The limousine was waiting to take them to the reception at the Lakeside Westin. The driver and Clark both waited as Esther fell into the back seat, pulling off her shoes. Clark followed her into the car, settling in beside her as Bruce and Cat climbed in with Adam and Matthew.
"So far so good," Bruce announced. "Now it's just five hours of reception to get through."
Clark turned to his new bride. "Remind me again why we didn't elope?"
Esther giggled. "My mother. For some bizarre reason, considering how long it took for her to get sanctioned by the church and state, she decided her daughter's wedding was going to be a no holds barred affair. For that matter she's still not completely convinced we didn't have to get married. Dad doesn't really care. He's just glad I found somebody he can tolerate and a party means he can show off to all his old buddies."
"Your father tolerates him?" Bruce asked with a grin.
"Let's put it this way," Esther told him. "I'd better make this work because I've already been warned. If we break up after all this, they're keeping him."
"Somehow that worries me," Clark told her. "Maybe we should have waited until we had to get married."
"Do people even do that these days?" Cat wondered aloud. "I mean, getting married because they have to? I know they're doing the other stuff."
"I have no idea," Clark admitted. "I'm just glad Lieutenant Austin didn't decide to swat me with that blasted blade and welcome me into the Air Force."
Esther giggled again, swatting his arm. "Welcome to the Air Force, Mister Straker... He was thinking it really loud."
Clark raised an eyebrow at her.
"I was not reading his mind," she protested. "It was just too obvious."
The limousine pulled up to the main entrance of the hotel. The car was abruptly surrounded by men and women with cameras and microphones.
"Time to smile for the photographers, Boy Scout," Bruce announced.
"Have I told you how much I hate paparazzi?" Clark wondered aloud.
"Incessantly," Cat commented, as the chauffeur opened the door and let them out. She smiled and flirted with the cameras. "Come along boys and girls. It's show time."
"Cat, how are you?" Clark asked as she walked into the newsroom of the Chicago Star, carrying her travel bag. She gave him a tremulous smile, then pulled him into a hug.
"Thanks for sending Kal to help, Clark. He saved my life, you know," she said.
"So I've heard," Clark admitted. "So, are you okay?"
She nodded. "I've been reading your series. When I suggested going after Edge, I never imagined what else he was involved in. Joe's dead, you know. He was in the building when the bomb went off, in the office below Edge's. Who knows what he was doing there?"
"Kal didn't mention seeing anyone there," Clark told her. "But he did say there was a lot of lead paint in the building."
"And Kal doesn't do so well with lead," Cat added. "Yeah, I read everything Lois wrote about him. He's cute, but I kinda' think I like your type better."
"My type?" Clark managed to say. Cat could be completely outrageous at times.
"Yeah, the quiet, wholesome, shy type," she told him with a grin.
"I have somebody," he reminded her. "I'm meeting her parents tonight."
"Oh, well," Cat said. "At least she knows a good catch when she sees him, unlike other people I know."
He was trying hard not to show the pang of pain he felt at the mention of 'the other woman,' but the softening of her expression told him he had failed miserably. She patted his arm gently.
"By the way," she continued, obviously changing the subject. "With Joe dead, my lawyer is working on getting Adam away from Joe's mother. It's looking promising."
"Glad to hear that," Clark told her. He really was glad for her. Cat Grant, for all her past reputation, was a good woman, and a good friend. "So, what are you doing in Chicago this time?"
"I can't stay in Metropolis, too much has happened," she said. "Perry put in a good word for me with Mike, so here I am."
"Mike's office is right over there," Clark told her, pointing out the office of Mike O'Hanlon, editor of the Chicago Star.
"Wish me luck."
"Cat, you know you make your own luck," Clark told her. She gave him a cheeky wink and sauntered into Mike O'Hanlon's office. Clark couldn't help but notice the eyes that followed her into the office and he allowed himself a grin. Windy City, here comes the Cat. Chicago will never know what hit it.
* * *
The Chicago Star building didn't have the panache of the Daily Planet. The building itself was plain, no art deco guardians, no ornate globe announcing its presence to the world. It was utilitarian, with little flair beyond its massive stone and glass facade. But like the Planet before it, Superman made the top of the building his perch as he watched the city.
He wasn't Chicago's guardian like he'd been for Metropolis. Metropolis had survived his moving on, away from it. He wasn't going to get caught playing favorites again. He still wasn't sure if Luthor's attempt to destroy Metropolis nearly eighteen months before had been an insane attempt at revenge against the city for seeing the madman as he was or if it was punishment for his, Superman's, presence there. He was inclined to believe it was a little of both.
Lex Luthor was dead. He'd confirmed that much personally. The Cuban ambassador to the Congress of Nations had come to the Daily Planet, looking for Clark Kent and Lois Lane. Lois had been out of the newsroom on a breaking story. Clark spoke to the ambassador alone, promising to contact Superman for him.
It was Superman who went down to Cuba -- Clark Kent would never have been allowed. The Feds were still doing a half-hearted attempt to verify his presence in South America for five plus years, but he'd planned his story fairly well. Small mountain villages kept lousy records and weren't inclined to cooperate with their own governments, much less the U.S.
He verified that the body in the Cuban prison morgue was in fact Alexander Luthor, the sociopathic criminal mastermind that had tried to destroy the United States not once but twice. The current U.S. regime was labeling Luthor a terrorist, but that wasn't correct. Terrorists had political agendas, terrorists could be understood if you tried. Luthor hadn't cared about politics. He hadn't cared about money, really, except for the power it could buy.
What Luthor had craved was power, the power to create fear, the power to create awe. Awe in his alleged superior intellect, his superior ambition. He had considered himself a Nietzschean superman, so far above the common herd that morality -- law -- had no binding on him. Would-be tyrants loved Nietzsche, Clark mused from his perch.
In return for confirmation that the man they'd killed was in fact Lex Luthor, a Cuban official had given Superman the crystal Luthor'd had hidden in the lining of his coat. The crystal had glowed green at Superman's touch -- the Father Crystal containing the knowledge of twenty-eight galaxies in compressed and encrypted form. He knew the official had seen tears in his eyes at the sight of what he'd been sure had been lost forever.
"What would you like me to do for you?" Superman had asked.
The Cuban had looked at him solemnly. "I am sure you have heard that El Presidente is ill?"
"Yes," Superman said.
"He is not expected to live. Six months, a year perhaps," he was told. "It is hoped that upon his death, the United States government would feel that talks are in order."
"I'm not a member of the government," Superman reminded him. "But assuming El Presidente's successor is amenable to talking, I'll do what I can to bring that to the world's attention."
"That's all we dare ask," the official told him before he flew off, back to Metropolis, back to face Lois and her growing hatred of Clark Kent. He hid the crystal within the Fortress of Solitude, burying it with the structure. He would come back later and recreate the rest of the lost memory crystals, power up the Fortress.
Clark wrote the article detailing Luthor's death at the hands of the Cuban Navy, including the exclusive interview with Superman on his dealings with the Cuban government, the fact that the Cubans had been able to do what the U.S. government had failed to do so many times. They'd put a stop to Lex Luthor's depredations, even if it had required a summary execution. He also mentioned the recovery of one of the stolen crystals. He didn't specify which one, or what Superman had promised in return. The article was on the front page, above the fold, again. Lex Luthor Is Dead, the headline screamed.
Lois had been furious, again.
From his perch on the Chicago Star, Clark Kent reflected on the past fifteen months, since his move to the Planet's sister paper. Was the world a better place? His was, that much he knew.
I need to tell Esther about Superman, he decided. I won't do to her what I did to Lois, even if it means losing her. I can't keep living the secret.
* * *
"Esther, do you really think they'll like me?" he asked her. He'd met and interviewed presidents, prime ministers, dictators, tyrants of all stripes, psychopaths, sociopaths, perpetrators and victims, but none made him nearly as worried as meeting his girl friend's parents.
"Just stay way from U.S. politics and they'll love you," she advised him with a grin. He marveled at how beautiful she was -- not the dark-haired winter that Lois was, hard and edgy, strong yet brittle in her strength. Esther was Spring. Soft warmth and promises of newness coupled with the storms that cleared away the detritus so the land could renew itself.
"Esther, later, there's something I need to talk to you about," he told her.
"Cat's moving to town and she wants her boy toy back? Not happening, boy scout," she told him.
"It's not that, I promise," he assured her. "She has to find another boy toy. I'm taken." I hope.
* * *
Dinner was at Chez Bon, at the top of one the skyscrapers overlooking the lake. The general and his wife were waiting for them in the bar.
Clark had seen photos of them in Esther's apartment. Elizabeth Straker was a stunning woman, tall with auburn hair streaked with silver, green eyes. If Esther was Spring, her mother was Autumn.
General Edward Straker had finely sculpted features that would have served him well at the box office. He had been a fighter pilot in Viet Nam, a test pilot, an astronaut, a film studio executive, head of EPRAD. For her part, Elizabeth Komack Straker'd had a notable career in scientific research as well as business. She'd spent many years managing the film studio her husband had founded, although Clark suspected there was more there than was publicly admitted. He suspected the same was true for her husband -- military career officer to business man, then back to military officer was not the usual career path for a four star general.
"You must be Clark," General Straker said, getting up and shaking Clark's hand. He was shorter than Clark had expected, only about five-ten, then he recalled that the men chosen early on to be astronauts were not tall men. "Esther's told us so much about you."
"Some of it good, I hope," Clark managed to get out.
Elizabeth chuckled. "Oh yes." She was watching him with a peculiar expression, almost as though she was trying to place him, as though they had met before. Clark was certain they hadn't. One of the advantages of an eidetic memory.
Dinner was pleasant. At least they didn't hate him. Lois's general father had held Clark in open disdain. They asked about the newspaper business, his travels. He hadn't realized how much he'd told Esther of his travels before college, or how much she remembered. They stayed away from politics.
After dinner they went over to their suite at the Majestic.
"Esther, have you had a chance to tell him about what we've talked about?" Elizabeth asked her daughter as the general swiped the key card to open the door.
Esther looked guilty. "We were going to talk tonight."
"Hmm." Elizabeth gave Esther a sidelong glance as they entered the hotel suite. She turned to Clark. "I'd offer you a drink, if I thought it would help."
Clark chose not to comment as Elizabeth went to the suite's bar and poured two drinks. She handed one to Esther. She glanced at her husband who shook his head. Clark recalled Esther saying her father didn't drink.
"So, what did you want to talk about later?" Clark asked. There was something odd going on. He knew he had secrets, at least one big one, but he hadn't suspected Esther of having any. He'd thought they were friends at least and had hoped they were more.
"Probably the same thing you wanted to talk about," Esther said, watching him carefully. "At least I suspect so. You know there are aliens on Earth, don't you?"
"I know there's one," Clark said. "Superman."
"You're not the only one, Clark," Esther told him. "There are at least five other humanoid races that have taken refuge on Earth. The Danaen, the Rokan-shou, the Aurisans, the Chou-chin, and the Mell-da'ash. Mom and Dad and I are Danaen."
"You look perfectly human," Clark observed. You're not the only one, Clark.
"We are perfectly human. Our ancestors originally came from Earth," Elizabeth told him. "As I suspect yours did."
"Mine?" Clark squeaked, pushing his glasses up his nose. He didn't believe what was happening. There were other aliens on Earth and Esther and her parents were among them? You're not the only one, Clark.
"Clark, you can't hide your aura. It's unique, and it's Kryptonian," Esther told him. "I can even see the scar Luthor left on your back. It shows as a sort of gray spot in your energy field."
Clark straightened up and took off his glasses. He knew that he was admitting they were right. It no longer mattered. He couldn't hide. They know. "How long have you known?"
"I figured it out the moment you walked into the bar with Esther," Elizabeth said.
"And I figured it out the second time I met Superman," Esther told him.
Clark sat down in one of the chairs. He looked over at Esther's father, the only one who hadn't said anything. He was simply sitting and watching.
"And how long have you known?"
Edward shrugged. "Oh, I've suspected since about 1976 or so. But officially, I found out just now. I don't see auras they way they do. I'm not sure if it's a sex-linked thing or not."
Clark swallowed hard. "What do you intend to do?"
