Disclaimer: The familiar characters and settings in this story are not mine. They are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros., December 3rd Productions and whoever else can legally claim them. I am not making any profit from this venture into the world of Lois and Clark. Parts of story contain portions of scenes from the Lois and Clark script, "The Foundling" and those parts are hereby credited to the writers of that episode of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Any new characters, scenes, dialogue and the story itself belong to me.

Second Choice
By Nan Smith

Clark Kent hurried out the door of his Algebra class. It was the end of sixth period and school was out. If he moved quickly, he'd get a chance to talk to her before she caught her ride with Ronnie Davis again.

He left the building through a side exit and took advantage of his speed to make it around the building and to the front gate before she could possibly get there. Then he spent the next ten minutes wondering where she was. She had been waiting here for her ride every day for the past three days and now, the day he needed to talk to her, she wasn't here.

She'd been at school today. He'd seen her a couple of times, passing between classes, but it seemed as if she'd been avoiding him, which had bothered him. They'd been good friends since the early summer when her mother had suddenly moved into an apartment in town, bringing her two daughters with her. She'd been almost sixteen and the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen in his life. They had met at Maisie's Diner, when he'd seen her sitting in a corner by the old fashioned jukebox, sipping a milkshake and watching the crowd of local kids chattering and laughing at the big table in the center of the room. He'd watched her surreptitiously for almost an hour until she'd gotten up to leave, wishing he dared to go over and introduce himself. And then Pete Ross had saved the day completely by accident. He'd been crossing the room with a tray of hamburgers and fries and hadn't seen her coming. He'd bumped into her and, in his effort to save the tray of food, managed to knock the girl's purse to the floor.

Clark reached out, steadying the tray for the critical instant that it took Pete to regain his balance and then turned and bent quickly to rescue the small purse. He'd straightened up to face the slightly flustered girl. "Sorry for my clumsy friend. Are you all right, Miss?"

She'd nodded and accepted the purse. "Thanks," was all she'd said, but her voice seemed to vibrate along every nerve ending in his body.

"No problem," he said. "I haven't seen you before. Just passing through?"

She'd shaken her head. "We're new here," she said. "Mom and my sister and me."

"Oh." He'd extended a hand. "Well, welcome to Smallville. I'm Clark Kent."

"Lois Lane," she'd told him.

"Nice to meet you, Lois," he'd said. "Since we're going to be neighbors, would you like to join us?" He'd had no idea why he asked. His voice seemed to have taken on a life of its own.

She smiled a little but shook her head. "I have to get home," she told him. "Mother's probably going to ... wonder where I've been."

He'd been conscious of a sense of disappointment but it would have looked strange if he'd tried to change her mind. Instead, he'd smiled at her. "Okay. I guess I'll see you around town, then."

It had been a simple enough meeting but it had been the beginning of the biggest change in his life since he had seen his parents killed at the age of ten.

Of course Lana hadn't missed the short exchange and he'd braced himself for the inevitable interrogation that followed. It came the instant the door closed behind Lois Lane.

"Who was that girl, Clark?" Lana's sharp voice had cut across the sounds of conversation around the table.

"Just a girl." For some reason, Clark had felt slightly defensive -- but he often felt that way these days. Lana was the head cheerleader for the Smallville Stingrays, Smallville High's football team, and one of the social leaders on campus, and she had been his friend since they had been about five or six. She always had a swarm of boys hanging around her but she recently seemed to be trying to separate him from the herd and mark him as her own special possession. At first it had been flattering but this time the implied ownership was an irritant. Lana had no real right to question him about people that he spoke to in passing. It wasn't as if they were going steady or anything.

"Where did you meet her?" Lana persisted. Clark took a deep breath and mastered his irritation. Pete, he'd noticed, had rejoined the crowd at the table and was distributing the food but he was also studiously not looking at Clark and Lana.

"I met her here, just now," Clark said, trying to soothe Lana's bristles. "Pete knocked her purse out of her hand. It would have been rude not to have helped her."

"I've told you over and over that you're too polite," Lana said. "It wouldn't have hurt her to pick up her own purse."

"No," he answered as mildly as possible, "but that isn't the way my parents taught me to behave."

They'd locked eyes and he saw Lana close her lips firmly together. He was probably in for a lecture later, he thought, but maybe he could disappear for a while and give her time to get over her annoyance -- although lately Lana hadn't seemed so willing to let things lie. Clark didn't want to fight and he didn't want to lose her as a friend, which meant he'd probably have to listen to a monologue from her later, saying nothing to defend himself. Eventually, she would wind down and, if not exactly give up on the subject, at least she wouldn't mention it more than once or twice a day for a week or two. After all, things could be much worse than they were -- at least that was what Lana told him. He hadn't argued. Ever since Jonathan and Martha Kent had died in that car accident, he'd been bouncing around in foster homes of one kind or another. Some had been good ones, some hadn't. The current one was the home of Wayne Irig and his wife, Nettie. They'd been friends of his parents years ago and he'd felt more at home with them than he had with most of the others. Wayne wasn't much of a talker but he and Clark had spoken a little of Clark's plans after Smallville High. He had been thinking hard about what he was going to do with his life as an adult, and his plans didn't include sticking around Smallville, at least initially.

This fall would be his senior year and in February he would turn eighteen, which meant that the local Social Services would have no more say in his living arrangements or in his life. He'd been working as hard as he could to qualify for scholarships at Midwest State University and it looked as if his efforts might be paying off in the near future. He'd held an "A" average for his first three years at Smallville High and he had every intention of doing the same in his upcoming senior year. It really wasn't that hard, and he often wondered why it seemed to be so difficult for other students in his classes. And then, if things worked out right, he was headed for Midwest State to study journalism. His mother and father had told him often enough that a college education might not be absolutely necessary for his life as an adult but it sure smoothed the road. His mother had held a bachelor's degree in English, he had discovered a couple of years ago while secretly going through their things in the attic of the old farmhouse, and Jonathan Kent had attended two years at Midwest Junior College. They'd always wanted the best for him and if they said he should go to college, then he'd do his best to follow their wishes.

And he was not going to put the old farmhouse and the land, as Lana's father had urged him to do, up for sale. It was the home where he had spent the first ten years of his life and the ten happiest years as well. Some day he might change his mind but he wouldn't allow anyone to pressure him into doing something that he might regret.

It had turned out, much to Clark's surprise, that the house had been paid off some years ago and Jonathan and Martha had made arrangements to have the property taxes automatically paid through some kind of fund in Clark's name, in case something happened to them before he had reached the age of eighteen. They had left the power of attorney in the hands of Wayne Irig, and Wayne had told him of it when he'd mentioned Lewis Lang's advice.

"I've managed it all these years for you," Wayne had told him. "If you want to sell it I'll do it but do you think Martha and Jonathan would want you to?"

"I don't know," Clark had answered, "but I don't want to. At least not yet."

"Well, you can't sell it without my signature until you're twenty-one," Wayne had said shortly. "If he keeps after you, send him to me. Did you know that he's invested in real estate? Made a lot of his money buyin' and sellin' houses -- flippin' 'em, it's called. He wouldn't cheat you -- Lewis is honest, but you have to watch him. I'd get advice from somebody who doesn't have an interest in it 'f I were you."

"I will," Clark had said. The thought that Lana's father might have an interest in his parents' home just for the money involved made his stomach feel a little funny, but the next time Lewis Lang had mentioned it, Clark had followed Irig's advice. Somehow, the subject hadn't come up since.

The Langs had been friends of his since he could remember but it was things like that that made him glad that he hadn't told them about the strange things that were happening to him. His mother and dad would have known what to do but he didn't. He always felt at a disadvantage with Lana's incredibly suave and polished father. And now Lana was acting as if he were somehow her property. It was just as well, he thought, that he hadn't mentioned his plans to anyone but Wayne Irig, and Wayne wasn't one to gossip.

Only -- He glanced in the direction that Lois Lane had gone. He found himself wishing that Lana had not been here to see the little chance meeting.

Clark fidgeted as students emerged from the school in chattering clumps, some heading for the bus stop where Smallville's one school bus waited patiently for them. Others drifted away, starting out on their walk home or stopping to talk with their friends. Lois still hadn't shown up and he was getting worried. He supposed he could drop by her mother's apartment and look to see if she was there. He doubted that she'd left early, though. Lois was a hard worker, and her grades were as good as his. He'd seen her name on the "A" honor roll three times this year and fully expected to see it there again next week after finals.

He'd run into her again a couple of days after their first meeting at Maisie's and fortunately the next time Lana hadn't been anywhere around. Clark had been leaving football practice -- the Stingrays practiced twice a week even during the summer, in order to be in shape when the school year started again, and Clark never missed a session. He'd been headed home when he'd encountered Lois Lane and a younger girl who resembled her a good deal as they emerged from the Smallville Market, each with a bag of groceries.

"Hi," he said.

"Oh ... hi." Lois smiled faintly at him. "...Clark, right?"

"Clark Kent," he said.

"I remember. This is my sister, Lucy."

"Pleased to meet you," he said, automatically.

Lois's sister must be in the neighborhood of three or four years younger than Lois. She smiled at him and batted her brown eyes. "Hi."

"Hi," Clark said. "Shopping for dinner?"

Lois nodded without answering. Clark eyed the bag that she was clutching against her and decided that she was carrying the lion's share of the groceries.

"Let me help you," he said, quickly. "Do you have a car around here?"

Lois had shaken her head. "We're only going about a block. We live in the Sun Crest Apartments."

"Oh," Clark said. He intercepted the can that tried to fall out of Lucy's bag. "At least let me carry the milk for you." He reached for the carton that was tipping perilously from the top of Lois's bag and caught it as it overbalanced. The bag itself looked as if it were in danger of ripping wide open at any second.

"That's all right," Lois said hastily. "We'll be fine."

Clark smiled at her. "You're going to ruin my reputation," he told her. "I'm supposed to be the town good guy. Let me help." He'd taken the bag out of her arms as he spoke and handed her the milk. "It won't hurt if I help you carry these home."

"Well -- okay." Lois seemed to him to be a little reluctant but at the moment didn't want to make an issue of it.

"Lead the way," Clark said. Lois glanced at him and then -- still reluctantly, it seemed -- obeyed.

The Sun Crest Apartments were a little more than a block from the Smallville Market and he'd followed Lois up the steps to Apartment 2C. At the door she paused, inserted her key into the lock, turned it and reached out to reclaim the bag he carried. "Thanks for the help," she told him.

He relinquished the bag to her. "You're welcome," he said. He could hear her heart beating twice as fast as normal. "If you -- if you ever need any help, you can always ask me, you know."

She had smiled at him a little oddly. "I'll remember that." She pushed open the door and gestured her younger sister ahead of her. She'd given him another smile and followed Lucy. The door closed.

Clark stood for a moment, frowning, and then did what he'd told himself he shouldn't do. He called it x-ray vision since it allowed him to see through just about anything, and this time he trained it on the door of the apartment and strained his enhanced hearing to hear the voices inside.

At once he heard Lois's voice. "You'd better check on Mother," she told her sister. "I'll put the stuff away."

Lucy set down her small bag of groceries and left the kitchen. Curious, Clark followed her with his hearing and special vision.

A blond woman was sprawled on the sofa in the living room, a bottle that had contained vodka, he thought, lying on its side on the floor. And with that, Lois's reticence and reluctance to let him help her became clear. Clark grimaced slightly. Lois's mother had been drinking. It seemed likely that if the girls were going to eat dinner tonight, it would be Lois who cooked.

He paused for another moment, watching Lois as she began to empty the bags. It seemed that dinner tonight was going to be ham sandwiches.

Quietly, he turned and descended the short flight of stairs to the street.

Clark bit his lip, looking around. Most of the other students had left the school grounds and the school bus was pulling away from the curb as he watched, to take the students who lived in the outlying areas, such as the scattered farms that surrounded Smallville, back to their homes. There was still no sign of Lois. It didn't look as if she was coming and yet he'd seen her in the hallway during the break between fifth and sixth period. She hadn't skipped class; he was sure of that. She never skipped class. He'd even seen her come to school once with the flu and had attempted to talk her into going home, without success. To be sure, he hadn't tried too hard. Lois could be hard headed when she chose. Scratch that, he thought with a wry smile. Lois could be as obstinate as one of Wayne Irig's pigs but he secretly admired her for it. He'd give her another ten minutes, he thought, and then he would start hunting for her. Something had been bothering her for the last couple of days but he hadn't asked, figuring that it was her business. She'd spent most of the time avoiding him, and that did bother him. They'd become pretty good friends over the last year. Clark had never met another girl like her. If something was worrying her, she had to know that she could tell him anything and that he would do his best to help her if he could.

Two days after he'd discovered Mrs. Lane's secret, he'd met Lois escorting her sister to the public library. It was the last week of June and the weather was typical -- hot and humid, with no trace of rain in sight. Clark trotted up beside them. "Hi."

"Hi," Lois said.

He glanced briefly at the sign on the building, announcing the Smallville Public Library. "Looking for something to read?"

Lucy nodded, smiling admiringly at him. "Hi," she said. She fluttered her eyelashes at him. Clark wondered for a moment how old Lois's sister was, but if Lucy was the flirtatious sister, Lois seemed to be the more serious one.

"We don't know many people in town and there's nothing much to do," Lois said, "so we figured we'd get some books."

Clark grinned. "Well, actually there's a lot to do, but you probably haven't been here long enough to get into the town grapevine," he said. "Anyhow, we've got a pretty good library. If you want a particular book and it isn't there, just ask for it. Mabel can order it for you and it'll be here in a couple of days."

"Mabel?" Lois asked.

"Our librarian, Mabel Denning," Clark fell in beside the girls as they strolled toward the library. "She used to be the senior librarian in charge of a big library in Queens -- in New York -- but when she retired she came out here to be near her family."

"Family?" Lois asked.

"Uh huh," Clark said. "Her brother owns the biggest dairy operation in the county. Anyway, after a while she got bored with goofing off and offered to take over the library because our last librarian eloped with Principal Talbot's son -- and then he joined the Navy and they wound up in Guam, so we didn't have a librarian. Mabel's been running Smallville's library for two years."

"It's probably almost a vacation for her after working in New York," Lois said. "But how come you know all about it?"

"That's the way Smallville is," Clark said. "Everybody pretty much knows everything about everybody else. Plus, when she took over I interviewed her for the high school paper."

"You're on the school paper?" Lois asked quickly. Her expression had gone from one of mild interest to that of suppressed excitement.

"Yeah," Clark said. "I've been the editor since my junior year. Why?"

"I was on my school's paper," Lois said. "The 'Metropolis Falcon'. I want to get on the paper at Smallville High, too. I'll be a junior this year."

"Great," Clark said. "It probably won't be like the paper for a big city high school but we're pretty proud of it." He opened the library door for Lois and her sister. "In the meantime, there's a bunch of us that are going to have a swimming party down at the lake tomorrow. If you and Lucy would like to come, I'm sure my friends would like to meet you."

Lois shook her head. "I don't know anybody but you," she said. "Besides, if I came with you, what would your girlfriend say?"

"I don't have a girlfriend," Clark said. "At least, not a steady one."

"The blond girl you were talking to the other day -- after I left."

How had she seen that? he wondered. It sounded to him like Lois Lane noticed a lot of things that most people didn't. "That was Lana Lang. She's an old friend of mine but she's not my girlfriend," he said.

"She didn't look very old to me," Lois said.

"I just meant I've known her since kindergarten," Clark amended. "I've dated her a few times but she's not really my girlfriend. So, how about the lake, tomorrow?"

Lois shrugged. "I don't think so. Maybe another time."

"Okay," Clark had agreed, recalling what he had seen of Lois's mother that day at their apartment. She probably didn't want to leave her mother home alone for very long if she had a drinking problem, he thought. He glanced at his watch. "I have to head home. Wayne expects me to help him fix his tractor this afternoon. I guess I'll see you around town."

Lois smiled and nodded at him, and then went on into the library after her sister.

He'd met Lois with and without her younger sister several times during the next couple of weeks and always made an effort to draw her out a little. In the back of his mind he wondered a bit at his own determination to get to know her. It wasn't only that she was, quite simply, the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen, nor did it occur to him to wonder if he was the only one who thought that. Looking at Lois Lane objectively, she was very attractive, true, but certainly no more so than Lana Lang or Rachel Harris, the sheriff's daughter. He'd tried to pin down in his mind why she was so much prettier than Lana and couldn't really express it in cold, dry words, but the fact remained that every time he saw her, her sheer beauty almost took his breath away.

On the Fourth of July, he had come into town a little early. He'd run, careful as usual not to let anyone see him demonstrating one of the strange powers that had come to him one by one since he had turned ten, and reported to the Independence Day Committee, whose job it was to manage the entertainment and fireworks show this afternoon and evening at the Smallville Fairgrounds. He'd volunteered a couple of weeks ago to help them set things up for the evening's entertainment. As he strolled into the school auditorium, where the morning meeting was taking place, he saw Lois Lane speaking to one of the committee members and taking quick notes on a pad of paper. He knew he shouldn't eavesdrop but the temptation was too much and he trained his hearing on the two. A minute later, he had to hide a smile. Lois was interviewing the man.

Since the Smallville High Breeze was out of business for the summer, he had to think that maybe she was hoping to get her article submitted to the town's weekly paper, the Smallville Press. Lois was nothing if not ambitious.

As she ended her interview, she glanced over and saw him. After a moment's hesitation, she approached him with a little smile. "Hi, Clark. What are you doing here?"

He grinned. "I'm a volunteer to do the tote and carry work while they set up things for this evening. I get paid by having a seat in the best area to see the fireworks. My -- the people I live with are coming and they get seats, too."

Lois tilted her head and looked at him oddly. "That's right. Somebody told me you were an orphan. I'm sorry."

He shrugged a little uncomfortably. "It was a long time ago."

She didn't say anything for a moment and then she spoke abruptly. "My mother and dad just got divorced. That's why Mom moved out here with Lucy and me."

"Why Smallville?" he couldn't help asking. "We're one of those towns that isn't even on most maps."

Lois looked down for a moment and then squared her shoulders. "It was a pretty ugly court fight," she said. "Mother brought in a bunch of witnesses to prove he was cheating on her and he brought in a bunch of his own to try to prove she wasn't a fit parent. Anyway, Mother didn't want to be around any of the people who knew her, after that. She just closed her eyes and picked the place to move by putting a finger on a map of the country."

"That's an interesting way to find a place to live." Clark said, slightly nonplused. "What about your dad, though? Isn't he supposed to have visitation rights or something?"

Lois shrugged a shoulder. "He's too busy with his work. Once I told him I didn't want to be a doctor, and that nothing he said could make me change my mind, he wasn't interested anymore. He's a surgeon -- he treats sports injuries and he's always trying to find new experimental techniques to help injured athletes. If you're only his daughter he doesn't have time for you."

"Oh," Clark said. "That really stinks."

She shrugged again. "It's all right," she said. Clark didn't comment but her scent and the speed at which her heart was beating told him that it was not all right. She switched the subject abruptly, raising her chin. "Anyhow, I'm going into journalism, and nothing Daddy says or does -- or doesn't do -- is going to stop me."

Clark found himself smiling at her sheer defiance. Her father might have rejected her because she refused to adopt the career he had planned for her, her mother might be an alcoholic, but Lois Lane would not allow those facts to get in her way. She was awe-inspiring. "I believe it."

"Do you have any plans after you graduate?" she asked.

"Yeah. I'm planning on going to Midwest State. They have a pretty good journalism program. Mom and Dad left me a little money in trust, and I do odd jobs around town and at the local farms to earn as much as I can. I'm going to try out for some of the scholarships available, too. I graduate next year and I want to be ready."

"I thought maybe you'd take over your parents' farm," Lois said. "Somebody told me your parents left it to you."

"They did," Clark said. "Maybe I'll rent out the land to somebody. Wayne would probably like to use the grazing land for his milk cows -- but I want to be a journalist, not a farmer." He smiled at her. "Are you interviewing me?"

He could see the flush climbing up her collarbone. "No -- I guess it sounded like it, didn't it? No, it's just -- you're really the only person around here that I know. You always stop to talk to me, and --"

"Hey, Clark!" Madeline Peterson called. "Can you put that pile of boxes in the van, for starters?"

"Sure," Clark said. He turned back to Lois. "If you're going to report on the Committee's work, you can follow us around for a while and see what we do."

"How did you know that's what I was doing?" she asked.

"I saw you interviewing Bill Ross," Clark said, nodding at the pad and pencil in her hands. "I figured there was only one reason you'd be doing that."

"Yeah," Lois said. "Good guess. I talked to the Assistant Editor of the Smallville Press and told him I'd been on my high school paper. He said if I wanted to do an article about the Fourth of July show, they'd consider publishing it if it was good enough."

"Sounds good," Clark said, hefting the first box. "I've sold a couple of articles to them, myself. They do sometimes accept freelance stuff. If they take yours, I guess you can put it in a resume folder to show your early work. Where are you planning to go to college?"

