***

Ensign Parth walked down the corridors of General Command with his unenthusiastic charge in tow. He approached the desk of the supply sergeant who made a great show of looking up to see who had the audacity to disturb him at his desk. The supply sergeant, a weathered looking man whose graying hair made him look older than his thirty some odd years, looked lazily up at Ensign Parth.

Parth glowered at the sergeant. "Do soldiers not salute officers in this division?" he bit out the words, sharpened with disapproval.

The supply sergeant stood up and saluted. "What can I do for you, sir?" he asked without trace of sincerity.

Parth gestured toward Dek Ra. "This young cadet is to assist you with your duties today. I want him to understand the system for maintaining inventory stores." The supply sergeant turned toward Dek Ra and looked him up and down. He smirked, obviously finding some perverse pleasure in his new responsibility over a cadet.

His watery blue eyes settled in a fixed stare on the young cadet. "We'll find good work for him to do around here, sir."

***

Several hours after his twin brother had ventured in to the inventory offices, Tem Ra approached the supply sergeant, dozing at his desk.

"Sergeant?" Tem Ra said meekly, trying to wake the older man without incurring his wrath. The sergeant nearly fell from his chair as he rushed to sit up.

"What? What is it?" he asked in near panic until he noticed the young cadet in front of him. He frowned dourly. "What are you doing here? I thought I sent you back there to file the supply request forms."

Tem Ra swallowed nervously. His eyes went wide as he saw his brother poking his head out from the doorway to the supply office, behind the sergeant. Dek Ra, ten minutes older than Tem Ra and always the more daring of the two, waved his younger brother off, signaling him to hurry and distract the supply sergeant. With shaking hands he hoped would be interpreted as a fear of authority, Tem Ra handed the sergeant a letter, bearing the official mark of the Expeditionary Forces, stating that the supply office had sent the wrong supplies to a unit in the field and demanding the sergeant's immediate attention.

The sergeant read the note, his expression growing constantly darker. He crumpled the note slightly at the edges, where his large hands gripped it tightly. "Imbeciles," he muttered. "Come on," he snarled at Tem Ra. "We need to go to the docking bay and get this sorted out at once."

"Aye, sir," Tem Ra replied. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see his older brother grin and wink at him as he slipped out of the supply office to the records room. The sergeant stormed out, with Tem Ra timidly following.

***

"Sir! I have them!" Dek Ra exclaimed with a broad grin as soon as Clark opened the door to his quarters. Clark pulled the young man in quickly, hoping his enthusiasm hadn't drawn the attention of any interested soul passing through the corridors. Barely able to contain his excitement, Dek Ra held up the disk triumphantly and handed it to Clark.

"Thank you, Dek Ra. And good work," Clark said, clapping the young man on the shoulder. "Let's see what you and your brother found." He accessed the terminal in his quarters and inserted the disk, quickly bringing up list after list of the official inventories of supplies for the Expeditionary Forces.

"What are you looking for, sir?" Dek Ra asked as he stood behind Clark, frowning as he looked at the display screen.

"Discrepancies," Clark replied. "I have all the orders of supplies from the Expeditionary Forces and the inventories here. I'm looking to see if anything is missing, like uniforms."

"Uniforms that could have been used by rebels pretending to be Ching's men?"

"Exactly," Clark said. He frowned as he double checked the data on the inventory list and on the disk. "There it is," he murmured.

***

"Clearly, the High Council cannot protect you," Rae Et explained, her hands clasped behind her back. Fet Ri and Lok Dei walked beside her, their pale complexions, bloodshot eyes, and perpetual frowns testaments to their uneasiness. Rae Et walked more slowly these days than she did as a younger woman, but she still carried herself with a distant grace. Draped in her greatcoat, her frail, thin frame was hidden and she maintained the aura of power and steeled resolve. "You were correct in your judgment that secession is your best hope. Independence, however, is still dangerous. I can provide you with the protection and security your people need and expect from you."

"What you want is an alliance that will put under your control territory that is not mere wasteland," Fet Ri replied.

"It is true that my followers and I are forced to carve out our existence in an even more inhospitable clime than most in this world," she conceded. "But what I am proposing is a mutually beneficial arrangement."

"This is not a matter on which we can provide any guarantees," Lok Dei interjected, his frown accenting the deeply carved worry lines on his face. "The governors will have to confer amongst themselves and with the populace."

"But your support for the arrangement will carry much weight," Rae Et replied.

Fet Ri turned toward her. A muscle twitched nervously along his grimly set jaw. "Our people have suffered immensely in this world and our troubles have recently multiplied. All that we want, all that we are committed to, is ensuring the best for those we serve."

"I assure you that our concerns are the same," Rae Et said smoothly. "We want what all people everywhere want, to protect our families and ensure the best for our children."

"Some of us seem to have grander plans for our children than others." Lok Dei gave her a dour look.

Rae Et smiled with practiced grace and almost convincing benevolence. "I am growing too old and tired to lead. A younger generation, more vigorous, forged in the fires of this world will have to take up the mantle. My son is a good and noble man who wants the best for New Krypton and has, since birth, been raised with the solemn knowledge that he had a vital role to play in securing the future of our people."

Fet Ri was unmoved. "The matter must go before the people of the Belaar, Rae Et. That is all we can promise."

"I thank you both for your time," she replied with a deep bow that bent her thin frame.

***

Lois sat at the kitchen table, a coffee mug between her hands. A gust of cold wind signaled the opening of the door. Jonathan entered, stomping the snow off his boots. "Good morning," he said cheerfully, his complexion full of color from the frigid outdoor air.

"Morning," Lois replied, unable to mask her glum disposition.

"What's wrong?" he asked instantly.

"I just…I rushed into things. I wasn't ready to start being Ultrawoman yet."

Jonathan sat down beside her. "But you heard a call for help. They needed you and you went. It's the kind of person you are."

"And I don't regret it, I just, I'm worried…about whether I'm around enough for Jon, about whether I'm a good mother, about whether I can handle all of this."

He placed a large hand on her much smaller one. It was still cold. "You're doing a fantastic job. Better than anyone could expect. And you have help. Don't ever forget that. Martha and I will do everything we can to help you. But you're right, you have to prioritize."

"I'm not sure how to do that," she said, shaking her head.

"You'll learn."

"How are you holding up?" she asked quietly.

Jonathan chewed his lip and nodded slowly. "As best as can be expected. Today's tougher than most days."

Lois felt tears prick her eyes. "I know. How's Martha?"

"Not feeling too well." He placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently. "It'll be okay," he said.

"Yeah," she replied, without conviction. She got up and washed out her coffee mug. "I'm going to go check on Jon." She headed up the stairs, detouring to her own room before she made her way to the nursery. Lois found herself drifting toward the picture frame sitting on the dresser. It felt so solid, so real in her hand. She touched the cool glass surface over the picture. It was a favorite of hers; a picture of the two of them together, both smiling, his arm slung casually around her shoulder as though that was the only natural placed for it to be. "Happy birthday, sweetheart," she murmured.

***

He tapped on the face of his watch, listening to it tick quietly. It was late at night on New Krypton, but apparently not back in Metropolis. It was about two in the afternoon, February 28th, 1997. He was thirty one years old today. And he'd been away from home for almost ten months. Clark stretched out on the firm mattress of his bed, staring up at the ceiling. The last few weeks had been among the most trying in his life. Suddenly, with the evidence that he and Enza had just found, however, he was starting to let himself be just a little bit hopeful. The possibility of clearing Ching's name had finally begun to materialize. It was no sure thing, but he had cause to hope.

The chiming of the communications system informed him that there was someone at his door. Given the late hour, it must have been rather important. He stood up and made his way to the main door to the quarters. He opened it to find Shai standing on the other side.

"I bear bad news, sir," the elder statesman said with a humble bow.

"What is it?" Clark asked. Shai held out the envelope in his hands. Clark took it, quickly ripping it open and scanning the contents.

The Belaar had officially seceded.

"The Council will be gathered first thing in the morning, sir," Shai said. Clark nodded grimly.

As the old councilor retreated back into the hallways, Clark read the formal statement again. "Happy birthday, Kent," he whispered to himself.

***

The snow crunched under his boots as he trudged through the ankle deep blanket spread over the ground. He followed a set of much smaller footprints, often obliterating the existing tracks under his own footfalls. He inhaled deeply, the cold air stinging his lungs, the muscles in his chest tightening in response. Exhaling, his breath froze in front of him in little puffs. A light dusting of flakes fell, coating him with the white powder. The cold bit the exposed skin of his face. The trail of footprints led him to the pond behind the shed, frozen long ago, and silent in winter's embrace. Beside it stood a small, lone figure, silhouetted by a setting sun.

He approached unnoticed; despite the loud sound of his boots compacting the powdered snow underfoot, she didn't seem to hear him. She looked so lonely, but he knew that she felt even worse. After all of these years, he knew her better than he knew himself. "You know, you'll freeze out here," he said as he wrapped his arms around her from behind. She leaned back against him, and he felt her body shiver. His wife said nothing.

"Are you okay?" he asked at long last, breaking the silence. He hugged her more tightly, hoping to protect her from the outside cold, not sure if there was anything he could do for the cold within.

"We just picked a day at random. Tried to guess based on how old he was when we found him. When he was a little boy, I was always so terrified that one day there would be a knock at our door. That someone would come to take him away from us. As he got older, and stronger, I stopped worrying. I thought nothing could take my boy away from me, but he's gone just the same."

"He'll come home," Jonathan replied resolutely.

"We can't know that," Martha confessed, letting the doubt show at last. She always clung with fierce tenacity to her optimism. He knew that it was her refusal to acknowledge any doubt that kept her going from one day to the next. Clark would come home, just as certain as the sun would rise. Perhaps no one would be setting any clocks by Clark's return, but he would come home, just as soon as he could.

He drew in a deep breath of sharp, cold air. "Clark is unlike anybody else, in this world or any other. He is so strong and has such a good heart. If there's any way he can come back, he will. We've already watched him do so much amazing good in this world, we just need to have a little faith in the boy we raised."

***

He looked up as the door to Zara's chambers opened. She stepped slowly through the doorway, wearing a thin dressing gown. "How are you?" he asked immediately. Her grim expression made clear that she'd already heard the news.

"I will be fine," she replied. "When does the council plan to meet?"

"In about an hour."

"I plan to be there," she said resolutely.

Clark frowned. "Are you sure you're all right?"

"We need to demonstrate that we are still firmly in control." He saw her lean heavily against the doorway in contrast to her firm statement. He stood up, walking hesitantly toward her. He saw her close her eyes, one hand going to her abdomen.

"Zara?" he asked. Thoughts of concern raced through his mind. He began to wonder immediately if he should call a doctor.

"Could you help me?" she asked softly. He was almost taken aback by the request for assistance, something entirely out of character for her.

"Of course," he replied. He took her arm as she walked back into her room, one hand still at her side.

She sat down gingerly on the bed, her face drawn. "The bandages need to be changed," she managed. A quick glance around the room revealed the fresh bandages, which he removed from their shelf. Zara had begun to remove her dressing gown. She sat in her undergarments, her expression emotionless. Clark felt another pang of guilt, knowing that this again, was something Ching, not he, should have been doing.

He focused on the healing wound, the surgical scar much larger than he expected it would be. He'd assumed that Zara had downplayed the seriousness of her injuries and now had the proof, but said nothing. The supplies at hand were different from what he was used to, but he'd learned a little about first aid over the years of helping at disasters and cleaning and dressing the wound was a simple task. Zara remained completely silent and impassive, though he knew that the process had to cause a considerable amount of pain. In a few, quick minutes, he was finished. As she replaced her gown, she looked up at him and quietly said, "thank you."

Clark replied with a nod and a tight lipped smile. He quietly retreated from her room to give her privacy to get ready.

***

"And what, exactly, is it that this council intends to do?" one of the councilors demanded.

"We must not allow the secession, it is an act of war!" another answered angrily.

Shai pounded the gavel heavily against the podium, his voice boomed with authority. "Silence!"

The councilors seemed cowed by Shai's command. Clark seized the moment of silence. "We cannot rush into an action that will cost innocent people their lives," he said sternly.

Zara placed her hand on his and looked over at her co-First Minister. "Kal El and I are in agreement. We do not condone a race into action. We must first determine the intentions of the Belaar."

Alon stood up and bowed respectfully. "My esteemed First Ministers, what do you suggest?"

Clark spoke up again. "We're asking the council to seal the borders, increase patrols, and continue attempting to negotiate with the Belaar."

"Very well, sir," Alon replied.

Gai Jin, another councilor stood up, grim faced. "What about Breksin? Why are we not discussing the fact that the Belaar was completely justified in seceding?"

A murmur rose up among the council. The murmur grew to a dull roar as councilors began arguing. "There will be order!" Shai demanded.

"What of it, sir?" Gai Jin argued. "What is the status of the investigation?"

"The legal investigation is proceeding according to schedule," Zara replied. Clark could see the strain in her expression but knew that no one else would notice it. The lines of pain and worry were too subtle, too well hidden.

Gai Jin remained unsatisfied. "Why haven't the First Ministers denounced Commander Ching and the heinous actions of his troops? If you cannot bring order to your own house and purge it of evil influences, how can you lead us?"

Trey stepped forward, clearing his throat slightly. "Based upon the outcome of the inquest…" he began.

Clark stood up and held out a hand to silence Trey. "It is all right," he started. He tried to temper the anger rising in him. "Commander Ching has served the First Ministers and the people of New Krypton faithfully for his entire career. He is entitled to a fair trial and I will not condemn him as guilty while the facts remain unknown."

"How can you stand by, sir, and defend a murderer?" Gai Jin seethed.

Trey spoke up once more. "Esteemed councilor, this is neither the time nor the place to try Lieutenant Commander Ching, but rest assured, justice will be done."

***

Clark walked briskly down the hallways, his unwanted entourage in tow. He'd been in meetings and conference sessions all morning and there was no end in sight. As he rounded a corner, Enza intercepted him. "Can I have a moment, sir?"

For anyone else, the answer would have been no. Clark didn't have a moment to breathe and he couldn't exactly conjure up more time for anyone else. "Of course, Lieutenant," he replied immediately. He turned to Trey and his collection of guards and advisors. "Leave us," he said simply.

Trey nodded vigorously as he and the pack fell behind. Clark followed Enza into a conference room and locked the door behind them. "What have you found?" he asked.

"The recordings that should have existed of Commander Ching's communications were intentionally erased," she said, her expression stern.

"Are you certain?" he asked.

He saw her rub at her neck. "I am certain, sir," she replied. "I can produce the tapes."

Clark chewed his lip, frowning. "The inventory lists for the Expeditionary Forces don't match the orders. Weapons, communication systems, and uniforms are all missing." He stressed the last part.

"Which supports the theory that the attackers were masquerading as Expeditionary Forces," she replied. "What about the sabotage of the First Minister's ship?"

"We couldn't acquire the wreckage to analyze it," Clark explained. "But I have a list of every person who had access to the ship before it launched. I want you to interview every one of them."

"Of course, sir. And the secession of the Belaar, how does this affect our work?"

"It changes nothing," Clark said. He walked toward the door. "Continue your good work, Lieutenant."

"Of course, sir," she replied with a bow before leaving in the direction of her office.

Clark caught up to Trey in the hallway. "We are behind schedule, sir," Trey said with a frown.

"I know," Clark replied.

"I was hoping to get a few minutes of your time, today, sir," Trey continued.

"What is it, Trey?" Clark asked.

"Regarding, Ching, sir," Trey began. "Perhaps it would be best for you to distance yourself from him."

"Commander Ching has served with nothing but complete loyalty and honor. I will not betray him."

"Sir, he has been accused of the most heinous crimes…"

"And I do not believe the charges. I know Commander Ching. I believe him when he says that he had nothing to do with the attack and I will do everything I can to ensure that he has a fair trial."

"Sir, I understand your concern, but…"

"The subject is not open for discussion!" Clark snapped. He continued walking down the hall, noticing it took Trey a moment to recover and catch up. "We cannot get sidetracked. We have a lot to do."

***

Enza walked toward her office mentally organizing the myriad tasks that remained before her. An unwelcome voice intruded on her ruminations. "Lieutenant Enza." Her name seemed to slip off the oily tongue of Pelmon.

She tried to steady her voice to avoid allowing her disdain for him to shine through. "Yes, Pelmon, what can I do for you?" she asked, turning to face him. His beady eyes seemed to bore into her.

"I simply wanted to inquire as to the state of your work for the First Ministers."

Enza frowned, trying to discern his angle. Pelmon wasn't stupid, far from it, in fact. "My communications with the First Ministers are entirely confidential," she replied.

Pelmon seemed taken aback. "But of course," he stammered, though his bluster was far too polished to be real. "I merely wanted to determine whether or not you are enjoying your work. The word throughout the department is that you are performing quite well, but you should not neglect the future of your career. Perhaps you should consider working in the guild, Lieutenant. I'm sure we can find a place where someone of your talents can flourish."

"Our world's future is more important than my career, sir. Frankly, if our future is not secure, I hardly need to concern myself with my employment plans. I will keep my current position, but thank you for the offer."

***

Swallowing roughly around the lump that had formed in his throat, Ching stood to face the panel of his accusers. He glanced around the empty, tomblike courtroom before turning toward the jurists who held his fate in their hands. He steeled his expression, his jaw sternly set, unwilling to show any emotion or fear.

"Lieutenant Commander Ching," Pelmon announced, reading from a page held in his chubby hands. "We the jurists of New Krypton's Legal Guild find sufficient evidence to bind you over for trial. Proceedings on the charges of war crimes, murder, assault, and crimes against humanity will begin post haste. Fal Ben of the Legal Guild has been assigned to aid you in your defense."

Ching closed his eyes. The announcement was not a surprise, but he could not help but feel despondent. He stood silently, bleakness and despair festering deep within, growing by the moment, gnawing at him. For the first time in his life, he felt like he had nothing to fight for. This wasn't a battle for his people, for the safety of his world, it was a battle to save his own skin and his heart wasn't in it. Without his work, what was the point of his life? What else did he have to live for?

A firm hand wrapped itself around his arm and he felt himself being led out of the courtroom down the familiar hallways back to his cell. There was nothing left, he thought gloomily. Immediately after his arrest, Dek Ra had shown up at his cell, the young man insistent in his demands to see the incarcerated Lieutenant Commander.

He stood before Ching, barely more than a boy, demanding that Ching fight with all his strength and begging to be allowed to help. In response, Ching had merely pressed a letter into the cadet's hands and quietly asked him to give it to Zara. He looked at the young man, so full of courage and conviction, and wished that he could share in his resolve, but Ching had already resigned himself to setting in order the relationships in his life, anticipating the likelihood that he would spend the rest of his life in prison, disgraced. In his letter, he'd asked Zara not to visit or contact him. He didn't need to bring her any more controversy or danger.

She'd complied with his wish and they had not spoken since his arrest. Being away from her was always painful, but it was a pain with which he'd been intimately familiar for much of his adult life. He recalled his last conversation with her before being sent away many years before. Ching realized now that Tek Ra had been right to send him away. He knew that both he and Zara had needed time apart, time to mature and come to terms with their responsibilities.

Their last conversation before he'd left was burned into his memory. Hot headed and ruled by his passions, he'd declared to her, "I love you, I always will. Even if I can never say the words again, never doubt that I will love you for the rest of my life." And for years, much to his expectations, he had been unable to tell her how he felt. Up until a few months prior, when they'd begun their relationship once more, he hadn't told her again that he loved her. He'd done his best to pretend the feelings weren't there; knowing deep down inside that she knew his heart, even if he couldn't put his feelings into words, made the charade easier to bear. He trusted that she still knew, that she was firm in her faith in his love for her and that nothing could ever shake that love. But that didn't change the world they lived in. It was a world that no longer had any use for him. It no longer wanted his help or his service. There was no place in this world or in Zara's life for him any more.

He stepped into his cell, hearing the loud echo of the metal door clanging behind him. Ching sat down on the hard bunk, staring blankly at the bare wall ahead of him.

***

Lois's eyes snapped open at the first sounds of Jon's whimpers. She flitted down the hallway to the nursery, picking her son up before his cries could grow louder and wake her in-laws. She settled into the rocker, crooning softly to him. "It's okay, little guy, mommy's here," she murmured.

She gazed down at him as he nursed, her eyes blurred by a layer of unshed tears. Her sleep had been anything but peaceful. Her dreams had twisted and contorted themselves cruelly, turning into nightmares. During the day, she was able to ignore her fears, to bury them deep inside, lock them away and pretend that they didn't exist. She was bigger than any fears, stronger than any doubts. She was Lois Lane, a force to be reckoned with. She didn't excel, she didn't thrive, but she managed. Lois pushed through her routine, she kept herself busy, she focused on her responsibilities, on the people who depended on her and that was how she made it from one minute to the next, one day to the next, and one week to the next.

During the day, she could hold everything together, barely, but together nonetheless. But at night, after everyone had gone to sleep and in between patrols and Jon's feedings, that was when the doubts loomed large and the fears overshadowed her. In the darkness, she was the one hiding, cowering in a corner, in the darkness. She wasn't in control. She didn't sleep much, but even a superpowered being needed some rest. As soon as her guard was down, as soon as sleep claimed her, her fears, too, would strike. Trying not to be emotionally vulnerable twenty four hours a day was exhausting, and she couldn't keep it up. She could maintain the façade during the day, but at some point, she was always forced to concede, to retreat.

Those concessions took the form of nightmares, creating stark, vivid images of everything she feared, but never voiced. A million and one unspeakable possibilities circulated in her mind, her imagination taking a turn for the perverse, her fears finding new and creative ways to torture her. She was so tired of horror stories in Technicolor, of the rage and impotence of believing with all her soul that Clark needed her, that he was in trouble, in danger, and she couldn't do a thing to help him. In her darkest moments, moments that she never wanted another soul to see, she even wondered if he'd drawn his last breath, if he was gone, forever. She wanted to rail against the possibility, to believe with all her heart that he was still alive simply because he had to be. Because he was too important, not just to the world, but to her. Nothing could go on without him. Nothing worked without him.

He wasn't dead, she'd remind herself firmly. She'd know. She'd know if something had happened to him. But would she really? What evidence did she have? What could she point to? He'd been gone ten months now and she had no idea what had happened to him in all of that time. She didn't know what he was going through, or what he had seen. She couldn't share his fears, help carry his burdens, or lessen his doubts. She wasn't there for him. She couldn't be.

Lois looked down at her son, the movement of her head causing the tears to finally spill over, rolling down her cheeks. She was so thankful to have him. He needed her, he needed her to keep going, every day, even when she didn't want to, even when it felt like the very act of breathing was excruciating, even when the twin devils of fear and apathy threatened to pin her down, afraid to get up in the morning, unable to find a reason why it mattered. Every day, she fought the fear, and the numbness, and the pain, and the racking, intolerable feeling of uncertainty, because he needed her to. She didn't have a choice in the matter any more.

She held Jon up against her shoulder, rocking gently back and forth in the chair. The deep, drowsy sound of his breathing let her know when he fell asleep. She laid him down in his crib, touching his head gently, his dark hair as soft as down under her fingers. Floating up off the ground, she drifted out of the nursery and then out of the farmhouse. In mid flight, she spun into the suit, preparing to head off to some distant part of the globe for an impromptu patrol. Sleep would be elusive and not particularly welcomed, and she needed a distraction. If she kept busy, if she kept going, without pausing to rest or doubt, maybe she could put some distance between her and fear, maybe she could outrun it. Maybe she was sprinting headlong into denial. She didn't really care.

***

Trey paced nervously in the cramped confines of the transport. He peered out the window at the rust red landscape stretching out all around them. Moments earlier, the transport had touched down in this barren, desolate expanse of land, far from anything resembling civilization. Now, they could do nothing but wait until the other party to these talks arrived. He turned away from the window and glared down at Pelmon, who sat quiet and still. Pelmon certainly wasn't the type to pace — it required the exertion of far too much physical effort. "I should not be here," Trey muttered. "I go against everything I have sworn to uphold by taking part in this."

Pelmon dabbed at his brow as was his habit. "What are your oaths worth if you allow blind protocol to prevent you from doing your duty? Your job is to protect the peace and secure our society. History will forgive you for taking liberties with the rules if the ends are just."

Trey's eyes narrowed as he stared at the corpulent little man. Pelmon had a way of subtly or not so subtly appealing to the vanity of his targets. He probably assumed that Trey, like other men and women who wielded great power and influence, was obsessed with concerns over how history would remember him. Trey dismissed the other man's clumsy efforts. Pelmon should have known that he would be immune to such naked pandering to ego. "Your sophistry is wasted, counselor," Trey bit back.

"Sophistry?" Pelmon suddenly looked ashen, as though he took deep offense. He was a better actor than Trey had suspected. "I am merely trying to convince you to do the right thing. It is time to set aside facile notions and consider the larger stakes. You can follow lockstep, do as you are told, and watch your world burn because its leadership is too slow, too set in its ways and unwilling to adapt, or you can take the first courageous steps toward ending this senseless slaughter."

Trey's brow knitted in a frown. "By bargaining with those who lit the fire?"

"By negotiating with the only people who can put it out," Pelmon countered.

Clouds of bright dust began to swirl up outside the craft, depositing fine sand on the window. Trey turned back to watch the other craft land nearby, its slowing engines stirring up the wind. Within moments, as the localized dust storm died down, the doors to the other craft opened and a small party emerged and started toward Trey's ship.

"Since they are already here, we might as well at least listen to what they have to say," Pelmon said almost mercurially.

The doors to the transport slid open silently and two burly guards entered first, followed closely by Rae Et, who appeared to glide effortlessly into the cabin of the ship. Her face was expressionless, but her eyes darted back and forth quickly as she surveyed her surroundings, like a predator sizing up the best way to tear apart its carefully chosen prey. "Good tidings to you both," she said with a slight bow. She made no move to sit down or even remove her greatcoat.

Almost belatedly, two other men followed her into the ship. Fet Ri and Lok Dei bowed, but said nothing. They looked like chastised and sullen children as opposed to respected statesmen.

"We come on behalf of the governors and people of the Belaar Valley," Rae Et began.

"What authority have you to speak on behalf of the governors?" Trey demanded. There was no point in standing upon ceremony. Going on the offensive would give him the best opportunity at understanding the dynamics of the situation and where exactly Rae Et had managed to ingratiate herself into a problem that should have been no concern of hers.

"The governors of the Belaar have asked us to represent them at this meeting," Fet Ri chimed in, his voice dull and conveying no conviction.

"The Belaar's demands are simple: stand down from its borders, respect its territorial integrity and airspace, and turn over the murderers of its people."

"Commander Ching," Trey replied. It wasn't a question.

"Ching," Rae Et practically spat out his name, "is responsible for the deaths of dozens of innocent men, women, and children. He must face justice."

"You mean vengeance."

Rae Et's eyes narrowed. "What difference does it make?" she asked pointedly. "Either way, the man will get what he deserves and the people of the Belaar might be able to begin to believe your colony when it claims that it means them no harm."

"Commander Ching is on trial in the colony. If found guilty, he will be appropriately punished," Trey countered cautiously.

"Nonsense," Rae Et snapped back. "Ching's crimes were against the people of the Belaar. It is they who have the right to enforce justice, not you."

"The tribunal may be swayed to allow extradition," Pelmon piped up. Trey turned immediately to face the other man. "Upon a showing of good faith by the Belaar."

"The Belaar takes umbrage at the notion that it is the one that needs to make a showing of good faith, but I assure you, that the Belaar Valley has no aggressive intentions and that that much should become apparent soon." Rae Et turned her cold gaze to Trey. "Trey I expect you to encourage your First Ministers not to fight the extradition."

"They will fight it regardless of what I say."

"And I can promise you that the governors of the Belaar and I will be unable to control the responses of our people should that happen.

"Your people?" Trey snapped. "You've declared yourself an enemy to all of New Krypton's people…"

"An enemy of the council, perhaps." Rae Et arched a brow. "An enemy of the people, now I take umbrage at that characterization. If you refuse to extradite Ching, if you continue in this posture of belligerence, you will bring further unnecessary bloodshed."

Trey bit back a sigh. They were at an unsurprising impasse. He hadn't expected much to come out of the meeting, but the rather dire circumstances facing him had been painted in stark relief.

"I hope you give what was said here due consideration," Rae Et said icily before turning and exiting the craft, her entourage in tow.

***

The wind swirled around the small group as it crossed the short distance between the two ships. "You know that Kal El and Zara will never hand over their most trusted advisor," Fet Ri shouted over the wind, squinting to keep the particles of sand out of his eyes. The fine dust and sand stung his face, the unpleasant grit stuck between his teeth each time he tried to draw in a breath.

"I know that," Rae Et replied impatiently, seemingly unaffected by the dust storm. "That is entirely the point."

"You just want an excuse to intensify the fighting," Fet Ri countered.

Rae Et's silence spoke more than any verbal answer could have.

***

"Sir, I am not certain this is a good idea." The tone of her voice matched the nervousness of her words.

Clark leaned across the table toward his young advisor as he spoke. "You said yourself that Ching's lawyer is hardly interested in being a zealous advocate, didn't you?"

Enza nodded reluctantly. "Aye, sir, but I have never tried a case of this magnitude. Surely, there must be someone with more experience…"

"No one that I trust," Clark interrupted. "All the experience in the world won't do us any good if the lawyer is ethically compromised."

"I have only served as assistant counsel in such trials. I am not even of the rank required to serve as principal counsel in a criminal defense," Enza replied quietly. "One must be a captain before performing such a role."

"That's just one rank above yours. Consider yourself promoted."

The young woman nearly leapt out of her seat in protest. "But sir…"

"Your work has been excellent and you would have been due for a promotion shortly in any event. Besides, I'm still the First Minister, aren't I? I think routine promotions of officers are within my powers."

"Of course, sir," Enza replied uneasily.

"I know it's a great responsibility," Clark explained. "But I also know that you are more than capable."

"I suppose that you of all people know what it is like to be faced with such awesome duties," she replied thoughtfully.

"And to not feel equal to the task," Clark admitted. "I wonder if I'm doing the right thing all the time, but all we can do is our best, and hope that it's enough."

"But if the tribunal is as corrupted as we fear…"

"On Earth, we would call this going to the court of public opinion. If we can prove Ching is innocent, the tribunal will be unable to bury the evidence."

"It seems as though you have done this before," Enza observed.

Clark found himself smiling. "Not this exact thing, but something similar. I still need you to take the lead on this. I don't know the procedures, or the protocol."

"Besides, it is not safe for you to take too active a role in the proceedings."

"You're right," Clark replied. "Now, we have the evidence of the missing supplies, and the testimony of Ching's lieutenants. Is the communications sergeant willing to testify about the erased tapes?"

"Yes, sir," Enza confirmed.

"What about the sabotage of the ship?"

"Nothing conclusive, sir, but there is evidence of a gap in the maintenance schedule."

Clark's brow knitted as he frowned. "So someone could have gone in during that time and tampered with the ship's systems?"

"Exactly, sir." She paused for a moment, the corners of her mouth turning downward in a slight frown. "Sir, given the prosecution's weak case, do you think there could be something else here? Something more political?"

Clark nodded. "I think that's exactly what this is. I think whoever framed Ching is expecting to benefit regardless of the outcome. If Ching is found guilty, our side loses an important figure. If he isn't, suddenly there's a pretext for escalating the war."

She chewed her lip thoughtfully. "Will this affect our strategy?"

"Not at all. I don't want anyone to think they can get away with attacking the people close to me." His voice took on a resolute quality that it normally only did when he was Superman.

"Of course." She nodded in agreement. "How is Zara, sir?"

"Better," Clark replied.

"I imagine it is very difficult for her — to have her most trusted advisor wrongfully accused of such horrible crimes, to not be able to take a more active role in his defense."

"It is," Clark replied. "She was also afraid of the same thing you were — that if she got too involved in the case people would wonder if pressure was being put on the tribunal to let Ching go."

***

"Nor, would you please stop pacing, I am trying to think," Rae Et rebuked her son as though he were a child. Nor stopped and looked at her, his face puckered in a temperamental pout.

"As am I, mother," he replied sullenly.

Rae Et's frown softened. "Come here, my son," she said. She stood up from her chair and indicated that he should sit. He did as she bade. She stood beside the chair, suddenly taking on the role of doting mother. She ran her fingers gently through his hair. "Believe me when I say that I am acting in your best interest," she counseled quietly.

"We are moving too slowly," Nor countered. "This nonsense with Zara's lapdog is nothing more than a distraction."

"It is a method to salvage an operation that was botched by underlings. I am not yet ready to give up on our original plan."

"You mean killing Zara?" Nor asked.

"Indeed," Rae Et confirmed. "I still believe that without her, the government will fall apart. A little turmoil and chaos is all that is needed."

"Then we should have moved by now," Nor replied petulantly.

"Sometimes I wish you had inherited your father's patience," Rae Et said with a seemingly genuine smile.

Nor frowned coldly. "You rarely have a good word to say about him."

"There were many things I admired about your father and I can still recall his good qualities. Though I must say the ambition that ran in his family skipped a generation. I am quite thankful that in that area, you succeed where he failed."

"You left him to die in a doomed world."

Rae Et's eyes flashed with anger. "I did everything I could to save him. At that point, he hadn't the will to continue living. He was already dead."

"It is very convenient that I only have your version of events," Nor replied coolly.

"Do you think this is what I wanted? All of your life, I have made sacrifices, have done everything possible to clear a path for you, to guide you, and ensure that you are not denied your birthright. Your father never understood, he was never willing to do what was necessary. When you were still an infant, he had already given up. But I hadn't, and I never will, my boy." She leaned down and kissed his forehead.

***

Trey stood impatiently beside the door to Pelmon's private office. Troublesome thoughts had been worrying at his conscience for what had seemed like ages. Roiling around in his mind, thoughts of treason, of betrayal, deceit, and dishonor kept him awake nights. He was still uncertain exactly why he was considering what Rae Et and Pelmon had said, but he knew that something had to be done. His world was already embroiled in a devastating war, and it was about to slip deeper and deeper into that morass.

The sound of footsteps in the corridor caused him to look toward the far end of the hallway. Pelmon lumbered slowly toward him, his robes billowing behind him. He glowered as he made eye contact with Trey. "Is there something you wanted?"

"You fully intend to go through with this plan don't you? You intend to see that Ching cannot get a fair trial."

"Fair trial or not, the man's fate has already been determined," Pelmon replied evenly.

"Do you truly believe that Rae Et can be trusted?" Trey asked.

"Do you?" Pelmon replied, turning the question around. "When will you ever learn, my dear friend, that the struggles we endure are not simple? Rae Et needs us as much as we need her. And I know what you are thinking, but we do need her. We can end this war one of two ways, and one of those ways will spare a lot of innocent lives. Forget yourself, Trey, and forget your simplistic notions. What is one man's life compared to the good of all society?"

"What about Lok Dei and Fet Ri?"

"They are good men, men like you. But they've learned a lesson that you too, will have to learn. They know that saving their people will require that they do things that they previously could not imagine."

"How can you be so certain that I will not simply go to the First Ministers with word of your duplicity?"

"Because you know that this may be the only chance you have to save your people. You cannot imagine my reach in this world and I have friends far less scrupulous than I."

"Are you threatening me?"

"Of course I am. Do not doubt for a moment that I can have you destroyed."

"Just like you're destroying Ching," Trey replied through gritted teeth.

"You are a powerful man, an influential man, and you can do a great deal of good in this world, but do not forget that the life of one man is nothing in the balance. Now I can use a man of your stature and your reputation. You can use your leverage to acquire a just and swift resolution to this crisis, but if you refuse, there are always alternative means at my disposal."

***

The boom of the gavel hitting the podium's surface echoed through the courtroom. "Will the accused please stand?" Pelmon demanded. He tried to give his voice the gravitas and somber tone the occasion demanded, but genetics had not been particularly generous to Pelmon in that regard. No effort he could muster was enough to create the necessary affectation in his voice. His tone remained thin and weak, merely louder than usual.

Ching stood as commanded, his face drawn and expressionless. He clasped his hands in front of him. His uniform hung too loosely on him, weeks of stress had taken their toll on his already lean frame. He stared unblinkingly at his accusers, his jaw grimly set.

"It says here that you have chosen to dismiss your counsel," one of the elder officers of the court read off the screen in front of him.

"Aye, sir," Ching replied.

"I trust you have chosen your own counselor to assist you with your defense?" Pelmon inquired. He looked directly at the young woman sitting beside Ching, his beady eyes narrowed.

Enza stood up, cutting a somber figure in the gray cloak and gown of the counselor. She folded her hands in front of her to stop them from trembling. "I will…" She cleared her throat. "I will assist the Lieutenant Commander in his defense."

Pelmon arched a thick brow. "Are you qualified to try a case before this tribunal?"

She swallowed hard but continued to stare, clear eyed, at the tribunal. "Upon my recent promotion I attained such qualifications."

"Congratulations are thus in order. Very well, Lieu…I mean Captain Enza," Pelmon replied pointedly. "If there are no objections, I will set the date for the case against Lieutenant Commander Ching to begin one month from now."

"I object, sir, I strenuously object," Enza declared. "We have not had enough time to prepare our defense and change of counsel without fault is grounds for an extension."

"In other circumstances, perhaps, but the interest of the people in a swift and just resolution outweighs your objection. Will the prosecution be prepared to proceed as scheduled?"

The stern looking lawyer at the other table stood and addressed the court for the first time during the proceedings. "Aye, sir," he declared simply.

"Very well," Pelmon replied. "Trial date is set."

***

"That's my guy," Lois said with a slight smile as she wiped the warm water from her face. Jon giggled as he splashed a chubby fist in the water. Not for the first time Lois was thankful that her son was such a happy baby and enjoyed taking his baths. His energetic splashing guaranteed that she'd end up just as wet as he did at bath time. Lifting him out of the small tub she wrapped him quickly in a large towel. She hoisted him easily onto her shoulder and carried him to the nursery.

She crossed into the darkened room, the light from the hallway spilling into the nursery, silhouetting the furniture in shades of gray. Lois held her son securely in the crook of her arm as she pulled open the dresser drawer. She closed her eyes, feeling a sense of the familiar wrap around her like a warm blanket. The distinct sounds of another heartbeat, slow and steady, and calm, relaxed breathing were unmistakable.

"You're here," she murmured as his arms wrapped around her. She leaned back against his solid frame, breathing in the wonderful scent of him, the scent of soap and sandalwood and his warm skin.

"Where else would I be?" he asked. She could hear the smile in his voice. He kissed her neck, his arms tightening around her just a little. Lois looked up over her shoulder at him, noticing the wistful smile on his face as he gazed down at the baby in her arms, still wrapped in his yellow towel. "I could just watch you hold him for hours," he whispered.

A shiver rushed through her body and tears welled up in her eyes. She screwed them tightly shut, letting a sigh escape her lips. "I thought…" she began, her voice breaking on the words. Her mouth was suddenly dry, the lump forming in her throat made it difficult to swallow. "I dreamt that you went away. You were gone and …" The tears finally fell, slipping down her face. "and it hurt…so much," she managed between sobs.

"Shhh," he whispered soothingly. "I'm here. I'll always be here." The words rumbled deep in his chest, the sound so reassuring, so real.

"It was just a dream," she said softly. It must have been, she realized. It had to have been a dream. A nightmare. A horrible nightmare, that's all it was. The sound of his voice, the smell of his skin, the feel of his arms around her, holding her and their son in the strong circle of his embrace, these things were real. They defined her reality.

He pulled away slightly, turning her around to look at him. He pressed a kiss to her forehead and caressed her cheek softly. She stared up at him through tear-filled eyes, searching his face for affirmation, for some reassurance. Instead, all she found was a sad smile that didn't reach his dark eyes. "Here," he said, his voice a low whisper, as he placed his hand over her heart. She bit her trembling lip, trying to fight back the fresh tears that threatened to fall.

"I will be right here," he repeated. He gently touched his sleeping son's head. With great hesitance, he stepped backward, the reluctance etched into his expression. In the darkness, she could still see the brightness in his eyes that told her that he struggled with their separation just as she did.

"Clark, don't go. Don't leave me," she sobbed, shaking her head. "I'm not ready to let you go."

"I know," he whispered. "I know how much it hurts. How it feels like there's this gaping hole in your chest, and you can't breathe."

"And every minute feels worse than the one before it," she finished.

The corners of his mouth turned up in a slight, pained smile. "Yeah," he breathed.

"Come home to me," she murmured.

He winked. "I'm working on it."

Lois woke with a start, her heart beating a rough tattoo in her chest. She looked down at the sleeping baby in her arms. Leaning back in the rocking chair, she brushed the tears from her face. With a sigh, she rose to her feet and gently placed her son in his crib. Closing her eyes, she tried to hold fast to the swiftly fading memory of the dream, of the sound of his voice, the feel of his arms around her. There was some comfort to be had in the fact that the dreams were still so vivid, she realized. She could still see him in her mind's eye, she hadn't forgotten.

She would never forget.

***

Clark paced anxiously in the conference room, empty except for Trey, sitting at the far end of the table. He clasped his hands behind his back, moving uneasily like a caged animal.

"Sir, I think it best you heed your advisors, and let this matter go," Trey said, his voice calm and steady, though deferential.

Clark pivoted on the heel of his foot, turning to look Trey in the eye. "Do you think this is a waste of time?" he challenged.

"Sir, I understand your concern for Lieutenant Commander Ching, he has served you faithfully and ably, but you must be willing to entertain the possibility…"

"That he's guilty?" Clark snapped. He'd truly lost his patience with his chief of staff. "I know Ching. I know that he's innocent, and I will do everything in my power to clear him."

"But sir, you must consider what will happen if Ching is found guilty. You have already tied yourself so strongly to his fate. Selecting Captain Enza to defend him was probably a step too far."

"Ching knows Enza, they've worked together for a long time and he deserves to have counsel that he trusts," Clark rebutted.

"But she was your personal counsel, you have divulged just how vested you are in the outcome of this trial and you must be prepared for what happens if it turns out badly. Ching is just one man, sir, and no matter the outcome of the trial, the consequences could be dire. If Ching is convicted, your credibility will be tarnished, if he is not, there will be war."

"We are already at war," Clark reminded him. He knew that what Trey was saying made sense, but he didn't care. "I will not throw Ching to the mob as a sacrifice. I won't be party to ritual slaughter."

"There is more to it than that, sir," Trey interjected, standing up at last. He approached his commander slowly. "The fate of your people, of this entire world, hangs in the balance. Ching is an officer; he knew the risks that came with his position."

"He knew that he could be killed, cut down by the enemy," Clark agreed. "But I don't think he ever imagined it would be his friends plunging the knife into his back. I won't do it. And how can you be so sure that once the people crying for Ching's head have tasted blood they won't want more?"

"Ching would be the first to tell you, sir, that if sacrificing his life could purchase you even the hope of peace, then it would be worth it," Trey pleaded.

"That's why I'm not asking Ching for his opinion, and now that I have yours, I think we're done, Trey. Good night." With that, Clark turned around abruptly and left the room.

***

With a wave of his hand that had become too familiar, too natural, Clark dismissed their advisors. With a polite smile and a 'thank you' he watched them proceed to the exit in a neat, orderly line. Zara stood beside him and together, once the room had emptied, they too left the conference chambers. She looped her arm through his in a way that was also less awkward and unnatural than it had once been. They walked silently through the corridors, flanked by two equally mute guards.

Clark felt the events of the day weighing on him far more heavily than the ponderous mantle or encumbering wrist cuffs he'd been jammed into so many months before. Long days and nights of bickering in the Council, clashes among their advisors, and grim reports from the outer lands left him oblivious to the physical discomforts of Kryptonian life. Tension slowly leeched from his muscles during the long, silent walk back to their chambers. The doors shut behind them, leaving behind the guards. Zara's arm slipped from his and he shrugged off the heavy cloak draped over his shoulders. Clark rubbed wearily at his temples, moving his fingers in slow circles, trying to coax the dull throbbing pain to dissipate.

"Have you spoken to Captain Enza today?" Zara asked, clearly trying to maintain a certain level of casualness in her tone as she shed her mantle.

"Briefly," Clark replied. "She still has more than a dozen witnesses to call. Ching will testify last."

"Did she give any indication as to how she thought the trial was proceeding?"

Clark frowned. He wasn't certain if Zara's eyes were telegraphing her fear and anxiety, or if he'd simply gotten better at reading her. It wasn't too hard to imagine it was the latter. Having lived together for very close to a year now, he realized that he knew her quite well. Their relationship was an easy symbiosis — labor divided, burdens shared — a true partnership. "She's not certain the jurists can be swayed, but the people are starting to doubt, they're starting to see the holes in the prosecution's case."

Her eyes glistened with newly forming tears. Her lips seemed to tremble as she parted them to speak. "And if his fate lies in the hands of people who cannot be moved? If the jurists will not consider the evidence?"

Clark looked down. "I don't know. I can't even convince Trey that Ching's innocent." Pregnant silence hung between them, heavy and thick.

"I can't lose him," she confessed, her voice breaking on the words. She screwed her eyes shut, her breath escaped in a shuddering sob. Clark closed the distance between them in a heartbeat, and enfolded her small frame in his arms, hoping he could lend her a meager scrap of support and strength, because that was all he himself had. She cried awkwardly, her body trembling, her sobs strangled. He was certain it wasn't something she allowed herself to do often, if at all. She was her people's pillar of strength, unflinching and resolute, incapable of entertaining a moment of uncertainty or doubt.

It was an unrealistic ideal, inhuman even. Everyone was weak, everyone doubted, even if only in the cold dark of night. But he also knew that when so much was expected of you, when everyone acted as if the world was meant to reside upon your shoulders and yours alone, it was hard not to buy into that myth. You started to believe it, too. Suddenly, just as you couldn't let other people see the frailty in you, you couldn't stand to see it in yourself, either. You lost the ability to admit weakness and fallibility, and in that, you lost the right to just be a human being. It was Lois who had kept him from walking too far down that path. She'd seen him at his worst, at his lowest, and loved him just the same. She'd seen him when his world had threatened to collapse on itself. And on more than one occasion, she'd held it up for him, taking up the burden of being the strong one so that he didn't have to, so that he might have a reprieve from the pressure and the expectations.

He closed his eyes, holding her tightly and stroking her hair absently. "I cannot watch him die," she managed feebly between sobs, her voice a thin sliver of glass that threatened to break and crumble to dust. Clark wanted to tell her that he wouldn't let it happen. He wanted to be able to fold his arms across his chest, cocking his head to one side, and with a look of confidence on his face, tell her that he would make sure everything was all right. But he wasn't Superman anymore.

And he couldn't bear to lie to her.

"I'm sorry," she muttered, sniffling and scrubbing away tears. She pulled away from him, her eyes turned downward. He could see the blush creeping up her face.

Clark felt a twist of pain pierce his chest. He reached forward and tilted her chin upward. "You shouldn't be," he said gently.

Her mouth was drawn in a stubborn frown. "I do not have the luxury of being ruled by my emotions," she replied.

"No, you don't," he agreed. "But that doesn't mean you pretend they don't exist. There's no weakness in having feelings. You can't let them control you, but you shouldn't ignore them, either."

She looked at him with red rimmed eyes still brimming with tears. "How do you do it?" she asked, her voice barely more than a whisper.

***

"Are you certain, Sergeant?"

Lok Sim looked up from his seat at the conference table. Captain Enza paced anxiously, waiting for the answer to her question. Lok Sim cleared his throat, which felt suddenly dry. "I am," he replied, hoping to convey a confidence he did not feel. He knew that the evidence he had found would be unwelcome by the many who expected the trial to swiftly condemn Ching.

Lok Sim had been raised with the same understandings of honor, responsibility, and justice as all children on New Krypton. His duty to his people, to his world, was the first thing he'd been taught, but he had no love for military life. In another life, perhaps he would have been a poet, artist, or musician. New Krypton presently had no use for students of the human condition, though. It needed engineers and soldiers, not philosophers and artists. Silent and strong, a tall, clear-eyed, taciturn man, Lok Sim looked the part of the soldier, but he had never had the disposition for it. He served because it was his duty; he never saw any potential for a career in it. He'd drifted somewhat unexpectedly into his post as a communications engineer, discovering a savant-like capacity for intricate and complex systems. His civilian responsibilities were as mundane as his aspirations had been lofty and idealistic. But in a society with no use for storytellers, he found simple contentment in knowing that his work ensured that people could share their stories, their good news and bad with each other.

War had forced him to put on a uniform, but most of his day to day tasks remained much the same. He had no stomach for violence and the senseless brutality of the war that ravaged his home left him despondent and pessimistic. In the stillness of solitude, he'd clung to the thread of a hope without reason, a deep and fervent wish that the inherent goodness of human beings would one day obliterate the dark and seeping cancer that had infected his world, nurturing the growth of monsters in the grotesque and mocking form of men. He had seen little but the pain people were capable of causing each other, and typical of a soul too sensitive for a harsh world, he'd internalized it.

It had been in a fit of uncharacteristic behavior that he'd attacked Captain Enza. He was a physically large and intimidating man, but his demeanor, the soft tone of his voice, and the pensive, hesitant look often etched in his features revealed the gentleness that a life on New Krypton had failed to scour away. His hands had shaken throughout the incident and it was a wonder that he hadn't accidentally killed her with the sharp blade grasped by trembling fingers and nervously twitching and jerking muscles.

The event had left him more than just embarrassed at having learned that the captain was not an enemy, but an ally; he was mortified. It was perhaps with a quiet, unspoken arrogance that he'd believed himself incapable of barbaric violence, of using his size and strength to frighten and bully another person. But he'd done just that, he'd threatened the woman standing but a few feet away from him, held her in a near stranglehold, the blade of a knife pressed against vulnerable flesh. Leaning over her much smaller frame, he'd been able to see the trip hammer beating of her pulse just under the skin of her throat. Her breath had escaped in short, sharp gasps. She'd tried to pry his arm away; grasping frantically for leverage, her fingers digging harmlessly into the muscles of his forearm.

He was now meek and remorseful in her presence, cowed by something ugly within him that he did not want to acknowledge, that stooped his shoulders and bowed his head, casting his eyes guiltily downward. She, on the other hand, had seemingly moved beyond the encounter entirely, having forgiven him by casually brushing aside the incident as though he'd done no worse than bump into her in the hallway. She was constantly cloaked in a professional air—gravitas she wore well—but her polite detachment had a certain warmth to it. She was no older than he was, but she toiled under a responsibility that would have crushed most people. There was nothing disingenuous about her, no hint of treachery or deceit, though both could have been useful tools for a person entrusted with so dangerous and weighty a task.

