Description: In this continuation of the author's 'Home' series, Clark and Lori have their hands full, juggling relatives, food and burglars.
Home: A Christmas Story
By Nan Smith
Submitted: November 2002
The familiar characters and settings in this story are not mine. They belong to DC Comics, Warner Bros., December 3rd Productions and whoever else may have any legal right to claim them, nor am I profiting by their use. Any new characters, settings, and the story, itself, belong to me.
I'd like to include a note of thanks to Phil Atcliffe for a suggestion regarding one scene near the end of the story. Thanks, Phil. I borrowed some of your wording as well because I didn't think I could possibly improve on it.
This is the latest in the "Home" series. Anyone who has not read them is advised that the story will make much more sense if you read at least the vignette, "Home". Basically, this is a soulmates-type of story, wherein Lori Lyons is the next incarnation of Lois Lane, at the end of the 21st Century.
Home: A Christmas Story
By Nan Smith
"So, what are you and Clark doing for Christmas, this year?"
Lori Lyons looked up from her computer screen. The speaker was Eva Potts, the youngest member of the Events division of the Planet. Events covered all the various scheduled activities and, well, events in each locale every week. Eva had been hired about a month before and since she and Lori were fairly close in age, they had become casual friends.
"Clark's extended family is having its Christmas party this Saturday," Lori told her. "It's an annual event. All of us are supposed to bring some kind of specialty from home."
"Big family deal?" Eva asked.
"Well, it was, last year," Lori said. "That was my first. But most of his relatives showed up. Clark's doing the cooking for us because I don't know any specialties. He said he was going to make his mom's signature Christmas brownies. They're supposed to be sort of a tradition."
Eva glanced across the room to where Clark Kent was speaking with the editor, John Olsen. "You're lucky," she said, a touch of envy in her voice. "My current husband couldn't cook if his life depended on it. I think he wanted a six-month contract just so he wouldn't have to eat out every night. I don't suppose your contract is up in the near future, is it?"
Lori grinned, feeling slightly smug. "We have a lifetime one," she explained.
Eva's eyes widened slightly. "Oops, sorry! I didn't mean to ... I mean, aren't you a little young for a commitment like that?"
"Clark and I are Traditionalists," Lori said. "Once we decided on marriage, it was never really a question."
"Oh, wow!" Eva said. "But, don't you worry about getting tired of the arrangement? Most people don't settle down for life until they're at least thirty."
"I'm certainly not going to get tired of it," Lori said, "and I'm not worried about Clark."
"You aren't?" Eva asked, looking a little surprised. "Even the best guys get tempted, don't they? I mean, with his looks, I'd think you'd have women hitting on him all the time."
"It's been known to happen," Lori admitted. "Fortunately, they never get anywhere."
"I didn't think there were men like that anymore," Eva said, wistfully. "You're really lucky."
"I know. Clark is unique in a lot of ways," Lori said.
"So, besides the party, are you going anywhere for Christmas?" Eva asked, changing the subject, abruptly.
"I don't know," Lori said. "Clark was talking about Aspen. I hear the snow pack is great, this year. He taught me to ski last winter, you know, but I spent the next week on light duty while the bone finished healing. Fortunately, one of his closest relatives is a doctor."
"Oh well," Eva said. "Everybody takes a few tumbles when they first learn. I broke an ankle the first time I did any serious skiing, too, but that was back when I was twelve."
"Do you have any plans for Christmas?" Lori asked.
"Ed and I are going to visit my parents for a couple of days," Eva said, grimacing slightly. "I just hope my dad doesn't start into him again about settling down for the long term. We aren't ready to make that kind of commitment, yet."
Lori nodded understandingly, but her attention had shifted to her husband, crossing the Pit toward her desk.
"Hi, Eva." Clark greeted the other woman, cheerfully. "Feel like covering the Mayor's press conference, Lori?"
She made a face. "Not particularly, but I guess we don't have a choice, do we?"
"Afraid not." Clark waited while she collected her handbag and let her precede him toward the elevator.
Clark slipped an arm around her while they waited for the car and grinned down at her. "I heard what you said to Eva," he said. "Too bad about that insecurity of yours. We need to work on it."
"I guess you'll have to help me with it," Lori said, snuggling up to him, suggestively.
He kissed the top of her head. "It could be rigorous and demanding," he pointed out. "Maybe we should get started right away."
The elevator arrived and they entered. Lori put her arm around his waist. "I'm tough, I can take it," she told him. The sense of deja vu that occasionally tugged at her was strongly present but she ignored it for the moment as Clark turned her toward him and pulled her into his arms.
The bell chimed and they drew reluctantly apart as the doors opened on the second floor to admit two women from Research. One of them raised an eyebrow. "That shade of lipstick doesn't match your skin tone, Clark," she said, matter-of-factly.
He chuckled and used his handkerchief to remove the substance. "You need to start using the smudge-proof lipstick, honey," he remarked and Lori felt herself blushing.
The woman who had spoken gave Lori a slightly envious look and shook her head.
Lori didn't care. She and Clark had been married a year in August and the fact that he still availed himself of every opportunity to express his love for her was only one more indication that Mother had been wrong about Clark's motivations for marrying her. Mariann Lyons had tacitly declared an armed truce with her son-in-law over the last year but she had never really reconciled with the idea that Lori had married in spite of her mother's wishes and never lost an opportunity to try to plant a barb under his hide. Fortunately, as Clark had lightly told Lori, he had a pretty tough hide.
The elevator deposited them on the parking level and very shortly they were pulling out into ground traffic.
"So, what's the mayor's conference about?" Lori asked, leaning back in the seat as her husband drove the big vehicle skillfully through afternoon traffic.
"Oh, the usual. We'll ask the obligatory penetrating questions and send the story in from there. I told John we'd be going home directly from the press conference. That will give you time to get fixed up for our dinner date -- or had you forgotten? I'm taking you to Paris tonight."
Lori grinned. "Hardly."
"That's good. I wouldn't want you getting tired of me, yet."
"Clark, I'll *never* get tired of you. Every day we're married, I love you more than I did the day before."
"So, no regrets?"
"None!" She frowned at him, a little worried. "What brought this on, anyway?"
"Nothing, really. I heard your mother make some remark about the career you could have had without me when you were talking to her, yesterday. It made me wonder if maybe she might be right. You've always had your byline next to mine, and ... "
"Clark Kent! You were the one who said you had a thick skin! I like my byline right where it is next to yours and I always will! Mother can't help making remarks like that but that doesn't mean anyone has to pay attention to them," she finished less forcefully. "She always does a lot of whining when she can't have her own way. I should think you'd know that by now."
He looked guilty. "Sorry."
"You should be! For that, you owe me a trip to that chocolate factory in the Alps. I've been dreaming about the stuff for a week."
"I think I can manage that," he said, looking relieved. "How about tomorrow morning before we head for Lara's?"
"Sounds good to me," she said.
"Sorry," he said, again. "I guess I always have trouble thinking I'm worthy of somebody like you, you know? It was the same with Lois. I got jealous when men made advances to her, even though she hadn't done anything to encourage them -- all because I was afraid she'd find them more to her taste than I was."
"Clark, that's ridiculous! You could have any woman on the planet that you wanted and you chose me. I'm the one that used to wonder why -- until I realized that you just wanted me because you did, and that I didn't have to worry. Is it so hard to understand that there doesn't have to be a reason that anyone can explain? It just *is*, and nothing Mother, or anyone else, can say will change that. Comprende, dopey?"
He laughed. "Yeah, I get it. You're saying I don't have to worry."
He pulled the Jeep into a parking space and cut the engine. "You realize I'll be taking advantage of that, tonight."
"Mmm ... I hope you will. And every other night, too."
"Too bad we can't go home right now," he said, looking her up and down with an expression she had come to recognize over the last year.
"Behave yourself!" she commanded, with a wide grin. "This won't take long."
"That's what you think."
They got out of the Jeep and headed toward City Hall where the conference was to be held but they hadn't gone ten steps when Lori saw Clark lift his head, hearing something that she couldn't.
"What?" she asked.
"Another home-invasion robbery," he said. "It sounds like the same people as the other three. Apparently, they landed inside the security perimeter of the Pearson estate and invaded the house."
Clark was still listening. "They pistol-whipped the oldest son, tied up the family and ransacked the house. The police are looking for them. I'd better go. Can you handle the press conference alone?"
"Go," Lori said. "I can manage."