"I'm not sure," Lois admitted, trailing him out the door toward Mrs. Peterson's van. "I'd wanted to go to New Troy State but since I'm going to have to figure out how to pay for it, I might not be able to go there."

"New Troy State has a good journalism school," Clark agreed, "but it isn't the only one. Besides, there are all kinds of scholarships you can try for. I'll let you have my catalogue on the ones available if you like."

Lois opened the rear door of the van for him and he slid the crate inside. Together, they started back for another one. "I guess I can find one at the library," Lois said. "You'll need yours."

"I've already read it," Clark said, without thinking. "I won't need it any longer. I'll bring it by this evening if you like."

"Did you make a list or something?" Lois asked, looking at him oddly.

"No," he said. "I uh --" He hesitated, wondering if he should admit it. "I have an eidetic memory."

"Really? I'd like to have something like that."

"It's an advantage," Clark admitted, "but it has its drawbacks, too -- especially when there's something you'd rather forget. Anyhow, don't tell anybody about it, okay? I have enough trouble fitting in anyway." He hefted a second box and started for the van.

"I think I know what you mean," Lois said. "If you're too smart, people think you're weird."

"Something like that," Clark said. "But I can't let my grades slide if I'm going to get into MU, so I just try to act like everybody else."

"Why'd you tell me, then?" Lois asked. "You can't be sure I'm not going to blab it all over town."

He shrugged. "I don't know. I sort of don't think you will."

"You know, Kent, you're much too trusting," she said. "You're lucky that this time you guessed right."

"Who says I was guessing?" Clark said. "Can I help it if I'm a good judge of character?"

"Don't push your luck," Lois said. "One of these days you might be wrong."

"I'm very selective," Clark told her loftily. "You have to meet very high standards."

She elbowed him in the ribs. "Jerk."

And that had been the real beginning of their friendship.

The minutes ticked by and Clark still saw no sign of Lois. The ten-minute mark passed and he unobtrusively lowered his glasses, scanning the school grounds with his special vision.

As the area cleared of the boisterous students, he was able to focus his enhanced hearing as well, listening for her heartbeat.

It had surprised him not long after they had begun to be friends when he had discovered the fact that he could recognize her heartbeat. He'd never really thought of it before as a way of locating someone but five days after the Independence Day celebration, he'd been working at his part time job at Maisie's Diner. It had been about the dinner hour and several customers had come in to eat at the diner. A number of them were high school students but there were three slightly older couples in their late twenties with small children, and Mr. and Mrs. Straub, who were in their sixties, sat at a booth close to the door. He'd been mopping up a soda spill near the back and he'd known it when Lois Lane had walked in.

His back had been to the door, the jukebox had been crooning some Andy Williams tune, and he'd known just like that when Lois Lane entered the room. He'd looked around and it had been Lois, her sister and her mother.

Lois's mother had been spruced up somewhat -- well, a lot, in comparison to the day he had seen her. There was a frown on her face but her hair was tidy and her makeup applied. Her clothing was neat and she seemed to be mostly sober, although Clark could definitely smell the whiskey that she'd apparently imbibed not too long ago. He guessed that Lois had probably wanted to get her mom away from the apartment and the booze this evening.

Quickly, he finished up his mopping job and went into the back to wash his hands off. A moment later, he re-emerged with a tray bearing menus, silverware, napkins and three glasses of water.

The three Lanes had seated themselves in a corner booth and he stopped by the table, setting out the contents of the tray. "Can I bring you anything to drink while you decide?" he inquired.

Lois's eyebrows rose. "Just how many jobs do you have?" she asked curiously.

"Three," Clark said. "I work here Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoon. Hi, Lucy," he added as the younger girl smiled flirtatiously at him. At eleven going on twelve, she was definitely out of his age range even if he'd been looking for a girlfriend -- which he kind of was, but it wasn't Lucy. It wasn't even Lana, now.

Lana had been annoyed with him ever since he'd convinced Lois and her sister to stay and watch the fireworks show with him and the Irigs. He figured she'd get over it after a while, though. She'd been dating Pete Ross ever since and making sure he knew it, which he found a little amusing. Lana throwing a tantrum wasn't new and, for some reason, this time her attempt to make him jealous didn't bother him a bit -- which kind of surprised him. All of a sudden, it just seemed as if all that stuff was a bit juvenile.

Like every other red-blooded guy in Smallville, he'd competed for dates with Lana Lang ever since she had reached the age where her mother had allowed her to date. Lana was the prettiest girl in town, and knew it. They had gone to school together since kindergarten and most of the time she and Clark had been in the same class. She had become a cheerleader almost at once when she entered ninth grade and had been voted the most popular girl at Smallville High three years in a row. She'd had boyfriends since she was six, when Clark had been the favored one, and there had always been a group of boys who vied with each other for her attention.

Since they'd been in high school Lana always made a point of dating the big man on campus, whoever he was at the time, but she wasn't above dating a good-looking guy on the side now and then. It had only been since about halfway through their junior year that she had suddenly seemed to start favoring Clark again. At first he'd enjoyed the envy that it had sparked in the other guys but after a while it had begun to dawn on his hormone-soaked brain that Lana wasn't as interested in him as she was in his status on campus.

He'd told Lois that it was difficult for him to fit in, and that he tried to act like everyone else -- which he did, and with a good deal of success. He'd noticed for some time that Lana dated the football players a lot. Anyway, he'd yielded to temptation on a couple of occasions and made spectacular touchdowns, even though he knew he probably shouldn't. It had been right after that, he recalled now, that Lana had started to indicate that dating him wouldn't be completely unacceptable to her. At first that had been enough but lately it seemed that she was developing a highly possessive attitude. That hadn't been so bad either, until she'd seen him talking to Rachel Harris. Rachel had been a friend of his for years, and the conversation was perfectly innocent but Lana hadn't liked it a bit. He'd known practically since he had met her that she could sulk very successfully when she didn't get her way. He'd thought it was rather cute -- but this had been the first time she'd done it to him and now somehow it wasn't so cute anymore. She'd dated Ned Wexler for a week to punish him and he'd naturally been jealous. It had happened a couple of times since, too, and he'd begun to realize that he really didn't like the feeling that Lana was trying to push him around. He hadn't bargained for her determination to keep him away from all other possible rivals. Just because he happened to be dating her didn't mean that he wasn't allowed to talk to anyone except the people on Lana's approved list. That was how things had stood until the afternoon that he'd met Lois Lane.

Since then, for some reason, Lana's opinion hadn't mattered as much. It was almost as if he had slipped a chain that he hadn't known he'd been wearing. If Pete wanted her, he wished his friend luck and he would certainly never criticize Lana to Pete or anyone else. Still, somewhere down deep there was almost the feeling that he'd had a narrow escape. He couldn't quite understand it, and hadn't really thought about it much. In any case, it gave him more time to work at his three part time jobs and the occasional odd job as well. And it gave him time to talk with Lois.

Lois wasn't exactly a girlfriend, though, except that she was a friend and female, but that was all right too. Maybe with time she would see it differently, he thought hopefully. In the meantime, she was very nice to be around.

"This is my mom, Ellen Lane," Lois was saying. "Mother, this is Clark Kent. He's the editor of the high school paper."

"Nice to meet you, Mrs. Lane," Clark said politely. Lois's mother looked at him narrowly and Clark smiled pleasantly at her. "What can I get you to drink?"

Lois and her mother had ordered iced tea and Lucy had asked for pink lemonade which hadn't surprised Clark. The normal Kansas summer weather was hot and muggy and people went through a good deal of soda pop, lemonade, iced tea and ice cream on a normal day at Maisie's. When he was with a group, Clark always ordered the same thing the others did. The temperature and humidity didn't bother him, of course. He'd never known why, except that it must be part of the strange powers that had begun to make their appearance not long before his parents had died in that car crash. If they had survived, maybe they could have explained what was happening. He often wondered if they'd known anything about him other than what they had told him but he would never know, now. In any case, not long after the time he had accidentally set fire to the Town Hall, when he was thirteen, he had made up his mind never to tell anyone about his differences. Fortunately, no one had connected him to the fire and he had gone to considerable effort to volunteer in the fund-raising that had eventually resulted in a new building, which had assuaged his feelings of guilt somewhat. True, it had been an accident. He certainly hadn't intended to set the fire but he'd still been responsible and it had been terrifying until he'd managed to bring the ability under control. He'd spent the next three days hiding out in an abandoned farm building some miles from his current foster home before he'd dared to come back. It had caused a minor ruckus with the Greer family and resulted in his being placed in another home, but he had known it would have been much worse if he'd accidentally set their house on fire. That had been the most frightening of his strange powers to appear and he certainly hoped that there was nothing else like that in store for him.

No new powers had appeared for nearly a year now, and he had begun to hope that no more would. He'd managed, with time and a good deal of effort, to learn to control his strange gifts. He no longer inadvertently looked through people's clothing, or into places that frequently caused him embarrassment, just as he no longer accidentally eavesdropped on people's conversations or set things on fire and so far, at least, no one suspected that there was anything different about him. If he had his way, no one ever would.

Unfortunately -- or maybe fortunately, as it had turned out -- that particular resolution was going to be harder to keep than he'd imagined at the time.

Lois definitely wasn't on the school grounds. He couldn't detect her heartbeat anywhere around the area. Well, the next place to check might be her family's apartment.

Clark started off at a fast trot. A couple of students walking home from the school glanced at him curiously and one of them -- Joe Turner, whose father ran the Metropolis General Store -- called out to him. "Hey, Clark, where's the fire?"

He stopped. "Oh -- hi, Joe. Look, have you seen Lois? I -- uh -- need to talk to her about an article she's supposed to write up for the Breeze. She's in your sixth period class, isn't she?"

"Yeah," Joe said. "She took off right after the bell rang. I don't know where she went."

"I was supposed to meet her after school but she didn't show up," Clark said. "Maybe she forgot. I'm heading over to her place. See you tomorrow."

"Sure." Joe grinned. "If I see her, I'll tell her you're looking for her."

"Thanks." Clark turned away and began to jog, again, toward the Lane apartment. He couldn't help worrying a little. As he had discovered, over the months he had known her, Lois Lane tended to get into scrapes a good deal more often than other girls of his acquaintance, and the fact that she hadn't told him about whatever was bothering her this time tended to make him worry. The problem might be personal -- she had enough going on in her family that it was extremely possible that her feuding parents were making life miserable for her again -- or it might be about something that she thought might make a hot story for the Breeze, or even the Smallville Press. Or it could be something else.

Her article about the Independence Day celebration had actually made it into the paper, in the Community Events section. And that had led to several more small articles over the following months. None of them had been earth shattering. This was, after all, Smallville. And then Clark got his first taste of the real Lois Lane in action.

It had been in late November. A light snow coated the ground and the last thing Clark would have expected to hear as he was checking Wayne Irig's livestock before closing everything up for the night was the distant sound of a girl's voice, yelling for help. And not just any girl's voice. It was the voice of Lois Lane.

They had worked together that day on the project of putting together the next issue of the 'Breeze' and Clark had walked companionably with her to her apartment, before departing alone for his solitary run back to the Irig farm. Clark enjoyed her company; in fact, he had come to the conclusion over the last few months that Lois was the best friend that he had ever had, and she seemed to regard him in the same light. Unfortunately, that was all. She treated him like a brother, although he would have been more than willing to opt for something a good deal closer.

She occasionally dated some of the boys from school but it was obvious that she wasn't interested in anything serious at this point. This was high school, after all, and although some of the denizens of Smallville High would probably marry right out of school, Lois wasn't likely to be one of them and neither was he. Lois had told him one time that she had no intentions of getting involved with anyone until after she'd managed to get her career on track -- which meant after college, assuming that she figured out how to get into a good school. Her grades were almost as good as his own, without the advantage of a photographic memory, and Clark couldn't see any college or university turning her down on those grounds but financing was another matter. She wasn't as confident as he was that she would manage to get the scholarships she needed to pay for her education.

Still, as her best friend, he got to spend more time with her than any of her dates did -- and who could say what might happen in the future? But even hinting to her that he was thinking such a thing was bound to seriously spook her. It seemed best to keep those kinds of thoughts to himself, at least for now.

He was crossing the yard from the barn toward the house when he heard the first yell and stopped in his tracks, listening. The voice was a good distance away and without his enhanced hearing he certainly wouldn't have heard it. He turned his head, listening intently and almost at once he heard it again. Lois's voice, shouting for help.

Her voice was coming from the northeast, well away from town. The only things out in that direction were a few small farms and, still farther away, Harris Lake and the small patch of woods around it. What the dickens was she doing out there?

The third shout was more like a scream and was beginning to sound more than a little scared. Clark made a quick decision. He hurried to the kitchen door, opened it and stuck his head inside. Nettie Irig was just setting the coffeepot timer and turned at the sound of the opening door.

"Nettie, could you tell Wayne I'm going out to check on Molly? I didn't see her out there and I want to be sure she hasn't broken through the fence again."

"All right," Nettie told him. "Do you need a flashlight?"

"I've got one," Clark told her. "I'll be back as soon as I can."

He closed the door and began to trot out toward the field but as soon as he was out of Nettie's sight he began to run in earnest.

Another scream from Lois and this one sounded desperate, but it gave him a more accurate sense of where she was. She had to be near the lake. How could she have possibly gotten out there? And why?

He increased his speed, listening with every shred of his enhanced hearing to pick up any more clues of Lois's location. The farmland passed in a blur of speed as he ran faster than he had ever run toward the next cry for help, this one sounding exhausted and almost hopeless. She was not only in the area of the lake. She was in the lake!

He plunged at full speed into the little growth of trees that bordered the lake and burst through onto the narrow beach. Spread out before him, Harris Lake gleamed like silver in the starlight. The sound of splashing met his ears and instantly he zeroed in on the source with his enhanced vision. Lois Lane floundered weakly near the center of the lake. The temperature had to be barely above freezing, and Clark knew all too well what the effect of the frigid water would be on a human body. Lois had to be hypothermic already and the chances were that if he had been only a few minutes later, she would have been unconscious and sinking toward the bottom of the lake.

Somewhere beyond her, Clark could see the dark silhouette of a wooden rowboat moving quietly away across the surface. Only he would have been likely to hear the faint creak of oarlocks or the very faintest of splashes as the oars dipped into the icy lake water. The male figure at the oars was apparently unaware of the girl, floundering desperately only a short distance away. The situation was puzzling but Clark didn't hesitate. Shoving all questions aside, he ran into the water in a charge that became a surface dive. It would be far better if the man in the boat did not become aware of what he was doing, or even of his presence. By the time he got to her, Lois would almost certainly be in no condition to wonder how he had come there or to ask any awkward questions. Inevitably, he would have to deal with those later, after he'd had time to think, but whatever the consequences might be for him, he couldn't let her die!

Under the lake's surface, he moved with all the speed and stealth at his disposal. His vision wasn't quite as good in the water, but now he brought into play his x-ray vision and enhanced hearing, locating Lois instantly. He moved almost silently through the water with the speed of any water dweller and reached her within seconds.

Lois had begun to sink. Her desperate struggles had subsided to ineffectual flutters of her hands in the water and he could see that she was barely conscious. Hypothermia was taking its deadly toll. Without ceremony he thrust her upward, getting her mouth and nose in the air and grasped her instinctively in a lifeguard's hold. Gripping her with one arm across her body, he swept her from head to toe with his heat vision, warming her quickly. Efficiently, he rolled onto his back and began a rapid underwater kick that sent them both through the water with the swiftness of a speedboat.

Across the lake, the shadowy rowboat and its occupant continued its slow, steady progress. The man at the oars was apparently unaware of the drama that was taking place a short distance away, which was exactly as Clark had intended. If he had to explain to Lois what had happened, he certainly didn't want witnesses around.

His feet touched bottom and he stood up, carrying Lois Lane. Swiftly, he ran his heat vision over her again as he sloshed out of the lake and onto solid ground and then warmed the ground itself before stretching her out on it. As gently as he could, he divested her of her sodden coat and hung the garment over a convenient tree limb. Then he stood back and swept her again with diffused heat vision, drying her clothing as he did so and warming her body.

Steam rose from her in a cloud, white as ghosts in the freezing air. He had knelt beside her and was holding her in a sitting position while he dried her back when she seemed to come suddenly to consciousness. She twisted like an eel and struck at him with the edge of one hand.

Clark caught the hand in time to prevent its connecting with the side of his neck. "Hey! Take it easy! It's me!"

Her struggles stopped as she froze in place. Their eyes met.

"Clark?" she whispered.

During the workweek, between three-thirty and four o'clock in the afternoon on Smallville's Main Street was probably the noisiest time and place in the town, Clark reflected as he approached the Lane apartment. High school had let out and teenaged kids had been set free for the rest of the day. One couldn't say that rush hour in Smallville was very intense but there were still a respectable number of vehicles trying to make their way home from town. Adding to the noise, most of them had their radios going, playing music or broadcasting the rush hour news and that made it even more difficult for him to tune his hearing to listen for Lois Lane's heartbeat.

He couldn't hear it and he hesitated, wondering what he should do. Most likely she wasn't in the building but he couldn't be certain. At last, he reluctantly lowered his glasses and peeked through the walls to scan the apartment.

Lucy Lane was watching television, lying on her stomach on the floor and munching on the contents of a bag of potato chips. Fragments of the chips were scattered all about her on the carpet and a Social Studies book lay on its face next to her, obviously abandoned in favor of the afternoon cartoons.

Behind her on the sofa, and totally ignored by Lois's sister, Ellen Lane lay either asleep or passed out. The bottle of vodka sitting open on the end table and the half-full glass beside it would lend probability to either scenario.

Well, that settled that. If she were present, Lois would never allow Lucy to ignore her schoolwork in order to watch cartoons. He glanced into the kitchen.

As might be expected, the stove was bare of any signs of preparation for dinner. The bowls that had contained this morning's breakfast cereal were still sitting in the sink and there was no trace of any of the items that Lois might use to prepare dinner for her sister and herself sitting out. There were a few cans of soup in the cupboard and the freezer held a number of frozen dinners -- probably Lois's attempt to make sure that her sister consumed the occasional balanced meal, he thought with amusement. Lois had never made a secret of the fact that cooking was not one of her skills. Smallville High had a requirement that students must take four semesters of a selection of elective classes during their four-year sojourn within its walls and Lois's previous school had only required two, which necessitated that she take two more. She had opted for Small Engine Repair and Metal Shop, and, since the school had an unreasonable objection to a female in both of those classes, she had been forced to substitute Home Economics in place of Metal Shop in her second semester.

Two weeks later, after three fire alarms and three enthusiastic evacuations of students from the Home Ec classroom -- and that wing of the school -- in order for the noxious fumes from one of Lois's creations to be cleared, Lois was transferred summarily to Metal Shop at the urgent request of the Home Ec teacher.

It hadn't been through any intentional scheme that Lois might have hatched, although he knew that she was completely capable of executing such a plan. It was simply that Lois knew her limitations, and the school administration hadn't believed her. Lois Lane and kitchens mixed with all the alacrity of oil and water. Over the last months, Clark, who had successfully taken Home Ec in his Sophomore year, had cooked a number of meals in the Lane kitchen for the girls and their parent.

He glanced once more at Ellen Lane and shook his head. He knew that Lois wanted to try to get her mother into some kind of alcohol rehabilitation facility, but she had no way of forcing Ellen to cooperate and her father had washed his hands of the problem. That didn't, however, prevent him from calling up periodically to argue with his ex-wife over some detail or other -- which inevitably meant more trouble for Lois and Lucy for the next few days.

Well, Lois obviously hadn't come home after school. So now where should he look? Clark shoved his hands into his pockets and began to walk along the street, his glasses halfway down his nose and unobtrusively scanning the stores that he passed on both sides of the street. He was beginning to be seriously concerned. Lois was either very upset about something, in deep trouble, or off with Ronnie Davis.

He doubted the last. Ronnie wasn't really her boyfriend. He'd been around for a little over four months and had dated a number of the local girls, Lois included. The town grapevine said he was the son of Harvey Davis, who was the new owner of Jackson's Mercantile and Dry Goods. The business had changed hands a few months ago when the original owner had abruptly retired and left town. Rumor said that he had moved in with his widowed daughter in Kansas City. Davis, the new owner, had taken over at once and the town was slowly getting to know him. He seemed like a nice enough guy -- a widower with two sons, one of which was a senior at Kansas Technological Institute. So far, Clark had heard that Ronnie, the younger boy, had graduated from high school in Wichita and was taking a year off before entering Business School. He evidently found small town life boring and had taken to entertaining himself by seeking the company of the best-looking girls in town, much to the disgust of the local boys. Lana had dated him a few times, Clark had learned from a somewhat disgruntled Pete Ross. He drove a Mustang convertible and it predictably drew the attention of the girls. Rachel had gone with him once or twice and so had Ruby Everett and several others. Lois, who was, in Clark's opinion at least, the prettiest girl in the school and unquestionably popular with the boys, had also dated him. Clark knew better than to argue with her -- her dating life was her business but not for the first time he wished Lois's father had been around to put his foot down. Her mother certainly wouldn't. Ellen Lane lived much of her life in a drunken haze, and if the school officials had known of it, Clark had no doubt that the state's social workers would have been called in.