He admired her, a bit too much, he admitted silently to himself. Lok Sim stood up, trying to draw himself to full height, to straighten his back and square his shoulders, to become someone he wasn't. He wanted to stride with purpose, head high, instead of shuffling quietly, hands in pockets, his focus set on something beyond any distant horizon visible to the human eye.

A lead weight attached itself to his soul, pulling it downward and anchoring him to the floor. He grimaced derisively; it wasn't he who was on trial, his life hanging precariously on justice's rigged scales. In a way, though, he was on trial. Lok Sim, quiet and timid, found himself in a crucible, uncertain what would remain when the impurities, the fear and the distrust were burned away. The fall of his foot upon the cold, hard metal of the floor reverberated loudly, seeming to ring and echo in his skull. He looked down, almost shocked; he'd taken the first step forward. There was no turning back.

***

"What's up?" Her father-in-law's cheerful tone interrupted her thoughts. She removed the pencil from between her teeth and looked up from the scattered pages of her first chapter. He stood leaning against the door frame to the den, dressed in jeans and a thick flannel shirt.

"What are you doing up this late?" she asked, puzzled. Lois glanced at her watch and realized it was past six in the morning. "Oh geez," she muttered. "I've been at this all night."

"So I noticed," he said with a smile. "How's it going?"

"Eh," she replied noncommittally. "Could be better."

"I've got to go out and feed the cows, but maybe if you'd like another perspective…"

"Would you mind?" Lois replied, grateful for the offer of another pair of eyes.

"I'd love to," he said. "I like reading your column so much; I figure it'll be interesting to see how you work."

"Thanks so much," she said, smiling.

"If you want to head up to bed, you can just leave what you've got here and I'll read over it when I get back."

"Nah, I won't be able to go to sleep, but Jon'll be up soon. I'll put on a pot of coffee and then go look in on him."

"Then we can talk about it over coffee," Jonathan concurred.'

"That would be great."

***

She paced in their shared quarters, physically restless despite a series of long, tiring days. "I have spoken to Shai," Zara began. "He believes that the threat of war with the Belaar is real, though he is convinced that most of the Council will remain loyal."

"What about the rumors that Rae Et is behind the secessionist movement?" Clark asked. He leaned forward in his chair, his elbows on his knees. He stared at a spot on the floor a few feet in front of him, his gaze intent as though he expected the carpet to do something interesting.

"He thinks we'd be foolish to discount them, even though there is no hard proof." She busied herself jumping from report to report on the communications screen on the wall, her movements fidgety. "Have you spoken to Trey?"

"Yes," Clark replied. "He seems to think that defending Ching shouldn't be a priority."

Zara sighed. "He's just trying to do what's best for New Krypton. You know that he respects Ching," she said unconvincingly.

"Zara," he began, looking up at last.

She held the controller tightly in her hand. "How is he?" she asked, her voice beginning to waver. Her knuckles turned bone white.

"Why haven't you gone to see him yet?" Clark asked gently.

He could see her swallow roughly. "He asked me not to."

"Why?" he asked, standing up.

She put down the controller. "He thinks it is not safe," she replied. "Besides, he does not want me to see him like that, and I must honor his wishes."

"Whatever he said, you know that he needs you," Clark said as he walked toward his dear friend.

"Clark, you must understand that we have different ways of expressing that need. I know how Ching feels and I hope that he knows that I will always love him, even if I cannot literally stand beside him."

"And I also know that you need to be there for him," Clark replied.

"Circumstances have often prevented me from considering what I need, that is simply the way that life is." Resignation and sadness shone in her eyes. "Enza shall be here shortly, the most I can do for Ching is to provide any aid I can to his defender."

Enza's arrival at the First Ministers' compound had been long anticipated. While mindful not to distract the young captain from the daunting tasks set out before her, both Clark and Zara were anxious for news from the only person who could stand between Ching and certain death.

With a chime, the door to their quarters slid open. Enza stood across the threshold, her head slightly bowed. Behind her loomed a tall, grim looking sergeant Clark did not recognize. The young man's eyes were turned downward, his hands clasped tightly in front of him. Enza looked up, at last making eye contact with her commanders. Her bloodshot eyes were haunted by untold sleepless nights, but the determination etched in her expression was unmistakable.

"First Ministers, I bring cause to hope," she said simply.

***

"Sergeant, are you certain?" Zara asked, a note of hope creeping into her voice. She paced restlessly beside the table around which the others sat.

"Aye, ma'am," Lok Sim replied quietly. "Since the downing of ships heading toward Terian, the communications command has begun ensuring that all ships' communications are not only sent to General Command, but to secondary points to be recorded and stored. This information is on a strictly need to know basis. The ships Ching commanded on the mission to rescue you, their positions, their flight plans, they were all recorded at back up installations."

Clark frowned. "Why weren't we told this earlier?"

"I have only now just learned this, sir," the young sergeant responded. "I began to investigate when I discovered that the data recorders of the ships had been erased."

"The information on those recorders will prove conclusively that Ching's forces were nowhere near Breksin when the village was attacked. Once they are proved innocent, the opportunity to commit the crime evaporates. Further, their testimony will be far more credible in rehabilitating the Lieutenant Commander." Enza explained.

"Will it be enough to convince the jurists?"

"I believe that Pelmon has aligned himself against you, ma'am," Enza confessed. "But it is not to him that I will appeal. I will take the Lieutenant Commander's case straight to the Chief Jurist."

"You risk making a powerful enemy in Pelmon," Zara cautioned.

"If we are cowed by evil simply because it has power, then there is no hope for any of us."

Zara shook her head. "Would that I could simply remove Pelmon from his position."

"It is not possible, ma'am, not without splintering the fractured coalition you must continue to lead," Enza replied.

Clark looked at Enza and Lok Sim, sting across the table from him. "Ching's fate rests entirely upon the two of you being able to prove what you've told us tonight."

"We are aware of that, sir," Lok Sim replied. "And I will do everything in my power to accomplish that aim."

"What about proving the guilt of those who actually attacked Breksin?" Clark asked. "People won't be satisfied just knowing that Ching didn't do it, they'll want those responsible to be brought to justice."

Enza frowned. "We cannot hope to do that without having a better understanding of what happened at Breksin, sir."

Zara stopped pacing. "That would require having someone on the ground, deep within the Belaar. Someone we can trust."

"Talan?" Clark offered.

Zara shook her head. "Talan is likely the greatest officer New Krypton has ever known, but she is too conspicuous."

Clark nodded in agreement. The Commander of the Expeditionary Forces, though she avoided public appearance and all trappings of a high profile could not have blended in anywhere. Standing over six feet tall, she quite literally commanded attention wherever she went. "You're right."

"We will consider the matter further," Zara concluded. "But for now, it is enough that we have a plan. Captain, Sergeant, you have brought us hope, something that is too often in short supply."

***

"Have you any more witnesses?" Pelmon demanded, the usual dour look on his face.

"No sir, the prosecution rests." The prosecutor smoothed his robes as he sat down.

"And the defense, counselor, your first witness."

Enza stood up, the silvery folds of her robe rustling as she did. "The defense calls Sergeant Lok Sim." Lok Sim was escorted to the stand.

"Sergeant, please state for the record your occupation," Enza began.

"I…I am a sergeant in the Kryptonian air forces, assigned to the Joint Command Communications Division," he stammered slightly as he spoke.

"Could you describe your responsibilities?"

The tall sergeant squared his broad shoulders nervously, his hands fidgeting in his lap. "I am responsible for monitoring communications with the ships of Joint Command."

"And did you monitor and record the communications with the ships of the Expeditionary Forces on the date in question?"

"I did," he replied. "But the primary recordings were destroyed."

"Completely?" she asked.

"Aye, ma'am," he said with a nod.

"So you cannot testify to the ship's recordings?"

"Yes ma'am, I can," he corrected. He saw Enza give him a slight smile and he tried his best not to react. He looked at Lieutenant Commander Ching, sitting beside his counselor, looking gaunt and colorless, the hollows of his cheeks shadowed, his eyes weary.

"This is inadmissible," the prosecutor declared loudly as he stood. "The sergeant cannot testify to the contents of tapes that have been destroyed."

Pelmon raised an eyebrow. "Counselor?"

"The defense wishes to introduce physical evidence into the record," Enza said. She picked up the tapes from her table.

"What are these?" Pelmon asked, gesturing for Enza to approach.

"Back up tapes, sir," she replied crisply as she handed him the tapes.

"There is no foundation for this evidence," the prosecutor barked.

Pelmon frowned at Enza, his beady eyes narrowing. "Can you substantiate these?"

Enza turned and walked back to counsel's table. "That is the reason for the line of questioning, sir." Lok Sim watched her intently, knowing that a legal battle was unfolding quietly before his eyes. He did not understand the nuances of the struggle, but knew it was essential to enter the tapes into evidence. Enza turned toward him again.

"Sergeant, were the destroyed recordings the only recordings made of the ships' communications?"

"No ma'am," he replied.

"But was it not protocol to record Joint Command's communications only within General Command?"

"It was, ma'am, but the protocol was changed. After the sabotage that brought down the ships carrying troops to Terian, Joint Command has instituted a policy of making instantaneous backups of all recordings at secured locations."

Enza frowned slightly. "Who has access to these tapes?"

"Generally, no one," he said, shaking his head. "They are secured and not reviewed unless they are needed."

"Did you take possession of the tapes?"

"Aye, ma'am," he replied. "With an order of the jurists' review board, I obtained the tapes, and reviewed them. They are recordings of the communications and flight data of all of the ships of the Expeditionary Forces sent to rescue the First Minister's downed ship."

He watched as Enza chewed her lip thoughtfully. "Are all of the ships accounted for in these recordings?"

Lok Sim nodded curtly. "Aye, ma'am."

He felt the flutter of nervousness abate. A thrill rushed through his body, they were going to succeed. They were going to win. "Did any of them stray from their stated flight paths?"

"No, ma'am."

"Did any of them go anywhere near the village of Breksin?"

"No, ma'am," he replied with a smile.

He watched as the slightest twitch of a smile played at the corners of her mouth. "Nothing further," Enza said.

***

"Lieutenant Zof Min, were you with Lieutenant Commander Ching for the entirety of the mission into the Belaar Valley?" Enza asked. She placed her hands on the counselor's table and looked down at her notes. Frowning slightly, she looked up at her witness, a thinly built, tidy, efficient looking officer. He had his hands folded in his lap, his back ramrod straight.

"No, ma'am," he said with a slight smile. "There was a brief period in which the commander was separated from his unit."

"Why is that?"

Zof Min smiled as he looked down, his expression conveying his belief that the question was rather silly and its answer obvious. "Well, ma'am, he was engaging the enemy."

"Is it possible that while he was away he was coordinating an assault on Breksin?"

He shook his head. "No, ma'am. We monitored communication channels during the separation."

"And did you monitor the Lieutenant Commander's communications?"

"Yes ma'am, within a few minutes of Lieutenant Commander Ching's departure, he was calling for assistance. He had engaged a superior force to draw fire away from the First Minister and her crew."

"Nothing further at the moment," Enza said as she took her seat.

Pelmon inclined his head toward opposing counsel. "The prosecution?"

The prosecutor stood up. "And in the interim? Did you receive any communications from the Lieutenant Commander before the request for assistance?"

"Well sir, we were monitoring the Lieutenant Commander's communications, but he did not report anything of importance."

"How can you be certain? Was it possible he was giving instruction in code?"

Zof Min appeared to bite back a laugh. "Well, sir, he cursed the enemy a few times, but was otherwise largely silent, I imagine that maintaining the element of surprise kept him both quiet and completely occupied."

The prosecutor frowned. "And the remainder of the forces, where were they during the exchange?"

"They had been dispatched in the search for the First Minister and were being rerouted to assist the Lieutenant Commander."

"Is it not possible that some were sent to Breksin?"

"No, sir. All forces were accounted for."

The prosecutor sat down, still frowning. "Nothing further."

Pelmon turned toward Enza. "Your next witness, Captain?"

"The defense calls Sergeant Garo," Enza declared as she stood up. From the witness's chambers, the graying supply sergeant was brought into the courtroom and led toward the stand. He took his seat, crossing his arms defensively across his barrel chest.

"Sergeant, please describe your responsibilities," Enza began.

"I track the supply orders and shipments for the Expeditionary Forces."

"And the inventory?"

"The inventory, too," he confirmed blandly.

"Can you tell me what this is?" she asked as she crossed the floor to hand the sergeant a sheaf of papers.

"It's the inventory," he replied with barely a glance at the papers.

"Do you see the two numbers I've circled on the inventory?" she asked.

"Yes ma'am," he replied.

"What do these correspond to?"

"Uniform supplies."

"Should the numbers be the same?"

"Yes, ma'am," he replied with a curt nod.

"Are they?"

"No ma'am."

"Why not?" She asked. Garo paused and said nothing. "Why not?" she repeated.

Garo looked downward. "I don't know," he mumbled.

"And what does it mean that the number in the right column is smaller than the number in the left?"

"That some of the uniforms are missing."

"How many?"

"Seventy seven."

"Do you always misplace Expeditionary Forces uniforms?"

"Objection!" the prosecutor declared. "This is groundless."

"Allow me to restate the question?" Enza asked. Pelmon nodded, a distinct look of boredom on his face.

Enza turned and walked back toward counsel's table. "Do you control the inventory?"

"Yes ma'am."

"Is it your responsibility to ensure that the inventories are taken correctly?" She neatly arranged the papers in front of her, not bothering to look up.

"Yes ma'am."

"If supplies were missing, was it your duty to report them?"

"Yes ma'am."

"Did you?"

"No ma'am."

"Why not?" she asked. Garo remained quiet. "Sergeant, you have been asked a question," she said sternly. "Why did you not report the missing uniforms?"

"Objection, this is irrelevant!" the prosecutor cried out.

"Counselor, could you please explain to the court the relevance of an inventory error to a war crimes trial?" Pelmon demanded.

"Sir, the perpetrators of the crime were dressed as members of the Expeditionary Forces, this does not mean they necessarily were members of the Expeditionary Forces. The missing uniforms support the defense's theory that the attackers disguised themselves in order to frame Lieutenant Commander Ching and his forces."

Pelmon turned toward the witness. "Answer the question, please."

"I did nothing wrong!" Sergeant Garo declared, his brow furrowed, his eyes flashing with anger.

"Answer the question, Sergeant. Why did you not report the missing uniforms?"

"I don't know," he replied, his eyes turned downward.

"If you are lying to protect someone else, Sergeant, this is your only opportunity to make things right."

"I am not lying," Garo growled.

"So you simply failed to perform your responsibilities then?"

"I did nothing wrong."

"Did you make a mistake then, or are you lying now?" Enza pressed without relenting.

"I did nothing wrong!" Garo yelled as he stood from his seat.

Enza remained nonplussed. She regarded him coolly. "I have no further questions for this witness."

"I did nothing wrong!" The anger and anxiety in his voice grew more noticeable.

"That's enough, Sergeant," Pelmon said sternly.

Garo's eyes darted frantically back and forth between Enza and Pelmon. With labored breaths, he took his seat again, the expression on his face a perfect imitation of a hunted animal's.

***

"You seem to have lost control over your courtroom, Pelmon." The ice seemed to drip from Rae Et's words.

Pelmon resisted a growing urge to roll his eyes. He allowed himself to sink into his chair. The disembodied voice intruding upon the sanctuary of his private office was beginning to wear upon his nerves. "If I overstep the bounds of procedure I will be instantly overturned and risk losing the case to another judge. Perhaps even one not aligned with you, if such a thing still exists."

"You overestimate my reach," Rae Et replied. He could almost hear the menacing smile in her voice. "But it matters little. If Ching is acquitted, we have perfect cause for a violent response. If he is convicted, he dies and we are rid of a rather quarrelsome enemy."

Pelmon, in grudging silence, could do no less than give the woman her due. She managed to turn every situation into a win-win one. No matter the outcome, everything came up in Rae Et's favor.

"And what of Trey? Has he been convinced?"

"It can only be a matter of time. He has realized the futility of his current position. If he were not seriously considering your proposition, he would have alerted the First Ministers to your plans. And once a man like Trey begins to seriously doubt the very things he has believed in his entire life, his descent is a forgone conclusion."

"I hope for both of our sakes that you are correct."

Pelmon frowned. "He has vacillated too long. If he were to approach the First Ministers now with what he knows, they would question his motives and the reason for the delay. He will lose their confidence and his access to power. He is not that stupid."

"We will see in time. That is all, Pelmon."

"You have not yet told me whether I should persist with finding Ching guilty."

"Honestly, I do not care. Find whatever way you want," Rae Et said dismissively. Pelmon heard the line go dead and let out an exasperated sigh. He was loath to acquit Ching, but the idea of being overturned by the Chief Jurist was even more unsavory. Pelmon detested the other man, the one who held the title that was rightfully Pelmon's. The Chief Jurist wore a mantle he was unfit to bear, and the man knew it.

Pelmon was well aware of the fact that his own motives were poorly understood. He had been denied the position and the power he desired by an untrusting First Minister. Shir Om had looked upon Pelmon with suspicion — the same suspicion with which he regarded every man and woman who sought power. In truth, Pelmon likely would not have been satisfied as Shir Om's Chief Jurist. His entire career, he had tried to position himself to ascend to the highest levels of power and even if the late First Minister had granted Pelmon the title he desired, he would have desperately tried to circumscribe his power nonetheless. It was not, however, as though Pelmon bore any affection for Rae Et or her addle brained thug of a son. It merely behooved him to make allies with the current opposition in the event that they succeeded in seizing power. Pelmon had no faith in either the current administration or the one poised to overthrow it. As a result, he was indifferent between them. He didn't care which side succeeded in this mortal struggle, he merely contented himself with having allies on both sides.

Pelmon leaned back in his plush chair, apparently unaware of the precarious position in which he'd settled himself. He seemed far too comfortable and complacent for a man who walked a razor's edge between camps of bitter adversaries, poised to turn on him the moment he leaned too far in the wrong direction. His friends were more dangerous than enemies, but he'd lived his entire life in this position. While it was hardly apparent from looking at him, Pelmon was a man who was used to living in treacherous situations. He may have been physically weak and soft, but he had not managed to achieve his current station without a great deal of cunning. He had many enemies, but he knew how to play them to his advantage, like a skillful conductor, marrying disparate sounds in a grandly orchestrated performance. A lesser man would have been exhausted by the task, but Pelmon thrived upon it.

***

"Well, then, everything seems to be healing nicely," Tao Scion declared.

Zara felt a sigh of relief escape her. "Thank you, Tao Scion," she said with a half smile as she pulled the sides of her robe together.

Tao Scion's smile faded into a slight frown. "But your blood pressure is too high and the stress is taking its toll on you. You have not followed my advice in limiting your duties, have you?"

Zara shook her head slightly in a reluctant admission. "I have not. But you know that I do not have that luxury."

"I know," he replied. "You have not told anyone yet, have you?"

Zara looked downward, unprepared to reopen that wound, which she'd been studiously ignoring. Unlike the physical ones, time hadn't actually healed it. "No," she whispered.

"Do you plan to?" he pushed. She knew he wasn't oblivious, he knew that she did not want to discuss the subject, but he did not relent. The problem with doctors, she mused, was that they were always so certain they knew the best medicine for any occasion.

"It would only upset them. There is more than enough to trouble them, I do not need to add to that."

The old doctor sighed. "Burdens, my dear, are more easily borne when they are shared."

Zara nodded but said nothing.

***

Pelmon frowned as he watched the legal bloodbath unfold. The prosecutor had found himself backed in a corner and clearly could not find his way out. The pudgy jurist patted at the beads of perspiration forming on his brow and squinted at the frustrated counselor who was flailing in his attempts to make his case.

"But Corporal Eng, you have previously told us that the Lieutenant Commander's soldiers are completely loyal to him, how are we to believe you when you say that none of you would lie for him?"

"The Lieutenant Commander's soldiers wouldn't hesitate to follow him into the most perilous of circumstances precisely because we trust him. He has earned that trust, in no small part because of his honesty and his expectation of honesty."

"Nothing further for this witness," the prosecutor surrendered.

Enza stood up. "Sir, I would like to renew my request for summary dismissal of the charges against the Lieutenant Commander on the grounds of a lack of evidence."

"I will take the motion under advisement," Pelmon stated blandly. "I will issue my ruling in four days' time. Until then, the proceedings are adjourned."

***

"It seems your case is falling apart," Trey muttered.

"Perhaps it is," Pelmon replied diffidently, leaning forward in his chair. "But nothing changes. If the people of the Belaar think justice has not been done, there will be a revolt."

The First Ministers' chief of staff paced anxiously in Pelmon's office. "There must be another way," Trey seethed.

"Then I suggest you find it quickly," Pelmon replied. "I announce my decision in four days."

***

"Sir, we must consider contingency plans," Trey entreated the First Minister as they walked down the corridors of the First Ministers' residence. "Perhaps a retrial, if we stall for time…"

"Another trial in front of Pelmon? What would be the point?"

"Do you doubt his impartiality, sir?"

"Impartiality? He's unscrupulous. I don't know what motivates him, but I certainly don't trust him."

"Perhaps…" Trey began.

"Trey, Ching is innocent, I don't know what else I have to do to convince you. You've seen the evidence, or the total lack of it, what more do you need?" Kal El snapped irritably.

"I understand that, sir," Trey replied. "But what if that is not the most important thing? What if justice for one man leads to suffering and pain for many?" Trey couldn't believe the words that were escaping his lips. It could not truly have been him, saying these things that were so foreign to everything he'd ever believed, everything he'd thought he was working to defend.

Kal El stopped and turned toward Trey, the look of determination on his face unmistakable. "Trey, I've said it before, we're not having this conversation. Zara and I will be there when Pelmon makes his ruling. If he denies the motion, we will support Enza in appealing his decision. If he grants it, we will be there to stand with Ching as he's freed. The evidence is clear and we will not be party to a miscarriage of justice."

***

'

"This is well out of hand," Trey declared, rubbing at his temples as he leaned against a corner of the conference room.

"Well that is a rather bleak and hyperbolic comment, Trey," Pelmon replied drolly.

Trey squinted slightly, his eyes tired and bleary from a lack of sleep. He dragged a hand through his short, neatly cut hair. He glanced across room toward the table where Pelmon was seated, looking irritatingly unperturbed.

"I will not even try to maintain this charade any longer!" Trey shouted as he walked toward the table.

"So what will you do? Admit to those you serve that you have been disloyal? That you have conspired with the enemy? My friend, things are in motion. Things much greater than you or I. Don't be so arrogant as to assume you have the power to stop them."

Trey placed his hands on the table and leaned toward the other man, his jaw clenched in anger. "Will you be so comfortable spouting your opinions when you must do it in front of the First Ministers?" He demanded. "Will you calmly lie and prevaricate and hide the truth then?"

Trey's eyes narrowed as he stared at Pelmon. The other man, however, raised a brow and gave him a slight, enigmatic smile. "We shall see," he replied opaquely, not the least bit discomfited despite Trey's clear agitation.

***

"No…no, it's staying the way it is," Lois explained tersely as she spoke into the phone. "I know what a split infinitive is and I meant to split it…I can break the rule for emphasis…Haven't you ever heard of poetic license?" She gestured agitatedly as she paced through the kitchen despite the fact that the wet-behind-the-ears copy editor on the other end obviously couldn't see her. "Well come on, did Star Trek open with 'To go boldly where no man has gone before?' Yes, I'm putting my foot down…I'm glad you see it my way."

She hung up the phone and made her way to the living room. She flopped down on the couch, scattered proof pages covered the coffee table. Lois closed her eyes, having lost all patience to consider working at that moment. The sound of a motor shutting down and the closing of car doors from outside caused her to turn toward the door.

A quick scan confirmed that Martha and Jonathan were back from their trip into town. The spring planting season was just starting up. Over the last few weeks, the ground began to thaw out and the farm shook off its blanket of snow and woke from its winter slumber. The cold weather had lasted straight through March this year, but the light at the end of winter's dark tunnel was becoming clearer and brighter.

The door opened and her in laws entered. "Hi Lois," Martha said cheerfully as she shed her jacket. "How's the editing going?"

Lois favored her mother-in-law with a slight smile as she stood up to help them with the few shopping bags they were carrying. "Never ending battle," she replied. "Do you think my editor would be more deferential if she knew I was the most powerful being in the world?"

The comment elicited a chuckle from Jonathan. "That good, huh? Bet it makes you miss working for Perry." He and Martha headed toward the kitchen and Lois followed.

"You have no idea," Lois concurred.

"If you've got some time, I could use help repairing the tractor's fuel line," Jonathan asked as they unpacked the groceries.

"Sure, well assuming all you need is someone to do the heavy lifting."

"That'll do," Jonathan replied with a smile.

Lois frowned slightly as she caught the first sounds of the baby waking up. "Is it Jon?" Martha asked off Lois's expression.

"Yeah, he's fine, just waking up from his nap."

"I'll get him," Martha volunteered.

The phone began to ring just as Lois was putting away the last of the groceries. "It's probably my editor; I don't think she was happy with me hanging up on her."

"I'll get it," Jonathan replied with a soft chuckle. He picked up the cordless handset. "Hello? Oh, hi Perry! It's good to hear from you. Yes, she's here…just a second."

He handed the phone to Lois. "Hey, Chief, what's up?" she asked as she cradled the phone against her shoulder.

"Hi, darlin.' How's the little guy?" Perry asked. Lois smiled as she realized how much she missed hearing Perry's southern drawl.

"He's just fine," Lois replied.

"Glad to hear it. Now, I'm going to have to ask you to forgive me for opening your mail…" Perry began cryptically.

"My mail?"

"Normally, I just send everything right along to you without looking at it, but there was a letter from the Pulitzer Committee and well…I really couldn't help myself…"

"The Pulitzer Committee? A letter? To me?" Lois asked incoherently. Butterflies began to swirl in her stomach and she was very nearly certain that the room had started to spin. She sat down at the kitchen table. Was this it? Was this the phone call she'd been waiting for her entire professional life? Was it even possible? She'd dreamt of this moment a thousand times — far more often when she was just beginning her career, when it seemed like this moment was going to be the single greatest moment of her life, when nothing else could have even compared. For the first time since she'd begun considering a career in journalism, the Pulitzer had been light years from her mind. She hadn't even thought about it since Clark had left.

"You've been nominated, darlin.' For best editorial series."

She nearly dropped the phone, unable to believe what she was hearing. "Lois? Lois, is everything all right?" She heard her father-in-law's voice intrude into the fog of her mind.

"I've been nominated," she murmured.

***

The gallery of the courtroom was alive with the buzz of excited and eager spectators, speculating over Pelmon's awaited ruling. Unexpectedly, the doors to the hallway opened and a pair of guards entered, followed by the First Ministers and two more military guards. A hush fell over the crowd as the First Ministers took their seats near the front of the courtroom. The very political statement they were making by being present during the proceedings was lost on no one. Whispers rose up again amongst the audience as people wondered aloud as to who knew about the First Ministers' presence and how long in advance it had been planned.

Kal El and Zara, for their part, did nothing to draw any further attention to themselves. They did not acknowledge the parties to the case or the audience. As Pelmon entered the courtroom and took his place at the tribunal's head, the gathered crowd quickly calmed down once more.

Pelmon waited for a long moment, letting the tension and drama settle in. "As I have now entertained the defense's motion for dismissal of all charges and have properly deliberated on the matter, I am now prepared to offer my ruling. I will take no statements or arguments at this point as the laws of procedure and the facts are very well settled."

As he paused, every eye in the courtroom fell upon Lieutenant Commander Ching. The somber, grave looking officer, whose life hung on Pelmon's every word. He was even thinner now than he was when the proceedings began. Dark circles had become a permanent feature under his eyes. His expression was hollow and haunted, his cheeks drawn. Lines of worry were etched into his brow. But his jaw was sternly set, his mouth a thin line, neither frown nor smile.

"The crimes the defendant is charged with are heinous to say the least. They shocked the conscience of our community and exacerbated the tense and volatile state of our political affairs," Pelmon declared sternly. "Nevertheless, the prosecution has failed to provide sufficient evidence that the accused was indeed the perpetrator of these crimes."

A murmur rose up in the audience. Pelmon frowned and said nothing further. As the crowd grew louder and louder, he finally banged his gavel and demanded silence. "There will be order in my courtroom! The defendant is hereby released and all charges against him are dismissed, without prejudice."

A roar erupted in the courtroom. Guards quickly intervened to separate Ching's supporters from his detractors and prevent violence from breaking out. Pelmon pounded the gavel against the podium repeatedly to no avail. He shouted for order, but could not be heard over the chaos. In the confusion, Ching could be seen calmly turning toward his young counselor and bowing humbly. He then turned toward the audience, his gaze focused on the First Ministers, and gave a crisp salute.

***

Over the top of the crowd, Clark could see Talan approaching them. "Sir, Ma'am, we have secured the back corridor for your exit. Crowds are forming in the main hallways and throughout the area. It would be best to escort Lieutenant Commander Ching out the same way, for his own protection."

"Of course," Zara replied. "Commander, please lead the way."

The entourage proceeded to leave the courtroom, with Clark and Zara following a few paces behind Ching and Enza. A pair of guards flanked them as they made their way to the back hallway. Accessible only to authorized military and legal personnel, the corridor was still far from deserted.

Clark could feel Zara's grip on his arm tighten. She was staring intently at Ching, just ahead of her. She and Ching hadn't said a word to one another, hadn't been able to share their relief and joy, still hiding behind their masks of professionalism and decorum, separated by rank and responsibility.

They walked in silence through the maze of hallways. "We are going to cross through public space again in order to reach your transports," Talan explained. "The area has been swept and is well guarded." At the end of the hallway was a set of double doors. Talan opened them and they stepped out into the open space at the top of the flight of stairs leading down to the transportation bay. The group drew the attention of passersby who began to crowd near the stairs.

They began to descend down the staircase in a silent procession. Clark glanced at Zara before looking out at the crowd forming. In front of them, Talan seemed to tense and then stopped unexpectedly, halfway down the stairs. "Get down," she barked at them. Clark hesitated for an instant. He found himself frozen as he watched in what seemed like slow motion as a man in the crowd pushed his way forward. He saw the man draw the weapon. Without thought, Clark pushed Zara down, almost falling on top of her as he did so. The blast of the laser rifled scorched the wall behind them, sending curls of acrid smoke drifting upward. The crowd began to scatter as shouting, confused people ran in every direction.

Zara's face was contorted in a grimace. The panic in him began to rise. He looked up nervously as Talan leaped over the railing in a swift, graceful motion. She managed the ten foot drop as though it were no more than a single step and she hit the ground running, chasing after the fleeing gunman with fierce, single-minded determination. Without breaking stride she pushed aside the gathering crowd as she continued her pursuit.

"Is she all right?" Ching shouted, barely audible in the chaos though he stood only a few feet away.

"I'm fine," Zara replied far more quietly. She reached a hand to Clark and he began to help her to her feet.

"Stay down!" Ching ordered. Clark nodded and for a long moment that seemed to stretch out into eternity, he and Zara remained perfectly still, huddled awkwardly on the stairs with guards in front and behind them. Guards swiftly flooded the area, efficiently hustling them out of harm's way and into the waiting transport. He was unceremoniously manhandled by the soldiers, as was Zara. In seconds, they were being spirited away from the source of danger. He could hear his own heart thundering in his ears. He looked at Zara, sitting beside him, her frame rose and fell with each deep, labored breath. She looked back, over her shoulder at the scene they had just fled and the place where her lover remained, utterly oblivious to everything else, her gaze fixed.

***

Having pressed through the crowd with the unrelenting focus of predator hunting prey, Talan had quickly caught up to the would-be assassin. She succeeded in tackling him to the ground, binding his arms behind his back. He was nearly as tall as she and it required all her strength to wrench him to his feet. He spat and cursed impotently. Ching appeared, grabbing the attacker's arm as the two frog-marched him off. Soldiers arrived to take him into custody and secure the chaotic scene that was unfolding.

"Are the First Ministers safe?" Talan demanded.

"They are," Ching replied. "They are being transported back to the compound."

"Sweep the area," she commanded. "We cannot be certain the attacker was acting alone."

"Aye, ma'am," Ching responded dutifully.

***

"Sir, ma'am, this was no unfortunate accident. Your would-be assassin was well placed. He could not have been positioned as he was had he not had prior knowledge of where you would be," Talan explained. The small group sat huddled around the table in a private conference room within the First Ministers' compound. The previous day's attack was the only subject of discussion.

"But who knew of the route you had selected?" Ching asked.

"No one," Talan confirmed. She turned to Zara and Kal El. "No one was notified that you would be at the hearing. It was not until the hearing began that arrangements were made to select and secure a route."

"Not even Pelmon knew we would be there," Zara replied.

"And the guards were not told why they were being placed on duty," Talan mused. Her mouth was drawn in a tight frown.

"And we told no one of our intent to be there except you," Zara replied.

Clark's eyes grew wide as realization dawned on him. "There is one person who knew," he said.

"Who?" Ching asked, one eyebrow raised quizzically.

"I'll take care of it," Clark replied quietly, his voice resolute.

***

Trey entered the reception hall in the First Ministers' quarters to find Kal El sitting quietly, engrossed in a book. He was unsettlingly calm for a man who'd nearly been assassinated that day. The news of the attack had reached Trey almost immediately. He'd quickly made his way to the First Ministers' residence but had been perfunctorily dismissed. He'd assumed that the First Ministers simply needed peace and some time to collect themselves, but as he'd waited, he'd begun to wonder about the attack. He shuddered to think who was culpable. As much as he wanted to believe that Rae Et would not commit a cold act of murder, he could not assure himself that that was the case. But how could the attack have been orchestrated? Who had the information necessary to plan an assault on such a well defended target? The first chance he had, he would need to confront Pelmon and see what the man knew. With any luck, he would be able to sort this mess out before it spiraled completely out of control.

Trey approached, but the First Minister seemed not to notice. He swallowed roughly, but the inside of his mouth remained as parched as New Krypton's arid terrain. "You wished to see me, sir?"

Kal El looked up as Trey spoke. He closed the book and set it aside. "Your culture has quite intricate fables. The myth and lore, they're remarkable, really. There is much you can tell about a people from the stories they tell. What they believe, what they value."

Trey cleared his throat. "That's quite true, sir." He realized that he sounded sycophantic, but found himself caught off guard by Kal El's selected topic of discussion. Surely he was not called here in the middle of the night to converse about literature.

"Earth has some amazing myths," the First Minister continued. "Full of demons and angels and other worlds. Most people on Earth believe in an afterlife — that the human soul is judged upon death. The righteous go to paradise and the wicked are damned to an eternity of torment in hell. Countless volumes have been filled describing hell, the torture one suffers there. Plenty have written about paradise, too, but for whatever reason, people have always been fixated on hell." Kal El looked up at Trey, a dark, stony expression on his face.

"How very fascinating," Trey replied, trying not to flinch.

"The best known of these accounts was written centuries ago by a man named Dante. He described it as a series of concentric circles, each more gruesome and horrible than the last. Each the final destination of a particular sort of villain. Thieves, murders, liars, they all had their own place, and their own specific torment. And in the last circle, Trey, was the place where the worst of the worst were cast. Can you imagine what sort of monster would be sent there?"

"Well, sir," Trey stammered, unsettled by the look in Kal El's eye and the menacing note creeping into his voice. The First Minister stood, drawing himself up to his full, imposing height. He stood just a few inches taller than Trey, but he seemed to loom larger than life, a towering figure, whose intimidating size was normally tempered by a gentle disposition. Not a trace of that gentleness was present at that moment.

"Traitors," he said, cutting Trey off. Kal El stepped forward and Trey found himself in the other man's shadow. His fierce eyes, so dark they appeared black, narrowed. "The deepest circle of hell is reserved for those who betray."

"Sir," Trey nearly choked as he tried to form a response, to defend himself against the charge. But as the words started to gather, he realized there was no defense. He was not being unjustly accused.

"Enough!" Kal El snapped. "You were the only one who knew that Zara and I would be at the hearing. Who did you tell?"

Trey's eyes widened in fear. He suppressed the shiver that ran through him. "Only the jurist, Pelmon…"

"Who must have told Rae Et," Kal El mused.

"I did not know…" Trey began.

"I have never expected blind loyalty," Kal El said, a deep frown carved into his expression. He stepped forward so that he was mere inches from Trey, looking down at the older man with a glare that Trey would have sworn could have melted steel. "If you opposed my leadership or my decisions, you were free to criticize them, to leave the administration. But what you've done isn't a betrayal of me, Trey; I couldn't care less about that. You've colluded with the enemies of everything you claimed to stand for. You aided them in their attempt to bring chaos and death to this world."

Trey shook his head agitatedly. "I never meant to…" He took a step back, his heart pounding the rhythmless staccato of the hunted.

"It doesn't matter," Kal El replied abruptly. "Whatever you intended, you compromised the safety of this entire government and undermined everything we've worked for. I no longer have use for your company or your counsel, Trey."

Kal El pulled out his communicator and jabbed a single button. "Ensign Parth, please join us," he said with a voice so calm and even that it frightened Trey even more.

The doors slid open and the young officer entered the large room. "Good evening, sir," he said with a solemn bow.

"Ensign Parth, please place Trey under arrest," Kal El said with such casualness that he might as well have been dismissing the night watch. The First Minister then turned and walked away without sparing his former Chief of Staff even one wayward glance.

"Of course, sir," Parth replied with equal officiousness and lack of emotion. Trey did not even try to move or resist as the younger man bound his hands with cuffs and led him away. He felt his heart sink, as though it was being pulled down by lead weights, leaving a gaping, empty space in his chest. The vacuum it formed crushing him from the inside out.

***

"I want Pelmon placed under surveillance," Clark demanded. He stopped pacing and looked up at the large screen displaying the frowning visage of his most trusted commander.

"But sir, he is an arbiter and a jurist. You lack the authority to remove him or interfere with his decisions," Talan cautioned.

"I don't care," Clark replied in frustration, placing his hands on his hips. "I don't have enough evidence to convince the Council to remove him and he has too many powerful allies in that body, but he is still a danger. One of the most dangerous people on New Krypton."

"I will look into what can be done," Talan promised. "But perhaps I should confer with Captain Enza so as to avoid running afoul of the law, if possible."

Clark shook his head. "I don't want to do anything to compromise her position," he said, aware that Enza's first duty was to the law, not to any person or office.

"I will be discreet, sir," Talan assured him. "If you require nothing further…"

"Goodnight, Commander."

"Goodnight, sir."

***

"I wonder what is keeping him so long," Ching mused as he stared at the door. He sat at the large conference table in the First Ministers' private quarters, his back ramrod straight as always. Zara approached him and placed a hand on his shoulder. He covered her hand with his and looked up at her, a slight smile spreading across his face.

"I just spoke with him," Zara replied. "He believes Trey was responsible."

"Trey?" Ching asked incredulously.

"Clark said that Trey did not deny it," Zara confirmed.

Ching shook his head. "I can hardly believe it."

"He was the only other person who knew we would be there. And I feel that Clark was starting to doubt in his loyalty."

"Why?"

Zara squeezed his shoulder gently. "Because he cautioned us against supporting you too strongly."

"Well if that were grounds to doubt his fidelity then perhaps Kal El doubts mine as well," Ching mused.

"His faith in you is boundless," Zara replied.

"And it is why I am still alive," Ching agreed. "I have not even had the chance to thank him."

"He saved both of our lives."

Ching entwined his fingers with hers. "I shall have to thank him for that, too. Are you certain you are all right?"

"I believe I already had this conversation with Tao Scion. I am fine, I promise you."

The doors opened and Kal El entered at last. Ching stood at attention and bowed, but Kal El held up a hand as though to dismiss the need for any formalities.

"Trey is under arrest," he declared, dispensing with greetings.

"Are you certain he was responsible?" Zara asked.

"I am," Kal El replied, almost ruefully. "I shouldn't have trusted him; I should never have told him where we were going to be."

"You could not have known, sir," Ching interjected.

Kal El shrugged off Ching's assurance. "Has the gunman cooperated at all?"

Zara shook her head. "He refuses to speak."

"It doesn't matter," Kal El replied. "Trey told Pelmon, who must have told Rae Et."

"Proving it will be difficult," Zara mused.

"I know," Kal El agreed. "But it's late now and it's been a long day. We can discuss it in the morning."

"Of course," Zara replied.

"You should get some rest," Kal El said quietly. "Both of you." He started toward his bedroom.

"Sir?" Ching asked. Kal El turned back around. "I never thanked you properly, for saving my life."

Kal El smiled wearily. "This world is in desperate need of good men, Ching. We need you to keep fighting." With that, he entered his room and closed the door behind him.

***

Glumly, Clark rose the following morning without having actually slept the night before. He stretched but it did nothing to ease the tension in his body. He felt numb. The maelstrom of emotions—from anxiety to elation to fear to anger—everyone had endured the previous day had left him feeling nothing.

Confronting Trey had had a theatrical quality to it. More than a touch surreal, he could scarcely believe the encounter had actually happened and wasn't merely something he'd witnessed in a dream. He'd been forced to check his anger; rage had flowed white hot through his veins and it had been all he could do to temper it. Betrayal, especially by one so trusted, burned. It festered and worried at him, nurturing the fury that grew inside. Never before in his life would he have acted so swiftly, so vindictively, but he had no choice now. Far more than his life was at stake and he could scarcely afford to be lenient. The enemies of the administration were powerful and like a virus, had infected the society and all its elements. The fifth column was no mere paranoiac delusion. It could not be denied and it was suicide to underestimate it. Fighting it required pragmatism that Clark was unused to and had no taste for.

But what choice did he have?

With a sigh of resignation, he made his way to his washroom. The challenges of another day stretched out before him. Whether he was ready or not, they needed to be addressed and they were his burden to bear.

***

"It has been four days and you've not yet chosen a new chief of staff," Ching murmured aloud as he paced nervously in the First Ministers' quarters.

"Clark is not anxious to name a successor to Trey. Trey is cooperating, however. He's volunteered to remain under home confinement," Zara explained. They had bid Clark goodnight a short while earlier. The past few days had clearly taken their toll on him and it was clear that he was not sleeping well.

"Trey knows what he has done, though I doubt he intended the consequences of his actions. Still, I cannot forgive him."

Zara nodded in understanding. "It is hard to forgive so dangerous a betrayal by one who was so trusted." She stood up from her seat beside the conference table and walked toward him.

Ching placed his hands on her shoulders and favored her with a slight smile. "Have I told you how amazed I am at how well you have handled all this? Although, I suppose I should not be surprised."

She reached up and touched his cheek before resting her head against his shoulder and wrapping her arms around his waist.

"Is everything all right?" Ching asked, the concern evident in his voice.

"Everything is fine," she replied.

Ching pulled her more tightly into his embrace. He felt her body shudder with a sigh as she buried her face against his shoulder. "Perhaps that sounded more convincing to you than it did to me," he said with a sad smile. He relaxed his arms and with one hand, tilted her chin up to look in her eyes. "Please talk to me."

She looked up at him, her eyes bright with unshed tears. "I am just being foolish," she replied hollowly.

"You are incapable of being foolish and you have been through more in the last few weeks than most would be able to tolerate." He'd known Zara for over two decades and had never seen her cry, and if anyone had, it would have been him. She was practiced at controlling her emotions, but she was closer to breaking down at this moment than he had ever seen her. "Please talk to me," he repeated.

"I was worried about you," she replied unconvincingly.

"Nothing happened to me and I am fine. If what happened the other day is still bothering you, it is all right, it is to be expected." He fought to keep the tremor out of his voice when he said the words. The assassination attempt had left him badly shaken. The exhilarating taste of unexpected freedom was quickly replaced by bitter fear and anger as Zara's life had once again been placed in jeopardy.

"It is not that." She turned so that her back was to him. He did not push, hoping that she would choose to open up to him. "There is something I have not told you, and I only realized now that it has been slowly tearing me apart inside."

"You can tell me anything," he whispered as he wrapped his arms around her again.

She sighed again. "When my ship was shot down and we crashed, I suffered internal bleeding, you know that." Zara turned to face him again.

Ching merely nodded, surprised at how much pain her simple words could cause him. The fleeting reminder was enough to open the wound.

"What I didn't tell you is that my injuries left me unable to have children," she whispered, still avoiding eye contact. Ching remained silent, knowing that there was nothing he could say. His hand slipped into her hair and cradled the back of her head. He pulled her closer, enfolding her in his arms, holding her against his chest. Neither said a word. He could almost feel her pain radiating from her slender frame. He wanted more than anything to soothe it away, to make the pain disappear, or to at least take the burden from her, but he could do none of these things.

"It seems silly for me to be affected by this; it wasn't likely that I would have ever had children," she whispered against his chest.

"But that should have been your choice. That was taken from you. Of course it hurts," he murmured. Ching kissed the top of her head, still holding her tightly. "What did your parents say?" he asked.

"They do not know," she replied.

"You have not told them?" he asked, puzzled.

"I told no one besides you. You are the only other person this affects."

Ching ran his fingers gently through her hair. She looked up at him and touched his cheek. Zara kissed him softly. He closed his eyes and rested his forehead against hers. "You are the only man whose children I ever thought I would have, but now I cannot give you that," she said, her lips only inches from his.

"Shhhh," he whispered as he placed a kiss on her forehead. "You have given me everything. Everything I have, everything I have ever wanted. I only wish that I could have spared you this."

"I did not believe that learning I would never be a mother would affect me so strongly," she admitted.

He kissed her again. "We may never have our own children, but that does not change the fact that you already are a mother. You have a mother's love for this world. You care for it, protect it, sacrifice for it. That is what motherhood is."

Her arms around his neck, she closed the small gap between them and kissed him. Their lips met hesitantly, in the barest whisper of a kiss, devoid of passion, but conveying an unspoken tenderness, a quiet, gentle reaffirmation of feelings never adequately communicated with words alone. He sighed.

She pressed the length of her body against his and deepened the kiss and the sigh became a sharp intake of breath. He responded on instinct, wrapping his arms more tightly around her. His pulse thundered in his ears, his blood singing swiftly through his veins. The warm, heavy fog of passion began to cloud judgment before he realized what he was doing and abruptly stopped. She frowned slightly and opened her eyes, looking at him pleadingly.

"Your injuries," he murmured between labored breaths.

"Have healed," she replied. He touched her cheek, letting his fingers trail along soft skin and brushed her kiss-reddened lips with his thumb. "I am fine," she assured him. "Unless you do not want…" she trailed off.

That was a notion he needed to disabuse her of quickly. "Of course I want to." His body was doing a fine job of reminding him of just how long it had been. He'd not seen Zara for the entirety of his detention and trial. Since he'd been freed days ago, they'd not had a moment's peace and had not really broached the delicate subject of her condition. In his mind, he still thought about her lying in that hospital bed, so fragile and frail. "I do not wish to hurt you," he said, giving voice to his fears.

"You won't," she replied, her certainty in that simple fact shining through in her words. He smiled, taking comfort in her faith in him. She kissed him again and he allowed himself to respond.

***

Their lovemaking was more gentle than passionate. She could tell that he controlled his every movement, his every response measured. His touch conveyed reverence, if not all- consuming desire. He paid worshipful homage to her; under his gentle ministrations, she'd never felt more loved before. She could sense his hesitance melt away as he began to trust his own instincts and the fundamental truth that he knew her body as well as his own. He could not cause her pain; it simply was not in him to do so.

They lay in a tangle of limbs, spent from their efforts, but happy. She smiled against the warm hollow of his shoulder as he ran his fingers through her hair. "I love you," she whispered, knowing that he knew, but finding contentment in the simple words of reaffirmation.

He kissed her forehead. "I love you," he replied softly. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," she said, smiling in amusement. "Actually, I think I am rather better than fine at the moment."

"You, too?" he asked with a smile.

"Days ago I was certain that I would never be able to hold you or touch you again," she whispered, unsure of her own voice. "I almost cannot believe that you're here."

"I will do everything in my power to never leave you again," he said softly as he tilted her chin up and kissed her lips. She closed her eyes, laid her head against his chest, and fell asleep in her lover's arms.

***

"Sir, I am not certain this is wise," Enza began.

"I'm not talking about kidnapping and torturing the guy, I just want to know who he's talking to," Clark replied, unable to keep the hint of exasperation from creeping into his voice. He leaned across the small table in the secured caucus room. The dim lights and the cold, metallic walls of the room made their discussion feel all the more sinister. He could scarcely believe he was planning counter-espionage. He wondered if Lois would still think him to be naively trusting. "I'm afraid he's a threat. You said yourself that you don't think he's trustworthy. He's in a position to cause a lot of harm if he goes unchecked."

"And more formal means of checking his power?" Enza inquired.

Clark shook his head. "You know that I can't personally remove him and I don't have enough evidence to convince the Council to do so. Besides, even if I did, just trying would probably rip the Council apart."

Enza frowned, deep in thought. "But there might be another way. You and Zara were attacked after Ching's release and given the fact that there was an expectation of retaliation, especially against those seen as having facilitated Ching's release…"

"Including the judge who ordered him released," Clark interrupted, his brow arched.

"We have good grounds to step up precautionary measures." Enza finished. "I will approach the Chief Jurist and see if Pelmon can be relieved of his docket and placed under constant guard. For his own protection, of course."

"Of course. And when that's done, I want him fully investigated."

"Aye, sir," Enza replied. "With Trey's cooperation, we should be able to begin building a case."

"What about the supply sergeant, or the gunman?"

"The gunman is refusing to speak, but the supply sergeant was more than happy to cooperate once it became clear what sort of sentence he was facing. With any luck at all, we will gather enough evidence to formally charge Pelmon."

"Thank you, Captain," he said gratefully.

***

The farm's fields were covered in the verdant growth of the new spring, stretching out to the horizon. The earth was wet and warm and alive. Lois sat on the porch swing with Jon in her arms, staring out at the clear blue sky dotted by wisps of clouds lazily drifting by. She looked back over her shoulder at the sound of the screen door opening, expecting her mother-in-law to announce that lunch was ready. Martha stepped out onto the porch and sat down next to her on the swing. "So there's a big luncheon for the winners at the end of May, right?" she asked. Both of them knew exactly what she was referring to.