As he disappeared between two buildings, she hoped that this time the police or one of the searching supermen would be luckier than the previous three incidents. So far, each time the robbers had managed to make clean getaways, apparently vanishing into thin air and leaving nothing behind.
Being the wife of Clark Kent, AKA Superman, Lori thought, had its distinct advantages. Last night's dinner in Paris had been wonderful and this morning, their visit to the Alpine chocolate factory -- as tourists who knew the owner -- had been equally nice. Lori clutched the package of fabulous Swiss chocolate against her as Superman bore her swiftly through the December air toward their apartment. He still had to prepare his mother's special brownie recipe in time for the Christmas party at Lara's big home this afternoon. Most of the family would be there at one time or another, and Lori was looking forward to seeing some of those that lived in other parts of the country whom she had not seen since last year. They had all received the word that a number of in-laws who were not in on the Kent family secret would also be attending, so the party would be that of a normal -- if slightly large -- family affair.
As they approached the big high-security apartment building where they made their home, Clark stiffened. "Oh, oh."
"What?" Lori asked.
"We have visitors. Or rather, a visitor."
"Who?" At his silence, her heart sank. "Not Mother?"
"I'm afraid so. She's waiting in the living room. Mr. Weston must have let her in."
"What do we do?" Lori asked.
"Hold on. I'll find a place to change and we'll walk in the usual way. We've been out shopping."
"I wonder what she's doing here," Lori said.
"I guess we'll find out." Clark whisked into an alley not far from the apartment house and a few moments later, they were entering the building on foot.
Clark unlocked the door to their penthouse apartment and held it for Lori to precede him. As he closed and locked it behind them, Mariann Lyons rose from the large, comfortable sofa to meet them. In the background, the six-foot, live Christmas tree glittered ironically.
"Mom?" Lori said. "When did you get here?"
"Almost two hours ago," Mariann said. "Your landlord let me in. Where have you been?"
"Shopping," Lori said. She went past her mother into the bedroom she shared with Clark to deposit the telltale package on the foot of their bed and remove her jacket. Behind her, she heard Clark speaking.
"Where's Rob? Is anything wrong, Ms. Lyons?"
Mariann sniffed. "Rob and I had a fight and I walked out."
"A fight?" Lori said, emerging back into the living room. "What about?"
Mariann shrugged her shoulders sharply. "I don't want to talk about it."
"Okay," Lori said.
"He says I try to interfere in my daughters' marriages too much!" Mariann burst out. "Just because I thought Marcy should put Robert in a child socialization class --"
Lori had already heard about her mother's "suggestion" from Marcy, who had strongly objected to the idea of placing her six-month-old son in the class so that she could return to full time modeling. Marcy and Mariann were now not speaking -- again.
"Would you like to call Dad to tell him where you are?" Lori suggested, refusing to take the bait.
"He knows where I am," Mariann said. "I told him when I left."
"Oh," Lori said. She smothered a sigh and turned to Clark. "You'd better start those brownies if they're going to be finished in time for the party," she said.
Mariann looked affronted. "You're going to a party? Now?"
"Mom, Christmas is in three days. Clark's family Christmas party is this afternoon," Lori said. "It's been planned for weeks. If you'd like to come, I'm sure they'll be glad to see you."
"Oh, no. They don't know me." Mariann sat stiffly down on the sofa again. "I'll be fine here."
"Ms. Lyons, neither Lori nor I would be able to enjoy ourselves knowing you were here alone," Clark said. "You met most of them at our wedding last year, anyway. I'll phone Lara and let her know we'll be bringing a guest."
Clark had learned, Lori thought, smothering her exasperation. If they went without Mariann, she'd never let them hear the end of it and letting her sit here nursing her resentment at being left out was asking for another family rift.
The vidphone chimed at that moment and Lori turned toward the screen. The number displayed revealed that the call was from the residence of Lara and her husband, William Klein. "Yes?"
The screen cleared to reveal her stepdaughter's face. "Hi, Lara."
"Hi, Lori. Just checking to see when you and Clark were going to be here."
"It's uncanny how you do that," Lori said. "Clark was just about to start the brownies. Would you mind if we brought a guest? My mother dropped in unexpectedly, and ..."
"No trouble at all," Lara said. She looked past Lori to Mariann Lyons. "It's nice to see you again, Mariann. We'd be more than happy to have you come. The Christmas party is a yearly event for our family."
"Oh, I don't want to intrude, " Mariann began.
"Don't be silly," Lara said, briskly. "We'll expect you in about two hours. Don't be late, Lori."
"We'll try not to be," Lori said.
After Lara had signed off, Mariann looked uncertainly at Lori. "You're sure I won't be in the way?"
"Of course not," Lori said. "There's going to be something like two or three hundred people there -- just not all at the same time," she added. "Clark's family is pretty big."
Clark had headed for the kitchen and Lori heard the familiar sounds of her husband moving about, collecting his ingredients. She turned back to her mother. "Can I get you a snack to tide you over, Mom?"
"Just coffee, if you have it."
"As a matter of fact, I think we do. Just a minute." Lori followed her husband into the kitchen.
Clark had his utensils and ingredients already laid out and had begun to assemble the recipe. "The coffee will be ready in about a minute," he said. "Sorry to leave you without backup, but --."
"That's okay," Lori said. "I'll manage." She appropriated a tray and began hunting in the refrigerator for the cream. When she turned around again with the carton, Clark had set out a pair of china coffee cups and saucers, the china sugar bowl, the little matching cream pitcher, and teaspoons.
"Here you go. Only the best for your mother." He held the tray while she filled the cream pitcher. "The brownies will be ready for the oven as soon as it finishes pre-heating."
Lori smiled, a little ruefully. "I figure you'd better warn Lara. Dad will probably show up before too long."
"She already knows about it," he said. "Apparently, he called Marcy, and she told him they were going to the party and that so were we. Ryan talked to Lara and she suggested he come with them. That was why Lara called to invite your Mom."
"You Kents are a sneaky bunch," Lori said, silently thanking her husband's Kryptonian heritage for his telepathic ability. "Tell her thanks for me, will you?"
"She says no problem." Clark turned to pick up the coffeepot. "Looks like it's done." He poured the liquid into the antique china coffee pitcher that matched the accompanying pieces. "Good luck."
Mariann was standing with her back to the room, examining the bookshelves when Lori returned. She turned, and her eyebrows rose when she saw the tray and its contents but she didn't comment. Instead, she indicated the shelves.
"You have a surprising variety of books and quite a number of valuable antiques. Is your husband a collector?"
Lori sighed mentally and placed the tray on the coffee table. Apparently, Mariann still couldn't bring herself to call Clark by his given name. In fact, Lori was a little surprised that Mariann had decided to come here after her fight with Rob. She had never in her life set foot in the apartment before. "In a way. Most of those things came from his travels when he was a freelance journalist."
"I notice that a number of these books are in different languages. Does anyone actually read them?"
Lori tried not to feel offended at the skepticism in her mother's voice. "Clark speaks several different languages, Mother. As a matter of fact, he's been teaching me French."
Mariann indicated the fertility statue. "This is a strange item. What is it?"
"It's a fertility statue, given to Clark by a Borneo medicine man," Lori said. "Do you still take cream and sugar?"
Mariann nodded. "I'm surprised. He's more educated than I thought."
Without comment, Lori poured the coffee and took a seat in Clark's favorite armchair. After a moment, her mother sat down across from her on the sofa and picked up her cup.
"So," Lori said, tentatively.
Mariann took a sip, raising her eyebrows at the taste. "Your coffee has improved," she remarked.
"Clark made it," Lori said. "He's the cook, not me."
"'Not I'," Mariann corrected, automatically. She was silent for a long moment. "Your father says I'm driving you girls away by my interference," she said, abruptly. "Am I?"
Lori almost choked on a sip of coffee. "Dad said that?" she said, stalling for time.
"Marcy and I had that fight about Robert and your dad blew up," Mariann said. "He said I was controlling and interfering and if I didn't stop trying to run your lives, I was going to drive you away!"
"Oh," Lori said. "Well --"
Mariann didn't appear to hear her. "Marcy is letting her career slide to take care of the baby," she said. "I'm just afraid she'll lose her position if she keeps up this part time schedule. I'm thinking of her."
"Mother, I don't think her career is in any danger," Lori said. "Marcy isn't stupid."