Still, the Ronnie option seemed unlikely today. He had picked her up after school for the last three days, but he'd done that for Lana and Rachel, and several others at different times as well. Besides, he hadn't been there today and Clark figured he was out doing whatever he usually did at this time of day when he wasn't chasing girls. What worried him more was the possibility that Lois was off investigating some story in her own inimitable way, which usually meant she was doing something dangerous.

As she had been doing the first night he had saved her life at Harris Lake.

When she had come suddenly to consciousness and struck at him, only his super-human reflexes had saved Lois from a probable broken or badly bruised hand. She'd stared at him unbelievingly and then her rigid body relaxed suddenly against him. He released her hand and it dropped to her side. "What are you doing here? Where are we?"

"What happened?" he asked, in the vain hope that he might distract her from the questions. The rowboat had vanished and from somewhere in the distance he heard the sound of a car's engine starting up. "How did you get in the lake?"

Lois was peering down at herself in the darkness and he saw her hands fingering the cloth of her blouse and slacks. "What are you doing here?" she asked. "And what happened to my clothes?"

"What do you mean?" he asked. He was stalling, trying to delay the inevitable. "I heard you screaming for help and --"

Her hands flashed from her clothing to his. "Clark, you're soaking wet! We've got to get you out of those wet clothes before you freeze. Where's Wayne's car?"

"Uh --"

Lois turned her head, looking around in the dimness. Beside them, the smooth surface of the lake gave a faint illumination to the scene. She couldn't see as well as he could, but she probably could see enough. "Where are we?"

"By the lake," he said, a sense of fatalism possessing him. There was really no rational explanation that he could give her -- at least not one that she would believe. "Why were you in the lake?" he asked again.

"Where's my coat?" she asked, totally ignoring his question. "At least you can put that on until we can get you into something dry."

"Uh --" he fumbled. Lois got to her knees and made an effort to get to her feet. He grabbed her as she swayed unsteadily. "Take it easy. You nearly drowned -- or froze to death. I'm not sure which would have happened first. I pulled you out. What happened? How did you get here?"

Lois sank back to the sand, but she was beginning to shiver in the icy air. "Clark, what happened? How did you find me, and why are my clothes dry -- and where's my coat?"

Clark wished he could think faster, which was odd because usually he could think faster than he moved. Surreptitiously, he fanned her with diffused heat vision again, warming her slightly. In the darkness the swath of heat vision produced the faintest of pale red shimmerings in the air. Lois, however, was looking around for her missing coat. "It's hanging on the limb behind you," he said. "Just a minute." He got to his feet to retrieve the sodden garment.

Lois managed to get to her knees again and reached for it. "My coat's still wet. Clark, what happened? How did you hear me, and how did you save me without freezing to death?"

He sighed and gave in. "Look, I'll explain it all later, if you'll tell me what happened to you. Deal?"

She hesitated and he saw her nod a little reluctantly. "Somebody tried to kill me."

"What?" It was only by a supreme effort of will that he kept his voice low. "Who?"

She shrugged. "I don't know his name."

"Well then, why?"

"He caught me checking out his greenhouse."

"He tried to kill you for trespassing?" A few things were starting to add up, however. A few months ago, Sheriff Harris, Rachel's dad, had found a field of marijuana plants, growing quite innocently between the completely legitimate corn stalks in a field, near a tumbledown shack well on the outskirts of Smallville. He'd been trying for some time to find the source of the pot that seemed to have invaded the town in recent months, Clark knew, but it had been Wayne Irig who had provided the clue. He'd seen the cultivated field by accident while tracking down his bovine escape artist, Molly, on property that shouldn't have been cultivated in over a year and was up for sale to boot, and mentioned it to the Sheriff.

"Well -- not exactly," Lois admitted. "There's been a lot of pot showing up in town again. I started looking around and I found out that Eddie Driscoll was selling it. So I followed him this afternoon."

"Eddie Driscoll tried to kill you?"

Lois shook her head. "No, not Eddie. There's a farm just east of the Driscoll property. The little one that sells eggs."

Clark knew at once the property of which she spoke. "It's not really a farm. It's just a house. They grow some vegetables and have a bunch of chickens and sell the eggs. A guy retired there a few years ago."

"Yeah, well, he's got a big greenhouse in his back yard. I followed Eddie in Mom's car, and he went over there and talked to the owner, and then he bought a bag full of something and drove away again. So I waited until dark and started snooping around. He's growing pot in the greenhouse. Rows and rows of it. It looks like a pretty big operation. And he's got this fancy set-up for drying plants, and big bags of the dried stuff stored in the back --"

"And you got caught," Clark said.

"Well -- yeah. Pretty much. The guy had a rifle. He tied me up and put me in his car and drove out here. He made me get in a rowboat and rowed out into the middle of the lake. Then he took off the ropes and made me jump in the lake. I figured I could stay afloat until he left and then swim to shore. I'm a good swimmer, and the lake isn't that big, but it was so cold I --"

"Yeah," Clark said. "I get it."

"Anyway, I saw enough. We need to tell Sheriff Harris, and then I can write it up for the Smallville Press. Don't you see, Clark, I can get my name on a big story -- enough that they might hire me part time. If I can do that, I'll be able to earn more money for school."

He nodded. "I understand," he said. "I just wish you'd told me. I wouldn't have tried to steal your story -- and you probably wouldn't have almost gotten killed."

She shrugged, looking down at her hands, clasped in her lap. "I know. I should have. I just didn't think about it." She looked up. "I sometimes do things without thinking and get into trouble. Daddy used to get mad at me for being reckless. But we have the story. I saw the plants growing in the greenhouse and the guy doesn't know I'm alive -- does he?"

Clark shook his head. "I don't think so. I'm pretty sure I saw him. He was rowing away when I got here and realized you were in the lake. But the problem is, it's your word against his. Sheriff Harris has to have more to go on than that if he's going to get a search warrant."

She stopped and it seemed to him as if some of the life went out of her voice. "Oh. Yeah, I guess you're right. I guess I need some kind of evidence, huh?"

"Yeah," Clark said. His eyes met hers. "We need to go back. Together."

She looked quickly up at him. "Would you? You'd help me?"

He couldn't resist putting an arm around her. "You know I will."

"Great!" She started to get to her feet and this time he gave her a hand. She hugged her arms around herself. "Brr! It's freezing, and my coat's still wet -- and so are your clothes. How did you get me dry, anyway? You promised you'd tell me what happened. And where's Wayne's car?"

Well, the hope that she'd forget about his part of the story was obviously futile. He sighed. "I didn't bring it."

"Then how did you get here? And how did you hear me screaming, anyway?"

Clark sighed again. "This is going to take some explaining. Look; let me fix your coat first so you don't freeze to death. Keep a watch out. We don't want the guy in the rowboat to come back again." He took the article of clothing and hung it back on the tree limb, spreading the lower part of the garment one-handed.

"Yeah." She looked oddly at him for an instant, one hand again tentatively feeling the dry fabric of her jeans, and then back toward the lake. "I don't see anybody."

"Keep watching anyway. If he shows up with his rifle we could both be in trouble."

Lois wrapped her arms around her torso and stood looking toward the lake, obviously taking her assignment seriously. Clark trained a burst of muted heat vision on the coat.

With a faint hiss, steam billowed from the soaked cloth, curling upward into the icy air and diffusing outward into streamers of mist that faded away into nothing. "Okay," he said, "it's dry. Let's get out of here. It's about five miles back to the Driscoll farm, so we can talk on the way."

Lois had turned when he spoke and now she took the coat, giving him an odd look when she felt the warmth of the cloth. Without a word, she put it on and followed him back through the opening in the trees and brush that he had broken in his headlong charge to save her life.

"Have you got a pocket hair dryer or something?" she finally asked.

"No. That might be easier to explain," he said. "Nobody ever knew this but my mom and dad. They told me about it when -- well, when they explained I'm adopted." He took her hand to guide her through the darkness of the trees. "Be careful. There's lots of branches that can poke you in the eyes or something."

"How can you see?" she whispered.

"Good night vision," he said. "It's all part of the story." He was silent, trying to figure out how to explain it. "I'm probably not from Smallville," he started out. "Mom and Dad didn't know where I came from. They found me -- late one evening in Shuster's Field."

"Somebody abandoned you?" She sounded horrified.

"Mom and Dad never knew. Did you ever hear the old legends about changelings? Babies the fairies left for a human couple to raise? I'm almost tempted to believe them." He pushed up a stiff branch and held it for her to pass. "It's a pretty weird story. I'm not sure anybody would believe it without the evidence."

"What evidence?" she asked.

"Me," he said.

"Well, go ahead," she said a little impatiently.

He took a deep breath. "Right. Okay, Mom and Dad found me and pretended I was their baby. They told everybody that Mom hadn't known she was pregnant until she started having labor pains and had me at home. She was a little plump back then, and I guess people believed her. Dad's cousin was a doctor and he got them all the paperwork for a birth certificate and everything, and nobody ever knew. They figured that was the end of it."

"What does this have to do with how you found me?" Lois asked.

"I'm coming to that. They pretty much figured how they'd found me was past and nobody ever needed to know -- not even me. Until I was ten." Clark hesitated. "Then they had to tell me."


"I started to be able to hear things a long way off. I could hear what people were whispering in the next room. It's no fun to hear somebody making nasty remarks about you when they think you can't hear. It got so I could hear things miles away -- people talking in normal voices. I thought I was going crazy for a while until I learned to filter all that stuff out."

"And that was how you heard me?" Lois sounded a little skeptical.

"Yeah. But that wasn't all. There were some other things -- I could run faster than Dad's horses. We had a couple back then. Some other things happened, too, and that was when they had to tell me about how they found me. They figured I was some kind of scientific experiment or something. But then they were killed in that car wreck and they never knew the other things that happened. Anyhow, tonight I was at home when I heard you scream and ran as fast as I could to get here in time to pull you out of the lake before you drowned."

"Do you really expect me to believe this?" Lois said. "I wish you'd tell me the truth. I'm really not in the mood for fairy tales right now."

"I'm telling you the truth," Clark said, almost offended that he had told her part of his secret and she didn't believe him. "How do you think I managed to dry your coat so fast -- and why doesn't the cold weather bother me, even though my clothes are wet? It's because the cold doesn't affect me and --" He stopped and turned, drawing her to a stop. "Feel this?" He fanned his heat vision lightly over her again. "That's how I dried your clothes."

Lois was silent for a long moment. "What was that?" she asked at last, and this time her voice sounded more curious than skeptical. "It looked like your eyes put out this faint red light."

"That was one of the things that happened after Mom and Dad were killed," Clark said. "I think it's infra-red light. I call it heat vision."

"Do it again," Lois commanded. She extended a hand.

Obediently, he let the attenuated heat vision caress her hand and heard her draw in a breath. "Well," he asked. "Do you believe me now?"

"I guess I have to," Lois said. "How do you do that?"

He shrugged, forgetting that she might not be able to see him in the dark. "I don't know. I just want it to happen and it does." He took her hand and began to lead her through the trees once more. "Are you okay with this?"

"Why shouldn't I be?" Her voice sounded, he thought, a little surprised.

"Well -- Dad warned me, back when they told me about how they found me that, if anyone ever found out, the government would come and take me away -- they'd put me in a lab and dissect me like a frog."

There was a long silence. Finally Lois said, "I think your Dad was right. Didn't I tell you you're too trusting?"

Somewhere inside him, a tight knot was unwinding. "And I told you I'm a good judge of character."

"Yeah, well the next time you might be wrong. You've got to promise me that you won't tell anyone about this, Clark. You're my best friend, and I'm telling you. Don't tell anybody else. I don't want you to get dissected. Promise me you'll be careful?"

"Okay," he said. "I promise."

"Good," she said. "Start thinking ahead from now on. You could have been in a lot of trouble this evening."

"Yes," he admitted, "But I couldn't let you die, could I?"

"I'm glad you didn't -- but we'll have to explain how you got out here when we tell the sheriff about the pot farm."

"I came with you in your car," Clark said. "And followed you when the guy held you up and dumped you in the lake."

She was silent again, obviously thinking. "Okay, I think that'll work," she said. "What about Mr. Irig? Isn't he going to wonder how you got out here?"

"I'm supposed to be looking for Molly," Clark said. "I'll explain when I get back that I got sidetracked. Wayne doesn't ask a lot of questions." The trees opened up ahead of them and a short distance away he could see the highway. "Do you mind if I pick you up? I think we can get back to that greenhouse before the owner does if I run."

"Really?" Lois's voice sounded a little breathless. "Okay then, let's go!"

As far as Clark could tell, Lois wasn't anywhere nearby. He'd walked nearly the length of the street and hadn't heard her heartbeat, nor had he spotted her with any of the visual scanning that he'd been doing.

He was tempted to go back to Wayne's and talk to Lois in the morning, but some little instinct told him that he would do better to find her now.

She definitely wasn't with Ronnie Davis, he saw a moment later. Ronnie's red Mustang convertible, complete with Ronnie behind the wheel and a blond that looked strongly like Lana, came cruising slowly down the street and pulled to a stop at Smallville's one red light. Well, that eliminated one possibility. So Lois was either upset about something, or she was off tracking down another story with the hopes of getting it accepted by the Smallville Press.

In spite of the fact that her discovery of the pot-growing operation had resulted in an arrest by Sheriff Harris, and her story had made it onto the front page, the paper's owners hadn't been able to hire her. She was under age, for one thing, Mr. Blume had pointed out gently, and while they would be more than happy to accept stories like the marijuana bust from her, they couldn't put her on the staff until she was eighteen. He had, however, mitigated the refusal by paying a pretty decent sum for the story. Lois had told Clark later that, even if it wasn't everything she wanted, it was a step in the right direction. Her name had appeared on a front-page story, even if it was a small town paper in the Midwest. It would look good on her resume some day in the future, and she would be freelancing for the paper whenever she could from now on. Clark wished her good luck, but privately hoped that she wouldn't encounter too much more in the way of big time crime in Smallville in the near future.

And Lois no longer doubted the story he had told her. In fact, a few days later, after all the excitement from the discovery of a drug growing and distribution operation in Smallville had subsided somewhat, she had suggested that they should take a walk out somewhere well away from town, where there was no danger of their being overheard and that he could give her all the details that had necessarily been left out that night at the lake.

She had borrowed her mother's Volkswagen again, and they had driven out in the direction of Porcupine Gulch, which was actually an abandoned quarry dating back to before the Civil War. Once there, they had gotten out of the little car and walked while he told her the story of how his parents had seen what they thought was a meteor in the sky and tracked it down, only to find a tiny ship of unknown origin with a baby inside.

"A rocket?" Lois asked, when he described the ship.

"They didn't know what it was," he said. "Dad said some people claiming to be from Cape Kennedy came by a few days later, saying that Houston had tracked some space debris that had fallen somewhere in the area. Mom and Dad were afraid they were after me, so they didn't say anything. After a while the men left again."

"Who do you suppose they were?" Lois asked.

"I don't know. They never found the ship, though. Dad hid it under the floor of the storm cellar. It's still there. I went back a couple of years ago to look at it, after more stuff happened."

"What did happen?" Lois asked, and he had told her how the strange powers had appeared, one by one, and how he had learned to cope with them.

"I was scared I'd burn somebody by accident," he admitted. "And when the x-ray vision started up I spent most of my time staring at the ground. I mean, I accidentally looked into the girls' locker room that first day. I couldn't look Rachel in the eyes for a week afterwards."

Lois eyed him with a sort of awe. "Most guys wouldn't think that was a problem," she said.

"I guess," Clark said. "My mom and dad taught me to respect girls, though -- even back when I thought they all had cooties."

Lois laughed. He couldn't help thinking how sexy that laugh was, and he was equally sure she had no idea of how it affected him.

"You learned how to control this 'x-ray vision' thing since, haven't you?" Lois asked. "That's the important thing."

"Yeah. That was back in ninth grade. It was the last power that appeared. I just hope no more show up."

"No kidding," Lois agreed. "Did your parents ever say why they thought this was happening to you?"

Clark shrugged. "The only powers they knew about were the hearing and the speed -- and the strength. I started to get a lot stronger than a ten-year-old kid should be. Dad told me he and Mom figured I was some kind of scientific experiment -- that somebody had been trying to develop some kind of super being, and that I mustn't ever let on that I could do this stuff. He was afraid that whoever had given me these powers might try to take me back and make me work for the government -- or if maybe the Russians had done it, our government would dissect me to try to figure out how the powers worked. After the accident I was scared whoever 'they' were would come and get me, but nobody ever did. I was pretty careful."

"I don't blame you a bit," Lois said. "Nobody ever found out, did they?"

Clark shrugged. "I don't think so -- although I wonder about Wayne, sometimes. He doesn't talk much, and he never asks me questions when something odd happens. I kind of wonder if he knows something but figures the less said the better."

They had walked partway around the quarry and stopped on the lip of a bluff above the deep cut in the hillside. A brisk November wind was blowing but neither of them paid attention to it. "So I'm the only one you ever told?" Lois asked.

"Yeah," Clark admitted. "You're the only person I ever had to rescue from attempted murder. I couldn't let you drown. Besides, I really didn't think you'd tell anyone about me."

"Well, you were right about that," Lois said. "Besides, even if I did, who would believe me? Not that I would, anyway," she added hastily.

"I know," he said. He glanced at his watch. "I have to get home pretty soon. I have to help Wayne reinforce the fence. He's got this one cow that's always getting through it. Last week she got out and the next thing Nettie knew, Mollie was standing there in the middle of her living room, chewing her cud. The front door's latch hadn't caught and she'd just pushed it open and walked in."

"What did you do?"

"Well, Nettie tried to lead her out but Mollie wouldn't budge. Then she tried to push her out, but you might as well push on a brick wall. If a cow doesn't want to move, she isn't going to."

"Couldn't you get her out?" Lois wanted to know.

"That's what I was wondering. Nettie was pretty worried about her carpet."

"I would be, too! What happened?"

"Well, Wayne came in and grabbed the strap around her neck -- you know: the thing the cow bell is fastened on -- and yanked on it, and you know, she followed him out without any trouble at all. Wayne has a way with animals. He says it's 'cause he knows how to get their attention. But he doesn't want Molly breaking out again. The next time she might wind up out in the road and get hit by a truck or something."

"Yeah," Lois agreed. "Poor cow."

"Wouldn't do whatever hit her any good, either," Clark said. "I guess we'd better go."

Lois had nodded and started to turn, and that was when it had happened. Her foot slipped on a patch of grass and she staggered for an instant, trying to get her balance. Clark reached out to steady her, just as she overbalanced and fell.

Clark grabbed for her, off balance, and the next instant, clutching each other, they went over the edge together. Lois screamed.

All Clark could think of was that he couldn't let her die. Not now. Not the best friend he'd ever had. Then he became aware of something out of place. Slowly, he opened his eyes and looked down.

They were hovering in the air, forty feet above the floor of the quarry.

In utter silence they hung suspended in mid air, neither quite believing what had happened.

"Clark?" Lois's muffled voice brought his attention back to her.


"Are we floating?"

He looked down. "Yeah. I think so."

"How are we doing this?"

He looked down again and back at her face, bare inches from his own. She looked almost as stunned as he felt. "Um...I think it must be me doing it."

"You mean you can fly?"

He gulped. "I guess so."

"Then fly us out of here!" she commanded.

His brain seemed to have gone completely numb. "Uh -- I don't know how."

"Well, how do your other powers work? The ones you can turn off and on." Lois demanded.

"Uh...I sort of want them to," he'd managed to stutter back.

"Well, for Pete's sake, want us to fly back up there!" she commanded him.

Her exasperated voice had managed to startle him out of the shock that seemed to have paralyzed every individual muscle and brain cell, and he nodded shakily. "I'll try."

And like that, it had worked. They began to rise slowly back toward the bluff from which they had fallen, and, less than fifteen seconds later, they came to a landing on the hill above the quarry.

Lois sat down hard, her legs apparently unable to hold her upright. Clark sat down beside her, equally shaken. For almost a full minute they stared at each other in shock. Finally Lois spoke.

"Wow," she said faintly.

That seemed to cover it.

After they had recovered somewhat, Lois and he had walked back to the car. Neither of them said much. Clark had been trying to absorb the implications of this brand new power that had suddenly manifested itself to be put to instant, emergency use. Lois had been silent, too, until she pulled the car to a stop by the side of the highway that ran past the Irig farm. "I guess I'll see you tomorrow," she said finally.

His heart sank. "Are you scared of me now?" he asked bluntly.

Her eyes widened. "Scared of you? Clark, you saved my life! Again!"

"So you're not scared?"

"Of course not! Just -- just kind of stunned, I think. Do you have any days off at all this week?"

"I'm free most of Sunday -- after I do the chores," he said. "Why?"

"I was just wondering --" She broke off, looking a little unsure.

"You were wondering?"