Edward raised one eyebrow. "Absolutely nothing. Superman's been on my watch list since he first showed up in Metropolis. Nothing malevolent. It's just nice to know where the players are and what they're up to."
"I... I need a little time to process this," Clark said. He couldn't decide if he was hurt, angry, disappointed, or all three. In the space of five minutes, his world had come apart again. Not as bad as when Lois decided she wasn't merely rejecting Superman but hated Clark as well, but bad enough. The government knows who I am. I have no place to hide.
"Clark, if you're worried that this information will get out, you don't need to be," Edward told him. "My people keep an eye on over a quarter million extra-terrestrials and their descendants living on Earth. It's nobody else's business who they are so long as their technology doesn't get away from them. And I understand that in your case, Luthor took extraordinary measures to steal it and misuse it. You're not being held responsible for his actions."
"Thank you, sir," Clark said. "Look, this has all been a bit much to take in... I... I have to go." He headed for the door.
"Clark?" Esther called, worry in her voice
"I'll call you later," he promised and closed the door behind him. He could hear Esther crying inside the room, could hear her mother trying to comfort her.
She didn't trust me enough to tell me she knew and that she was different too? She didn't trust me.
Esther hunted for her shoes on the floor of the limousine as the driver held the door open and the others got out. She finally found them, slipping them on as she followed the rest of her party into the hotel. She hated those shoes. They hurt her feet and she wondered if anyone would notice if she went through the reception in stocking feet.
The cocktail party preceding the reception had already started, but that's not where they were headed. Hors d'oeuvres and drinks, in this case soda pop, were served. It wouldn't do for the wedding party to faint from hunger before the buffet started.
The session with the photographer took a while. Adam, Matthew and Rebecca were already tired and cranky.
Finally, the official wedding photos were handled and it was time to go to the reception.
"Ready, boy scout?" Esther asked. It was hard for her to believe it had finally happened. She and Clark were actually married.
Martha Kent, Esther's parents and the rest of the wedding party assembled itself again to enter the reception room: Esther's parents, Martha, the bridesmaids and groomsmen in pairs, Cat and Bruce, Adam and Rebecca, followed by Esther and Clark.
The honor guard assembled itself again in front of the door, waiting. Esther and Clark paused as the rest of the party entered. Waited for the arch to be formed. Esther gave Lieutenant Austin a warning glare and he managed to look contrite. If you dare embarrass me, I'll have your liver for lunch, she thought at him. She knew he couldn't hear her, but he did manage to flinch away from her as she passed.
"Esther," Clark muttered into her ear. "You don't need the scare the kid out of his wits."
"Are you a telepath too, now?" she asked softly.
"No, but it's pretty obvious he's terrified," Clark said, still smiling as if amused. "And you were thinking it pretty loudly."
"Fear is a good thing," she said softly, grinning as she pulled him down to kiss him. "Especially for green lieutenants."
"Clark, are you okay?" Esther asked. He looked at her, as if not quite sure if he was okay or not. He'd just come back from covering a land slide in China. She didn't ask how he managed to get to China and back so quickly. She knew, even if he didn't know she did. They didn't talk much about Superman and she knew he assumed she thought he simply interviewed the superhero after the fact, or got a ride to the disasters with Superman. She knew that's what his coworkers thought.
I have to tell him soon. Tell him I know about him, tell him about me, about the others.
He'd finished his article on the disaster and had filed it, but he'd also allowed her to read the story. He didn't often do that. She suspected he was a little embarrassed that other people thought so highly of his work, including her.
He'd covered the disaster, both the causes and the results -- one hundred twenty-two school children dead, thirty-three teachers and parents. An entire generation in one small town that made its livelihood from mining, gone within a minute. A repeat of Aberfan Wales October 1966, when a hill of coal slag came down and buried an entire school, killing a different generation. Nearly forty-two years later and across the world, there'd been no change, no one learned, no one cared.
As fast as Superman had gotten there, it was already too late. The simple block buildings had collapsed, unable to withstand either the initial quake that started the slide, or the tons of slag that had come down. The earthquake has so minor it had caused no other damage.
He was staring off into space and she suspected he was lost in the horror of his recent experience. Did anyone else know how badly these things affected him? Did everyone else assume he simply walked away from the face of death without feeling anything? That he just flew off to the next disaster?
"I'm sorry," Clark said. He focused on her face and tried to smile.
It was Friday and it was her turn to do dinner. Usually they went out and then took in a movie or a play. This time she'd made dinner for them at her apartment. Matthew was sitting in his oak youth chair at the table, waving his spoon about as he tried to figure out how to get his spaghetti into his mouth without using his fingers. Finally he gave up and the hands went into the pasta on his plate.
"Oh well, so long as he can use the flatware before he heads to college," she said with a laugh. Her expression turned more solemn as she regarded Clark. "I saw the disaster on the news. It looked bad."
"It was," Clark told her. "I don't understand how the authorities there could have allowed that to happen. Why haven't they learned?"
"Because bureaucrats are the same all over. Are you going to be okay?"
"Yeah," Clark told her. "It's always bad when there are kids involved. All he could do was help dig out bodies. Bodies of boys and girls Jason's age, kids only a few years older than Matthew."
She took a deep breath. "Clark, let's not go out tonight. We can watch a DVD here."
"What did you have in mind?" he asked, taking a sip of wine he'd brought for dinner.
"Something light, unless you want to watch a Bond film," she suggested. He shook his head. "The Producers?"
He nodded and a little of the bleakness left his eyes.
Matthew was asleep before the movie was over and it was Clark who put him into his crib. Matthew had taken to Clark almost immediately and now after five months, Matthew probably thought Clark was his daddy. When they were out together, people would comment at how good Clark was with his 'son.'
I have to tell him.
She put on some music, Dream, by Kitaro. It was one of his favorites. She sat down on the sofa beside him, pulling her legs under her. He was warm. That was something she'd noticed when she first met him. His core temperature was high enough to be considered fever. It was just how he was.
He leaned toward her, giving her a gentle kiss. He was so gentle. She pulled him to her, their kiss growing in passion. "You know you don't have to go home tonight," she said.
"Are you sure?"
* * *
"Mom, I've lost him," she said to her mother. Tears ran down her face. Clark had just walked out and he could now be anywhere on the planet. Superman wasn't bound by national boundaries or terrain.
He'd been shocked when he was told that she and her parents were aliens, that there were aliens living of Earth and had been for many years. She'd heard how ragged his breathing had become when he realized that she and her parents knew that he was Kryptonian, that he was Superman. He'd actually gone white when he realized that her father, General Straker, not only knew but was part of the government. The U.S. government knew about him.
He's gone. I've lost him.
"Honey, I know it's cliché, but they do say 'If you love something..." her father said. It didn't make her feel better.
He's gone. I've lost him.
* * *
He didn't call. She left messages, but he didn't call. Finally, Esther decided to take the bull by the horns. She went over to the Chicago Star newsroom to look for him.
Cat Grant spotted her coming out of the elevators. "Esther?" Cat called, running over to her. "What's happened, what's wrong?"
Esther knew she looked awful. She hadn't slept since he took off last Monday. "Have you heard from Clark?"
Cat's eyes widened. "You guys had a fight? Are you okay?"
"No, we didn't have a fight, exactly," Esther tried to explain. "I'd been meaning to tell him something and I finally did, or me and my mom did. He didn't take it very well."
"You're not pregnant, are you?" Cat asked. "I know he's a little skittish sometimes, but..."
"No, it's not that," Esther assured her. "Nothing like that."
"So, what was it?" Cat asked gently. "Clark's usually pretty level headed..."
"I know, but I'm worried. I haven't heard from him since Monday night and I... He was so upset when he left, Cat," she said. She hadn't meant to start crying again.
Cat led her through the newsroom to Mike's office. Esther had met Mike O'Hanlon once before, on her first visit to the bullpen. She'd liked him. He reminded her of her dad's pal, Alec Freeman, a big teddy bear of a man.
Mike looked up as the two women entered his office.
"Chief, do you know where Clark is right now?" Cat asked him.
"Embedded with the Congress of Nations' WMD team in Tazarastan," Mike told her. "What's wrong?"
Cat nodded her head in Esther's direction. "Clark and Esther had a tiff and she got worried when she didn't hear from him."
"I was wondering why he agreed to go so fast, aside from it being Tazarastan," Mike commented. "I know how much he hates going into war zones... Oh, I know he's no coward. I think it's more the futility of the whole thing that bites at him. I assume he's told you he's on one of the Pulitzer committee's short lists for a prize for his work on background of that whole fockin' mess."
Esther didn't hear him. One of the curses of the Danaen kicked in. A vision of horror, a not so distant time that folded into now. A future time, unless the paths were altered. The past had a different feel.
Clark laying bleeding, dying, on pale rocky soil surrounded by the dead in CN uniforms, surrounded by angry men in brown uniforms. 'Call for Superman,' the angry men were saying. Clark shook his head, even though it was obviously an effort. One of the angry men raised his rifle and...
"Esther?" Cat asked, shaking her shoulder. From Cat's expression she knew the horror she felt was reflected in her face.
"We have to get him out of there," Esther choked out. "He's walking into a trap."
Mike gave her an odd look, as though he believed her but wasn't sure why he should. He picked up the phone on his desk and tapped in a number from memory. "Clark has a satellite phone with him," Mike explained. "At least he should have it, I hope." After a few moments: "Clark? Mike... something's come up here..." He handed the phone to Esther.
"Clark, get out of there right now, it's a trap," she said.
"Esther?" he asked, confusion obvious in his voice. "What's going on? How do you know?"
"One of my 'gifts,'" she said, trying to keep her voice from shaking. "I'll explain it when I see you back here. But right now, one of factions is laying a trap for Superman and you're the intended bait." She could almost hear the worry, the confusion, spinning in his head.
"You know that Superman refuses to enter war zones," Clark told her.
"Just because you know it and I know it doesn't mean they believe it," she argued. "Get out of there now!"
In the background she heard voices, then Clark saying to someone: "My paper's just gotten an intel report. This is a trap. One of the factions is in there waiting for us."
"But..." one of the background voices began.
"We're advised to come back with reinforcements," Clark told them. "The main bunker is lead-lined," Clark said into the phone. His voice was low, as if he didn't want to be over heard. "How did you know?"
"Clark, never mind that," she said. "Just get your butt out of there."
"I have a story to write," he argued. "I do know how to be careful."
"Clark, I want you out of there now," Mike announced, taking the phone from her. "I want you to call me from the airport and I want you back here as soon as the next plane can get you here, if not sooner. No story is worth your life. We'll let GNN cover it."
Esther heard Clark sigh on the other end. "Understood. I'm heading out of here. I'll call you when I reach the capital."
"Feeling better?" Cat asked Esther.
"I don't know."
* * *
"How did you know?" Clark asked. He'd shown up in Chicago only a few hours after Mike had ordered him back. He'd told Mike that Superman had checked out the area from high altitude and confirmed the 'intel' report. After Clark had left the scene, the WMD team had apparently decided to go ahead with their inspection. They were now dead, the GNN video team with them. The final video feed from the GNN camera confirmed that the faction involved not only had a nuclear device, they had kryptonite as well.
Congress of Nation forces were being mustered to go in a clean up the mess, the Tazarastan government was in shambles -- the nuclear device and the 'rebel' forces had been traced back to them.
Superman gave Clark a lift back to Chicago -- at least that was Clark's explanation. Esther didn't know how much of it Mike believed.
"My people have 'gifts' too," Esther told him, not meeting his gaze. They were in back booth of the deli not far from the Star.
"A little easier to hide than yours I suspect," she continued. "But occasionally useful. Clark, I saw you die, and the feeling was that it was immanent." She finally looked over at him. He was watching her with open curiosity. "I probably shouldn't have gone to your boss with it, but I didn't see any other way."
"How long have you known?" he asked.
"That I'm not normal? All my life, really," she said. "I had flashes even as a child. Portents of the future, the past. I should have told you sooner. Hell, my father should have contacted you the first week you showed your face in Metropolis."
"Why didn't he?"
"The psychological profile his people put together on you indicated you might not handle government interference very well. At least that's what he told me."
"Your father did a psychological profile on me?" Clark managed to ask.
"Not personally, no," she said. "And before you ask, I haven't seen it. It's classified and I don't have high enough clearance."