"Yeah," Lois replied.

"But they actually announce the winners a month earlier?"

Lois nodded. "Which is probably next week."

"Nervous?"

"Oh yeah," Lois replied with a smile. "I mean, I wasn't expecting it at all, but ever since Perry called about it…I never thought…when I started writing this column, it wasn't because I wanted to win some award. This was important to me."

"It shows," Martha replied. "It's obvious in your writing how much you care. You make a difference with what you do, and not just as Ultrawoman."

Lois smiled at her mother-in-law. They'd talked about the award several times in the weeks following that phone call from Perry. It always set off a tingle of nerves in her. It was difficult to count down the days since there was no guarantee as to when exactly the Pulitzer Committee would announce the winners. Instead, she was simply playing an interminable waiting game.

The screen door opened once again and Jonathan stepped out, cordless phone in hand. "Lois, it's for you," he said. He nodded, an impish smile on his face, as she took the phone from him and handed him his grandson. Jon went happily into his grandfather's arms.

"Hello?" she asked nervously.

"Ms. Lane, this is Ted Jorgensen with the Pulitzer Committee," came the cheerful voice on the other end of the line. "I'd like to congratulate you on winning the Pulitzer Prize for best editorial series."

She tried to form a response but no words would come. After a long moment she managed to say 'thank you.' Her gracious caller gave her the details of the ceremony the following month at her alma mater, Met U. Lois hung up the phone, still scarcely able to believe what she'd heard.

"Lois?" Martha looked at her, a questioning look on her face.

"I won," Lois whispered. It wasn't until she said the words that the reality sunk in. She'd won the Pulitzer Prize. The goal of her professional career, the prize that had always seemed just out of reach or over one more horizon, was hers.

And the one person she wanted to share it with most wasn't there. The joy was muted, the victory bittersweet.

***

She stood on the porch staring up at the countless stars scattered across the night's sky. With ease, she located the star that she searched for every night—the star that represented the focus of her dreams and her thoughts. A gentle breeze swirled around her, wrapping her in a blanket of warmth. Lois pulled out the chain around her neck and held the ring on it between her fingers. She looked down at it through tears and bit back a sob.

"I miss you so much," she whispered. "So much has happened that I want to tell you about. I want you to meet your son, be able to hold him." Tears slipped down her cheeks. "I won that Pulitzer…not for investigative journalism, but getting one for an editorial series isn't bad. I always thought we'd win the investigative journalism one together. God, I'd give the damn thing back just to see you one more time. Your parents are okay, but they miss you. They just want you to come home, we all do. I love you, sweetheart. Happy anniversary."

***

Clark found himself walking through the dim and deserted hallways of his compound. He rounded a corner that should have taken him back to his own quarters but found himself walking down a non-descript hallway that seemed to go on and on forever. He quickened his pace and was soon jogging and then running, past doorway after doorway.

Another hallway branched off to the left in front of him and he turned sharply. The new hallway looked exactly the same as the last, endless and dark. A faint light appeared at the end of the hall. It grew steadily brighter as he ran toward it. He sped up, running so hard and so fast that the breath escaped him in gasps. He felt his heart thunder in his chest, his pulse drumming in his ears.

He ran so hard and so long he thought he would collapse. Suddenly, the light filled the hallway in front of him. He stumbled to a halt, struggling to catch his breath and squinting under the intense light. Clark bent over, his hands on his knees as he labored to draw in deep, lungfuls of air. He looked up, one hand shielding his eyes. The light receded until only a faint glimmer remained. A silhouetted figure stood before him, serene and silent. As the light dimmed, he could tell it was a woman, slender and graceful and almost painfully familiar.

"Lois?" he whispered.

She stepped forward and smiled at him. "Sweetheart," she murmured as she took his hands. He felt suddenly weightless, as though a giant burden had been lifted from him and he was floating, disconnected from the ground and liable to drift away entirely were it not for her small hands acting as his anchor. She wrapped her arms around him as he placed his head on her shoulder.

He felt her run her fingers through his hair. "God, I missed you," he whispered breathlessly.

"I'm here," she replied softly. "I'm here."

He screwed his eyes shut, blinking back tears. He breathed in the scent of her as he tightened his arms around her. A sigh shuddered through him as tension leeched from his body. Like a fist unclenching, his muscles finally relaxed. "I'm just so tired," he murmured. By finally speaking the words aloud, he was able to admit that truth to himself. He was exhausted — physically, mentally, and emotionally.

He wanted to go back to his old life, which while far from simple, was something familiar and well understood. As odd as it may have seemed, in the world where he was the strange visitor, he'd come to understand his place. He had a home, people who loved him, and purpose. Here, among his own people by biology, if not upbringing, he felt isolated. His duties were burdens and his surroundings were harsh, unfamiliar, and treacherous. He wanted to feel some sense of peace, something he really only felt when he was with Lois.

"I know," she said gently, still stroking his hair. "But there's still so much you have to do."

He lifted his head to look at her. "I can't," he replied, shaking his head. "It's too much."

She kissed his lips softly and smiled as she touched his cheek. "You can. And you will. You can do this, Clark." She took a step back and his heart leapt up in his throat.

"Stay with me," he pleaded.

"I will be waiting for you," she said with a sad but peaceful smile.

He nodded, biting back tears, but wanting to break down and cry. He stepped forward, closing the space between them, and kissed her fiercely. She kissed him back. His eyes were closed tightly, but the tears still threatened to fall. She broke off the kiss and he buried his head against her neck, unwilling to let her go. She kissed his cheek and he felt the warmth of her breath against his skin. "Open your eyes, love," she whispered.

He sat bolt upright with a start, his heart thundering in his chest, his skin covered with a film of sweat. Clark sighed in resignation, closed his eyes and fell back against the bed. As much as the dreams connected him to the only thing he wanted in the world, the mornings after he had them it was always so much harder to deal with the world around him. The dreams were so vivid, so real that waking from them was like leaving her all over again.

Rolling onto his side, he pulled out the watch he kept tucked away in a drawer near his bed and confirmed something he already knew to be true. It had been one year to the day since he'd left Earth. He sat up, feeling like his insides had been ripped out and he'd been left hollow and empty. He clasped the ring on the chain around his neck in both hands and closed his eyes. It had been so long and there was still no end in sight. The opposition was still strong and growing stronger in the Belaar and the circle of people he could trust was constantly growing smaller.

He'd spent his wedding anniversary listening to the latest reports of violence and skirmishes around the planet and meeting with various political leaders of the factions that threatened to rip apart the Council. All he'd wanted to do was retire to his room so he could be alone, but privacy was a currency that First Ministers did not deal in. His time was never his own.

***

"That's the last of it," Lois declared as she stepped into Clark's apartment from the balcony, carrying Jon's diaper bag, a suitcase, and Binky, the stuffed bear that went everywhere with them. She dropped the bags and spun out of the suit before walking over to Martha to pick up her son. They hadn't returned to the apartment together since Jon was born there three months earlier. Lois would stop by it every once in a while after flying her patrols, but mostly the apartment stood empty and unused.

Metropolis was still like a tonic to her. As peaceful as life on the farm could be, her heart still beat to the rhythm of this city. Its energy coursed through her veins. And at the same time, being here made her feel more alone. Living in a city like Metropolis was never easy, that's what made it exciting. But while there were times when it was exhilarating to live like it was just you versus the world, one person striking out in a big, anonymous city, now wasn't one of those times. Over the last year, for the first time in her life she'd needed something Metropolis couldn't give her. She missed the sheer adventure of it, the remarkable, vibrant life of the city, but she needed to be close to the people she depended on, and who depended on her. She needed the strength and support that only Martha and Jonathan could lend because only they truly shared in what she was going through.

Jonathan had remained on the farm for a few extra days to continue working, but Martha, Lois, and Jon had a week in Metropolis — plenty of time to see Lois's parents and Perry and Jimmy. Lois walked around the apartment with Jon in her arms. "You were born here, little guy," she explained as they toured the bright, airy spaces of Clark's apartment. "That's right, farm boy, you were born a city kid." Jon laughed happily.

"Are Perry and Jimmy coming to dinner tonight?" Martha asked.

"Yeah," Lois replied. "There's nothing in the apartment, though, I figured we'd just order Chinese."

"And tomorrow night you're taking Jon to meet his grandparents?"

Lois nodded. "I'm nervous, I mean, I shouldn't be, but I've avoided this for so long. I just really don't want to fight with them anymore."

"It'll be fine," Martha assured her. She walked over and squeezed the younger woman's shoulder. "They're going to meet their grandson and see what a wonderful little boy he is and they're going to fall in love with him just like all the rest of us." Martha tickled Jon and was rewarded by a burst of giggles. "Isn't that right?" she asked him.

***

"All right, kiddo," Lois whispered to the little squirming baby in her arms. "Time to meet Grandpa Sam and Grandma Ellen. They're a tough crowd, but you're going to win them over." She took a deep breath and looked around the stoop outside Sam Lane's elegant Upper East Side brownstone before ringing the bell.

The door opened and a grinning Sam Lane appeared on the other side. "Princess!" he exclaimed. "And who's this little guy? Is this my grandson? Is this little Jon?" Jon happily went into his grandfather's arms and discovered that Grandpa's moustache was about the most fascinating thing in the world.

"All right, sport," Sam said with a laugh as he tried to reclaim his upper lip from his grandson's grasp. "Careful there or you'll pull that clean off."

"My heavens, isn't he the cutest little baby!" Ellen declared as she entered the foyer. Lois breathed a sigh of relief as she watched her son enjoy the attention lavished upon him by his doting grandparents.

"Well come on, let's not just stand around here, it's dinner time!" Sam announced. He turned to Lois as they walked toward the dining room. "So I hear this Pulitzer thing is a big deal, huh?" he said with a wink.

"You could say that," she replied.

***

Lois looked around the table at her gathered friends, family, and colleagues, all bright, beaming smiles. Unlike the Kerths, there was no suspense associated with the Pulitzer ceremony; the winners in all categories had been announced the previous month.

"I'm quite honored to present our next award," the presenter said. "It is the greatest writers who move us, who sway us, who change the course of public opinion who find themselves in the exclusive group of recipients of the Pulitzer Prize for Best Editorial Series. This year's winner has highlighted the triumphs of both everyday heroes and those whose courage has achieved the unimaginable in the harshest of circumstances. Our recipient has long been the scourge of common criminals, corrupt politicians, and unscrupulous businessmen. Now she has proven that she is as powerful a friend as she is an enemy. It is with great pleasure that I present this year's award to the inimitable Lois Lane."

The reporters and guests applauded heartily as Lois stood and walked up to the podium; she even heard Jimmy give a sharp whistle. "I'd like to thank the Pulitzer Committee, everyone at the Daily Planet and Planet Publishers, and of course, my family." She smiled at her parents and the Kents. "I've met some wonderful, inspiring people over the course of the last year and have had the great honor of telling their heroic stories and I am forever indebted to them. I'd like to dedicate this award to my hero. My husband." She blinked away tears. "I love you, Clark, come home soon," she whispered too quietly for anyone to hear.

The applause was more subdued as she stepped down from the podium and returned to her table. She smiled as best she could, surprised almost, at how empty she could feel on what was the biggest day of her professional life. She'd seized the Pulitzer Prize, reporting's crown jewel, and as one of the youngest journalists to ever do so. But it hardly seemed to matter. Given all the profound ways in which her life had changed in the last year, the Pulitzer hardly seemed earth shattering. It was another feather in her cap and another shiny prize to tuck away with the Kerths and the Merriwethers.

***

Lois breathed in deeply, the smell of linotype and newsroom coffee welcomed her back to the bullpen. The familiar din, the excitement, the energy, they all sent a tingle down her spine. A large banner congratulating her on the Pulitzer hung overhead and bottles of champagne sat in ice, waiting for the festivities to begin. She looked down at Jon, held safely in her arms. How he managed to sleep despite all of the action was beyond her.

"Hey, you guys made it!" Jimmy announced enthusiastically as he bounded up the stairs toward them. He'd ditched the jacket and tie but still looked significantly more grown up than usual in the buttoned down shirt and dress slacks he was wearing. "Wow, he's getting so big!" he said with a big grin.

As if on cue, Jon started to stir. He opened his big, brown eyes and gave a little yawn. "Do you want to hold him?" Lois asked.

"Yeah," Jimmy replied, still smiling.

"Say hi to your Uncle Jimmy," Lois cooed as she handed her son to her young friend.

"By the King, it's good to see you back in this newsroom," Perry's voice thundered from across the bullpen. "Now why don't we get this party started, folks?"

Lois felt a ghost of a smile tug at the corners of her lips. God, she missed this place, and bringing Jon here at last felt so right. The last time she'd been here, she'd found the newsroom confining and unwelcoming. It was too familiar, too tied to happier days and better memories. But absence, as always, made the heart grow fonder. She looked around at her colleagues; their enthusiasm more than made up for the fact that she chose to mark the occasion with wistful reflection.

***

He walked briskly down the hallway to a meeting for which he was noticeably late. Clark opened the door to the conference room to find Enza and Zara already there. Enza stood and bowed as Clark entered the room. "I will be presenting the evidence we have gathered against Pelmon to the Chief Jurist tonight."

"Excellent work, Captain," Clark replied. He remained standing by the doorway.

"Indeed, your work has been exemplary," Zara added.

"Thank you, ma'am," Enza replied with a slight nod. "I believe Commander Talan will have an update for you regarding the surveillance being done in the Belaar."

"We know that you are quite busy, Captain, and we thank you for your time," Zara said graciously. Enza slipped away, leaving the First Ministers alone in the conference room.

Zara gave him a weary smile. "It has been some time since we've had an opportunity to speak."

"And we have a few minutes before our next meeting, don't we?"

She nodded. "Have you been all right? You seem distracted."

"Just tired," he admitted. He leaned against the doorframe.

"It has been a month and we have delayed far too long, we must select a new chief of staff."

"What about Ching?" Clark asked.

"It is a great responsibility," Zara replied noncommittally.

"And one I personally wouldn't want to give to anyone we didn't trust completely."

Zara nodded. "He will be missed as a military commander, but you are right."

They were both silent for a long moment. "How have you been?" Clark asked, realizing that it had indeed been a long time since he and Zara had had a moment to converse.

"Better since Ching was cleared," she replied honestly. "Between the bitter factions in the Council and schemers in our midst, not to mention the rebellion, there is more than enough to worry about."

Clark chewed his lip thoughtfully and nodded. It was certainly true. The last month had been a particularly trying time. He had thought that having Ching cleared would result in at least the gaining of a little breathing room, but of course, the new problems in the Belaar meant that their plates were more than full. They were still fighting a reactive war, letting the enemy choose the time and the place of the engagement. But now that the wagons had been circled, it was time to plan a counteroffensive. They would need to attack the weakest points under the enemy's control.

"I'm not certain we can regain the loyalty of the Belaar." Zara seemed to read his mind. "But perhaps we'll be able to at least neutralize any threat there. Its councilors have resigned, but not all have actively sided with Rae Et and Nor."

"Then maybe there's still hope," Clark replied.

***

The elder stateswoman paced hurriedly across the floor of her office. "We've lost several particularly useful connections," Rae Et said impatiently. She glared down at her son, slouched down in a chair, looking nothing like imperial leader she'd been trying to groom him to be. "Sit up," she snapped. He grudgingly straightened himself.

"A hired gun and a useful supply clerk — they're hardly irreplaceable," Nor sneered.

"Pelmon was arrested this evening, as we suspected he would be. Slovenly lout nearly had a heart attack from screaming at the guards, I'm told."

"I never much cared for him," Nor retorted.

"That is hardly the issue," Rae Et growled. She stopped pacing in front of her son and held his head between her hands. "Look at me, son," she instructed. "We cannot fail in this endeavor. It will be the death of both of us. And we can only win if we are smarter than our enemies, if we know what they are going to do before they do."

She stepped back, clasping her hands together in front of her. "Luckily for both of us, we still have considerable access and formidable strength."

"Mother, let me go forward with my plan," Nor insisted.

"There is too much risk involved," she replied with a dismissive shake of her head.

"I will prove to you that I am capable."

"I know you are, my dear. I only want to ensure the best for you."

***

"Captain, you said you had news?" Zara asked as she entered the reception room of the First Ministers' compound, followed closely by Clark, Ching, and Talan. The bright, open space they found themselves in was a stark contrast to the dim, cramped conference rooms were so much of their time was spent, trying to hold together fractured alliances and plan the colony's defenses.

"Indeed, ma'am," Enza replied. She stood up and bowed before nodding instructively to her young niece, who did likewise.

"Well greetings there, young one," Zara said to the little girl with a pleasant smile.

"Greetings," Thia replied shyly.

"I am sorry, ma'am, I wanted to come and give you this news as soon as I learned of it myself and I did not have time to find someone to watch Thia."

"That's quite all right," Clark replied. "Thia is always welcome here."

"She most certainly is," Zara agreed.

Enza smiled at her superiors before glancing back affectionately at her niece. Thia smiled slightly at the approval of all of the adults in the room. "Pelmon has been taken into custody upon the orders of the Chief Jurist," she explained.

Clark could see a look of relief settle on Ching's face. "That's wonderful news," Ching said in his typical, even tone, but the smile on his face spoke volumes.

"Indeed," Zara replied.

"A prosecutor will be selected soon to mount the case," Enza explained. "As we will likely be witnesses, other lawyers in the guild will need to handle the matter."

"And they will have the full cooperation of our offices," Zara replied. "Whatever they need, they will have. Captain, once again your work has been exemplary, and you have our deepest gratitude."

Enza nodded modestly at the well-deserved praise. "Thank you, ma'am."

"Now I am afraid that Commander Ching and I must depart. We have a meeting with the Council leaders. Thank you all for your continued hard work." Zara turned to Enza's niece. "And goodbye, Thia, I always enjoy seeing you when you come to visit."

"Goodbye," Thia whispered.

"Goodbye," Ching said with a slight bow. "And very nicely done, Captain." With that, Ching and Zara left the reception room.

"Ma'am, sir," Enza said as she looked at Talan and Clark. "Thank you both for your time. If you need anything further, please let me know. I will keep everyone updated as to any progress or news."

"Thank you, Captain," Talan replied.

Enza took Thia by the hand. "Say goodbye," she instructed her niece gently.

"Goodbye, Kal El, Goodbye, Commander Talan," the young girl said softly.

Clark crouched down next to her. "Goodbye, Thia," he said with a smile. The little girl beamed. Clark stood up and addressed Enza. "You should be proud of the work you've done."

"Thank you, sir," she replied almost timidly. "I am just pleased to know that justice will be done." Hand in hand, Enza and Thia left the conference room, the young woman slowing her pace so that her niece could keep up.

"The child has great affection for you, sir," Talan said. He turned around, surprised she had noticed such a thing.

Clark smiled. "She's a wonderful little girl. Very bright and kind. In the middle of all of this, it's nice to see that."

Talan nodded and seemed to hesitate for a long moment before speaking. "Do you have any children, sir?"

He shook his head almost wistfully as he broached a topic he had not discussed with anyone since leaving Earth. He was surprised that it was his taciturn military commander who was doing the asking. She was singly the most reserved person he'd ever known. It wasn't simply that her demeanor was permanently distant and staid; he'd never once heard her discuss a personal matter of any sort, however mundane. "I don't. I mean, not yet. I'd like to, one day. What about you, Commander? Do you want to have children?"

"No, sir," she said simply.

Huh. Apparently it was as simple as that, he thought to himself. Her dedication to a certain economy of phrasing was certainly unchanged.

"I realized very early on that my talents were best suited for martial pursuits and as such a career that was not particularly conducive to good parenting."

"What about what you wanted?" he asked.

"We live in a world of necessity, not mere desires, sir," she responded plainly.

He nodded in understanding. He couldn't imagine trying to live without the very things that made him feel like a part of the world. His family was everything to him. Clark knew that if he tried to be Superman twenty-four hours a day, it would burn him out. His parents, Lois, they sustained him, gave him perspective, supported and encouraged him and he knew he needed that. Living here had made it clearer than ever. Talan seemed to live the life he imagined he would have if he were Superman full time. He wasn't certain whether it was the life she would have picked, but it was very clear that she believed, with good reason, that it was incumbent upon her to do so.

"I do have one wish," she said, breaking the silence. "I sincerely hope that my brother's children will one day live in a world of more than just necessity. One in which they can pursue their desires. I hope that, in a small way, what I do will help make that possible." Her expression seemed to soften. Her eyes wide with distant hope, her brow no longer furrowed, the corners of her lips turned upward in a hesitant, unsteady smile, bearing witness to the fact that she was long out of practice.

In that brief moment, he saw in her beauty, not merely in high cheekbones and striking gray eyes, but the deeper, simpler beauty in every human being who has ever felt kinship to another, who has ever indulged in simple dreams, and who has realized that despite all the hardship and suffering, the world still held its secrets of uncomplicated joy and innocence.

Her smile slowly faded, dying like a lone ember in a cold gust of wind. Her features mourned its passing as they formed into a studious frown. Her eyes narrowed as she seemed to survey her surroundings, constantly on alert, in that indefatigable, disciplined way. She was once again imposing, looming and distant, her presence even larger than life. Commander Talan cast long shadows across the world, but no reflections. She left no impressions. Clark was certain that none of the people around her could claim any insight into the Commander's personality. They had no anecdotes to share about this person so well recognized and yet so unknown. Clark was hardly an expert, but it was clear that there was much more to Commander Talan than the surface would suggest.

***

The door to the conference room swung open and a dozen pairs of eyes turned toward the interrupter. "Sir, Ma'am," the guard said with an apologetic nod. "There's news."

"Ladies and gentlemen, we will convene at a later time," Zara announced. The group of gathered advisors filed out of the conference room. Zara turned back to the guard. "Is it General Command?"

"Aye, Ma'am," the guard replied before backing out of room and closing the door behind him.

Clark turned on the communications monitor. General Flad appeared on the screen. "Sir, Ma'am, Terian has been attacked again. We fear the defensive forces will be overrun and the settlement may be lost."

"Have forces been mobilized?" Clark asked. He frowned, remembering the last time the settlement had been attacked, over a year ago.

"Aye, sir, Air Command is prepared to airlift forces to the theater of operations. Troops have been recalled and will be deployed in a few hours. Forces in the field are being diverted there."

"Keep us updated, General, briefings every half hour, even if you have no new information."

"Of course, ma'am," Flad replied with a bow.

***

A haggard and tired looking General Flad stood before them, his shoulders slightly stooped, his eyes darkly circled. "Ma'am, Sir, we have retaken the city of Terian," he announced wearily. Four sleepless days and nights had passed. Days and nights they had spent planning and coordinating with their field commanders, hanging breathlessly on every word and every scrap of news. Four bloody days and nights in which numerous casualties, both military and civilian, had been suffered to retake the settlement.

"Thank you, General," Clark replied. "The casualties?"

"I will have final figures to you as soon as possible," Flad replied. "If there is nothing else…"

"Get some rest, General," Zara replied. Flad nodded and quietly retreated.

***

"Sir!" Clark turned to see Parth running toward him through the hall. The younger man saluted and handed him a few pages with columns of names. "The casualty reports, sir," Parth explained.

Clark's face fell as he looked at the list of names and ages of the people who'd lost their lives in the recent battle at Terian. His heart sank as he read through the list of men, women, and children who'd died. He stopped, stunned to find a name he recognized.

Ensign Rayid, Medic, twenty-five, Killed In Action.

He swallowed roughly. "Uh, thank you, Ensign, that'll be all," he said dismissively to Parth. He reread the name, shaking his head in stunned silence. Absently, he rubbed at the wound on his shoulder, long since scarred over, that Ensign Rayid had treated at the battle for Terian so many months ago. He folded the papers up in his hands and continued walking down the hall to another meeting he was already late to. He opened the door to the conference room, where Enza and Zara were already discussing the charges that had been brought against Pelmon and Sergeant Garo.

"I need to go to Terian," Clark said abruptly. He probably should have waited until he and Zara were alone to discuss the matter, but he couldn't make himself care about decorum.

"When?" Zara asked.

"As soon as possible," Clark replied as he ran a hand absently through his hair. "It's important."

Zara nodded in understanding. "We should be able to manage without you for a few days."

"I'll be back as soon as I can, it shouldn't take too long."

"We will keep you informed of any new developments. Shall I ask Ching to accompany you?"

"No, he's needed here," Clark replied. With that, he cut the meeting short. There was much he needed to do to prepare for the journey.

***

She pushed open the front door and hauled in the large box that had been delivered to the Smallville post office. "It's here!" she declared. Martha and Jonathan appeared, beaming with pride. Lois placed the box on the kitchen table and quickly tore through the packing material. Digging through the Styrofoam peanuts she found the first copy of her book. "A World Full of Heroes," the title announced. A gold circle on the cover announced that the book was based on her Pulitzer Prize winning columns. Her editor had been giddy about being able to place that on the cover. Lois held the book in her hands, impressed by its heft and size. She turned it over and read the dust jacket.

Martha and Jonathan removed several other copies from the box. "Hey, great picture, Lois," Jonathan said with a smile as he held up the book. On the back cover was a photo of her, smiling graciously.

"And if they don't sell, we'll have a lot of really great doorstops," Lois joked.

Martha rolled her eyes. "It's going to be a hit. Everyone loves your column."

"And remember, we need at least two hundred copies for the Corn Festival next week," Jonathan added. "They'll go faster if you sign them."

The sound of Jon's cries caused Lois's ears to prick up. "Baby's up," she announced. She made her way to the nursery and soon returned carrying her son.

"Look, kiddo, mommy wrote a book," she said cheerfully. She picked up one of the copies of the book, which Jon was more than happy to play with. He pulled up one of the corners of the book, apparently trying to part it from the dust jacket. "Yeah, that's mommy's book," Lois repeated.

"Mama," Jon announced happily.

Lois's eyes grew wide. "Did you hear that?" she asked, the excitement evident in her voice. "Did you hear that?"

Martha smiled and nodded. "He said 'mama.'"

"Mama," Jon repeated.

Jonathan laughed. "He sure did."

Lois felt a huge smile spread across her face. She beamed at her son, speechless. "That was your first word," she managed after a long moment, still stunned. Jon smiled as his mother hugged him tightly. As always, he was simply happy that his mother was holding him, indulging the universal bond between mother and child. He could not have understood how amazed and proud she was at that moment. He could not have understood how he'd just eclipsed a rather momentous occasion in her professional career, causing her heart to soar at the simple, amazing sound of hearing her son speak for the first time, of hearing him call her 'mama.'

***

The transport touched down not far from the settlement of Terian. From the air he'd been able to see the devastation ravaged on the town. The earth was scorched, buildings destroyed. Clark's destination, however, was a smaller settlement near Terian, the home of Ensign Rayid's parents.

Flanked by guards, Clark stepped off the transport. He'd forgone the heavy, formal mantle and the trappings of authority that went along with it. It was in humble supplication that he approached the young man's parents. He walked into the town, its streets silent and empty. In the doorway of one of the buildings stood an older couple, quietly waiting. He approached them and bowed deeply. "I'm sorry," he said softly. The man and woman stepped aside and motioned for him to enter. He waived off his guards and stepped inside.

"Please have a seat, sir," Rayid's father said, his eyes brimming with tears.

Clark sat with the medic's parents. For the duration of his journey he'd tried to think of what to say, but could think of nothing. He'd read the reports from Rayid's commanding officer and had learned that the young man had died tending to a wounded boy. Without regard for his own safety, he'd raced to the rescue of another. Clark stared down at his own hands. "I know there is nothing I can say that will ease your loss," he began. "But your son was an incredible man." He looked up, his eyes meeting Rayid's mother's. They were the same shade of green as her son's. Silent tears slipped down her cheeks. Her husband reached out and took her hand.

"He had so much courage. I…We talked about what he'd lost and why he kept working as he did. He knew that there was so much good he could do in the world."

"We are proud of him," Rayid's father said roughly.

"And this world is grateful for what he did. For everything that he and you have sacrificed," Clark replied quietly.

Rayid's mother nodded, tight lipped. She wiped away tears from her cheeks. "And the boy he was trying to help?" she asked.

A ghost of a smile crossed Clark's face. "He'll be fine. Thanks to your son. If there is anything I can do for you…"

"It means so much to us that you came," Rayid's father said quietly.

Clark gave a slight nod. There really wasn't anything he could say. With another bow, he departed.

***

"Sir!" Nor looked up at the sound of one of his lieutenants calling to him. His forces had retreated into the mountains to regroup and bind their wounds after the vicious battle of Terian. For days, they'd held on, and Nor had been convinced that his bold, decisive offensive would bear fruit. Had they succeeded, he would have finally linked the territories under his control and added a strategically valuable piece of land to his cause. But the final wave of Expeditionary Forces eventually broke the back of the offensive. Nor had to admit now that he'd underestimated the strength of a division that certainly punched above its weight. Moreso, he'd underestimated the acumen of its commander; he certainly hadn't expected the ferocious counteroffensive she'd launched. It probably would have been a suicide mission under the command of any other officer. In the chaos of his retreat, he'd barely had an opportunity to observe the methodical, almost mechanical precision of her attack. After the initial furor over his defeat had subsided a bit, he found himself bemused; he realized he had made a particularly intriguing new enemy.

"What is it?" Nor snapped.

"Good news, sir," the other man announced nervously. "Kal El is in Terian."

Nor stroked his goatee, a feral grin spread across his face. "Well this is interesting."

***

Clark stifled a grimace as he toured the ruins of Terian. Hours earlier, he'd been briefed by Talan as she prepared to return to the main colony. All around him the after effects of the carnage were blunt and obvious. He was used to seeing destruction and chaos at the sites of natural disasters, but it was never an easy thing to deal with. It was harder still when it was completely avoidable. Flanked by six guards he wandered through the deserted streets until he was standing on the outskirts of the settlement. Clark started for the foothills beyond the town, his silent guards in tow. He looked out at the heather sky and the setting sun, red as blood. A cold wind swept across the landscape, sending a chill through him. It was unsettlingly quiet.

The still was shattered abruptly. The sounds of laser rifle fire caused him to flinch and duck. He looked around frantically to find the source of the attack. The guards reached for their weapons and encircled him, their backs to him, all of them facing outward at the threat. In a horrifying moment, he saw one, and then two others of his guards fall to the ground. He spun around and was struck immediately in the chest by a blast of fire. Clark was knocked backward, the burning pain nailing him to the ground. He tried to lift his head. Before everything went dark, he vaguely saw the shapes of his attackers, swarming upon him like a plague of locusts.

***

"You set the gun to stun, didn't you?" Nor asked nonchalantly as he looked down at the bodies lying at his feet.

"Of course, sir," one of the soldiers replied.

"Good," Nor said. "He's more useful alive than dead. For now."

Ignoring the guards lying prone on the ground, one of Nor's men picked up Kal El, struggling to lift him. Something around the First Minister's neck had gotten caught on the jagged surface of the ground. The soldier tugged, breaking the impediment, and managed to throw Kal El's unconscious body over his shoulder.

As an afterthought, Nor nodded to the bodies of the guards. "Take them as well."

***

Jonathan threw another log on the fire before returning to the couch to sit beside his wife. He picked up his copy of Lois's book and opened it to the first page. Martha snuggled up next to him, her head on his chest.

"To my partner, my best friend, the father of my son, and the love of my life. To my husband, my hero," she read aloud.

"I don't know how she does it," Jonathan mused.

"She's one of the strongest people I know," Martha agreed. "I'm so glad Clark found her."

"You knew from the first time he talked about her that he'd fallen for her," Jonathan said with a soft chuckle.

She smiled wistfully. "And I knew she'd come around and fall for our boy."

"Well, he is a pretty great guy." Jonathan looked down and saw the tears forming in Martha's eyes. "He'll come home," he said gruffly.

"I know," Martha whispered.

***

Reality came spinning violently back in for him. He groaned, dizzy and nauseated and throbbing in pain. His lungs burned with each breath he took and the wound on his chest ached mercilessly. He swallowed roughly, the sharp, coppery taste of blood in his mouth. Clark realized dimly that his arms had been bound over his head; they tingled from the lack of blood. He shivered involuntarily against the cold. He'd been stripped naked.

Clark flexed his fingers as he grabbed the chains that held him upright. He pushed off the floor and pulled himself up. He winced and groaned as pain seared through his arms. He felt like every fiber and sinew in his muscles was being shredded. Beads of sweat formed on his brow from the exertion. Blood flowed back into the starved vessels and caused the pins and needles feeling to grow stronger. Slowly, he lowered himself back down to the ground, his chest heaving. He needed to conserve his strength in order to escape, but he couldn't do it with numb hands and arms. He grabbed the chains again and tugged on them. They were bolted securely to the ceiling and without superpowers, he wasn't going to break them. He looked around, trying to figure out where he was. The room was dark and dank and there was absolutely nothing particular or memorable about it. There were no windows so he may well have been underground.

Straining, he heard voices, but could not make out what was being said. A door opened and light spilled into the room. A dark figure stood in the doorway and started toward him. Squinting, Clark recognized his captor as none other than Nor.

"So you're awake," Nor sneered. He stroked his goatee as he paced in front of Clark. "I was beginning to wonder if we'd gone too hard on you." Nor leaned back and swung, landing a vicious punch on Clark's jaw. Clark tried to shake off the blow, his mouth filling with blood. Nor hit him again. Clark spat out the blood, not bothering to lift his head. "You pathetic mongrel," Nor growled. Nor stuck his hand against the wound on Clark's chest. Clark tried unsuccessfully not to scream at the agonizing, mind numbing pain that resulted.

"I can see we are going to have a great deal of fun together," Nor said with a vicious laugh.

***

"How could this have happened?!" Ching barked in an unheard of display of emotion. The rage radiated off of him.

"I…I do not know, sir…" the hapless soldier stammered.

"Get Commander Talan," Ching snapped.

"Of course, sir." With that, the soldier scurried off, leaving Ching alone in the command room.

The door opened and Zara rushed in. "What has happened? What is going on?" she demanded.

"We do not know yet," Ching replied.

"We must find him." Her voice broke on the words as she paced agitatedly.

Ching stepped in front of her and placed his hands on her arms. "We will," he said quietly. He stepped back, knowing they would not be alone for long. "Talan is on her way," he explained. "She and her forces will join the search parties post haste. And if you'll allow it, I wish to join them."

Zara nodded mutely. He was gratified that she understood his need to do something and he knew that she shared it. If their positions had been reversed, she would have been doing the same, but of course, duty bound her to stay, to fulfill her obligations and to lead her people.

The door opened again and Talan entered, outfitted completely in survival equipment. "Ma'am, Commander Ching, I am happy to be of service, but my transport is scheduled to leave momentarily."

"Of course, Commander," Zara replied. "Please keep me informed of everything, day or night. And Lieutenant Commander Ching will be joining your forces."

"Very well, Ma'am," Talan answered with a slight bow. She turned to Ching. "Let us away."

***

Talan pulled a civilian greatcoat on over her uniform, effectively concealing the numerous weapons and considerable explosives she was carrying. She was a veritable walking munitions depot, prepared for any contingency. She slung a non-descript bag over her shoulders and stood beside the transport door. Ching checked the blade sheathed at his belt and stood beside her. The doors opened and they stepped off onto the red, dusty soil of New Krypton's surface. A cold wind swept across the rugged terrain, kicking up the rust colored dirt. Outside the transport, they waited for the rest of the forces to disembark.

"Break up into teams and begin at the borders of the settlement. Work your way outward and stay in constant communications," Talan ordered. She set off alone, heading toward the foothills. She squinted in the dim light of a New Kryptonian dusk as she surveyed the ground, looking for signs of a struggle, signs of life. For hours, unaware of the cold or the wind or the rapidly fading light, she continued searching. Not far beyond the settlement's borders, in an unremarkable spot, she noticed tracks on the ground. She stilled and bent to examine the patterns in the dust.

There had been a struggle here. There were footprints, but no discernible pattern, as though the people who'd made them had moved frantically. There were at least four different sets of prints of people wearing the boots of New Kryptonian forces. Men, definitely, from the size. Kal El and his guards. There were also many other prints made by different boots. The attackers. She looked from side to side. There were odd tracks, wide and shapeless, as though someone had dragged bodies. Scorch marks and blood spotted the landscape. Some of the boot prints made by the attackers were deeper as they led away from the settlement, as though the owners of those boots were carrying something heavy. A glimmer caught her eye. She reached for her communicator and radioed her position to Ching. Within minutes, he joined her at the site.

"He was taken here," Talan explained. "And he was unconscious when it happened."

Ching's eyes narrowed. "How can you be sure?"

She pulled the now broken chain and the ring from a pocket and held it up. The small gold band caught the dying light. "It was over there," she said nodding toward the place where she'd found it. "There is no way he would have left this behind."

***

"My goodness, my boy, well done," Rae Et said with a broad smile. She clapped softly as she stood up from her chair. Her son gave her a self-satisfied smile. "Where is he now?"

"We moved him," Nor replied. "It was imprudent to keep him so close to where we captured him. I intend to have him moved often, make it difficult for Zara to launch an effective search."

"She'll have her finest commanders on this task," Rae Et remarked.

"Of course she will," Nor replied. "I know what I am facing, mother."

"And you will continue to make me proud."

***

Clark awoke again in a different room, not unlike the last. He was chained to the wall this time, slumped down in a darkened corner. Trying to stand, he was rewarded by the sharp, stabbing pain from wounds old and new. He fell back into a crouching position, leaning against the cold wall. The beating had been particularly vicious. His eyes were still swollen mostly shut and each breath was a labored, painful effort. At some point when he'd been unconscious, he had been moved. He had no idea where to. He could have been out of it for hours and in that time, been taken anywhere.

His throat was parched and his stomach gnawed mercilessly at him. The dizziness and nausea convinced him that he'd probably received a concussion. His teeth wouldn't stop chattering and his hands and feet were beginning to feel numb from exposure. He drew his legs toward him, trying to curl up in order to conserve warmth. In his pitiful state, he couldn't lower his arms enough to wrap them around himself. They dangled awkwardly over his head, his wrists chafed by the shackles and his muscles once again stiff and tingling from the lack of circulation.

He knew he had to keep his senses. He needed to find a way to escape. If they continued to move him this often, there was no way Zara would find him. His only hope would be to get away from Nor. Never mind the fact that they might have been in completely hostile territory or in one of the vast, arid, freezing deserts that stretched across New Krypton's surface, miles and miles from anything. They seemed to move him only when he was unconscious. That would have required unchaining him, even if only for a short while. If he feigned being knocked out, perhaps an opportunity would open up to him. Of course, the last few times, he hadn't had a chance to pretend. Nor and his men were particularly thorough in their abuse.

Letting out a shuddering breath, he tried to stop his shivering. He wouldn't become a weak, pathetic husk of a man. He wouldn't be broken. He wasn't going to die here. He wasn't going to go out with a pitiful whimper. There was no way in hell Clark Kent was going to let that happen to himself. He was going to get out of here. He was going to get back home.

He'd made a promise.

***

Talan and Ching stood together in a bare room in a largely bombed out building in the Terian settlement. "The trail is going cold," Talan declared simply. It had been a day and a half since Kal El had gone missing. They'd found Kal El's guard detail. All six of the guards had been shot and two had died of their wounds. "They have had plenty of time to move him out of the area. We need to change our strategy, base the search on intelligence, not simple manpower."

"Aye, Ma'am," Ching agreed. "We'll keep some forces on the ground search and increase intelligence gathering within Nor's strongholds. He will want to go where he is comfortable, where he believes he can control the situation."

"Indeed, and I am leaving you in charge of coordinating the operation," Talan replied. She retrieved a pack and began filling it with munitions and supplies. In quick, efficient movements, she disassembled a laser rifle and placed its components in the sack.

"Ma'am?" Ching raised a puzzled eyebrow.

"I need you to take command," she continued. "I will continue searching on the ground, I need you to coordinate the rest of the efforts, keep me apprised." She unsheathed the knife at her belt and held it up to examine it. She ran a thumb against the blade's edge. Satisfied that it was still sharp, she returned it to its scabbard. "I plan to leave immediately."

"Of course, Ma'am, I will keep you fully informed. Will you travel with a team?"

She shook her head. "No, I will move more swiftly alone." Pulling on her overcoat, she picked up the bag and exited the room.

***

Enza paced nervously in the holding room as she waited for her appointment. The door opened and a pair of guards dragged Pelmon unceremoniously into the room. "Well, Captain, to what do I owe the pleasure?" he sneered.

"You have one opportunity to save your own skin," she replied stonily.

Pelmon arched a brow. "Are you threatening me?"

"I hardly have to. Rae Et is unlikely to leave a loose end like you lying around forever. Eventually, you will be too much of a liability."

"And you want information in exchange for protecting me?" Pelmon smiled. "What an interesting turn." Pelmon sat down at the table.

Enza placed her hands on the table and leaned across it toward him. "Spare me. You built your career on the simple fact that the righteous will endure perfidy if what is at stake is dear enough."

"Well then, speak, I am more than willing to listen to your proposal," Pelmon replied diffidently. His tone suggesting that he was patiently entertaining a subordinate, instead of listening to a deal that could well save his life.

"I need everything you know about Rae Et, about where Nor would have taken Kal El, and about how they are getting their information. If you cooperate, I will guarantee your safety."

"And my sentence?"

"Is not even a subject for debate. You will die in prison, Pelmon. It is up to you whether it is of old age or entirely preventable events."

"I will need to deliberate on your proposal."

She glared at him. "I am not a patient woman." She stepped toward him, grabbing the front of his tunic. With unblinking eyes, she glared at him, her face inches from his. "You have an hour to decide."

***

"Lois, this book of yours is tearing its way up the bestseller chart," Perry exclaimed. "You'll be number four on tomorrow's list."

"That's great, chief," she replied, holding the cordless handset to her ear.

"I'm sure you'll be number one by next week."

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," she said cautiously.

"Where's that brash, confident reporter of mine?" he asked with a chuckle.

"She's been learning to take things one step at a time, chief."

"Fair enough, darlin," he drawled. "So, you looking forward to that book tour?"

"Not hardly. I really don't have time to drop everything and run around signing autographs. Besides, I hate airplanes."

Perry laughed. "I'll bet you do. I'll tell your editor you hate having company when you travel and you'll be able to get there under your own steam. It's just a couple of hours on a couple of days. Besides, it's in your contract. It's not like you've got much of a choice"

"I know." She muttered, her tone anything but enthusiastic.

***

Zara looked up from her work with vacant eyes. Before her stood two young officers, looking meek and stricken — Ensigns Parth and Rul.

"Ma'am," Rul began after gently clearing her throat. "We would like to join the rescue efforts."

"I understand your sentiment," Zara replied stoically. And she did; she knew exactly the frustration and impotence that plagued them.

"We were sworn to protect the First Minister and we cannot do that here," Parth said softly.

Zara nodded, tight-lipped. She realized that it wasn't simple duty that drove them. They had grown to respect and admire Kal El just like everyone else who knew him. "I will contact Commander Ching."

***

Clark squinted; even the dim light now pouring into his own private hell was enough to hurt his eyes. Nor approached him slowly, the now familiar predatory grin spread across his face. Clark's arms had been chained over his head again, forcing him to stand on legs that were too weary. Nor picked up a baton and spun it around his wrist. Casually, he hit Clark in the chest with it. Clark coughed and winced in pain, fairly certain that his ribs had been cracked several beatings ago. He swallowed, his throat painfully dry, before stringing together a list of words in English that had not been part of his vocabulary. Being able to curse Nor in a language the other man could never understand was his one small victory.

"I'll teach you not to bark in that mongrel tongue of yours," Nor replied, raising the baton again. Clark braced himself for a blow that didn't come. He looked out of the corner of his eye at Nor, who'd laid down the baton and had picked up a long, braided whip.

He shuddered and his muscles tensed with the first of the lashes. His back burned and stung and the pain only grew each and every time Nor raised the whip. He closed his eyes, trying his damnedest to ignore the throbbing pain. Somewhere, through the fog that was his mind, he could hear screaming in the distance. Clark hadn't realized others were being held in the same place. The sound was unbearable. He wondered what they were doing to that poor bastard.

It took him a moment to realize that he was the one screaming.

***

Talan descended nimbly down the side of the mountain. It was cold and dark, but she knew this terrain. On many occasions, her boot prints had been the first to mar the virgin landscape of this lonely planet's surface. No one knew this world better than she. She was a half day's hike from the stream the colonists had carved into the planet's surface. A supply drop had been made there for her and it would be a good place to stop and rest for a bit. Talan hadn't stopped in days, moving day and night, following the slim, threadlike leads that were relayed to her by Ching. When the trail ran cold, extraction teams would airlift her and other searchers to the new target areas of the search. The airlifts gave her a few hours of rest and allowed her to replenish supplies, but they were always frustrating. The airlifts signaled that they weren't close, or at least, not close enough.

While others worked in small teams, she continued alone. Her body moved without conscious thought, her pace swift, belying the fact that she hadn't eaten or slept in days. There were many, many men in her unit who were bigger, stronger, and faster than she, simple biology guaranteed it. But endurance was hers in spades. Many years of hard living had proved that the longer the journey, the more brutal the extremes of heat or cold, the greater the hunger or thirst, the better she performed. She closed the gap between her and the men and eventually surpassed them. On the longest, most brutal journeys, others merely slowed her down, and this was not a mission on which she could afford to be slowed.

For hours, she continued toward the stream, unnoticing the cold or the wind, the gnawing of her stomach, or her parched throat. In the silence she had nothing to think about but the single-minded determination that drove her forward. She was possessed of a focus that was beyond even what she was accustomed to. Never before had she felt so driven to accomplish her goal. Never before had her mission resonated so deeply inside her. Her entire career, she'd fought without passion or emotion. She divorced everything human from her work because she had to. There could be nothing personal about what she did.

This time, it was different. She had to find him alive, it wasn't simply a mission. It consumed every thought she had; there was nothing else. In a way that was completely foreign to her, her stomach lurched at the bare notion of failing. She would not fail.

***

Time was a funny thing, he thought to himself. When you had no way to keep track of it, it was like it didn't exist. Days and nights were the same when there was no light. Hours could have been minutes or weeks, it didn't really matter. He couldn't have known how long it had been since they'd given him something to eat, but it had to be days. Even hunger wasn't linear; it provided no useful metric to mark the passing of time. The pangs of hunger often tore at him, driving him completely mad. He could think of nothing but food and how much his stomach hurt. And then there were times when he was so overcome by nausea or fever, he guessed it had to be from wounds that had gotten infected, that he couldn't even think of food. The beatings, of course, caused him to forget about everything.

In a way, it made him angry that they never even tried to get information out of him. They weren't trying to extract intelligence. They were just mindlessly torturing him. In a bizarre sense, it was insulting. He was the First Minister, Commander of the Forces of New Krypton, and they couldn't think of a single thing they wanted to beat out of him. He assumed that he thought about these remarkably stupid, insignificant things because they wounded his pride and it was in danger of being destroyed entirely. His pride, his sense of self, they were the only things he had left.

It was hard to stay who he was, to remember that he was Clark Kent. Reporter, husband, son, superhero, fan of the Metropolis Monarchs, a terrible poker player, a former football star, and a pretty decent cook. He had to fight to tell himself that all of that stuff still mattered, especially when it seemed so clear that it didn't.

He bit down hard on his lip as the rain of blows from the whip opened barely healed wounds on his back. His skin was raw, his muscles throbbed with pain. Struggling not to cry out, he lifted his head and opened his eyes, shocked to see her standing in front of him, draped in white silk robes, ethereal as a ghost, but such a welcome sight. The expression on her face was tender and unperturbed. She smiled at him. God, she was so beautiful. Her name escaped his throat like a strangled cry. She stepped toward him, laying a gentle hand on his cheek, against a newly received cut. He expected it to hurt, but instead her touch was cool and gentle, soothing him like a balm. She interposed herself between him and his tormentors, wrapping her arms around him, keeping him safe. He could still hear the snap of the whip, but he felt nothing but her reassuring and strong embrace. He closed his eyes and whispered her name again.

***

Talan observed the movement of hostile troops at the bottom of the hill; a small band seemed to be on a routine patrol. She lowered the visual enhancement lenses and scanned her surroundings, taking note of the topography — the plains and plateaus, the defensible positions and the places of weakness. Dozens of scouts and spies were now reporting from within enemy territory, providing essential bits of intelligence for the rescue efforts.

Her current target was on the other side of the valley below her. Between her and that target stood a half a dozen of Nor's men. They began to move away from each other, breaking up in pairs as they continued on their patrol. This was her opportunity.

Quickly and quietly, she descended into the valley, careful not to draw the attention of the soldiers. There were few hiding places in the valley, but she'd charted her path ahead of time, finding ways to stick to the shadows. It would be difficult to cross into relative safety without drawing the attention of the patrol. If she had to confront them, though, she hoped to be able to limit her exposure and only have to deal with a part of the group. If she managed to take them by surprise, she'd be able to neutralize the threat before they could signal the others. By the time anyone realized that something was wrong, she would have slipped away.

She crept behind a pair of guards, keeping a safe distance, hoping to avoid them entirely. But combat rarely went according to plan. She heard the sound of a communicator, which caused the soldiers to pause. They turned around and started back toward her. If she didn't act, they would be upon her in a few moments. She moved softly, taking cover behind an outcropping of rocks and waited for the soldiers to pass her. She doubled back and continued across the valley, just hoping to put enough distance between her and the patrol to move any confrontation to the more favorable terrain of the hills on the other side. An instant before she disappeared into the darkened hills, she felt the singe of laser rifle fire scorch the air.

She sought cover, but continued to move; staying ahead of the soldiers now pursuing her was her best advantage. From the shouts coming from behind her, she could tell that they'd been thrown off the track, at least momentarily. Quickly leveraging the situation to transform from prey to predator, she lay in wait for them. She raised her weapon and took aim at the space they would soon have to cross into, giving herself a clear shot at her targets. She took a deep breath, her pulse steady and measured, her body relaxed. Her hands didn't tremble and her heart beat just as calmly as it would in sleep.