"If you could take me over to your old home and we could go down in the storm cellar and you could let me look at your ship."

He began to grin. "You're something else, you know that? You just fell over a cliff!"

"So what?" Lois said. "Nothing bad happened, thanks to you. You have to learn not to dwell on the past, Clark. It's not worth it. Why don't I pick you up at noon on Sunday?"

Which was how they found themselves on the Kent farm, three days later, clambering down the steps into the Kent family's long-unused storm cellar.

"Watch your step," Clark said. He held the flashlight he had brought from the Irig farm so that she could see where to put her feet.

"There aren't any rats down here, are there?" Lois asked as she lowered herself cautiously down the rungs,

"No," Clark assured her. "There's nothing for them to eat."

"Did you ever actually use this place?" she asked as her feet touched the floor.

"Sure. A couple of times," Clark said. "A twister came within a mile or so of us when I was five. We stayed down here for an hour, maybe -- and another time when I was eight."

"I haven't seen any since I've been here," Lois said. "Do they happen very often?"

"It's been a quiet year so far," Clark said. He walked over to a section of the floor where a dusty wooden table sat, supporting an ancient oil lamp with a cracked glass chimney. Carefully he moved the table to one side and bent. It took only a second to find the fingerhold in one of the floorboards and he lifted the section of floor upward. Lois stood back, holding her own flashlight steady for him. "Wow!" she said softly.

Clark leaned the wooden section up against one of the walls of the cellar and flashed his light into the hole. Something inside reflected back the light in rainbow colors. He looked down for the second time on the strange, silver-skinned vessel that had somehow brought him to Shuster's Field.

Lois approached carefully and knelt by the edge of the hole, looking down also at the ship. "Wow!" she whispered again.

It didn't really look like any of the big rockets that EPRAD fired into space, carrying weather satellites and space shuttles out of the Earth's atmosphere. For one thing, no full-grown human being could have squeezed into it. It had been meant for a baby -- for him.

"What's this symbol on the front? Lois asked. "It looks like an 'S'."

"I don't know," Clark said. "There's another one -- sort of like a big cloth decal that looks like it -- in the ship. And some blankets. I guess they were for the baby -- me, I mean."

"Can you open it?" Lois wanted to know.

"I guess so," Clark said. He knelt beside the hole and reached down, sliding his fingers under a narrow ridge of metal. With deceptive ease, the top of the rounded front end of the craft lifted easily to disclose the padded interior where he had lain.

"Wow!" Lois said again. She leaned over, flashing her light into the cavity thus revealed. "They found you inside this? It doesn't really look like a rocket, does it -- more like a space ship you see in comic books or something."

"Kind of, yeah," Clark said.

Inside, neatly folded by Martha Kent's hand, were two thick blue blankets of some very soft material, and resting atop them was the large 'S' decal that matched the symbol on the ship. Shut inside the tiny ship, they were free of dust and clean as the night that Jonathan and Martha Kent had found this strange craft.

"What's that?" Lois asked. She shifted her flashlight's beam so that something within the craft gleamed dully in the light and then flashed more brightly. "Do you see that? What is it?"

"I don't know," Clark said. He knelt on the ancient floorboards, shining his light into the foremost section of the little ship. There was something there, nearly concealed by the fabric of the blankets, something spherical that he had not noticed before. It had either rolled or been tucked far into the nose where it was almost invisible to all but the most careful inspection. Cautiously, he bent and stretched his arm out. It was almost out of his reach, but he leaned forward until he was almost certain that he was going to overbalance, and his hand closed around the object.

And he nearly dropped it. It felt like some sort of crystal, smooth and slick to the touch but, unlike any crystal that he had touched before, this substance was warm. Clutching his prize, he backed up.

"What is it?" Lois asked again.

"I don't know," he repeated. "I'm going to take it out with me and we can look at it out there. Have you seen enough of the ship?"

"I guess so," Lois said. "We'd better cover it up again, just in case somebody decides to come down here. Kids or somebody."

"Yeah." Clark manhandled the section of boards back down over the ship, hiding it away again and pushed the wooden table holding the lantern back on the boards. Finished, he picked up the strange sphere again.

It began to glow, a soft white light radiating from it, and he let it go quickly, but the ball didn't drop to the ground as it should have. It rose slowly until it was on a level with his eyes and then remained there, floating motionless in the air -- and suddenly the featureless surface changed.

"What's happening?" Lois breathed, staring fascinated at the phenomenon. Even now, riveted by what was occurring in front of him, Clark found an instant to marvel at Lois's courage. Other girls might have fled in panic. She stood still, watching.

The surface swirled with color, taking on a reddish hue. The swirls of red resolved themselves into an irregular shape glowing in an ocean of white. Clark leaned forward suddenly as a single word reverberated softly in his head and he knew, not knowing how he knew, that the globe had spoken to him.

"Krypton," he whispered.

"What?" Lois asked.

The colors began to swirl again, and the red became mixed with blue, green and brown and slowly faded away, leaving the other colors behind. What they saw now on the surface of the sphere was something far more familiar. It was a tiny and yet perfect representation of the Earth.

"Oh my gosh," Lois whispered. "Clark, do you see? That red thing was a continent. It was showing you another world!"

Almost instinctively, he extended a hand. The glowing sphere moved slowly and gracefully to settle in his palm and the glow began to fade. "Krypton," he repeated in a hushed voice, awed at the implications of what had just happened.


"It showed us Krypton," he said, cupping the globe in both hands. There was nothing unusual about it now. It was merely a ball with Earth's continents pictured on the surface.

"How do you know?" Lois asked. There was no disbelief in her voice, only curiosity.

"It told me so," Clark said. He lifted his gaze from the sphere and looked at Lois, a faint tingle running up his spine. "It spoke to me -- in my head. That was Krypton -- the planet where I was born."

Hunting for Lois like this wasn't getting him anywhere, Clark decided after another twenty minutes of futile searching. He glanced at his watch. There had to be a better way. Smallville wasn't that big, but looking for her on foot was tortuously slow and inefficient. If he hadn't had the underlying feeling that Lois needed him, and that the need was urgent, he wouldn't have been so worried, but the sensation had been growing for some minutes that there was more to her unusual disappearance than met the eye. Why hadn't he insisted on speaking to her this morning before school? Sure, when they'd met a few minutes before the first bell, she'd turned the subject away from herself with the usual superficial chatter that she always adopted when she was dealing with a problem that she didn't want anyone else to know about, but that very circumstance should have just put him more on his guard. Instead, he did what he usually did, which was to give her space, even though he'd been worried about her for several days. Well, if he could manage to find her, this time he was going to try to worm the problem out of her. She had to know that there wasn't anything that she couldn't safely talk to him about.

He headed back toward the school and partway there darted into the narrow gap between Butler's Feed Store and Harkin's Liquor. As soon as he reached the gravel covered area behind the stores, he ducked into a storage shed and an instant later emerged from its rear to shoot straight up into the air faster than the human eye could follow. The grey clouds of a typical summer storm were beginning to gather in the west and streamers had started to creep across the sky. The sunlight had become dimmer and if he went high enough, he could scan the whole area with his telescopic and x-ray vision without being spotted by anyone on the ground. If she was anywhere around, he would find her.

After their discovery of the strange globe, they had climbed out of the storm cellar and walked slowly back to Lois's car. Actually, it was her mother's car but Ellen's license to drive had been lifted in Metropolis for driving under the influence. Lois had flatly refused to drive her to the Department of Motor Vehicles in the nearest city to apply for one in Kansas, so the only driver with a valid license in their family was Lois. She prevented her mother from starting up the car by the simple expedient of removing the keys when she wasn't going to be around for a while, since Ellen Lane, when in a state of impairment, could not be relied upon to stay out of the driver's seat, license or no.

Once inside the car, Clark had removed the globe from beneath his shirt and they looked at it again.

"This is incredible," Lois had said finally. "It told you that you came from this Krypton?"

He nodded, turning the object over and over in his hands, trying to examine it with his special vision. "I can't see any operating mechanism inside," he said after several moments. "It seems to be solid crystal all the way through. I can't see any way it could possibly float in the air the way it did."

"Well, if it's from Krypton, too, maybe they have some kind of technology we don't understand," she said. "They must have, if that little ship got you across millions of miles of space to Earth. Besides," she pointed out with a pragmatism that made him grin, "You floated in the air the other day, and I don't see any wings on you. Didn't it tell you anything else?"

He shook his head. "No. Just -- Krypton, and I somehow knew that it was where I came from."

"Telepathy?" Lois asked. "You say it 'spoke' to you in your head. If that's not telepathy, I don't know what else to call it."

"Neither do I," Clark said. He examined it for another minute. "Now I've got a couple of answers and a whole new slew of questions."

"Well -- maybe it's not ready to answer them yet," Lois suggested. "Maybe it'll tell you more later."

"I hope so," Clark said. "But I hope it doesn't take too long to make up its mind."

After that, Clark practiced his new power of flight whenever he could do so without being seen. He flew at night, long flights to distant places on the planet, seeing the wonders of the world with his own eyes instead of through books, movies or television. He practiced acrobatics in the air and precision maneuvers of every kind until he was completely confident that he could handle his ability to fly with the same skill that he controlled the powers that had appeared earlier. He kept the mystery sphere in the foot locker that he had acquired years ago to hold his most treasured possessions and every night before he went to bed he took it out and held it in his hands, hoping against hope that it would speak to him again. But it gave him no sign of life except a faint white glow whenever he picked it up, as if to show him that it was alive and waiting for the right moment to speak. At least that was what he hoped. He reported the lack of progress to Lois every morning, and she always counseled patience. "Wait. Maybe it's just waiting for the right time."

And their friendship had continued to grow but Lois still dated other guys, never giving him any indication that it might be acceptable for him to ask her. They studied together and ate lunch together. She even told him about her mother's problem and her hope of getting her into some kind of alcohol rehabilitation facility when she turned eighteen and was legally an adult, when she could take responsibility for her sister and keep her out of the grip of Social Services. In the meantime, she took care of Lucy, made sure she did her homework, got reasonably nutritious meals and stayed mostly out of trouble. Clark thought that she was considerably more of an adult than her mother but the law was the law. With his superhuman speed and photographic memory, he researched every law book in the Smallville library and told her what she needed to do when the time came -- but that was still over a year away. Clark had turned eighteen at the end of February but her eighteenth birthday was not until October of next year, which meant she was fighting a holding action while trying to maintain her grades, freelance for the newspaper and keep her small family together for Lucy's sake. Clark couldn't see her without thinking how incredible this human dynamo of a girl was but he ached to take the stress lines from her face and the burden from her shoulders, especially on the rare occasions when things became too much and she ended up crying on his shoulder. He couldn't do as much for her as he wanted to do. Lois, of course, wouldn't allow him to do anywhere near that much.

He floated above Smallville at a thousand feet, carefully scanning every inch of the town. The Lane car was parked in its usual spot in its designated parking place by the apartment, so Lois hadn't left town. So where was she?

As he scanned the area, his gaze passed over Tuttle Park and snapped back. A single figure was sitting on a bench, and at once he recognized the clothing Lois had been wearing this morning. Her backpack was resting against one leg of the bench and even from this far away he could pick out the tear tracks on her cheeks. There was no one within eyesight of the bench. He could land without any observers but Lois, if he moved fast. Like a striking hawk, he shot downward and came in to a tight, fast landing beside the bench.

The only sign that he had startled her was the tiny catch in her breath when he appeared out of thin air beside her. Quickly, she wiped away the dampness on her cheeks but her reddened eyes and nose told the story all too clearly.

"Clark!" she said in a voice that almost sounded normal. "I didn't expect to see you!"

"I know." He sank down beside her on the bench. "I've been looking for you ever since school let out."

Surreptitiously, she dabbed at her eyes. "What for?"

"Because you've been avoiding me for days and I thought something was wrong, and I was right," he said. "Lois, what's the matter? I'll help you if I can. You know that."

Her shoulders slumped. "Nothing," she said. "There's nothing that you can do this time."

He ventured to put an arm around her shoulders, careful to keep the touch light: the embrace of a friend. "You know you can tell me anything," he said. "You don't know I can't help. I can sometimes do some pretty surprising things."

"Not this time," she repeated dully. "I've done something really stupid, and I'm afraid I've ruined everything."

"That's pretty -- comprehensive," he suggested. "Why don't you tell me what's happened. Maybe I can help. You know there's nothing I wouldn't do for you."

"I know. That makes it worse." Tears were starting to leak from her eyes again and this time she didn't try to hide them. "Oh, Clark! I've been such an idiot!" she wailed.

He put his other arm around her as well and held her while she sobbed on his shoulder, various hair-raising possibilities flashing through his mind. "Lois, tell me," he pleaded. "I'm imagining all sorts of horrible things."

She sat up suddenly, wiping her face with a sodden piece of crumbling tissue. Almost without thinking, he pulled out his handkerchief and gave it to her. "Here."

She took it, wiped her eyes and blew her nose, seeming to regain a little control with the gesture, but she looked up at him with an expression of utter misery on her face and inhaled deeply. "I'm pregnant."

At first he wasn't sure he had heard her correctly. "What?"

"I'm pregnant," she repeated, starting to cry anew.

"How could --"

"I was dating Ronnie," she said, between hiccups. "And we got carried away. Things had been so awful with Mother, and Lucy was giving me a lot of trouble, and I'd been so worried about that big math test." She hiccupped again. "I'd been studying so hard, and then I took it and passed it with an A. Ronnie took me out to celebrate, and one thing led to another, and --" She broke off. "It didn't mean anything, and it was just that once. I figured it would be all right, but it isn't. He told me yesterday that he'd pay for the abortion but I'm so scared!"

"Oh, honey." Clark put his arms around her again and pulled her against his shoulder. In the face of her self-recriminations and distress, the only thing he could think of was that she was in trouble and that he had to help her. "Lois, it's going to be okay."

"It won't," she whispered. "Clark, I'm so sorry. I know you're disappointed with me. I'm disappointed with me. I've ruined everything! I was so stupid!"

"You don't owe me any explanations," he said quietly. "And I could never be disappointed with you. The important thing is what we do now. What do you want to do?"

His calm voice seemed to help soothe her somewhat, for the hiccups subsided a little. "I can't get you involved," she whispered. "It was my fault. I suppose the sensible thing to do is to have the abortion -- only it's been two months." Her hands went protectively to her abdomen seemingly of their own accord. "Its heart is beating. I don't think I can do it. I can't do it! I'd be killing my own baby! I can't even kill a housefly, and this is a lot more than that!" She began to sob again. "If I tell my mother she'll just get drunk and if I tell my Dad, he'll probably insist I go through with the abortion -- and I won't be able to go back to Smallville High next year. Mom will throw me out if I won't have the abortion, and I'll have to work instead of finishing school -- Oh Clark! I've ruined my whole life, and Lucy's life --!"

"No you haven't," Clark said firmly, making up his mind. Now that he was aware of it, he could hear the tiny flutter, as fast and light as a butterfly's wings, of the baby's beating heart. He took one arm from around her but only to take her hand. "It makes things a little more difficult, that's all, but the two of us can handle anything if we work at it. Will you marry me, Lois?"

It seemed as if she were struck speechless. "What?" she gasped.

"I know you don't love me," he said quietly, "but I love you. Anyway, we can worry about what to do about that later. If you marry me, then I'll be part of your family and I'll have the right to help you handle things. Will you marry me?"

She burst into tears. "If you love me, why didn't you ever ask me for a date? I thought you just wanted to be friends!"

"I didn't think you wanted me to," Clark said.

"Of course I did!" she wailed. "Oh Clark! If I'd been dating you I'd never have gotten into this mess!"

"Well, we're going to fix it," Clark said firmly. "All you have to do is say yes. Please say yes, Lois."

"But you're graduating next week! If you marry me, how are you going to go to Midwest U?"

"Do you think I can't?" he asked. "With everything you know about me, do you honestly think I can't handle college and a family, too?"

"But you shouldn't have to," Lois said. "I made the mistake. You shouldn't have to suffer for it."

He shifted his position on the bench, turning her to face him and resting his hands on her shoulders. "Why do you think I'd be suffering? If I hadn't thought you only wanted to be friends, you wouldn't be in this situation. You said so yourself."

"But I didn't mean --"

"The only way I'd be unhappy," he said firmly, "would be if I knew you were struggling and I wasn't there to help you. We can make it work, Lois. And if you only want to be married to me long enough to finish school and -- well, get your life straightened out, you only have to tell me so."

"How could you think I'd do that?" she said indignantly. "Has anybody ever told you you're an idiot, Clark Kent?"

He had to work to keep from smiling. That almost sounded like the Lois he knew. "Sure. You did."

"Well, you are. I'm tempted to say yes, just so I can teach you to be a little more cynical -- but it won't work. Nobody's going to give us a marriage license. I'm underage. I can't get married without permission and I know Mother and Daddy won't give it."

"We're not going to ask them," Clark said. "Remember how I read every book about law in the library? I remember everything I read. I happen to know that there are a couple of states where they'll let you marry me without your parents' permission. All you have to do is show a judge proof that you're pregnant."


"Yep. We can get the pregnancy test done this week and then we'll get married as soon as we can, right after graduation. You'll be an emancipated minor after that and no one can tell you what to do." He shifted his grip from her shoulders to her hands. "Please, Lois. Marry me." He hesitated. "You don't even have to worry about -- afterwards, if you don't want to. I won't ask for anything else. I just want to be able to help you."

She looked doubtfully into his face. "Do you know the statistics for teen marriages?" she asked unexpectedly. "More of them fail than succeed."

"It figures you'd know that," he said with a wry grin. "Statistics don't mean anything for individual cases. And I'll bet you know that, too."

She nodded. "Yeah." She hesitated. "Suppose I go along with this. How am I going to go to school? If I show up pregnant, won't Social Services get involved? And if they find out about Mom and Lucy -- I guess," she added, "I could wait until after the baby's born."

"You don't have to," Clark said. "You can handle night school, can't you?" He hadn't released her hands. "We'll work it all out; I promise. Together the two of us can do anything."

"You seem awfully sure," she said, but he could see her resistance was weakening.

"Of course I'm sure," he said, squeezing her hands. "I'm talking to the woman who taught me to fly."

Wayne Irig watched meditatively as Clark scaled the ladder with the boxful of shingles. The roof of the old Kent farmhouse was in dire need of repair after the eight years that it had stood empty. "You're plannin' on fixin' up the place all of a sudden?" he asked. "Ain't you goin' to college this fall?"

"Sure," Clark said, "but it's only about sixty miles from here. I'm going to schedule my classes so I only have to drive it about three times a week. I'll be working part time at Maisie's and weekends at the theater."

"And live at the farmhouse," Wayne said.

"That's right."

The old farmer chewed slowly and thoughtfully on a straw. "Well, you always knew your own mind," he remarked. "You're so much like your mom and pop that I think I'm talkin' to Jonathan sometimes. If'n you need any help around here you just ask me -- and if you got any other problems that I can help you with, you do the same. You understand me, son?"

It was the longest speech he'd ever heard Wayne Irig make in one conversation. Clark set the shingles on the roof and slid down the ladder again.

"I will." He smiled at his father's friend. "I'm getting married," he said quietly. "I can't tell you all the details but --"

Irig held up a hand. "Then don't," he said. "If it's who I think it is, you're marryin' a stick o' dynamite -- but she's the gal I'd o' picked for you if you'd asked me."

"Lois Lane," Clark said.

"Figured," Irig said. "Congratulations. Just remember; marriage is for better or worse. If she's right for you, even the worse'll be worth it. Just like it's been for me an' my Nettie."

"Thanks," Clark said. "I'll remember that. I won't be farming the property, so if you want to rent the land for your livestock, you're welcome to."

"Might just do that," Wayne said. He gave a one sided smile. "If you need any help with anything, just ask. You never know what's gonna happen. I gotta get back and milk the cows."

"Thanks," Clark said again. "I'll be home in time to make sure all the animals are taken care of tonight."

Irig nodded. "See you later, son." He climbed back into his pickup. Clark turned to ascend the ladder again.

Once Wayne had gone, the repairs to the old farmhouse went quickly. Clark finished within an hour and carefully stored his tools. He checked his watch. Lois would be expecting him in a few minutes. Quickly, he ducked inside the house to shower and give his chin a quick touch up with his heat vision. He had done the internal repairs three nights before and the power and water had come on this morning. The telephone line should be connected by tomorrow.

In the first few days following Clark's proposal, Lois had dithered over the whole idea. Twice she had nearly turned him down, but each time he had pointed out calmly that, not only was her own future at stake over whatever choice she made, but so was Lucy's and equally important, her baby's. The last time they had been by the quarry again, where he had flown on that first occasion. This time they left the small car in Tuttle Park and flown to the area.

Graduation was scheduled for the next day and Clark would give the address as the senior class's top graduating male student. Wayne and Nettie Irig would be seated with Lois and her sister to cheer him on as he accepted his diploma. He had finished first in his class, which hadn't really been a surprise, been accepted by Midwest U and had won five different modest scholarships in the last couple of months. Combined, they should be enough to pay his way through school.