He sighed. "I'm sorry I took off like that," he said, finally. "It was just a little bit of a surprise."
"Clark, you turned white," she told him. "I didn't think that was even possible for you."
"We have a lot to work on," he admitted.
"Well, I guess trust is a big issue for us E.T.s. My dad nearly freaked when he found out in '84. That he was an E.T. defending the planet from invading hostile E.T.s."
"I'm not an invader," he said, a touch defensively.
"No, you're a refugee, just like the rest of us," she explained softly. "Some of us have been here for generations, some only a few years. But we're all survivors. And we all bring something to the mix" She smiled tentatively. "Some more than others."
He didn't seem to notice, watching the bubbles rising to the surface of his glass of beer. "So, where do we go from here?"
"Where do you want to go?" she asked.
"I have a bad habit of running, hiding," he said. "When things got strange after high school, I took myself around the world. I left anytime people started to suspect there was something odd. In Metropolis, I had the disguise, but when things got iffy with Lois, I left, again. I told myself I needed to find my roots. I needed to find myself. When I came back, things got even worse and I left again. I'm tired of running away."
"So stop running," she said.
"Easier said than done. A lifetime of bad habits."
"Then let's just take it one day at a time," she suggested.
"Today I will not flake out?"
"That works," she said softly.
He gave her a troubled look. "Esther, you're looking at a man who fell in love with a woman arrogant enough to seduce Superman. A woman who was arrogant enough to tell him to bugger off when he came back and disrupted her life."
"Clark Kent, you are sitting in a deli in Chicago sitting across from a woman who is arrogant enough to prefer an award winning journalist over a superhero," she said with a grin.
He finally smiled at her. "I do know how to pick 'em, don't I?" He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small velvet covered jewelry box. He flipped open the top. A simple platinum band, a pear-shaped blue-white diamond.
"This isn't exactly the way I'd planned it, but, um, Major Straker, would you do me the honor of becoming my bride?"
"Why, Mister Kent. I would be honored."
Lois watched as the receiving line assembled itself just inside the ballroom reserved for the reception. The second saber arch had been an interesting touch and Lois had caught the threatening look the bride had shot at one of the young officers. She'd chuckled quietly at the look of terror on the young man's face. Trust timid ol' Clark to get hitched to a woman who could make pilots blanch with a look.
Mother of the bride, father of the bride, the bride, the groom, mother of the groom, maid of honor, best man. Clark and Bruce were by far the tallest, towering over everyone else. Lois noted that Clark wasn't slouching at all as he greeted the guests coming through the line and there was no trace of the stammering timidity she had associated with him for so long. His tuxedo was as impeccably tailored as Bruce Wayne's. How long has Clark known the Prince of Gotham? The man hates the press. But he's a friend of Clark's.
Lois took a moment to study Clark, and his new bride. At the ceremony, Lois had mostly an impression of the bride. An impression of a fairy tale princess in satin and Irish lace. On closer look, the bride -- Esther? -- was still a fairy tale princess. High cheekbones, perfect peaches and cream complexion, blonde hair pulled into a French braid, blue eyes, almost as blue as Clark's eyes. Had Clark's eyes always been so impossibly blue?
Richard took her elbow, interrupting her observation of the newlyweds. Perry was already shaking General Straker's hand. Lois had to hurry to keep up with Richard as he joined the line. She heard him murmur introductions, congratulations.
Then it was Lois's turn to run the gauntlet.
"I'm Elizabeth Straker, Esther's mother," the mother of the bride said. Lois couldn't even guess her age, but there was little doubt as to where Esther got her looks. The woman was stunning, bringing to mind Deborah Kerr and Maureen O'Hara.
"Lois Lane-White," Lois introduced herself. "Clark's partner when he was at the Daily Planet."
"Ah, yes," Elizabeth said with a smile. Lois wondered what, if anything, Clark had told them about her. She was afraid to ask, afraid to find out what Clark really thought of her after what she'd done to him.
"General Edward Straker, Esther's father," the father of the bride said with a smile. "Lois Lane, right?"
"I enjoy reading your work," he said.
"Thank you," Lois responded. Few people remembered who wrote the articles they liked. "Maybe we can talk when we both get back to Metropolis."
"Maybe," Straker said. "We'll see."
On to the bride. "Congratulations," Lois told her. "I hope you realize what a catch you made."
"I know," Esther assured her. But there was, maybe, too much self-assurance there. What does she know that I missed? She moved on.
"Congratulations, Clark," Lois said. "I mean that."
"Thank you, Lois," Clark responded. "By the way, she's a pilot, and she doesn't much like horror movies."
"Touché," Lois murmured. "I guess I deserved that." She took a deep breath, trying to gauge his mood, his reaction. Once upon a time, I wouldn't have worried about how he'd react. "Before you and Esther leave today, Richard and I need to talk to you."
"Jason, and Superman."
"Lois, please believe me when I tell you I never would have left if I'd known you were pregnant," Superman told her.
"Do you mind telling me how that happened?" Lois asked. She was trying not to be angry with him, trying not to snap at him. But too much had happened. He had disappeared for more than five years then come back, apparently expecting everything to have stayed the same for him, that the world would forgive his betrayal.
The world might forgive him. But she wasn't sure she could. She thought she might be able to when she saw him wounded but still flying into battle, flying away from her to save the world. She thought she might be able to when he fell to earth and she thought he was dying. She told him Jason was his son. It was the least she could do for the man who'd single-handedly saved billions of lives.
He looked nervous as he regarded her, the two of them standing on the roof of the Daily Planet. He wouldn't meet her eyes. "I thought I could have you. I thought I could live as a 'normal' man, have a 'normal' life. I thought wrong, and when I tried to make it right, allow you to go back to your life without remembering what happened, I made it so much worse. You told me you couldn't take having to share me with the world, never being able to tell anyone about us. It never occurred to me anything more could have happened. I didn't think it was possible."
"You didn't think? Well, that part is right," she spat. "You decided to allow me to go back to my life, you decided without consulting me?"
"You said it was killing you," he told her. The regret in his voice was palpable. "I thought I was doing what you wanted. I didn't know about Jason. It never occurred to me."
"It never occurred to you?" Lois found herself screaming. "We have sex and you decide I don't need to remember it? How do I know that I even agreed to it? How do I know you didn't rape me?"
He actually went white at her accusation. She didn't care.
"I would never do that," he said. His voice was shaking. "You know that."
"Do I?" she told him. "You decided I didn't need to remember, that I didn't have a need to know what happened between us. You decided."
"I would never have left if I had known," he started again. Was he crying? Superman was crying?
"You wouldn't have left if you'd known I was pregnant?" she asked. "I wasn't enough to keep you here? The fact that we, apparently, were lovers wasn't enough?"
He had nothing to say to that. And that made her even angrier. He didn't care enough to fight back? The most powerful man on the planet couldn't be bothered to defend himself.
"You forfeited your right to my son when you left on your little adventure," she told him. "I've agreed to marry Richard. We've set the date. He's a good man. He's been here for Jason and me. He'll be here. You won't."
She ignored the pain in his eyes. "I don't need you in my life. Jason doesn't need you."
"And when his powers come in?"
"I'll worry about that when it happens. Just leave us alone."
* * *
Lois took a deep breath to calm her nerves as she stood outside the office door. Barbara Lassiter, family psychology, the brass nameplate read. She wanted a cigarette, but she didn't have any with her. This was her second week without a smoke. She'd been told it would get easier, the cravings would pass -- so far it wasn't getting easier.
She opened the door into the beige and brown reception area. The inner door opened and a short, matronly woman stepped into the doorway.
"Missus White, I presume," the woman said. "I'm Doctor Lassiter."
Lois followed Doctor Lassiter into the inner office. Richard and Jason were already there, waiting.
"I told you I'd make it once the story was in," Lois told them. There was an odd mixture of relief and fear on Richard's face, as though he'd been afraid to hope she'd been telling him the truth this time.
Lois took a moment to look around the office Richard and Jason had spent every Wednesday night at for the past six weeks. It was comfortable. An overstuffed sofa, three upholstered chairs, a small desk was set against the wall by the window. The color scheme was pale green and beige. A couple of innocuous landscapes graced the walls.
"Let's get started," Lois announced, settling down in one of the chairs. Richard and Jason were already seated on the sofa. Jason's hair was in his face, over his glasses. When did Jason start wearing glasses? He had perfect vision on his last check-up. Lois gestured to her own reading glasses, still on their chain around her neck.
"His last checkup showed Irlen's syndrome," Richard explained, obviously catching her meaning. "The glasses help. Besides, it was a recommendation from his biological father."
"You told me Jason's father was unavailable," Lassiter reminded him.
"Jason's father is unavailable," Richard said. "He's a public figure and he can't ever claim paternity. For him to acknowledge that he had a relationship with Jason's mother, no matter how brief, would be catastrophic for all three of them."
"You know that anything you tell me will be held in the strictest confidence," Lassiter said, looking from Richard to Lois.
"Let's just leave it, okay, Doctor?" Richard said. "Jason's biological father can not be brought into this."
"Richard, how...?" Lois asked.
"I'll tell you later," Richard promised. "In the meantime, let's work on us."
"Is there an us?" Lois asked.
"We won't know unless we try."
* * *
"Okay, spill it," Lois demanded as soon as the three of them got into the house. "Jason has Irlen's syndrome, needs glasses? And his biological father is a public figure? I thought we were agreed that Clark was his father, even though I don't remember it."
"Lois, I seriously doubt Clark Kent's son would have super hearing, or x-ray vision," Richard shot back.
"Lois, his powers are starting to develop," Richard told her. "His hearing kicked in and he was screaming. I got hold of Clark and he got hold of Superman to help Jason."
"And you never told me?" Lois was beyond furious.
"You never told me I was raising Superman's son," he reminded her. "What else haven't you told me?"
"Richard, honest to God, I thought we'd be able to handle it," she said earnestly. "I mean, I didn't even realize there was something else going on until that incident on the Gertrude. He threw a grand piano across the room. I still don't know exactly how I ended up pregnant with his child, or how Clark was involved in all of it."
"So, what do you want to do?"
"Richard, I married you. You're the man I chose to marry, the man I agreed to spend the rest of my life with," Lois told him. Please believe me.
"Lois, what do you want to do?" Richard repeated.
"We do what we have to," Lois said. "We keep going."
"And what about Clark?" he asked.
"What about him?" Lois asked.
"Are you ever going to tell him he isn't Jason's father?" Richard asked. "That he's been shouldering the blame for something Superman did? You know that Jason still asks when he's going to come back."
"Richard, we both know Clark Kent isn't coming back to Metropolis," Lois told him. "He's out of Jason's life, out of my life. He has his own life to live, and it doesn't include any of us."
So why does he show up in my dreams? Why is it Clark I see in the crystal palace and not Superman?
Perry permitted himself a self-satisfied smile. Clark looked happier than the Daily Planet editor had seen him in years. And he hadn't missed Clark's little remark to Lois in the receiving line.
"By the way, she's a pilot, and she doesn't much like horror movies."
Good for you, son.
The receiving line was going to take a while longer. Perry grabbed a glass of champagne from one of the waiters' trays. He knew his doctor didn't want him drinking, but this was a party. That damn pill-pusher can go hang. Not everyday your favorite writer gets hitched to a general's daughter.
He found a relatively quiet corner to watch from. Lois seemed to be barely holding together, Richard holding onto her arm as if he was afraid she would get away from him. Jimmy and Penny had grabbed champagne for themselves and were heading toward him.
"Some party, huh, Chief?" Jimmy observed.
"EPRAD and Straker can afford it," Perry told him. Perry nodded to the military uniforms with their masses of gold braid and the middle-aged businessmen and women with their spouses.
"You're a cynic, Chief," Jimmy stated.
"I prefer to think of myself as a realist," Perry corrected mildly. "Do you really think more than a handful of people here know or care who Clark and Esther Kent are? This is a prime example of a social event being warfare concealed. Straker is marking his territory in front of his peers, showing off his power. I can just about guarantee the only people here who even know Clark's a writer are all from the media or family. And I doubt even the media people here have read his work outside of what's in the Star." He shrugged. "Well, maybe they've read his book on Intergang," he amended.