Mariann shrugged, unhappily. "I can't help worrying," she said. "I do care about both of you, even if neither of you know it."
"I don't think either of us doubts it," Lori said, "but sometimes we have to make our own decisions. Marcy and I are both adults."
"I know that, but you're both so young." Mariann took a sip of coffee. "You're bound to make mistakes. I'd just like to try to head some of them off." She sighed. "I wanted you both to have the career I didn't," she said. "I just wanted you to be successful, not throw your life away like I did. Is that so much to ask?"
Lori groped for an answer that wouldn't start a fight. "Mother, you didn't throw your life away."
"Didn't I? I could have been a successful business consultant. Instead I married your father."
Lori put down her cup. "Was that so bad, Mom? You have a son who's the captain of the first starship, your oldest daughter is a top-rated model and I'm a successful investigative journalist. Besides, don't you know how much Dad loves you?"
Mariann stared at Lori. "What does that have to do with it?"
"A lot," Lori said. "Careers are great, but they're not the be all and end all of everything. They aren't much good at keeping you company, and coming home to an empty apartment gets pretty lonely, if you ask me."
"Is that why you married him?" Mariann nodded in the direction of the kitchen.
"I married Clark because I love him and he loves me," Lori said, quietly. "I didn't need any other reason."
"And if he gets tired of you?"
"He won't," Lori said, with certainty.
"You're awfully sure of that."
"I have reason to be," she said. "Mom, I have the successful career you wanted for me and so does Marcy. We're also married to the men we love. Is it so impossible to have both at once?"
Mariann set down her coffee cup. "I don't know. I just didn't want you to make the mistake I did."
"I haven't made a mistake," Lori said. "If there's anything in the world that I'm sure of, it's that."
The kitchen door swung open on her last word and Clark entered, dusting cocoa from his hands. "The brownies are in the oven," he said. "I'm going to shower and change into something for the party."
"All right," Lori said. She glanced back at Mariann. "More coffee, Mom?"
She shook her head. "What should I change into for this affair?"
Lori looked her over. "What you've got on now should do. These things are usually casual. Why don't I show you to the guestroom? You can freshen up a little if you like."
A short time later with her mother installed in the spare room, Lori breathed a sigh of relief for the temporary respite. As she entered the bedroom she shared with Clark, shutting the door behind her, she heard the shower go off and, grinning slightly, stepped into the bathroom. Clark had just opened the shower door and was reaching for a towel. Lori grabbed it and dangled it out of reach. "You're going to have to come out to get it," she said.
He pushed wet hair off of his forehead and wiped runnels of water from his eyes. "Are you suggesting that I step out there without a stitch on, young lady? Where's your sense of decorum?"
"I left it in my other suit," she said. "I need the eye candy after the last half hour."
He laughed and gave in. Lori wolf-whistled and backed out of the room still waving the towel. Clark followed, grabbing for the item, and she dodged behind the bed. He lunged across it, levitating slightly and seized the towel, pulled her across the mattress and landed half on her. "Gotcha! Now you pay!" He swooped in for a kiss and Lori gave up the contest without further resistance.
After several long seconds, he raised his head with a regretful sigh. "I guess I'd better get dressed. I'd like nothing more than to continue this, but with your mom here ..."
"Yeah, I guess so." Lori released him, very reluctantly. "Besides, you don't want to burn the brownies."
"Where is this party?" Mariann asked as Clark opened the back door of the Jeep for her.
"It's at Bill Klein's home," Lori said. "They've got the room for it." She scrambled into the front seat, fastened her safety straps and took the brownies that Clark handed her.
"All set?" he asked, and at her nod, shut the door. A moment later he had settled into the driver's seat and started the engine.
Lara and her husband lived in a large, expensive home outside the city of Metropolis. Bill Klein, a scientist like his famous father had been, had combined his scientific acumen with an engineering degree and as a result held the patents to a number of inventions that made life easier for mankind in general. This fact had made him what Lara had more than once described as "indecently rich". Now retired, Bill Klein had a home lab where he spent a good deal of time happily tinkering with strange ideas that sometimes produced even stranger results. Every now and then, he patented some new invention that added to the royalties flowing into the family coffers. He also donated large chunks of cash to various worthy charities, including the Superman Foundation.
The Jeep drew up to the gates of the Klein home and Clark reached out to push the buzzer. A moment later, another buzzer sounded and the gates moved slowly open.
Mariann was looking around without speaking and Lori thought she looked surprised, although she covered it well.
"Lara and Bill have a nice place here," she commented, casually.
"I suppose the Kleins are relatives of yours?" Mariann asked, after a moment.
"Yes," Lori said.
"I had no idea there was money in the family."
"Bill is retired now," Clark said, and Lori marveled at how straight he kept his face. She found it necessary to face front before her mother saw the grin she was trying to suppress. "He's an inventor as well as a scientist and has a lot of patents in his name."
"Oh." Mariann sounded a little subdued. "What sort of relation is he to you?"
"Clark and Lara are distant cousins," Lori said, without hesitation. She knew how Clark preferred not to lie, but identifying Lara as his daughter wasn't an option. Lori, herself, disliked telling an untruth but she had discovered some time ago that she could do so without a qualm when it came to protecting her husband.
"I see." Mariann didn't say anything more. Lori continued to face front. The drive that led up to the Klein home wound through a small stand of pine trees and around grounds that would be very prettily landscaped in the spring, but at the moment a light coating of frost covered everything. Unexpectedly, Lori found the twists and turns of the road slightly unsettling to her stomach if she looked anywhere but out the front windshield. It figured, she thought. It would have been wise to eat before she left, since she had a tendency to motion sickness as a passenger in a ground vehicle, but she had mistakenly believed it wouldn't matter because of the shortness of the trip.
At last they drew up before the house and Clark found a parking place among the crowd of ground and air vehicles that had preceded them. Lori unfastened her safety straps and opened the door, anxious to get her feet on solid ground again.
"Are you all right?" Clark asked, opening the rear door for Mariann. Naturally, he had noticed Lori's discomfort.
"Just a little motion sick," Lori said. "I'm more used to driving than being a passenger, I guess."
"Maybe you had better drive home," Clark said. He gave his mother-in-law a hand to the ground before turning to Lori. "Are you sure you're all right? Maybe you should walk around a little."
"I'll be fine in a few minutes," she assured him. "Let's go on in."
Clark took the brownies from her and put his free arm around her shoulders. "You'll feel better after you've had some food. I noticed you didn't eat much this morning."
"Well," Lori defended herself, "I was in a hurry."
"Hmm." Clark didn't pursue the subject. "Let's take these in and hand them over to Lara." He gestured Marianne toward the steps. "After you, Ms. Lyons."
Mariann hesitated. "Would you like me to take the brownies?"
Clark looked surprised and gave the big, covered tray to his mother-in-law. "Thanks."
Mariann smiled fractionally and went ahead of them up the flight of steps. As they reached the top, Lara opened the door. "Clark, Lori! Come on in. Hello, Mariann; are those the brownies?"
Mariann nodded stiffly and handed the tray to Lara. Lara turned and passed it to someone behind her. "Put this in with the desserts, Bill." She turned back to Clark and Lori. "Come on in. We have snacks in the den and some of the guys are watching football in the family room. Lori, why don't you take Mariann in and introduce her around?"
"I think Lori should get something to eat," Clark said. "She practically skipped breakfast and hasn't had lunch."
Lara raised an eyebrow. "You know where the den is, Lori. There's plenty in there."
The den was, as Lori had begun to expect from Kent family parties, thoroughly loaded with finger food laid out in covered dishes to keep them respectively warm or cold. Several teenagers and a number of others were circulating about, collecting goodies on paper plates.
"Hey, Lori! Hi, Uncle Clark!" Meriel Olsen's voice greeted her as she stepped into the room. "Here to get a snack?"
"I'm starved," Lori admitted. "What's Lara got in here, anyway?"
"A little of everything," Meriel said, blithely. "Mom made the stuffed grape leaves and the marinated shrimp. What did you guys bring?"
"Clark made his mom's brownies," Lori said.
"Mm!" Meriel said. "When are you going to share that recipe, Uncle Clark?"
"Oh, pretty soon." Clark grinned. "Ms. Lyons, this is Meriel Olsen. She's a medical student at NTSU. Meri, Lori's mother."
"We met at the wedding," Meriel said. "Nice to see you again, Ms. Lyons. Here, Lori, try some of the eggplant salad. It's Moroccan."