Clark brought them down by the spot from which they had slipped, that day in November, when he had discovered that he could fly, and set Lois on her feet. Today, the sun was warm and in the fields behind them wildflowers grew in wide patches of color. He turned her so she could look out over the quarry, one hand holding hers warmly. "I guess this is a historic spot," he said. "This is where you taught me that my differences weren't something to make me afraid. You opened up the world to me." He put an arm around her waist and began to float upward and out over the quarry.

"I've been everywhere since that day," he continued. "I've flown around the Earth, to the north and south poles. I've crossed every ocean and seen every continent. I've seen wonders that most of us only read about or watch on television -- and I want to share all those things with you. To me, you're what makes them worthwhile." They drifted in the air above the quarry and with his free arm he waved at the wide land all around them. "I lost my family when I was ten," he continued. "Your family has been pretty badly broken, too -- but together you and I -- and our baby, if you marry me -- can be a lot more than either of us alone. I want to give you my new world and my future. Will you be my wife? -- not only for your sake, but the baby's, Lucy's and mine."

She looked around, and he could see tears in her eyes. "You want me that much?" she asked. "Enough that you'll take someone else's baby and be its father?"

"This baby is part of you," Clark said firmly. "And I want it to be my baby too. I can hear its heart beating right now. Who knows if I can ever have children someday? I look human but I'm from another planet. Yes, I want this baby. Its biological father wanted to kill it. I want it to live and grow up and for you to let me be its dad." Slowly, he lowered them back to the ground and dropped to one knee in front of her. "I asked you in the park, and now I'm asking again, Lois. Will you marry me?"

Tears were running down her face and she was nodding. "How can I say no after that? Yes. Yes, I'll marry you."

"Good," Clark said. He took her hand and kissed it. "I'll get you a ring," he promised. "Just as soon as I can."

"Getting me a ring is a waste of money," Lois said. "We'll do without it."

Clark didn't answer. He had an idea but he would have to wait until after graduation in order to accomplish it, so he preferred to keep it to himself.

He and Lois had discussed the idea of using the Kent farmhouse for the first year or two of Clark's university schooling, and after that they would see what they could work out -- but for the immediate future it seemed like the best plan.

"Just as long as you don't expect me to play the farmer's wife," Lois had specified.

"Not a chance," he'd teased her. "I don't want to burn the house down. The kitchen's my territory."

"I just wanted to be clear about that," Lois said. They had been sitting on the sofa in the Lane apartment, trying to put together some kind of plan for the immediate future. Ellen Lane had been asleep in her bedroom and Lois had sent Lucy in to brush her teeth and get ready for bed.

"We're definitely clear about it," Clark assured her. "And it'll be a lot harder for your mom to get down to Harkin's Liquor. It's a ten-mile walk to town. Then, once things settle down a little, we'll start working on getting your mom into that rehab facility in Wichita."

Lois had been leaning up against his chest with his arm around her and she glanced up anxiously. "You're still sure you want to do this?" she'd asked. "I'll understand if you change your mind."

He shook his head decisively. "I'm sure," he said. "Day after tomorrow, you and I have a trip to make -- by air. I've already made the arrangements. Judge Grant has promised to issue the license and perform the ceremony as soon as he's seen the lab report. Then we'll come back and I'll help move your things into the farmhouse."

"At least," Lois said, darkly, "Lucy won't be able to get into quite as much trouble out there."

Clark shook his head. "If you ask me, it doesn't matter where a kid her age is -- they can figure out how to get into trouble no matter what," he'd said, out of the fullness of babysitting experience. "But at least it'll be a different sort of trouble."

"Maybe it'll be easier to handle," Lois said.

Lucy's head popped out of the bedroom that she and Lois shared. "What are you talking about?" she demanded.

"None of your business," Lois said firmly. "If you want to be up in time to go camping at the lake with the rest of your Scout troop tomorrow, you'd better get to bed."

"Well, you'd better tell your boyfriend to go home," Lucy said, pouting. She hadn't yet forgiven Clark for showing more interest in her older sister than in her.

"Clark's going home in a little while," Lois said. "And he's not my boyfriend. He's my --" She broke off at a warning squeeze from Clark's hand.

"What?" Lucy asked.

"Best friend," Lois said. "Go to bed."

"Tessa gets to stay up until ten in the summer," Lucy said, a faint whine detectable in her voice. "She's twelve, and so am I. Why can't I stay up too?"

"Because this isn't Tessa's house," Lois said. "Mother and Daddy never let me stay up until ten until after I was thirteen."

"Mom's a drunk!" Lucy stated with contempt. "And Daddy's not here!"

Lois sprang to her feet. "Lucille Marie Lane!" she said, "I don't want to hear you call Mother that again! You head for bed this minute or you won't be going to see the Karate Kid when it shows at the theater next week. Now move!"

Reluctantly, Lucy pulled her head back into her bedroom. Clark got to his feet with equal reluctance. "I'd better go. I told Wayne I'd make sure all the animals were taken care of for the night."

"All right," Lois said. "I guess I'll see you tomorrow."

"You will," Clark said. They walked to the door together and paused out of view of the bedroom door. Lois put her hands on his shoulders. "You know," she said softly, "We're going to be married in a couple of days. You could kiss me good night."

Clark put his arms gently around her. "I didn't want to make you uncomfortable," he said, "but I've wanted to kiss you from the day we met."

"I wish you'd told me," Lois said. "Because I wanted you to."

After that, there was no sound in the short hallway for some time. At last, Clark raised his head. "I'm looking forward to our trip," he said.

"So am I," Lois said. "I just wish --"

He put his forefinger across her lips. "No apologies," he said firmly. "If I'd asked you for a date, things would have been different." He turned his head and looked over the top of his glasses. "Lucy's got her ear to the door," he added.

"Little sneak," Lois said. "Good night, Clark."

"Good night," he said.

Two days later, Clark arrived at the Lane apartment at one in the afternoon. Lucy had been safely on her weekend camping trip since the day before and would not be home until seven in the evening, and Ellen Lane had gone to her afternoon bridge club meeting. Hopefully, being that it was early in the day, no drinks would be served except coffee or tea, and, in any case, it would give the two of them time to complete their objective.

Following their plan carefully, they drove out to Porcupine Gulch once more and parked the car in the place provided for visitors who wished to hike in the area. If anyone saw it, its presence would be completely unremarkable to any observer and, more importantly, it would be out of the reach of Ellen Lane. That last was absolutely necessary. The week before, Lois had discovered by accident that her mother had had a set of replacement keys made without her knowledge. She had removed the keys but it was evident that Ellen was not to be trusted to refrain from driving the car, with or without a license. Lois had made certain that the car was not available to her mother, even should she somehow manage to acquire another set of keys.

Lois cut the engine and they stepped out of the car.

"Anyone around?" she asked.

Clark lowered his glasses and glanced in all directions. "Nope," he said.

"Then," Lois said, and he noticed the faint quiver to her voice, "I guess we can go."

"In just a minute," Clark said. He took her hand and an instant later had slid a diamond ring onto the third finger. Lois gasped faintly.

"Clark! I told you an engagement ring was a waste of money!"

"This ring belonged to my mother," he said. "I wasn't able to get it until I graduated from school. You deserve an engagement ring as much as any other woman who's getting married."

Lois examined the ring for a moment and then looked up at him. "Has anyone ever told you you're a romantic doofus, Clark?"

He couldn't help grinning. "Just you," he said. "Now we're ready to go see the judge. Got your test results safe?"

She patted the small purse that she clutched in her free hand. "Right here."

He scooped her up neatly in his arms. "All right then, let's go."

Judge Marshall Grant was a tall, stern man with white hair and a white mustache and beard. When Lois had seen him for the first time, she had whispered to Clark that he reminded her of the actor who appeared in all those Southern Fried Chicken ads on television, except that he wasn't fat. The judge examined the medical report that Lois handed him and cleared his throat. "You're certain that this is what you want to do, young lady?" he asked very solemnly. "There are other alternatives, you know."

"I'm sure," Lois replied staunchly. "I won't make my baby pay for my actions."

The judge turned to Clark. "And you're willing to take on this responsibility, young man?"

"Yes sir," Clark answered.

"I trust you know the obstacles ahead of you," the judge said. "The two of you are taking on a great deal of responsibility."

"We know," Clark said. Lois nodded.

"And you're both completely willing to do this?" The judge watched them expressionlessly. Clark looked at Lois and she met his eyes with a little smile. Together, they turned to look back at the judge.

"Yes," they said, together.

For the first time, Judge Grant allowed a smile to soften his expression. "Well, at least you seem to realize what you're getting into," he said. He took off his glasses and polished them with his handkerchief, examined them carefully against the light of a tall lamp and replaced them with careful precision. "My great grandparents left Boston, Massachusetts to move out west," he said. "He was eighteen and his bride was seventeen. They were married for seventy-three years, through twelve children and every sort of hardship that people could face in those days. Both families opposed the move, but they went in spite of it all." Clark found he was holding his breath while the older man spoke. "I see a lot of determination in both of you. If you bring it into your marriage, then you have as good a chance as they did." He turned to the big desk that sat against one wall and opened a drawer to remove a paper. "I've looked over your paperwork, and this medical report gives me the right to sign the license." He picked up an old-fashioned fountain pen and affixed his signature to the document. "Now, if you'll come with me --" He went to the door and opened it for them. "My wife and our housekeeper, Mrs. Napier, will be the witnesses."

Forty-five minutes later, they landed back at Porcupine Gulch and reclaimed their car. Clark opened the driver's door ceremoniously for Lois, who slid into the driver's seat. He shut the door and went around to get in next to her. She stared at the bands on her ring finger and then looked almost shyly at Clark. "I'm Mrs. Clark Kent," she said, wonderingly. "Lois Kent. What's everyone going to say? They'll think you're the baby's father, and that you and I --"

"I am the baby's father," Clark said firmly. "If anyone doubts it, they can ask me. I'm married to my best friend and the most beautiful woman any man could wish for." He reached out to take her hand and held it, running a thumb across the engagement ring and the gold band next to it. "And I'm going to stand next to you and applaud the loudest of anyone when you bring in that first Pulitzer, Lois Lane Kent."

She blinked back tears. "Will I?"

"You bet you will," Clark said. "We're just beginning to show the world what we can do together."

She sniffed slightly. "I'm sorry. I don't usually cry this much. I don't know what's the matter with me."

He lifted her hand and kissed the back of it. "Well, I'm no expert but I've done some reading about pregnancy and childbirth. From what I read, I think all the extra hormones your body is producing right now are probably making you more emotional than you usually are."

"What were you doing, reading about that?" Lois asked. "No, what am I thinking of. You read the whole Smallville law library for me, too."

Clark shrugged. "What can I say? Guilty as charged. Come on. Let's get back to town and we'll get busy moving things to the farmhouse. Does your mom know where the three of you are going?"

"I told her that the landlord was terminating our lease, and that I've found another place. She's not happy about all the work of moving but I don't think she'll make much of a fuss. She'll be too relieved that someone else did the work. What I'm worried about is what's going to happen when she wants a drink," Lois said, with a trace of bitterness.

"I don't know that there's anything we can do, at least for now," Clark said. "Your mom's a grown woman. We don't have the authority to tell her she can't drink."

"I know. But that doesn't mean we have to buy it for her!"

"No; of course not. On the other hand, if she wants to go to town, we can't keep her a prisoner," Clark pointed out practically. "We're going to have to focus on getting her to see that there's a problem -- and not letting Lucy come to harm. When we get back, I'm going to borrow Wayne's big pickup and start moving your stuff. I cleaned the whole farmhouse yesterday from top to bottom, including all the furniture. Lucy's got one room in the attic for herself. It's warm and comfortable, and as big as the master bedroom, so she'll have a lot more room than she's got now. The other one is a storeroom and we'll put anything we can't find a place for in there unless you have a better idea. Your Mom's got my old room, which is bigger than the one she has at the apartment. We --" He hesitated and could feel his face growing warm. "I fixed up Mom and Dad's room for us. My stuff is already in there, and I'll put yours with it. You can show me how you want it arranged after we get everything over there -- unless you want me to sleep on the couch or something."

"Don't be an idiot," Lois said, in her usual direct way. "I'm married to you and we'll share the room. It's not as if I'm a vir -- well, you know -- anymore."

"That's not important now," Clark said quietly. "This is my baby, and if Ronnie tries to say otherwise, I'll take care of it. But I'm betting he'll be too relieved to be off the hook."

She looked at him silently for a long minute. "It's not important," she repeated. "It's your baby. You know what people will think, don't you?"

"I can't say that I care," Clark said, honestly. "I'm married to the woman of my dreams. Why should it matter what other people think?"

"I guess it doesn't," she said slowly, looking at him oddly. "The woman of your dreams?"

He met her gaze with complete honesty. "You've been that since the first time I saw you."

"Okay." She seemed to shake herself slightly. "I only wish I'd known. Well, let's go ahead and take the bull by the horns. Don't forget, we have to pick up Lucy at seven."

"I haven't," Clark said. "You can do that while I'm making dinner for us. I'm the cook, remember. You've promised faithfully that you won't try to help. I'm counting on you to keep your promise."

She smacked him lightly on the shoulder. "Smart-ass." The banter seemed to have overcome her slight attack of nerves. She started the engine, backed skillfully out of the parking place and turned the nose of the little blue car toward Smallville.

By the time Ellen Lane returned to the apartment, Clark had the last load of belongings from the apartment packed efficiently into the pickup. Ellen stood on the sidewalk, swaying slightly and staring as he hoisted the last item into the bed of the truck and padded it carefully against damage. "What's going on?" she demanded of her daughter, who emerged from the door of the building at this fortuitous moment.

"Today's our last day," Lois said. "Clark's helping us move things to the new place."

Ellen looked slightly dumbfounded. "I didn't know that was today."

Clark didn't say anything. Ellen must have stopped at Roscoe's Bar on the way back from her bridge club meeting, he thought. He could smell the whiskey on her breath. At least he hoped that was where she'd gotten the liquor. If she'd gotten it at the bridge club meeting, they had more problems than he'd realized.

"I told you yesterday," Lois said, sounding tired. "Anyway, get in the car and we'll follow Clark."

"What about Lucy?" Ellen asked, looking around as if she expected her younger daughter to appear out of thin air.

"She'll be back from her camping trip at seven," Lois said. "I'm supposed to pick her up at the elementary school."

"Oh," Ellen said. She opened the passenger door. "Where are we going?"

Lois turned on the engine and looked over her shoulder before pulling out into the street. "We're going to follow Clark."

Clark smiled to himself. Lois, as he had expected, was dodging her mother's questions. Once they got to the farmhouse would be time enough to explain.

"What are you wearing on your hand?" Ellen clearly hadn't had enough to drink not to notice the obvious.

"A wedding set," Lois replied shortly.

"Why are you wearing a wedding set?" Ellen demanded. "I've never seen that before."

"Mother," Lois's voice sounded stiff to him and he recognized the note of irritation combined with defensiveness in her voice, "I'm trying to pay attention to traffic. I'll explain everything when we stop."

"This is the road out of town. Just where are we going?"

"The place I got for us is a house outside of town. It's bigger than the apartment and less expensive."

"It's not some dump, is it?"

"No," Lois said. "It's nicer than the apartment."

"How did you find this place?"

"Well, you weren't paying any attention to it, so I figured I'd better or we'd be camping out in Tuttle Park," Lois said.

"Lois Lane, I won't be spoken to that way!"

Lois didn't answer. Clark concentrated on his driving. It would be best to get Lois and Ellen out of the car before Lois murdered her mother.

"What kind of place is this?" Ellen asked.

"It used to be a farmhouse," Lois said.

"A farmhouse? Lois Lane, I am not living at a farmhouse!"

"It's not a farm anymore," Lois said shortly. "It's just a house. At least look at it before you make up your mind. Then if you want to rent in town, you can do what you want." Clark cringed slightly but surprisingly Ellen didn't answer.

The farm was ten miles from the edge of the actual town, and Lois managed to dodge her mother's questions for the duration of the trip. Clark turned into the gravel road between the white fence posts and led the way into the dirt area in front of his parents' farm. His farm. It now belonged to him. He'd dealt with all the paperwork the week before. It was the seventh of July and he had been immersed in a great deal of legal details for the past three weeks, getting the place ready for Lois and her family.

Lois's car pulled up behind the truck and she cut the engine. Ellen opened the door and got out, looking around at the farmhouse and the other buildings, and Clark found himself thankful that he had sanded and painted the entire house and barn so that everything looked neat and tidy. Perhaps a good first impression would help reconcile Lois's mother to her new dwelling.

Lois also got out. "It looks nice," she told Clark.

"Thanks." Clark handed her the house key. "Why don't you and Mrs. Lane go on inside, while I get the rest of your things unloaded."

"All right." Lois turned to her mother. "What do you think?"

Ellen wrinkled her nose. "Well, it isn't as bad as I thought it would be."

"Come on inside," Lois said.

Ellen trailed Lois up the steps onto the front porch, still looking around with an air of distaste. Clark opened the back of the truck and began hoisting down the boxes.

A few minutes later, Clark entered the house. Ellen was wandering around the first floor, examining the premises. Finally, she returned to the living room and sank onto the newly cleaned and renovated sofa.

"Well, Mother?" Lois asked. "What do you think of it?"

"It will do, I suppose," Ellen said, a little grudgingly. "It's better than I expected." She turned to look at Lois's hand. "Now, young lady, I want to know where that wedding set came from."

"It's mine," Lois said, a little defiantly. "I'm married."

"Married! You can't marry! You're underage!"

"I'll explain," Lois said. She looked at Clark and he moved to her side and took her hand.

"Lois is married to me, Mrs. Lane," Clark said.

Ellen stared coldly at him. "She can't be."

"I am," Lois said. She opened her little handbag and removed the marriage certificate. "Look."

Ellen took the paper, an expression of disbelief on her face. After examining it, she looked up. "I demand an explanation."

"You're pregnant?" Ellen stared at Lois and then turned to glare at Clark. "You got my daughter pregnant?"

"Clark didn't," Lois said. "It was someone else. I already told you that. Clark found out and asked me to marry him."

"You don't expect me to believe a cock and bull story like that?" Ellen said coldly. "Do you take me for a fool?"

"It's the truth," Lois said.

"Why didn't you tell me? Your father would have arranged an abortion!"

"That was exactly why I didn't tell you!" Lois shot back. "The baby's father offered to pay for one, too. I couldn't do it!"

"That's not important," Ellen said. "You're a child. You have no idea what's best for you. Now you've ruined your life, and what your father is going to say I don't know. God, I need a drink!"

"I can get you a cup of coffee," Clark offered. "I'm afraid there isn't anything else in the house."

"Well, you just head right back to town and get me a bottle," Ellen commanded.

Lois glanced at Clark and shrugged. "I'm only eighteen," Clark said. "I'm not allowed to buy liquor."

In spite of the unpromising beginning, however, Lois persuaded her mother to temporarily forego the drink long enough to examine her bedroom upstairs and to direct Clark where to put her boxes of possessions. It was impossible to prevent her from haranguing Lois about her actions but when Clark had offered to take her place, Lois had shaken her head. Clark had withdrawn while Lois undertook the task of soothing her parent's ruffled feathers. Reconciling her to the situation was probably beyond their ability but eventually she had run down, at least temporarily. By the time evening rolled around, the remainder of the load had been moved into the house, arranged in various places or stored in the attic and Clark had returned Wayne Irig's truck to its owner. At six-thirty, Lois set out in the Lane car to pick up her sister and Clark began to prepare dinner in the farmhouse kitchen that he remembered from his days as a child. He was carefully measuring rice, before pouring it into the boiling, salted water, when Ellen Lane stepped into the kitchen.

He smiled at her briefly while turning the temperature on the rice to medium, and covering it. Ellen stood in the doorway, watching him without expression. Clark stirred his homemade chili carefully to prevent the mixture from scorching, covered it and lowered the heat. He glanced at Ellen Lane. "Is there something you needed, Mrs. Lane?" he asked.

Ellen shook her head slowly. She looked around the room, seeming to take in every detail. Clark saw that the water was boiling for his vegetables and turned to dump the fresh broccoli that he had brought earlier from Smallville Market, one of the town's several grocery stores, into the steamer. He covered the vegetables, turned the heat to low and set the timer. "Dinner will be ready in about twenty minutes -- just about the time Lois gets back with Lucy," he added.

"I'll give you one point," Ellen Lane said. "You can cook."

"Thank you," Clark said. "My mother taught me the basics when I was a child. Nettie Irig taught me a lot in the last couple of years, too."

"Why did you marry my daughter?" Ellen Lane asked abruptly. "If you were going to pay for an abortion, why ask her to marry you?"

"I never offered to pay for an abortion," Clark said.

"She said you did."

"Not exactly. In any case, it doesn't matter. I love Lois. I wasn't going to let her go through this alone, no matter what I had to do."

"You're too young to know anything about love," Ellen said shortly.