"Do you think Clark and Esther realize that?" Penny asked.
"I can guarantee it," Perry said, taking a sip from his glass. "Neither of them are stupid or naïve. At least not that way." He looked around at the growing crowd. In one corner a young man was setting out CDs, checking the connections to his sound equipment. He punched a button and some light jazz started playing.
"I wonder why Superman didn't show up," Penny commented. "He's supposed to be a friend of Clark's, isn't he?"
"If Superman came in wearing a tuxedo instead of the red cape, would anyone here recognize him?" Perry asked.
Perry noticed Clark's eyes on him and raised his glass to him. Clark smiled slightly and gave a hint of a nod in acknowledgement.
"I'd like to think I would," Jimmy said.
Perry just chuckled.
"Perry, how could you?" Lois fumed from the back seat of the cab.
Perry was in the front seat, peering back at her benignly, which apparently infuriated her even more. Richard was patting her hand, trying to calm her down. Perry had known Lois wasn't going to be easy to live with for a few days, maybe a week. She hadn't won the Pulitzer she'd been short-listed for. More to the point, Clark Kent had won in his category, then left in his old familiar, perplexing, hurry. At least they hadn't been in direct competition.
"How could I have done what, hon'?" Perry asked, pretending he didn't know what she was talking about.
"I don't believe for a minute that the seating committee would make a mistake of listing Clark with the wrong paper and putting him at our table," she explained. "So what were you playing at? I mean, the man walked out on you, us, more than a year ago."
"Lois, he didn't just 'walk out' and you know it," Perry reminded her. "What I don't understand is why you keep insisting he did and why you keep on feeding those rumors that he was involved in unsavory things before he left. We're talking about Clark the Boy Scout, the choir boy, here. The one who wouldn't say shit if he had a mouthful." He was finally getting exasperated with her. He couldn't believe his best investigative reporter could be so dense.
"You're still upset he beat you out on that Intergang exposé, aren't you?" Richard observed. Lois hunkered down in her seat, glowering at both of them.
"Lois, you knew the rules I laid down on that," Perry reminded her. "It was your choice not to work with him on his terms. And I've no doubt he'll be on a Pulitzer short list for next year as well. If not for that series, then for the book he's writing on it."
"You didn't tell me he got a book contract out of it," Lois fumed.
"It's not my job to tell you what other journalists are up to, except for the ones who work here," Perry reminded her.
The cab stopped in front of the Daily Planet. Perry paid the driver and led the way into the building. As they waited for the elevator doors to open onto the newsroom floor, Perry wondered a little how he was going to explain why he did what he did.
"Yes, Lois, I did ask for Clark to be seated at our table," Perry admitted as they left the elevator, heading for his office. "That call I took just before we left for the ceremony? That was Mike O'Hanlon letting me know that Clark had agreed to go into Tazarastan again, and given what happened last time he was there, tonight may well be the last time any of us see him alive."
"What do you mean?" Richard asked. "I mean, Clark's not that much of a klutz, and he's certainly not one to just walk into danger. At least he wasn't."
Lois snorted. "Clark hates guns, and has no stomach at all for violence. He fainted the first time he was mugged."
"You're sure about that, are you?" Perry asked. Lois snorted again. "You both remember the WMD investigation team that was murdered five weeks ago?"
"Sure," Richard said. "The current regime blamed a splinter military cell for it." His forehead was creased into a frown. "But what does...?"
"Richard, you're International. Who was the U.S. journalist embedded with that team?" Perry asked.
Richard sighed. "Clark Kent, Chicago Star. The story I got was he was recalled to the States only a day before it happened, no explanations."
"Make that half an hour before," Perry told them. "Mike got hold of an intelligence report -- and don't even ask where he got it, he won't even tell me -- that one of the factions had targeted Superman, and Clark was meant to be the bait. Clark made it to the main airport and Superman brought him home. The rest of the team went ahead with the inspection and we all know what happened then. Mike thinks Clark agreed to go back in order to find the people who killed the WMD team and were targeting Superman."
"But Superman was the one who negotiated the peace accord, got the factions to sit down together," Lois reminded them. "Isn't it a little late to go after him now?"
"Revenge isn't logical, Lois," Richard reminded her. "You of all people should know that."
"One more thing," Perry said. "Mike told me they asked for a photographer, too. He thought it might be a good idea if that came from the Planet. I'm going to ask Jimmy if he wants to go."
* * *
Perry watched Lois and Richard's relationship seem to go from bad to worse. Losing the Pulitzer griped at her. She was spending every waking hour working on a series of investigations on the aftermath of the fall on Intergang. There were days she didn't go home at all, meeting with sources at all hours of the day and night. She was a woman driven.
Lois didn't even seem to notice the hurt and pain in Richard's face when he came to work. But Perry noticed.
"Richard, what's wrong?" Perry asked, finally. Lois was gone again, whether on the aftermath story or another one she'd been assigned, Perry didn't know, or even much care. If she was out of the office, she wasn't causing trouble for anyone else in the newsroom.
"Nothing," Richard stated. He was staring at his computer monitor, refusing to look up at his uncle.
"I haven't been in this business as long as I have been and not be able to read my own family," Perry told him. "Out with it."
"I found out last week that Lois hasn't been entirely truthful about Jason's paternity," Richard said softly. "It's not Clark."
Perry raised one eyebrow. "So, who was it?"
Richard looked up at him, made a small 'swoosh' motion with his hand.
Superman? "You're kidding," Perry said aloud. "Does he know?"
Richard nodded. "There was a problem last week. I called Clark to get hold of Superman. He was right there to help. He gave me some advice before he left. Even told me what kind of glasses to get Jason to help him learn how to manage."
"Does Clark know about Superman...?"
"I don't know," Richard admitted. "I suspect so. My call made it pretty obvious, if he thought about it at all."
"And what about Lois?"
Richard sighed. "I haven't talked to her since I found out. I've hardly even seen her. All her energy, all her time, is going into this investigation," he said. "I hope she gets done with it soon. I'd like to have my wife back. Jason would like to have his mother back."
"Is there anything I can do?" Perry asked, knowing the answer.
Richard shook his head. "We'll get through this. I just hope it's soon."
The first article of Lois's series was on the front page the following Monday. Like Clark's Intergang series almost five months before, it was picked up by the Planet's sister papers, then internationally within a week. Privately, Perry considered it one of the best pieces of reporting he'd seen in years. Certainly the best Lois Lane had produced. If she didn't win the Pulitzer for this one, the judging committee had no idea what they were doing.
As soon as the article hit, Richard and Lois's relationship seemed to improve. Lois started going to family therapy with Richard and Jason on Wednesdays. That seemed to help too. But Perry still wondered what was happening with Jason. How he was holding up. Jason didn't come to the newsroom as often as he used to. Jason is Superman's son. No wonder Lois is so messed up.
* * *
"Clark's getting married?" Lois asked Perry. A small announcement had shown up on the newsroom bulletin board. A clipping from the Chicago Star announcing the impending wedding of Clark Joseph Kent and Esther Krystin Straker.
"Yes," Perry acknowledged. "I already have an invitation. It's in April, right after Easter." He watched her reaction. Disbelief? "Lois, did you think it would never happen? That he wasn't capable of making a life for himself? That he wouldn't be able to get over you?"
Lois gave him a sharp look. "Did you think I didn't know he was in love with you?" Perry asked.
"That was his problem. I certainly never gave him any ideas," Lois told him.
"I'm just a little surprised, that's all," Lois admitted. "Do you know what she's like?"
"Ask Jimmy," Perry told her. "He spent a lot of time with her and Clark while he was over there. He says she's good people."
"I'm glad for him," she said.
Perry wasn't sure he believed her. But maybe she was finally getting over her anger at Clark. Maybe. But then maybe not. Perry hadn't posted the Pulitzer short lists yet, but this year, Lois Lane and Clark Kent were both on the list for investigative journalism. They'd both won Kerths earlier in the year for their work on Intergang, Clark in the Midwest chapter and Lois on the East Coast.
Lois is going to have kittens.
Cat Grant had seen receiving lines like this before -- celebrity weddings where they'd gone all out to flaunt their fame, the wealthy and influential with families showing off and returning favors. This wedding and reception didn't fit any of those categories, really, but influential came closer to any other description -- at least for the bride's family. But having to stand through a receiving line for the rich and famous was something else again.
Following Esther's lead, Cat had also shed her dress pumps in favor of a pair of low dancing shoes.
The line was thinning out and Cat took a moment to check on Martha, standing beside her. The poor woman looked worn out, gamely keeping a smile on her face as she shook hands with people she'd never heard of, people who wouldn't recognize her tomorrow, much less next week. Heck, Cat didn't know many of them and that was her job.
On her other side stood Bruce Wayne, looking as cool and dapper as ever. The millionaire, make that billionaire, was in his element here -- the concealed warfare of the social event. Again, she marveled at how one of the wealthiest men in the country, one who was well known for his dislike of the press, happened to be close friends with one particular member of the press. Close enough friends to be his best man.
The receiving line was breaking up. Clark had taken his mother's arm and led her to the family table near the wedding cake and the neatly stacked piles of tiny boxes of groom's cake.
Clark nodded to the DJ in the corner, who turned up the music. On cue, Bruce moved to stand in front of the family table. "Ladies and gentlemen, if we could clear the floor..." His deep voice carried well and the floor began to clear.
"First, a toast," he said, holding up a champagne glass. "Here's to the bride and the groom. We'll ask their success in our prayers, and through life's dark shadows and sunshine that good luck may always be theirs."
The audience lifted their glasses.
"Now it's time for the first dance," he announced. "May I present, the bride and groom, Esther and Clark Kent."
The light jazz piece that was being played was turned down as Clark took Esther's hand and led her to the center of the floor. The first dance song started its instrumental intro and he took her into his arms.
You know when you give your love away
It opens your heart,
everything is new.
And you know time will always find a way
to let your heart believe it's true.*
There was no trace of the clumsy farm boy who had moved to Metropolis, the one who tripped over his tongue and feet in the newsroom of the Daily Planet. Clark and Esther spun together across the dance floor, flawlessly in tune with one another. "I learned from a Nigerian princess who studied ballroom dancing in England." Clark had told Cat once.
You know love is everything you say;
a whisper, a word,
promises you give.
You feel it in the heartbeat of the day.
You know this is the way love is.
Love is love is love*
Cat looked around at the audience. Perry was standing on the far side of the room, watching the newlyweds. He was smiling.
You know love may sometimes make you cry,
so let the tears go,
they will flow away,
for you know love will always let you fly --
how far a heart can fly away!*
Love is love is love*
Cat spotted Lois and Richard not too far from her. She couldn't read Lois's expression, but there was pain in Richard's face as he stood behind his wife, arms around her waist. He seemed to notice he was being observed and put on a neutral expression as he watched the couple dancing in the center of the polished oak floor.
You know when love's
shining in your eyes
it may be the stars
falling from above.
And you know love
is with you when you rise,
for night and day belong to love.*
The dance ended and the audience applauded. Clark and Esther separated, each stepping over to the parents' table.
"The bride and groom, and parents," Bruce announced. Esther went to her father. The general stood up and took her hand, heading out onto the dance floor. Clark took his mother's hand, speaking to her softly. Finally she accompanied her son to the center of the room. Clark towered over her. He started to slouch and Martha hit his arm. He straightened up, a sheepish grin on his face as the music started.
It must have been cold there in my shadow
To never have sunlight on your face
You've been content to let me shine
You always walked a step behind
I was the one with all the glory
While you were the one with all the strength
Only a face without a name
I never once heard you complain**
There was no doubt in Cat's mind that Clark had chosen that song. It was just like him.
Did you ever know that you're my hero
And everything I'd like to be
I can fly higher than an eagle
But you are the wind beneath my wings
It might have appeared to go unnoticed
But I've got it all here in my heart
I want you to know I know the truth
I would be nothing without you**
More time to observe the audience. Jimmy and Penny were standing beside Perry. Jimmy had his hand around Penny's waist and they were both swaying to the music.
Cat looked across at Bruce. There was a pensive, almost sad, look on his face as he watched the two couples. Like Richard before him, he realized he was being observed and smiled for his audience, but Cat noticed that the smile didn't extend to his eyes. Poor man. Does Clark know that Bruce is jealous of him?