After a long moment, her two targets came into view. With cold efficiency, she fired, neutralizing her targets. The commotion had drawn the attention of the remaining guards. She had no time to delay. Leaving her position of safety, she continued the long ascent into the dark hills, the night's sky being lit up by punctuated rifle fire exploding around her. She suddenly felt the material of her uniform snag on something and was jerked backward. The clothing ripped, but she freed herself easily. Instinctively, she reached to the pocket on her pants to make sure the chain and its ring were still there, only to find that it had been the pocket that had ripped. She turned around frantically, trying to search in the dark for the glinting strand of metal she'd lost. Talan fumbled as she looked, suddenly feeling her heart rate rise and tension form like a knot in her gut.

The remaining soldiers grew closer and the rifle fire continued to thunder all around her. She retraced her steps, keeping crouched low to make it easier to see the ground. A few paces ahead of the spot where she'd torn the uniform, she found it. Snatching it up, she turned and continued her mad dash. The soldiers were closing the gap. The explosive sounds of rifle fire surrounded her. A flash of burning tore through one arm and she nearly dropped her weapon. Still running, she looked down at the now ripped and singed uniform and the opened wound on her upper arm. She felt the blood start to soak her uniform, but she did not slow. She turned once to fire, wounding her pursuer, before racing forward again to gain distance between her and the remaining troops. Talan willed her body to ignore the pain and it was suddenly gone; completely forgotten.

After the unplanned detour, she finally found herself in the dark caves of the hills, the very place she'd been trying to reach. In these darkened mazes, she was as good as a ghost; they wouldn't be able to find her. She drew in long, deep breaths as her heart rate slowed back to normal. She wore a civilian coat and no designations of rank, which would likely help keep her identity concealed, but Rae Et and Nor had to know that half of the armed forces of New Krypton were searching for Kal El. With efficient movements and a cautious ear constantly tuned to her surroundings so that she wouldn't be surprised, she managed to disinfect and bind the wound on her arm, though not without difficulty.

She picked up the chain she'd gently laid down on her coat and held it up. On one of the airlift flights, she'd taken the time to fix the broken chain. It had been three weeks since she'd found it, three weeks during which they'd clung to gossamer thin strands of hope and a few clues — whispers of information from uneasy settlers who'd seen Nor's men moving furtively in the night, reports of long abandoned buildings being occupied again, but only for a single night. They worked off a faith as thin and fragile as the chain she held in her fingers. A chain she'd almost lost for a second time.

Ten days earlier, in the middle of the night, she'd been caught by surprise by an unscheduled patrol of rebel forces. She'd been forced to hide, abandoning her equipment — though only temporarily — as she turned the element of surprise on the unsuspecting troops. Engaging superior firepower, she was forced to divide and conquer the enemy, sowing confusion among them as she navigated treacherous terrain in total darkness. She knew the area better than they, the saving grace that no doubt kept her alive. Despite the arrival of more hostile troops, she'd gone back for the pack and the chain and ring tucked safely in it, at no small amount of risk to herself and her mission. Since then, she'd been carrying the ring in a pocket, always within reach, but even that wasn't safe enough.

Looking down at the small metal circle and the chain it hung on, she realized what a peculiar thing it was. Talan knew how much it meant to Kal El, how the small band belonged to his beloved. She wondered, not for the first time, about the woman who possessed Kal El's heart. She wondered who that woman was, knowing that she must have been the most incredible person to be loved as she was by Kal El. It was obvious that he loved his wife with all of his heart and with every breath. It was puzzling at first, but she realized that she had found that fact very comforting. She had been happy to know that Kal El was so deeply loved and that there was great joy in his life before he came to New Krypton. Now, it was her duty to see that he returned to the one he loved so dearly and who must have loved him with equal depth and strength.

Frowning slightly as she rolled the ring between her fingers, she thought about how much it must have pained the First Minister to not have the ring in his possession. She'd often seen him reach for it in moments when he seemed troubled. He needed this small connection to the one he loved now more than ever, she thought. It wasn't that she fully understood what he must have felt for his wife, or what his wife felt for him, she assumed that sort of love had to be experienced to be understood, but it required little in terms of the power of perception to realize that he held that love sacred. She'd decided that if it was sacred to him, then it was sacred to her as well. The ring would have to be kept safe. Twice now, she'd had to risk her life to retrieve it, and fate would only be kind to her for so long. She realized the best way to keep the chain safe was to wear it, but it felt wrong. Why she should hesitate to do the only practical thing was beyond her. Sentimentality was alien to her, but then again, the object in question was purely one of sentiment. She had no right to wear this thing that was so precious to him, but the need to keep it safe outweighed any trespass against the bond between Kal El and his wife. She placed the chain around her neck and tucked it under her uniform with a silent promise to return it safely to its owner.

For now, there was no time to rest or reflect further upon these promises. She still had leads to follow, though word would doubtless be spreading among Nor's forces that the enemy was among them. If Kal El was in the area, they would have already begun the process of moving him again.

She descended from the caves and made her way quietly to the abandoned barracks where it was rumored that rebel forces were keeping a prisoner. The squat, dull looking building was deserted, but it was obvious that it had been occupied recently. She forced open a heavy door and slipped inside. Litter and debris in the main barracks suggested that forces had been staying here, though they certainly weren't the Expeditionary Forces that had used this building years ago as settlers tried to terra-form this part of the planet. She pulled up the cumbersome hatch to the barracks' basement and climbed down the stairwell in total darkness.

She clicked on a flashlight to guide her way through the tomb-like chamber. Scanning the room, her eyes quickly settled on the set of chains bolted into one wall. A prisoner had most definitely been kept here. Walking slowly toward the wall, she looked down for clues that would suggest how long ago it had been. She bent down to examine the dark stains on the ground. The blood had dried, as had the bloodstains on the wall. It had been at least a few days since he'd been moved.

***

Lois unfolded her copy of the Daily Planet and pulled out the literary supplement section. Tossing the rest of the paper on the coffee table, she tucked her legs underneath her on the couch and opened the supplement. Two weekends spent in bookstores signing copies and shaking hands had boosted sales, she was told. The Daily Planet Non-Fiction Bestsellers' list proved it: Number One. The book was quickly going through its second printing and the third was set to be produced. The bookstore in Smallville had the same poster of the book's cover in its display window as just about every other bookstore she'd seen did.

She was proud of the book and the columns that it was based on — they weren't her usual fare, but she'd grown to love the work. It wasn't something she really would have tackled before meeting Clark; she would have dismissed these stories as mere 'mood pieces,' and gone on in search of real, hard news.

Now, Lois Lane was searching for the human angle to her stories, having learned from her partner's softer touch, to encourage her readers to connect with the subject. She couldn't have written these types of stories, not well anyways, had it not been for Clark's influence. The irony that she wouldn't have been writing them at all had Clark not left was not lost on her. Her stories on heroism and sacrifice were all tied to him. It didn't cease to amaze her how thoroughly he'd changed her life. He'd challenged her assumptions, made her believe in heroism, shown her that selflessness did exist in the world, supported her in every endeavor — great or small, and taught her how to love completely and without fear. He had made her a better person.

She got up and crossed the den to where Jon was crawling enthusiastically toward Binky the bear. Once he'd acquired the object of his quest, she picked both him and the bear up. She sat down on the couch with him on her lap. Jon held tightly to the bear, deciding to find out if the stuffed animal's ear was something worth putting in his mouth. Lois smiled as she looked down at him. She smoothed the soft down of his hair. It was growing lighter; still brown, but much fairer than either her hair or Clark's. Clark's birth mother had strawberry blonde hair, and she wondered if these were her genes at work. While she rarely thought of his going to New Krypton as having any positive elements, she hoped that he was learning more about his past, getting answers to questions he'd had all his life and questions that their son would have, too.

***

Clark looked up, wide eyed with horror, as a group of guards approached him, brandishing laser rifles. Nor strolled lazily behind them, smiling almost serenely. One of the guards undid his shackles and forced him to his knees. The other three lined up behind him. He felt the barrels of their laser rifles pressed against the base of his skull. His breaths grew quick and shallow and he couldn't slow them. He screwed his eyes shut tight and bit his quivering lip. Kneeling was causing him terrible pain, but he didn't dare move.

"Any last words, Kal El? Any noble statement to make before your death?" Nor taunted.

Clark remained silent, praying for the strength to die well, feeling like his insides had been ripped out. His mouth was dry. The bitter taste of bile and fear stung the back of his throat. He didn't want to die. No matter how much it hurt, no matter how much he'd endured and would have to endure, he still wanted to live. He wanted to hear his father welcome him home. He wanted to hug his mother. He wanted to see his wife smile again, see the way it light up her eyes when she was excited. He wanted to sweep her up, to hold her and never again let go.

"I thought not," Nor said. Clark looked up at his tormentor, hoping he could hide his fear and desperation. Nor nodded almost imperceptibly to his men. Clark shut his eyes, his entire body tensed in dreaded anticipation.

He heard the click of the triggers and shuddered. Nothing happened. The wind rushed out of him and he collapsed, drawing in breaths in heaving, labored sobs. His heart thundered so rapidly in chest, beating violently against his ribcage, he thought it would burst. He heard footsteps retreating and a door closing and he was alone again. For long minutes, he it took all of his effort just to keep breathing. His heart finally slowed. "I am Clark Kent," he whispered. "I have a mother and a father and a wife who love me dearly. I will not die because they need me." He continued to repeat it in every language he knew except Kryptonian.

***

"My darling son, what exactly is it you plan to do with Kal El? Do you not think it time to apply your leverage in this situation?" Rae Et asked, trying to keep her tone patient, generally failing to do so.

Nor stood stiffly, his hands clasped together in front of him. "I am proceeding according to my own plan, mother," Nor replied testily.

Rae Et sat down at her desk, gathering the folds of her robes. "It has been weeks," she reminded him.

"And the longer we keep them waiting, the deeper the divisions in the Council become, and the weaker Zara's coalition. They will begin to clamor for Kal El's replacement, which will surely ignite another battle among the factions."

"Be careful, my son," Rae Et cautioned. "Do not let your pride cause you to tempt fate."

"I know exactly what I'm doing!" Nor snapped.

Both looked up at the sound of a knock at the door. "Come in," Rae Et commanded. The door opened and Jen Mai entered. He bowed slightly, remaining near the door. "I hope you are here to tell me that Pelmon has been taken care of," she said without looking at the flunky.

The color drained from Jen Mai's already pale face. "I'm afraid not. He is under constant guard and we have not been able to get near him. There is word from the outskirts of the valley, though."

"What is it?" Rae Et demanded.

"A patrol was attacked. Two soldiers were killed, a third was wounded."

Rae Et's eyes narrowed as she frowned. "Were they ambushed?"

Jen Mai shook his head, a strand of his long, slicked back hair falling forward. "I don't believe so, ma'am. The survivors described a single adversary. A woman."

"Was it her?" Nor asked anxiously, knowing that no further explanation was necessary. This was the third time in as many weeks that she had eluded capture and killed his troops. It was because of her that they continued to move Kal El almost constantly.

Jen Mai frowned, tight lipped. "I am not certain, sir," he replied.

"Find out," Nor barked. Jen Mai nodded vigorously before backing out of the office and closing the door behind him.

"What drives this obsession of yours with her?" Rae Et asked, a note of amusement creeping into her voice.

"She defeated my army," Nor replied irritably. "I would like to see her pay for it. Painfully." His words were an understatement. He wanted nothing more than to personally visit every cruel and despicable form of degradation upon her that his mind could imagine. And he had a rather imaginative mind. The mere thought of the pain and humiliation he would wreak upon her caused a warm tingle to course through him and a smile tugged upward the corners of his mouth.

"As will everyone who has defied us. But do not let a private grudge…" She raised an eyebrow at her son. "Or any other base motive, cloud your judgment. With Pelmon's betrayal, the factions in the Council will unite at last behind Zara. As that spineless lawyer makes known our involvement, the First Minister will be vindicated and the timid will grow resolute in their allegiance to her. Kal El is by far, the best leverage we retain."

***

Zara ran an agitated, shaking hand through her hair. She'd barely slept in three weeks. The constant reports coming in from all corners of the planet held leads and scraps of intelligence, but nothing concrete. The Council was at her constantly — one faction demanding she assume full powers, another wanting more public disclosures about the search for Kal El, a third looking to replace him. The tone of the communications monitor sounded and she turned on the screen.

Ching appeared on the monitor, looking as tired and anxious as she felt. His eyes were red from lack of sleep. "There is news from the valley," he declared, his voice devoid of emotion.

She stood up and walked toward the screen. "What is it? Have you found him?"

"No," Ching admitted dejectedly. "But Parth found something during his searches. Uniforms."

"The Expeditionary Forces uniforms that were missing from the inventory?" she asked.

"Aye, ma'am. Deep within rebel held territory. Someone had tried to burn them, but they were not successful in destroying all of them."

"I want this information spread to everyone, as quickly as possible," she said.

"Of course," he replied with a nod.

"A team from the Legal Guild was called to investigate all of Pelmon's claims. The vicious little man is suddenly only too eager to be of assistance."

"Can we be sure he is not lying?"

"Enza reports that he has kept detailed evidence of all of his claims. He was prepared for this eventuality."

Ching grunted. "It is good to know that he was consistent in his disloyalty."

"Quite," Zara replied. "His story has also been corroborated by Trey and the supply sergeant."

"That is good news," Ching said halfheartedly.

"It is," she replied with a similar lack of enthusiasm. She gave him a feeble smile.

"Do you require anything further?"

She shook her head. "Be careful," she added in earnest.

***

Clark tried vainly to shift his weight to his uninjured leg. During the last beating, Nor's men had really done a serious amount of damage to his knee. Now it throbbed and ached incessantly and threatened to buckle underneath him. He'd passed out, as he often did, his last conscious thoughts of Lois. He didn't really care that he was hallucinating. Seeing her, hearing her voice, even if it was only in his head, it was the only thing that was keeping him alive. So many times, he'd bitten his tongue to keep from begging Nor to simply kill him. He'd looked up at his tormentor in his darkest moments and silently wished for death, but then, Lois would appear in front of him. She would touch his face, whisper his name, squeeze his hand, or stroke his hair. Her name would escape his lips like a benediction and then, usually, he'd feel nothing.

He groggily looked up at the loud, echoing sound of footsteps. Nor walked slowly toward him, a smirk plastered on his face. "You are quite amusing when you babble in that mongrel tongue of yours; that sloppy, lilting language intrigues me. There's this one word you repeat over and over. What was it? Oh yes, 'Low-iss.' What does it mean?"

Clark looked up, staring Nor in the eye and said nothing.

"Low-iss, Lowiss," Nor repeated clumsily. "Are you begging for help? Perhaps pleading for mercy? What does the word mean? Are you calling for your mother?" Nor laughed.

"I will never tell you," Clark spat.

Nor reared back and punched Clark in the face. "What does it mean?" Nor yelled.

"I will never tell you," Clark repeated. The reign of blows commenced. Nor began hitting him with his fists before frantically searching for every object that could possibly be used as a weapon. Clark bit his lip to keep from screaming. He screwed his eyes shut, the pain exploded in his skull, searing, mind numbing, blotting out everything else. A single tear slipped from the corner of one eye.

***

Zara looked around the gathered assembly of leaders of the Council. Shai sat beside her, wearing the same somber expression as everyone else. "You have seen the evidence," Zara began. "Soon, everyone else will, too. You have the proof that Rae Et and Nor are responsible for the attack on Ching and for the attempts on my life and Kal El's. I have called you here to request your full support and I expect to receive it."

"First Minister," Alon began. "You have always had our support, but we remain concerned about Kal El."

"As do we all," Zara replied. "We will continue to search until he returns safely."

"But what if the worst should occur?" Alon pushed gently.

Zara set her jaw sternly. "We will not give up hope. So long as there is a chance that he is alive, we will continue to look."

Councilor Shai cleared his throat. "Councilor Alon raises a valid point."

"It is one we will not entertain," she replied. "I will not listen to speculation about who the next First Minister will be."

"Ma'am," Dural, the elder stateswoman, began. "You command our fealty, of that there is no question. We believe that the divisions of the Council can be mended. It is a united front we will present to our people's enemies."

"I hope that you are right," Zara replied.

***

The red sun was high overhead when Talan retreated into the secluded pass. She traveled throughout the nights, hoping to avoid detection, but also because stopping when the planet's temperature was at its lowest was dangerous. She had long ago learned to ignore the attendant pains of cold and exhaustion, but there was no sense in pushing the body beyond the breaking point. She lowered her pack gently to the ground as she sunk down, with her back against the rock face. Facing the pass, she could not be taken by surprise. Her hand resting against her weapon, she took in a deep breath, relaxed her body, and cleared her mind. Her face — normally fair complexioned and now ruddy from sun and wind burn — was expressionless. The world around her didn't disappear entirely; instead it merely faded until it was nothing more than muted sounds and hazy colors. The sort of meditation which required complete divorce from the world was one she could not afford to practice; the potential for vulnerability out here was simply too great.

She could hear her own breathing and the steady beat of her heart as she willed her body to work out its aches and pains, to let the fatigue slip away, and to prepare itself for the long journey that still lay ahead. Sitting perfectly still, she felt in tune with the world, as though she could feel the vibration and pulse of the entire planet and that she'd become connected to it. The ground, the sky, her body, they were all the same; the same energy flowed through all three. Nearly an hour passed without her stirring. As she slowly allowed the waking world back in, she stretched her muscles, previously sore and now rejuvenated. Meditation had become as good as sleep for her and truth be told, she far preferred it. When she meditated she retained complete control. She could keep unbidden thoughts from coming to mind. Sleep was anarchic. It invited the chaos of dreams.

Or in her case, nightmares.

Years of martial pursuits had caused her to see enough bloodshed for a dozen lifetimes. Much of which she'd caused herself. Her hands had let slip a torrent of blood. Blood that drenched the earth, washed over her thoughts, and stained her soul. Blood that could not as easily be cleansed from her hands as it could from the blade of her knife. She had never taken a life in malice, had never used more force than was necessary, and had never killed except in the defense of life, but it didn't change reality. Every time she closed her eyes, she'd see the faces of people whose lives she'd snuffed out. In moments when it was too still, when the world around her tried to lull her body into a sense of security, of welcomed, empty familiarity, she would fall prey to the ghosts of her past. It was impossible to block the thoughts out completely, but she did all she could to ward them off.

The human soul was a fragile thing. Taking a life altered it irredeemably. She wasn't the person she'd been before she'd picked up the sword and even if she laid it down that instant, she could not go back. Besides which, she still had a duty, no matter how much it tore her apart to complete it. She had sworn to protect her people.

'The innocent shall sleep tonight for I will watch over them.'

She repeated the oath of the Expeditionary Forces like a prayer, its meaning a touchstone. The innocent would sleep because she didn't. The gentle would know peace because she had forgotten all but war. The good would step into the light because she mercilessly hunted the beasts that lurked in the darkness.

It mattered not that she would never rest, would never know the peace the righteous knew. She could not so much as blink without being haunted, so how could she expect to find a moment's respite? She thought about a world redolent in deep and drowsing slumber, secure and unperturbed. It was a world she could never touch, but perhaps, in some small way, she could purchase that moment of quiet repose for her troubled world. Perhaps she could take the night back from the specters and demons that haunted her people. Perhaps she could help them know what it meant to be not afraid.

She wondered if Kal El was afraid. Bitter fear cut her deeply, intimately, in a way it had never done before. Her hopes and concerns had grown so abstracted with time. The only thing that had touched her life for many years had been death. She doled it out without passion, evaded it without conscious thought, despised it, but had exploited it nonetheless. Pain, fear, loneliness, these were not concepts that she could afford to entertain. She had allowed war to hollow her out; she could not let these other poisons to fill the emptiness inside her. But now, she found herself fretting over the life of a single person. She'd been rudely forced to stop thinking of the world in abstractions. Blood and tears mingled too easily and cries of pain could reverberate in one's skull from now until the end of time. It would not be possible to shut Kal El's pain out by simply refusing to close her eyes. She couldn't drown out his entreaties for help through any trick of meditation.

All the evidence pointed to him still being alive. She clung to that, but it was not enough to ward off the knowledge that he existed in desperation, that he likely had been consumed by the belief that he had been forsaken. That the help he'd doubtlessly cried out for was not coming.

Gathering her equipment, she raced out of the pass. She would not fail him.

***

Clark hung his head, too weary to lift it. He looked down at where the chain around his neck should have been. Each time he thought about losing it, he'd become choked up. It must have fallen off his neck at some point during the ambush. He couldn't remember a thing about that battle except waking up afterward in gruesome pain and without the ring.

Now, he barely recognized himself. He had no idea how long he'd been held captive, but given the amount of weight he'd lost, it must have been a while. His ribs stuck out too much. Looking down, he could see the wounds, old and new. None seemed to be healing well; they burned, throbbed, and ached, often reopening during the beatings. It grew more and more difficult to place any weight on his injured leg. As much as possible, he stood completely on one foot, keeping the other in bare contact with the ground. It throbbed constantly with a dull, radiating pain. He tried to reduce the burden on it by holding onto his chains and letting his arms support his body, but he would quickly tire of that, too. He'd turned into a thin, pale, dirty collection of wounds and aches. His wrists bled from his incessant attempts to break free from his bonds. Whenever Nor or his goons were around he remained docile and complacent or simply faked unconsciousness, but he constantly thought of escape. The longer he remained here, the weaker he would get and the less likely that Zara would be able to find him.

As bad as the beatings were, the interminable stretches of time he spent in total darkness, alone and ignored, often felt worse. When he managed to gather his wits about him, he could think of nothing other than how terribly alone he felt. At times, Nor would broadcast loud noises or taunts into whatever dungeon he was being held in, declaring that he was no one, that he was nothing, and didn't matter. He would be kept awake for long hours he couldn't keep track of, his body and mind beyond exhausted. He would retreat inside himself, feeling so small he thought he might just disappear.

He heard the dreaded sound of footsteps and stilled, hoping he'd succeed in convincing the guards that he was still out cold. The guards approached and he remained motionless. "See, I told you. He's still unconscious," one guard said to the other before giving Clark a vicious jab in the ribs. It took Clark every ounce of self-control to keep from crying out.

"Nor certainly gave him a sound beating," the other remarked.

"Come on, we need to move him," the first guard said. Clark tried to steady his nerves, he would only have one chance. He would need all of his strength and courage to accomplish this. If he could convince them that he was nothing resembling a threat, perhaps they would lower their guard. The two unfastened Clark's bonds. Clark feinted toward one as though he was going to collapse, but then pushed the guard as hard as his weakened body could. He tried to flee but took exactly one step before his knee seemed to explode. He fell to the ground in a twisted heap of agony.

"Damn fool," the second guard exclaimed as he grabbed Clark. "Where did you think you could go?" he yelled right into Clark's ear. Through the dim fog of his mind, however, Clark barely heard him. He looked up through tears at the blurred visage of a long familiar apparition. She silently fell to her knees beside him, her own eyes shining bright with tears, and touched his face.

"I'm sorry," Clark whispered, choking back a sob.

***

Talan reached for her communicator. More than six weeks since his disappearance, she and her comrades continued to scour the planet for him. Hope was fading, but it refused to die.

"Ma'am," came the voice over the transmitter. "We have actionable intelligence. A group of paramilitaries was seen moving not far from your position."

"You believe they have Kal El with them?" she asked, her heart suddenly speeding up.

"Initial reports suggest that is the case. A transport has been sent to your position. Prepare to dispatch in twenty minutes."

She used the time to recheck all of her weapons, though she'd kept them in perfect condition. Unconsciously, she reached for the chain around her neck. She pulled it out from under her uniform and looked at the little metal ring held between her fingers. Its surface was now marred by tiny little scratches. She tucked it back away. If the fates showed any mercy, she would soon return it to its owner.

The transport appeared in the sky and descended rapidly overhead. Still hovering, the ship's cargo door opened and a rope ladder was dropped. She grabbed the ladder and was immediately lifted from the ground. Within moments, she'd climbed into the ship and was greeted by a familiar face.

"Lieutenant Commander Ching, what are you doing here?" she asked.

"I thought you could use some help, ma'am," he replied. "I promise I will not slow you down."

Talan merely nodded. "We cannot get too close by ship," she explained. "If they realize that we've found him, they'll likely kill him."

"Agreed," Ching replied. "What do you suggest?"

"We will disembark out of visual range and approach on foot. Once we confirm that we have found Kal El we will request extraction."

The sun sank toward the horizon on their journey and the sky took on a dusty hue. The cover of night would allow them to move more freely. In a measure of time that felt at once like a blink of an eye and an eternity, the ship approached its final destination and began to descend again. Once again the ropes were dropped from the cargo doors and Talan and Ching quietly dropped from the transport. They hit the ground silently and began to move.

Adjusting her visual lenses to the dimming light, she took in the terrain trying to determine where Nor's men could be keeping Kal El. While they moved him almost constantly, they had particular habits and preferences — abandoned barracks, old mining facilities, the former forward command stations of the Expeditionary Forces. They preferred reinforced buildings with bunkers or cellars. Maintaining radio contact, she and Ching split up in order to cover more ground. She approached a forward settlement; many of its residents had quit this outpost when the troubles had swept into this part of the planet. Nonetheless it wasn't abandoned. She quickly disassembled her rifle and packed it away, along with the lenses. Her overcoat covering her uniform, she hoped to avoid drawing too much attention to herself.

She'd spent years working for the most advanced military force the universe had ever known, but she knew that nothing was more valuable than human intelligence. If she could glean some information from the people in and around the settlement, she stood a much better chance of finding Kal El than she would if she simply wandered about the area hoping to stumble across Nor's latest hiding place. At the same time, if the people of this settlement were sympathetic to Nor, she risked tipping him off to her presence.

Quietly, she surveyed the outpost. It was largely silent, though definitely inhabited. She tried to stay out of sight as she wandered around the town's outskirts. Just outside the settlement's border, a glimmer of movement caught her eye. She turned to follow it, checking the sidearm tucked under her overcoat to ensure it was easily accessible. Moving in absolute silence, she crept forward, unwilling to lose the element of surprise. It was, however, she who was surprised in the end. What had caught her attention had been a child. A little girl in fact. Talan could not wager to guess how old she was, but she was much younger than ten. She relaxed her posture and tried to smile.

"Good tidings," she said softly. The child turned to face her, startled despite Talan's every effort to be disarming. "Do you live here?"

The little girl nodded but said nothing.

"Where are your parents?"

"Mother is sick and father was called away," the child said in a bare whisper. She looked up at Talan, wide-eyed.

Talan knelt down beside the child, hoping that by eliminating the vast difference in height between them she'd seem less intimidating. "Have you seen men near here? Strangers who would have been wearing uniforms?"

The little girl nodded. She pointed toward the hills in the distance.

Talan smiled, tight-lipped. "Thank you," she said. "Now you should best go inside. It's late, little one." She stood and turned to leave.

"Are you the traveler?" the child asked.

It took Talan a moment to realize that the little girl was referring to the nursery rhyme every Kryptonian child knew.

'A traveler passed through the other day. A traveler who came but did not stay A traveler passed through, all dressed in black. A traveler who came and did not come back.'

Talan had never given any thought to the source of the rhyme or its meaning. "I am *a* traveler," she responded.

"May I go with you?" the little girl asked, her bottom lip trembling.

"I'm afraid not. Where I'm going is far too dangerous. Go back inside where you will be safe."

The little girl nodded sadly. "Goodbye, traveler."

"Goodbye, little one," Talan replied.

She walked toward the hills, radioing to Ching to give him her location. They reconvened in the foothills, unfolding their maps of the area and comparing them to the terrain. The disappearance of the sun behind the horizon had left the sky dark. The air grew cold and sharp with the impending night.

"The only building in this area is an abandoned barrack through this pass," she explained as she looked at the map. She looked up and easily located the correct route, not far in front of them. Shouldering their equipment, they raced for the pass, knowing that every second counted. Within minutes, they had cleared the pass and had located the target. She tried to calm her breathing, quickened not by exertion, but by jitters that she'd once thought had been banished from her mind more than a decade ago. A safe distance from the building, sheltered from view by an outcropping of rock, they switched the lenses to the heat sensing mode and scanned the building. "Five rebels and Kal El," Ching said evenly.

Talan nodded in grim agreement. Kal El was easy to recognize as the solitary, immobile figure in the building's basement. "Find the frequency they're communicating on."

After a long moment, he announced, "I have it. There is a patrol they are monitoring. It sounds as though there are three teams of two."

She frowned. "Are they nearby?"

"The nearest is twenty minutes away."

"Call for extraction now," she commanded, knowing that the ship was waiting for the order. "We must complete the evacuation before the patrols realize what has happened and return."

Ching placed the call and gave the order. He turned to her. "What are you planning?"

"I will take out the building's power and communication systems to create a diversion. I will try to neutralize as many targets as possible. Get Kal El out. Do not wait for me." Her tone was stern and insistent.

"Commander?" Ching raised a questioning eyebrow.

"That is an order," she replied harshly, her brow darkening over her steely gray eyes. "If I fall behind, you leave me behind. The only objective is to get Kal El out."

"Aye, ma'am."

Under the cover of darkness, she made her way toward the building. Nervousness roiled in her gut. With trembling fingers that she willed still, she connected the explosive charges to the building's radio and power grids. She was thankful that all of these old barracks buildings were identical; she knew their grids and layouts like the back of her hand. She retreated a few feet and took a deep breath before detonating the charges. A small crack accompanied by a wisp of smoke proved the charges were effective. She took cover and waited. Less than a minute later, she heard the sounds of footsteps approaching, at least two pairs. Good, she thought. The more of them who came to investigate the problem, the easier it would be for Ching. She held her weapon in tense arms, her index finger hovering above the trigger.

***

Ching watched as two of the rebels exited the barracks. He quietly snuck around to the other side of the building and the secondary entrance, grateful that the layout to the building was so familiar. He scanned the building to locate the last three rebels, only one with Kal El, the other two were on the other side of the building. He forced his way through the door as quietly as possible and headed toward the basement. His weapon drawn, he crept silently down the stairs. Managing to get the one rebel in his sights, he fired once. He did not need to fire again.

Ching raced down the remaining stairs, taking three at a time, into the darkened basement. What he found stunned him into silence. He swallowed roughly, a gasp escaping him. He had expected to find Kal El in awful shape, but he was not prepared for the sight in front of him. The man strung up before him was the mere shell of a human being, thin, weak, and unconscious. He moaned piteously. Ching felt his heart leap up into his throat as he approached. In the darkness, he had been unable to ascertain the extent of Kal El's injuries from a distance. The other man's body was covered with wounds and bruises. Cuts around his eyes and forehead bled profusely. The dark stains of blood covered his bearded face, except for two thin tracks where the tears had washed the blood away.

Cringing, Ching broke Kal El's bonds. A faint moan escaped from the injured man. "It will be all right, Clark," Ching whispered in English. He lifted the First Minister onto his shoulders. The other man should have been much heavier; instead, he was barely a burden. He only had a few minutes before the patrol would return. He tried not to jostle Kal El as he moved up the stairs and toward the exit. In a few brief seconds that seemed like an eternity, he found himself outside, racing toward the extraction point. Shouts coming from behind him signified that the remaining rebels were giving chase.

Talan seemed to appear from nowhere and was immediately at his side as they raced toward the extraction point. Laser rifle fire singed the air. Talan turned once and fired. A ship descended just ahead of them. Deliverance, Ching thought. He ran faster and harder; while less of a burden than he should have been, Kal El's weight did slow him.

A sudden fire exploded in his heel and his entire leg seemed consumed in flames. He cried out as he stumbled to the ground, Kal El falling on top of him. He tried to lift himself up, he could not fail Clark. He would not fail.

***

Talan turned to fire again, hitting their other pursuer. They were hardly in the clear though. She could hear the approach of the first patrol. They would soon have rather unwelcome company. Turning back to Ching, she hoisted Kal El onto her shoulders. Months ago, he would have been far too heavy for her to carry effectively. Ching struggled back to his feet. "Can you run?" she asked breathlessly as the crack of laser rifle fire shattered the air again.

Ching nodded, his face contorted in pain. He hobbled as they ran, both burdened, to the safety of the ship. The transport's doors opened, welcoming them. She labored under the weight as they covered the last few hundred feet. Soldiers leapt down from the transport and shepherded them inside, providing cover fire. She nearly collapsed to the metal floor of the ship. The interior of the ship seemed to spin; the shapes and colors around her were blurry and muted. Medics raced to the First Minister and began tending to his wounds. In their cryptic medical code, they shouted instructions to each other. Their voices sounded distorted.

She watched as Ching scrambled toward the side of the ship, grimacing in pain. A medic started toward him. "Help him!" Ching barked through clenched teeth. The hapless medic jumped back as though he'd been burned. Ching grabbed his ankle, the leg of his uniform soaked in blood.

The shock finally wearing off, she moved toward him and started to draw the knife at her belt. She looked at the blood covered hilt and re-sheathed the blade. Instead, she pulled out her boot knife and cut away Ching's boot and the cloth of his uniform around the wound. Ching stifled a groan as she worked. She doused the wound in antiseptic, eliciting a strangled scream from the Lieutenant Commander. "You'll be fine," she said curtly as she wrapped the wound, stealing glances back at the medics as they worked on Kal El. She could not tell from their somber instructions and efficient movements whether the prognosis was good. His condition looked grave to her untrained eye, but she knew his life was in their hands. Talan quickly finished bandaging Ching's wound. She looked around at the cold, sterile confines of the ship. The droning hum of the motor reverberated in her skull.

They had found him and they were taking him home. She only hoped that they were not too late.

***

Zara stood between her mother and father on the docking bay, waiting as interminable minutes ticked away. Her brothers had requested to come, but she'd emphatically said no; they did not need to see this. Ching had called her not long ago; the tone of his voice conveyed doubt and concern, even as he tried to reassure her.

She looked up as the ship descended and docked. The ship's door opened and the medics raced out with the stretcher. Zara craned her neck to get a look at Clark. She bit her lip; he was so pale and thin, the life seemed to have been drained completely out of him. The medics raced past them without slowing. Soldiers disembarked from the ship, Talan and Ching were the last at the end of the line. Ching leaned on the tall commander, limping as he walked.

"What happened? How is he? Are you all right?" Zara asked, her impatience and nervousness reflected in the pitch and timber of her shaking voice.

"We raided the barracks where he was being held. He was unconscious when we found him, but the medics seemed to have stabilized him on the trip. We encountered resistance during extraction," Ching explained, and thought to add, "I'll be fine, the wound was minor."

Zara turned to look down the long hallway that the medics had taken Kal El through. Any relief that should have come with Kal El's return was overshadowed by the guilt that came with knowing that all he'd suffered, all he'd endured, had been because he'd selflessly answered their call for help. Worry gnawed at her. His fate was in the hands of the greatest doctors in the world, but all she could do now was pray that they hadn't been too late. She looked back at Ching, wanting to do more than merely nod approvingly. She wanted some comfort as they waited to learn more about Kal El's condition. She wanted to let him lean on her and at the same time, draw strength from his solid, reassuring presence.

***

Lois stood out on the porch, unbothered by the cold. Fall had been a busy time on the farm. Somewhere in her mind, Lois had always known that would be the case, but this year and last, she'd finally developed a true understanding of what that meant. All around, there was an explosion of colors as the red, orange, and yellow leaves on the trees slowly fell to the ground. There was a crispness in the air, laced with the scent of burning hickory coming from fireplaces unseen.

But the hustle and bustle of the harvest was now a memory and autumn, stretched out, was fading into the quiet, drowsing cold of winter. Fall brought out the communal spirit in the farm; everyone worked together in a symbiosis, not only with each other, but with the earth, to raise from the ground the fruits of months of labor. But winter was lonely, in its silence and stillness.

She looked forward to sharing Christmas with her son for the first time, to capture that sense of family and belonging that being with the Kents at the holidays gave her. But Christmas also made her feel her husband's absence more acutely. Christmas was his favorite time of year; it brought a light to his eyes, and a smile to his face that made her believe in magic.

She wondered what he was doing, how he would mark the occasion. Whether Christmas made him feel as lonely as it made her feel. She found herself holding the ring — his ring — gently in her hand. Almost nightly, she dreamt about him, about his arms, his lips, his neck. The sound of his voice when he whispered her name, the richness of his laugh that was the most beautiful music she'd ever heard.

The only thing that gave her comfort was the fact that the sun still rose and set and the stars still twinkled brightly in the sky. These things were clearly under her lover's command. The heavens continued to turn because he willed it. The sun shone because he wished it. What other explanation could there be? He was alive because he had to be. Because a world without him was inconceivable.

And nonetheless, she worried that he was in pain. She worried that he needed her and she could do nothing to comfort or help him. He may have been in danger, he may have been crying out for her, and she could do nothing for him. She'd promised him he'd never be alone again.

Breaking that promise was killing her.

***

Tao Scion stepped slowly out into the hallway. He lifted his head; dark circles had formed under his bloodshot eyes. Deep lines of worry were etched in his usually placid face. His shoulders were stooped and he shuffled wearily, his age suddenly apparent, his posture projecting such tiredness.

"How is he?" Zara asked anxiously, searching his expression for some clue, some evidence of Kal El's condition.

"He will survive," Tao Scion began. "His wounds were quite severe. Many broken bones, torn ligaments in his arms, he'd developed numerous infections and bronchitis."

She swallowed around the large boulder in her throat as she listened to the doctor's diagnosis. The old physician's words cut into her like shards of glass. "Will he recover?"

"We have controlled the infections and are treating his wounds; we've medically induced a coma to keep him more comfortable."

"So he is not in pain?"

A ghost of a smile crossed Tao Scion's face. "No, ma'am."

She nodded, tight lipped. "May I see him?"

"Of course," the gracious doctor replied before leading her to the First Minister's room.

Zara tried to brace herself for the sight of a once healthy and strong man laid low by long weeks of unspeakable torment. She failed. Zara had to bite her lip to keep from gasping. Tubes ran from machines to his thin, frail body. Drones monitored all sorts of biological data, beeping and whirring incessantly. "When…when will he wake?" she whispered.

"We will allow him to regain consciousness in a week, perhaps two," Tao Scion explained. "He is more comfortable this way, and it is allowing us to, well… you know that Kal El was exposed to unimaginable trauma for quite some period of time. His mind is not the least of the casualties of these events. In order to regain some semblance of peace and quiet, we must reduce the stress upon him. Six weeks of constant adrenaline exposure has taken its toll on him. We can help him recover now, while he sleeps."

"Thank you, Tao Scion. For everything you have done for both of us," she said gratefully.

"It is my pleasure to serve, ma'am," he replied with a humble bow. "I will ensure that you are kept constantly apprised of his condition and any changes." With that, Tao Scion quietly exited.

She walked toward Clark's bed and hesitantly reached out to touch his hand. It was warm, but he did not respond to her presence. "Hold on, Clark," she whispered. "You must continue to fight."

***

Talan sat in her quarters, having not retired until she'd received word that Kal El had been stabilized. She finished polishing her boots and tucked them away in her storage locker. Her room was bare and simple, even by Kryptonian standards, and everything was perfectly in its place. She picked up a clean cloth and removed her knife from its sheath. Dousing the cloth in antiseptic, she slowly, methodically began wiping the blood from the blade. She cleaned and polished it until it was impossible to tell that the instrument had so recently been used to drain the life from her adversaries.

She wiped clean the edge, startled when she cut the palm of her hand on sharp blade. The steel felt cold at first, but then the wound began to sting and burn. She watched as her blood stained the blade, and thought it odd that the bloodthirsty knife she held in her hand had never tasted her blood before. Talan found it strangely fitting; if she was to obtain a wound from this ordeal, it made sense that it was at her own hand. She bandaged the wound and returned to cleaning her equipment.

Standing, she put away the last of her gear and caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror over her washbasin. The chain around her neck glimmered under the room's lights. She gingerly lifted the chain over her head and placed it carefully on her bureau. It was safe now, and soon, she'd be able to return to its rightful owner.

***

"Aaaaaahhhh!!" Nor growled as he threw a chair against a wall. It bounced with a loud thud and crashed to the ground.

"This is exceedingly problematic," Rae Et seethed.

"I know that, mother!" Nor continued to shout. "I'm well aware of the problems that we have!"

"Oh no, my son, this is your problem, not mine. Your incompetent forces were responsible for this situation." She stood from her desk and walked toward her bookcase, ignoring her son's presence.

Nor ran his hands agitatedly through his long hair. "I'm going to kill them!"

"That would be more appropriate were they not already dead."

"I'll kill her, this is her fault. It has to be."

"You have far more important concerns than some commander, no matter how much you hate her. Kal El saw you. You tormented him with your own hands. If you think we can continue operating under plausible deniability, you are sadly deluded, my boy. You should have killed him when you had the chance."

"Well I thank you for that sage advice as it comes far too late, Mother! Have you anything to say that would be useful now?" Nor paced restlessly in his mother's office.

***

Zara stood beside Clark's bed. The numerous wounds that covered his body made it impossible to pretend that he was simply sleeping peacefully. "His condition is improving, ma'am," Tao Scion explained softly. "It has only been a few days, but he is strong."

"The scars…" Zara murmured as she looked at the healing cuts and dark bruises on his face.

"He will have them for the rest of his life," Tao Scion replied. "The wounds are too old and while they will fade, many are quite large."

"The ones on his face, though…" Zara asked insistently. "What of those?"

"They are far more superficial, I suppose I can try to minimize their appearance," the physician mused. "There are far more important elements to his recovery, though…"

"Kal El has a life on Earth that he will return to. He will take nothing from this place but unpleasant memories and scars. He should not have to wear them for all the world to see, to gawk and stare and wonder at his private hell," she replied grimly.

Tao Scion merely nodded in understanding.

***

Through a thick, gauzy blanket that shrouded his mind, the first signs of the waking world began to intrude, jabbing at him incessantly. He felt a confused, chaotic mix of pains, sharp, burning, stabbing, dull, aching, throbbing. Every part of his body hurt. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was as dry and scratchy as sandpaper. Clark blinked his eyes open and immediately regretted it. Bright, sterile light came pouring in.

"Good tidings, Kal El," a warm, familiar voice said.

Clark turned his head, grimacing from the pain the simple movement caused. His head swam. A dark, blurry shape slowly came into focus. It was Tao Scion. Clark tried to form a response but nothing but a dull rasp escaped from his lips.

The physician approached and lifted a glass of water to Clark's mouth. He gratefully took a sip. "Thank you," he whispered hoarsely.

"Do not try to move," Tao Scion said gently. "Your injuries are healing, but I do not want you to dislocate that shoulder again."

"What happened?" Clark asked. The room thankfully stopped spinning and came into focus. The aches and pains remained, intensifying with every subtle, minor movement of his body. Even breathing was a labor.

"Forty six days after you were captured outside of Terian, Commander Talan and Lieutenant Commander Ching rescued you from an abandoned building in the Belaar where you were being held. That was almost two weeks ago," Tao Scion explained.

"Two weeks?" Clark asked incredulously.

"Yes, you have been unconscious these last thirteen days. You have had three surgeries."

"It certainly feels like it," Clark replied humorlessly.

"Yes, I know you are in pain, we have been steadily increasing the pain medication since you began showing since of regaining consciousness. You should start feeling the effects soon."

"I hope so. Everything hurts."

"Well, you suffered a concussion, six broken ribs, two dislocated shoulders, a number of torn tendons and ligaments and a fractured patella. Not to mention the infection and the wounds. You will recover fully, but it will be a long, slow process."

The chime of the intercom interrupted them. "I contacted the First Minister when you began to show signs of waking. She is here now to see you. I will send her in." With that, the doctor withdrew. Moments later, Zara entered the room, a tremulous smile on her face."

"How are you?" she asked anxiously.

"Probably better than expected, given the two months I've had," he replied.

Zara shook her head. "This is all my fault," she whispered.

"It was my decision to go to Terian. Besides, I'm pretty sure Nor gets more than a share of the blame here," Clark said humorlessly.

"We should never have asked you to come here; we should never have dragged you into our problem."

"You needed my help," he said simply.

"And we had no right to ask for it," she countered.

"It's not about whether you had the right. You asked, I came. It was my decision. Mine and Lois's. I knew it would be dangerous. I knew what could happen."

"I'm sorry," she murmured. "For everything you have endured on our behalf. For the pain that coming here has caused you."

He realized that her contrition was unbearable. The thought seemed to crush him; he hated being ungrateful. But he was just so tired and unprepared to deal with sympathy. A heavy sigh escaped his lips and he suddenly felt like he was being bear hugged by a boa constrictor. He winced in pain.

"I should let you rest," she said softly.

Clark merely nodded. She slipped out of the room and Clark drifted into a mercifully dream-free, narcotic-induced sleep.

***

The following morning found his mind still fuzzy and his body in a great deal more pain. The painkillers were clearly wearing off, but the aches and stabbing pains that seemed to make up the entirety of his interactions with the real world were not forefront in his mind. He bit his lip and looked down at where the chain around his neck should have been. The wounds Tao Scion had described couldn't compare to the crushing pain he felt knowing that he'd lost something he'd promised to keep safe.

'I'll keep it as safe as my love for you.'

What did that promise mean? Could he convince Lois that she was always in his thoughts, and always in his heart if he couldn't keep that little ring safe? How was he supposed to tell her? What was he supposed to tell her? He swallowed around the lump in his throat and closed his eyes.

"Are you all right?" Tao Scion's gentle voice intruded on his gloomy thoughts. He hadn't even heard the doctor enter. "Are you in pain?"

Clark nodded.

"I know it hurts terribly now, but the pain will lessen," Tao Scion explained. Clark wished it were true.

He tried not to think of what he'd lost. There was still hope. Hope that he'd go home one day. Hope that he'd see his wife. "You saved my life…again."

"Well, you have your commanders to thank for that, really. They would not rest until they had brought you home."

He nodded in understanding, but was certain that Tao Scion had not sensed the subtle irony in his own words. Clark was nowhere near home. In fact, he felt further from it now than he ever had. He wasn't sure how that was possible. How was it that during his captivity and torture, he could still feel Lois, like she was right beside him, and now, she felt so far away. "I'd like to thank them," he said softly.

"In due time," Tao Scion said. "There will be plenty of opportunities for you to have visitors in the coming days. Zara wanted me to alert her when you woke up, shall I send her in?"

Clark wasn't really in the mood for company, but he nodded anyway. He'd been rude enough yesterday. The least he could do now was be polite. Tao Scion opened the door and Zara entered as the old physician left.

"Are you feeling any better?" she asked.

"Yes," he lied. "What's happened? I mean, what's been happening, all this time that I've been…"

"Do not worry about it," Zara soothed. "We have coped, and there will be plenty of time to worry when you are well again. For now, you should concentrate on getting better. If there is anything you need, or anything I can do for you…"

"Just thank Talan and Ching, and everyone who kept looking for me. And thank you, for not giving up." The sentiment was real, at least, somewhere deep inside, he knew it should have been. But the words sounded hollow, even to his own ears. He hoped she would assume it was just the medication.

"Of course," she replied. "I cannot begin to express how glad we are to have you back. We have not always been quick to demonstrate it, but the people of this world have come to love you. We…we appreciate what you have done, what you have sacrificed for us." She reached out and placed a hand on his. Clark wanted desperately to find some comfort, some reassurance in her words and warm gestures, but he found nothing. What had happened to him? How had he ended up so…empty?

***

"Merry Christmas, Lois," Jonathan announced cheerfully. He held his namesake in his arms. Jon reached immediately for his mother as soon as she walked through the door. Lois found herself grinning from ear to ear as she reached back to him.

"Merry Christmas," she replied to her father-in-law. She looked down at her son, cheerfully dressed in his red and green Christmas sweater. "Don't you look dapper?" she asked him. Jon merely giggled in response.

"So how was everything?" Jonathan asked.

"Great," she responded. "Ultrawoman was a big hit with the kids. All the toys were delivered."

"It's a wonderful thing you did."

"Clark was the first person who really showed me how special Christmas could be. I'm just glad that I can share that with some of the kids who need it the most."

Martha appeared from the kitchen. "Are you guys ready to decorate the tree?"

"What do you say, little man? Are you ready to decorate your first Christmas tree?"

Jon grabbed the chain Lois wore around her neck. "Mama!" he exclaimed. Lois smiled as she gently extricated it from her son's grasp. Jonathan said nothing as she tucked the chain and ring back under her sweater. She'd never mentioned the ring to her in-laws, but she figured they must have seen it on occasion, must have noticed that she did not wear her wedding ring and never had it in her possession. They never broached the subject though, silently acknowledging that the topic was verboten. It wasn't even something to be tiptoed around; tiptoeing around it meant at least acknowledging it. All three grownups in the house studiously ignored it when they were together. When her son grabbed on to the chain, intrigued by something dangly and shiny, she acted as though the chain held a mere trinket or pendant, and tucked it back away without fanfare.

The family made its way to the living room where the tree Lois and Jonathan had selected stood in stately dignity, waiting to be dressed in all the festive trimmings of the season. The house smelled like warm gingerbread, lush pine, and the hickory smoke of logs burning and crackling on the fire. It smelled like Christmas. Preparing for Jon's first Christmas — the greeting cards, the present shopping, the ornament making — had taken most of the sting out of another Christmas without Clark. Most, but not all. It was another occasion where his absence was painfully obvious, where he haunted them like a ghost in the room. It was just impossible to divorce this time of year from her thoughts of him. Every great Christmas she'd ever had, she'd had with him.

She recalled that Christmas when he'd lied about his flight to Smallville being canceled so he could spend time with her. The evening had been magical, his presence then had been so comforting and reassuring and so *right.* He'd held her hand as they watched Christmas carolers gather and sing beneath her window.

This was his holiday really; she had just been blessed to be able to share it with him for a while. Now, the holidays and the passing seasons were just mile markers — dates crossed off in a cosmic countdown, but there was no way of knowing where the end was. She couldn't count the days and the months until his return. She simply sat in the dark and waited for him to come back.

***

Ching leaned heavily on his cane as he stood to find out who was knocking on his door at this late hour. He limped across the room and pulled the door open to find Zara standing on the other side. He smiled a faint half smile as he stepped aside to allow her to enter and closed the door behind her. "How is he?" he asked.

"As well as can be expected," she replied quietly.

"He is strong," Ching reminded her. He placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "Stronger than anyone I have ever known."

Zara put her hand on Ching's and squeezed it gently. "This should never have happened," she murmured.

Ching shook his head. "No one could have known what would happen and you did everything you could to bring him back as quickly as possible."