Clark didn't answer. Ellen eyed him narrowly for a moment. "What are your plans, now that you've ruined my daughter's life?" she asked finally.

Clark ignored the rider. "I'm going to attend Midwest U this fall, majoring in journalism. Lois and I talked it over and she's going to night school this summer to get some credits. Then she's going to Smallville High for the first semester in the fall. The baby is due in January, so after that, she'll go back to night school to finish. That way one of us can care for the baby while the other one is in school. After that, we'll see. She wants to go to college, for a degree in journalism, too, and I intend to help her to do it."

"How?" Ellen asked.

"We have a year to figure it out," Clark said quietly. "We'll manage. I didn't marry Lois in order to ruin her life."

Ellen gave a faint snort. "You should have thought of that before you got my daughter pregnant."

Clark didn't reply, but turned to take dishes from the kitchen cupboard. His mother's Blue Willow china was clean and shining, ready to be used. He recalled her saying to him once that she used it because if she saved it for special occasions she would have been deprived of the enjoyment of eating from it most of the time. Matter-of-factly, he went into the farmhouse's small dining room and busied himself with setting the table. He had just finished when he heard the car pull up outside and a moment later Lois, followed by Lucy, entered the living room.

Lucy stopped in the doorway, staring at the set table. "Wow! We're eating at the table? What's for dinner?"

"Chili," Clark said. "I hope you're hungry."

After dinner, Clark went into the kitchen to tidy up while Lois saw to it that her sister was shown her new bedroom. She returned a short time later to inform Clark that Lucy's new sleeping quarters was apparently a success. Lucy had been dazzled by the attic bedroom. Ellen, on the other hand, was apparently grousing about the lack of anything to drink for a "nightcap".

"She says she's going to town tomorrow if she has to walk," Lois added.

"Well, we kind of expected that," Clark said. "We're going to have to give her time to get over everything that's happened before we can even start to change things."

Lois nodded soberly. "She was after me again for marrying you instead of getting an abortion," she added. "She's already pushing the idea that I should have the abortion and divorce you. She says she's going to call my father tomorrow. We're going to have him out here next."

"I know. I heard."

"I don't think she's ever going to believe me." Lois's chin was set in what Clark had begun to recognize as her most stubborn mode. "I will not be pressured into doing something I don't want to do. I don't care what Mother and Daddy say."

Clark dried his hands on a dishtowel and put his arm around her. "It doesn't matter what your mother thinks," he said. "I said it's my baby no matter what and I meant it. And you're an emancipated minor now. Your parents can't force you to do anything you don't want to do."

"It's just so infuriating," Lois said. "I told her the truth and she refuses to believe me. I guess I should be used to it by now."

Clark didn't answer but the thought crossed his mind that Ellen Lane was one of those women who sought out grievances and never let go of one, in order to always have a weapon at hand with which to pummel the object of her ire. It had been after he'd ceased to date Lana that he'd realized that Lana was much the same. Once again, he thanked his lucky stars that he had somehow had the good fortune to meet Lois when he had. Things might not have gone as he and Lois had wished or planned, but she'd spared him a great deal of grief and he could only be grateful for that small side effect of the larger situation.

"If I refuse, she's threatening to move out," Lois added, "and take Lucy with her."

Clark sighed. "If she does, we'll deal with it," he said. "How long do you think she can take care of Lucy, considering how much she drinks?"

"Not long," Lois said.

"That's what I thought," Clark said. "Your dad doesn't have any idea, does he?"

"Daddy never stayed at home long enough to know how much Mother drank," Lois said. "He knew she did, that was all." She fell silent, and Clark kept quiet. He knew that Look. Lois, figuring out angles and methods, was unmatched. "After Mother and Lucy are asleep, do you think you could fly us to Metropolis?"

"Sure," he said. "Why?"

"I need to talk to Daddy in person."

"Won't he be in bed?" Clark asked.

"Maybe. Maybe not," Lois said. "It won't matter. I need to talk to him before Mother does."

"All right," Clark agreed. "If that's what you want to do, we'll do it."

In the course of his previous travels, Clark had been to Metropolis once or twice. At eleven o'clock at night, the city wasn't even near to quieting down, if it ever did. In Smallville he'd heard it stated that they rolled up the streets at nine o'clock. Certainly the nightlife of the town got much quieter after nine in the evening. Metropolis certainly didn't. The huge city was lit up like a Christmas tree, cars jammed the thoroughfares, stores were doing a thriving business, movie theaters were still receiving customers and he could hear music going full blast from hotels and private homes. It sounded as if the city was one vast party that had no prospects of ending any time soon. It was loud, it was exciting, and it drew him like nothing ever had.

He and Lois coasted on the air above the huge, brawling, energetic city. They flew past the downtown business district and passed over the Daily Planet Building. That hadn't been chance, and he x-rayed the structure beneath him just out of curiosity.

The evening shift was underway, he saw, and the pace was a little slower than it had been the two previous times that he had flown over the building and peeked into its newsroom, but it still fascinated him. His ambition to someday work here was no less intense in spite of recent events.

"I wanted to work there someday," Lois's voice said.

"You will, if you want to," he said. "We'll make it as long as we work together."

"Do you think so?" Lois asked.

"I know so."

"When you sound like that, you make me believe it too," Lois said. "Right now, though, we need to find my father. Let's try his office first. It's on Broadway, near Third Avenue."

Clark obediently changed direction. A few moments later, they dropped onto the roof of the office building where her father worked. Clark's x-ray vision had told him that Lois's instinct had been correct as usual. Sam Lane was in his laboratory. As Clark watched, he turned off the lab's lights and entered his office.

The building was naturally locked but the roof entrance was less resistant to the methods they could bring to bear, largely because it was unobserved. Clark's laser vision drilled a neat hole directly through the lock casing and they slipped inside. They descended the stairwell, courtesy of Clark's speed and, a moment later, emerged into the hallway where Sam Lane's office was located.

The night watchman, Clark determined quickly, was not on the floor. As a matter of fact, he was two floors down, strolling along a deserted hall and whistling softly to himself.

"Do you want me to come with you?" he asked Lois in a whisper.

"No," she told him. "But can you stick around nearby -- just in case I need you?"

"Sure," Clark said. He floated upward to merge with the shadow next to one of the unlighted ceiling fixtures. "I'll be waiting."

Sam Lane didn't look up from the chart he was reading the first time Lois knocked. Watching him, Clark thought that he hadn't even noticed the sound. Lois, however, wasn't to be stymied by something that simple. She knocked again and then hammered on the door. The doctor looked up at last, just as Lois knocked again, and laid the chart down on his desk.

Lois's father was a tall man of perhaps fifty years of age. His dark hair was speckled with white and showed signs of thinning on top, and a receding hairline. He didn't resemble Lois physically on first impression but Clark thought that perhaps this was where Lois had acquired her ability to concentrate so much of her attention and effort on a project. Dr. Lane paused for a moment by the door and Lois hammered on the panel again.

"Who is it?" he called.

"Daddy, it's me!" Lois called. "I need to talk to you!"

"Lois?" Dr. Lane's voice sounded vaguely incredulous but he unlocked the door and opened it.

And stared at his daughter in open astonishment. "Lois? What are you doing here?"

"Can I come in?" Lois asked.

"Uh -- certainly." Lois's father stood back and allowed his daughter to enter. The door closed.

Clark debated. Eavesdropping on Lois wasn't something he wanted to do, but this was Lois's meeting with her father. She'd asked him to stay nearby and probably had expected him to listen in. After a brief struggle with his instinctive reluctance to do so, Clark trained his hearing on the conversation within the room.

"What are you doing in Metropolis?" Dr. Lane asked. "I thought you were in Kansas."

"I was," Lois said. "Mother was being difficult and I needed to talk to you. She's going to call you, tomorrow."

Sam Lane gave a faint exasperated sigh. "What now? Did the local bar raise its prices?"

"No," Lois said. "Can we sit down?"

"Sure." He indicated the sofa. "Have a seat. I hope you didn't come all the way out here because of your mother. I have other things to worry about right now."

"Well, I did -- sort of. But it's about me, too." Lois took a seat on the overstuffed sofa and clasped her hands in her lap.

"How much?" her father asked.

"It isn't money," Lois said. "I'm afraid you're going to be mad but I didn't know how else to do this. Mother is being her usual self, not listening to anything I say and --"

"I wouldn't expect anything else," her father said. "What is it?"

"Daddy, I did something stupid," Lois said. "Last April. A boy and I -- well, it was only once but --" She broke off, swallowed and lifted her head. "I'm pregnant."

Sam Lane sat down hard in his desk chair. "Pregnant?"

Lois nodded. "I'm sorry," she said.

Clark saw Dr. Lane swallow and take a deep breath. "And you want me to arrange an abortion?"

"No!" Lois said. "That's the problem. Mother is trying to browbeat me into one, and I can't do it! I'm nearly three months along now and I can't do it!"

Her father was silent for nearly a minute. "I understand your reluctance," he said finally. "But you have to think of your future, too. How do you intend to deal with the baby after it's born? Have you thought about your options?"

"That's what I was going to explain," she said quietly. "My best friend, Clark, figured out that something was wrong and got me to tell him."

"He isn't the father, is he?"

"Clark? No, we weren't even dating. I didn't even know he wanted to date me. But as soon as I told him what the matter was, he proposed to me."

"Just a minute," Dr. Lane said, after a brief, startled silence. "Let me get this straight. He knew you were pregnant with someone else's baby and he still proposed?"

Lois nodded. "Clark is a one in a million kind of guy. He's been my best friend almost since we moved to Smallville. I told him I couldn't have an abortion and he asked me to marry him. He looked up the law and --"

The whole story came tumbling out. After the first few questions, Lois's father simply listened, only interjecting a question when the explanation became too involved to follow easily. "So now Mother is trying to make me divorce Clark and have an abortion. And I won't! But she said she was going to call you and get you to make me --"

"I should think," Lois's father said, "that if your friend knew that you could get married with proof of the pregnancy, he also knows that you're now an emancipated minor and that no one can force you to have an abortion."

"Well," Lois said, "he does. But I didn't want to have to fight with you about it, too. Mother's threatening to move out and take Lucy with her if I don't do as she says, and --" Lois took a deep breath, "she's not safe to take care of Lucy! She gets drunk every evening, and she's drunk most of the day. I've been taking care of Lucy and Mother! Clark is trying to help me, but Mother was calling him all kinds of names and wouldn't believe me when I told her Clark wasn't responsible for what happened. Only Clark says that now that we're married, the baby is his no matter who its biological father was, and if anybody asks him, he'll tell them that!"

"Hmm." Sam Lane had a faint smile on his lips. "It sounds to me like you have a very good friend there, Princess. I think I'll like this young man when I meet him. You have to admit, though, that the two of you are taking a big chance. You know the statistics for teen marriages, don't you?"

"That's what I told him, but he was willing to take the risk." Lois's voice dropped. "I'm not going to have an abortion and I'm not going to divorce Clark -- but Mother --"

"I realize that," Sam Lane said. "All right, given those two facts, what do you think you should do?"

"I don't know," Lois said, "but I don't want Mother taking off with Lucy! I don't trust her for a minute!"

"I agree." Dr. Lane scowled thoughtfully and suddenly Clark saw where Lois got the mannerism. "I didn't realize it was that bad."

"I know," Lois said. "Clark wants to try to get her into an alcohol rehabilitation program but I'm not sure we'll be able to."

"Your young man seems to be pretty ambitious." Dr. Lane tapped a forefinger on his desk. "I take it you didn't come all the way to Metropolis by yourself, did you?"

Lois shook her head. "Clark came with me. He's waiting outside because I said I wanted to talk to you alone."

"In that case," Dr. Lane said, "why don't you ask him in here. I'd like to meet him."

Clark dropped quietly to the floor outside the office.

"All right," Lois said. "But you're not going to accuse him of anything, are you? Mother wouldn't believe either of us and she's sure he's the father. I won't have anybody accusing Clark of --"

"It sounds to me," Sam Lane said, "as if your friend Clark can stand up for himself pretty well. I believe you, Princess. Go ahead and call him in here, please."

When Lois opened the door, Clark was waiting. "I guess your dad wants to see me?" he asked.

She nodded.

Clark took her hand. "All right." He entered the office and Sam Lane rose from his desk chair.

"Daddy," Lois said, "this is Clark Kent: my husband. Clark, this is my father -- Dr. Lane."

"It's nice to meet you, sir," Clark said.

Sam Lane was regarding him critically but at least he wasn't frowning. He nodded slightly at Clark. "Likewise," he said at last. "So you're my new son-in-law."

"Yes sir," Clark said.

"Well," Dr. Lane said, "anyone who is willing to take on my ex-wife is either a fool or a very brave man. Come in and sit down. I thought I'd washed my hands of Ellen, but I'm not willing to let her neglect my daughters. Lois has told me about the situation. Why don't you let me have your perspective on it?"

"What do you mean?" Clark took the chair that Lois's father indicated. "My perspective is that I love Lois and I'll back her up no matter what. This is her baby and she has the right to decide how she wants to handle things -- and that no one, not even her mother, has the right to force her to do something she doesn't want to do. And I'm not going to let Ellen browbeat her into anything."

"And Lucy?" Dr. Lane resumed his seat at his desk. "Ellen is outside the state of New Troy. I didn't object; I thought it would be best not to interfere, but from what Lois has told me, Ellen has become so dependent on alcohol that she's incapable of caring for my daughters. If I have to, I can start court proceedings to try to get custody of Lucy myself. The fact that she's in Kansas rather than New Troy may make it more difficult, but it's not impossible if you have the right connections. I'd rather not bring Social Services in on it if I can avoid it."

"I don't think that's necessary," Clark said. "Lois has done a good job taking care of Lucy and I'll be helping her. But your w -- Lois's mother is threatening to move out and take Lucy with her if Lois doesn't cave in. I'll do what I have to, but it would be a lot easier if we have your backing."

Sam Lane nodded slowly, frowning slightly. "I'll do what I can." He turned to Lois. "When your mother calls, if she does, I'll deal with it." He regarded Lois and Clark. "I'm not sure that I shouldn't bring Lucy back to Metropolis in any case. You two are going to have your hands full as it is."

"No, Daddy," Lois begged. "I really think she's better off with us, at least for now." She paused. "How about you let her stay with us but if it gets to be too difficult we can send her back. I can handle her and she's getting old enough now that she can help us, at least some -- as long as Mother can't use her as a bargaining chip."

"I'll see what I can do," Dr. Lane said. "Taking Lucy right now would be inconvenient, to say the least, but I will if I have to." He eyed Clark thoughtfully. "What are your plans, after we smooth out this rough patch, young man? Are you planning on farming your land?"

Clark shook his head. "No. I'm renting the land to my nearest neighbor for farming and for grazing his cattle. I've been accepted by Midwest U and several other universities, but Midwest is closest to my home, so I'll enroll there this fall." He went on to explain their plans for the immediate future. When he finished, Dr. Lane nodded.

"You seem to be thinking ahead." He turned to his daughter. "I can't say that I'm happy with what's happened but I'm glad to see that the two of you at least have a game plan," he said. "If you need help, ask me and I'll see what I can do. In spite of what Ellen says about me, I do care about you and Lucy. I'm sorry that I gave you the impression that I didn't. I'm not trying to excuse my fault in all this, but sometimes things happen and before you realize it events have gone farther and in other directions than you expected. I want you to know that you're still my daughter, and I feel at least somewhat responsible for your situation. If I'd been paying more attention --" He broke off. "Well, what-ifs are pretty useless. We'll try to deal with the situation as it is. Where are you staying tonight? I can at least give you a lift to your motel."

Correctly assuming that the conversation was over, Clark stood up. "We have transportation, thank you, Dr. Lane. Lois and I will be flying out first thing in the morning. We don't want to leave Lucy alone with her mother for too long."

Lois's father nodded. "All right then. I'll probably come out to Kansas to see you soon. And you may as well call me Sam, since you're my son-in-law." He got to his feet. "Take care of yourself, Lois. You have another life depending on you now. I want to see a healthy grandchild in a few months, and a good deal of that depends on you."

"I will," Lois said.

Dr. Lane extended a hand to Clark. "Take care of her, young man. You'll have me to deal with if you don't."

"I will," Clark said.

"I'm sure you will." Sam turned to his daughter. "I love you, Princess, even if you don't realize it right now. And I have a lot of faith in you. I think the young man you've married is one of your better choices." He bent and kissed her cheek. "Good bye. I'll see you in a few weeks."

"That didn't go too badly," Clark said hopefully as they closed the roof door behind them. "I expected him to blow up."

"I sort of did, too," Lois said, "but Daddy's a realist a lot of the time. Not always, but --" She paused. "Well, we'll see if it does any good. At least Mother won't get the backing she expects." She glanced up as a helicopter, its green lights blinking, passed by overhead. Clark also looked up.

"Police copter," he said. "I guess we'd probably better get out of here."

A searchlight came on suddenly, illuminating the roof of the building, and moved toward them. Clark snatched Lois up and was airborne in a split second, skillfully avoiding the beam of light. Lois looked back, past his body at the bulk of the vehicle shrinking to the rear. "You told my father that we'd be flying out first thing in the morning. Fibber."

"I wasn't fibbing," Clark said. "It's one fifteen. That's definitely first thing in the morning." He pulled her close to him and accelerated, leaving the police copter far behind. If someone were tracking him on a radar screen, he would be a UFO, he thought whimsically. Still, it might be a good idea to confuse such theoretical spies, just in case. With a downward swoop, he flew close to the buildings, aware that the structures of the city itself would mask his flight.

Lois gave a little squeal. "What are you doing?"

"Making sure nobody with a radar can track us," he said. "They get flocks of geese and things on their screens, so they just might track us by accident. The police copter made me think of it. I don't want to leave any traces that anyone can identify."

"Oh," Lois said. "That's probably smart. But police copters don't have radar, do they?"

"No, but they have infra red sensors and stuff like that. That was probably why they came back to see who was on the roof at this time of night. I wonder what they thought when we took off. Tuck your head down against my chest. I'm going to make the flight home as fast as I can, so if someone does see us they won't be able to follow us."

It was just after one thirty AM, Kansas time, when Lois and Clark slipped quietly through the window of the farmhouse's master bedroom. Clark had assured himself that the other two occupants of the house were sound asleep as they approached and their entrance through the open bedroom window was utterly silent.

"Wow," Lois said as he set her on the floor. "This has been quite a day." She looked shyly at him. "It's our wedding night."

"Yeah," he said. "You're sure you're all right with me being in here?"

"Clark," she said, sounding slightly exasperated, "will you quit being so humble? I'd much rather be here with you than by myself. You're pretty darned attractive, whether you know it or not." She turned to rest both hands on his broad shoulders. "If you'd asked me for a date, I wouldn't have given Ronnie a second look!"

Since he had heard a number of girls raving over the good looks -- and the car -- of Ronnie Davis, it was hard to believe that anyone might find him even comparable, but Lois apparently saw the doubt on his face, for she put her head against his chest and spoke softly. "I dated Ronnie because he asked me, and he was fun to be with," she said. "I wanted to date you but you didn't seem to be interested. I even wondered for a while if you were gay." She giggled softly. "Then I figured it was because you weren't from Earth and you didn't find Earth women attractive that way. You were my first choice, you know. You always were. I just figured I'd never be able to date the guy I really wanted."

"You mean that?" Clark asked. He slipped his arms around her. "Really?"

She nodded. "Really. I wish I'd realized how you felt about me. I'd have much rather gone out to celebrate with you. If I had, we wouldn't be in this mess."

"Well," Clark said, "the situation isn't perfect, but I didn't ask you to marry me because I felt sorry for you. I asked you because I've been in love with you practically since the first time I saw you. Maybe that's the alien part of me showing. I don't know about that, but I knew I couldn't leave you to handle this alone when I loved you so much."

He was looking down into her face as he spoke and for all his lightning reflexes, she surprised him by reaching up to grab him by the ears and pull his face down to hers. When the kiss ended, he was smiling. "You'd better watch that, Mrs. Kent. You could start something you didn't expect."

"Oh, I expect it all right," Lois said. "If this is your baby, Mr. Kent, don't you think it would be better to -- oh, I don't know -- at least symbolically --"

"I may be practically invulnerable," he said, "but I'm not made out of stone, especially where you're concerned. Symbolically or not, if you really want me, I'm yours. You know that, don't you?"

She nodded. "Why don't you give me a few minutes to change, and then we'll see what sort of symbolism we can work out."

While Lois was changing in the master bedroom's small bathroom, Clark fished around in his dresser, looking for something appropriate to wear. What did one wear on one's wedding night when you hadn't been expecting to do more than sleep? He'd been half-convinced that, in spite of her earlier protestations, Lois only thought of him as a friend and her unexpected revelation that she wanted him as a lot more had left him somewhat disconcerted -- not unpleasantly so, but he hadn't really been prepared for it. He wasn't entirely sure of the dress code but his old striped pajamas definitely didn't seem very appropriate for the occasion -- especially since a quick peek through the bathroom door at his bride of less than ten hours showed him that she was arraying herself in the skimpiest articles of black lace and chiffon. The sight made him feel unusually warm all over and somewhat jittery as well. He didn't see how he could possibly measure up to that!