Did you ever know that you're my hero
And everything I'd like to be
I can fly higher than an eagle
But you are the wind beneath my wings
You are the wind beneath my wings**
The song ended and Clark kissed his mother on the cheek, murmuring something to her. Cat didn't need to hear to know what he was saying: Thank You.
Clark was just too good to be true sometimes. But then, so was Bruce.
The judge at the family court in Gotham City agreed that, in the face of incontrovertible evidence that Joseph Morgan had been involved in Intergang's criminality, custody of Adam Morgan should be given to his mother, Catharine Grant. The judge ordered the boy be turned over to his mother. The fact that his mother lived in Chicago was irrelevant -- she had a good paying job, references, the support of her employer and friends.
Lilliana Morgan, Joe's mother, had been caring for Adam on behalf of her son. She glared at Cat when the judge announced her decision and ordered Adam be brought to her chambers the next day to be turned over to his natural mother.
Lilliana did not appear the next day. An arrest warrant was sworn out on her. Police and child protective services were sent out, but Lilliana had cleared out. There was no sign of them.
"Clark," Cat said over the phone. "Even the FBI can't find them. What can I do?" Cat knew there wasn't really anything Clark could do. He'd been in Tazarastan for the past two months. But he was a friend, and he had friends.
"Cat," Clark said. "There are two people you want to get hold of. First, Archbishop Ryan over at the cathedral, then Alfred Pennyworth in Gotham City." He gave her both numbers and she jotted them down.
"Why them?" Cat wondered aloud.
Clark chuckled on the other end of the phone line. "The Archbishop has a reputation as a problem solver as does Mister Pennyworth. Tell Alfred that Clark referred you and he'll point you in the direction of some serious help."
"Do you think Kal would be of any help?"
"Get Blackie and Alfred on it first," Clark advised. "Then if it needs Kal's talents, we can bring him in. In the meantime be careful, Cat. I don't think I like the games they play in Gotham City."
"Who does?" Cat asked. It was a rhetorical question. Even with Batman in residence, Gotham City wasn't the bright beacon Metropolis was.
"Keep me posted, Cat," Clark said.
"I will," she promised, hanging up her phone.
* * *
A dark-skinned teenage girl ushered Cat into a comfortable sitting room inside the rectory of Holy Name Cathedral. Cat sat down in one of the over stuffed chairs, wiping her hands on her skirt. She was more nervous than she ever wanted anyone to know. The last time she'd been near a church had been during the wait for Superman to save Earth from Nightfall. That hadn't been the proudest moment of her life.
After a few moments, the teenager returned with a compact man wearing a black shirt with a crimson-edged roman collar and thick glasses that reminded her of Clark's. He smiled at her benignly. "Megan here says you're a friend of Clark's and you need some help."
"Um, yes, Your Reverence," Cat said.
"Call me Blackie," he instructed. He seemed all right. Innocuous, in an impish sort of way. He had curly brown hair streaked with silver and bright eyes peered out at the world from behind his thick glasses.
She told him of her ex-husband and her problems with him, his death and now her son's disappearance along with her ex-husband's mother. "Clark seemed pretty sure you'd be able to help," she added.
"Indubitably," the little Archbishop said with a smile.
"Clark also gave me the number of someone in Gotham City, an Alfred Pennyworth," Cat told him.
"I'm told he's already at work on the case."
* * *
The Archbishop invited her to tea at the Reilly Gallery. The owners, Mike Casey and his wife Anne, were charming and attentive, asking questions that would be appropriate for a police detective, assuming there were any detectives in Chicago who were actually willing to help her. The two FBI agents that were supposedly on the case had left her cold.
Mike Casey was a tall, lean man with silver hair trimmed close to his scalp. Anne, his wife of twenty-plus years was one of those women who aged well, thanks to a combination of excellent genetics and attentive personal care. She kept Cat's cup filled with herbal tea as Cat told yet another person her story.
"Miss Grant, aside from Clark and now us, who else knows that you were Clark's source in Metropolis for the Intergang exposé?" Casey asked finally.
"Superman," Cat told him. "But I was one of the people known to be in the building just before that bomb went off at the GNN building and I moved to Chicago almost immediately after."
"So it could be anyone," Blackie observed, taking a cookie from the plate Anne held out to him.
"I'm going to arrange to have protection for you," Casey announced. "Even a crippled Intergang isn't anybody to mess with and I've no doubt that's why your son was taken."
"If that's true, he may already be dead," she pointed out to them.
"If he were dead, they would have made sure you knew about it," Casey said.
"So there's still hope?" she asked.
"Arguably," Blackie said, taking another cookie. "Our friends in Gotham are on the case and have high hopes of a successful resolution."
"I hope so," Cat told him.
* * *
"Miss Grant?" Cat looked up to see a tall, distinguished looking elderly man standing in the door to the society page office. Cat was alone in the office. Her three co-workers had either gone home for the day or were preparing for their evening assignments.
It was nearly a month after her meeting with Mike Casey. An off duty police officer still drove her to and from work. Security at her apartment was been beefed up, including a monitored alarm system. At work, Mike O'Hanlon had 'promoted' her to society page editor, a job that kept her in the office during normal working hours. The regular editor was off on maternity leave and hadn't yet decided if she wanted to return to work.
"Yes?" she asked.
He stepped forward. "I'm Alfred Pennyworth. And I have someone here who would like to see you." He had a smile on his aged face as he stepped aside, allowing a tall dark-haired man enter the office. Cat recognized the man from his society page photos -- Bruce Wayne, the handsome, debonair, playboy prince of Gotham City. In his arms was a small boy with strawberry blond hair. Behind him stood the little Archbishop, smiling benignly at her.
"Adam?" She couldn't believe it. Bruce Wayne was bringing her son to her. He's alive. He's okay. "How?"
Bruce smiled, handing the boy over to his mother. Adam grabbed his mother's neck tightly and Cat discovered she was crying as she ran her hands over his body, confirming that he was unharmed, that he was real, that he was here with her.
It was the Archbishop who spoke. "I told you our associates in Gotham were on the case," he reminded her.
"I happen to be one of those associates," Bruce said. "I'm also one of Clark Kent's friends and he asked if I would help out."
"He's never mentioned you," Cat told him.
Bruce chuckled. "I don't mention him to my acquaintances either," he admitted. "But we have been known to help one another out on occasion."
"How could he possibly be of help to you?" Cat wondered aloud.
"You'd be surprised," Pennyworth told her. "Master Clark has many unsuspected talents, as does Master Bruce."
"Indubitably," Archbishop Blackie agreed.
"Such as?" Cat asked. It wasn't just her reporter's instincts. She was genuinely interested in finding out how mild-mannered Clark Kent happened to be on a first name basis with one of the wealthiest men in the United States -- one with an open disdain for the press. And how was said playboy-millionaire involved in the rescue of her son?
Bruce laughed again. He had a nice laugh, a genuine laugh. "He warned me you were as curious as your namesake," he said. "Let's just say that as an investigative journalist, Clark is more than a little bit of a detective. He's pulled my fat out of the fire more than once, while sticking my nose in places it probably shouldn't have been."
"Does it happen often?" Cat asked, disbelieving.
"More often than I care to recall," Bruce admitted.
"And you have helped Master Clark more often than he cares to recall, I'm sure sir," Pennyworth said with a small chuckle.
"Yeah, for a smart guy, he does tend to get into trouble," Bruce said with a grin.
"At least he came back before he was declared dead," Pennyworth reminded him with a smile.
"You're not going to let that go, are you?"
Cat held her son tightly in her arms. No one was going to take him away from her now. Having him here, now, was a miracle. "Is there anything I can do to repay you for your help?" she asked Bruce.
"You can come with me to the Founder's Ball in Gotham City in two weeks."
* * *
The Founder's Ball was as grand as Cat remembered. Bruce flew her to Gotham City in his private plane. Adam was being watched by Mike Casey and his wife.
Bruce was a marvelous dancer and he knew all the socialites, introducing her to them, filling her in on all the latest gossip.
The party was over too soon.
"I enjoyed tonight immensely," Bruce told her, driving her back to the plane that would take her home to Chicago and her son.
"So did I," Cat admitted. "I'm a little surprised you didn't make a move on me though."
She shook her head. "Just surprised."
He smiled at her in the dark. "Clark is too good a friend for me to put the moves on a friend of his."
"One of these days, I'm going to find out how the two of you got to be friends," she promised.
"Let's just say that in a godforsaken part of the world, we found out we had a lot more in common than either of us realized," Bruce told her. "Good night, Miss Grant. And say hi to Clark for me."
"Good night, Mister Wayne. I hope to see you again sometime."
"I've no doubt we will, Miss Grant," he said. "I've no doubt at all."
*Amarantine, Â© Enya, from the album of the same name
**Wind Beneath My Wings, Â© Larry Henley/Jeff Silbar
Jimmy loved dancing with Penny. They had both taken lessons in ballroom dancing to be prepared for the wedding. Not to mention that it just wouldn't do to step on your fiancée's feet. After the first two dances, the newlyweds went and sat down at the family table.
The dance for the rest of the wedding party. Clark and Esther chose to sit this one out while Cat and Bruce took center stage along with groomsmen and bridesmaids. Cat and Bruce looked good together as they danced, laughing and chatting, enjoying each other's company. The dance seemed to have improved Bruce's impending moodiness, at least a little. Odd that Clark was buddies with a moody spoiled playboy, but then, Clark had friends in lots of odd places.
Jimmy turned his attention back to his own fiancée.
"We are so eloping," she murmured in his ear.
Jimmy chuckled. "There's a conference next month in Vegas. Perry's sending me."
"Remind me to take that week off," Penny said. "I'll meet you there."
"Clark'll be at the conference, too," Jimmy told her. "I'll ask him to be best man."
"Sounds like a plan."
Walter Smith groused at the fact that Jimmy seemed to prefer hanging out with Clark Kent and his fiancée than with the staffer from the Daily Planet International section. Jimmy ignored him. Smith was a well known complainer. If it wasn't the photographer assigned to him, it was the accommodations. If it wasn't the accommodations, it was the weather, or the food, or his allergies.
The Tazarastan peace conference was going well enough and Jimmy had managed to get some good shots of Superman speaking to the government officials and representatives of the various involved parties. But even Superman was getting worn down by the difficulties of mediating between parties that were only interested in destroying one another. The animosity ran deep, especially after the Tazarastan interim government admitted to wanting Superman out of the picture and they were absolutely against the fact that women were involved in the security arrangements.
"So, what do you think Superman will do now?" Jimmy asked Clark over dinner. "I mean, if the interim government is balking at having him involved, what can he do?"
"I think it's only one person in government group that's actually against Superman," Clark explained. "That's General Akim Kahn. And he's been implicated in a plot to kill Superman and may have been involved in the deaths of the WMD inspectors last month."
"Unfortunately, there's no proof," Esther reminded them. "And he's the nephew of the current Prime Minister."
"So, where does that leave the negotiations?" Jimmy asked. Having dinner with Esther and Clark was like taking a college level class with food as a perk.
"The other parties are unlikely to request Superman to absent himself, especially since he's been assisting in the reconstruction efforts," Clark told him. "He's acceptable as a neutral mediator so long as he stays out of the way of their defense efforts. And he's been doing that."
"But the problem of their objections to having women involved in any capacity isn't going to be solved so easily," Esther reminded them. "The pre-revolution government had started secularization and allowing women to participate in the economy. When that fell apart under pressure from their more conservative neighbors, their economy and everything but the military took a big hit."
"But they don't believe it, do they?" Jimmy asked.
"Change is a scary thing, especially change that demands a rethinking of nearly every social belief a society is based on," Clark said. "Especially when those beliefs are so self-important, so skewed in favor of one gender, one class, one clan. When it's so easy to be part of a system that blames the victims for their problems, and lets the perpetrators of atrocities not only get away with it, but be applauded for their actions."
"You've thought a lot about this, haven't you?" Jimmy observed.
"I'm on the short list for a Pulitzer for my research on this whole mess," Clark reminded him. "Yeah, I've thought a lot about this. And I don't see a way out for them. It may take generations for them to recover from everything that's happened."