"That is not what I mean. We had no right to bring him here. To tear him away from a good life and bring him to this place. To put him in danger to solve our problems."

"It was unfair…"

"It was more than unfair," Zara countered. She interlaced her fingers with her lover's. "What we have, he had and we took him away from it. We took him away from everything he has ever known and loved. What he's been through…what he's had to endure…was it worth it?"

Ching knew that she wanted him to assuage her worries, to tell her that everything would be fine. But he had no guarantees he could give her. "This is not a great world; it is rarely ever a good one. But we are both sworn to protect it. I know that we are blessed beyond understanding to have the help of a man like Clark. The only thing we can do now is ensure that everything he has sacrificed and all of the pain he has endured was not in vain. We must turn this into a world worth saving."

He looked into the eyes of his beloved and could see her struggling, at war with herself. She needed to believe the same things he did. She needed to believe that they could turn this into a world worth saving, but she had seen enough to cause her to wonder if such a thing were possible. Behind her calm green eyes, there were shadows and darkness. Fears and regrets. But there was also courage. Courage she needed to seize tightly and never let go.

Ching reached out to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. He let his hand linger just a little longer than necessary. He hoped that he would have the strength to help her, to be as resolute and steadfast an ally as she had been in his darkest hours. It was not merely his recent brush with the wrong side of the law; Zara had been the most stable force in his life for almost as long as he could remember.

He was a boy, barely twelve years old, when his parents died. They were both engineers, killed in a mine collapse. He'd raced from his school to the accident site, too little to do anything to help, but old enough to know that something terrible had happened. The rescue workers had restrained him. He'd fought ineffectually against full grown men. His small fists falling harmlessly against them.

Ching remembered his eyes overflowing with tears, his breath escaping him in sobs. The air had reeked of fire and sulfur, the chaotic sounds of the rescue crew, yelling and cursing and cajoling their equipment as they struggled in vain to rescue people who couldn't be rescued, surrounded him. The sharp crack of explosives thundered all around him. He thought his heart had blown up in his chest. The explosion had stunned not only Ching, but also the rather burly fellow who'd been restraining him. He'd momentarily loosened his grip and Ching had used the opportunity to break free. Ching started to run headlong, as fast as his wobbly legs would carry him, toward the mine.

He'd run directly into a solid wall wearing a heavy black cloak. A large arm came around him and Ching stopped fighting. He'd buried his head against the man and wept. He remembered being held by the man's strong arms and carried away by them. He'd woken up in a strange bed in a dark, unfamiliar room. He'd sat upright slowly, the memory of the night before rushing back to him. He'd promptly thrown up.

That was how he spent his first night in the Ra household.

The following morning he'd met Mieren, Tek Ra's wife. She was kind and solicitous and she made him miss his own mother even more. And he'd met Zara; the little girl with wide, luminous green eyes. She watched him silently, never saying a word. For over a week, they'd given him a wide berth, but at the same time, they'd welcomed him into their lives, letting him know that he would always have a home in the House of Ra.

He'd been wary of Zara, having learned early on who she was and what waited in store for her. He did not understand how this small girl of only eight years would become their people's leader, how she would command armies and sit at the head of the High Council.

She was just a little girl.

For weeks, his interactions with her had been sparse and simple. She was shy and always quiet in his presence. At the time, he too, hadn't been much for talking. He spent most of his time staring out the window at a desolate landscape that mirrored the way he felt. He was not certain when it started, but one evening, she sat down next to him. Neither said a word. The following evening, she was there again. They sat side by side, night after night, neither saying anything. He was not certain how she knew exactly what he needed, but she did. A child of tender years, she could see his pain, even if she could not completely understand it.

Eventually, as time went on, he started to talk to her and found her to be a good listener, and soon, a fast friend. She was nearly four years his junior and struck by the tiniest amount of the hero worship most children feel toward their older friends. As they grew older, he came to relish his role as protector to the future First Minister.

He was amazed by how perceptive she was, how she understood things, how she understood him, better than anyone. For five years, Ching was a fixture in the Ra household. Tek Ra had made it abundantly clear at the beginning of his stay that it would be his home for as long as he liked. Not long after the birth of the twins, he left to begin his military training. He had continued his studies, mastering the arts of politics and law, even as he learned more martial pursuits. He traveled the planet and the star system with his unit, earned his commission, and received his first command.

As a newly minted ensign, he returned to the main colony. It was in the chambers of the High Council that he saw Zara for the first time in four years. He barely recognized the little girl he knew in the woman who stood before him. She was charismatic and captivating and the most breathtakingly beautiful woman he'd ever seen. He'd had so many things he wanted to tell her, he'd wanted to share his stories of years of youthful adventures and derring-do, anticipating that his young friend would still be wide-eyed and quickly impressed. He had continued to think of her as a young girl; in his mind she was eternally a precocious thirteen-year old, even though he himself had grown and aged, and at least he'd thought, matured.

He couldn't honestly have been expecting her to remain a child indefinitely, untouched by the passage of time, and yet, whatever he had been expecting was a far cry from reality. He'd been instantly taken with her and it had left him more than a little unsettled. They'd grown up together, he had always thought of himself as her protector and had earned her absolute trust and confidence. He had known that she had harbored toward him a young girl's infatuation, with the slightest hint of child-like reverence, and in his mind she had always been a child; he hadn't been able to think of her as anything else.

All of that had changed. She was fast approaching the date of her eighteenth birthday and the formal ceremony at which she would take her vows as a lifelong servant of her people. She would officially become the heir to the mantle of authority. Rumors held that she was already an accomplished pilot and an impressive addition to the High Council's general advisory staff.

As he stood among the other young officers who had been selected to serve as the Council's elite protective guard, he had realized that he needed to be placed on her detail. It was a highly coveted assignment and he had been prepared to do almost anything to obtain it. The other young men and women standing with him in the chamber gallery whispered in hushed tones as they watched the workings of the junior advisors and staffers, preparing for the day's Council session. Ching did not hear a word of what was said. He never took his eyes off of her, straining to make out what she was saying as she spoke to the other advisors. She'd looked up at the gallery and their eyes met. Her bright green eyes grew wide and luminous, lit up by her smile. He'd watched as she politely excused herself and raced toward the chamber's exit — the only way to the gallery. He too, had taken his leave, meeting her in the narrow stairwell that connected the chamber floor and its balconies.

"Ching!" she'd practically shouted his name with laughter in her voice as she threw her arms around his neck. He'd returned the embrace reflexively — his higher mental functions having departed him at her first touch. She had withdrawn and stepped back, a sheepish look on her face. "I am so glad to see you," she'd said softly, a slight blush creeping up her cheeks as she'd seemed to remember what decorum required of her.

"You could not be more happy than I am to see you," he'd replied, surprised by his own directness. She'd responded with a beaming smile that made his heart pound against his chest like a trip hammer. "It has been far too long," he had added.

"Then come along, I wish to hear everything," she had said, still smiling.

He could not help but smile back, even though inside, the voice of reason was quietly reminding him that there was no woman in this world more unattainable than the future First Minister. It was beyond a mere impossibility. But there was nothing he could do. Sensible though it may have been, he could not well cause himself to fall out of love with her anymore than he could try to stop breathing.

That had been more than thirteen years ago and he loved her more now than he did then. He had tried to pretend that he could ignore his feelings, but it hadn't lasted. She was, and for years, had been, the dominant force in his life. She was a selfless leader; she poured every drop of herself into her work for her people. And yet, she still had so much to give to him. She was his constant source of strength and hope. Moments like these, in which her faith was shaken, were remarkably rare. He pulled her into his arms, hoping she would find some small measure of comfort from his embrace.

"Do you believe we can…make this a better world?" she murmured.

Ching cradled her head with his hand as he held her close. "We will," he said. "We have to."

***

"Kal El! Are you all right?" Tao Scion exclaimed as he burst into Clark's room. Clark struggled to nod, his eyes still shut tightly. He felt his chest ache with each deep, labored breath. His ribs seemed to crack under the strain of trying to draw oxygen into his body.

"It was a nightmare," Clark replied, still gasping. "It was so vivid." His whole body screamed in pain and he suddenly could not tell if it was because his tortured and restless sleep had caused him to aggravate his injuries or if it was merely his body responding to the memories of what had happened to him. The muted and splotchy memories he'd had of his detainment were suddenly becoming clearer, so real it was almost as if he was reliving them. It took him a while to shake the image of the dark, featureless dungeons where he'd been held from his mind and confirm that he was in his hospital room — the walls white and sterile, the only sounds those of the monitors and drones that kept constant watch over him.

"It is your memory, slowly piecing together your experiences," Tao Scion explained gently.

"What?"

"What you endured was too difficult for your mind to accept all at once. It was overwhelming," Tao Scion continued. "While you were unconscious, we attempted to make the reintegration of your memories more gradual, but things will continue to come back to you in pieces, often in nightmares."

"So that's why…" Clark trailed off, not certain he wanted to explore his troubled thoughts with his physician.

"Why you have been feeling disconnected, emotionally numb," the old physician finished for him. "Your mind is still attempting to make sense of what happened to you. The problem is, it does not make sense. The only way for you to truly cope with what happened is for you to speak with someone."

Clark looked away. "I don't think I want to."

"It is still early and you need time," Tao Scion counseled gently. "I will give you something to help you fall back to sleep." Clark watched in silence as the old doctor gave him an injection. Within moments, he felt his eyelids grow heavy. He drifted into a deep, dreamless sleep.

***

Talan waited outside the First Minister's recovery room, her hands folded stiffly in front of her. The door opened and Kal El's silver-haired physician stepped out. She nodded formally and he responded with a stern nod. "Now, as I have already warned you, he is not to be troubled with work or anything likely to increase his stress."

"Of course," she replied. "I merely want to wish the First Minister a speedy recovery." He had been conscious for three days now. She was aware that Kal El's privacy had been closely guarded; no one other than Zara had been allowed to see him. Talan stepped through the door and into the stark confines of Kal El's room. The First Minister seemed to doze in his bed, but he began to stir as she entered. He opened his eyes and struggled to sit up. "Commander," he managed, a pained look on his face.

"How are you, sir?" she asked.

"I've been better," he answered with a slight grimace. "But I can't thank you enough. You saved my life again."

"I merely did my job, sir," she replied.

"Please, have a seat," he said with something she imagined was intended to sound like cheer. His eyes looked dark and haunted, the brightness she'd recognized in them gone. "I suppose Tao Scion told you not to say anything that would make me worry."

"I did promise not to discuss work with you, sir," Talan said as she pulled a chair to his bedside and took a seat.

He nodded unemotionally. "Zara says the same thing every time she comes here. How are you?"

"Fine, sir. The First Minister has reassigned my unit to garrison duty for several weeks. My troops could use the rest."

"No one's told me how everything happened," he said quietly. "How did you find me?"

"I did not do it alone, sir. It was the effort of many people who worked constantly, that led me to you," she said solemnly. "As did this." She opened her hand to reveal the chain and ring held in her palm.

She heard him gasp. His eyes grew wide and bright. She placed the chain and ring in his open hand and watched as his fingers slowly curled around it. With that, she relinquished the most precious and terrible burden she'd ever been entrusted with. She had kept her word; she had kept the ring safe and returned it to where it belonged. He gripped it tightly, his knuckles turning white. "I found it near the place where you fell," she said softly. "I knew you would never have left it if there had been anyway to prevent it."

"Thank you," he whispered, the words swallowed up by a sob. His body began to tremble slightly and then shake. He kept his head bowed, but she could see tears roll down his cheeks. With his free hand he reached for and grasped hers and held tightly. She watched, dumbly and awestruck as emotions cascaded over him, threatening to drown him. He held on to her hand as though he'd be swept away without an anchor. She could not begin to imagine feeling as deeply as he did; to be that vulnerable, and that powerful. She looked down at his hand, holding tightly to hers. She was, in some peripheral way, connected to this chaotic squall of emotions. The experience was disquieting. Something inside her began to ache terribly, as though a fist clenched around her heart. She knew what she was experiencing was a mere shadow of the real emotions; she felt by proxy. How could he endure the genuine thing? Talan continued to hold his hand as he cried — tears of relief, of disbelief, she wasn't quite sure.

"Thank you," he murmured. "Thank you." He released her hand and looked up, his eyes red from crying. "I can't begin to tell you what this means to me," he explained, his voice wavering. He opened his hand and looked at the small, golden band — its shape had been impressed into his palm from the way he'd held it so tightly. Fresh tears fell silently. "I was lost without this," he whispered so quietly she barely heard him. She was not certain he intended her to.

Talan swallowed around the unfamiliar lump in her throat. "Your wife has been blessed by fortune," she said as she rose to her feet. "To give her heart to one who holds it as precious as you do, and to have received in return the heart of one as good and pure as you are." She turned and quietly exited. In the hallway, she closed her eyes, holding back the tears that pricked at her eyes. Tears that would never fall, but tears that stunned her nonetheless.

***

Even before he opened his eyes the next morning, he reached for the chain around his neck. He curled his fingers around Lois's ring. God, he'd missed it so much. Fresh tears threatened to fall as the corners of his mouth turned upward in a small, relieved smile.

"Well, good morning," Tao Scion said brightly. "If you are feeling well enough for visitors this afternoon, there are a great many people who want to pay their respects. I have staff who spend every waking moment assuring anxious well wishers that you will recover."

Clark raised an eyebrow. "Really?"

"You should not be surprised," Tao Scion replied with a warm chuckle. "You have a powerful effect on people, my young friend. They are drawn to you, the way people were drawn to your mother. You are a perfect reflection of your father, but you have your mother's temperament. Her kindness, her gentleness, her strength."

He swallowed roughly. "I would have liked to have known her," Clark managed.

"I wish you could have." Tao Scion's sparkling blue eyes shone brightly. "Your mother was the most remarkable woman I have ever known. She was positively brilliant and she lived her life with so much passion that one wondered where she got the energy."

Tao Scion smiled his slow, easy smile, paternal and reassuring. He pulled a chair to Clark's bedside and sat down. "We would not be here were it not for your mother. The only thing greater than the power of her mind was the power of her heart. She poured every drop of herself into working for people she did not know. But perhaps one of her greatest accomplishments was the way she changed your father. The two of them…I can scarcely describe them. Would that the world had more people like them. And they never failed to bring out the best in each other. Together they were…"

"Stronger than they were alone," Clark finished.

Tao Scion smiled. "Exactly. Your father and mother met during their studies. Your father was a genius, I never understood any of his fascinating and abstract theories, but your mother was one of a handful of people who did. She constantly challenged him. For the longest time he pretended that it bothered him. I was the only person who knew he secretly adored it. She drew him out of his cloistered laboratory, caused him to engage with the world in a way he never had before. She transformed him."

Every word struck a chord in him, stirring something incredibly familiar. He understood something more about his parents, something he shared with them. They had known the sort of love that he knew; the sort of life changing, soul altering love that transformed everything it touched and left nothing the same ever again. He wanted desperately to know more, to let Tao Scion weave his gossamer thread stories into something more substantial, something Clark could hold on to. He listened in rapt attention as the older man described his subjects with the love and devotion of a great friend.

***

"So how are you doin', darlin'?" Perry drawled. He leaned back in his leather chair, a trace of bourbon still in the rocks glass in his hand. His tie was loosened and his sleeves were rolled up to his elbows. It was the end of a long day in the seemingly endless series of long days that had made up Perry's tenure as Editor-in-Chief of the world's greatest newspaper. The newsroom was completely deserted and quiet — a far cry from its daytime confusion and barely contained chaos.

Lois smiled at her boss. "I'm okay," she replied. "Jon's getting bigger. He enjoyed his first Christmas, but you know kids, they like the box and the wrapping paper more than the toy."

Perry chuckled softly. "They're a lot of fun at his age," he said wistfully. "Of course, I should have spent more time with my boys when they were little. They grow up so fast, you know?"

"I know," she replied, folding her hands in her lap. As much as she loved each milestone in her little boy's life, she hated the fact that Clark was missing them. His first word. The first time he began to crawl. The first time he stood up on his own, even if it only was for a few seconds. He'd be taking his first steps, soon. She could tell that he was getting ready for it. She could see it in the determined look on his face. He wanted to do it and he was almost there. Pretty soon, he'd be walking.

"You've come a long way yourself, you know. You've done more already than most people would do with a thousand lifetimes. You're at the top of your field, first Pulitzer before your thirtieth birthday."

"You sound pretty sure that there'll be others," she joked.

"There will be," Perry said, not a trace of jest in his voice. "If you want to keep reporting, there will be other Pulitzers. But you can do whatever you want. You're a best selling author, superhero, and you are a damn fine mom. I shouldn't have been surprised; you never do anything halfway."

"Thanks, Chief," she replied humbly.

"I mean every word," Perry said as he finished his bourbon. "If I could go back, be a better father and husband, do things right, like you, I would. In a heartbeat. I made a lot of mistakes in my life, and I never learned from them until it was too late."

"Perry, you're not a bad father."

"The hell I'm not," he grunted. "I was never there for my sons. They were more important to me than my work, but I sure never acted like that was the case. Jon is going to grow up knowing that he comes first in your life. There's not much that's more important than that."

She nodded in silent understanding, hoping he was right about her future as a parent. She knew that neither of them would have pegged her as mom material, but she loved her son more than she'd ever thought possible. Lois hadn't lost her passion for her work, but it wasn't first in her life anymore. "I should finish up my patrol," she said as she stood.

"Well thanks for stopping by. You should drop in more often; this place isn't the same without you."

"Can I give you a lift home?"

Perry grinned. "I guess it'll be a lot more exciting than calling a cab," he replied.

***

Lois finished her patrol over Suicide Slum and the West River Garment District and flew north to the far west side of Midtown Metropolis, to the neighborhood politely known as DeWitt, but more commonly referred to as Devil's Den. Less than a mile west of Planet Square and the Daily Planet building that had served as its anchor for almost two hundred years, Devil's Den had long been a tough neighborhood. Poor Irish and Italian immigrants of the nineteenth century had landed at Metropolis's promised shores and found themselves in the hardscrabble section of town full of hastily constructed tenements and battered red brick buildings. During Prohibition, the neighborhood fell into the hands of mobsters like Dragonetti whose turf wars turned the denizens of the area into prisoners in their own homes. Speakeasies, gambling saloons, and houses of ill repute sprouted like dandelions in sidewalk cracks.

In later decades, it remained a tough, working class, polyglot sort of place. Racial tensions simmered and occasionally boiled over and the neighborhood had stuck out as a stark reminder that the fabled American Dream and the Melting Pot metaphor weren't always realized. But over the last few years, Devil's Den had been reborn. Upscale restaurants, shops, and bars returned to Nineteenth Avenue, apartments were remodeled and renovated. The neighborhood had come to embrace its multicultural heritage and grew famous for its summer fairs along Clinton Street.

In the years since Superman's arrival, all of Metropolis had changed, but few neighborhoods had changed as much as Devil's Den had. Of course, unbeknownst to those who called the far west side of Metropolis home, Superman was actually their neighbor. An incidental consequence of this was the fact that he responded just a little quicker to crimes and emergencies in the area. Small matters that wouldn't have attracted his attention elsewhere over the din and chaos of city life were handled personally by the Man of Steel. Lois knew that he never intentionally favored his neighborhood when patterning his patrols, but his presence had been like having a cop for a neighbor — it just made the place a little bit safer.

She descended for a routine visit to his apartment. Even though Devil's Den was much safer than it had been, she knew that leaving a ground floor apartment to look as though it were uninhabited was to ask for trouble. Besides, there was usually junk mail to toss out. Lois frowned as the apartment came into view. A trio of teenagers had congregated on Clark's stoop. One was craning his neck to look into the window. A quick X-ray of them confirmed they were carrying screwdrivers. The one by the window had a crowbar. It was a bit of luck that caused her to happen by these intrepid young handy men before they had a chance to make any "repairs" to Clark's place. She floated down to the ground, arms folded across her chest.

"Can I help you?" she demanded.

"Aw crap," one of them muttered. He was even younger than she'd initially thought; no more than fifteen. His dirty blond hair fell over his eyes as he looked down.

"Dude, shut up," another hissed as he elbowed his compatriot in the ribs. "Uh, we weren't doing nothing, Ultrawoman."

"I'll bet," Lois replied. "The man who lives here is a friend of Superman's. Which makes him a friend of mine. I'm sure he wouldn't appreciate you dropping in unannounced while he's away."

"We didn't know," the first kid said, shaking his head nervously. "Did we, guys?''

"Nn…no," the third one stammered as he tried to hide the crowbar behind his back.

"I didn't think so," she said curtly. "Now give me the crowbar, and the screwdrivers." Reluctantly, all three complied. Before any of them knew what happened, she'd whisked them to a nearby police station. Disoriented and disappointed, they were led into booking.

"Thanks, Ultrawoman," the night sergeant greeted her.

"Anytime," she replied. "The apartment they were trying to break into is rented to Lois Lane. You can reach her at this number," she said as she wrote down her cell phone number for the sergeant. "I'm pretty sure she won't press charges, though."

She left the police station and headed back to Clark's apartment to make sure the unwanted guests hadn't actually damaged anything. She figured that between getting caught by a superhero and the grounding they'd get at the hands of their parents, the juvenile delinquents would be properly punished. Besides, she'd learned to pick locks from Jimmy, who'd learned how in reform school. She didn't see any point in sending the would-be robbers to an institution that would make them better at their trade.

Lois touched down on Clark's stoop, surprised when Mrs. Garrity, Clark's elderly neighbor, stepped out of her apartment, a shawl bundled around her shoulders. She smiled over her reading glasses at Lois. "Ultrawoman, I thought I saw you coming."

"I just wanted to make sure everything was all right."

"Well, thanks to you it is," Mrs. Garrity replied. "I can't believe those boys would want to break into that nice Mr. Kent's home. He was such a good neighbor, always helping me with my groceries and hanging up the Christmas lights. And his wife is just lovely; she was the perfect match for him. I wish she would come by more often. I'd love to see that little boy of theirs."

"He's a cutie," Lois said with a smile.

"Oh, you've seen him?" Mrs. Garrity's eyes lit up.

"I still give Lois an interview every now and then. I'll send along your regards and let her know you're waiting for a visit from Jon."

"I'm looking forward to it."

"He has Mr. Kent's eyes and his smile," Lois said as she gently lifted off the ground.

***

"Good morning, young man," Tao Scion said cheerfully as he entered Clark's room. The old physician maintained an informal disposition around the First Minister. He was the only person on the entire planet to do that, and Clark was grateful for it. Clark imagined that it was because this man had held him as a baby, had saved his life, even, and he was the dearest friend Clark's parents had ever had. Tao Scion's life had been wrapped up in the lives of the family Clark had never and would never know. In a way, he was the closest thing to a blood relative Clark had.

"Good morning," Clark replied, managing a slight smile.

Tao Scion began the ritual of taking measurements and running tests. His gentle and reassuring disposition, cultivated no doubt over years of treating children, made Clark feel more at ease around him than he ever had around any doctor. His bedside manner was certainly nothing like Bernie Klein's. But mostly, Clark realized, his eagerness to have the doctor around stemmed from his anxious hope that Tao Scion would tell him more about his parents today.

"All looks well," Tao Scion declared happily. "It will still be quite some time before you are up and about, but those bones are starting to mend. Now, should I leave you to get some rest?"

Clark shook his head in protest. "I'm not tired. I've been asleep for two weeks."

"Good point," the old physician replied with a smile. "Well, if you can stand the company of an old man, we can continue where we left off yesterday."

"I'd love to," Clark replied. "I want to hear more, but are you sure you don't mind? You don't have any other patients you need to see?"

"Goodness, no. I only came out of retirement to serve you and the First Minister. Since she has managed to avoid a serious injury for months now, you are my only charge." There was a twinkle in the old doctor's bright blue eyes, as though he was as happy to share the stories of his old friends as Clark was to hear them.

For hours, Clark sat in rapt attention and listened to Tao Scion's stories — stories of what his father had been like as a boy — quiet, serious, and thoughtful. Of how as a young man, he had never worked up the courage to tell Lara that he'd fallen in love with her. Of how she, blithely unaware of his tortured search for the perfect time and place and moment to make his bold declaration, had caught him off guard with a simple 'I love you' and a smile, delivered with no more pretension or pomp than a casual inquiry into what he had been working on, or what he felt like doing that day. Clark realized how lucky he was that his father had shared these stories with his old confidante, who was now able to share them with Clark.

"Your father devolved into a bundle of nerves when he learned that your mother was expecting. They had been married a few years, their positions at the university were secure, and they had talked about having children, but your father still fretted a great deal over whether he would be an adequate parent. He needn't have worried. Well before your sister was born, your father's life revolved around her. Keir El was the very image of her mother, but in every other way, she was her father. The two of them shared an incredible bond. To your sister, your father did not simply explain the workings of the heavens; she believed that he controlled the sun and the stars and planets. He made them twirl and spin and dance, just for her. She was a remarkable child." Tao Scion's expression became distant, his eyes grew heavy with sadness and his smile faded. "When she fell ill, it tore the very life from him. Something inside him died along with that little girl. Your parents spent years unable to deal with their grief. They could not even talk with each other about it. It nearly drove them apart. No person should know the pain of losing a child."

Clark felt a quiver in his throat as he watched his old physician blink away tears. "Neither one of them was ever quite the same," Tao Scion continued. "And then you came along. And you saved them. They, in turn, saved all of us, because the love they felt was more powerful than the fear, or the anger, or the inconsolable grief that had plagued them for so long.

"I learned so much from your parents. So much about courage and wisdom, duty, honor, and loyalty. And love. Every moment I had with them was a gift, and every moment I have lived, every breath I have taken, and every new day I have seen since their passing has been a gift from them. The only measure of my life that will mean anything, is whether I have made good use of the time they have given me, bought by their grace alone." A solitary tear fell from Tao Scion's sapphire blue eyes and rolled down his face. He smiled a brief ghost of a smile.

"Thank you," Clark said, his voice low and thick with emotion. It was absurdly insufficient, but he didn't know what else to say.

"It is all of us, the people of this world, who owe you a debt of gratitude, Kal El. We have stood so perilously close to brink of destroying everything your parents gave to us. That everything they believed in, everything they sacrificed for, still has a chance to exist, is because of your actions. Of all the people your parents saved, you are probably the only one who has been worthy of the gift. Now, if you are not too tired, Commander Ching wishes to see you."

Clark smiled and nodded. Tao Scion shepherded Clark's most recent visitor into the room.

Ching entered the room and bowed solemnly, leaning lightly on a cane. "It is good to see you, sir."

"The feeling is mutual, Ching. Please, have a seat," Clark replied. "I understand you got yourself shot rescuing me."

"It was a minor wound," Ching assured him as he sat in the chair beside Clark's bed. "Sustained during extraction."

"Did I slow you down?" Clark asked with a wry grin.

"Hardly sir," Ching replied somberly. "You barely weighed more than Zara at the time. When I was wounded, Commander Talan carried you the rest of the way."

"I appreciate everything both of you did for me. I can't say that enough."

Ching smiled and looked down for a moment before looking him in the eye again. "You have done more than enough, sir. Many times over, in fact."

***

"Come here, little man," Lois said as she picked Jon up, from where he'd fallen. He'd started to stand while holding on to things. He would crawl toward the coffee table and shakily pull himself up to his feet. With a look of consternation on his little face, he would hold tightly as he took little steps. On this occasion, like on many others before, he'd lost his balance and fallen to the ground. She wiped the tears from his chubby cheeks as she cradled him in her arms. He clung tightly to her as she rocked him gently. "It's okay, Jon," she crooned. She hummed softly to him and his sobs quickly abated.

Her little guy was getting bigger. Every day he was getting closer to taking his first step and his first birthday was fast approaching. He was going to keep learning and growing, and trying new things and he would fall down a lot. For as long as she was able, she would pick him up and help him along. She hoped that as the years passed, she would learn how to help him fix problems that would require more than a hug and a soothing voice.

***

Clark struggled to sit up, wincing slightly. His cracked ribs had begun to mend, but his body was still a mish mash of injuries. The wounds on his back, some now months old, still burned and ached. He rubbed absently at his wrists, once encircled by the heavy cuffs that symbolized his service, later bound in shackles, and now wrapped in gauzy bandages.

He gingerly swung his legs over the side of the bed and reached for his cane. Limping on his injured knee and ankle, he made his way to the washroom. He disrobed slowly, staring at the gaunt, ghostly stranger looking back at him in the mirror. His eyes were hollow and darkly circled. His ribs and collarbones stuck out sharply under his skin. For weeks, he'd been starved as the stuff of life, blood and spit, tears and sweat, poured from him, leaving him a dried husk of a man. Waxy, brittle, paper thin skin stretched taught over chalk and ash. Across his chest a large, gaping, scarred-over wound stretched from one shoulder to the opposite hip. He scratched at the four days' worth of beard on the skin pulled tightly over his now protruding cheekbones. Given the way his hands still trembled, it took so much effort to shave that he always put it off as long as possible. But now the stubble was beginning to itch and he wanted to be rid of it. Besides, shaving had been a luxury denied to him all those weeks he spent as Nor's prisoner. Despite his hollow and sunken expression, clean shaven at least he would resemble the man he remembered being a bit more. Clark had gained back some of the weight he'd lost during his ordeal, but was still about thirty pounds lighter than he was when he'd left Earth. He was barely strong enough to stand; a shadow of the man he'd once been.

The deeper he peered into the mirror, the more his reflection disturbed him. In his own eyes he could see the effects of what had happened to him. Memories were slowly filtering through the fog that surrounded his mind. They came in senseless fits and snippets, piecing themselves together in his dreams. Nightmares, to be more accurate. Without exception, his dreams were terrifying, often waking him in the middle of the night. He longed for the nights when his dreams were only of Lois. When sleep was a refuge—a place of comfort and safety and softness and warmth.

With great care, he bathed and shaved, trying to do whatever he could to make himself look and feel human again. He dressed in the loose fitting garments that hung awkwardly on his thin frame. Grabbing his cane, he hobbled back to his room. A long day of political briefings and physical therapy awaited him.

In his room, Tao Scion was waiting for him. "How are you feeling today, young man?" the old physician asked cheerfully.

"All right," Clark managed as he eased himself back onto the bed.

"Shall I send in the First Minister?"

Clark nodded and with that, Tao Scion stepped into the hallway and returned a moment later with Zara.

"Clark, how are you?" she asked earnestly.

"Fine," he replied, trying not to let his exasperation over being constantly asked how he was show.

Her expression suggested that she was relieved to hear it. She sat down in the chair beside his bed. "Shai is calling a special meeting of the Council today."

"Where is he?"

"He is on his way," Zara replied.

Within moments, there was a knock at the door and the Council Speaker entered. He gave a slight bow to the First Ministers. "I hope all is well, sir," he said to Clark.

"You have news?" Clark replied.

"Indeed, sir. I intend to call a general election of the High Council," Shai said.

"But regular elections were called only two years ago," Zara replied, her brows arched.

"And as Speaker of the High Council, I can call elections at any point. I intend to make this election a referendum on the waging of our war. With the new evidence that has exonerated Ching and the Expeditionary Forces as well as the crimes committed against you, sir, I want those who have made excuses for Nor and who have attempted to obfuscate the evidence to account for their actions. The people of New Krypton cannot be asked to tolerate dishonest government."

All were silent for a long moment. "I want to be there," Clark said at long last. Zara did not undermine him by asking him if he was well enough.

"Of course, sir," Shai replied.

***

Lois cradled the phone between her ear and shoulder as she finished drying off the last of the dishes.

"I made an appointment with the lawyers," Perry explained. Usually, the mere mention of the Planet's lawyers sent shivers down Lois's spine. Even when they were being called in to save her hide, dealing with them was never pleasant. "They want you on contract, Lois, this at-will business is making them skittish."

The calls from other papers had begun not too long after her Pulitzer prize and had only intensified after her book rocketed to the top of the non-fiction best sellers list. Her first royalty check was larger than her annual salary as a reporter, and they continued to roll in. The suits at the Planet had made clear that they wanted her locked in to a contract, which would come with a hefty raise. The money wasn't important, but it would be nice to know that Jon's college fund was in pretty healthy shape. "Let me know when you need me to be out there," she replied.

"A week from Wednesday. So what have you got lined up for your next column?"

She smiled faintly. A reporter really was only as good as her next story. "I've been trying to follow this conflict in Kinwara."

"Central Africa?" Perry asked. "The civil war?"

"Well, that and a famine and it's starting to look like ethnic cleansing."

"But there are UN forces there, right?"

"Not many," she replied. "Anyway, Ultrawoman is going to start paying closer attention to what's going on."

"Be careful," Perry cautioned sternly.

"I'm still invulnerable, remember?" she chided.

"We both know that's not what I'm talking about. I know you've seen a lot, but these things have a way of getting under your skin."

Lois bit her lip and nodded. "I'll be careful," she replied quietly. She hung up the phone and pulled the folded up airmail envelope out of the pocket of her jeans. Gently, she pulled the tissue-thin pages out of the envelope and reread the letter — sent from a refugee camp — that had planted the idea in her mind. Somewhere in that camp, a young woman, a schoolteacher, had sent her this letter as a last-ditch, shot in the dark measure. Perhaps she'd spent much needed money on the postage and the paper, perhaps she'd used the stationery she'd brought with her as she'd trekked hundreds of miles to the relative safety of that camp in order to write to Lois, instead of writing to family. There were a million possible permutations of the story, the bare skeleton of which Lois could draw out of the desperate letter. But while her story was muted and unfinished, her message rang through like a clarion bell. This woman was beseeching Lois, as someone with influence and interest, to deliver the help that was so direly needed.

***

Clark rubbed his wrists, irritated by the heavy cuffs worn over his bandages. His ponderous robes did little to cover how thin he'd become. He stood shakily, hoping he would be able to walk without the assistance of his cane. He felt like he couldn't project an image of strength and confidence if he was too weak to stand under his own weight. It wasn't the most sensible of assumptions; no one thought Zara to have been weak or no longer in control after she was injured. But he had the additional burden of still being an outsider. He had to prove that even though he had not been raised his entire life for this task, he was still equal to it.

There was a soft knock at his door as Zara entered. "Are you ready to go?" she asked. He nodded, taking a small step forward, trying not to limp on his injured knee and ankle. She moved toward him and he was afraid she was going to retrieve his cane. Instead, she extended her arm to him. She looped her arm through his as she usually did when they walked, but she pressed her arm underneath his, providing much needed support. He smiled faintly at her. They walked out into the hallway, a bit more slowly than usual, but otherwise, the fact that Clark was leaning heavily on Zara was unnoticeable.

Surrounded by guards, they entered the Council Chambers to low whispers and murmurs of Councilors surprised to see the First Minister walking around. If he'd still been possessed of his superhearing, Clark would have overheard numerous comments on his gaunt figure, on the slight limp in his slow stride, and on the quickly fading scars on his face. Silently, they took their seats behind Shai.

Shai brought the meeting to order. "The civil war that has threatened to tear our world apart continues without end in sight. In many ways, we have failed the people of this planet. We have failed to protect our communities and we have allowed ourselves to be divided by petty infighting. We must be held to account and we must allow the people of New Krypton to judge our actions. I have assembled this special session of the High Council in order to call a General Election." A murmur rose up among the councilors.

"Elections will be held in four weeks' time," Shai continued.

Gai Jin, who had never been sympathetic to Kal El or his supporters, stood up. "Is this an attempt to intimidate those who have criticized the execution of this war?" he demanded angrily.

"Not hardly," Shai snapped back.

"This is a bully tactic!" Gai Jin retorted. The Council dissolved into nervous and angry whispers.

Clark stood up, his jaw squarely set, his expression resolute. He waited for a moment until the din subsided. "This Council has been slow to accept Nor's role in the rebellion, or the danger that rebellion poses to you and your way of life. The rebels have killed civilians, children. They have burned your crops, destroyed your settlements, and intimidated your people." He took a long, shaky breath, feeling his injured leg tremble under his weight. Clark took a moment to steady himself before continuing. Beads of sweat began to form on his brow.

"And I know first hand what Nor's involvement in all of this is. When I was held prisoner, there was no attempt made to conceal the identity of my captor. He had no intention of letting me survive. If you believe Nor is innocent and you think the insurgents pose no threat, you're free to put your theory up for a popular vote, but you can no longer play both sides of the game. Nor must be stopped. He must be brought to justice and made to answer for his crimes. And that isn't possible if this body isn't committed to the task. To those who have thrown their support to Nor in hopes of achieving safety, men like Nor are not appeased by simply being given power. They will exercise it, ruthlessly, and mercilessly. Nor will destroy this world and everything you hold dear, unless you stop him." Clark stepped back and took his seat once more. He tried not to show the exquisite relief of no longer having to stand. Zara's hand settled on top of his and gave a gentle squeeze.

Many of the councilors sat in stony silence, but far more rose to their feet with thunderous applause. Clark let out a deep breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding in. His heart was pounding in his ears, but he showed no reaction to the councilors' response.

***

Lois descended through the fog and mist and found herself surrounded by lush, rolling green hills and verdant fields. Small stands of trees jutted above the low, even landscape. On her right stood dense forests, deep in the valley between the hills. She swooped low over the plains past a herd of goats and their young caretaker. The slender young boy, no more than twelve or thirteen, looked up as she flew overhead. He shielded his eyes from the glare reflected off the clouds as he watched her pass.

She followed the wending course of a river west from Lake Regina. Its crystal blue waters cut a meandering path through the green hills up to the provincial capital and the peacekeepers' headquarters of operation. She crossed over a mountain range, surprised to see the dramatic change in scenery on the other side, demonstrating starkly the rain shadow effect. Green fields were replaced by dry, dusty expanses that stretched to the horizon in front of her. Small, stubborn bushes poked out of the rocky soil in haphazard clumps. A poorly paved road replaced the river as her guide toward the city. In the distance she could see the clusters of mud brick and corrugated tin houses, surrounding the more permanent structures of poured concrete. She swooped down toward the bright blue UN flag flying over a well guarded compound. A small group of soldiers in camouflage and blue berets crowded together and watched her descend.

"I'm looking for General Jean Rapin," she announced.

No one said anything. They merely stared at her, as though they couldn't fathom a single reason why she should be there. One of the soldiers, a kid she generously guessed to be twenty, with an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips pointed coolly toward a cinderblock building in the center of the compound. The group of soldiers parted as she walked by them. She could hear them chattering in languages she didn't understand as she left.

A trim, middle aged man with hawk-like eyes, a sharp nose, and a neat, gray mustache walked out of the cinderblock building and headed directly toward her. The sleeves of his camouflage uniform were rolled up to his elbows and his blue beret covered most of his shortly cropped gray hair. He extended his hand to her as he approached.

"Ultrawoman," he said in thickly accented English. "You are not the armored personnel carriers I have been requesting for months, but you are quite a welcome sight. Lieutenant General Jean Georges Rapin, Canadian Army, UNPROFIK commander," he introduced himself, using the common acronym for the UN Protection Force in Kinwara. Lois shook his proffered hand. "Did the Secretary-General ask you to come?" he inquired. He started walking toward the gates to the compound. Lois fell into step beside him.

"No," Lois replied, shaking her head.

"Well, I know it wasn't the Security Council. They cannot agree on what to have for dinner, let alone what to do about some poor, backward country slowly sinking into hell."

"Actually, I came because of a message delivered to Lois Lane, a reporter for the Daily Planet," she explained.

"Well, some press exposure and the attention of a superhero could both be very helpful here." He stopped to survey the compound behind him. The men she'd seen just a few minutes ago had scattered. A group of weary looking soldiers passed them in a Jeep. They were about the only signs of life in the drowsing base, which seemed as though it had settled in for a long, mid-afternoon nap.

"We haven't got enough men, guns, or supplies. And I'm trying to work with a straitjacket for a mandate. They have us headquartered here because it is far from the violence. How can I run a protection force if protecting innocent people isn't part of my job description?" he asked disgustedly.

Lois frowned as she let his words sink in. She'd had no idea just how hamstrung the international relief effort was. She crossed her arms over her chest in a subconscious imitation of Clark. "I want to help, in any way I can. Why don't you tell me about the worst problems you're having and anything else you think my skills would be useful for. I'll also make sure you get the press coverage you need. If it's all right with you, I'll bring Lois Lane out here to interview you."

He frowned, his brow knitted, as he scratched at his square jaw. "I'll do it," he replied. "As for telling you where we need the most help, I think it'll be easier for me to show you."

"Just point the way," Lois replied before picking up the general. They flew over Parumbara, the provincial capital city, with its odd mix of makeshift shanties and drab looking but solid concrete buildings constructed in the early post colonial period, when there was so much hope for a more prosperous and stable future. They traveled across wide expanses of grasslands before descending to follow the hard packed road as it twisted between hills.

In the open valley ahead of them, a chaotic city of tents stretched out. The squall of crying infants and arguing adults filled her head. She tuned out the worst of the din as she gently touched down, replacing the general on his feet. They began to walk into the camp, drawing curious stares. All around her she could see people fighting over food and medicine, children weeping piteously, their expressions blank and dull. People wandered around, looking lost. Perhaps searching for loved ones who'd been separated on the journey. How anyone could expect to find someone else in this crowded jumble was beyond her. And from all around, more were pouring into the camp, carrying what few possessions they had left. The air was thick with the smells of burnt food and damp garbage. It seemed that sanitation was only one of many inadequately addressed problems.

"Who's in charge here?" she asked General Rapin.

"No one," he replied with a sad shake of his head. "The UN was coordinating a relief effort, but this is outside the purview of the High Commission for Refugees, because these people are technically internally displaced, and not refugees. Until they get to Mawali or another neighboring country, the world acts as if these people are not its problem. A few charitable organizations and aid groups have set this camp up, but they don't have the power to police it. To keep the bandits and marauders out, or to keep them from stealing the food and medical supplies."

As they walked through the crowded pathway between rows of tents, Lois looked around at the people on either side of her. They looked at her with stark, pleading expressions, silently begging for her help. "And you said you don't have the manpower to protect them."

"There are a dozen camps like this across the province. They plead with us for help in protecting their convoys and guarding the camps, but I cannot even provide enough men to protect a quarter of the aid convoys that move through the country. And everything we don't protect gets stolen. It ends up in the hands of warlords, instead of these people."

"I'll take care of moving the supplies," she said simply.

General Rapin's mouth turned upward into a slight smile under his bottle brush mustache. "I will contact Rafik, our logistics chief." He continued walking deeper into the camp and she followed, a half step behind him. All around her, people stopped whatever it was they were doing to stare at her as she passed them. They watched her in muted silence. She smiled wanly, but the pain and desperation that hung heavily in the air weren't going to be dissipated by breezy optimism.

Rapin weaved through the crowd to duck under an expansive, white canopy tent. Row after row of canvas cots lined the inside of the tent, their occupants nursing broking bones, burns, dehydration, malnutrition, and bevy of ailments Lois was hard pressed to guess at. Children sniffled and cried miserably and mothers attempted to soothe unhappy infants. The pungent stench was reminiscent of the rest of the camp, but with the added smell of rubbing alcohol wafting in the air.

A single dark complexioned man in a white lab coat so old it was beginning to look gray, presided over the chaos. He gave instructions to his staff of nurses and orderlies, whom Lois guessed were mostly able-bodied people he'd managed to conscript into working in the camp's medical facility. She watched as he examined a boy, holding his stethoscope against the little boy's small back and listening to the child breathe. The doctor, a tall, fine boned man with slightly graying hair and small spectacles removed a syringe from its wrapper. He wiped at the boy's arm with a cotton swap before giving him a quick injection. She could see fat tears rolling down the little boy's face, but he looked too exhausted to cry. His mother, an equally weary looking woman, picked him up and carried him off and another small child was placed before the doctor.

"We've also been looking for a way to evacuate the most seriously injured and ill to better facilities," Rapin explained. "There are UN hospitals and clinics across the border, the problem has been getting people there."

Lois looked around, trying to take in the immenseness of the problem. She squared her shoulders. "It looks like I've got my work cut out for me."

She saw the doctor look up from his latest patient. He gave quick, succinct instructions to someone Lois guessed was the child's older sister before walking toward them. "Ultrawoman," he called out in his liltingly accented English.

"How do you do, Doctor…"

"Konotey," he supplied as he extended his hand. "I'm afraid I have been better. I have no nurses, no supplies. The militias intentionally attack civilians and leave them burned or maimed, or otherwise wounded. And to make matters worse, they steal the donated supplies and medicine and then sell them on the black market so they can buy more guns."

"Why are they targeting civilians?" she asked.

"To frighten them mostly. This isn't a war about politics, just greed, although now they're making it about race as well. It's so very stupid," the doctor murmured with a sad shake of his head. "The people of Kinwara came from many tribes, but they have been living together and intermarrying longer than anyone can remember. There are no clear racial differences anymore. But the rebels, they aren't even Kinwaran, although they do pretend."

"Where are they from?" she asked.

"Mostly Togoro, just across the southern border," General Rapin replied. "The Togoran president, Lawrence Sangara, wants control over Kinwara's diamond mines. He has plenty of rich friends and backers who are investing in this war because they know they can make a fortune in blood diamonds."

"They kill innocent people because they are trying to destabilize the state. Kinwara has a good government, Ultrawoman. Our president has done all he can to foster development, root out corruption, and help make this a modern nation. Sangara knows that the only way he can depose a popular leader like President Lancine is by creating the sort of panic that tears the country apart. So he sends his troops across the border to burn down our villages, kill the men, rape the women, and force the children into service in his armies."

Lois listened quietly as the doctor explained the events. He grew more and more upset as he progressed.

"Lancine has asked for our help in stabilizing the state," Rapin added. "But my hands have been tied. We're not supposed to take sides in the conflict, but they won't let us protect the civilians either. We're little better than unarmed observers to the slaughter."

"I'm going to get your supplies, Doctor," Lois began. "Then I'll make sure that someone tells your story, loudly, repeatedly, in every language, and every news source on the planet, and then…"

"And then?" Rapin arched a brow.

"I'm going after the militias."

***

Clark rapped his knuckles on the table. He looked up at the vaulted ceiling high overhead. The walls of the library seemed to close in around him. The shelves surrounding him housed the largest collection of texts on all of New Krypton. Most of the archived works — histories, works of literature, star charts — were stored as digital media, but his was also this world's largest collection of written texts. There were ancient written works, in manuscripts and scrolls that had been saved from Krypton. And all of the planet's laws were bound and kept in this collection. The library was often where he found his lawyer, poring over obscure texts and analyzing the Council's resolutions. She always seemed at home here. The most he could say for it was that it didn't make him feel any lonelier or out of place than anywhere else on New Krypton.

"Sir, are you certain you are up for this?" Enza asked, her tone quiet and solicitous.

Clark nodded. "I just want to get this over with."

"I understand, sir. The prosecutor is waiting outside. Shall I call him in?"

"Yes," he replied.

Enza bowed slightly and stepped outside. She returned a moment later, a stern looking, middle aged man followed a step behind her. "Good tidings, sir," the man said as he entered. He bowed slightly. "I am Mar Dov, Senior Counsel in the Office of the Prosecutor."

The somber looking lawyer pulled out a chair at the table across from Clark. He gathered up the folds of his gray jurist's robe as he sat down. "I am certain Captain Enza has explained that I need to ask you some questions about happened during your detention."

"You want to prosecute Nor?" Clark asked archly.

Mar Dov nodded. "Of course. Well, that is if we succeed in capturing him. It is best if we obtain your statement while your memory is fresh."

Raw was more like it, Clark thought to himself darkly. "Go ahead." He didn't make eye contact with the prosecutor, or look at Enza, seated right beside him. Clark stared straight ahead at the worn, delicate volumes on the shelf. Impressed along their spines, in angular Kryptonian lettering were their titles. Impressive sounding names like "The Unification of the Seventeen Tribes of Krypton," and "The Songs of Times Now Lost." He'd read in so few of these books, only enough to give him a glimpse of what Krypton must have been like. His thoughts drifted to a long dead world, with rose-colored skies, gleaming cities, placid lakes, and forests full of trees that soared to over a hundred feet high. He wondered if Krypton could compare in beauty to Earth. He wondered if its forests could make you feel as small and insignificant as the towering, ancient redwoods out west. Or if there were any places on Krypton as quiet and still as the Arctic. Could its cities compare to the energy and life of Metropolis? Then again, no place on any planet would ever compare to the city he called home and the woman who made it his home. It would never be clear exactly how much of Metropolis's magic actually came from Metropolis and how much it was because of Lois.

In the back of his mind, he heard the prosecutor asking question and he heard himself answering. But his voice sounded so far away, and it didn't even sound like him. It was like someone was talking — coldly, dispassionately describing weeks of starvation and cold, and seemingly interminable beatings.

"That's all I remember," he said at last, unsure whether three minutes or three hours had passed. "Then I woke up in the recovery room." Clark looked at Mar Dov, frowning intently, his hands folded in front of him.

"Thank you for your time, sir," the slightly graying lawyer replied in a clipped tone. He rose to his feet. "I will be in contact with Captain Enza, but I do not believe we will need anything further until Nor is captured." He bowed before exiting.

***

The moment she opened the conference room door, the half dozen suits stood up. "Ms. Lane," the first lawyer said with a stiff smile as he buttoned the coat of his gray flannel suit.

"Please," she replied, motioning for them to remain seated. She pulled out the chair next to Perry's and sat down.

The blonde lawyer across from her slid a contract across the table toward her. "I think you'll find this in order, Ms. Lane. The terms are quite generous."

Lois leafed through the document. She gently slid the contract back across the table. "This isn't going to work."

"Ms. Lane, perhaps you'd like a moment to consider it…" Blondie's smile was more a grimace.

"I love this paper," Lois began. "But if you can't do better than that, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and at least a half dozen other papers are all waiting in the wings."

"Ms. Lane, perhaps we can find some middle ground between your proposal and ours," the first lawyer interjected.

"Three years, one more book, and an option on a third. At the salary I'm suggesting you're getting a bargain."

"A bargain we can't afford," one of the business people said.

"I'm syndicated in fifty papers in thirty five of the largest metropolitan regions in the country, my book has sold more copies than any other that the Daily Planet Press has published in seven years, I've won this paper four Merriwethers, three Kerths, and a Pulitzer prize."

"Don't forget the partridge in a pear tree," one of the lawyers whispered to another in a voice she wouldn't have heard were it not for her powers. She glared at them as she stood up.