At last, despairing of finding anything appropriate, he seized his wallet and dived out the bedroom window, headed for Hawaii. Hopefully he could still find a store open there that could supply him with some sort of correct attire.

The trip to Hawaii at the top speed of which he was capable left a sonic boom rattling windows across the continent, and, had he but known it, caused the flight crew of more than one transcontinental airliner and at least one amateur astronomer ready to swear to the sighting of an unidentified flying object. As a result, however, he was back before Lois exited the bathroom, correctly attired (he hoped) in black silk boxer shorts that left his chest bare. It had been a bit of an extravagance but after all, this was his first night with Lois. The last thing he wanted was to disappoint her and to look like a hick farmboy compared to Ronnie Davis -- which he very much feared that he did.

The whole idea was slightly intimidating. Unlike his peers, the idea of "scoring" with a good-looking girl had never attracted him -- at least not to the extent that it apparently attracted the other guys in his social circle. Certainly he wasn't immune to the opposite sex but he'd found it fairly easy to hold such feelings in check -- at least until he'd met Lois. After that, she'd dominated his dreams on many nights and there had been more than a few occasions that he'd taken a quick flight to the Arctic to dive into a snow bank in an effort to distract himself from the places where such thoughts were leading him. But now that the occasion was actually at hand, it seemed suddenly as if his hands and feet were too big for him, his tongue had tied itself in knots and he had grown a second head. He wondered if it was normal to feel like this.

Quickly, he leaned forward to look into the mirror of his dresser and gave his chin a swift once-over with his heat vision. Then he ran a hand through his hair, frowning at the length of it in the back. A quick glance through the bathroom door showed him that Lois was brushing her hair. He had a few minutes.

With the skill that he had developed through necessity, he appropriated a comb and his shaving mirror and proceeded to trim his hair in the back. There. That looked less like a high school kid and more like an adult. He rapidly disposed of the strands of hair in the bedroom trashcan and turned to face the bathroom door just as it opened.

In spite of the fact that he had caught several glimpses of her through the bathroom door, she took his breath away. The black chiffon and lace were hopelessly ineffective as any sort of covering, and might as well have not been there at all. Clark had to remind himself forcefully not to drool.

"Wow," he said faintly.

Lois smiled almost timidly at him. "I wanted to look nice for you."

"You do," he said with certainty. "You look fantastic."

"So do you," she said. She cocked her head to the side, examining him. "You cut your hair," she added.

"I decided it was time to stop looking like a kid," he said. He crossed the short distance to her. "You're incredible -- and I'm a lucky guy."

She appeared to be studying his collarbone very intently. "Really?" she said.

"Definitely. And I wish I hadn't given you the impression that I wasn't interested in you," he added. "I might not be human but I guess I'm close enough because you're the most gorgeous woman I've ever seen."

"I wish I'd known how you felt." Tentatively, she reached up to caress his newly shaven chin. "So, do you think you could -- well, really be my husband? I want to be the wife you wanted."

"You are the wife I wanted," Clark said softly. He exerted all his courage and rested his hands on her shoulders. "Do you think I asked you to marry me out of pity? I've wanted you since the first time I saw you -- not just for one night, but for the rest of my life. I've been alone since my parents died, but the minute I saw you, I knew that things could be different if I had you in my life. Even if it was just as a friend -- but I wanted it to be a lot more. I didn't think it could happen like that -- in a split second -- but it did." Slowly, he began to lower his head toward hers. Lois lifted her face and closed her eyes.

The kiss was gentle at first but grew in intensity so quickly that when it ended they were both gasping. Clark reached out blindly and hit the light switch, plunging the room into darkness. He could still see, although it was obvious that Lois couldn't. He reached down to scoop her up into his arms.

The grey light of dawn was creeping through the un-shaded window when Clark woke in response to an unfamiliar humming noise.

Lois was curled tightly against him, still asleep with a slight smile on her lips. It had been something like four in the morning when they had finally fallen asleep. She had been everything that he could have imagined and more, and he'd gone to sleep holding her in his arms with the feeling that he had finally, after a long absence, really come home.

But the humming sound wouldn't go away, and he turned his head, searching for the source.

It was originating from his footlocker, and through the keyhole and around the tiny crack where the lid met the body, he could see traces of a brilliant light coming from within.

"What is it?" Lois's drowsy voice asked.

"I'm not sure." Clark slipped out of bed and went to take the key from his dresser. As he bent to undo the lock and lift the lid, Lois sat up, holding the sheet to her chest.

The lid came open and the glow brightened to an almost blinding intensity, radiating from the depths of the chest. Then a ball of molten luminescence appeared, floating upward onto a level with his eyes as he straightened up. Clark swallowed convulsively. It was the mysterious globe, blazing with a dazzling white brilliance of its own.

Almost instinctively, he reached out to grasp it and under his touch the faint brown and green outline of the Earth's continents changed. Ruby red, the single continent of Krypton shone at him like a patch of blood against the white background. And then ...

It had to be some kind of hologram, he thought. A man was suddenly standing there, dressed in some sort of white robe, and on his chest gleamed the stylized S-emblem that had graced the nose of his ship, as well as the decal that Clark had found inside the tiny vessel.

"What's happening?" Lois's voice whispered. She had moved up beside him and now he put his arm around her.

"I don't know," he said. "Wait."

The man was probably in his early forties, with dark hair and blunt, stern features. The eyes seemed to lock on him. And he spoke.

"I am Jor-El. And you are Kal-El, my son. The object you hold has been attuned to you. That you now hear these words is proof that you survived the journey in space and have reached your full maturity. Now it is time for you to learn our heritage. To that end, I will appear to you five times. Watch for the light, listen, and learn."

Suddenly he was no longer in his bedroom at home. He floated, insubstantial, in what must be a laboratory, watching Jor-El standing before an oddly shaped console and staring into a viewscreen. Colors swirled in its depths. To one side, on a kind of stand, lay a capsule constructed of some transparent material.

"Time grows short," Jor-El's voice said, "and we continue to search. The immensity of space is both a blessing and a curse. In that near infinite variety there must be some place suitable. Hope and desperation drive us in equal measure."

Motion at the edge of his vision. A tall, beautiful woman entered the scene, looking questioningly at Jor-El. He shook his head. Both turned to look at the capsule.

"Lara works by my side," the deep voice said. "She is tireless and endlessly patient. Considering what is to come, this is my greatest consolation: that we are together."

The room began to vibrate. Jor-El clasped Lara in his arms until the shaking stopped. Then, without comment, he turned back to his console.

The globe's light faded, leaving Clark with the vision of Jor-El and Lara standing before the console, and a sense of the desperation that motivated these two persons -- apparently his Kryptonian father and mother.

The globe hadn't returned to its former Earthlike appearance. The red outline of Krypton's continent pulsed faintly at them.

"Wow!" Lois whispered.

Slowly, Clark moved to set the globe down onto the foot of the bed.

"Kal-El," he whispered. "My name was Kal-El."

It wasn't quite six o'clock in the morning but after such an event Clark felt it hard to relax. Still, his bride had had less than two hours sleep. He returned the now-inert globe to his footlocker, got slowly back into bed next to Lois and pulled her close to his side. Lois snuggled up to him, resting her head on his chest.

"Wow," she said again. "That was amazing."

"Yeah," he said.

"That was your real father and mother," she said. "What did he call himself?"

"Jor-El," Clark said. "And she was Lara."

"That's a pretty name," Lois said thoughtfully. "And you're Kal-El. You don't look like a Cal. I can't see you as anyone but a Clark." She raised a hand to cup his jaw. "It looks like you're going to find out about yourself," she said. "It must have been awful, not knowing where you came from or why -- but from what I can see, you weren't just abandoned. They seem to have gone to a lot of trouble to tell you where you're from."

"Yeah," he said. "In a way that's kind of scary, too, but now at least I'll know. I'm glad you were here when it came alive like that. You deserve to know, too, whatever it's going to tell us." He shifted position a little and tilted his head so that his cheek rested on her hair.

She ran a hand over his bare chest. "You know," she said, "it feels almost disrespectful but it's still early. Mother usually sleeps until eight and Lucy'd sleep until noon if I'd let her. Maybe you could -- I don't know -- like to help me get back to sleep."

"Aren't you tired?"

"A little, but I don't think I'll be able to go back to sleep right now without some help."

He felt himself beginning to grin. "You know, I like the way you think."

It was closer to eight when he woke again. Lois was still sleeping soundly and Clark slipped out of the bed, careful not to wake her. A glance at the footlocker showed him that the globe was still inert. Recharging, maybe? His robe lay on the floor at the foot of the bed and he appropriated it. From the near silence in the house, Ellen Lane was still sleeping and so was Lucy so he should have the time for a quick shower.

In actuality, he had showered, shaved and dressed, and was warming up a skillet on the stove when he heard the first sounds of stirring upstairs. Moving quickly, he plugged in the electric griddle, mixed up the pancake batter, defrosted the bacon and set it to frying next to the first pancake. Scrambled eggs seemed like a good bet, and he broke three eggs into the skillet, added the other ingredients and was stirring them gently when Ellen Lane walked into the kitchen. She eyed him thoughtfully. "Where's Lois?" she asked.

"Still asleep," Clark said. "She needs her rest."

"If she takes my advice, it won't matter," Ellen said shortly. "Is the phone connected? I need to make a long distance call."

"Of course," Clark said, well aware that Ellen intended to call her ex-husband in the attempt to enlist his support. "It's in the living room. Breakfast will be ready when you finish."

Ellen nodded briefly and vanished into the living room. Clark continued to scramble eggs and tried not to listen in but, in very short order, the murmur of Ellen's voice escalated sharply to a level that was difficult for him to ignore.

"What do you mean Lois already talked to you? She called you behind my back?" A moment of silence. "They couldn't possibly have been there last night! He's here right now, cooking breakfast in the kitchen!" Another, longer silence. "Sam Lane, how dare you speak to me that way! No, I haven't been drinking! There isn't any liquor in this entire, antiquated building!" From there the conversation degenerated rapidly until he heard the receiver on the phone slammed down with a sharp "bang!"

Clark was careful to seem unconscious of the events in the other room when Ellen stomped back into the kitchen. He placed two pancakes onto a plate, added a serving of scrambled eggs and two slices of bacon. "Would you like coffee or juice with your breakfast?" he inquired blandly.

Ellen didn't speak, but he noted that she ate a substantial breakfast. Clark was content to leave the morning conversation to languish while he ate his own breakfast and then collected the plates and utensils in silence. "I'm just going to cover the pan and the griddle," he told Ellen as she got up to leave. "Lois will want something when she wakes up.

"Did you call Lois's father last night?" Ellen inquired suddenly.

"No," Clark said.

"Did Lois?"

"No," Clark said.

Silence. Ellen regarded him with a puzzled air. "What's the nearest airport around here?" she asked suddenly.

"There's a private airfield in Rattlesnake Bend," Clark said, "about thirty miles from here. It's where the local crop dusters house their planes. The closest commercial airport is about fifty or sixty miles away, near Jefferson City."

"Oh," Ellen said. Abruptly, she left the kitchen. A moment later, Clark saw her in the bare area between the house and the barn, regarding the small blue car with a slight frown on her face. Clark went quietly about his kitchen duties. The only tire tracks in the dust were clear evidence that the vehicle hadn't been moved since the day before, and Clark had no intention of enlightening Ellen as to the true circumstances of last night's events.

It was nearly eleven when Lois came down the steps. Clark had been replacing a rusty hinge on the coat closet door and listening to the radio for the weather report, which predicted a forty-percent chance of thunderstorms by this evening. There were also the weather forecaster's amused, off-the-cuff comments regarding the UFO reported by a number of persons in California and out over the Pacific. There hadn't been any radar sightings, either civilian or military, the man had said, and the opinions of various sources were that what people had seen had been an electrical display in the area, due to freak atmospheric conditions. No vessel on Earth could possibly move with the kind of speed that would have been necessary to completely evade the military's radar, official sources had stated, and various opinions advanced by local meteorological scientists supported the theory of an electrical phenomenon. But, the weatherman observed, with obvious amusement, if anyone should happen to see any little green men, he advised them to cut back on whatever they were smoking. After all, the reports had come from California...

"Good morning," Clark said. "How are you this morning?" He frowned at the faint pallor of her cheeks. "Are you all right?"

She nodded. "Pretty much," she said. "I still feel a little queasy in the morning but it's not nearly as bad as it was a couple of weeks ago."

"Would you like some tea and maybe some toast or crackers?" he asked, instantly concerned.

"That would be good," Lois said.

"You go on in and sit down," he said quickly. "I'll have it ready for you in a few minutes."

"Where's Mother?" Lois asked.

"She went outside a while ago," Clark said. "Maybe she's exploring the property." He ushered Lois into the kitchen and pulled out a chair for her. "Just give me a minute and I'll have your tea ready." He filled the kettle and warmed the water with his heat vision, while locating cup, saucer, teaspoon and tea for his wife. A moment later, he was pouring a cup of tea for her. "Will Oolong do, or would you prefer something else?"

"Is there more than one kind?" Lois asked.

"Well, yeah -- but never mind." He set out a saucer full of soda crackers. "Let me know if you need anything else."

"Clark, it's just a little morning sickness," Lois said, sounding slightly amused. "I'll be fine." She took a cautious sip of the tea. "Did Mother call Daddy this morning?"

He nodded, glancing at the front door for signs of Ellen Lane. "Apparently your father thinks she may have been drinking."

"Oh? Why?"

"Well, I didn't hear his half of the conversation but apparently he didn't believe her when she told him I was here in the kitchen, cooking breakfast."

"Oh," Lois said. She selected a cracker and bit experimentally into it. "Lucy's up," she added.

"I know," Clark said. "I'll get her some breakfast and then you can tell me if you need anything re-arranged in the living room. And didn't you say something about going into town around one? I have to be at Maisie's at one-thirty, so --"

"I have class this evening, too," Lois told him, "so I can pick you up after work."

"Good," Clark said. "I've left a casserole in the freezer for dinner. I guess you can heat it up in the oven, can't you?"

"If you'll tell me how long," Lois said. "I've heated up frozen dinners before, you know."

"I'll leave the instructions stuck to the refrigerator," Clark said. He frowned, glancing around the property. "I don't see your mom anywhere," he added. "You don't suppose she started off for town on foot, do you?"

"If she did, there's nothing we can do about it," Lois said. "I'd think a ten-mile walk might be a bit much for her, though."

"I'll take a look around for her in a while," Clark said, "assuming that she doesn't show up first."

But by the time Lois and Clark were ready to leave for town, leaving Lucy to her own devices for an hour or so, Ellen Lane hadn't reappeared, nor did they encounter her on the highway. However, when they arrived in town, Clark located Lois's mother at once. She was seated at the counter in Maisie's Diner, drinking coffee, and on the floor beside her was a large grocery bag, containing a 1.75 Liter of generic vodka, a Liter of Scotch whiskey and another of brandy. However Ellen had made it to town, she obviously had made the most of her time.

He reported the fact to Lois, who met his eyes with a look of resignation. "I hope Daddy has something in mind," she said. "This isn't going to be easy."

It emerged, later that evening when Lois picked him up after her evening class, that Ellen had thumbed a ride out on the highway. Some obliging citizen of Smallville had given her a lift to town.

She had spent the afternoon harping on Lois's stubbornness and ingratitude and nearly driving her daughter to the screaming point. Clark could see that the situation couldn't remain as it was. Ellen had made no move to find new lodgings in town, and Lois had begun to suspect that that part, at least, had been an empty threat, but, upon their arriving home, Lucy informed them, with a certain relish, that Mother was passed out on the couch. Clark and Lois looked at each other and Lois sighed.

"I think," Clark said, "that we have a problem."

The forty-percent chance of thunderstorms that the weather forecaster had given them that morning emerged around nine o'clock in the evening. On the stroke of nine, Lois snapped off the small, thirteen-inch set that had come from the Lane apartment and sent a slightly protesting Lucy up to bed before heading up to the master bedroom, herself. She was already in bed with only the lamp on her nightstand burning when Clark emerged from the bedroom's adjoining bathroom a short time later, clad in his black shorts with his dark hair damp from the shower. She looked him over appreciatively and smiled. "I wish I'd gone to the lake with you, back when we first met," she said.

Clark grinned faintly. "So do I," he said. "On the other hand, seeing you in a bathing suit might have made it a lot more difficult for me to sleep than it's already been since I met you, so I guess it's probably just as well."

She blushed. "I'm glad it's you with all those special vision powers and not some of the other guys around here," she said. "If Hank Weston had them, I'd have been wearing a lead suit. He was bad enough on just one date. It was all I could do to keep his hands where they belonged."

"Well, I can't exactly say I wasn't tempted around you," Clark said, sliding into the bed next to her.

"It's a good thing you have super willpower, too," Lois said, batting her eyelashes at him.

"It's a good thing I don't need it anymore," Clark countered.

In the distance, thunder growled. Outside, he was aware that the wind had begun to pick up somewhat. "Looks like we might be in for a storm," he remarked. "We can use it. It's been a dry year." He pulled Lois into his arms. "I guess it's a good thing anyhow. We won't have to worry so much about being quiet."

Lois giggled softly. "Why, Mr. Kent, what on Earth could you possibly have in mind?"

"Well," Clark said judicially, "I guess I could go get the Scrabble board."

"No way!" Lois said, instantly indignant.

He grinned. "On the other hand, I'd have to be crazy to do it," he added, "when I've got you here." He lowered his face to kiss her thoroughly. Lois's indignation subsided at once.

At the foot of the bed, a glow began, faint at first but brightening rapidly, and a low-pitched hum filled the room. Clark raised his head, both frustrated and at the same time eager.

"The globe!" Lois whispered.

They scrambled out of bed and Clark went to his dresser to get his key ring. He had decided yesterday morning that the key to the footlocker would do better in his pocket than left where Lucy or more likely Ellen, on a snooping expedition, might find it.

As soon as he opened the chest the sphere floated out, blazing with energy. The scarlet continent pulsed at them, and the whole globe seemed now to have developed a faintly ruddy hue.

Clark reached out to take the object into his hand and instantly Jor-El was standing before them.

"This is the second of the five times I will appear," the solemn voice said. "You may wonder that I speak your language and not my native Kryptonian. I do not. That is another property of the object."

And then they were floating insubstantially in the alien laboratory again. This time it was indeed they. Although he couldn't see her, Clark could sense Lois's presence beside him. A white table before them bore a helix-shaped object and both Jor-El and Lara were bent over it, performing some kind of delicate adjustments to it. Above the object a ghostly image of the thing floated and as Jor-El touched the solid object, corresponding points on the image glowed with pinpoints of light.

"Unmanned probes have explored every corner of the known galaxy and beyond," Jor-El's voice continued. "For thousands of centuries we have received data back from those probes..."

The laboratory began to shake as it had the first time. Jor-El and Lara grasped the table and each other until the shaking subsided. When everything steadied again, Jor-El's voice continued. "I've every confidence that, given enough time, we can achieve the conversion to a manned vessel. But will we have the time?"

The scene shifted as Lara moved across the lab to the mysterious capsule, which now lay open and for the first time Clark could see what it contained. "The pattern of core disintegration continues to accelerate," the disembodied voice continued. "Even I cannot predict where it will end.

A baby, probably no more than two months old. Clark found that he was holding his breath. The infant moved aimlessly in its strange bed, its dark eyes fixed on the woman. Lara gazed down at her child and then back at Jor-El, who looked at her with pain in his own eyes.

"There is an ancient Kryptonian saying," Jor-El's voice said. "'On a long road, take small steps.' Precision and care are our watchwords. Yet, we still have far to go."

The vision vanished and the light faded. Clark stared at the now inert globe.

"Clark!" Lois whispered. "Do you see? That baby was you!"

Slowly, Clark replaced the globe in his footlocker and closed the lid. Lois watched as he locked it, and her face revealed her excitement. "That was you!" she repeated. "There was some kind of disaster coming -- what did he say? 'Core disintegration?' They were trying to save you!"

"I think you're right." Clark rose to his feet. "Something was happening -- something really bad. They talked about unmanned probes -- it sounded as if they didn't have manned space flight. Jor-El somehow must have found a way --" He looked down at the footlocker, willing the globe to glow again but nothing happened. "I guess we'll have to wait to see, but --" He looked up to meet her eyes. "I've gone all my life, thinking that my parents abandoned me. I was angry with them for it, but --"

"Maybe," Lois ventured, "they knew you would be. They must have wanted you to know what really happened -- that you were so important to them that they somehow managed to send you here to safety." Her hand crept to her abdomen. "They must have loved you very much."

"Just like you love this baby," Clark said. He put an arm around her. "Like I already do. I'm glad you decided to keep it." He raised his free hand to her face, cupping her cheek. "I'm glad I have you."