"Hi, Clark." Rhonda Klein entered the room. "Lara tells me you made Martha's brownies. You promised years ago to give me the recipe."
"I will, I promise!" Clark began to laugh. "I can see I'm not going to get away with keeping it to myself much longer, anyway."
"Well, I know you enjoy torturing the rest of us, but I think the joke has gone far enough," Ronnie said, with mock-severity. "I'll expect a copy of it before you leave today."
"Okay, okay." Clark nodded at Mariann, standing by the table. "Ronnie, you remember Lori's mom, don't you?"
"Of course I do," Rhonda said. "How are you doing these days, Mariann?"
Mariann blinked as if surprised that any of her son-in-law's family would even remember her name. "Pretty well. Weren't you the wedding coordinator at ... at Lori's wedding?"
Rhonda nodded. "Rhonda Klein."
"I remember," Mariann said. "Someone said you were a doctor."
"That's right. Family practice, in Houston. Why don't you grab some hors d'oeuvres and come on into the family room? Mostly everyone is in there, watching football or whatever."
Lori saw Clark gathering up a small mountain of snacks. He caught her eye, looking slightly guilty. "Do you mind if I go watch the game, honey?"
Lori laughed. "Go ahead. Far be it from me to stand between a guy and his football game."
Meriel laughed, too. "Dad and Uncle Jon are in there, too," she said to Lori. "I brought my date and the first thing he did was plop down in front of the vidscreen to watch the game. Men!"
Rhonda grinned as well. "Mason is with them," she said. "Come on, Mariann. Prying the men away from the vidscreen is going to be impossible until the game is over, so I guess it's up to us to entertain ourselves."
Clark gave Lori a kiss on the top of her head on his way out the door. Lori smacked him on the rear as he left and turned to her friend. "Eggplant salad?" she said.
"Sure. It's like a dip. You use the unleavened bread to scoop it up," Meriel said. "Try it. It's pretty good. And there's a kind of chicken pie that you make with phyllo pastry, cinnamon and powdered sugar. Aunt Carrie made that. And my cousin Edward and his wife, Sakara, brought all kinds of sushi."
Marilyn Olsen popped in the door, a tray of some sort of exotic dish in her hands. "Is there some place I can put this, Meri?"
"Hot or cold?" Meriel asked.
"Hot. It's Rachel's homemade rumaki. She and CJ just got here."
"There's room over on the side table," Lori said.
"Thanks." Meriel's mother deposited the covered dish in the rapidly shrinking open space. "I guess Clark is watching the game? I hear he made Martha's brownies. I still have to wring that recipe out of him. Hello, Mariann."
Mariann looked rather bewildered. Lori said, "You remember Marilyn Olsen, don't you, Mom?"
"I think so. Isn't your husband Lori's editor?"
"That's right," Marilyn said.
"I didn't realize you were part of the family," Mariann said. "There seem to be so many of you ..."
"Oh, sure," Meriel said, busily filling a plate for Lori, loading it with exotic, homemade goodies. "Do you want to try the sushi, Lori? The shrimp rolls are great."
"I guess so," Lori said, gamely. "I haven't eaten anything at one of these things that's poisoned me, yet."
Rhonda laughed. "Once you're part of this family, you get used to exotic food. Come on, Mariann, let's get you some snacks and you can come get acquainted with the rest of us. We didn't really have time to talk much at the wedding."
Mariann allowed herself to be led away, and Lori breathed a sigh of relief. If anyone could handle her mother, it was Ronnie and Marilyn.
After the older women had disappeared out the door, Meriel checked to see that they were out of an ordinary person's hearing. "Whew! Dad said your mom and dad had a fight. Great time for that, just before Christmas. I guess your dad is coming with Marcy and Ryan. They'll be here in an hour or so."
"At least Mom won't dare make a fuss in front of so many people," Lori said. "Maybe Dad will be able to make up with her. I hope so, anyway. It would be an awful way to spend Christmas for both of them. Besides," she added, "Clark wanted to take me to Aspen on Christmas and we won't be able to go if Mom is still fighting with him."
"I think that was the strategy," Meriel agreed. "Aspen sounds great."
"Well, I'll probably be stuck on the beginner slopes again," Lori said, "but maybe this time, I won't break an ankle."
Meriel nodded. "I only sprained my ankle the first time I went skiing," she said. "I saved the broken one for a year later. At least you got the traditional rite of passage over early."
"I don't think there's a quota," Lori said, "but I'm going to take it a little more slowly this time. I really want to learn and I'm going to."
"Good for you," Meriel approved. "Take it slow. There's no rule that says you have to come home in a cast."
Lori nodded, examining the plate that Meriel was presenting to her. "Is this sauce for the sushi? Why is it green?"
"It's a kind of Japanese horseradish, and it's really spicy. Just put a little dab of it on the sushi. If you get too much it will clear your sinuses in spades. I know from experience."
Cautiously, Lori picked up one of the shrimp rolls and sampled it. "Mm! This is really good!"
"Told you. Want a soda?"
At her nod, Meriel snagged a can from the ice chest that sat under one of the tables. Lori took it, clutching it, a napkin and a plastic fork in one hand while she balanced the paper plate on the other.
"Is this where they have the food?" A masculine voice behind them made both Lori and Meriel turn around. A boy in his late teens stood in the doorway, looking around the room. Behind him, a very pretty, dark-haired girl, probably fifteen or sixteen, with features that bore the unmistakable stamp of the Kent clan, poked him firmly in the back. "Go on, Jared. Don't just stand there blocking the way."
Jared entered the room, looking around. "Sure smells good."
Two teenage boys who had been loading up on food, squeezed past him, bearing plates piled high with enough provisions to feed a platoon. One of them gave Lori a long, once over in passing, only to be elbowed by his friend. "Knock it off! That's *his* wife!"
"Oops! Sorry!" The two boys disappeared down the hallway.
"Hello, Meriel," the girl said. She looked curiously at Lori.
"Hi, Uma. I didn't expect to see you here." Meriel regarded the other girl neutrally. "When did you get in?"
"Last night." Uma, whoever she was, was looking Lori over rather coolly. "Is this her?"
Lori stiffened, slightly. "I'm Lori Lyons."
"You're Clark's new wife," Uma said.
"That's right. Is there a problem with that?"
"No, not really. I just didn't think he'd ever forget Lois. I guess I was wrong."
"He hasn't forgotten Lois," Meriel said. "He never could."
"Could have fooled me," Uma said and brushed past Lori without another glance.
Lori stared after her for a moment in shock. Meriel sniffed. "Don't pay any attention to her, Lori. Ms. Know-it-all over there thinks she makes all the rules. Come on."
Lori followed Meriel from the room, still stunned at the blatant hostility from the other girl. "Who is she and what's her problem?"
"That's Uma Kent. She's sixteen and some kind of third or fourth cousin of mine, and she's got this stupid 'romantic' idea that Uncle Clark should stay loyal to Lois by never marrying again, though why, I'll never understand. That's why she wasn't at the barbecue last year, or at your wedding, either. She's an idiot."
Uma had turned to glare at Meriel. "You'll be sorry you said that, Meriel."
"Grow up, Uma," Meriel said, bluntly. "I don't have to be 'nice' to you anymore. You're a spoiled brat, and you always were, and Uncle Vernon and Aunt Marge never did manage to teach you any manners. You don't even know what you're talking about. Let's go see what's going on in the family room, Lori."
As they walked away, Lori glanced over her shoulder at the steaming Uma and then at Meriel. "I take it you two don't get along," she said.
"Nope. Never have." Meriel grinned. "I always had to be 'nice' to her when she was littler, and she was just as snotty then. Uma's the only one in her family besides her mom without the -- you know -- powers. Her parents spoiled her rotten, trying to 'make up' for it, if you ask me. I've wanted to tell her off for years and I finally got the chance."
"You're not going to get in trouble, are you?"
"What can they do to me?" Meriel asked. "Send me to my room? Besides, she was rude to you. You saved my life, and you're my friend. She isn't."
That, Lori supposed, was unarguable. Shrugging off Uma, she followed Meriel toward the family room.
The family room was larger than the den and there must have been thirty people there at least. A large male contingent was grouped, together with a few women, in front of the wall-sized vidscreen, watching the football game. At the other end of the room women of all ages, from white-haired grandmothers to young mothers and a number of younger women were chattering happily away. Mariann was seated to one side of the group between Marilyn and Rhonda, looking more relaxed than she had when they had arrived, and actually smiling. In one corner, an enormous Christmas tree glittered under its load of ornaments and tinsel.