"Ms. Lane, perhaps we can discuss this, let's go through the contract point by point…"

"I don't have time for this. I have to be in Kinwara." She walked toward the door. The lawyers and business people all jumped to their feet as she reached for the knob. "Call me when you're ready to discuss this seriously."

***

"Clark, do you need anything?" Zara asked sympathetically after the door to their chambers closed behind her, granting them privacy for the first time all day.

"I'm fine," he replied, his tone curt. He limped, leaning on his cane as he headed toward his room.

"Enza wishes to see you."

Clark sighed. It was late and he was tired of meetings. "Can it wait until tomorrow?"

"She said it would only be a few minutes," Zara replied as she slipped out of her long mantle.

Clark pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to stem the headache that was threatening to form behind his eyes. "Fine," he acquiesced.

"I will not insult you by asking if everything is all right," Zara began. "But is there anything I can do?"

"I'm fine," he repeated, turning around awkwardly to face her.

"You are pushing yourself too hard. We should clear your schedule for tomorrow."

"Zara, I don't need you treating me like a child," he snapped. He saw the wounded look in her eyes. "I'm sorry," he amended immediately. "That was completely uncalled for."

"You do not need to apologize," she replied softly.

"Yes, I do. I know you're just concerned, and you're right to worry. It's like the littlest things set me off these days. I get frustrated so easily. I wasn't like this, before."

"I know," she replied. "But you have not given yourself any time to recover, and the burden you bear would snap other men in the best of health."

"Things will be better when the elections are over," he said, verbalizing a thought he'd repeated in his own mind numerous times in the last few days.

"If fortune is with us," Zara responded with a nod. "Enza will be here soon. I will be in my room, reviewing briefings if you need me." With that, she retreated to her own quarters, leaving him alone in the large room. He hobbled toward the large chair behind his desk and eased himself into it. He was bone weary, but even more tired in mind and spirit than in body. Politically, the tide seemed to be turning. Jen Mai, the councilor most obviously aligned with Nor, had decided not to seek reelection. Others who were considered sympathetic to Nor's cause were also likely to lose their seats. The fence sitters were finally choosing sides. With the military no longer expending its efforts and dedicating its best soldiers to finding and rescuing him, the commanders were preparing for a major counter-offensive. Even with things finally starting to look brighter, he was less patient than ever. The smallest things angered him and what he once would have accepted as thoughtful, reasoned debate made him irritable. He lost his temper so easily and he didn't know how to make it stop.

He hated what he was becoming.

The chime startled him out of his dark ruminations. He picked up the communicator and listened to the monotone voice announcing the presence of his visitor. Clark eased himself out of his chair and grabbed his cane. He didn't much care if Enza saw him limping awkwardly on his injured ankle. He left the quarters and made his way toward the reception hall. Clark was met not only by Enza, but Thia as well. The little girl smiled brightly as he entered the room. She started to get up from the oversized chair she was sitting in, but Enza quickly put her hand on her shoulder to slow her down. Enza stood and took Thia's tiny hand in hers. They walked slowly toward Clark.

"Good tidings, Kal El," Thia said as she looked up at him.

Clark smiled at her. "Good tidings, little one," he replied.

"Good tidings, sir," Enza said. "I am sorry to have come on such short notice. And I was unable to find anyone to stay with Thia."

"It's all right," he replied. He hobbled slightly as he sat down in one of the chairs.

"Aunt Enza said you got hurt very badly," Thia said as she retook her seat.

"That's right," he said simply.

"Does it still hurt?"

"Thia, let us leave Kal El alone. I am certain he is tired," Enza admonished.

"It's okay," Clark replied. "It still hurts a little, but I think if you give me a hug, I'll feel much better."

Thia stood up and walked toward his chair. With arms outstretched, she allowed Clark to scoop her up. "I hope you feel better, Kal El," she whispered in his ear as she wrapped her arms around his neck.

"I already do," he replied. He smiled faintly. For a brief moment, he did feel better, even though the warmth passed quickly. "Why don't we get Lieutenant Parth to take you to the library? There should be some paper in there so you can draw me a picture."

"I'd like that," Thia said quietly. Lieutenant Parth stepped into the room from the doorway and smiled as he stretched out his hand. Thia slipped off Clark's lap and took the young officer's hand. As they left the room, Clark turned back toward his counselor.

"What's wrong, Captain?" he asked.

"There has been talk in the Guild — rumors really — of some of the councilors' high ranking advisors inquiring into the necessary conditions to relieve one of responsibility due to mental instability."

"They're trying to get rid of me," Clark said flatly.

Enza shook her head. "I do not think they believe they will succeed. Their goal is to make you defend against the charge. They will try to distract you and divide your supporters. They might hope to cause you to slip up, to say the wrong thing, or to lose your temper."

"So you don't think they're right?" Clark pressed.

"I trust your judgment, sir. Most people would not have survived what you endured, but if you feel as though you are well enough to lead, I am willing to follow."

"For both our sakes, I hope your faith is well placed."

***

"We appreciate the help, Ultrawoman," the weary looking doctor said in accented English as Lois placed the two large pallets of food and medicine on the ground before gently landing. Dr. Ingrid Heller reached out to shake the superhero's hand. Years of working in the hot, harsh conditions in Kinwara's northern desert had left the doctor sporting a deep tan and blonde streaks in her light brown hair. Tiny laugh lines had started to form at the edges of her eyes, betraying an otherwise youthful appearance. She smiled briefly, revealing perfect, brilliantly white teeth.

"I'm afraid I can't stay long," she explained. She was going to meet with Rapin's forces to sweep the central valley and the paths used by the Red Cross to transport relief supplies. The previous night, they'd destroyed two munitions dumps and she'd cleared mines from the roads the relief workers used.

When the general outlined his plan to run patrols through the civilian areas, she'd crossed her arms and emphatically declared 'I won't kill.'

'I know,' he'd replied. 'I wouldn't ask you to. We can't fight this war; all we can do is try to protect the people. We're only here to deter.'

Their patrols had been exceptionally tense. The peacekeepers waited in anticipation of the moment when their guard duty could turn into a hot firefight. They remained in a constant state of readiness while Lois swept the area overhead. So far, they'd dismantled a few illegal checkpoints the rebels had been using to terrify and harass civilians.

With a hasty goodbye to the German doctor, Ultrawoman took off, flying south toward the peacekeeper's base. She stopped in mid flight and put her hand against the transmitter hooked around one ear. "General, are you there?"

"What is it, Ultrawoman?" came the tinny sounding reply.

"Rebel raid on a village, about twenty miles south of Camp Galani."

"My men are on their way," Rapin replied tersely.

"I'll meet them there."

Lois burst forward at full speed, a tight fist punching through the air in front of her as she rocketed toward the nearby village. The wind whipped around her as she cut through dense jungle, snapping thick tree branches like tiny twigs. She darted between trees, staying low as she approached. She burst through the stand of trees, into the opening surrounding the village. Smoke rose from burning buildings. Children screamed, as marauders in jeeps and on motorcycles rode through the center of the hamlet. The air reeked of fire, gunpowder, fear, and death.

Lois brought her laser-like focus onto a jeep carrying a group of armed men, chasing a fleeing family. She darted behind the jeep, grabbing its bumper and bringing it to a startling halt. The driver turned back, wide eyed as he pressed down harder on the gas, causing the tires to spin pointlessly. Lois leaped up over the passengers of the jeep to drive an angry fist through the car's engine block. It stuttered and died. The five would-be murderers inside looked up at her in horror. She stared at them through narrowed eyes before disarming them and destroying their guns.

She ripped the jeep's roll bar off, and bending it like soft butter, used it to tie up the men. They shouted protests as she flew off, grabbing other rebels as they continued to terrorize the village's innocent inhabitants. She pulled two unceremoniously off motorcycles by their collars, like a lioness grabbing erstwhile cubs by the scruffs of their necks, but with no hint of gentleness. She dropped them on the ground and bound their hands and feet with the plastic tie handcuffs she'd been given, like the ones riot police used.

Lifting off again, she tried, in a split second, to decide where to go next. All around her was chaos. Screams for help came from every direction. She turned from side to side, trying to gauge which situation was the most dire, knowing that the facts on the ground were changing constantly. The rapid burst of gunfire made the decision for her, and she took off in the direction of the shots. Over the hill, she could hear the U.N. trucks rumbling toward them, but there wasn't time to wait for the cavalry to ride in and save the day. She tried to focus, despite the confusion and the noise, on saving as many people as possible.

The peacekeepers arrived on the scene just as the remaining rebels began to flee into the jungle. Lois started to give chase, but turned back to the scene unfolding behind her. Most of the attackers would make a clean escape, leaving behind a destroyed village, burned crops, dead children, and ruined lives. She wanted to hunt down the men responsible. To bring them to justice. But she was needed here, right now.

Ultrawoman!" one of the peacekeeping officers shouted to her, as though to punctuate the thought.

***

Lois touched down on the porch and let herself into the house. She wiped her boots on the mat and pulled off her mask before wandering into the living room. Looking around, it was obvious that she was home — in the warm, safe, and comfortable environs of the farmhouse, but her mind was eight thousand miles away. In a tiny village, where the air stank of burning rubber, where the wordless wail of mourning parents cut through any language barrier. Where the staccato bursts of gunfire rattled bones and echoed in ears. She found herself under the scrutiny of countless pairs of eyes, so hollow and haunting it was almost hard to remember that they belonged to the lucky ones — the living, not the dead. It was a perverse thought, considering the survivors lucky. Without families or homes, what did they have left?

She shook her head, trying to clear her mind's eye of the images that were being tattooed on her memory. She gingerly pulled the chain out from under her uniform and lifted it over her head. Opening the clasp, she allowed the two rings on the chain to fall into her hand. She slipped her engagement ring back onto her finger, a physical feeling of relief washed over her as the ring was put back where it belonged. She held the much larger band in the palm of her hand, curling her fingers closed around it.

"Clark has yours, doesn't he?" came her father-in-law's voice from behind her. She was startled, uncertain how she hadn't noticed his presence.

"Yeah," she replied softly, turning to face Jonathan. She threaded the chain through Clark's wedding band and closed the clasp before placing the chain around her neck again. "We knew we couldn't wear them without raising a lot of questions. I guess neither of us ever thought he'd be gone this long." She felt a lump forming in her throat. It was coming on two years since he'd left and she still couldn't talk about that day without tears pricking at her eyes.

"How was it out there?" Jonathan asked, changing the subject.

She looked away, unsure how to answer the question. "Terrible," she said in a bare whisper.

"I'm sorry," Jonathan replied, placing a hand on her shoulder.

"It just feels like I'm not accomplishing anything. For every rebel we arrest and disarm, two more take his place. I can't save everyone, I can't be everywhere. It's just never enough."

"Lois, you're not a god. You're doing everything you can, and more than anyone could ask of you."

She shook her head and wiped angrily at her eyes. "I wish I could do more, I wish it were enough…I just…I wish Clark were here," she choked. Clark would have known what to do. He could have told her, shown her. She felt her father-in-law pull her into a tight embrace.

She hugged back fiercely as she took a deep breath, trying to fight back the sobs. After a long moment, she managed to compose herself. "I want to check in on Jon," she said as she wiped away the last of the tears.

Upstairs, she changed into Clark's old high school football jersey and a pair of sweatpants and slipped quietly into the nursery. Jon was fast asleep in his crib, his tiny chest rising and falling with each breath. She reached down and covered him with the blankets he'd seemed to have kicked off in his sleep. She took his little hand in hers, looking at his perfect fingers as he curled them around her hand. Her eyes blurred with unshed tears. For days, she'd barely seen her son, spending long hours a world away, trying desperately to solve a problem she had no hope of solving.

"I'm sorry I've been gone so much," she whispered. "Mommy's had something very important to do. I know that doesn't make it better, but I think one day you'll understand." She leaned down to kiss the top of Jon's head.

In Clark's room, she booted up her laptop and sat down on his bed. Leaning back against a stack of pillows, she balanced the computer on her lap and began to type. She still had a few hours before her deadline and she had a column to write.

***

"Craven?"

"Yeah," she replied nonchalantly, crossing her legs as she leaned back on Perry's couch.

Perry just shook his head as he smiled. "You called the entire international community 'craven?'"

"I feel it's an accurate characterization. Besides, the nice thing about insulting the entire world? No one can sue for defamation."

"What about the 'insipid diplomats choking the world's most desperate people with a thousand miles of red tape?' You're courting disaster, darlin'," Perry drawled. He pulled out his old, overstuffed leather chair and sat down.

"That's the point, Chief. I can't do this the nice way or the polite way, because I'll be politely ignored. We're talking about an entire country being destroyed and no one cares."

"So what's your next move?" He put his feet up on his desk.

"Ultrawoman's addressing the Security Council on Thursday."

"Behave yourself," he admonished sternly.

"Well behaved women rarely make history."

"That's exactly what I'm afraid of," Perry replied with a shake of his head.

"I want to run a piece in next Sunday's magazine," Lois said as she stood up.

"I'll get the magazine editor to save you the space. Where are you off to now?"

"Kinwara," she said as she walked toward the door. "Where else?"

Perry watched in quiet resignation as she walked away, carrying the weight of an unwitting world on her slender shoulders. It was more of a burden than anyone should have to bear and she was bearing it all alone. For the first time in the ten years he'd known her, he wondered if Lois Lane had taken on too much.

***

"A messenger? We are supposed to learn to fly on a messenger?" Dek Ra rushed to keep up with his older sister as they walked through the corridors of her compound.

"The messenger is a fine craft, stable and forgiving," Zara replied crisply.

"But we want to fly Interceptors or at least Strike Fighters. What valor is there in flying a transport ferry?"

Zara stopped suddenly and Dek Ra nearly tripped over himself trying to keep from bumping into her. He always tried to be careful around his older sister, not simply because he did not want to appear clumsy. Ever since the accident, he'd stopped seeing his sister as invincible. She was so much older than he and Tem Ra that they'd never known her as anything besides a respected leader. But now she was human, too — flesh and blood and as mortal as anyone else. She had never talked about how bad she had been injured or whether she'd truly recovered completely, which only made him more worried about her being hurt again. He knew it was not right to leave to her alone the task of keeping their world safe. He was a man now and had a part to play in defending his home and family. Zara had risked everything and had sacrificed so much, it was time for him to help.

Zara regarded him with the stern but loving gaze of an older and wiser sibling. "You will learn in due time, my brother," she said as she placed a gentle hand on his arm. "Do not be so impatient for battle, war is not just about adventures and valor."

He nodded reluctantly, knowing that his sister spoke from experience, but still disappointed. It was unfair of her to expect Dek Ra to understand. He was hardly the first young man unable to grasp the sheer horror of war from the stories of those who had experienced it. Generations before him had suffered the same naïve, idealistic shortsightedness about the nature of war and duty and honor.

***

Rae Et could have relied on the impressive communications system mounted unobtrusively in the wall of her office to monitor the results of the elections. To analyze the strengths and weaknesses of various political blocs and determine the fault lines along which the Council was likely to cleave itself. She could have relied on numerous computers to model the likely balances of power as the returns became instantaneously available, but she knew the politics of this world better than any person alive and certainly better than any collection of silly machines. There was scarcely a race that she did not accurately predict. The picture she'd painted, the premonition in her mind that was playing itself out in reality, was bleak. Her silent allies had all but been vanquished. Loyalists had won in landslides in the areas which still remained under the colony's control. Her hopes of maintaining allies in the enemy's midst were fading and clear lines had been drawn. She did not like her chances of fighting this as a conventional campaign. The enemy's resources were too vast. But what choice did they have?

The possibilities were clear. She would conquer or she would be obliterated. There was no middle ground.

***

"We're glad to see you, Ultrawoman," the doctor announced in her slight, German accent. She pushed her hair away from her eyes as she looked up at Lois's approach. Lois placed the pallets of supplies on the ground before landing. "Sankoh! Alex!" the doctor called out to her assistants, who obediently hurried over to help with the supplies. Dressed in flip flops, cut off khaki shorts, and a gray tank top, under an unbuttoned, short sleeved white shirt, Dr. Heller looked more like a beach bum than Médecins Sans Frontières's frontline in Kinwara.

"How is everything, Dr. Heller?" Lois asked as she surveyed the camp.

"We were raided last week," Ingrid began. "Alex and Sankoh wanted to fight back, but I told them it was better to lose the Mefloquine than get ourselves killed."

"I'm sorry I couldn't have been here…"

The doctor shook her head. "It is a big country, even you can't be everywhere at once." She turned back toward the other side of the camp. "Luc! Viens ici!" she called in French to the camp's other doctor, Luc Arnault. Lois gathered without much difficulty that Dr. Heller was calling him over.

"Ça va?" he yelled back, asking what was going on. "Oh, hello Ultrawoman!" He jogged over toward them. As casually dressed as Dr. Heller, he also looked more like someone on vacation than an aid worker in one of the most desperate spots in the world. He reached out a hand to her, favoring the superhero with his boyish smile.

"How are you, Dr. Arnault?" Lois asked as she shook his hand.

"Not bad," he replied. He casually placed a hand on the small of Dr. Heller's back. From what Lois had gathered, neither was much older than she. They'd met here in Kinwara the previous year, before things had become dire. Their rather routine tours had been extended and instead of treating malaria and providing vaccines and dental care, they were tending to gunshot wounds and victims of landmines.

Lois folded her arms across her chest. "Things aren't getting any better, are they?" she asked grimly.

"It is too soon to tell, really," Dr. Arnault replied. "We have more supplies and more food than we did a week ago."

"But the attacks continue," Lois countered.

"The UN and the government can't disarm and detain every single rebel. There just aren't enough peacekeepers," Dr. Heller explained.

"And they haven't done anything to stop the flow of weapons into the country." Dr. Arnault added.

Lois chewed her lip, lost in thought. She felt like she was trying to bail out the Titanic with a plastic bucket. "What else can I do to help you?" she asked, trying to hide her frustration.

"We need an engineer. Our jeep has been broken down for weeks and I'm hopeless with the thing," Dr. Arnault admitted.

Dr. Heller smiled at her partner. "And our well has been contaminated, we need to dig another."

"I can help you with the well now," Lois offered. "As for the engineer, I'll talk to UN's logistics office, but I'm not sure what they'll be able to do."

Dr. Arnault shook his head sadly. "We could really use Gunner's help about now." He looked at Lois as he scrubbed a hand through his sandy hair. "Gunner Rassmussen was our logistician. He was killed a few months ago. He'd lived in Kinwara for a dozen years and was the best damn engineer I'd ever met. I swear you could give the man a roll of tarp, a nylon rope, a hammer, and a pocketknife and in half a day, he'd have shelter and clean water for two hundred people and he'd already be starting on making one of his crazy stews." Dr. Arnault chuckled softly, a sad smile on his face.

"How did he die?" Lois asked, the reporter in her showing through.

"He was on a supply run. His convoy was ambushed. We're not certain what exactly happened," Dr. Heller explained.

"I'm sorry," Lois replied, knowing the words were inadequate.

Dr. Heller looked away as she put her hands on her hips. "Gunner loved this country. He gave his life for it. I hope it wasn't in vain."

***

Clark leaned against his cane as he watched troops prepare to board the waiting transports. He was certain the forces had gotten used to his habit of watching the work at the docking bays before and after major operations. The soldiers stood in perfect formation, stone still, as they awaited their orders. General Commander, Fourth Class, Talan approached in long, even strides. She was now the youngest General Commander in the history of the Kryptonian forces and in charge of all combat operations in the Joint Command Unit. While he'd still been unconscious after his rescue, Zara had presided over Talan and Ching's promotion ceremonies and their entry into the Order of the Guardians, the highest honor bestowed by the government.

"Good tidings, sir," she said as she saluted.

"Commander," he replied. "You have a pretty impressive force here."

"We are launching the largest offensive in the planet's history," she explained nonchalantly.

"Is this what you thought you'd be doing when you joined the military?"

"No sir," she replied as she gazed out at her troops. "When I was younger, we were largely a police force — keeping order in the outer settlements and responding to emergencies. We never thought war would break out."

Clark gestured at his cane. "I'm sorry I'm not well enough to go with you."

"I'm not, sir," she said simply. Talan smiled softly at him before turning and walking away toward her troops.

***

Lois stood up from her seat at the end of the conference table. On ordinary occasions, only members of the Security Council had speaking privileges, but the table had room for four invited guests of the Council. She now occupied one of those seats. She looked around the horseshoe shaped table and the fifteen ambassadors seated there. The gallery behind them was overflowing with ambassadors from the other members of the UN. The media gallery above the floor of the chambers was packed.

Ultrawoman cleared her throat, which was suddenly dry. She heard her pulse thundering in her ears and wondered if the rest of the room could hear it as well. "Ladies and gentlemen," she began. "I am here today to bring to your attention the conflict in Kinwara. I assume that the only reason so little has been done about the situation there is because you are unaware of the magnitude of the problem. Because there is no way that responsible people who were aware of this problem would do as little about it as you have. Tens of thousands are dead. Hundreds of thousands are refugees and millions are still at risk. The UN's own forces have had their hands tied because of the mandate you've written and relief workers are under almost constant attack. I'm here to ask you to do something about this." She felt her nervousness recede and a tiny spark of anger took hold of her. It grew slowly, at first.

"I'm asking you to do what you've pledged to do. I'm asking you to keep the promise made by great men and women when they founded this organization fifty years ago. I'm asking you to prove that we are not wrong to put our faith in you and this Council. Stop the flow of weapons to the rebels, pressure the man behind them, President Sangara, to disarm, support your own peacekeepers, and declare aid workers off limits. But even if you do not, I am here to tell the world that all of the relief workers in Kinwara who travel under the colors of the UN or the Red Cross are under my protection. An attack on them is an attack on me and I will respond. The rebels have declared war on the ordinary people of Kinwara. The world has claimed 'Never Again,' many times in the past. I hope that at last, we'll live up to that promise."

She stepped away from the podium and strode out of the Council chambers amid the brilliant flicker of flashbulbs. Lois left the UN plaza and took off for home. Officially, Lois Lane was still in Kinwara on her second trip to the region. She went home for a few hours a day to see Jon, but it felt like she really had been separated from him for ages. She knew it was hard on him, but didn't know what else she could do. Overwhelmed didn't begin to cover how she felt.

Before touching down, she scanned the farmhouse; Martha was playing with Jon in the living room. Lois spun into her own clothes on the porch. As she entered the house, she heard her mother-in-law say "looks like mommy's home." Lois found herself smiling as she walked into the living room. Jon's eyes lit up when he saw her. He stretched out his arms to her and for the first time in days, her heart felt light. She scooped him up easily.

"Mama!" he announced eagerly as he held tightly to her.

"I know, sweetie, I missed you, too."

"We watched your speech," Martha said, smiling.

"Could you tell I was nervous?"

"Are you kidding? You were great! But I think you made those diplomats nervous."

"Well, they deserve it," Lois replied, somewhat bitterly. "I could do so much more if they'd just help a little."

"You're doing everything you can. That's all you can ask of yourself. You should know that. You're the one who taught that to Clark." At what Lois assumed was her puzzled expression, Martha explained. "When he first became Superman, he was overwhelmed and so upset about all the people he couldn't save. You told him that whatever Superman could do was enough."

"He told you that?" Lois asked, finding herself smiling wistfully.

"Oh, yes," Martha replied. "I don't think you realize how much you helped him then. How much he looked to you to figure out who and what Superman should be."

"Well, right now I'm the one who could use his advice." Martha, I have no idea what I'm doing," she confessed.

"Just keep at it dear. Keep writing about it. Keep talking about it. Keep going."

"I'm not sure I can. All this time I'm spending away from Jon, the burden I'm putting on you and Jonathan…"

"Jon couldn't be a burden if he tried!" Martha exclaimed, but Lois knew that taking care of a one year old was extraordinarily taxing. "We are a family and we take care of each other in good times and bad."

Lois managed a tight lipped smile. "It just seems that you and Jonathan spend a lot of time taking care of me. I'm not sure I'm ever there for you."

"Honey, Jonathan and I are so blessed to have the two of you here, and if it seems like you need a little taking care of, that's because you take care of the whole world. Someone needs to look after you every once in a while. When Clark left, we were all left behind to miss him, but you had to try to be him, to be what he'd been to the whole world. Lois, I don't know anyone else who could do what you've done. Who could handle that kind of responsibility?"

Lois reached out for her mother-in-law's hand and squeezed it gratefully. "Thanks," she said softly.

***

"It will take time to rebuild, ma'am," Alon explained. He stood in front of Rae Et's desk, his hands clasped in front of him. For thirty-five years, he'd been the elder stateswoman's most steadfast and competent ally, and even he was never at ease in her presence.

"Rebuild? Rebuild with what?" she demanded. "Our allies in the Council have been swept out, along with the weak-willed and the pragmatic. Zara's faithful are all that remain. Pray, tell me with what will we rebuild?"

"The First Ministers still trust me," Alon replied. He knew he was lucky that he had not been implicated in the downing of Zara's ship and the fiasco that had unraveled from there. That mess had taken down Pelmon, Trey, and a handful of rather useful minor players they had in the military.

"Assassination will not work now. It will only galvanize the Council. They'll appoint zealots as their new First Ministers and retaliate furiously. We cannot withstand that sort of onslaught now."

"I understand, but I am still in a position to obtain information," the old man answered. "We must bide our time. Our forces should appear to melt away and we should allow the conflict to die down until the time is right for us to strike."

"Time may be the only thing on our side," Rae Et muttered. She stood up, gathering the folds of her greatcoat as she did. "We will talk again later; I am due in the Belaar shortly."

***

"You came back to me," she whispered in his ear as she wrapped her arms around his neck, her fingers tangling in his hair.

He swept her up in his arms and laid her on the bed. He stretched out beside her and touched her cheek, his fingers brushing lightly against her soft skin. She looked at him with warm, tender eyes that made him feel so loved and safe. He kissed her lips, feeling her respond immediately as she pulled him toward her. They slowly peeled away the barriers of clothing between them.

"I love you," he whispered as he reached to brush a strand of hair away from her face, but he found he couldn't move his hand. He tugged to free himself, but looking at his wrist, he saw the manacle binding him. His other hand was similarly imprisoned in the cold, metal grip of shackles and chains. Suddenly, he was pulled backward with a force so great it slammed him into the hard stone wall that appeared from nowhere behind him. He felt the breath escape him in a 'whoosh,' but he was prevented from doubling over by his own arms, bound over his head.

"Clark!" He heard Lois scream. He struggled impotently against his restraints.

"Lois!" he yelled, tugging so hard at the chains that his wrists bled. "Lois!" His eyes went wide with fear as a figure he would have known anywhere approached from the shadows. He opened his mouth to yell at Lois to run, to fight, to get away as fast as she could, but no words came. Nor grabbed her, dragging her away. One of his large, rough hands covered her mouth, keeping her from screaming, but Clark could see the terror gleaming in her eyes. She was pleading silently with him to do something, to help her, but he couldn't. He couldn't move, couldn't speak, couldn't even beg Nor to leave her alone.

"Kal El, you pathetic mongrel, do you really think there is anything you possess, anything you cherish that I cannot take away from you?" Nor's laughter tore through him and he shut his eyes.

"Clark, please help me," he heard his wife plead.

"I can't!" he yelled at last, the sound echoing loudly.

He snapped bolt upright in the darkness and realized he'd been having another nightmare. He rubbed his bare wrists. He was still unable to wear the ceremonial wrist cuffs when he slept. Clark tried to shake the dream from his mind, to forget this latest iteration of the horrible scene that played itself out in his head every night.

There was a soft knock at his door. "Clark, are you all right?" came Zara's concerned voice.

"I'm fine," he replied curtly. He got up, limping slightly as he made his way to the washroom. He splashed cold water on his face and stared at his reflection. He hadn't slept well in weeks and it showed. The dark circles looked as though they'd been permanently etched under his bloodshot eyes. He'd regained a good bit of the weight he'd lost, but he still looked gaunt and anxious — his cheeks drawn in a little too tightly, his skin pinched and sallow in color. Clark shook his head. He could stare at his reflection forever and never see in it the man he'd once been.

***

"You don't have to go if you don't want to," Lois announced from the entryway of Jimmy's apartment as he darted in and out of rooms, gathering lenses and film and whatever else he kept in his camera bag.

He bounded back into the hallway, slinging his bag over his shoulder. "I want to go," he said firmly.

"All right, just stick close by and don't wander off."

"Yes, ma'am," he replied.

"Jimmy, I'm serious. It's extremely dangerous over there and the rebels have declared open season on journalists. They already hate me."

Jimmy smiled but said nothing, to his credit. "Ready?" she asked. At his nod, she picked him up and darted out the window with him. Twenty minutes later, they were flying over the jungles and grasslands of Kinwara, on their way to the capital. Jimmy began taking pictures during their descent. By the time they were on terra firma again, he'd used up a roll of film.

In an alley, Lois changed out of the suit and rejoined her eager young colleague, who seemed overwhelmed by their surroundings. He turned from side to side, as though he was trying to figure out what to photograph first — the military checkpoint, the buildings pockmarked by bullet holes, the abandoned, burned out cars, or the looted homes. A jeep full of government soldiers drove by, ignoring them totally. Jimmy snapped a quick series of photos of them.

Lois was a bit less in awe of the scene before them. From Brazzaville to Sarajevo, bombed out capitals looked like bombed out capitals. They looked like death and fear and ruined dreams of a more prosperous future. They looked like the complete absence of hope.

"Where are we going first?" Jimmy asked.

"To meet with President Lancine," she replied.

Lois watched his eyebrows disappear into his hairline. "Seriously?" he asked. She merely nodded and pointed at the once grand presidential compound at the end of the boulevard.

***

"Thank you for coming, Ms. Lane," President Lancine said as he shook her hand. "And you must be Mr. Olsen." Jimmy shook the older man's hand eagerly. President Lancine gave them a tight lipped smile as he gestured to the old, slightly shabby couches in his office.

Jimmy lifted his camera, silently asking permission to take pictures. The president merely nodded. President Lancine sat down on one of the couches, folding his hands in his lap. He regarded Lois with a gentle, almost paternal expression. His shoulders were slightly stooped and his eyes were full of sadness.

Lois sat down across from the President and turned on her tape recorder. "Thank you for agreeing to talk with us," she began as she took out a notepad and pen.

"I want the world to know what is happening here, and I trust you to tell our story truthfully." He began to explain the complicated political situation that had spiraled out of control, dragging the country into an ever expanding conflagration.

"I cannot keep my country or my people safe, anymore," he said with a sad shake of his head. "I have been pleading with my wife and my children and grandchildren to leave the country. What kind of president am I? What kind of father am I if I cannot even keep my home safe for my family?"

"President Lancine, what do you expect the international community to do in order to help stop this problem?"

"My country is poor and the army is small. We don't have the resources to keep the militias or the guns out of the country, and the UN forces have not been able to do it either. We need help. I don't want to run a police state, Ms. Lane, but with only enemies on my borders, I can't keep my country safe, or keep the rebels out. We need help. We need an arms embargo and a stronger peacekeeping force. I want to provide protection to the aid workers, and I cannot." He held his arms outstretched and his palms turned upward, as though beseeching anyone able to help.

Lois finished scribbling down her notes as the interview wrapped up. Jimmy took a few more pictures before they thanked the president for his time and departed.

"Wow," Jimmy muttered as they left the presidential compound. "That was amazing, Lois. Thanks for letting me come along."

She smiled at her young colleague's eagerness. She hesitated for a moment, feeling a twinge of sadness and regret. Lois knew that his excitement would be dampened by what they would see on the rest of their trip and she wondered at the wisdom of doing something that would likely drag down his spirits. "Well, the real work starts now," she replied. "I want you to come with me to a refugee camp."

Jimmy nodded enthusiastically as he slung his camera bag over his shoulder. Retreating into another alley, Lois changed again into the suit. She looked at her passenger as she picked him up, marveling at how young Jimmy seemed. At his age, she'd been certain that she'd seen just about everything and that there was nothing in the world that could have fazed her. She knew he probably harbored the same unintentional hubris. Perhaps she'd be able to acclimate him gently to the realities of the conflict.

The sounds of cries for help made it clear that that was not to be. "Jimmy, hold on," she said sternly as she changed direction. She really just wanted to give him a warning so he wouldn't be startled by her abrupt turn, but she felt him tighten his grip significantly. She wanted to leave him somewhere safe, but in Kinwara, there was hardly any such thing. Between their destination and their current location, there was nothing but jungle, and there was no way to protect Jimmy there. "There's trouble, when we get there, stay away from the shooting and just wait for me to get you."

She put him down on the ground a fair distance from the zone of danger. An aid convoy had apparently arrived at a village at exactly the wrong time — during a rebel raid. She frantically pulled out her headset and contacted General Rapin, alerting him to the raid. An instant later, she was racing toward trouble.

***

Jimmy watched in stunned silence for a long moment. In the confusion, he could hear screams for help and the sounds of gunfire. Men were yelling things at each other in a language he couldn't understand. Minutes passed in which he just watched dumbly from a distance. Finally, he reached for his camera bag and his telephoto lens. He began taking pictures of everything. He hadn't been the photographer who developed the pictures Lois took on her previous trips. The photos she'd taken had never been of the rebels in action; obviously because she had been too busy stopping the bad guys to capture the events on film. Her photos of the aftermath had been good, but she wasn't a photographer, and she had a lot more on her mind than lining up shots.

His hands shook and it took all of his effort just to steady them. The images he focused on through the sight terrified and disgusted him, but he knew that he had to take the photos. In that instant, he realized the world had to know what was happening here and he was going to do his part to make that happen. Methodically, he shot picture after picture, quickly focusing and refocusing, stopping only to change film rolls. He started to move forward, trying to get a better vantage point than his position outside the village allowed.

Lois was often moving too quickly for him to photograph her. She was merely a blur in soft pastels, but he took photos of the men she'd disarmed and the fleeing victims. He took pictures of those who couldn't flee, even though it made him sick to do so. The remaining rebels began to run away and the beleaguered aid workers, just recently under siege, turned their attention to the many wounded. He loaded another roll of film.

Emboldened, he jogged toward the heart of the village. He took more pictures as he approached, finishing off the fifth roll of film. He was fumbling with his camera bag when man with a Red Cross armband, carrying an injured boy yelled over to him. "Friend, give us a hand!"

Jimmy nodded and put away his camera equipment before running over. He looked around quickly for Lois, but didn't see her. Assuming that she was chasing the bad guys or helping other victims, he ran to join the rescue workers.

***

Lois glanced around anxiously, trying to assess the situation through the chaos. The remaining rebels had melted away again and there were many people who still needed help. A loud cry for help shattered the air, cutting through the din and confusion and she took off in a burst of speed.

Outside the village, one of the rebels remained, looming ominously over a figure cowering on the ground. The rebel began to tear at the woman's clothes, pinning her to the ground with a knife to her throat. The man laughed, taking unknown amounts of sheer pleasure from the terror of his victim. Anger, white hot, burned through Lois. Without conscious thought, she seized him, pulling him back viciously and hoisting him easily into the air, her hand around his neck. Her eyes narrowed as she glared at him, struggling pathetically in her grasp.

She recognized him. His name was Johnny Moremba, but everyone called him Sergeant Johnny. He was one of the most feared of the rebel thugs, known for his particular brutality and penchant for sadism.

Her body seized up with tension, her blood thundering in her ears. The whole world seemed to go quiet first, and then disappear entirely, reduced to nothing other than herself and the man dangling from her grasp like a bug. He clawed ineffectually at her hand, trying to pry her fingers away from his neck.

"Do you enjoy terrorizing women?" she demanded. He trembled and began sputtering lame apologies and begging for his life. In the dizzied haze in her mind, she recognized how easily she could kill the man. There were dozens of ways she could end his terrible existence. A simple flick of his wrist would do it. Given the way he was coughing and sputtering, she might not have needed to do any more than she was doing now in order to kill him. And didn't he deserve it? She grew even angrier and her fingers began to tremble.

She looked at the sheer terror in his eyes and suddenly released her grip, letting him fall to the ground. Lois stepped back, horrified at what she'd almost done, at what she'd considered, at what she was becoming. Moremba rubbed at his neck, curled up on the ground. Lois quickly x-rayed him. He wasn't injured; no broken bones, no crushed windpipe. Several feet away, his victim looked up at her silently with eyes wide.

Lois said nothing. What comfort could she provide to the woman? She'd just contemplated killing a man. She'd almost crossed a line she was not prepared to cross. Lois realized she was shaking. With trembling fingers, she bound Moremba's hands before picking him up and dropping him among the other prisoners. She sought out a rescue worker to tend to the man's victim, knowing that she herself was in no condition to be of help.

She could hear the UN forces approaching from miles away. They would be here soon and the aid workers already had the situation under control. If she left, there would be no questions. Everyone would simply assume that she was needed elsewhere.

***

Lois entered the farmhouse silently through Clark's window. Instead of going directly to the nursery to see Jon, she headed straight for the bathroom. She peeled off the suit, letting it fall to the ground as she turned on the shower. She let the steaming hot water cascade over her for long moments before finally giving in to the tears that had been threatening to overwhelm her ever since she and Jimmy left the village. She sobbed uncontrollably as she sank down into the tub. Burying her head in her hands, she wept.

***

"How are you feeling, young man?" Tao Scion asked as he entered the examining room.

"Better," Clark replied. Physically, at least, it was true.

Tao Scion mused over the lab reports. "Everything looks fine and your leg is mending well. But it is not only your physical condition that I'm concerned about. I want you to speak with someone."

Clark frowned darkly. "I'd rather not."

"Kal El, it is important to your recovery," the old doctor explained gently as he approached the examining table. "It will help you deal with what you experienced."

"I don't see how telling someone else about it will make the nightmares stop," Clark replied acerbically.

"How often do you have the nightmares?" Tao Scion's piercing blue eyes seemed to bore right into him, making him squirm involuntarily.

Clark looked away. "Most nights," he admitted.

"They won't stop, you know," Tao Scion warned him. "The nightmares will continue. You will get angry and short tempered for no reason. You won't feel like yourself and you'll withdraw from everyone around you."

Clark sat in silence, unsure what to say. His physician had described everything he'd been thinking and feeling for weeks. All of the things that had been troubling his thoughts, but which he hadn't wanted to admit, even to himself. "How do I make it stop?" he asked quietly.

"Talk to someone, my friend."

Clark raked a hand through his hair. It was the answer he was expecting, but he still didn't want to deal with it. "Maybe," he said noncommittally.

***

"This is amazing," Perry murmured. Lois let out a slight sigh of relief. It had been so difficult to write she hadn't been certain it was coherent. Most of it was strung together with trembling fingers, typing into the wee hours of the night, fueled by pots of burned coffee and total insomnia. "I read it last night and couldn't sleep afterward," he continued.

"Welcome to my world," she replied, sinking deeper into the couch in the editor's office.

"There's more, isn't there? There's more to the story than you what you've written here." She'd been anticipating the question. Perry had known her too long to not notice when she was holding something back. He stood up and walked out from behind his desk over toward the couch. "Lois, what happened out there?"

"I wanted to kill a man, Chief," she replied quietly. "He was one of UNPROFIK's most wanted criminals and I found him attacking a woman. I pulled him off her and grabbed him by the throat and I almost snapped. What am I turning into?" she asked plaintively. "What should I do?"

"War brings out the worst in everything. Believe me, Lois, most people in your position would have done a lot worse."

"That doesn't make it okay."

"Darlin', you need to take a break, slow down a bit. What you're seeing out there would snap anyone."

"I can't, Perry," she replied stubbornly.

He placed a gentle hand on hers. "You can't do everything…"

"But I have to do something!" She stood up and walked away from the couch. Her arms folded across her chest, she stared out at the almost vacant newsroom. "I know that I'm burning myself out and I know that I'm not doing enough, or doing it right, or I don't know…" she rambled in frustration.

"Lois, go home. Spend some time with your son, and your family," Perry said gently.

"Don't you get it?" she asked. "I know how awful it is that I'm never home and I miss him so much, but I have to do this for him." She wiped savagely at her stinging eyes. "I still believe that Clark is coming home, but every so often, I have to ask myself, what if he doesn't? What then? Jon will need me to set the example. He's most likely going to develop these powers and he's going to need me to show him how to deal with them, how to walk in this world, how to be a good person."

"That doesn't mean you need to destroy yourself fighting something this big," Perry countered. "You may be the strongest person in the world, but even you can't stop a war."

She turned around to face her old mentor and friend, a man she regarded like a father. "I know that. But how can I raise him in a world that's this awful? That allows things like this to happen? How can I teach him that it's the responsibility of the strong to protect the weak from the wicked, if I don't?"

"Jon needs a mother, not just a superhero."

"I'm trying to be both."

***

Clark pushed open the door and entered the First Ministers' quarters. The guards saluted him but he didn't bother to look up. He walked as quickly as he could through the hallways; he no longer need the cane, but he continued to limp. Zara was still in meetings, which suited him just fine. He had no interest in discussing politics or his thoroughly bleak day. His meeting with the empath had been nothing less than a spectacular failure.

Bren Mos had been a soothing, calm figure and it had irritated Clark to no end. When the Kryptonian version of a shrink had tried to encourage him to explore the causes of his dark and troubled moods, Clark snapped back angrily. "What shall we talk about?" he'd demanded. "The beatings? The starvation? The mock executions?" He'd left abruptly, knowing there was no more to be gained from the session. He hadn't meant to be so rude, but he didn't need a sympathetic ear, or an opportunity to talk about what had happened to him. Talking about it made the memories more vivid. The images would fill his head, leaving him cold and lost in the dark, incapable of separating reality from memory. He'd already done his time in hell; he had no desire to go back.

He closed the door to his bedroom and sat down on the bed, not bothering to turn the lights on. Pulling the chain out from under his uniform, he clutched the ring tightly in his hand. "I can't do this anymore," he murmured softly in the dark. He wanted to go home. The desire to get out of there, to go back to Earth, was all consuming. He couldn't stand it any longer. The separation from his family, the danger, the fear, the knowledge that he didn't have a place here, they all tore at him. He pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling the beginnings of a headache forming behind his eyes. He sunk down on the bed, as though he was being pushed down, buckling under an immense load. Closing his eyes, he lay perfectly still, aware only of the terrible pain in his chest, clawing at him, never giving him a moment's peace to forget about how beaten and broken he was. Under his breath, he repeated the same mantra he had in captivity, with every bit as much desperation.

"I am Clark Kent. I have a mother and a father and a wife who love me dearly. I will not die because they need me."

***

Lois stood up as the large, dark wood doors opened by the distinguished looking white haired gentleman in a three piece suit. "Welcome, Ultrawoman," Sir Walter Hugh, the British ambassador to the UN, said warmly as he ushered her into the large library in the British permanent mission. Already in the room were the French, American, Russian, and Chinese ambassadors and their aides. She knew that if she was going to get the UN to do anything, she'd have to win over all five of the diplomats present. Any one of them would be able to torpedo her attempts.

"Thank you," she replied. She took a seat in a large, wingbacked leather chair.

"Ultrawoman, we all respect what you are trying to do," Shannon Murray, the American ambassador began pleasantly. The elder stateswoman gave her a distant and detached smile. "But the situation is not as simple as it may seem."

Lois frowned. "I say this with all due respect," she started cautiously. "But this isn't a great moral dilemma. There are foreign militias in Kinwara, killing innocent civilians. There aren't two sides to this story. If we can't react strongly when the issue is so cut and dry, how do you plan to resolve the really difficult problems?"

The Chinese ambassador, Lin Wei, set down his cup of tea and saucer. He folded his hands in his lap, his expression stern. "We disagree with your assessment, Ultrawoman. The People's Republic considers this a struggle of national determination. To intervene would be an act of oppression and would smack of colonialism," he said through his interpreter.

The tall, well dressed ambassador of Russia leaned forward and began to speak. He scratched at his beard as he tried to explain. The statuesque blonde woman beside him translated as he spoke. "The peacekeepers are coming dangerously close to exceeding the limitations of their mandate. We enforce these limits to ensure neutrality and the legitimacy of the mission."

"And if the peacekeepers were enforcing a cease fire, the rules would make perfect sense," Lois countered. "But we're talking about innocent civilians being rounded up and raped, tortured, and killed by brutal, foreign militias who are after the country's diamond mines."

"France agrees with Ultrawoman," Dominque de Saint Antoine said in accented English. "We would support a fact finding mission being sent to the region."

"I appreciate that, but it isn't enough," Lois replied.

"And what do you think we ought to do?" Ambassador Hugh asked.

"Increase the food and medical aid for a start."

"The United States has been most generous," Dr. Murray replied.

"And it has been appreciated," Lois said. "But it isn't enough."

"The additional costs associated with transporting the aid — planes, pilots," the American Ambassador began.

"Won't be a problem. If you make the aid available, I'll move it myself. You don't have to worry about cargo planes or fuel costs. Just focus on food and medicine."

Dr. Murray nodded thoughtfully. "I'll speak with the President about it," she said somewhat noncommittally.

"I'd also like you to change the peacekeepers' mandate," Lois ventured boldly.

"Absolutely not," Mr. Lin replied. "It is out of the question."

"They cannot do their job with this mandate," Lois replied.

"Ultrawoman, you must understand that our countries will not tolerate the deaths of our peacekeepers, or the embarrassment and anxiety of seeing them taken hostage. After the mission in Somalia, these possibilities are unacceptable," Dr. Karamov explained.

"General Rapin has asked you to untie his hands," Lois replied.

"General Rapin works for the Council, not the other way around," Ambassador Lin replied testily. "We must respect the sovereignty of all member states. That means not using the peacekeepers as your own personal army."

"I take exception to your suggestion that I'm doing this for personal reasons," Lois said slowly, using diplomat-speak when she really wanted to yell at the impertinent man giving her a steely gaze. "My only interest is in protecting the people of Kinwara."

"At what expense? You are meddling in the affairs of states. You are not a sovereign nation, Ultrawoman, you cannot do as you please."

"And President Sangara can?" She heard her voice grow louder and begin to waver slightly with anger. She tried to bring her tone under control. Now wasn't the time to be emotional. Lois took a deep breath. "He can order the butchering of children, the selling of little boys into mercenary squadrons and little girls into slavery?"

"You are putting in jeopardy your status as a friend of the Chinese people, and as someone who is welcome in our great country," Ambassador Lin replied coldly.

"So next time the Yangtze River floods, do you want me to just stand by and do nothing?" Lois called his bluff.

"Ultrawoman, Ambassador Lin, please, we are all attempting to solve the same problem here. Let us not say things we will regret and do not mean," the French ambassador interjected.

"You have nothing but our admiration for your courageous work," Ambassador Hugh said as he turned to Lois. "You must understand, though, there are proper channels we must work through. Britain will pledge greater food aid and will support France's proposal for a fact finding mission, but for now, that is all. I can offer you no more."

Lois nodded, her jaw set. "Thank you all for your time," she said as she stood up and strode out of the room.

***

Tao Scion looked up at the communication monitor and the grim visage of his colleague. "He is not well, is he?" Tao Scion asked, already knowing the answer.

"He is full of anger and fear. I can tell that he has suffered things that would destroy most people. Not only physically, but psychologically. He wasn't simply beaten; he endured unspeakable mental torture."

"How can you be so certain?" Tao Scion asked. Bren Mos was an extremely well respected empath, but Tao Scion remained skeptical of how the man could be so certain of something Kal El obviously hadn't shared.

"Because his pain radiated off him," the empath replied. "I've spent decades learning how to read people's posture, body language, and reactions. What I do is as scientific as what you do."

"What happened to him?"

Bren Mos smiled sadly. "I am not a mind reader, I'm afraid. I cannot tell you the specifics. But from the little he told him and from his behavior and mood, Nor took every opportunity to destroy Kal El's sense of self. To isolate him and make him feel forgotten, weak, and insignificant. That Kal El did not succumb speaks a tremendous amount to his resilience and strength."

"So he will get better?" Tao Scion asked hopefully.

"It is largely up to him. The same independence and strength that saved him from Nor are likely making it difficult for him to seek help. He is not used to being weak or helpless."

Tao Scion shook his head. "But he never had a problem talking to others, seeking their advice, or their help."

"He never had to do so from a position of weakness before. And now, after having spent so long existing at the whim of a madman, the thought of losing control again must be terrifying him," Bren Mos explained.

"What can we do for him?" The old doctor ran a weary hand through his hair.

"Be supportive and patient, and continue to encourage him to seek help." It was overly simplified advice from a well meaning friend, and the physician had no idea how to implement it. Saying his goodbyes, he ended the transmission.

Tao Scion sighed heavily as he paced in his quarters. What was it that caused the men of the House of El to be so stubborn? His heart ached when he thought about how Jor El would have felt if he'd known about the unspeakable horrors endured by his only son. The beloved child he'd sacrificed everything for. Tao Scion collapsed in the large chair in the corner of the room, his body and spirit both weary. "Old friend, I do not wish to let you down," he murmured to a man who'd been dead for decades.

Months before the destruction of Krypton, before Kal El's birth, he'd found his dear friend in his office, late one night, his posture and expression radiating sheer despondency. He was a disheveled mess, dark circles rimmed his eyes. Tao Scion recalled his concern when his friend failed to notice his presence. He'd had to call his name several times before the other man even looked up from his desk.

Tao Scion had placed a hand on Jor El's shoulder, and had seen a look of desperation on his friend's face that he had not seen since his daughter's death. "Are you all right?" Tao Scion had asked quietly.

"I'm fine," Jor El replied somewhat irritably before turning away. His tone and mannerism had seemed odd. Like he wasn't quite himself. Tao Scion had been taken aback by an unfamiliar odor.

"It smells like Lara's laboratory in here," he'd mused. "Have you been distilling an alcohol?"

"Don't be ridiculous," Jor El had said, slurring his words.

"You're inebriated," Tao Scion had countered.

Jor El had scrubbed a hand through his hair. "So what if I am?"

"Come now, you should get to bed. You have to make a presentation to the Council in the morning." Tao Scion had tried to help Jor El to his feet.

Jor El had stumbled as he rose, pushing Tao Scion away. "Damn the Council! Damn the fates! And damn this forsaken world!" Jor El had shoved a stack of papers off his desk, sending them scattering to the floor.

"Jor El, you need to rest," Tao Scion had said gently.

"I cannot rest. I have work to do," his friend had replied stubbornly.

"Drunk?"