* * *
"Olsen, my office," Perry yelled into the bullpen. Jimmy saved the digital photo he'd been working on and hurried into the editor-in-chief's office.
"Jimmy," Perry began. "I've been asked to send a photojournalist to Tazarastan."
Jimmy found himself holding his breath. "And you're asking me if I want to go?"
Perry nodded. "Clark is going."
"When do I leave?"
* * *
Clark and Jimmy sat on the carpets in the mud brick hovel. Both were dressed in native garb, the long tunic with a wide belt and vest, loose white trousers. Clark's glasses looked incongruous under the dark turban.
"Now, tell me why we're here again?" Jimmy asked as their host went to get more tea.
"Well, Mir Kharim Naseer is a local scholar and leader," Clark explained. "He's also a friend of mine from way back."
"You have friends in strange places," Jimmy commented.
"Remember, I spent about four years just traveling the planet. Spent most of my time in villages like this one."
"I thought you spent your last sabbatical in South America?" Jimmy said.
Clark smiled. "I spent about six months here right before college. They're good people, so long as you let them make up their own minds, don't try to force them into anything. They're proud and independent. But this is where change takes place. These are the hearts and minds that have to be won."
They had come to the village to ask Mir Naseer about the militia groups that were still terrorizing the area. Naseer told them what he knew over tea and a meal. At least Jimmy assumed Naseer answered Clark's questions. Jimmy had only picked up a smattering of native words in the three months he'd been in the country. Clark, on the other hand, seemed to speak like a native. Jimmy had caught him reading Arabic language newspapers their first week in the country.
"Does that include crazy generals?" Jimmy asked as Naseer came back one of his daughters and the tea.
"Yes, it does," Naseer answered. His accent was thick but understandable.
"You've been practicing," Clark accused with a smile.
Naseer shrugged eloquently. "It is always good to learn your neighbor's language."
"It is also good to learn your friends' language, my friend," Clark replied.
"And your enemies, Kalil," Naseer told him, referring to Clark by the name he'd been given in the village fifteen years before and clapping him on the back.
"Especially your enemies," Clark agreed in English.
* * *
Jimmy looked up at General Akim Kahn standing on the grate overhead. Jimmy and Clark had been traveling cross country, visiting villages, talking to the people. Then a uniformed militia unit took them hostage at gun point, taking them to what appeared to be an abandoned, half destroyed prison. They'd been forced to climb down into a stone-lined pit that was barely large enough for them to lie down in and an iron grate slammed shut on them.
"I don't like Americans," Kahn told the two men in the pit. "I especially don't like American spies."
"General," Clark said calmly, "you are well aware that we are journalists, not spies. You also know that people will be looking for us."
"I know you have value as hostages," Kahn told them. "I know that you are friends of Superman."
"Superman does not enter war zones," Clark reminded him. "He does not interfere in politics, even when they've devolved into violence." Clark added something in another language that Jimmy couldn't make out but the general's companions started laughing. The general himself went white with rage.
One of his companions spoke to him quietly, apparently urging away from the prisoner pit. With a final inchoate shout at them, the general allowed himself to be led away. The man who had been urging the general away stopped for a moment, looking down into the small stone lined holding pit.
"If you value your lives, you will call Superman," he advised.
"And what does General Kahn want with Superman?" Clark asked. He seemed unnaturally calm, sitting on the cold stone floor of the cell looking at the man standing above them. The man crouched down to get a little closer.
"Ten years ago, the general's home village was attacked by..." he began. "It doesn't matter who, only that they bombed one of the mountain dams. His family -- his mother, father, wife, sons -- all killed when the village was washed away. Superman did nothing."
"Superman does not enter war zones," Clark repeated. "And as much as I feel for the general's loss, I do not understand the demand for blood payment from someone who does not condone violence and was powerless to prevent it."
"The general doesn't care."
"Why am I not surprised? For those setting out on revenge, first dig two graves," Clark told him. "Superman will not come for us. But our blood price will be exacted. Make no mistake about that." There was something very cold and alien in Clark's expression. Something Jimmy had never seen before and he wasn't sure he ever wanted to see it again.
* * *
Most people thought the Middle East was hot desert. Jimmy knew better. The cell was bitterly cold. Jimmy rubbed his hands together to keep his circulation going. Clark was sitting quietly, legs crossed, staring at the wall as almost as though he could see through it and the yards of dirt beyond.
"CK, do you really think somebody is looking for us?" Jimmy asked finally. He'd fallen asleep for a while and was now stiff as well as cold. He didn't think Clark had moved at all.
"If I give you a boost, do you think you can reach the grill?" Clark asked, finally unfolding himself and standing up. As tall as he was, the grill was a good two feet beyond his reach. He put out a hand and pulled Jimmy to his feet.
"I'm pretty sure they locked it," Jimmy reminded him.
"Try it anyway?" Clark suggested, weaving his fingers together to give Jimmy a foothold. Clark was stronger than he looked, Jimmy realized as he climbed onto the taller man's shoulders to get to the iron grill above them. He pushed up on the metal and to his astonishment, the lock mechanism shattered, allowing him to swing the grill out of the way. "It's open," Jimmy said quietly.
Clark gave him an additional boost and Jimmy clambered out of the pit. Jimmy looked around for the ladder the militiamen had used when forcing them into the pit. He didn't see it, so laid down on his belly to reach for Clark's hand to help him out. Clark ignored his hand, coiling himself like an athlete, then jumped, catching the edge of the stonework. Jimmy grabbed the back of his shirt and helped him out of the pit.
Clark settled the grate back over the pit, then beckoned Jimmy to follow him down the unlit corridor to the outside, and possible freedom. As they got closer to the exterior of the building, Jimmy could hear gunfire.
Suddenly, a man appeared in the open doorway carrying an automatic rifle. Mir Naseer. "Kalil, Jimi, I was told you needed rescuing," Naseer told them with a grin.
"What are you doing here?" Clark asked, keeping his voice low.
Naseer handed Clark a package the size of a ream of paper wrapped in oiled cloth. "You must leave now, out the back," Naseer instructed. "Do not come back until Superman is welcome here."
"You know I can't do that," Clark told him.
"Then may Allah and his angels watch over you," Naseer said, pushing the two men toward the back way out of the compound. "As they watch over all fools."
* * *
It was announced the next day by official sources in the Tazarastan government that General Kahn had been killed in a firefight between government forces and one of the insurgent militias in the area Jimmy noted that the announcement didn't mention which side the general had been on, or that he'd taken two journalists hostage.
One week later, the general's uncle, Prime Minister Amin Kahn stepped down from office and sought refuge in Italy.
Jimmy asked Clark what was in the package Mir Naseer had given him. Clark just smiled and said: "Ask Superman in about five years."
* * *
Oslo City Hall, Oslo, Norway. Jimmy looked around at the hall the Nobel Peace Prize would be awarded. The ceremony was set for early afternoon. As at the ceremony in Stockholm, the dress code for ceremony itself merely dictated dark suits for men and dresses for women, but the banquet was strictly formal. Jimmy wasn't too unhappy that he wasn't expected to attend the banquet following the candlelight parade.
Security was tight around the building. Helicopters whirred overhead and both uniformed and plainclothes police were patrolling the area around the hall. Of course they were cautious. Over a thousand diplomats, royalty, film and TV stars from all over the world were in attendance. He knew Clark and Esther were somewhere down there with the other attendees. It had been Clark's research that had have given Superman the edge he'd needed in the mediation.
He'd gotten some good shots of Superman landing earlier in the day. The ceremony of lighting the lamp of peace with Oslo school children was in the morning, then Superman visited the palace to meet members of the Norwegian royal family.
The audience was settling down in the hall and Jimmy made his way to where the rest of the press was assigned. The fanfare was sounded and the audience stood as the main doors to the hall opened.
Superman entered the crowded room to thunderous applause. Through the telephoto lens, Jimmy could see a faint flush rising into his face. Superman and the Norwegian Nobel Committee chair were followed by the royal family and their security. The royals made their way down to the front, near the stage as Superman and members of the Nobel committee went up the steps to chairs set up on the right side of the stage. The committee chair went to the podium to present his speech.
As a member of the press, Jimmy had a small earpiece to hear the translation of the speeches into his own language. He noted that although there had been a similar headset on Superman's chair, the Man of Steel wasn't wearing it.
The Committee Chair began his speech, welcoming Kal-El to the ceremony, introducing him as this year's recipient of the Peace Prize for his work on the peace process in the war torn areas of Tazarastan and its neighbors.
Jimmy watched as Superman frowned slightly at the effusive praise being heaped on him. Jimmy remembered something Clark said at the airport in Tazar City as he was preparing to get on his plane back to the States. The Nobel committee had just made the announcement the Superman was this year's winner. 'What good is a bloody prize when every time you turn around, the tyrant-wannabes tear down everything you helped built up?'
Jimmy saw much of the same frustration in Superman's face as he sat and listened to the speeches.
Finally, it was time for Superman's speech. The essay had already been given to the press so it could make it into the papers.
"I am both honored and humbled by this honor," he began simply. "I am not a diplomat, and frankly I have no wish to become one. I don't know why the government of Tazarastan asked for my help, although I have suspicions and this is neither the time nor the venue to air them. I am honored that my meager assistance was accepted and that it seems to have done some small good. I am humbled to know that it was not really my work that has made a difference.
"That honor belongs to those men and women of the hamlets, the villages, the neighborhoods and towns who have chosen to follow the rule of law over the rule of passion, have chosen self-determination over tyranny, have chosen to build up rather than tear down. These are men and women who have chosen a different honor, one that values life over death, an honor that values truth above everything, especially over the tales and promises of tyrants, diplomats, and politicians.
"These are the men and women who know from brutal experience that liberty is earned, not granted, taken, not given, and that peace must be fought for just as hard as liberty. But that battlefield isn't the streets, or in the skies. That battlefield is found in the heart, in the mind, around the dining table, around the conference table. It is found in the careful balance between your needs and mine, his needs and hers, this village and that one. It is found in the realization that this is one small planet in a very big cosmos and if we cannot live together, we will not live at all.
"Like liberty, peace is neither granted nor given by tyrants, diplomats or politicians. Like liberty, peace is earned by those who will not abide the orders of tyrants, those who value life, those willing to tell the tyrants 'I will not fight for you. I will not send my children to fight for you. But, I will defend myself and I will defend my children, against you.'
"This honor belongs to them, and I am honored to have walked alongside them, at least a little ways, on their path."
The audience sat stunned for a moment, then rose to their feet in applause.
Way to go, big guy.
Martha sat quietly at the family table, picking at her food. Ben Hubbard had joined her there. It had been his choice not to be a member of the wedding party. They both knew Clark would have accepted having Ben stand up as his step-father if Ben had asked to, even though Martha and Ben weren't married.
Clark had never asked Martha why she and Ben hadn't tied the knot, but he accepted Ben's part in his mother's life, mostly. She knew Clark had questions about their relationship, but her son was too much the gentleman to ask.
Martha was tired. It had been a long day with too many people. She wasn't used to dealing with so many people. She didn't want to even guess what this reception was costing the Strakers. At the moment, she wanted it over, to go up to her hotel room and sleep for a week, then fly back to Montana with Ben.
More dancing, more speeches, more toasts. The one from Perry surprised her a little. "Clark, just reminding you what Oscar Wilde said: No man should have a secret from his wife. She invariably finds it out."
Esther giggled and Clark's cheeks turned pink.
Finally, it was time to cut the cake. Martha had noticed a saber laying on the table behind the ornate cake. There were no decorations on the hilt, nothing to indicate it was being used at a wedding. The standard decorated knife lay beside the sword.
Clark and Esther stepped over to the cake, waiting a moment for the photographer to position himself on the far side of the table.
Clark lifted a champagne glass, facing Esther: "My wife: we will not be together forever For death will us part... But while this life lasts I will hold you in my arms, I will cherish you in my heart, I will protect you with my life, I will be true and faithful to you, I will care for and nurture you, I will be here for you in joy and sorrow, for that is all I have to give."
Esther repeated his gesture: "My husband: because of you, I laugh, I smile, I dare to dream again. I look forward with great joy to spending the rest of my life with you, caring for you, nurturing you, being there for you in all life has in store for us, and I vow to be true and faithful for as long as we both shall live."*
They clicked their glasses together, entwined their arms in the traditional manner, and sipped the champagne.