"Hey, Lori!" Carrie Olsen waved to her from the group of women. "Come sit down."
"Remember," Meriel whispered, "some of these people don't know."
"I remember," Lori said. "Is Lara going to need any help? I don't want to settle down in here and leave all the work to her."
"You're not sneaking out with that excuse," Meriel said, grinning. "Lara's doing fine. Come on, go sit down. One of Carrie's in-laws is a journalism student at NTSU and is a fan of yours."
That was almost enough to send her fleeing, but she brought the instant's panic under control and crossed the room to the group of women.
"Hey, Lori, want a cup of eggnog?" Nora Olsen, Aaron Olsen's youngest daughter, indicated the pitcher sitting on an end table.
Lori shook her head. "No, thanks. I've got a soda."
"Well, sit down," Carrie said. "I've got a niece here who wants to meet you. To those of you who don't know, this is Lori Lyons of Kent and Lyons."
Lori obeyed, and settled carefully on an ottoman, balancing her plate of food. Meriel plunked herself down on the rug, plate in one hand, soda in the other. A blond girl sitting in one of the armchairs had shown instant interest at the introduction and leaned forward as Lori arranged her plate and drink.
"Are you really *the* Lori Lyons?"
Lori refused to meet Meriel's eyes, but she was aware that her friend was smothering a grin. "I guess."
"My name is Sue Horton. I'm a journalism major at the university," the other girl said. "I've heard a lot about you."
"If you heard it from NTSU, I imagine it wasn't particularly complimentary," Lori said.
Sue looked surprised. "Really? They have your picture up as one of their distinguished alumni. A couple of my professors brag about having you in their classes."
"You're kidding!" Lori said. "The college administration was after my scalp the last four months I was there. I caused a minor scandal over their poor security measures and they had to upgrade their whole system. It cost the university an awful lot of money. They weren't very happy with me."
Rhonda laughed. "They might not like you much, but you're famous, Lori. They're bound to try to bask in a bit of reflected glory."
"I guess so," Lori said. "They sure were awfully glad to get rid of me, though."
Sue giggled. "It figures. Wait until I tell my roommate. Would you give me your autograph, when you're finished eating? I want to prove that I really met you. My friends will be so jealous!"
She could tell that her face was scarlet. "Sure, I guess so."
A cheer from the crowd around the vidscreen interrupted the conversation. Lori glanced around in time to see the Metropolis quarterback performing a victory dance in the end zone. The crowd seemed to be going wild, so it appeared that the game was over. That was confirmed for Lori when Clark hoisted himself to his feet from his spot on the rug and ambled over toward her.
"I take it our guys won," Lori said.
"Yep. Sixteen to ten," Clark said. "How are you doing?"
"I'm fine. My stomach quieted down a while ago."
"Good. If you want any more snacks, just tell me, okay?" He settled down on the rug next to the ottoman.
"Sure." Lori glanced quizzically at him. Clark was being even more solicitous than he usually was regarding her welfare. He smiled at her but didn't elaborate.
Sue was looking expectantly at him. Carrie said, "Clark, I think my niece would like to meet the other half of Kent and Lyons. Sue, this is Clark Kent, Lori's husband and reporting partner."
"Hi, Sue," Clark said. "I heard you say you were a journalism student at NTSU. What year are you in?"
"My third," Sue said. "I just transferred in from the City College. I've heard a lot about you, Mr. Kent. How long have you and Ms. Lyons been partners?"
"I can tell you're a journalism student," Clark said. "Lori and I have been partners since June of last year. We first teamed up when she was the office intern, to expose the attempt to destroy the Mayflower."
Sue was nodding. "I remember that. Wow, I can hardly believe I've met both of you. Could I get your autograph, too?" She was fishing in her pocket and now produced a small, cloth-bound book and an enameled pen.
Clark took it. "Sure. I don't think most people would think much of it, though." He scribbled a short note and passed the book and pen to Lori. She considered writing a note and then decided that Clark's would do and signed her name under his.
Sue took the book back and examined the signatures. "Wow, this is great! Thanks!"
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw that Carrie and Rhonda were smothering grins, no doubt thoroughly enjoying her discomfort. Making a vow to pay them back as soon as she thought of a way to do it, she dabbed a little of the green stuff on her shrimp roll and popped it into her mouth. In her embarrassment, however, she hadn't paid attention to the amount of the garnish and Meriel's warning about the stuff clearing her sinuses was forcibly brought to mind. She dabbed at her suddenly watering eyes, refusing to look at Rhonda and Carrie's grinning faces. She had to think of a suitable revenge, she reminded herself. Superwomen were a little harder to pay back, but it wasn't impossible. Maybe Clark would have some suggestions.
The crowd around the vidscreen was slowly breaking up. Someone switched the channel to the local news and a moment later, everyone in the room was listening to the commentator reporting on the collision of two bullet trains under the English Channel. Clark stood up. "Excuse me. I just remembered, I promised I'd help Bill move something in his lab."
"Go ahead," Lori said. "I'll be fine."
"I'll help you," Jon Kent said. He was also rising to his feet. In the background, Lori saw Aaron Olsen and CJ Kent slip unobtrusively out the door.
Rhonda also got to her feet. "I just remembered," she said, "I was going to help Lara finish fixing the cream puffs. Back in a bit." She followed Clark into the hallway.
"What --" Mariann's sentence was interrupted by a sonic boom. The windows had barely stopped rattling when it was followed by several more, so close together that the uninformed might have mistaken them for one.
"What was that?" Sue squeaked.
"Sonic booms, I think," Marilyn said, calmly. She popped an egg roll into her mouth. "Probably those stunt pilots Lara was talking about the other day. They've been practicing aerobatics at the local airfield, and sometimes they get too close to the residential area."
"I hope she complained about them," Mariann said. "That's outrageous!"
Carrie stood up. "I better go see if Lara and Ronnie need any help," she said. "The rest of you stay here, though. There's not enough room in the kitchen for anyone else." She hurried out of the room. Thirty seconds later, another, more distant sonic boom rattled the windows.
"I hope they discipline those pilots," Mariann said. "You and Clark should write an editorial or something about it, Lori."
Lori forbore to point out that neither she nor Clark wrote editorials. The fact that her mother had actually used Clark's given name had nearly rendered her speechless. John Olsen casually took the spot vacated by Rhonda. "I'll consider that, Mariann. If the FAA doesn't take steps to deal with the problem, I will."
Mariann started to reply, when another factor was added to the social equation. Marcy Lyons entered the room, accompanied by her husband, Ryan, carrying their six-month-old son, and followed by her father, Robert Lyons.
Lori sneaked a look at her mother's face, but Mariann's expression didn't change. She set her plate and drink down on the nearest side table and stood up. "Over here, Marcy!"
Marcy's face lit up and she crossed the room toward the group, Ryan and Rob trailing behind.
"Hi, Lori. Is there any place to sit around here?" Marcy dropped the baby bag and her handbag on the floor.
"You can have my spot if I can hold Robby." Lori turned to Ryan. "He's sure getting big! Hi, Dad."
"Hello, Princess," her father said. She could tell that he had already spotted Mariann, directly across the big circle from Lori. "How are you doing? Are you all right?"
"Why wouldn't I be?" Lori asked. "Oh, you mean that thing Clark and I broke up -- the arms conversion operation? Sure. Clark never lets guys with guns get anywhere near me, if he can help it."
"It's the 'if' part that I worry about," Rob said.
Lori chose to ignore the caveat, holding out her arms for the baby. Ryan grinned and handed his burden over to her. Lori settled Robbie onto her hip, examining her nephew critically. "Hi, Sport. I wonder if his hair's going to stay blond," she said. "I see his eyes are already turning green like yours, Marcy."
"Oh, he's beautiful!" Sue Horton was leaning forward to examine the new arrival.
"Well, don't just stand there, pass him around," Meriel commanded. "I haven't held him since the month after he was born!"
Lori glanced at Marcy for permission. Her sister nodded and Lori obediently passed the child to Meriel.
"Hey there, cutie," Meriel said. "You look like your dad, except for the green eyes." Robbie's face broke into a smile at the attention he was getting. Lori glanced at her father.