Jor El had slumped back into his chair and stared up at the ceiling. "I won't do it, my friend. I won't let this wretched beast of a world devour another one of my children." He had slammed his fist into the surface of his desk. "I defy you, fates. You cannot have my son!"

Tao Scion had seen the tears in his friend's eyes. The tears of a desperate man, a man who had lost almost everything, who had clawed and scraped and fought his way back to life after the death of his beloved daughter, only to see the world literally crumble around him. Jor El had defied the fates, and he'd saved his son. And now Tao Scion was failing that son and betraying the legacy of his greatest friend.

***

Lois stared out at the bright red sun, slung low in the sky, as it dipped toward the orange horizon. The water glistened with the reflected sunlight, sparkling and dancing in the tides. The sky overhead was already growing a dark, deep purple and the first stars twinkled above, scattered across the expanse of space that stretched out to eternity. Her toes sunk into the wet sand. Warm water lapped at her feet as small waves broke on the beach. A gentle breeze stirred through the palms, rustling the folds of her sundress.

She looked around the crescent shape of the bay, completely unaware of where she was or how she'd gotten there. A figure approached her from the opposite side of the bay. A slow smile spread across her face as she recognized the long, easy gait of her husband. He walked, barefoot toward her, the hems of his khakis soaked by the sea water. His white, buttoned down shirt was untucked and rolled up at the sleeves. He had his hands buried in his pockets. The wind played with his hair, causing a dark lock to tumble over his forehead. He smiled brightly at her, one of those beautiful smiles that lit up his eyes.

He reached out a hand to her. She slipped her hand into his and tilted her head up as he bent down. Their lips met in a sweet, gentle kiss. Lois lingered a moment, her eyes closed, her face bare inches from his. She could drink in the wonderful smell of his skin and feel his warm breath. Their fingers intertwined, they walked along the beach.

"Where are we?" she asked. "I've never been here before."

"I don't know," he replied nonchalantly. "It's your dream."

Her heart sank. It was a dream, wasn't it? It had to be. "So you're not really here, are you?" she asked, her voice wavering slightly.

"No," he replied with a sad shake of his head.

"I miss you," she whispered.

He stopped walking and pulled her into his arms. "I miss you, too."

"You're not even real, how can you miss me?" she murmured against his shoulder.

He tipped her chin up so she was looking him in the eye. "Well, the real me, the me that's a trillion miles away on another planet, misses you like crazy. You know that," he said with an almost teasing smile.

She buried her head against his shoulder once more. "I can't do this without you," she said softly. "I'm not cut out for all this hero stuff."

He hugged her more tightly. "Yes, you are. I know it's hard, and it's not fair. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have left you to do my job, but there's no one else I'd trust more with it."

"It's too big," Lois whispered.

He ran a soothing hand up and down her back. "Not for you, sweetheart. You can do this." Clark kissed her again.

She looked up at him, her heart aching. "You're going, aren't you?"

He nodded as he touched her cheek gently. "You're going to wake up soon," he explained softly.

"Stay with me until I do," she said. "I want to remember this when I wake up." He remained silent, but continued to hold her.

"I love you," he whispered. "I will always love you. Nothing can change that."

Slowly, the feeling of warm sand beneath her feet and strong arms around her faded away. She wasn't on a beach any more; she was in bed, under heavy quilts, with the first rays of sunlight spilling into the room. She brushed away an errant tear and then another.

***

Lok Sim walked through the offices of the First Ministers' staff. He turned a corner and found himself outside of Captain Enza's office. He rapped softly on the door. A moment later, she opened the door.

"Ma'am, I was asked to give this to you," he said as he handed her a slim digital tablet.

She smiled as she took the screen from him. She pressed her thumb against the display, and unlocked the tablet. She read the contents in silence, her slight smile faded into a frown. "I want you to come with me," she said as she looked up.

Lok Sim was startled. "Wh…where, ma'am?" he stuttered.

"We are opening peace negotiations with the Belaar Valley," she said. "We need a communications officer for the trip. Can you be ready to go in twelve hours?"

"Of course," he replied, suddenly feeling a sense of excitement. He hadn't even known that there were peace negotiations with the Belaar. Their existence must have been confidential. And he was now being asked to join the delegation on their trip. He tried to pretend that his anticipation had nothing to do with the opportunity to work with Captain Enza. He excused himself to pack and get ready.

***

Zara looked up from the briefing on the communications screen as he walked in. "Have you heard anything further from the Expeditionary Forces?"

Clark shook his head. Talan's forces had encountered few rebels on their mission. The enemy had seemingly melted away, leaving New Krypton's frustrated army scouring the desolate landscape. "They're returning tonight."

"If the negotiations with the Belaar are successful, we'll have far more defensible borders," Zara said, always looking for a reason to be optimistic.

Clark sat down at the table, drumming his knuckles on the surface. "When does Ching leave?"

"In a few hours," she replied. "He has asked Captain Enza to go with him."

"Good," Clark replied. Another pair of trusted ears and eyes at the talks would be useful.

"Alon wishes to speak with us tonight, it seemed rather urgent."

"That's fine," Clark said somewhat dismissively. The meetings all bled together, one indistinguishable from the next. They fell into a long silence, both seemingly engrossed in their work.

"Clark?" Zara ventured somewhat hesitantly after a long moment. He looked up but said nothing. Her eyes met his briefly before she looked away. She fidgeted, folding her hands, before continuing awkwardly. "I know that I may not be able to fully understand what happened to you, but if you want to talk about it, I am always here."

"Thanks," he mumbled.

***

Lois lifted Jon out of his car seat and closed the station wagon door. "Come on, little guy," she said as she smiled at him. "One more stop before we go home." She carried her son into Maisie's place. The bells jingled as Lois pushed the door open. The regulars looked up from their cups of coffee and sandwiches or slices of pie.

"Hi Lois!" Maisie called out. "What can I do for you?"

"I just need to pick up a half gallon of your pralines and cream ice cream," Lois replied.

"Well look at this little guy!" Anne, the elementary school's third grade teacher, declared. "He's getting so big."

"He sure is," Roger, the town vet, said, looking up from his paper. "He's gonna be a strong safety on the Smallville High football team, just like his old man." Suddenly turning bashful, Jon buried his head against his mother's shoulder.

"Say, when did you get back?" Gus asked Lois.

"Just a few days ago," she replied.

"I don't know how you could stand to be away from this little angel for so long," Anne said, shaking her head somewhat dramatically.

"It was pretty tough for both of us," Lois admitted.

"You're not planning to go back, are you?" Anne asked, her tone suggesting disapproval.

"If I have to, yes," Lois replied, trying not to bristle. The criticism of her dedication to the story had begun to raise her hackles. Both as Ultrawoman and as Lois Lane, she found herself surrounded by the disapproving — those who knew better than to think she could succeed.

"We all know your work is important to you, Lois, but Jon needs you, too," Maisie said as she put the container of ice cream in a brown paper bag and rung it up.

"And why focus on a problem so far away, we've got problems here that need solving? We can't take care of the whole world," Gus added.

Lois exhaled slowly. She'd heard the same questions and criticism so many times before and it always made her feel so despondent, so tired, like nothing she was doing was even registering. Like none of it mattered. "It's hard to understand, unless you've been there. Unless you've seen the things I've seen. But this isn't a hopeless situation. These people need our help and there's a lot of good we can do."

"I just don't see how we can solve their problems if their own leaders won't," Roger replied, shaking his head.

"I've met the president of Kinwara," Lois explained. "He's a good man and he's doing everything he can, but it's difficult to save your country when you're being attacked by much more powerful enemies."

"I'm still not sure it's our problem to solve," Roger challenged. "We can't be the world's police."

"You're right," Lois responded. "And we're not being asked to. There are a lot of other ways we can help. You'd be surprised to see how little it takes to save a life there."

"Tell you what," Roger said. "You keep writing about it, I'll keep reading about it and maybe you'll change my mind."

"That's all I can hope for," Lois replied. "We should get going before the ice cream melts, right Jon?"

"It was good seeing you again, Lois," Maisie said. "You bring him back here often, okay?"

"I will," Lois promised. She looked down at Jon, who was still hiding. "Can you say 'bye' to everyone?"

After a long moment, he looked up and waved his little hand. "Bye bye," he said quietly before turning back toward his mother. Lois said her goodbyes as everyone gushed over how cute her son was. Once she was back in the car, she took a deep breath. Sometimes she wondered if they were right. If she couldn't even change the minds of the people she saw all the time, the people who lived in her town, how could she change the world's opinion? Was it worth all the time she was spending away from her son? But she thought about the people who depended on the supplies she delivered, and the ones whose lives she'd saved. No matter how trying her situation may have been, theirs were infinitely worse and they depended on her. Even if she couldn't change the world, she still had to try.

***

"Do we have everything?" Enza asked, trying to make her tone light. Thia looked up at her and nodded silently. "Good. Now, I will be gone for a few days, and you are going to stay with Davi and her parents while I am away, all right?"

Thia nodded again. "When are you coming back?"

"In just a few days," Enza repeated, kneeling in front of her niece.

"Promise?" the little girl whispered, her eyes wide.

"Of course I promise," Enza replied solemnly. "I would never lie to you." She opened her arms wide and welcomed her niece into her embrace. "Be a good girl, all right?" she whispered as she hugged Thia tightly.

The little girl wrapped her arms around Enza's neck and held on, as if for dear life. "All right," she replied quietly.

Reluctantly, Enza stood up and took her young niece's hand. She hated leaving Thia behind, even if only for a few days, but she was powerless to avoid it. The best thing she could do for Thia was to play whatever role she could in ending this war as soon as possible. As the only family Thia had left, Enza had been thrust into the role of guardian when her brother and his wife had been killed. It was a role she rarely felt prepared for, but she had no choice. She was all Thia had.

She dropped Thia off, feeling the familiar twist of pain in her chest as they said their goodbyes. It never became any easier, and the young child's valiant attempts to be brave only seemed to make it more difficult for Enza to leave. Reluctantly, she continued on to the docking bays, where the transport ship was waiting to take her and Commander Ching and the rest of the delegation to the Belaar Valley. As she approached the bay, she saw Sergeant Lok Sim, the communications officer. He gave her a half smile and she wordlessly allowed him to take her bag. They boarded the ship. Enza tried to focus her mind on the task ahead, instead of on the little girl who was already waiting for her to return.

***

"Coming!" Jimmy yelled from within the apartment. She heard the thud of footsteps as he ran to the door. "Hey Lois!" he said as he opened the door. "What's up?" He stepped aside, as she entered the apartment.

"Hey Jimmy," she replied. "I was just flying back from Parumbara, I thought I'd stop in and see how you're doing."

"How was it?" Jimmy asked quietly.

She shrugged. "Not great."

"I still can't get the pictures out of my head," Jimmy replied. He started for his small kitchen. She followed a step behind.

"Yeah, but because of you, millions of other people saw those pictures, too. It was great work."

Jimmy pulled a couple of cream sodas from the fridge and tossed her one. "How do you keep doing it?"

"It's what I have to do," she said simply. She tapped the top of the can somewhat absent-mindedly with one finger before pulling up the flip tab.

Jimmy put his can of soda down on the counter unopened. He gripped the countertop so tightly with both hands his knuckles turned white. "I can't sleep," he confessed, his voice a low murmur. "I keep having the same nightmare over and over again."

"So do I."

He looked up, his eyes searching hers for some explanation or maybe just recognition that she understood exactly what he was going through. "I never thought about the kinds of things you and Clark have to see. I guess I never got past how cool it must have been to have your powers. But you see this stuff like every day, don't you?"

"Yeah," she admitted. "Some days it's not as bad as others. And some days it feels like I'm really doing something right. But others, I'm not sure if I want to cry or throw up. I'm sorry, I should have never taken you with me." She looked at her young friend, realizing that no matter how unintentional, she'd robbed him of his innocence. The scales had fallen from his eyes.

"No!" he said emphatically. "It's good that you did. I think I needed the wakeup call."

"Nobody needs to see the middle of a war zone, Jimmy."

"We were just going to interview the president; you couldn't have known what was going to happen."

"But I should have guessed."

"What I saw really freaked me out," he said in a low, hoarse whisper. "But it's not like I'm angry that I saw it. I'm angry that it happened." His voice found new resolve, the final words delivered with greater force than she'd expected.

"I am, too," she agreed. She reached across the counter to place a gentle hand on his.

"Does it get any easier?" he asked.

She looked at him for a long moment, a faint glimmer of hope in his eye. He was counting on her and she knew that he'd believe whatever she told him at that moment. "I don't know."

***

Clark stood up as Talan entered the reception room. She bowed slightly. "Good evening, sir," she said. The commander straightened to her full, impressive height, her face expressionless. Her uniform was perfectly pressed, her blonde hair pulled neatly back, as always. Her fastidious appearance made it hard to believe that less than an hour ago, she'd stepped off a transport after two weeks of patrolling the planet's most desolate mountain ranges.

"Thank you for coming," Clark replied. The ache in his knee convinced him he'd been standing long enough. He waved at the chairs, inviting Talan to sit. She sat down in a chair across from his, her posture still ramrod straight.

"What can I do for you, sir?"

"I asked you to come because, well…" Clark scrubbed a hand through his hair and stared at the floor, fumbling for words. He had been avoiding talking to anyone about anything on his mind for so long, he didn't know where to start. He stared downward, the words still refusing to come. He drew in a deep breath, still stubbornly not making eye contact. "Ever since I've been back, I've been feeling different. Not myself. It's like I'm watching someone else's life. Nothing seems real. And I've been having the same nightmare over and over again."

"What you went through, sir, it would haunt anyone," she said softly.

"What about you?" he asked. "The things you've seen, and been through… How do you manage?" He leaned forward and looked up at her.

"It has not been easy, sir," she replied, folding her hands in her lap. "It's very hard to hate what you've done without hating who you are."

He chewed his lip, slightly taken aback by her words. He had never thought Talan, who was always so dispassionate, had her own demons to fight. "How do you do it?" he asked again.

Talan closed her eyes for a moment, as though she was gathering her thoughts. "It took a long time for me to learn the proper meditation techniques, to separate my thoughts from my feelings, to learn how to block out emotions I was not capable of entertaining."

"I want to learn how," Clark replied.

"I am not certain I can teach you, sir," Talan said, her normally steady voice wavering.

"I know you're a master of meditation, if anyone can help me, you can."

"I can't," she said abruptly, standing up. Talan turned on her heel and started to leave, violating all the rules of decorum and propriety.

Clark stood up. "Please," he said.

"I cannot do it, sir," Talan repeated emphatically as she turned around. A few strands of blonde hair spilled forward over her face. "You don't want to follow down the path I'm on."

"You know I'm no good at giving orders." He smiled weakly.

"I won't do that to you." A flash of fire crossed her usually cold, gray eyes and then her expression unexpectedly softened. "Do you know what the greatest quality of a human being is? It's the capacity to suffer, sir. Without it, we have no empathy, no compassion. We stop understanding others and their pain. And we lose our motivation to combat that suffering."

"All I think about is my own pain, my fears, my nightmares. I'm no good to anyone like this. I can't help anyone like this."

"And I cannot show you how to conquer the pain. My only gift is the ability to outrun it. And the price is that I have to keep running from it. Constantly. I will not help you become what I've become. I'm sorry, sir." Her head bowed, she backed away.

***

Lois leaned back on the couch in the den with Jon in her lap, the cordless phone cradled between her ear and her shoulder. "Wanna say hi to Uncle Perry?" she asked as she held the phone up to Jon's ear. He grabbed on to the end of the phone with both hands. She could hear Perry speaking in baby talk to Jon and she couldn't help but grin. "Okay, Mommy's turn," she said as she gently reclaimed the phone and dropped a kiss on top of Jon's head.

"Hey Lois," Perry said cheerfully. "I have good news. The suits and the lawyers are crying uncle. They're gonna cave on pretty much every point."

"That's great," she replied.

"And you'll be making a heck of a lot more money."

"Which is never a bad thing," she agreed.

"You don't seem too excited about this," Perry said.

"I'm sorry," she responded with a slight sigh. "My mind's a million miles away."

"In Kinwara?" he ventured.

"Yeah," she confirmed, knowing there was no point in trying to deny it. "When I'm there, all I think about is Jon, and how much I wish I were here. When I'm here, all I think about is the fact that I'm not there."

"You shouldn't feel guilty about spending time with your son, darlin'. He needs you, too."

"I know, Chief," she replied.

"I'm serious. Jon is going to grow up so fast, and you're going to regret it if you don't spend this time with him."

Lois knew that he was right, unfortunately it didn't matter how much sense it made, she still couldn't help feeling the guilt, no matter what she did. The incessant feeling that she wasn't succeeding, either as a parent, or as a hero, plagued her, but she knew that she had to work equally hard at both. She couldn't save an entire country by turning her back on her son. There was only so much Jonathan and Martha could do to fill the void while she was gone, but Jon deserved both of his parents, and for now, that wasn't even an option. With Clark gone, Jon needed her even more. She said her goodbyes and hung up the phone. She held Jon up high over her head.

"What should we do now, little man?" she asked. Jon laughed in response. "How about we look at the photo album? I think Grandma and Grandpa finished putting in the pictures from your birthday party." She settled him against her hip as she found the big, thick photo album on the bookshelf. Settling back on the couch with Jon sitting right next to her, she opened the album on her lap.

The first page was pictures of her and Clark from the first time they'd been back to the farm after she learned about his secret. They were smiling more at each other than at the camera, so deliriously in love the memory of it caused her heart to twist. "Do you know who that is?" she asked, pointing to Clark. "That's Daddy." She held Jon's little hand in hers. "Yes, that's your daddy," she repeated. They flipped slowly through the album together. She repeated the names of everyone in every picture as she pointed to them.

"And that's you, little man," she said, smiling, as she turned to the first of many pages of Jon on his first birthday, his face and hair covered in vanilla frosting. Lois couldn't get over what a happy baby he was, or how much he looked like his dad. She'd seen pictures of Clark as a baby in the many albums filled with photos; he and his son had the same eyes, the same great big smile.

She placed the album on the coffee table and turned back to the cheerful little baby sitting next to her. She pulled him easily into her arms; as always, finding a remarkable sense of peace in holding him. She breathed deeply the fresh scent of powder and soap on his soft skin. Her hearing tuned in to the sound of his heartbeat and she closed her eyes. "I love you so much," she whispered. She looked at him as he studied her with his big, brown eyes. "You know that, right?" she asked. Lois kissed his forehead. "Mommy loves you more than anything."

***

Talan bowed as she entered the reception room, with its soaring, vaulted ceilings. The First Minister rose to his feet as she approached. He seemed healthier and stronger than he did just a few days earlier. While he was still thinner than he was before his capture, he had regained much of the lost weight and his complexion was no longer pale, but there was still an incredible sadness in his eyes. She could not help but notice it, and it caused her to worry more than she had expected. Having seen just a glimpse of what he had lost and what he had endured, she wished for him to have a life free of these difficulties. He had sacrificed so much for a world that wasn't even his and for people he did not know. If anyone deserved a life of happiness, it was him. "I am sorry to disturb you, sir. I know that you are busy," she began.

"Not at all," he replied graciously. "What can I do for you, Commander?" He gingerly lowered himself back into his chair.

Talan sat down in the empty chair across from his. "I first wanted to apologize for my behavior the other night," she said. "There was no justification or excuse for my insubordination."

"Don't worry about it," Kal El replied warmly.

"Sir, I wish to apologize, but I also wanted to make amends. I know that the most difficult burdens to bear are the ones we bear alone. I realize that I may not be the most inviting or sympathetic of people, but if you wish to speak with someone, I am always willing to listen."

"Thank you," he replied quietly with a brief ghost of a smile. "I am grateful. I'm just not sure I'm ready to talk about it yet."

She nodded. "I understand, sir."

He looked down at his hands silently. Long moments passed and she wondered if he wished her to leave, even though he had not dismissed her. It seemed possible because he was so polite and the strictures of military protocol were so obviously alien to him. "I'm sorry," he said quietly, his voice so low she scarcely heard him. And she imagined for a moment that she must have misheard him; what did he have to apologize for?

He looked up at long last and his dark eyes met hers and she could tell that she hadn't heard him wrong. There was contrition and sorrow etched into his expression. "You've been a great friend to me, and I'm afraid I haven't done the same. Before you mentioned it the other day, I never thought about whether you had someone you could speak to when things get to be too much."

She drew in a deep breath. She shouldn't have been surprised. It was so characteristic of him to think of the people around him even when, by all rights, he should have been consumed by his own pain. And yet, it amazed her that he could think he'd been lacking in compassion. Talan could say with no hesitation, that Kal El had never, at any point in his life, lacked compassion. "Commanding is a lonely profession, sir, but you already knew that," she replied.

"But even I don't do this completely alone. I've depended so much on you, as well as on Zara, and Ching, and Enza."

She felt the corners of her mouth turn upward in a slight smile. "I know that I speak for all of them as well as for myself when I say that you have been as great a friend as we could ask for. You lead with tremendous courage and even more compassion. Your example makes us all want to be better than we are."

For a long moment, he said nothing and merely smiled genuinely. "Thank you," he whispered at long last.

"Please believe that I meant every word," she replied.

***

Lois stepped through the metal detector, trying hard not to smirk. She understood that it was White House protocol, but she wasn't quite certain what anyone thought it would accomplish. A pair of Secret Service agents flanked Ultrawoman as she was led to the West Wing. A presidential aide guided her through the maze of hallways and offices to the anteroom outside the Oval Office.

"Ultrawoman is here to see the president," the aide announced to the president's secretary.

"The president is running a few minutes behind schedule," the efficient, grandmotherly secretary announced. She turned to Lois. "He's in with the Secretary of State. You can wait here, Ultrawoman, until they're done."

"Thank you," Lois replied.

A few minutes later, the door opened and the Secretary of State walked out. President Young appeared in the doorway, a big grin on his face. "Ultrawoman! Nice to see you," he said, his hand outstretched.

"Thank you for meeting with me, Mr. President," she said as she shook his hand. She followed him into the Oval Office. She was entirely on his turf now.

One of the Secret Service agents pulled the door shut. President Young sat down in the wingback chair near the two sofas in the middle of the room. He rested his elbows on the armrests, his hands folded in front of him. "Nasty problem down there in…" he frowned, his eyes narrowed as though he were trying to remember something. "Kinwara," he muttered.

Lois remained standing, her hands clasped stiffly in front of her. "Yes, sir," she replied simply.

"And it seems you've been causing quite a stir."

Lois bit her lip to keep from scowling. He was making it sound like she'd been starting food fights in the cafeteria. "I've been doing what I can," she said coolly. "But I was hoping to get more support from your administration. The money earmarked for aid to Kinwara has been cut from the budget."

"I'm sorry, but I've made clear what my administration's priorities are," President Young replied, his tone making clear he wasn't the least bit apologetic, irrespective of his words.

"Surely there has to be some money somewhere," she countered.

"It's not just the money. This situation is a mess. There are no national interests at stake, no political will to get involved. And the Chinese and Russians will pitch a fit if we get into this hornets' nest. It's not our problem."

She reached under her cape, drawing the attention of the two Secret Service agents. For goodness sake, if she were going to be a threat, she certainly wouldn't have needed a weapon. The agents backed off as she pulled out an envelope. She took out the stack of photos Jimmy had taken, the ones too graphic and disturbing for the paper, and dropped them on the coffee table, just in front of President Young. "It is our problem," she replied sternly. "It isn't difficult to explain to me, here, in your office, why this isn't a priority of yours, but try explaining that to those children, or actually, since they're all dead, to their mothers."

He glared, unblinking, at her. "Are you claiming this is my fault?" the President asked with an incredulity bordering on anger.

"No, Mr. President. I know you didn't cause it, but you're the only one who can stop it."

"You're treading on dangerous ground, Ultrawoman, and you aren't doing anything to win yourself allies. Careful you don't make enemies you can't afford to have."

"With all due respect, sir, I don't care whether I make any allies. This isn't about me. But you're right about one thing. You and I can't afford to have each other as enemies. I need your help. I can deliver food and round up rebels, but I'm just trying to stanch the bleeding until someone comes along with a better plan. Mr. President, you don't just have the power, you have the credibility and respect to change this situation. If you talk about Kinwara, people will listen. If you make it a priority, others will, too."

"Ultrawoman, I know why this is important to you. It's a worthy cause. But you don't have 300 million bosses, expecting you to do the job you were hired for. I can't get bogged down in every problem in every small third world country."

"Sir, we're talking about genocide. About the wholesale destruction of an entire country, an entire people."

The president frowned but said nothing. He glanced down at his watch. "Well, I'm afraid I've got a lot of appointments today. Thank you for coming."

"Thank you, sir," she replied, trying to tamp down the disappointment.

***

"Ease off the thruster," Zara instructed calmly.

Dek Ra slid the control lever forward slowly. He glanced over at his older sister from the co-pilot's seat. "When will we be switching to the Interceptor?" he asked impatiently.

"When you are ready," came the terse reply.

"But I am ready," he insisted.

Zara reached forward and took the controls in front of her. She toggled a switch on the control panel. Once her controls were engaged, Dek Ra was no longer able to pilot the ship. She suddenly cut the power to the number four engine, increased the thrust to the number one engine, and set the messenger into a corkscrew spin. The ship stalled and started to drop like a stone.

"Zara!" De Ra cried. "What are you doing?" He reached for the co-pilot's controls, but the ship did not respond. He looked over at his sister, his eyes wide with fear. "We're going to crash! Do something!"

Zara reached out calmly and flipped the switch that turned control of the ship over to the co-pilot. Dek Ra reached immediately for the controls. "Wait!" she commanded loudly.

"Zara, we're going to die!" His voice cracked.

"Take the controls," she said evenly.

"What do I do? What do I DO?"

"Cut the power to the numbers one, two, and three engine," she said quietly. He immediately complied. "Good, now increase thrust to the number four engine back to ten per cent." The spin of the messenger slowed. Once they were right side up again, she instructed "now, turn gently against the direction of the roll."

Dek Ra held the controls tightly in his bone white hands. The messenger finally righted itself, but continued to lose altitude. "Rotate the numbers two and three engine thrusters ninety degrees and increase power to one hundred percent, and cut power to the number four engine." He reached forward and turned the proper knobs. The messenger's descent slowed and stopped. It hovered gently, a few hundred feet above the ground.

The young man let out a shuddering sigh and wiped the sweat away from his brow. His skin looked clammy and green. "Wh…why did you do that?"

"There are two lessons you need to take away from this," she instructed. "First, you must follow my directions exactly, without hesitation. Second, you must respect the ship you fly. Any craft, even a slow and dependable messenger, can easily take a pilot's life. Once you learn that respect, we will discuss flying an Interceptor."

Dek Ra's eyes grew wide as he lurched forward and vomited.

***

Where was that damned cell phone? Lois x-rayed the entire farmhouse looking for the blasted thing. She could hear it buzzing, having been left on vibrate. She found it at last, buried under a pile of the morning's paper in the den. She zipped downstairs and snatched the buzzing cell phone before it could transfer the call to voicemail. "Lois Lane," she said into the phone.

"Uh, Ms. Lane, I'm calling from the Kinwara Action Network," came the sound of a young man's voice on the other end.

"What can I do for you?" Lois asked as she pushed aside her notes and laptop and took a seat on the couch.

"There's a Save Kinwara rally of college student groups at Metropolis University, and we're trying to get a speaker for the event."

"And you want me to ask Ultrawoman for you?" she asked.

"N…no. Actually, we wanted you to speak," he replied.

"Oh," she replied. "Really?" She didn't mean to sound so surprised, but she had no idea why a bunch of college kids would want to hear her speak.

"Yeah, Ms. Lane. Your writing motivated a lot of us to get involved. We were hoping you'd be willing to speak, maybe give us some ideas of how we can do more."

"Well, okay then," she replied.

"Great!" the kid replied. He began to rattle off the details of the event and thanked her profusely. When she finally hung up, she closed her eyes and let out a sigh of relief. Finally, it seemed like there was proof that someone was reading what she wrote. A few kids had taken notice. It might not have been much, but it was a start. It was something.

***

Lok Sim followed a few steps behind Captain Enza, carrying a satchel of documents and communications equipment. The captain was the junior-most advisor in the diplomatic mission to the Belaar Valley and he was just there to make sure that their lines of communication were functional and secure. The talks had seemed less tense today than they were the previous day. He believed that progress was being made. A few more days of negotiations remained and like everyone else, he hoped they would be fruitful.

It was late and over the past few days, no one seemed to have slept well. Nerves were worn thin and tempers had flared, resulting in tensions not just in the heavily guarded conference rooms but also in the unused barracks building where the diplomatic team had been staying. Commander Ching had been staying in the commanding officer's quarters, with the rest of the staff housed in the surrounding officers' barracks. Lok Sim had commandeered an old conference room to set up the mission's communications network. Secured communications lines kept the mission in constant contact with the main colony. He transmitted regular updates to the First Ministers and senior members of the Council, apprising them of the state of the negotiations. If he stopped to think about it, it was rather surreal, being at the very heart of some of the most important events in his world's history. But for the most part he didn't dwell on the historical significance, or the strange confluence of events which brought him here, as much an outsider, a bystander to the action as possible.

A few members of the elite Expeditionary Forces stood guard in the corridors. They would maintain their watch throughout the night, while the negotiators and their advisors slept. As an enlisted man, Lok Sim had more in common with the guards than with the officers and career diplomats. Like them, Lok Sim never signed up for a life of war or politics. He was fulfilling his duty to his planet. He expected one day to have a quieter, simpler life. Or at least, he hoped to. But instead of staying in the bunks, six to a room, he was assigned to a junior officer's quarters, adjacent to Captain Enza's.

They reached her room first. Enza disarmed and opened the door. Lok Sim stepped forward to place the heavy satchel on the floor just inside the door. He stepped back into the hallway. "Goodnight, ma'am," he said quietly.

"Goodnight, Sergeant," she replied.

"If you need anything," he said, gesturing toward his own room, next door.

"Thank you," she said graciously, a small smile forming at her lips.

"Goodnight," he repeated, smiling sheepishly. He turned and walked the short distance to his own room.

***

Clark's limp was barely noticeable as he made the long walk through the corridor to the senior officers' gymnasium. He hadn't been in the training room since before the abduction and was still in no shape to consider a workout. He stepped through the entryway into the gym, which was almost empty.

Almost.

In China and India he'd seen warriors practicing their martial arts. The slow, meditative techniques of Tai Chi and yoga seemed delicate and reflective, but they were actually modified versions of the very same overpowering techniques used in combat. Elegant and effortless, these arts were a form of meditation; designed to keep the practitioner in perfect control over his or her body. Kryptonians practiced a similar art, of which Talan was clearly a master.

She moved silently and gracefully through each position and technique, long ago committed to memory. Her back to him, he'd been fairly certain that she hadn't noticed him enter until she said, "What can I do for you, sir?" as she stopped and turned around.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt you, Commander," he replied hastily.

"Not at all," she said as she approached him. "Did you wish to speak to me, sir?"

"Yes, I was hoping we could talk…" he trailed off, trying to find the words to ask for help.

"Of course, sir," she replied graciously, saving him the trouble. Any other man would have noticed the commander's striking presence. Her sparring uniform left her arms bare. Her long, slender limbs were perfectly toned, her body balanced between strength and grace. Her every movement was blend of elegance and power. Any other man would have noticed. But not Clark.

Talan nodded slightly. "If you could give me a moment, I will get cleaned up."

"Sure," he stammered. He waited until she'd retreated from the gymnasium before letting out a sigh. He'd never much been good at asking for help. Now it was even harder. He'd spent the last two years pretending he knew all the answers. Pretending that he could make every decision without hesitation, without doubts or second guesses. How was he supposed to admit that he wasn't in control?

***

Clark sat silently in the darkened reception room in the First Ministers' quarters long after Talan had left. His body and mind were exhausted; recounting the details he remembered of his imprisonment was almost like reliving them. But she had listened to him, never interrupting to second guess or judge his reactions. She had been able to provide him with perspectives and insights he didn't posses. And she had understood, in a way that perhaps no one else in the world ever could. She had seen the depths of human darkness before. He had to admit that it was a relief not to have to worry that he was burdening her with something she wouldn't be able to deal with.

It had been a struggle to maintain his composure while he talked. As certain as he was that Talan understood the baser instincts in human beings, that she knew the extent of the fear and hatred and desperation they could exhibit, she seemed uncertain how to act when faced with vulnerability. Both physical and emotional vulnerability were fairly new experiences for Clark. He was never quick to cry, but there had been occasions that had brought Superman to tears. Disasters that had overwhelmed him, especially early on.

But here, he'd wept in relief for the first time in his life, when Talan had returned Lois's wedding ring to him. Losing it had crushed him. How could he be anything but a failure as a man and a husband? He'd promised her he would keep it safe — as safe as his love for her. And he'd failed. So when the ring was returned to him, he couldn't even try to contain his relief.

He'd reached for his friend's hand and she held on as tightly as he did, but he knew that she guarded and controlled her emotions tightly. Back then, he'd had no real choice — he'd been so overwhelmed that he could no more have controlled his reactions than he could have turned back time. But now, he worried that letting the floodgates open on his own fears and feelings would only make Talan uncomfortable. It was better to discuss things as honestly, but as dispassionately as possible. So he'd closed his eyes and pretended he was recounting the details of a story. Something he'd seen or heard about, instead of experienced. But the pretending hadn't done much good. It was strange how clear the memories were. How vividly he could remember the sounds echoing in each of a dozen prisons, the way that the cold shackles had dug into the skin of his wrists, the burning dryness in his throat and the gnawing pain in his stomach.

Even though they weren't real, describing the nightmares was the hardest. They hollowed him out, leaving him empty and broken. He wasn't quite sure how to explain the helplessness he'd felt — like he was being pinned down while the one person he loved more than anything was destroyed. He'd tried, nonetheless. He'd managed to keep himself more or less together and as he'd finished talking. When it was over, he suddenly felt like he was able to take a deep breath for the first time in months. It wasn't much, but it was more than he'd been expecting.

***

Lois made the quick flight up the eastern seaboard from Washington to Metropolis. Flying over the densely packed skyscrapers, avoiding the flight paths of planes circling the city's airports, she descended near the small, well manicured campus of the United Nations. She walked toward the diplomats' entrance, where she was quietly escorted toward the Security Council chambers by several of the UN's police officers.

The process was fairly similar to the one she'd undergone that same morning at the Capitol, where she'd testified before a lukewarm Senate Foreign Relations Committee. At least those in power were giving her the time of day, even if they weren't really listening. The afternoon's meeting was a more informal discussion on the fact finding mission that had been sent to Kinwara. They were making some progress, but it still felt like baby steps, and the road in front of them could hardly have been longer or more dangerous.

She was led to the already assembled group of diplomats in a soaring, cavernous meeting room, decorated by a mural depicting the beating of a sword into a ploughshare, donated by some Scandinavian country, Lois couldn't recall which. In quiet, polite tones, the ambassadors discussed the mission's latest report. Uncharacteristically, Lois held her tongue, speaking only to answer questions or correct misunderstandings. It was excruciatingly painful and she felt the anxiety welling up inside her, but she drew up every bit of self-restraint she possessed and remained quiet. The blunt, upfront approach had failed with this bunch. Perhaps it was time to take a page out of Clark's playbook. Instead of trying to draw information directly out of her targets, the way she did in interviews, she'd sit back, observe, pick up on their tells, and figure out their bluffs. It was a maddening endeavor and she was certain that the only reason her husband could do it was because he spent his childhood waiting around for corn to grow.

She nodded approvingly when the French Ambassador, Dominque de Saint Antoine, explained that the fact finding mission's report suggested that the UN needed to take more decisive action. And bit her tongue when Ambassador Lin disagreed. At least the Russian envoy wasn't nearly as vocal in his opposition to further action. After hours of polite diplomat-speak, the meeting was adjourned. In the hallways outside the meeting room, Ultrawoman was intercepted by a tall, thin man in a grey suit. He smiled as he asked for a moment of her time.

"Certainly," she replied.

"I'm Rob Grey, security attaché to the Canadian permanent mission," he introduced himself. Juggling a stack of folders, he managed to free his right hand and extend it to her.

"What can I do for you, Mr. Grey?" she asked.

"It's more about what I can do for you. The Canadian government wants to put forward a proposal to increase troop strength and broaden the UN mandate, in conjunction with the opening of negotiations for a cease fire. We want you involved."

Lois felt a sudden surge of exhilaration. "Just tell me how I can help."

The Canadian attaché gave her a tight lipped smile that reached his pale blue eyes. "I'll call the Canadian ambassador."

***

In the darkened hallway, Talan unholstered her sidearm and crept forward silently, keeping her back against the corridor wall. Her heart began to pound and she couldn't will it to slow down. Her throat was suddenly so dry she could barely swallow. In long, soundless strides she moved toward the threat. She had been tracking Nor for what seemed like ages. Ceaselessly, relentlessly, hunting him like an animal. And now she was finally drawing near her prey. She would have him trapped, cornered.

The stillness was shattered by an almost inhuman scream. It tore through the hallways, echoing like thunder. She ran at a full sprint, headlong toward the source of the screams. She knew that voice. Rounding one corner and then the next, she ran even faster and harder through the maze of hallways and cramped passages. She couldn't tell if the screams continued or if it was just that they echoed in her ears.

The hallway suddenly spilled into a large, dark room. In it stood the target of her hunt and just in front of him, the source of the screams, broken and bruised, just like they'd found him months ago. Nor placed his weapon against his victim's temple. She yelled at him to drop it. She repeated the order, but he just smiled at her, his eyes dull and lifeless.

Talan felt her hands tighten around her weapon, her grip causing her hands to tremble. Her pulse thundered so loudly she was certain everyone in the room could hear it. Again, she demanded that Nor drop his weapon, as she kept hers trained on him. She watched, suddenly stunned with horror, as his finger twitched against the trigger. Before she could react, he pulled it. And Kal El fell, blood pooling immediately.

She heard herself scream, but it seemed to be coming from miles away. She moved forward in her long, measured strides and began firing. She kept shooting, long after Nor had dropped to the floor in a boneless heap.

The commander sat bolt upright in bed. Her heart thundering like a trip hammer in her chest. Her skin soaked with sweat. Her breaths came in labored gasps as she stared, wide eyed, at the blank wall across from her. She'd murdered a man in her dream. A vicious, homicidal brute that deserved to die, but it was still murder. And it was done in revenge. She'd killed because she wanted to.

She stood up swiftly and began peeling off her clothes as she made her way to her washroom. It was only a dream, but even the worst nightmares she'd suffered had never been this disturbing. Most often, she'd just relived past experiences she would have rather forgotten. But this time, she'd been driven by rage and anger and a passionate burst of violence she didn't understand. Something foreign and ugly was screaming and burning to work its way out of her. And instead of forcing it back down, cramming it away in some small, dark corner of her soul, she let it out.

The dream had, no doubt, been brought on by her conversation with Kal El. With great reluctance, he had told her not only what had happened to him, but also about the nightmares that now plagued him. He'd known that his fears, fears that Nor would harm his wife and that he'd be powerless to help her, were irrational, but they were real nonetheless. His mind was turning his sense of powerlessness into his greatest fear. After they had rescued him, he had been treated to help keep the memories from consuming him, but the treatment worked best when it was begun immediately after the trauma. He'd spent six weeks being tortured. Alone. Forsaken.

The recounting of his experiences haunted her. It had been a mistake to go to sleep that night, to allow herself to succumb to dreams she couldn't control.

Talan stepped under the cold stream of water and closed her eyes. She'd dreamt of killing because someone she cared about had been killed. What frightened her most was that she did not know whether the feelings and reactions were limited to dreams. The emotions that plagued her were beyond her understanding, but she knew they were wholly inappropriate. She let out a deep breath and suppressed a shiver.

***

Lois flew her patrol over the river basin, scanning the dense jungle for any sign of rebel movements. Thick tendrils of dark smoke curled up from the distant horizon. She stared hard at the source — fires in a small village not far from a refugee camp she often visited with supplies. She changed course, flying straight toward the fires. She swooped low as she approached, snapping branches as she cut through the thicket of trees and heavy brush.

Civilians fled in every direction from the burning buildings. She scanned each of the buildings for trapped people and came to a halt in front of one of the houses. She pulled the door from the hinges and ran into the building. Flames licked the walls and ceiling of the house. In a distant corner, two small children sat huddled together, cowering under the thick blanket of smoke. Lois inhaled the smoke and fumes, clearing the room. She gently knelt and picked up the children. She pulled her cape around them as she rushed out of the house.

A frantic cluster of people waited outside for her. A man came rushing toward them, his arms outstretched. The two children reached back toward him, and Lois released them to his care. She scanned the rest of the area for other potential victims and took off like a bolt. On the other side of the village, away from the fires, another group of people was gathered. The crowd parted as she approached. In the middle, sat Dr. Heller, holding a wet cloth to a large cut on her forehead.

"Dr. Heller, are you all right?" Lois asked as she gently moved past the concerned people gathered around the doctor.

"They took him," she replied frantically. "They took Luc."

Lois tried to look at the cut over the doctor's eyebrow. "I'm fine," Dr. Heller insisted. She pointed toward a path leading out of the village. "Please, find him."

With a curt nod, Lois took off. She followed the hard packed road to where it disappeared in the brush, and then followed the tire tracks through the mud. She listened for the sound of truck engines driving away and tried to pick up the scent of exhaust. Lois picked up the trail and took off at full speed in pursuit. Within just a few moments, she'd caught up to the rebels' jeeps. Luc was laid sprawled out across the backseat of one of the off road vehicles, unconscious. She forced the jeep to pull over and quickly disarmed and bound all three of the rebels. Lois gingerly lifted Dr. Luc Arnault out of the backseat and flew him back toward the village.

Dr. Heller ran to meet them on unsteady legs. A dark bruise had begun to form around her eye. "Luc!" she cried out.

Lois carried him into one of the still standing buildings and laid him down on a table. Dr. Heller never left his side. The doctor looked him over hurriedly. "My bag," she demanded, the pitch of her voice strained to the breaking point. Lois darted out and found the doctor's black medical bag. She returned a bare instant later to find Ingrid gently brushing a lock of hair away from his forehead. There was a pained look of tenderness on the doctor's face. Lois handed her the bag and stepped back. There were still rebels tied up in the jungle that she needed to pick up and take to the detention compound.

***

Lois carried the disabled jeep, with its three unwilling passengers, back toward the detention compound. She suddenly slowed as the faint sounds of a radio transmission cut through the typical din of background noises. It was a rebel broadcast and they were coordinating an attack. They used codenames, preventing her from figuring out their targets, but she had a few pretty good guesses. With a burst of speed, she took her charges to the detention center and left them with a guard, unable to take the time to provide an explanation, though one was hardly needed. Several times a week, Ultrawoman visited this compound with new criminals to add to its burgeoning population. She scanned the group of buildings and headed directly for the duty captain to warn him that the rebels might be preparing an assault. He called all of the post's guards and soldiers to alert. Without the element of surprise, the rebels wouldn't be able to overrun the base.

She took off for the UN's base of operations. The loud, staccato bursts of gunfire made her heart stop. The rebels had beaten her there. At full speed, she raced toward the base, frantically trying to think up ways to end an all out battle. Ultrawoman arrived to find the UN compound under full siege. Peacekeepers returned volleys of fire against attackers who had surrounded the base. As she tried to make sense out of the chaos, to determine the best way to help, she located a group of several dozen peacekeepers, outnumbered and outgunned, a short distance away from the base. They were probably returning from a routine patrol. They were surrounded by rebels, completely cut off from the road back toward the base. If they were lucky and the rebels were clever, they'd end up as human shields or hostages, just like the peacekeepers in Bosnia.

Unless, of course, she intervened.

She took off at full speed and quickly disarmed the rebels, moving too fast for any of them to see her. Within moments, she had them bound up. The peacekeepers wasted no time savoring the reversal of their fortunes, and took custody of the rebels. The forces attacking the base, however, had also taken note of the change in the tides and used the opportunity to beat a hasty and chaotic retreat. Jeeps careened down every road leading away from the installation. Men on foot, left behind by their comrades in the confusion, followed. She paused for a moment to consider giving chase, but decided it was more important to check in with General Rapin. There would doubtlessly be injured in need of assistance.

The general rushed through the camp at a brisk jog, shouting orders to his subordinates, and demanding status checks. All around him, his officers had taken responsibility for surveying the damage and triaging the wounded. Ultrawoman headed directly toward the spot where the wounded were being gathered and tended to by the peacekeepers' medical staff. The most seriously wounded were prepared to be airlifted to hospitals in neighboring countries that had been put on alert. Lois made several trips, ferrying the injured to more advanced medical facilities. Eventually, once the last of the critically wounded was taken care of, she returned to the base and sought out the general.

He paced restlessly in the compound, taking in the extent of the damage, but he stopped and looked up as she approached. "I can't thank you enough for rescuing my men," he said, squinting and shielding his eyes from the sunlight. "A daytime raid on our base of operations, the rebels are getting even more daring."

"I'm just glad I was in the area," Lois replied.

"It's that damn radio broadcast," Rapin spat. "Twenty four hours a day of hate speech and incitement to terror and warfare. They're probably using it now to regroup. And yet, the Directorate of Peacekeeping Operations won't let me shut it down."

Ultrawoman folded her arms across her chest. "Do you know where the signals are being transmitted from?"

The general gave her a terse nod and gestured for her to follow him to his office. On his desk, he spread out a map of the river basin and jungles. Little colored markers dotted the map. "These are the radio towers the rebels are using to broadcast their message. Destroy them and the rebels' means of communication and organization are destroyed."

***

"It seems like things are going well. Like there might be peace," Lok Sim said hopefully. He looked up from the communications equipment he was dismantling. It was late, but the negotiations had seemed productive.

Captain Enza gave him a weary smile. "There are no castles among the stars yet, but peace with the Belaar might still be possible," she replied, repeating a common Kryptonian aphorism.

"No cities carved in mountains? No alabaster towers jutting out against vermillion skies?" he asked, completing the description from the ancient fable.

"The story of Revan and Sirin?" she asked. He nodded. "You must have paid more attention to your studies than most."

"'The Unification of the Seventeen Tribes' was always my favorite," he said. He finished packing up the equipment and sat down across from her at the table in the otherwise empty room.

"I don't think I've heard the story since I was a child. Do you still remember it?"

"By heart," he replied.

"Tell it to me." Her expression was guarded, but the slightest hint of a smile played at her lips.

He smiled and began to recite the poem. The Tale of Revan and Sirin was the first of the stories of the unifications of the tribes of Krypton and the oldest known fable among their people. He closed his eyes as the lines returned to him. Picking up the rhyme and meter of the poem, he retold the story of Sirin, the daughter of a powerful king. The king's land and his people were under attack by raiders. The king died in the defense of his city, leaving his daughter to lead their people.

For days, the city held out, but its soldiers were weary, its defenses were weakening, and its supplies were running out. On the fourth night, a column of soldiers appeared at the top of the distant hills, led by Prince Revan, heir to distant, friendly kingdom, coming to the city's aide. When the fighting ended, the city had been all but burned to the ground, but the invaders were defeated.

Revan was instantly taken by the princess, draped in shrouds of mourning for her deceased father. For weeks, Revan and his men remained to stand watch and protect Sirin and her people. And each day, Revan fell deeper in love with her. With time, it became clear that the city itself could not be salvaged. The population would need to be relocated somewhere safer and more easily defended. Revan finally professed his love, but Sirin was still deep in mourning and focused only on protecting her people.

A messenger came to call Revan home. Months passed without word. Revan's men, however, remained to protect Sirin's people, proving that even if his love was fleeting, his friendship was steadfast. When all hope and expectation of his return was gone, that was when he reappeared. Without explanation, he asked Sirin to go with him. They made the long journey to Revan's city, lodged deep in the mountains.

"I wanted to show you this," he announced as he brought her to the edge of the city, where builders were carving a city in the side of the mountain. Revan explained that his city was too small to absorb all of Sirin's people, and there was no room to build, except in the side of the mountain, so that is what he did.

"I will carve you a city in the mountains, with alabaster towers jutting out against the vermillion sky. I will build you bridges over oceans so there is nowhere you cannot go. And I will build you castles among the stars, so that even if the ground beneath us falls away, you will still have a home."

"It's ironic, don't you think?" Enza asked. "All this talk about castles among the stars, in case the ground of Krypton fell away."

"It is," he agreed. "But maybe that's what we're supposed to be doing. The first ships sent to New Krypton to bring supplies and materiel were called Revan Class Ships. The ships that brought the colonists here…"

"Were Sirin Class," Enza finished. "It's a beautiful poem."

"I've always been fond of it."

"I should remember to tell it to Thia," the captain replied. "I'm sure she'll enjoy hearing about a brave princess who protects her people with the help of a gallant prince."

"Your niece seems like a wonderful child."

"She is," Enza agreed. "She is very bright; I forget at times how young she is. How much she doesn't understand, how much she shouldn't have to understand."

***

Ultrawoman landed outside the Canadian Consulate and immediately started up the brownstone's steps, silently fuming. The reports had just hit the evening news and for the first time in her life, Lois hated the press. She'd had no time for the spin and the faux outrage of minor diplomats and talking heads. Ultrawoman had turned half of the Lake Regina Valley into a radio dead zone and her only regret was having not done it earlier. She strode into the lobby of the consular office and was immediately intercepted by a pleasant looking middle aged woman.

"Ultrawoman, Ambassador Dalton is expecting you," the woman explained as she gestured toward the heavy oak double doors at the end of the hallway. Lois entered the room, barely giving the ambassador enough time to register her presence before she launched into the defense no one had cared to hear before taking the story to press. He stood up, but she skipped over the pleasantries entirely.

"Every attack on innocent people in Kinwara and on your own country's peacekeepers was launched using that radio system. Leaving it intact was the stupidest thing the UN has done in years and I certainly wasn't going to wait for permission before destroying it."

Off Ambassador Dalton's bemused smile, she stopped pacing, having just realized that she'd been circling like a caged tiger.

"Are you under the impression that I'm angry about what you did?" the white haired diplomat asked, still grinning. "I asked you to stop by so that I could thank you. As you already know, the Canadian contingent is the largest in the peacekeeping force, so we have a particular interest in this mission. You saved the lives of at least forty of my countrymen today by fighting off that ambush, and no doubt many more in the future by destroying the radio system."