Then, setting the glasses aside, Esther picked up the saber. Clark laid his large hand over hers and they cut the cake with the sword.
"Grandma?" a small voice asked. Martha looked down to see a small dark-haired boy with big blue eyes standing at her knee.
"Hello, Matthew," Martha said with a smile as he climbed onto her lap to watch the cake cutting. She kissed the top of his head. My son is married and I'm a grandma.
"Martha, Jonathan," Doctor Doyle began, "I'm sorry, but the tests came back negative."
"And what does that mean?" Jonathan demanded. Martha and Jonathan had been married nearly ten years and had been trying to conceive most of that time. Time was running out -- Martha's biological clock was winding down. She'd had three miscarriages, for no reason the general physician in Smallville could come up with.
Doctor Doyle was their last hope to conceive a child of their own.
"It means that without extraordinary measures, you and Martha are unable to have children together," Doyle said. "I'm sorry."
"You said extraordinary measures," Martha reminded him. "What are they?"
"Drugs, in vitro fertilization," Doyle explained. "It'll be very hard on you physically. It's also very expensive. Frankly, I'd suggest you look into adoption. I know there are many children out there in need of a good home."
"We'll think about it," Jonathan said, ushering Martha out of the office. She had started crying. All their hopes for a child had been pinned on Doyle. "Thank you, Doctor," she heard her husband murmur.
The drive back to Smallville was spent in near silence. "What do we do now?" she asked finally.
"We keep going," her ever practical Jonathan said with a sad smile.
* * *
They applied for adoption. A farm was a good place to raise a child, but Jonathan had a family history of heart disease and had started having angina pains when he overdid things. Doctor Baker had warned him to hire help and start taking things a little easier.
When the state adoption agency people found out about Jonathan's medical issues, they turned down their application even for an older child.
"What do we do now?"
"We keep going."
* * *
Reverend Wallace's sermon hadn't been especially uplifting, but at least the conversation over coffee had been interesting. The Harrises were expecting another child any day now. Rachel was about two, all bright eyes and curiosity. Martha agreed to watch the little girl while her mother was in the hospital. It was the least she and Jonathan could do. The Harrises had been steadfast friends all through the Kent's ordeal to first conceive, then adopt, a child of their own.
Neither Martha nor Jonathan was paying much attention to the road in front of them as they drove home. The road was straight and familiar.
They were driving past Schuster field, only a mile from the farmhouse. They heard the 'meteorite' before they saw it: a roaring like a fire out of control, a jet engine at full throttle. The ball of fire passed in front of the old truck, plowing into the fallow field, leaving a deep burnt gouge in the earth before the fireball came to rest.
Startled, Jonathan drove the truck off the road, nearly landing them in the ditch. Jonathan pushed open the truck door and headed down the gouge to the object that had come to rest.
"Jonathan, be careful," Martha warned.
"There might be a pilot still inside," Jonathan called back to her as he moved closer to the end of the gouge. She climbed down into the field to follow him.
Whatever it was that had crashed certainly didn't look like an airplane or even a missile. In fact, it looked like a huge melted Christmas ornament. As Jonathan got closer, the charred top of the object seemed to split apart, revealing the inside. A small dark-haired boy stood up and smiled at them. He couldn't have been more than three years old, and he was naked as a jay bird. He held out his arms to them.
Jonathan picked up some blankets from inside the whatever and wrapped the boy up in them before picking him up. "Who the devil would put a baby inside a contraption like that?" he asked, shaking his head.
"Well, whoever they are, they don't deserve to have him back," Martha told him, taking to boy from his arms. His eyes were an almost unearthly shade of blue.
"And what if they come looking for him?"
She looked at the object in the field. "I don't think they will. I don't think they're from around here." She smiled at her husband. "We can name him Clark. Clark Joseph Kent."
* * *
He was their gift from heaven. Even when it became apparent exactly how different he was from the other kids, even when it became apparent that they'd misjudged exactly how far away his people had to have been, he was their child, their little angel.
Clark grew into a fine young man. Martha and Jonathan never spoke about the possibility of grandchildren. They both knew how unlikely it was they would ever see Clark's children. He was simply too different.
Jonathan died when Clark was a senior in high school only a few months from graduation. Almost as soon as the graduation ceremony was over, Clark went north and she didn't see or hear from him for nearly a year. Then he called from Japan to tell her he was working his way around the world.
Three years later he was in Metropolis, going to college. He never mentioned girls, aside from asking about Rachel, Lana, a few other girls he'd gone out with occasionally before he left. He graduated magna cum laude with a degree in journalism and a minor in history. He got a job at the Daily Planet and fell in love.
Then he left for Krypton and she thought she'd never see him again. He came back and discovered he was a father. Of all the miracles in the universe, neither of them had expected that her son would be able to give her a grandchild.
"She hates me, and I don't know what I did," Clark told her.
"Do you really think she wants you out of her life completely?" Martha had asked.
"That's what she said. I have no reason to doubt her."
My grandson doesn't even know I exist.
* * *
"Mom," Clark said. "I'd like you to meet Major Esther Straker and her son Matthew."
Martha crouched down beside the small dark-haired toddler. His eyes were blue, not quite as bright a blue as Clark's were, but very blue nonetheless.
"Hello Matthew," Martha said with a smile.
The boy looked at her with a solemn expression. "Mommy says you're going to be my grandma. Are you really my grandma?"
"Would you like me to be?" Martha asked. He's so small. He nodded shyly, his thumb going into his mouth.
She looked up at her son and his fiancée. Clark was smiling at her, but she saw tears in his eyes as well.
"You know what this means, don't you?" Martha asked them. They both shook their heads. "I have a grandbaby to spoil. And I expect more of them in the future."
"We'll do our best," Clark promised. "But I think we should wait until after the wedding."
The first piece of cake was cut with the saber. Clark and Esther shared the first taste of cake amid giggles that Richard only partly attributed to alcohol. They looked good together and Richard was positive that Clark's apparent loss of his farm boy geekiness was due, at least in part, to Esther's influence. The woman was obviously patient and gentle in a way his own wife never would be.
But then, that was one of the reasons he'd fallen in love with Lois Lane. Her fire, her drive, her ambition. She would never settle for second best -- at least that's what he'd been telling himself for the past two and a half years.
They'd danced together for the first time in - how long? Ages? Not since the last White Orchid Ball, and that was work related. Lois had been trying to get an interview with Alexander Luthor Jr., Lex Luthor's alleged son and Metropolis's newest philanthropist-industrialist. The man had managed to parlay his father's writings and inventions into something useful.
Richard went home alone that night. Lois went straight to the office to write a front page story on the Luthor legacy of evil.
He loved how she felt in his arms as they danced. We have to do this more often. Be a couple, relearn how to be a family. It's been too long.
Richard spotted Esther and Clark heading for the ballroom door. He nodded to Lois. It's time.
"Clark, we still need to talk," Lois said, following Clark and Esther into the hotel elevator. Richard was right behind her. Clark shrugged and Richard saw a little of the old nervousness return. Clark suddenly didn't look comfortable in his own skin. Esther seemed to notice, took his hand, and whispered something that Clark smiled at. Yes, she's good for him.
The elevator doors opened and Clark led the way down the plush carpeted corridor to a corner suite. He swiped the magnetic lock, and nothing happened. Esther chuckled, pulled out her own card and got the door open. "It's a wonder the magnetic stripes on your credit cards work," she commented.
"Who said that they do?" he asked. "Most of the time the cashiers have to key in the numbers. My watch stopped working again, too. I don't know why I bother to wear one."
Esther chuckled again as she entered the dark room beyond, turning on lights as she went. "We're going to have to pay for that keycard if you've actually demagnetized it, you know."
"I know," Clark said with a sheepish smile. "If we're lucky, it's just the lock that hates me. I swear anything more complicated that scissors is my mortal enemy."
"It's your magnetic personality," Esther said with a grin. She looked back at Richard and Lois. Richard had followed Lois into the sitting room section of the suite. She looked over her shoulder at Clark. "Do you want me to stay?"
"I think it'll be okay," Clark told her. He seemed even more nervous as he took off his jacket, cummerbund, and tie, tossing them on a chair by the window.
"I'll just be in the next room, okay?" Esther told him, heading through the double doors to the bedroom. Clark nodded as he watched her close the doors.
"So, you said you needed to talk to me about Jason and Superman," Clark reminded Lois. As he spoke, he went to the overnight bag on the fold-up stand and pulled out a dark blue long-sleeve knit shirt. He tossed it on the chair with the tuxedo jacket and started to unbutton his shirt. Lois had taken a seat in one of the chairs by the sofa. Richard stood behind her.
"Um, specifically, we need to talk to Superman about Jason," Richard said. He put his hand on Lois's shoulder and was gratified when she reached up and took his hand. "It's important. Do you think you could get in touch with him for us?"
"Possibly," Clark told them. He had his back to them as he shrugged out of the pleated white shirt, laying it down as he picked up the knit one.
Richard heard Lois's sharp intake of breath, the murmured "Oh my God." She was squeezing his hand so hard it hurt. He looked down to see Lois staring at Clark's naked back. Richard was surprised to see how muscular and well-defined Clark's upper body was. There wasn't an excess ounce of fat on the man. God, he's in great shape. How does he do it? He doesn't have any more time than I do. No wonder Lois... No, Lois fell for Superman, not Clark. And that was a long time ago.
"Oh my God," Lois repeated. Her eyes were wide with astonishment and... was that recognition?
"Lois?" Clark asked, half turning to face her. Richard's eyes followed Lois's gaze to a faint white semi-circular scar on Clark's back, over his right kidney.
"Um, Clark, when did you get that scar?" Richard asked, fearing the answer he was going to hear. Lois's reaction had told him everything.
"Scar?" Clark asked as though he hadn't understood the question.
"The one on your back," Lois said in a choked voice. "How did you get that?"
"Oh." Clark took a deep breath, took off his glasses and pulled the knit shirt over his head. He didn't put his glasses back on. "I think you both know where that came from, and when."
It all fit. Oh, God, it all fit. The same height, same build, same coloring, both gone for five-plus years, both back in Metropolis on the same day. Clark left Metropolis for Chicago. Superman left Metropolis for the rest of the world. Glasses. Clark wore glasses. That was what Jason meant. "Just one question," Richard managed to choke out.
"Just one?" Clark seemed amused.
"Are you really Clark or...?"
"My birth name is Kal El, but I've been Clark since I was, oh, about two, two and-a-half, maybe? When I first came to Earth. I don't actually remember being anyone else," Clark said. "So Clark Kent is who I am, a farm boy from the edge of the Bible Belt who happens to be a pretty good writer. The other part, well's that's what I do, what I can do. Until I was eighteen, krypton was an inert gas, not a planet. Now, you said you needed to talk to Superman? So talk."
He sat down in the upholstered chair on the far side of the sitting area, facing Richard and Lois. His elbows were on his knees as he watched, waited. It was a little disconcerting, Superman wearing Clark Kent's clothes, Superman's eyes looking out of Clark Kent's face.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Lois asked softly.
"You knew, once," he said. "It didn't work. It was an impossible situation and you know the rest."
"And when you came back?" she asked, voice getting louder in anger. "Why didn't you say something then? I had your child, damn it."
"You never gave me the chance," he reminded her quietly.
She sat back heavily in the chair and sighed, the anger suddenly gone out of her. "I'm sorry," she said. What happened between them?
"So am I, but it doesn't change a thing," Clark told her. "So, what about Jason?"
Lois didn't say a word as she stared at her feet.
Richard spoke. "I don't know if Perry's told you what's been happening with Jason at school..."
"Perry and I don't talk all that often," Clark said.
"Jason needs to be around his biological father, his real father," Richard said. "He needs to be around you, to learn from you."
"You said something about school?" Esther asked, coming into the room. Richard had no idea how long she'd been listening. He nodded.
"First grade was pretty rough for him," Richard said. "Superman isn't nearly as popular as he used to be in Metropolis, but Jason was, still is, your number one fan. He got into fights over it and the school has a zero tolerance policy on violence. It's a little better this year. Therapy's helped a lot. He's not fighting, but he was attacked and the boy who did it ended up with a broken jaw. I have no idea how it happened. I just know that Jason doesn't know his own strength and nothing we've tried has helped. We're at our wits end. At least I am."