Rob was looking at Mariann, and, sneaking a peek at her mother out of the corner of her eye, Lori could see that Mariann was looking back. She didn't seem upset, either, Lori thought, hopefully.
John Olsen stood up. "I'm going to go get some more snacks," he said to nobody in particular.
"I'll come with you," Ryan said. "I've had a cup of coffee this morning and nothing else. Can I bring you something, Marcy?"
"A little of everything," Marcy said. "A soda would be nice, too."
"I'm not sure it's possible, but I'll do my best," Ryan said. "Come on, John."
The two men left the room. Rob moved slowly across the circle of people toward the space John had vacated. Lori sat down on the rug next to Sue. "I guess nobody introduced Marcy, did they? This is my sister, Marcy Lyons -- "
"Marcy Kent, except on the job," her sister corrected her.
Another distant sonic boom made the windows shake just slightly but Lori didn't react. "Oops, I keep forgetting," she said. "Marcy Kent, and the guy who went to get the food was her husband, Ryan."
"You look familiar," Sue said. "Haven't I seen your picture, somewhere?"
"Marcy's a model," Lori said. "You've probably seen her modeling clothes for Ritacco's."
"*That* Marcy Lyons? The supermodel?" Sue asked. "Wow! I had no idea!"
Marcy gave Lori a look that promised future reprisals, but turned to smile at Sue. "Right now, I'm just Marcy Kent," she said.
"I'm Sue Horton," Sue said. "I'm a journalism student over at NTSU."
"Are any of the rest of your family here?" Lori asked.
Sue shook her head. "Aunt Carrie and Uncle Wayne invited me to spend Christmas with their family because my mom and dad live in the Lunar colony. Dad's company transferred him there this last fall."
"Wow," Meriel said. "I guess that makes it kind of hard to just go home for holidays." She had passed Robbie on to her mother, Lori saw. Marilyn was busily making faces at the child, who responded with coos and giggles. Sitting next to her, Mariann's gaze was fixed on Robbie. As Lori watched, Marilyn said something to her and Mariann reached out to take Robbie and set him in her lap.
Rob had settled quietly down by Mariann, Lori saw, crossing mental fingers. Hopefully, he would be able to smooth things over with her.
"Looks like a bunch of the supermen are on the scene," someone said. Lori looked around. The speaker was Jared, apparently Uma Kent's date. On the screen, the picture was one of confusion and chaos. Somehow, the vidcasters must be picking up the feed from the surveillance cameras inside the trains, themselves. The scene was obscured by heavy smoke and Lori could see the flicker of fire through the greyish haze. Somehow, according to the commentator, two bullet trains had ended up in the same tunnel, going in opposite directions. The results had been disastrous. The Kryptonian humans were stopping fires, tearing open train cars to rescue the trapped, administering first aid and evacuating living victims with incredible speed. Lori saw the blue and red of either Superman or Superwoman, but the figure was moving too fast for her to otherwise identify. A figure clad in jet-black flashed across the screen in a blur of movement. That had to be Ryan, she thought, and marveled silently at how fast he and the others had gotten to the scene of the disaster.
John re-entered the room and silently set a full plate and a soda down next to Marcy. Just as quietly, he left again, only to return less than a minute later, with a similarly full plate of his own.
"Thanks, John," Marcy said. "I guess Lara needed Ryan to open something for her, huh?"
"Actually, he's helping her fix something," John said, deadpan. "He said he'd be back as soon as possible."
Suddenly aware of something, Lori looked around. Nora Olsen had vanished unobtrusively from the group and so had her sister. She could guess where they had gone. The bullet train disaster must have summoned every emergency service within range but Superman and his family had arrived before all of them. As she watched, the picture shifted to the tunnel exit, somewhere in France, where Ultrawoman was towing one of the trains from the tunnel back end first.
Unable to watch any longer, she got to her feet. "I'm going to get something more to eat," she said. "Back in a minute."
There were still three guests in the den helping themselves to the food, which seemed to have diminished a good deal. Knowing how much Clark could eat at a single session, Lori wasn't surprised, especially since the persons now loading up on food appeared to be teenage males. Most of the teens had disappeared; Lori figured that Lara had probably set up some place where the younger members of the group, less interested in football or socialization with the adults, could pursue their own interests. That was probably where the majority of the food had vanished to, as well. That was fine, she thought. It would give them time to work up appetites for dinner.
Still, at the moment, her stomach was growling and there was a good deal of food left. She moved around the room, trying to decide what to try. The cheese puffs looked good, and the few remaining stuffed grape leaves attracted her, and she hesitated, trying to decide between the marinated shrimp and the lamb kabobs. Somewhere in the distance a door opened and closed.
A chorus of screams brought her around in alarm.
The sounds had come from the family room. Lori backed against the wall nearest the door, straining her ears. The three teenage boys started to dash for the hallway, but she grabbed one by the elbow. "Wait!"
"What?" The boy who spoke was the one who had identified her to his friend earlier.
"Don't go running out there 'til you know what's wrong!"
All three boys had stopped, now. Lori strained her ears. "Can anyone hear what's happening?"
The one who had spoken appeared to be looking straight at the wall. "There's eight guys wearing black hoods and carrying stunners and knives in the family room."
"Mom's in there!" the second teenager spoke up. "We have to do something!"
"My dad's there," the youngest one said. "And my mom's off at that emergency. What are we gonna do?"
Lori hesitated, but all three of the boys bore a certain family resemblance. "You guys are all Kents, right?" she asked.
The boy nodded. "Mike and I are. This -- " he waved at the smallest of the three, " -- is Donny O'Brien, our cousin."
"Close enough. Where are your friends -- the other kids?"
"There's a rec room out back. Why?"
"Any of you got the telepathic talent?"
They looked at each other. "We're not supposed to talk about that," Donny said.
"Well," Lori said, "I'm suspending the rules for now. This is an emergency." Underneath, she was somewhat surprised. Where did this cool assumption of authority come from? On the other hand, she was the only adult here, and someone had to make decisions.
"Can she do that?" Donny asked, clearly unsure.
"Look," Lori said, "I'm Clark Kent's wife -- you know, Superman? I know all about Kryptonian telepathic powers and it looks like we need them right now. One of you call your friends and tell them to lock themselves in. I have a pretty good idea who these guys are. There've been four home invasion robberies in Metropolis in the last week. I guess they decided this place looked like a good target to hit next, with all the guests here."
That seemed to clinch it. The boy who hadn't spoken nodded suddenly. "Okay, I've told them."
"Shut the door -- quietly," Lori directed the oldest boy. "They're going to ransack the house after they've finished robbing everybody in the family room. Keep watching what's going on in there. I'm going to try to call the police, first." She punched the emergency call button on her wrist talker as she spoke.
"They've probably got a dampening field over the place," the second boy said, reminding her of the fact that teenagers were a savvy group these days. She shouldn't underestimate her assistants.
"Probably, but I'm trying, anyway. If I remember what Clark told me, the telepathy thing has a limit of about two hundred miles. Am I right?"
"Yeah. I've been calling for help, but I guess all the ones who can help us are too far away. Probably at that train crash in England."
"Are there any non-super telepathic Kents in the neighborhood?"
He shook his head. "Believe me, I've been trying!"
The other telepaths, like Meriel and John, were probably already trying, too, Lori thought. "Okay, Donny, you let the ones who can hear you in the family room know that we know what's going on and that we're trying to get help." She turned to the oldest boy. "What's your name?"
"How many of you guys have super powers?"
Donny, the youngest of the three spoke up. "All of us," he said. "Mine haven't really come in very well, yet, though. I'm only fourteen. Mostly, I'm only faster then most people and strong -- and pretty invulnerable."
"How about you two?"
"I've got most of mine," Barry said. "I can't fly much, yet. Mostly, I float."
Mike nodded. "Me, too."
"Keep watching what's going on in there," Lori reminded Barry. "These guys haven't killed anybody, yet, but I don't want to bet that they won't." She frowned, thinking. "We can't go bursting in there like a bunch of commandos. It's likely to get someone hurt, and besides, there are people in there who don't know about the super powers thing." She bit her lip. "Let me know if they start to hurt anybody."
"They're tying people up," Barry said. He jumped suddenly. "One of them hit Mr. Olsen!"
"Is he okay?" Lori asked.
"His mouth is bleeding. We have to do something!"
"We're going to." Lori scowled at the wall as if she, too, could see what was going on in the family room. "Can you check and see if there are any others around the house?"