"Oh. I'm sorry," Lois replied sheepishly and entirely unheroically. She hoped the mask obscuring her face was also concealing the red that was doubtlessly creeping into her complexion.

"I also wanted to give you a bit of advice. Next time you decide to do something…decisive, a courtesy call would be helpful. That way I can make a statement to the press before the story spirals out of control."

"Thank you," Lois replied, slightly off balance. She'd come in spoiling for a fight, only to realize that she'd finally found an ally. Funny, how she'd wasted all the diplomatic politeness she possessed on people who clearly weren't going to listen.

"Now," he said as he buttoned up his suit jacket. "I'm going to explain to the Secretary-General that this operation was planned and approved by the Canadian government and General Rapin, if you don't mind?"

"Thank you," Lois repeated.

Ambassador Dalton escorted Ultrawoman to the door. "I appreciate everything you've done to help General Rapin, he's an old friend of mine. And, of course, the Canadian government is grateful for your protection of our forces. Let me know if there's anything else I can do to help support your work over there."

***

Picking up her sleeping toddler from where he lay on the couch, Lois carried him gently upstairs to the nursery. As always, he'd come bounding toward her, smiling and laughing with delight, as she walked into the house that evening. The weight of an impossibly long and trying day seemed to disappear from her heart as she effortlessly lifted her little boy into her arms.

Snapping at the Canadian Ambassador had proven beyond any doubt that she was losing her focus. She needed to get some sleep. She tried to do the bulk of her patrols in Kinwara while Jon was sleeping, but she couldn't set too rigid a schedule without the rebels figuring it out and exploiting it. She wrote from home and tried to spend as much time with her son as possible. Even when she was exhausted, there was really no contest between playing with Jon and trying to sleep.

But now, it had been weeks since she'd had a decent night's rest. She wasn't sure she could quiet her troubled mind long enough to sleep, but she couldn't keep up the pace she'd set any longer. For long moments, she stood in the doorway to Jon's room and watched her son sleep. He was so little, so helpless. Like the two children she'd rescued earlier that day. She didn't doubt that motherhood had radically changed the way she approached being Ultrawoman. Having a child made her understand the primitive instinct to protect more acutely. She knew that no parent should ever have to lose a child and she was determined to do whatever she could to prevent it from happening. But even she had limits and she was rapidly approaching them. Wearily, she walked down the hallway to Clark's room.

She got ready for bed, her body going through the motions mechanically, but her mind a million miles away. She stood beside the open window; a slight breeze of warm air rustled the curtains. With ease, she found Clark's star in the summer sky. It had been over two years ago, now. "I wish you were here," she whispered. "I don't think I'm strong enough to do this."

***

Commander Ching opened the door and exited the meeting room. The rest of his team stood waiting in the hallway, where they'd been for the previous three hours. A slight smile cracked the senior officer's expression. "It is done," he said at last. "There is peace with the Belaar."

The negotiating team breathed out a collective sigh of relief. "That is wonderful news, sir," Enza said.

"Great work everyone," Ching replied loudly. "You can all finally get some rest." Ching pulled Enza away after he finished making his announcement. "Commander Talan will be arriving in the morning to begin the process of reintegrating the military," he explained. "She asked that you remain here as the field legal advisor."

"But certainly there is someone more qualified…" Enza began, not even bothering to hide the anxiousness in her voice. She'd been away from her niece for far too long already. She had no desire to turn this into a protracted stay.

"Her instructions were explicit. She wants you," Ching replied succinctly. "If you need me to make any arrangements for your niece, I am more than happy to do so."

"No, it's all right, but thank you," Enza said. Commander Ching merely nodded in response before retreating toward the barracks. Enza turned to find Lok Sim waiting for her in the background. He smiled somewhat nervously at her as they made eye contact.

"Congratulations," he said.

"I can scarcely take any of the credit," she replied. "But thank you. Sergeant, can you establish a communication link to the main colony for me?"

"Certainly, ma'am. Do you need a secure line?"

"No, I just want to talk to Thia."

He smiled warmly. "Of course."

***

She felt sleep recede from her gradually as consciousness lazily drifted in. She became aware of the soft gray light in the room, the warm sheets against her skin, and the sounds of life filtering up from the rest of the farmhouse. She reached for the alarm clock on the nightstand and sat bolt upright as she realized it was past nine in the morning. The alarm had been turned off and the shades had been drawn. Lois showered and dressed in a frantic blur. Just as she was finishing getting ready, there was a quiet knock at the door.

"Lois?" came Martha's voice in a soft whisper.

Lois practically wrenched the door open. "I slept in. I must have forgotten to set the alarm," she exclaimed.

"Honey, I turned the alarm off," Martha confessed. "You just seemed so tired. And I checked your schedule, you're not supposed to be anywhere until two this afternoon. I hope you're not upset."

"I should be patrolling," Lois replied anxiously. "It's been more than twelve hours since my last patrol."

"Lois, you need to slow down." Her mother-in-law's tone was gentle, but surprisingly firm. "You've been working around the clock and you're exhausted."

"Martha, I can't…" Lois began, but the older woman remained steadfast in the doorway and Lois wasn't quite at the point where she was considering bolting out the window.

"Take the morning off. Spend some time with Jon. The HIRC, whatever that is, can wait."

"House International Relations Committee," Lois replied somewhat absently. She realized that her mind was full of stupid, bureaucratic acronyms and appointments with deaf ears.

"Oh, well, they can still wait."

Lois was about to protest, but found that she couldn't. Was she really putting a meeting with a bunch of congressmen she didn't even like very much above her son? She felt her jaw drop. "Oh god, I'm a terrible mother, aren't I?"

"You are a wonderful mother," Martha countered. "But you're going to run yourself into the ground if you keep this up. I've had a super powered son for over thirty years now, and I know that even he needs a break every now and then."

The both fell silent for a long moment. "I don't know what I'm doing anymore," Lois confessed at last. "I can't keep anything straight. I don't know what I'm supposed to do next. I can't even keep track of who I'm supposed to be mad at. I don't understand how Clark did this. I can't believe how much I took for granted the fact that he just always knew what to do and he did it," she rambled nervously, the words tripping over her tongue like she couldn't control them. They just fell, tumbling out in a barely intelligible mess. "And now I'm talking about him in the past tense like I'm not expecting him to come back and that's not true, god, I'm sorry, Martha, I didn't mean that. Oh, god, I didn't mean that…" As she bit back the tears that stung her eyes, Lois felt her mother-in-law pull her into a hug.

"It's okay," Martha soothed. "I know. I do it too, sometimes." Lois felt a twinge of relief, dulling the razor edge of her guilt, but even if Martha understood, how could she imagine that Clark would? How would he react to knowing that she'd let herself wonder what it would be like if he didn't come back? That she'd contemplated, even for a split second, the possibility that he wasn't going to keep his promise? But as time dragged on, his absence only grew more, not less, acute. She felt it more sharply and she let herself falter.

***

As on so many occasions in the past, Clark found himself watching the crews at the docking bays, loading transports and preparing for a mission. The soldiers seemed light hearted this evening; news of Ching's success in the Belaar had spread quickly throughout the forces and several crews prepared for the arrival of the diplomatic shuttles.

It had been a calculated risk sending Ching back to the Belaar, given his history with the place. A charge of war crimes, even an unfounded one, was a damn difficult bell to un-ring. But Ching was their Chief of Staff and he'd been fully exonerated. Not sending him would have suggested that the First Ministers lacked confidence in him, or that Ching bore resentment and hostility toward the region. It seemed the gamble had paid off. Ching had lived up to his reputation as a top negotiator, and someone who could be trusted to take the fate of an entire world in his hands.

Now, the practical work of implementing the fragile peace Ching had won lay in front of them. Talan had again been called in to lead their efforts. Clark wasn't exactly sure how one went about fixing an army that had been rend in two, especially when loyalties had been so badly divided and mistrust ran deep. They were laying an enormous responsibility on the General Commander's shoulders, without much thought to whether the task was even possible, probably because she accomplished the impossible as a matter of course.

In her typical long, efficient strides, she approached the docking bay, her gear bag slung over her shoulder. She stopped and saluted crisply in front of Clark. "Good tidings, sir," she said.

"Good tidings, Commander. Zara and I wish you the best on your mission."

"Thank you, sir," she replied with a slight bow. She paused for a moment. "If you ever wish to talk, or if there is anything you need, please do not hesitate to call me."

"Thank you," Clark said sincerely. "I owe you a lot."

"I am only doing my duty, sir," she said quietly.

He shook his head. "You've been a better friend than I could have asked for." He straightened himself to his full height. "May fortune be with you," he said formally, repeating the standard Kryptonian farewell.

"And with you, sir," she replied with a barely perceptible nod.

***

Talan stepped off the transport and onto the soft soil of the Belaar Valley. Troops stood at attention in two perfect lines, one on either side of her ship's doors. She walked past them and into the barracks recently vacated by Ching's negotiating team. As she'd requested, the area's military commanders and Captain Enza had assembled for a briefing. There was no point in wasting any time.

The officers stood as she entered the conference room. She invited them to take their seats and began the briefing. "Commanders, I have no intention of interfering with your day to day control over your forces, but we must reintegrate the troops at every level of command. We will begin by running joint patrols and joint training exercises. Since I don't expect this region to stay calm forever, I want all of the forces together to be retrained in the rules of engagement. I leave this task in Captain Enza's hands."

From the corner of her eye, she could see a look of surprise cross the captain's face. "I believe that is all for now. Thank you." The commanders stood and filed out of the room silently. "Captain, if I might have a moment?"

Enza stayed behind and stood silently in front of the conference room table. Talan stepped toward the junior officer. "The last year has seen a total breakdown in force discipline here. I will not put these troops in the field until I am certain they will conduct themselves honorably, that's why I need you to train them." A look of unease settled on the captain's face. "You have concerns?"

Enza stared straight ahead as she spoke. "This training should be conducted by a command officer, not a captain, ma'am."

"Everyone knows that you are the finest jurist of your generation. You graduated at the top of your class, you were apprenticed to the Chief Jurist himself. The First Minister could have selected any lawyer in the guild to serve as her legal advisor and she chose you. You are more than qualified for this task," Talan replied.

"Commander, there are excellent reasons for requiring a senior officer to handle this responsibility. As chief legal officer, I will give you answers and directives you will not want to hear, and I will not change my recommendations based upon the commands of a superior."

"I would not ask you to," Talan responded. "I am no more above the law than you are. But unlike you, I am the law's blind servant, I need a guide. The First Ministers have put their faith in you, I could do no less."

"I apologize, ma'am," Enza said, unblinking.

They were both silent for a long moment. The good officer that she was, Enza didn't move or speak, waiting to be dismissed or given further orders. "You think me a monster, do you not?" Talan asked. "What I do is barbaric, and I am good at it. How can I be anything but?"

"I beg your pardon, ma'am, but you are wrong," Enza replied, her face still expressionless. Talan had to admire the younger woman's courage.

"Enlighten me, please."

Enza seemed to hesitate. "I am not certain it is my place, ma'am."

"You may speak freely."

"With all due respect ma'am, and it is a great deal, it is not the fact that you are good at what you do that gives me pause. It is the fact that I have seen nothing else." The captain swallowed hard before continuing. "The First Minister…she loves to fly. She requisitions an Interceptor and flies whenever she can. She has a feel for it, like the ship is part of who she is. Commander Ching remembers the name, rank, and date of death of every soldier under his command who has fallen in the field. My communications sergeant, who speaks so softly I can hardly hear him, recites epic poetry. Kal El helps my niece with her arithmetic whenever she asks, even though they both know that she understands it perfectly; just because she likes listening to him explain things. I trust these people because I see so much more than mere soldiers in them. I have seen what they love, what they fear, I know what they fight for and it is not bloodlust or a desire for glory or personal gain." A thin sheen of sweat formed on Enza's forehead.

"You and I are not that different, Captain," Talan replied evenly. "We are both fighting for the same thing. We are fighting for a world governed by laws, not arms. A world governed by people like you. We are fighting to build a world that has no place in it for people like me."

***

"We should have killed Ching when we had the chance," Nor spat angrily. He paced in the crowded confines of his mother's transport ship.

"He is even more of a problem than we anticipated," his mother agreed. "We've lost an important staging ground for our advances."

Nor spun on his heel and stopped. "What advances? We have been on the run for months."

"And I suspect Talan will waste no time in using the Belaar to launch her offensives."

Nor growled. "I hate that woman."

"I know, my boy," Rae Et replied in her affected impersonation of maternal soothing. Her thin face was pinched and drawn.

"So what do you suggest we do?"

"We keep our profile low; exploit the stresses and strains between uneasy allies, but no outright attacks."

"More games," Nor snapped.

***

Enza lay awake that night in her bunk, wondering about her niece. This deployment threatened to stretch out indefinitely and she'd already broken her promise that she'd be gone only a few days. Perhaps that was why she'd been so bold with the commander, allowing the other woman to see both her irritation and distrust. And now she had to wonder if that distrust wasn't entirely misplaced. Enza had always been wary of the great and venerable Commander Talan for exactly the reasons she'd enumerated. To be fair, it seemed like no one knew what mattered to the commander or why she did what she did. From Enza's perspective, the tales of Talan's heroics and military conquests seemed like the sort of dangerous adventurism that got people needlessly killed while leaving the civilian settlements badly unprotected and vulnerable. But she had to admit, the commander didn't seem to relish the fight and never asked anyone to do what she herself was not prepared to do.

So it appeared more and more likely that Enza had been wrong — that the commander wasn't vainglorious or indifferent to the suffering of civilians. In fact, she seemed to wear her responsibilities as a heavy burden. She'd claimed, in a way, to be fighting for her own extinction — to eliminate the need for anyone to follow down her path, to do the things she'd done and make the choices she'd made. Enza had mistaken Talan's decisive actions for false clarity of morals; assuming that the commander's resolve meant that she thought she was always choosing right over wrong and not merely the lesser of two evils.

In her mind, the commander's departing words repeated themselves. "You have a choice, Captain, to believe me or not. I know that nothing will prevent you from faithfully executing your duties, but I would much rather have my officers in the field trust their commanders."

***

Ultrawoman descended down the steps of the Capitol building, drawing the curious stares of staffers and lobbyists. The congressmen and senators were usually too self absorbed to even notice the sartorially out of place superhero among the pinstripes crowd.

She had a meeting with the Security Council, where she was supposedly expected to explain herself. Lois was in no mood for it. Besides, if anyone owed an explanation, it was the Council. Leaving those communication towers intact was criminal.

"Ultrawoman!" someone shouted her name. She looked back up the stairs to see a slightly balding, trim man in a gray suit jogging toward her. She stopped, crossing her arms over her chest as she waited for him to approach. The genial politician seemed a bit out of breath when he reached her. "I was hoping to catch you before you left."

"What can I do for you, Congressman Pennybaker?"

"I didn't know you recognized me," the congressman said with a boyish grin.

"Well, you're one of the few people I seem to have in my corner these days," she replied.

"Everyone respects you; we just need to convince them that you're right. The Kinwara Action Network is planning a rally on the Mall next month. We'd like you to speak."

Ultrawoman opened her mouth to speak. Lois Lane had spoken on behalf of the group at several college campuses events, but this was another matter entirely. But it may have been exactly the chance she needed. "I'll do it," she replied.

***

"Try it now," Luc said as he backed away from the jeep. Ingrid turned the engine, but the car only managed to sputter weakly. He wiped the grease from his hands on a rag before leaning back in under the jeep's hood. Luc Arnault was an experienced trauma surgeon. He'd repaired perforated intestines and collapsed lungs. He patched bullet wounds and compound fractures. But the carburetor was well beyond him. Luc cursed softly under his breath and wiped the beads of sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. If only the insides of an engine bore some resemblance to the insides of a person.

The sound of another car caused him to look up. He froze, his heart plummeting in his chest. "Ingrid, don't move," he said quietly in German through gritted teeth. He watched her body go rigid. The military cargo truck came to a halt twenty feet behind them on the packed dirt road. Gunmen jumped out of the back and surrounded the jeep, their AK-47s raised and pointed at Luc and Ingrid. Some were barely teenagers, but the weapons carried in their little hands were just as lethal. Luc raised his hands to placate them.

"Doctor? Doctor?" they asked him insistently, never lowering their guns. Luc nodded. One of the men stepped forward, smirking slightly, clearly the group's leader. Luc guessed that he was about twenty five years old. He wore a faded blue soccer jersey and dirty khakis with a tear in the knee. Luc had absolutely no desire to die at the hands of this man.

"You will come with us," the man said. It wasn't a question.

"Okay," Luc replied. He met Ingrid's gaze and saw the same fear in her eyes that he knew was in his. "Just let her go."

"Don't do anything stupid, Luc," she said in French, her voice wavering.

The man laughed slightly. "You have a deal, Doctor."

"Don't do this," she whispered, shaking her head. He watched a solitary tear slip down her cheek. They were only two miles from the refugee camp. If she got back there, she'd be safe, he told himself. His stomach tied itself in knots at the thought of letting her safety hang on the promise of such untrustworthy people.

"If anything happens to her, I will not help you," Luc warned, his voice steely with false resolve.

One of the men reached into the jeep and Luc stepped forward, only to have the noose of armed thugs circle around him more tightly. The man pulled both of the medical bags out of the backseat as the ringleader turned to Ingrid. "You can go," he said.

She looked directly at Luc but didn't move. Fresh tears welled up in her eyes. "Please," he whispered hoarsely. He watched a tremor shudder through her body as she stepped out of the jeep. The men surrounded Luc and led him to the back of the cargo truck. He looked back at Ingrid where she stood, suddenly looking so small. He was pushed unceremoniously into the truck and joined by the half dozen armed men who formed his unwanted entourage.

"You have a beautiful woman," one of the rebels said suggestively, causing the others to laugh. "It's too bad the captain didn't let us have her. We could have had some fun." Luc felt his blood slowly begin to boil and his skin grow hot. He wanted to throw himself at the mindless thug, to beat him until he was bloodied for daring to look at Ingrid, for thinking of her as an object to be had, for all the vile and repulsive thoughts he knew were going through the minds of every one of the men in the truck with him. But he knew it was probably their misogyny and their ignorance that kept them from thinking to kidnap Ingrid instead of him if they needed a doctor. He kept his head down and said nothing as the truck pulled away on the bumpy road. It wasn't that far to the camp, he reminded himself as he looked down at his still grease covered hands. She would be okay.

***

Ingrid watched in abject horror as the truck pulled away and eventually disappeared. She wiped savagely at the tears blurring her vision as she struggled to draw in a shaky breath. This was the second time they'd come for him. They obviously knew Luc was a doctor. So long as they needed him, he would be okay. She hoped that would give her enough time to get help. She turned back to the dirt road that led to the refugee camp and began to run.

Sweat mingled with tears and stung her eyes. The late morning's sun baked the land and turned the air into an oppressive blanket of heat. Her feet pounded on the uneven road, her heart thundered in her chest. She ran harder than she ever had before, her legs aching, her lungs burning. But she didn't dare slow down.

An eternity later, the camp came into view. Sankoh, one of her local aid workers, ran to meet her.

"What happened?" he asked. "Where's Dr. Arnault?"

"Rebels. They took him," she said between labored breaths. "I need the radio." He nodded and ran with her to the mobile trailer office she shared with Luc.

Inside the trailer, Sankoh tuned the radio to the proper channel and handed her the receiver. The UN forces always picked up the traffic on this channel, but what she was really hoping for was that Ultrawoman was listening in, as she sometimes seemed to. "This is Dr. Ingrid Heller at the MSF camp in Galani," she began, her throat so dry she could scarcely form the words. "Dr. Arnault has been kidnapped, I'm in need of immediate help." She repeated the message in French before ending the transmission. Sankoh handed her a bottle of water, which she took gratefully. She pressed the cool plastic bottle against her forehead for a moment before opening it to take a long sip. Her body still trembled and she couldn't suppress the shiver that ran through her. A staticky voice came through over the radio and she nearly dropped the bottle of water in her rush to pick up the receiver.

"Hello?" she demanded. Agitation began to build up within her as she listened to the man on the other end, explaining that peacekeepers would be sent, but it would take some time. Time Luc didn't have.

"Do you know where Ultrawoman is?" she asked anxiously.

"I don't know. We'll try to contact her for you," he promised. She hung up the receiver, feeling the despair she'd been trying so hard to outrun finally catch up with her. The weight of it was unbearable. What was she supposed to do now?

The thunder of a sonic boom overhead caused both her and Sankoh to leap up. They rushed out of the trailer to find Ultrawoman descending toward them.

"What happened?" the superhero asked immediately.

"Our jeep broke down a few miles outside the camp. The rebels showed up in a truck. They took Luc." The last three words caught in her throat and escaped in a strangled breath. She swallowed roughly around the hard lump that had formed in her windpipe.

"I'll find him," Ultrawoman replied, the promise implicit in her words. With that, she took off as quickly as she'd arrived.

***

After what seemed like ages of rattling around in the back of the truck as it bumped along the unpaved roads and then no road at all, they came to a stop. Immediately, two of the men grabbed Luc's arms and pulled him out of the truck. He looked around at the unfamiliar surroundings. From the squat, drab looking buildings scattered around and firing ranges, he surmised that it was a training camp. He was led into one of the simple, one room buildings. Inside the darkened room, a middle aged man lay barely conscious on a cot. Sweat beaded on his forehead and he muttered incoherently, his glassy eyes unfocused.

The ringleader looked at Luc and dropped the medical bags at his feet. "You will help him," he commanded. Wordlessly, Luc picked up his bags and approached the bed.

***

Trourey took a drag from his cigarette and glanced up at his compatriots from where he reclined against the hood of the jeep. "She was a very beautiful woman," he said as he exhaled a stream of gray smoke. The other two men laughed and smiled in agreement. "The doctor is already treating the general," he continued. "He thinks she's safe."

"And we know where her camp is," Tabo agreed with a broad grin as he fished the jeep's keys out of his pocket.

***

Lois scanned the valley below her. The rebels had almost half an hour's head start on her and she had no idea where they were going. She headed back to the dead jeep, sitting forlornly off the side of the dirt road, and continued the search in a different direction. She x-rayed every village along the road, searching for signs of Luc or the truckload of men who'd taken him. This was the second time in a week the doctor had been the target of a kidnapping attempt. Lois wasn't certain what the rebels wanted with him, but she didn't trust them to leave him unharmed. She'd asked General Rapin to spare more troops to protect the doctors, but they were stretched so thin as it was and they couldn't provide round the clock protection. The country was becoming so dangerous the aid organizations were all considering pulling out. But she knew that Ingrid and Luc would stay until they were forcibly removed.

***

Luc dug through his bag, finding the small plastic bottle in question buried underneath bandages and dressings. He turned to his captor, who had slung his weapon over his shoulder. "He needs to take one of these, three times a day until they're gone," he explained. Luc tried to ignore the fact that he was wasting precious antibiotics saving the life of a known war criminal. A man who had caused more misery than Luc had previously imagined possible. But as much as this man deserved a slow, painful death, it was not Luc's job to provide it. He had a duty to save lives, no matter how despicable his patients were. The man with the gun took the bottle and stuck it in his pocket. "One pill, three times a day," Luc repeated. The man nodded in understanding.

"He will be okay?" the guard asked.

"He'll be fine, so long as he takes the medicine," Luc replied. He zipped up the medical bags and picked them up. "Now I've done what you asked. Let me go."

"We'll talk to the boss," the gunman replied as he held the door open. Luc's heart sank like a stone in his chest. At this point it was clear that they were either going to kill him or keep him hostage until he proved to no longer be useful to them. He briefly thought about making a run for it, but given the number of armed men wandering the camp who wouldn't give a second thought to killing a man in cold blood, he wouldn't get ten feet before being shot. It wasn't pusillanimity, but common sense that kept him doing what he was told. If he could convince them that having a doctor around could be useful to them, he might manage to stay alive long enough to escape. The thought that these thugs would go after Ingrid now that they'd gotten what they wanted crept unbidden into his mind and he suppressed a violent shudder. They certainly weren't men of their word. He clung not to their promises, but to Ingrid's resourcefulness for hope. She would have called for help. She would have gone to the UN.

The guard brought him across the camp to another plain looking building. Under the flickering lights inside, the ringleader sat at a table, a pistol, a bottle of cheap Russian vodka, and a glass in front of him. "You have caused us a lot of trouble, my friend," the ringleader said. "But they tell me you saved the general, so I like you."

The ringleader, who'd obviously been rendered in charge by the general's ill health, splashed a bit of vodka into the spotted, film covered glass. "Tell me, why did you come all the way to this country to get involved in our problems?" Luc remained silent. The guard who'd brought him in gave him a hard shove from behind with the butt of his rifle.

"I came here to help the people you and your men shoot and stab and rape," Luc practically spat.

"And now you will also help my men, who are shot and stabbed by the government forces," his captor said coolly before drinking the vodka.

"I won't help you unless you agree to leave the Galani camp off limits," Luc said boldly. There was a cold edge to his voice he didn't recognize, but he hoped it would convince the other man that he was deadly serious.

Across the table, the rebel leader merely chuckled. "My friend, you are hardly in a position to be making demands." He nodded to the guard who grabbed Luc's arm and dragged him back out of the building.

***

Ingrid sat on the edge of the small bed she and her lover shared. She closed her eyes and bit her trembling lip. It had been less than an hour since Ultrawoman had left, but it had seemed like a thousand lifetimes. First one tear and then another and another fell from her eyes. A sob escaped her lips and she shuddered. Her hands fisted themselves in the light blanket spread over the bed. She wept bitter tears, frustrated that there was nothing she could do for Luc, angry with herself for letting him go, for standing idly by while they took him.

The staccato burst of gunfire caused her to freeze. Her head snapped up, her eyes open wide. Her heart leapt up in her throat as she rushed for the trailer door. As she reached for the handle, the door was wrenched open from the outside, causing her to stumble backward. Scrambling back to her feet, she found herself staring down three armed men.

***

Without reason, the guard behind him gave Luc a sharp shove as he walked across the camp. Luc stumbled slightly, but continued walking. His mind raced as he tried to think of the best way to get out of there. He had no idea where they were or how far it was back to a road or a village, or even in which direction. Without bearings, without a plan, he was as good as dead outside the camp.

A sudden blur of color seemed to blind him temporarily and he found himself being forced from his feet, but instead of falling down, he was falling upward. He looked around in a panic and found himself being carried by Ultrawoman. His thundering heart rate slowed a bit as he realized he was safe.

"Thank you," he breathed, closing his eyes. "Where is Ingrid, is she all right?"

"She called me from Galani," Ultrawoman explained. "I'll take you back to her." Luc let out a breath he didn't realize he'd been holding in. Within a few minutes they were flying over the familiar road back to the camp.

***

Ingrid stared, wide-eyed, at the gun pointed at her, from the floor of the jeep's backseat as it rattled along the unpaved road. The rough sandpaper lining her throat made it impossible to swallow and difficult to breathe. She didn't make eye contact with the thug holding the pistol. It was more than apparent what they wanted with her, the only question was when they'd decide to pull over. She wasn't sure if it was the vibration of the jeep's floor, or sheer terror that caused her body to tremble. God, she hoped that they weren't going to take her wherever Luc was. She knew what was going to become of her, Luc shouldn't have to.

Dammit, she wasn't going to give up that easily. When they stopped, she'd make a run for it. Even if she didn't get away, it was better to die standing than cowering at her captors' will. Ingrid tried to suppress the violent shudder that ran up and down her spine. The jeep pulled off the road and she felt a terrible knot grow in the pit of her stomach, twisting her insides. The rebel in the backseat beside her grabbed her arm. He smelled of stale cigarettes, cheap alcohol, and sweat. The sharp, pungent scent turned her already uneasy stomach. He pulled her roughly to her feet.

The other two jumped out of the front seat of the jeep. The rebel holding onto her arm started to pull her toward the tall thicket of brush away from the road. Her legs felt like rubber, wobbling with every step. She tried to will her muscles to function and her knees to stop buckling. The hand around her arm tightened painfully. If she survived this, that was going to leave a nasty bruise, she thought darkly to herself. Once clear of the car, she stomped down on her captor's foot and broke his grip on her arm. Her heart in her throat, she began to run, trying not to stumble. From behind, she felt one of the men slam into her like a sandbag, tackling her to the ground. She kicked and clawed at him, fighting furiously to get away from him as he tore her clothing. Ingrid heard herself screaming for help, knowing full well that no one was around to hear her. Her captor finally clamped a hand over her mouth, but she struggled anyway and managed to bite down. He cursed and jumped back, allowing her to wriggle free. Tears blurring her eyes, she scrambled to start running again. She had no plan. She had nowhere to go, except away from that place and her tormentors.

***

Ultrawoman suddenly stopped in mid-flight, jarring Luc by the abrupt deceleration. "What's wrong?" he asked nervously.

"Something's happened at the camp," the superhero replied ominously.

"What? What's happened?" he asked, his voice cracking on the words.

Ultrawoman flew them down to edge of the camp and sharply admonished him to stay put until she returned. She darted off in another blur and was back within seconds. "The rebels are gone, but they took Dr. Heller," she said gravely.

He suddenly felt her hand gripping his arm, helping him stand as his legs gave out underneath him. "No," he whispered harshly. "No."

Ultrawoman said something about going after Ingrid, but the words didn't make any sense to him. They were just sounds. He watched dumbly as she took off.

***

Lois cursed herself for leaving Ingrid at the camp. There was nothing else she could have done, she told herself, but the anger and guilt rose up in her nonetheless. How damned difficult was it to keep two doctors alive and safe? At least this time the rebels didn't have much of a lead on her. Within moments, she spotted a jeep carrying three men tearing down a dirt road away from the camp. She had no doubt the men were rebels, but Ingrid wasn't with them. She could deal with them later. After she'd found Dr. Heller.

She zeroed in on the area around the road, between her and the quickly retreating jeep. The sound of a heartbeat, faint and uneven caused her to stop. She found the source of the sound. The blood in her veins turned to ice. She swooped down to the thicket of brush by the road, where Ingrid lay in a pool of blood seeping into the dry, dusty ground.

Lois placed her hands on the wound, trying to stanch the pulsing flow of blood that had created a growing crimson stain on the doctor's chest. Ingrid coughed weakly as she opened her eyes. It seemed to take her a long moment to focus on Ultrawoman and realize who she was.

"Don't try to move," Lois said, her voice wavering.

"Luc?" Ingrid rasped.

"I'm going to take you to him, he's fine," Lois assured her, her voice rising an octave.

"He's okay?" Ingrid placed a trembling hand on Lois's arm.

"He's okay," Lois said, nodding vigorously.

"Good," Ingrid breathed, a pained smile turning up the corners of her mouth. "Thank you."

Lois felt a twist of pain in her chest; Dr. Heller's gratitude stung deeply. "Ingrid, hold on, I'm going to get you help," Lois pleaded. She felt the hand on her arm go limp and fall away. The heart beating under her hands suddenly stopped as Ingrid's eyes closed and the smile on her lips died.

Tears blurring her eyes, Lois picked up the doctor's limp form and flew the short distance back toward the camp. As she landed, Luc and Sankoh ran toward her. Twenty feet from her, Sankoh stopped dead and suddenly grew ashen, but Luc continued toward her.

Lois let him take Ingrid from her arms. His handsome face crumpled as he began to cry. He fell to the ground with his lover's body still in his arms. He frantically searched for a pulse and bent his head, clearly hoping to feel her breath on his cheek. He laid her flat on the ground, covering the wound in her chest with both hands as he began to perform chest compressions. Lois heard him whisper something in French, something she clearly wasn't meant to hear.

"Dr. Arnault," she ventured softly. He ignored her as he covered Ingrid's lips with his and gave two quick breaths. He began to cycle through the chest compressions again, but stopped suddenly, his body shaking with sobs. Luc took Ingrid's small, slender hand between both of his, and held it against his face as he continued to cry. He pulled Dr. Heller's body into his arms and held her close as he wept. He brushed the errant strands of hair from her face as he whispered something over and over again to his beloved.

Lois backed away slowly, completely unnoticed. Her heart had lodged itself in her throat and she couldn't seem to breathe. She turned away from the excruciating tableau, from the image of utter and complete despair in front of her, and flew off, her body shaking.

***

Martha hurried up the stairs to Jon's room. The room was still dark, with the curtains drawn over the windows. Jon stood up in his crib, crying loudly for his mother as he held onto the white wooden bars of the crib's side. Lois must have still been on her patrol, Martha assumed. She picked up her grandson and tried to soothe away his tears. She rubbed a hand gently up and down his little back as she carried him. She turned back toward the door, startled to find Lois sitting mutely in the corner, still dressed in the Ultrawoman costume, slumped down against the wall.

"Goodness, you gave me a fright," Martha said to the younger woman. Lois didn't respond or even acknowledge Martha's presence. "Lois, honey, are you okay?" Martha asked as she walked toward her. She stopped dead. In the darkness, she'd only been able to make out the outline of Lois's form, but up close, she could see that tears were streaming down Lois's face.

And her hands and arms, up to her elbows, were covered in blood.

"Jonathan!" Martha called out for her husband, who would have just been sitting down to breakfast after feeding the cows. She heard his heavy footfalls on the steps.

"Is everything all right?" he asked from the hallway. He pushed the door open and walked into the nursery. "What's wrong?" he asked.

Martha handed him his still crying grandson. "Take Jon," she instructed gently.

"What happened?" Jonathan asked anxiously. "Lois, are you all right?" Lois remained silent and stone still.

Martha knelt beside her daughter-in-law. "Lois, honey, are you okay, are you hurt?" A million thoughts ran through Martha's head, all of them bad. She touched Lois's bare shoulder gently. The spell that kept Lois in her trance seemed to finally be broken. She looked up at Martha through tear-filled eyes.

"It's not mine," she said dully. "It's the doctor's."

"What doctor? Lois, what happened?"

"Such a little wound, just one stupid bullet, and so much blood." Lois lifted her bloodstained hands to pull the mask away from her face. Martha helped her to her feet, noticing that the front of the younger woman's entire uniform was covered in dark stains.

Martha held Lois's shoulders as she guided her to the bathroom. She turned on the shower and led Lois to stand under the warm spray of water as it soaked her uniform and washed away the blood from her hands and arms.

Lois lifted her head up toward the stream of water as she stood with her eyes closed. Martha could see her swallow roughly as she tried not to sob, a look of physical pain on her face. For the moment, it didn't matter that Martha didn't know the details of what had happened. She'd heard this story too many times before. People had suffered and died because of human malice and Lois had been unable to stop it. For all her strength, Lois still wasn't all-powerful. There were horrors in this world she still couldn't prevent. But that didn't stop Lois or everyone else from believing it was her responsibility to try.

Martha couldn't make any sense of this war. Of its viciousness and cruelty. She knew that Lois felt that her powers made it her duty to help, to minimize the suffering and brutality of the fighting, but her daughter-in-law was only physically invulnerable. She had no special ability to bear the agony and despair any more than any ordinary person. There was only so much a person should be asked to shoulder, and Lois's burdens would have crushed anyone.

***

She stepped out of the bathroom wrapped up in a thick toweling robe. She hugged herself tightly, suddenly feeling very cold. Her body trembled with righteous rage. After Dr. Heller's death, she'd wanted to lash out at those responsible. To show them what it meant to be afraid. To visit upon them every horror they wrought against those whose only goal was to protect the innocent. She'd gone after the fleeing jeep, wrenching it to a stop and pulling its three passengers out with no degree of caution or care.

Blind, burning fury raced through her veins. She could feel her grip on them tighten as she was filled with a powerful desire to fly a thousand feet in the air and let her passengers tumble toward the ground, their last moments filled with the terror they'd visited upon Dr. Heller. But then the image of the rapist she'd caught months before filled her head. The image of him clutching at her hand wrapped tightly around his throat. The weak, gurgling sound he'd made as he'd struggled to breathe. She remembered what it was like to hold someone dangling above death. And she'd stopped mid-flight, the three murderers flailing in her vise-like grip.

Ultrawoman dropped the men, panic-stricken but unharmed, in the UN's detention facility. In a dull, disaffected monotone she'd informed the duty captain that these were Dr. Heller's murderers and she flew off without giving him the opportunity to respond. Just clear of the compound, she felt a sob shudder through her body. Lois knew she should have gone back to the camp, arrested its inhabitants and dismantled it brick by damned brick. Her body shook with the desire to destroy the machinery of death, to rain down upon the murderers who took shelter there all the fury of a god. Her eyes began to burn. With a glance, she could have turned the place into an inferno, consumed by the fires of hell. A fitting end.

Lois turned toward the rebels' training camp, bent on leveling it to the ground. A tremor ran through her hands. And then her arms. She realized her entire body was trembling. Her gaze wavered, her eyes filled with tears and finally, a strangled cry escaped from her throat. With a burst of speed, she took off, flying faster than she ever had before. Not toward the rebel camp, but away from it. She couldn't seek revenge, so she ran away instead. Because this time, if she began, if she went after the rebels, she wasn't certain she would have been able to pull herself back from the precipice. She was afraid she'd run willingly toward it.

And there was already enough blood on her hands today.

The sick, nauseating feeling of looking down at the dark crimson stains, at her friend's blood, covering her body and clothes, churned her stomach. Lois had stood in the shower under the water, turning the temperature up to scalding for long minutes. Hoping the water would wash away the blood, knowing it never would. She couldn't close her eyes without seeing Ingrid looking up at her, holding her last breath, and Luc, bent over Ingrid's lifeless body, holding on to nothing more than a shell because the woman he loved was dead And he couldn't let go. Not yet. Not ever.

Lois shivered and tried to blot out the images. She tried to forget what it was like to hold her hands vainly against the wound, warm dark blood covering her fingers in an instant. She tried to forget the sounds of Luc's strangled cries, and the piercing look of agony that haunted his eyes.

She brushed away fresh tears as she walked back to Clark's room. She crawled into bed, curling up under the covers. She sobbed to the point of exhaustion and finally succumbed to sleep.

***

Clark walked briskly down the corridors within the administrative compound. The High Council of Elders meeting had run longer than expected and he'd had to preside over it alone as Zara was busy meeting with the heads of the guilds and trade syndicates. In the last few months, each of the guilds had held their leadership elections and results had been almost uniformly positive. The new leadership representing each trade and profession in the Guild Council were loyal to the main colony and supportive of Kal El and Zara.

Politically, the tide had turned, but Nor was still at large and his band of warlords still terrorized the outer settlements, each of which was vital to the survival of the colony as a whole. The mining and farming settlements were particularly frequent targets for attacks. Large numbers of troops had been deployed to the Belaar to reintegrate the forces and to help in the efforts to rebuild the area, which had been ravaged by war. More troops had been sent to the other settlements to increase patrols and protect civilians.

The mood within their administration was cautiously optimistic. Even Ching seemed upbeat. It was the closet thing to a respite that Clark had had since leaving Earth. And yet, he was still uneasy. He didn't sleep well, his dreams still haunted by Nor. He tried not to dwell on the past, on things he couldn't change and was tired of reliving. But the mental images, the unbidden thoughts couldn't be dispelled just because he wanted them gone.

He made his way back to the First Ministers' residence and slipped quietly into the quarters he shared with Zara. Within the large room, he turned on the communications screen. Right on time, Talan appeared for the military briefing.

"Good tidings, sir," she said crisply.

"Hello, Commander," he replied. "I hope all is still going well."

"Everything is proceeding according to the implementation protocols," she assured him. "We have begun joint patrols and will commence with joint exercises soon, but I do not want to use the Belaar's forces in anything other than a defensive capacity until I am certain they will perform up to our standards in the field."

"I agree."

"And how are you, sir?" she ventured. He knew that was about as probing a question as his commander was going to ask. It was her invitation to him to either unburden himself or to politely demur.

"Tired," he replied truthfully. "I haven't been sleeping much."

"Is it the same dreams, sir?"

"Yes." He scrubbed a hand absently through his hair. "I know they don't make any sense, but they're just so vivid."

"Are they about your wife?" She frowned and suddenly backpedaled. "What I mean to ask is are they still about Nor harming the people you care about?"

Clark nodded. "The place, the circumstances change, but it's always Nor and it's always Lois."

She hesitated for a moment before speaking. "You mention her so often when we talk, but you rarely say her name and you have never said very much about her."

Clark chewed his lip, deep in thought. It was true that he did everything he could to keep this world separated from his life on Earth, especially from Lois. "I guess I haven't."

"If you'd rather not talk about her, sir, I understand," Talan hurried to respond.

"No, it's all right," he began. He started to tell the commander all about Lois, how they'd met, how he'd fallen in love with her instantly, how much it meant to him to work with her.

"She's the most brilliant person I've ever known and she can be so stubborn sometimes," he said with a slight smile.

"It must have been very difficult for you to leave her behind," Talan said.

"I'm not exactly sure how I did it," he replied. "Because sometimes it seems like the dumbest thing I've ever done. Not everyone has what I had and I walked away from it."

"Sometimes we are asked to sacrifice much more than is just or reasonable," she said thoughtfully. "But if fortune is with us, we will win this war soon and you will be able to return home."

"That's the thought that keeps me going," he admitted.

***

Feeling sheepishly like a fugitive or criminal, Zara stood outside of Ching's quarters, waiting for him to open the door. The corridors running in either direction away from his quarters were generally quiet and deserted, especially at night; senior officers were afforded at least some degree of privacy. But she felt like she did at twenty-two, sneaking off to see Ching at the Bachelor Officers Quarters, or in her own small apartment in the middle of the busy administrative compound. That was ten years ago and this business of sneaking about seemed more and more absurd now. At last, Ching opened the door, wearing only a towel, still dripping wet.

"I'm sorry for keeping you waiting," he said as she stepped into his quarters. He closed the door. She wrapped her arms around his neck as he placed his hands on her waist.

"I missed you," she murmured before kissing him. His absence had stretched out for weeks, following the peace negotiations, as he drew up the articles of re-integration along with the Belaar's leaders.

He touched her face gently, his eyes soft, a tender smile played at the corners of his lips. "I love you," he said and he kissed her again.

"And I you," she whispered, her lips inches from his.

He stepped back to regard her, still wearing her formal robes. "I am either underdressed or you overdressed for the circumstances."

She shrugged out of her greatcoat. "I am rather certain I am wearing a little too much clothing," she said suggestively. Zara closed the distance between them and slipped her arms around Ching's lean waist. She stood on her toes to kiss him. With gentle fingers, Ching began to undo the delicate robe, removing the silken garment reverently. His expression intent, he silently undressed her.

***

Clark stared up at the ceiling above his bed. He picked up the watch that lay on the small table beside him. It was almost seven in the evening in Metropolis, on the seventeenth of June. He'd been gone two years and a month. He wondered what Lois was doing. Was she still sitting at her desk, typing away to make a deadline? Maybe she was meeting a source in some shady dive bar near Hobbs' Bay. Perhaps she was at a rescue, or even flying back to Kansas to have dinner with his folks. He hoped that they spent a lot of time together. He knew how much his parents adored Lois and he trusted that she kept them company when things were tough.

He wondered what she was going through. Did she still believe he was alive? Had she started to think of living the rest of her life without him? He knew that she'd insisted on marrying him before he left to dispel just that doubt. She had told him that she would wait as long as it took for him to return. But did he honestly want her waiting, alone for him for years? Decades? He didn't want her life to pass her by while she waited patiently for his return. It was beyond unfair.

He hated the idea of causing her pain. He wanted her to be happy. Above all else, that was what he wanted in life. Maybe it had been selfish of him to agree to get married before he left. Maybe by doing so, he'd denied her a chance to be happy. To be with someone who would actually *be* there with her. And yet, he couldn't imagine trying to live a life without her. She anchored him; she gave him someplace to belong. He didn't make any sense without her.

The only thing he could hope for was a quick resolution to this war. And it was what he wished for constantly. For now, despite the relative quiet, things were too tense, too precarious for him to leave. He had a coalition to hold together. Perhaps once that coalition grew stronger, as the bonds between its members cemented, they wouldn't need him any longer. They could find someone else to step into his role. Someone who belonged here, whose life and fate were tied to this world, not another.

He sighed and closed his eyes, trying to calm his restless mind. Clark breathed deeply, hoping to lull his body to sleep. In the silence, he swore he could almost hear her heartbeat and the slow steady sounds of her breathing. He could almost hear her murmur 'goodnight, sweetheart,' to him and fall asleep curled up beside him, her hand on his chest. He could almost feel her warm skin against his and smell the lavender of her shampoo. He smiled wistfully as he began to doze. "Goodnight, Lois," he whispered, more asleep than awake.

His arm around her tightened just a bit, pulling her closer to him. He placed his hand on top of hers and held it against his chest. He heard her sigh contentedly. "I love you," she whispered.

"I love you," he replied sleepily. He felt her shift in his embrace and opened his eyes as she touched his cheek gently. He looked up to see her leaning over him, smiling peacefully, a look of tenderness in her eyes. She bent to kiss him and he drew her into his arms. She went willingly, settling her slight weight against his chest. He held her tightly, knowing he couldn't let go of her, not again.

They made love. This world and its problems faded away, until there was nothing left. There was nothing in the universe besides her. Her quiet whispers in the dark, her hands, her lips, her body pressed against his.

Afterward, they lay together, his arm draped over her, unwilling to let her go. She looked up at him with those dark, luminous eyes that could convince him of anything, and touched his face. "Go to sleep, sweetheart," she whispered.

"When I wake up, you'll be gone," he replied.

"I will always be with you," she insisted gently.

"It's not enough," he replied, shaking his head. "I need you here, with me. I can't do this alone. I'm not strong enough, I never was."

"You are, Clark." The tone of her voice was gentle, yet firm. "I know how hard it is, but you are strong enough."

"It just, it hurts so much," he confessed. "And I don't know how to make it stop."

"You can't," she replied. "It hurts because you care. Compassion can be a burden, but it's also your gift. You are the most caring person I've ever known. It's why I love you so much. And it's why you're going to be able to help these people."

She drew him into her arms and kissed his lips softly before kissing his forehead. His head pillowed on her chest, she ran her fingers gently through his hair. He felt her heart beating beneath him; her body rose and fell ever so slightly with each breath. "Sleep," she whispered. His heavy eyelids began to droop. He was just so tired and for the first time in ages, he felt safe. The rhythmic beat of her heart soothed him, lulling him into a place of warmth and contentedness. He stopped fighting, allowing sleep to claim him at last.

***

Ching pressed his lips against the bare skin of Zara's shoulder as he slipped his arm around her waist. He felt his fingers brush against the long scar on her stomach and pulled back hesitantly. He was unsure if the scar still caused her discomfort, or if the careless touch evoked unwanted memories. She placed her hand on top of his, intertwining their fingers.

"Do you ever wish you were with someone who could give you more?" she asked him quietly. "Someone who could marry you? Give you children?"

He closed his eyes as his arm around her tightened, drawing her body closer to his. He had never told her before, but he had imagined having children with her. Her marriage to another man, sham though it may have been, ensured that the thoughts were idle ones. But he knew that Zara would have been an excellent mother. On occasion, he'd wondered what it would have been like — Zara carrying their child, her body nourishing, protecting, and sustaining it. She'd lost that power, that ability to create life, because of her loyalty to her duty. That chance at happiness had been snatched from her as she lay bleeding on a battlefield and he knew it pained her deeply. Though he never said anything, it had also shaken him to the core.

"In a perfect world, we would have been married years ago, and we would have children — dark haired little ones with their mother's eyes and their father's stubbornness," he said, feeling the corners of his mouth turn upward in a smile. "But in this world, if my choice is between playing whatever small role in your life I'm afforded and having my own family with another woman, the answer is perfectly obvious. I would rather steal a few rare moments like this with you than spend a lifetime with anyone else."

She turned around in his arms to face him. "How can I ask you to give up so much for me?" she asked.

"A lot of men have given up much more in exchange for much less," he said before leaning forward to kiss her gently. "You are right that I want more, because I want to wake up with you every morning, and be able to walk with you on my arm, and call you my wife. But I only want these things with you. I will love you, and you only, every day for the rest of my life."

He could see the fear and hesitation dissipate from her expression as she finally relaxed. "I love you so much," she whispered. Their lips met in a soft kiss that grew deeper. He felt passion and desire stir to life deep within him. But this wasn't simply about want, it was about need. They might have lost the ability to create life, but their lovemaking sustained him.

***

Martha looked up as her daughter-in-law descended the steps into the living room. Her complexion was still ashen, her face expressionless. For the last two days, she'd barely come out of her room. "Honey, are you okay?" she asked.

Lois merely nodded. Jon looked up at his mother from where he was sitting in Martha's lap. He held his arms outstretched to her. "Mommy!" he exclaimed.

There was no doubt that he missed his mother, who, as busy as she was, always made time to play with him, to get him ready for bed, and to sing him to sleep. For the last two days, mother and son hadn't performed their nightly ritual, making Jon rather fussy at bedtime. Lois walked over toward Martha and easily picked her little boy up. She sat down in the rocking chair with him, dropping a kiss on the top of his head. Jon yawned mightily. It was almost his naptime and he and Martha had had a busy morning.

Lois held him securely in her arms and rocked the chair gently back and forth. Eventually, his little eyelids proved too heavy and they closed as he drifted to sleep. Martha watched her grandson as he slept peacefully in his mother's arms. It wasn't until she looked up that she noticed Lois was crying silently. She didn't move, her expression was still blank, but tears rolled down her cheeks. After a long moment, she looked at Martha. "I'm so afraid," she confessed in a small whisper. "Of what I'm turning into."

"Lois, you didn't harm those men," Martha replied, using the little she knew of what happened in hopes of getting her daughter-in-law to finally talk to her about it. "Even though they deserved it and even though anyone in your position would have wanted to, you didn't lash out at them."

"I wanted to," Lois admitted. "I was tempted to. I think the only reason I didn't, is Jon. I wouldn't have been able to let myself come back here, to go anywhere near him, if I had."

Martha felt her heart break. "I will be the first person to tell you that motherhood changes you. But that goodness in you, it's a part of who you are and it always has been. You have to trust in that."

"I don't know if I can go back there," Lois said.

A part of Martha thought it would be for the best. Lois had already done so much, sacrificed so much. It was more than anyone had any right to ask of her. And yet, she knew that her daughter-in-law wasn't much different from her son in this regard. When people asked for their help, they never turned away, no matter the cost to themselves. It could be