Richard didn't mention that he could no longer allow Jason to hug him, or Lois. Jason had broken two of Richard's ribs not many days before the incident at school. Those ribs still hurt. A father shouldn't be afraid of his eight-year-old son.
"So, what do you want me to do?" Clark asked. "Neutralize his powers?"
"You can do that?" Richard asked. It was something that hadn't occurred to him. Lois hadn't mentioned the possibility. What else hasn't she told me?
"It might be possible," Clark told him. "The Fortress neutralized my powers once and it was hell getting them back. But he's half-human. It might kill him." He looked at them both earnestly. "So tell me, what are you asking?"
Lois spoke, finally. "If you lived in Metropolis, it would be simpler. We could arrange for visitations, have him stay with you and Esther on weekends, during the summer. You could teach him what he needs to know."
"But I don't live in Metropolis and I doubt we'll be moving back there any time soon," Clark reminded her. Esther came to stand behind him, hands on his shoulders.
"I know," Lois admitted. "But we were thinking, maybe the two of you could take him for the summer?"
Clark stared at his hands a long moment and there was something in his expression, something determined and sad at the same time, something very Superman-like. If Richard had any doubts as to who was sitting in that chair, they were gone now.
Richard felt his heart go into his throat. Lois thought he was such a pushover. She was wrong and I'm going to lose my son to his real father. I'm losing my son to Clark Kent. Not to Superman. To Clark Kent.
"Esther and I have talked about getting some land, a house, well outside of the city. A place with room, with fields, away from prying eyes." He swallowed hard, as if he didn't really want to go to the next step but had no choice. "I'll make you a counter proposal. How about I acknowledge paternity? Esther and I get custody, and you have him on holidays and summer breaks. There are some real good schools in the area."
Lois tensed under Richard's hand. He felt her take a deep breath to calm herself. "There are some legal issues to be taken care of, as well as a court-approved DNA test." She looked up at Richard, her expression bleak. "It would be better for all of us if we didn't have to take this to court."
"And doesn't Jason get a say in all this?" Richard wondered aloud. Don't I get a say? This wasn't what we discussed. He's my son too.
"Do you really think Jason will object to living with Superman?" Lois asked, standing to leave. "Besides, we're going to have Child Protective Services on us if we have anymore incidents at school like the last one." She turned back to Clark. "We're going to be at that conference all week. You'll be there, won't you?"
"Yes, as much as I'd like to get out of it," Clark admitted, getting to his feet. "I'm giving one of the seminars."
"We can work out some details over lunch then," Lois told him. "We really screwed things up, didn't we?"
"Whether we did or not no longer matters, does it?" he asked. "We made our choices. And I, for one, am happy with mine."
Esther put her arm around his waist, whispered something in his ear Richard couldn't make out.
"By the way, I'm told congratulations are in order," Clark said, looking at Richard. Richard gave him a puzzled look and Clark chuckled. "You two have things to talk about tonight. And not just Jason."
"I'll kill him," she was screaming. "I swear I'll kill him for this."
"Remember your breathing, Lois," Richard was reminding her as the obstetrician checked her progress. "Pant... pant..."
"Just a couple more pushes," the doctor told them. "The baby's crowning. You're almost there."
"Push Lois. Push," he urged. Sweat rolled off her face. He took a cloth and wiped her forehead. She gritted her teeth and grabbed his hand harder.
"We're almost there," the doctor assured them. "Just a little more."
Lois laid back to rest for a moment until the next contraction hit. Then her face screwed up in concentration and effort once more.
"Push, you can do it!" Richard urged her. Then there was a new sound in the room, a wail of outrage from between Lois's legs. The doctor held up a wriggling, bloody, slimy body with four flailing limbs and placed it on Lois's belly.
"Congratulations. You have a son," the doctor said.
Lois sat up a little and looked down at the cause of all her recent effort. The doctor clamped off the umbilical cord and offered Richard the scissors to cut it. As soon as the baby was free, Lois picked him up, checking his fingers and toes.
"We need to get him cleaned up," one of the nurses told them, taking him from her arms and bundling him in a cotton blanket. "Does he have a name yet?"
"Jason... Jason Samuel White," Lois told her.
Richard looked down at the newborn in the nurse's arms. His son? Not biologically, he knew that, but his son, nonetheless. But what will I do when, if, his real father comes back?
Seven Months After The Wedding:
"She's beautiful," Richard White told his wife of three years, kissing her on the forehead. "Ya done good."
Lois gave him a tired grin. Richard could see the exhaustion in her face. She wasn't as young as she'd been when Jason was born. But the baby was strong and healthy. This would be Lois's last child. Her doctor had already warned them not to have more children.
"I should call Jason," Richard said. "Let him know he has a sister."
"He'll still be at school," Lois reminded him. "Call Clark or Esther. They'll let him know, and Clark will drop Jason off this weekend for Christmas. Winter break starts this Friday. That'll make my parents happy and maybe they'll lay off for a while about the whole custody thing."
Lois's parents had been infuriated when Jason when to live with his father. Neither understood Lois's reasons for sending Jason to a suburb of Chicago of all places. They didn't understand how sending Jason away from his mother, his family, was going to help him. But, Jason seemed to be happy and was doing well in school so far this year -- he was pulling down A's in all his classes, except P.E. of course.
Clark and Esther had moved into a rural area with acreage, a big house, goats, chickens, two horses. Jason had room to run, to practice as his powers came in. His allergies were almost non-existent. Esther and Clark's first child was due on Valentine's Day and Richard realized he really was glad for them.
Richard looked down at his newborn daughter. Her tiny starfish hands flailed about as she rooted about for a nipple. I never thought I'd see this. I have a daughter. She's mine and no one can take her away from me. "I love you so much."
"I love you too, Richard," Lois said. "Don't ever forget that."
"But do you regret...?" he began.
She put a finger to his lips. "I don't regret choosing you over him. Clark's a good man, but I'm not very good at sharing. You're the one I married. You're the one I chose. You are the father of my daughter. You are the man I love."
"Do you regret giving Jason over to him?" he asked. Richard wondered if that part would ever stop hurting. Lassiter said the grief over breaking up his family would lessen eventually. He wondered if it ever would. He was my son for nearly eight years.
"I wish there'd been another way," Lois admitted. "I wish Clark could have seen his way to coming back to Metropolis, to the Planet. But he's happy where he is and he's good with Jason. Jason's going to be okay. We're all going to be okay."
Lois Lane looked over at the tall dark-haired man sitting across from her in the hotel coffee shop. He hadn't aged much in the past twenty years since his wedding. He was fifty-seven and looked closer to forty, except for the gray at his temples. She suspected that was combed in to keep his two identities separate. Superman wasn't gray. Clark Kent was. Lois knew she hadn't fared quite so well. There was more than a little gray in her hair, but she figured she'd earned every bit of it.
"I'm sorry I couldn't make Esther's funeral," she told him, taking a sip of her coffee. They hadn't simply sat down and talked in -- how many years? Much too long. They'd hardly said more than two words to one another since Jason's high school graduation, and that was ten years ago. Tonight, after their son's wedding rehearsal dinner seemed as good a time as any to catch up. "It must have been awful for you, not being able..."
He shook his head, hair falling over his forehead. He still kept his hair unfashionably long, bangs hanging over his glasses. "She... it was her choice. A quick passing due to an accident, or a slow painful one from inoperable cancer. She died instantly. It was no one's fault. Jason and Amanda offered to delay the wedding but she wouldn't have wanted that."
"How are the rest of the kids handling it?"
"Well, you've talked to Jason, I'm sure. Matthew is gifted the same way his mother was. He knows she'll be back. Laura and Jon take more after me, but they're doing okay. They don't see her quite the same way Matt and I do, but they know she's around, watching, smiling." He smiled at her gently. "Death is not the end, only another door."
"Do you really believe that?" Lois asked.
He nodded. "I know that's what she believed. I've no reason to doubt her," he said quietly.
"Will your in-laws be at the wedding?" she asked.
"Maybe," he told her. "The general and I don't see eye to eye on a lot of things, and you know he wasn't well pleased when Esther and I took Jason to raise. He was definitely not happy when he discovered that just because I married his daughter, it didn't give him some hold over me. I think he was thinking that just because I don't approve of violence, that I was a pushover."
"More the fool him. He obviously never read your Nobel essay," Lois commented. "You were never a pushover."
"Except for you..." He smiled again, but there was a wistful sadness in it. "How's Richard doing?"
She gave him a crooked smile at the change of topic. "His new trophy wife is keeping him hopping. I could have told him that, but he was taking his late mid-life crisis so seriously. New car, new job, new wife. Sam isn't speaking to him at the moment. She thinks he made an incredibly stupid mistake leaving us for a bimbo only a few years older than she is."
"Hmm... self-expression is not one of Samantha White's problems," Clark said with a laugh. "How old is she now?"
"Nineteen and a half going on forty," Lois told him. "But you know that. She's interning at the Planet this summer."
He chuckled. "I'm trying not to interfere. Wouldn't look right," Clark admitted. "But she does take after you. Thank God for spell check."
She peered into his face. He still looked too young to be managing editor of the Daily Planet. He'd accepted that position five years earlier, after Perry White had died of a heart attack in the middle of the bullpen. She knew that was the only reason he'd returned to Metropolis, to take the reins of the Daily Planet after spending two years as editor of the Chicago Star. He was now the last of the old guard, the last of those who rose to management after starting in print-on-paper. They were both dinosaurs.
"What are you going to do when you can't hide that fact that you're not aging as fast as you should be?"
"Oh, I figure in a few years, ten at the outside, Clark Kent will have a fatal accident, plane crash in the deep ocean, I think. And I'll relocate somewhere, maybe Canada. I'm already starting to outlive my peers."
"How lonely for you," she said, meaning it.
"Better than the alternative, I guess," he said. "How's L.A. treating you?"
"Not bad," she admitted. "The Times isn't the Planet, of course."
"Of course," he repeated with a gentle smile. "There's always room at the Planet for you, if you want to come back," he said.
"You'd do that for a washed up old bitch?" she asked.
"I would do that for Lois Lane, the best of the best," he told her. "Even if she is a bitch."
"I think that was always my problem. I was so wrapped up in being the best, being a woman in a man's field, that being a bitch just came too easily," she said. She laid a small hand on his larger one. "Clark, I want you to know how sorry I am about everything that happened back then."
"I think we both made more than our share of mistakes back then," he said.
"But have we learned anything?"
"I hope so," he said, sipping his own coffee. He still fixed it the way she remembered, three sugars, two creams. "It would be very boring to have to keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again." He gave her a solemn look. "You know, even when you hated me openly, I couldn't hate you back. I just couldn't."
"You took Jason away from me," she reminded him.
"I did what I had to, for his sake," he told her. "You know that. And it's worked out. He's a good man, and it's nice to have a little help at the other job."
There was a long silence as the waitress came by and refilled their coffees. "Clark, it's taken me a long time to figure out what happened, to come to terms with what I did to you," she said. "I think the part of the problem was, I did love you, but I couldn't have you. I wanted it all and couldn't have any of it. I was furious. At me, you, the universe."
"You did love me? Past tense?"
"I don't think I ever stopped. I simply gave up trying for the fairy tale ending," she said softly. "I thought you didn't want me. At the time, I thought that if you wouldn't fight for me, wouldn't fight with me, you couldn't possibly love me. And then Richard was there for me, and you had Esther."
She gave him a cheeky grin. "They say there's only one way to console a widow. I wonder if that holds true for a widower?"
"My dear Ms. Lane," he grinned back at her. "Are propositioning me? The woman arrogant enough to tell Superman to bugger off?"
"We're both free agents now. Clark Kent's not a bad looking fellow. And he has a better track record for sticking around than Superman has."
"But what will the children say?" His tone was facetious.
"Well, the eldest thinks it's about time his parents got their heads screwed on straight," Jason White-Kent announced, walking up to them. "Go get a room. Just make sure you're back at the church in time for my wedding ceremony, okay?"
The Works of Deborah Rorabaugh
The Library Entrance