"There aren't, at least yet," Mike said. "They're all in the family room -- so far, anyway."
"Okay, we're going to have to separate them," Lori said. "Are you guys strong enough to handle a couple of these characters and invulnerable enough not to get hurt?"
All three nodded.
"All right then, here's what we're going to do ..."
Lori gripped the glass paperweight that she had found shoved in one of the table drawers firmly in her hand. In spite of the fact that this was her plan, the butterflies were fluttering in her stomach. Surely Clark and the others would be back soon, she thought, but she wasn't nearly as sure as she tried to make herself believe. Silently, she glanced at Barry Kent where he and Mike crouched on either side of the den door, out of sight from the hall. Barry nodded and gave her a thumbs up signal. Donny crouched on the other side of Mike, an empty beer bottle in one hand.
Holding tightly onto her courage, Lori crept down the hall. From the family room, she could hear the murmur of voices and the sound of someone crying. Trusting that the carpet would muffle any footfalls, Lori took a deep breath and ran half on tiptoe, to the door of the room.
People were sitting still, at bay before three men who covered them with stunners. Five more moved around among the guests, twisting their wrists together with heavy, plastic tie-wraps.
She saw her mother, huddled against Rob. Mariann's eyes widened when she saw Lori but Lori didn't give her a chance to inadvertently warn the invaders. She threw the paperweight directly at the closest one.
It struck him hard in the middle of the back and he went to the floor with a bellow of pain. Lori paused for a split second to give them a chance to see her, then turned and ran.
Somewhere underneath her conscious mind, part of her was amazed at the calmness that gripped her. The butterflies had disappeared. She didn't feel scared or even nervous, now. Those feelings seemed to have been put on hold, locked away somewhere out of reach just as they always were when she faced an emergency. She dashed toward the door of the den and went through, hearing the thump of feet behind her.
The two men who had chased her didn't have a chance. As they came through after her, Barry and Mike landed on them like a pair of guards sacking the quarterback. Neither one had a chance to so much as peep before they were face down on the rug, each with a teenage boy kneeling in the middle of his back. Donny shut the door quietly behind them. It had been so well choreographed that Lori could almost have believed they had practiced the trick a dozen times rather than simply discussed it in whispers.
"Now what?" Mike asked. "There's six of them left. I don't think that trick is going to work again."
Lori picked up a stunner. "Is this thing what it looks like? I mean it hasn't been turned into a disrupter or anything, has it?"
"They can't do that," Donny said.
"Believe me, they can if somebody who knows how gets hold of one." She leveled it at the window, closed her eyes and squeezed the trigger. The hum that greeted her ears was reassuring. "Good, it's only a stunner." She looked at the two prisoners. "Donny, get their masks."
The boy unhesitatingly peeled off the mask of the man Barry was pinning to the floor. Lori walked around until she could get a good look at his face.
"Well, well, if it isn't Joey Castellani. I thought you stuck with smash and grab robberies, Joey."
The man glowered at her. "You're gonna pay for this, Lyons."
"Not if I have anything to say about it. You made the mistake of invading *my* family's Christmas party. Okay guys, lets tie these losers up and get busy."
There had been a brisk discussion concerning the subject before they had implemented their plan and Lori hoped that Lara wouldn't mind the fact that they had sacrificed one of her tablecloths to the cause. When both men were thoroughly hogtied, gagged and shoved into the closet of the den, she turned to her accomplices. "You guys are sure you're fast enough to do this?" she asked in a low voice.
Barry nodded. "Mike and I are about twice as fast as regular people. Donny's only a little slower. And all of us are plenty strong enough. All you have to do is be sure people don't notice how fast we're moving."
Lori held up the stunner. "Consider it done."
Barry grinned admiringly at her. "I know why Grandfather Clark married you," he said. "You got guts. Okay, just give the word -- but don't get where they can hurt you, okay? I don't want to have to tell Grandfather that I let something happen to you."
Lori nodded. "He wouldn't blame you, but I'll be careful. Ready?"
All three boys nodded. Barry scooped up the mask worn by his victim. Mike took the other one and both boys pulled them over their faces. That had been Mike's idea, to momentarily confuse the remaining six invaders. As he had pointed out, at the speed they could move, all they needed was a split second's advantage. Barry checked to be sure that the hall was clear and Lori opened the door "Warn John and Meriel that we're coming."
Mike nodded. "Done."
"Okay, let's go!" she whispered.
Apparently, the remaining invaders had no doubt in their minds that Lori posed little, if any, threat. Two of them held stunners on the crowd while the other four moved about, continuing to bind their captives with the heavy tie wraps. Barry and Mike marched her into the room, each holding her by an arm.
One of the hooded men glanced briefly at them. "Shove her over with --"
Together, Barry and Mike dropped her arms and Lori snatched the stunner from Mike's belt, bringing it level with the startled leader. She squeezed the trigger, the reverberating hum filled the room and the leader dropped as if pole-axed. Lori flung herself flat.
Mike and Barry were already moving and Donny jumped across Lori to follow his older cousins. John grabbed Marilyn and bore her to the floor, bound hands and all. "Everybody down!" he yelled.
People were flinging themselves to the floor right and left. From her position on the rug, Lori was the only one who saw the three super-teens moving, if not faster than speeding bullets, at least commendably fast, knocking the flabbergasted home invaders to the ground with punches that might very well have staggered an elephant. She saw her father pinning Mariann to the rug with his own body, covering both her and baby Robbie, who was shrieking at the top of his lungs.
And suddenly, everything was still except for the cries of Robbie and the two other babies in the group, all of them howling in panic. Lori picked herself slowly up, still gripping the stunner and waved for the three boys to leave. They obeyed at once. She waited until they had disappeared down the hallway and then spoke.
"It's okay. You can all get up, now. It's over."
The accident had been a horrifying one, but the presence of so many of the supermen had kept the number of fatalities to a minimum. Superman glanced once more across the scene at the exit of the tunnel, at the flashing lights of countless emergency vehicles and at the hundreds of rescue personnel milling about, and breathed a sigh of relief.
For the first time in nearly an hour, his thoughts returned to his wife, waiting for him at the Klein home. With the thought came awareness of the no longer vague sensation that had been tugging at the back of his mind for some time, nearly drowned out by the horrors surrounding him and the knowledge of what he had to do. Lori! Lori was in danger and he wasn't there!
He flashed upward into the night sky, instinctively taking the direction that would bring him most quickly back to Metropolis. The other supermen and -women followed, but he outdistanced them in a microsecond. They poured on the speed, and it was Lara, the closest, harnessing every bit of speed in her possession, who managed to catch up.
She glanced questioningly at him, and her eyes widened suddenly.
"Something's wrong!" her mental voice echoed in his head and she accelerated even faster, managing to leave her father behind for an instant -- but only for an instant.
He nodded silently as they reached an altitude normally used only by the military and members of his family. Behind them the contingent of supermen and -women, even those who lacked the Kryptonian telepathic talent, had caught his sense of urgency and kept pace, cleaving the air like a flying wedge. It wasn't until they passed a high-speed military craft like it was standing still that he realized how fast they were moving, and it still didn't seem fast enough.
Approaching the Klein home, he had to consciously slow his speed. Residents of the area would certainly object to broken windows and other incidental damage that would be produced by so many of them moving at better than Mach 7.
And suddenly, the sense of urgency was gone. It left him almost dizzy and he came to a halt in mid air, tuning his hearing to the house below him.
"It's okay," he heard Lori's voice say. "You can all get up now. It's over."
"We better find out what happened," Rhonda said, hovering beside him, "and come up with some kind of cover, if we need one."
"I suspect we do," Clark said. He scanned the house visually, listening to the chatter of upset people and his heart sank as he began to piece together the events of the last hour.
"It looks like Superman better put in an appearance," he said, after several minutes. "Here's what I want you to do ... "
Lori sat down in the nearest chair, listening to the chatter rise and fall around her. It was times like this that she wanted to hand all the responsibility over to Clark but as far as she knew, he was still in England. It seemed, however, that John Olsen was a good substitute. He briskly gave orders for the men to use the remaining tie-wraps to restrain the unconscious criminals and while the crowd was doing so with rather more enthusiasm than was strictly necessary, he came to stand by Lori.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
She nodded. "Just a little shaky."
"You did great," her boss said. "Um -- would you happen to know where the other two guys are?"
"We stashed them in the closet in the den," she said. "The kids are probably guarding them until somebody can collect them."
"I think I can find a few volunteers to do that," John said. "Um ... which kids are we talking about?"
"Barry and Mike Kent and Donny O'Brien. Didn't they talk to you while we were in there? They did all the hard stuff." She took a deep breath and blew it out. "I just sort of directed."
John shrugged. "They didn't say who they were, and I was too distracted to ask. We all owe you and them a lot, but I think we're going to have to come up with an explanation that doesn't involve them."
"That's why they left." Lori regarded her hands. "Look at me, I'm shaking like a leaf!"
John patted her on the shoulder. "I think you're entitled."
Rob Lyons appeared behind John Olsen, his arm tightly around his wife's shoulders. "Are you all right, Lori?"
She smiled, suppressing the unsteadiness of her voice. "I'm fine, Dad. Are you and Mom okay?"
Rob nodded. "The ones I'm beginning to worry about now are Clark and Ryan. We haven't seen any sign of Clark since he passed us on the way in."
A gust of air made both men look around. Superman stood in the doorway, holding the remaining two invaders each by the scruff of the neck. "I take it you're looking for these?"
"We certainly are," John said. He wiped at the trickle of blood that still ran sluggishly from the corner of his mouth. "I have a score to settle with the one in your left hand. I recognize him by his belt buckle."
"He gave you that souvenir?" Superman asked.
"Well, Joey," Superman said. He shook the man lightly. "What do you think I should do with you?"
"I ain't talkin'," Joey said. "You can't prove nothin'."
"Oh, I don't know about that," Superman said, cheerfully. "In any case, I think there are some people in this room who would very much like to be sure that you don't leave before the police get here." He raised his voice. "Are there any more of those tie wraps that we can use, over here?"
Several of the partygoers descended on the two captives with more glee than might be expected following their ordeal and dragged them away, accompanied by John. Superman turned to Lori, and she thought she saw a flicker of concern cross his face. "Lori, I thought you'd like to know that Clark is fine and so are the others. It seems your friends here simply locked them into the darkroom in Dr. Klein's lab and jammed the door shut. No one was hurt. They should be here in a few minutes."
"That's a relief," Rob said. He turned to Mariann. "How are you feeling, dear?"
"Relieved," Mariann said. Lori could see the traces of tears on her cheeks but her mother appeared to have recovered much more quickly than might have been expected. Lori recalled, suddenly, what her father had told her about Mariann's early life and thought she understood. Mariann was a lot tougher when it was necessary than anyone, except perhaps Rob, had realized. Now, she looked curiously at Lori and glanced briefly at the stunner, lying on the floor by her feet. "I'm still not certain what happened."
"I'd like to know that, myself," Rob said. "Somehow, Lori and three other people took our friends by surprise and overpowered them."
"That pretty much covers it," Lori said. "I hope the police are on their way."
"They are," Superman said. "Thanks for doing my job for me, Lori. I wish I'd been here."
"We saw what you were doing," Lori said. "You were where you needed to be. We managed all right on our own."
"As long as it turned out all right," Mariann said.
"Are ... are you two okay, now?" Lori dared to ask.
Mariann glanced sideways at Rob, and Lori saw him squeeze her hand. "I think so. I've been thinking about some of the things you said. Maybe you have a point."
"Well," Superman said, "I hear a siren. The police will be here in a few minutes, so I'll say goodbye, for now. I hope you don't let a trivial incident like this ruin your Christmas party. It would be a shame to let them win, after all."
"I don't intend to," John Olsen said, as he rejoined the group, "and I don't think the rest of us will. Most of us have more backbone than that." He rested a hand on Lori's shoulder. "I know Lori does. She's not part of Kent and Lyons for nothing."
Lori gave an embarrassed smile, but she was aware of Mariann watching her with an expression on her face that she couldn't quite read. Mariann turned her head as the sound that Superman had already detected became audible to ordinary ears. "Here come the police. Thank God this is almost over."
"Likewise," Rob said. "I'm hungry."
Lori gave a short laugh as the sirens drew up outside and suddenly went silent. "So am I," she said. "In fact, I'm starved."
"I think there's still food in the den," John said. "Would you like me to get some for you?"
"I can get it, myself," Lori said, slightly surprised.
John glanced at Superman and back to her. "No, you've done enough for now. I'll be right back."
The police left an hour later after interviewing the partygoers. Velma Chow watched her men herd the eight, sullen criminals from the room and turned back to Clark and Lori, shaking her head. "When Superman told me that the residents of the house had overpowered the criminals, I figured you had to be involved," she said. "Nice work, Lori. We'll have statements for everyone to sign by tomorrow." She glanced around at the family room, where the signs of the untoward incident were rapidly being erased. "Have a nice dinner."
"Thanks," Clark said. "I'm glad we could save you some trouble."
Velma let an uncharacteristic smile crease her usually sour expression. "I'm sure the motive was entirely altruistic, but at least it's one less thing I have to worry about during the holiday season."
Lara stepped into the room, placed two fingers in her mouth and produced an ear-splitting whistle. "Dinner will be served in the dining room in exactly ten minutes!" she announced.
"Better go," Velma said. "Enjoy yourselves. Good night."
"Good night, kids," Rob Lyons said. He held the door of the apartment's spare bedroom for his wife. "It's been an interesting evening. I'm glad I finally had a chance to see Lori in action -- not that it's going to make me worry any less."
"I don't usually do stuff like that," Lori said. "It's just that there wasn't anybody else who could."
"The point is that you did what needed to be done," her father said. "I'm proud of you, Princess."
"So am I," Mariann said, unexpectedly. Lori had to consciously keep her jaw from dropping open.
"Well, she *is* your daughter," Rob said. "I wouldn't have expected any less."
"I guess that makes it unanimous, honey," Clark said. He put an arm around her waist and steered her toward the master bedroom. "Good night, Rob. Good night, Ms. Lyons."
"Clark," Mariann said. "My name is Mariann."
Clark paused for a startled instant but he recovered quickly. "Mariann, then," he said, with one of his charming smiles. "Good night."
"Wow," Lori said, after the door had closed behind them. "That's sure an about-face from Mom. Do you suppose it will last?"
Clark shrugged. "Some of it, probably."
"Enough, I hope," Lori said. "It would sure make life easier for everybody."
"Maybe enough that she'll agree to think about that counseling Rob has been urging her to get," Clark said. He pulled off his shirt and tossed it toward the chair in the corner of their room. "What a day!"
Lori nodded. "It certainly wasn't your usual Christmas party," she said. "I want to pick up three more gifts tomorrow, Clark."
"Who for?" he asked.
"For Barry, Mike and Donny. Those kids saved the day."
"They did a good job," Clark agreed. "I told them so, too, but if you want to get them a little something, I'll be glad to deliver the gifts for you."
"Thanks," Lori said. She started to unbutton her blouse and paused. "You know, I think I'll go get a glass of milk. Believe it or not, I'm hungry."
Clark began to laugh. "I'll get it for you," he said. "Do you want it warm or cold?"
"Clark, I'm perfectly capable of getting myself a glass of milk!" She added, "You've sure been acting funny today, and so has John! Do you mind telling me what's going on?"
He crossed the rug to her and wrapped his arms around her. "Okay. I wondered when you got motion sick on that little trip to Lara's and did a little super listening. You know, Lois always watched her weight very strictly. Her appetite only got out of control four times. There must be something about a super-pregnancy that requires a lot of energy..."
Lori's mouth fell open. "You mean, I --"
He nodded. "Once I listened, I could hear a heartbeat," he said. "Now, did you want that milk warm or cold?"
Lori managed to gather her scattered wits. "Umm -- warm, please. You mean that you told John and didn't tell me?"
"John figured it out on his own and asked me. I couldn't tell you in public, but I could tell John." He tapped his forehead and then quickly left the room. He returned a moment later with a full glass of steaming milk. "Here you go."
Lori accepted the glass and took a long drink. "That's good." She set it down on her bedside table and began to change clothing. "Oh, darn!"
"Now I won't be able to go skiing in Aspen!"
He put his arms around her from behind. "Sure you will. You just have to promise me you won't try anything without me around. If I'm there, we won't have to worry about tumbles." He kissed the top of her head. "Deal?"
"You've got yourself a deal!" Lori said. "Aspen here we come!"
Clark rested his chin on the top her head and his arms tightened around her. "I'll hold you to that. Merry Christmas, honey."
Merry Christmas, Everyone!