Outside, a gust of wind buffeted the side of the house and rattled the windows. A sudden pattering on the glass made him look past her, through the wall. "It's raining."

A bright flash of lightning, visible even through the blinds and pulled curtains, was succeeded by a crack of thunder that made the house quiver. Lois winced.

"Get back in bed," Clark said, reaching for his robe. "I'll check to be sure all the windows are closed and I'll be right back. We have some unfinished business tonight."

As he checked the house at high speed, Clark almost expected to see Lucy scrambling down the attic stairs, terrified of the thunder, but a quick glance showed her sleeping like the proverbial log. He had carried Ellen Lane up to her room an hour earlier, still in a drunken stupor, and apparently the effects hadn't worn off yet, for no sounds, other than those of the storm, disturbed the household.

Lois was waiting for him as he re-entered the bedroom and locked the door behind him. "Is everything all right?"

"All safe." He didn't tell her that he was listening for any of the telltale signs of something worse. Tornadoes had a certain characteristic sound that he had found he could recognize from a long way off. Listening for warning sirens was nearly useless, he knew, for by the time the warning sounded it was often too late. The radio at the Irig home, a number of miles away, had been talking of a tornado alert for the past fifteen minutes and if the alert turned into the real thing, Clark intended to have his small family down inside the storm cellar long before the cyclone actually struck. In his eighteen years in Kansas, he'd been through a number of such alerts and, for some reason, the storms always steered clear of the area where the Kent farm stood. Something about the wind currents, some of the old timers said, seemed to direct the big twisters away from the general area -- which might be true, but he certainly wasn't going to count on anything so nebulous as folk wisdom that Lois and the others would be safe. He intended to be sure.

Another flash of lightning lit up the window and more thunder made the house tremble. Lois looked anxiously at him. "That was close. I've never seen a storm like this."

"We have them now and then," Clark said. "Lightning has never hit us, but Dad put up a lightning rod a couple of years before he and Mom --" He broke off. "It's still there and I reinforced it while I was fixing up the place. We'll be all right."

"All right." She appeared to accept that and patted the mattress next to her. He accepted the wordless invitation and slid under the covers. "Now, handsome, I think we had some urgent business that was rudely interrupted..."

It was two AM when the sound that Clark was listening for brought him out of a light sleep. The wail of the wind had taken on an edge that was almost like the snarl of a big animal. He sat up, scrambling out of bed in the same motion. "Lois, wake up!"

Her eyes opened. "What's wrong?"

"We need to get to the storm cellar right now," he told her in an urgent but calm voice. "Go wake your mother up. I'll get Lucy."

Lois didn't take the time to ask questions, for which he was thankful. She snatched her dressing gown off the chair that sat nearest her side of the bed and thrust an arm into it as she exited into the hall. Behind her, Clark whisked up the attic steps and an instant later was shaking Lucy's shoulder. "Lucy, wake up!"

Unlike her sister, Lucy barely opened her eyes, closed them again, rolled over and pulled the pillow over her head. Clark reached out, grasped her around the waist and picked her up, covers and all. An instant later he was in the hall, steering the half-awake girl by one arm.

"Mother, wake up!" Lois's voice sounded exasperated. "Wake up! It's an emergency!"

An inarticulate mumble from Ellen Lane answered her. Clark hurried to the door. "Take Lucy. I'll bring your mom."

Less than a full minute later, the four of them exited the back door of the farmhouse and crossed the yard. Rain sluiced down around them and Clark could hear the howl of the wind, still with that hair-raising edge to its normal boisterous voice. He herded them toward the storm cellar, half-carrying Ellen in spite of his mother-in-law's slurred protests.

They stopped by the trap door and Clark muscled it open one-handed. "Go on down!" he commanded. "Hurry!"

The normally warm wind of Kansas in July had an icy edge to it, and it whipped the blanket that Lucy hugged around her shoulders, and blew Ellen Lane's hair wildly about. Lois was first down the ladder and Clark pushed Lucy after her. "Hurry, Lucy! There's no time to lose!"

The younger girl threw her blanket down the hole and clambered down after it, nimble as a monkey. Right behind her, Clark lowered Ellen down by the hands, flying somewhat to negate the lack of leverage. As soon as her feet touched the ground inside, he released her hands and stood up. In a flash he had returned to the bedroom and grabbed his footlocker. After all they had gone through to get to this point, he wasn't going to lose the globe!

He was back in a split second, lowering himself down the ladder. Once inside, he pulled the heavy wooden door shut. Lois was holding one of the flashlights that he had placed on one of wall shelves for just such an emergency, and, in its light, he fastened the sturdy latches to hold the door in place.

"Everybody sit down," Clark said. "If we're lucky, we won't have to stay here long."

"What's going on?" Ellen mumbled.

"Tornado," Clark said briefly. He set the footlocker down in a corner, turned to the radio that sat on one of the shelves and switched it on. Outside, he could hear the savage roar of the wind that heralded the coming of the monstrous storm. The thing was barely a mile and a half away from the farmhouse and he could only hope that it would stay on its current track and not shift direction at the wrong moment.

"Tornado?" Lucy squeaked.

"Are we safe?" Lois asked steadily. She wrapped her soaked dressing gown around her skimpy night clothing.

"Yeah," Clark said. He opened the chest that he had stored down here while he was renovating the farmhouse, and produced dry blankets. "Here, wrap up in this and give me that." He held the blanket up so that Lois could remove her dressing gown and wrap herself instead in the light blanket. He handed another to Lucy, and a third to Ellen. His mother-in-law seemed to be more alert now, with the realization of danger.

Silence descended on the dark little room broken only by the shrieking of the wind. Clark turned the radio dial, searching for a station. Somewhere in the static, he could hear an announcer's voice speaking and dance music.

Lowering his glasses, he tracked the storm. The huge funnel was moving north, parallel to the highway that ran past the Kent farm, plowing a narrow path of destruction through the countryside. There shouldn't be anything in its way if it kept its current track, he thought. Hopefully no one would be running around in the dark and rain at this time of night, anyway. It was a little late in the season for tornadoes but he knew the huge, destructive storms really could happen just about any time of year.

Lucy began to cry softly and Lois put an arm around her. "It's going to be okay," she told her sister. "Clark knows what he's doing."

Above them the heavy door rattled sharply but showed no sign of coming open. Ellen clutched the blanket Clark had given her around her soaked nightgown and seemed to hunch into herself. Clark reached out to take Lois's hand and continued to try to tune the radio with his free hand, more as a cover for following the progress of the storm than from any real hope of hearing any news announcements.

Eventually, the wind began to die down and the rain slackened. Even the static began to clear somewhat. The storm, in the way of tornadoes, dissipated with relative suddenness. One moment it was howling like the monster it was, and the next it began to lose its power. The rain continued to fall, but it had abated its violence. Clark suddenly found the radio reception to be relatively clear, with a radio weatherman assuring them that the storm had gone. And giving the all clear signal.

"It's over," Clark said. "We can go back in the house."

"If it's still there," Ellen muttered peevishly.

"It's there," Clark said. "Didn't you hear what he said about the route? It passed about half a mile to the east of us. It's over."

"What if another one comes back?" Lucy asked.

"They said the weather front is passing," Clark said. "It isn't likely but if another one does come near us, we'll come back down here. Don't worry, Lucy. I'll have plenty of warning, just like this time."

When they got back into the house, the phone was ringing. Clark answered it, unsurprised to hear Wayne Irig's voice issuing from the speaker.

"Hello, Wayne," he said in answer to the older man's inquiry. "We're fine. It missed us by about half a mile. Are you and Nettie all right?"

"We're all right," Irig's voice said. "I'm gonna have some damage to clear up tomorra, though. That big oak tree out back came down in the wind."

"I'll come over in the morning to help you chop it up," Clark told him. "You're sure you and Nettie are okay?"

"Yeah," Wayne told him. "I'm gettin' a bit stiff to go climbin' down ladders in the middle o' the night, but we're okay. I'll see you tomorra, sometime."

"Good night," Clark said.

Clark woke at seven the next morning and in spite of a disturbed night's sleep, Lois opened her eyes as he was climbing out of bed.

"Morning," she murmured.

"Morning," he replied. "I thought I'd fix breakfast for everybody and then give Wayne a call. The wind last night blew down the oak tree in back of his place. I promised to come help him chop it up this morning."

"Was that what you were talking about on the phone?" She sat up.

Clark's eyes flicked instinctively to her torso, inadequately covered by the black outfit. He'd carefully dried it for her with his heat vision the night before, prior to her getting back into bed. "Yeah," he said, belatedly answering her question. "Would you like me to get you anything to eat before I head on over? Maybe some hot tea and some crackers -- or is there anything else you'd like?"

"I think I could eat a little breakfast this morning," she said, sounding slightly surprised.

"No problem. What do you want?"

She hesitated. "Uh -- you're not going to believe this." She looked a little embarrassed.

"Try me."

"Would you believe, a banana split with three kinds of chocolate ice cream? I'm sure you haven't got the ingredients, so I'll settle for cereal, I guess. Do we have Cocoa Puffs?"

Clark hadn't known Lois all this time without becoming aware of her addiction to chocolate. "I'll see what I can find," he told her. "Just take your time getting dressed and I'll try to have something with plenty of chocolate when you get down to the kitchen."

Stepping outside the bedroom door moments later, he quickly scanned the house. As might have been expected, Ellen Lane was still sound asleep, which was probably just as well. If she didn't have a hangover this morning, it was going to be a miracle. Lucy was also sleeping. He shifted into super speed and a second or two later he strolled through the door of Edwards and Sons Grocers and Bakery on Smallville's Main Street. Seven minutes after entering the store, he pushed a laden cart up to the checkout counter.

Eleanor Beale, who had been one of his mother's friends, was the checker this morning, and she raised her eyebrows at the groceries that he set out on the counter. "Chocolate ice cream?" she asked. "Rocky Road and Chocolate Almond Praline?" She examined the fudge sauce, maraschino cherries, various other condiments, whipped cream, and walnuts that he set down next to the more mundane cartons of milk and orange juice, fresh-baked bread and the bunch of bananas. "Having a chocolate sundae for breakfast, Clark?"

"No," Clark said, smiling.

At that instant, the eyes of Smallville's most notable gossip lit on the gold band that he wore on the third finger of his left hand. "Since when did you get married?"

"After graduation," he informed her, deliberately neglecting to give the date.

"I never heard anything about it," Eleanor said.

"Well --" Clark lowered his voice. "Her family didn't really approve of me, so we didn't advertise it."

"My goodness!" She began to ring up the groceries. "Where are you living now?"

"On the old farm," Clark told her.

"Oh -- but isn't it terribly run down?" Eleanor asked. "I'd think it would be, after so long!"

"I fixed it all up in my spare time, before the wedding," Clark explained with deceptive ingenuousness. "You'd hardly recognize it now, since I got finished with it."

"But -- I heard you were going to college in the fall. How can you do that and farm the land, too?"

"I'm renting out the land," Clark explained. "And I'm enrolling in Midwest U -- that's only an hour's drive from here. I'm arranging my classes so I only have to drive it three times a week. That way I can live at home and avoid the cost of university housing."

"Oh," Eleanor said. She glanced at the groceries again, this time out of the corner of her eye. "Are those for your wife?"

"Yes," Clark said, noncommittally, well aware that by the end of the day it was going to be all over town that Clark Kent was married and that his wife was expecting. Oh well -- in a small town like this, as Maisie had been frequently known to say, everybody knew everything about everybody. He certainly hadn't been the only high school senior to get married right after graduation. If he and Lois could keep the actual circumstances of the wedding to themselves, that would have to suffice. He'd already heard several rumors that were circulating about at least two of the young women who had married their high school boyfriends immediately after graduating from school. The rumor was that they had done so because they were "in the family way," as he had overheard one of the older patrons of Maisie's Diner delicately describe it to her hostess. It certainly wouldn't be an entirely unprecedented event in Smallville. Most persons smiled knowingly and shrugged such things off. Even the gossip-mongers of the town appeared to think that as long as a couple had "done the right thing", that a baby born six or seven months after the actual wedding wasn't worth more than a few minutes of entertainment at the most.

He paid the bill, picked up the two bags of groceries and left the store, whistling softly. A couple of minutes later he was touching down behind the barn, out of view of anyone in the house. He strolled casually into the kitchen only a minute or so later and began his breakfast preparations for Lois. When she entered the kitchen a few minutes later, dressed in a blouse and a pair of snug jeans that immediately drew his attention, he was able to present her with the requested banana split with three kinds of chocolate ice cream.

Her eyes widened and then began to fill with tears. "You went to all that trouble for me? You are such a romantic doofus!"

He put his arms around her. "Only because I'm insanely in love with you. Do you mind that I want to make you happy?"

She shook her head and sniffled. "No. It's just that nobody's ever really gone out of their way for me. I didn't think I was worth it."

In some ways, he thought, Lois had been lonelier than he had been while growing up. At least Martha and Jonathan Kent had left no doubt in his mind that they had loved him. Lois had been raised by an alcoholic mother whose interactions with her daughters seemed to consist largely of criticism, and a father who had been so involved in his work, and so focused on what he wanted, that he hadn't had much time for her -- or Lucy, for that matter, he thought. He and Lois would have to do what they could to help Lois's little sister to realize that they did care about what happened to her. But it also behooved him to let Lois know that with him she would always be first. "Well, you're going to have to get used to the idea that to me, you're always worth it," he said firmly. He took her head in his hands, tilted her face back and kissed her thoroughly. When he drew back she was smiling through the tears that were running down her face. "I love you, Lois Lane. Get used to it. Now, sit down and eat that thing before it melts."

Lois had nearly finished her chocolate breakfast when Ellen Lane entered the room. She was wrapped in her dressing gown and the expression of combined peevishness and misery on her face would have been difficult for him to describe. "Is there any aspirin in this godforsaken place?"

"As a matter of fact, there is," Clark said. "It's in the downstairs bathroom. Just a minute." He exited the room to return a moment later with the requested item.

Ellen took the tablets with a grunt of what he assumed was thanks and swallowed them with the glass of water that her daughter held out to her.

"Would you like some ginger ale?" Clark inquired. "I'm told it's good for an -- upset stomach."

"Later," Ellen said. She left the kitchen without further comment, to collapse on the sofa. Lois glanced into the room and made a face.

"Do you mind if I go with you to Mr. Irig's?" she asked. "I don't want to be around Mother while she's hung over."

"I don't mind at all," Clark said. "What about Lucy, though? I don't want to leave her with your mom, either."

"Neither do I. I'll get her up and we can take her along," Lois said. "I'm sure she'd rather go with us than stay here. Mother's going to be impossible to live with until she's over her binge."

"All right," Clark told her, silently chiding himself for the reflection that Ellen Lane was impossible to live with, hung over or not. "Why don't you wake her up now so she can get something to eat before we go -- and do you want anything else? You're going to burn off all that sugar pretty fast."

Lois shrugged. "How about a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with sweet pickles that I can take along to eat when I start to get hungry?" she said. "That tasted pretty good yesterday. By the way, do you work this afternoon?"

"I'm supposed to handle the ticket booth at the theater tonight. My shift starts at six," Clark told her. "It goes until midnight, so I'll be home right after twelve."

"All right," Lois said. "Be right back."

While Lucy was eating scrambled eggs and bacon, Clark called Wayne Irig and explained that he would be bringing his wife and her sister with him. The older man didn't appear to mind so, after rinsing the dishes for later washing, Clark, Lois and Lucy set out for the Irig's home in the little blue car, leaving Ellen on the sofa with a wet washcloth on her forehead.

The Irig farmhouse was similar to the Kent home. It had a more battered appearance, probably, Clark thought, because Wayne hadn't painted it in a couple of years. Lois drove carefully into the area of packed earth between the house and the barn due to the presence of a number of chickens wandering aimlessly about the area, pecking at the ground. On the fence nearby, a large, brilliantly colored rooster announced their arrival to the world and a moment later Nettie Irig opened the kitchen door as they got out of the car.

"Hello, Clark." She smiled at him. "And this must be your bride." She opened the door wider. "Lois, is it? And --" She looked questioningly at Lucy.

"This is my sister-in-law, Lucy Lane," Clark said. "Have you met Lois before?"

"I've seen you now and then," Nettie said, addressing Lois. "Isn't Ellen Lane your mother?"

Lois nodded.

"I thought she'd mentioned you. You don't look much like her. Come on in."

"You know my mother?" Lois asked.

"I met her at the Bridge Club," Nettie said. "So, would you like to come in and have a cup of coffee while the men are taking care of the tree?" She turned to Lucy. "Come on in, honey. I don't know if you'd like to watch the morning television shows but I'm sure we can find something for you. My granddaughter is going to be here in half an hour. She's thirteen -- just about your age. Do you know Celia Johnson? She goes to Smallville Middle School."

"She was in my class last year," Lucy said, her expression brightening.

"Wonderful! I'm sure the two of you will be able to find something to do." Nettie Irig herded Lois and Lucy into the house before turning to Clark. "Wayne is out in back, behind the barn," she said. "He said to tell you to go right out there. There was something he wanted to show you."

"All right," Clark said. He trotted around the building toward the spot where the ancient oak tree had stood.

Wayne Irig had evidently been busy this morning. While he had been waiting for Clark he'd apparently harnessed his tractor to the big tree and hauled it clear of the place where it had stood since the time his grandfather had first built the house and begun to farm the land. Now he was busy with a chain saw, lopping off the branches. Clark waved and jogged toward him.

Irig lowered the saw and stood waiting until Clark arrived.

"Wow," Clark said, regarding the fallen tree. "The wind must have been fierce here last night."

Irig grunted. "Kinda. There's another saw over there." He nodded toward a second chain saw lying across a tree stump a short distance away. "When we're done here, I need to show you somethin'," he added. "When the tree came up it uncovered somethin' -- never seen anything like it before. Saw it when I dragged the tree away from the spot."

"Oh?" Clark said.

"Yeah -- some kinda green-glowin' crystal. I put it in the barn -- figured it might be somethin' you oughtta take a look at before I let anybody else see it."

Clark glanced at Wayne, wondering just what was on his mind. Wayne Irig was a taciturn man who never said much about anything, but Clark had always wondered if he knew more about Clark's origin than he'd admitted. He'd never asked questions about some of the odder things that had happened since Clark had come to stay, and Clark had decided finally that if he did suspect anything, he had no intention of talking about it.

For some time only the buzz of the chain saws broke into the otherwise normal sounds of the Irig farm on a Saturday morning. Finally, they finished cutting off the last of the branches. Clark surveyed the trunk. "This shouldn't take long. How do you want to do this?"

"We'll cut it up for firewood," Irig said. "I figure I'll split the logs later and stack 'em on the woodpile. Be good to have this winter."

"Good idea," Clark said.

"You can take some of it, since you're helpin' me," Irig added.

Clark nodded. "Thanks. I appreciate it."

"Figured you can use it now that you're married. Save on heating costs." Wayne started up his saw and went to work on the thick trunk. Clark did so as well.

They finished some time later. Clark straightened up. "Why don't we take a breather and then I can cart this stuff over to your woodpile," he suggested.

Irig nodded. "Let's put the saws away and I'll show you what I found," he said.

"You said it was a green crystal? Some kind of quartz, maybe?"

Irig shook his head. "Don't think so. I've lived on this land for sixty-two years and I seen lots of rocks, but I never saw nothin' like this before."

A faint prickle ran over Clark's scalp. "What do you think it is?"

"Dunno. Thought maybe you'd have some idea." He looked meditatively at Clark. "Maybe I oughtta tell you," he said slowly, "I've been down in your storm cellar. Right after Jonathan and Martha got killed in that accident. They'd left legal stuff, put me in charge o' watchin' the place. There was a busted board in the middle of the floor. I got a look at what was hidden under it." He was silent for several seconds. "I remembered that flap about the space debris, right about the time Jonathan and Martha said you'd been born."

"Wayne --"

"Didn't like those government types, though, the way they went snoopin' around," Irig said. "Askin' funny questions. Acted like they didn't really believe what I told 'em, pesterin' your dad and mom. Don't trust the government when they get too interested in people's property," he added. He was silent for a moment. "I replaced the board," he said finally. "Never said nothin' about it to nobody. Didn't figure it was anybody's business." He gestured toward the barn. "You've always been a good kid. Never any trouble for anybody, always tryin' to do the right thing. Jonathan and Martha would have been proud of you."

"Thanks," Clark said. There really wasn't much else to say.

The Irig barn was much like the one on the Kent property except this one was a working barn instead of one that stood empty. Several stalls for Irig's cows gaped open, a milk pail hung from a nail on one wall and there was the unmistakable scent of hay and farm animals. Motion overhead caught Clark's eye and he looked up to see a calico cat perched on one of the beams, watching them inscrutably. From somewhere above in the loft, he could hear the needle-like cries that told him a litter of kittens was notifying their mother that it was getting close to mealtime.

Wayne led the way toward the storerooms in the back and opened the one on the far left.

Inside, a long wooden workbench against one wall held an array of items from a bucket of nails and a hammer to an ancient and obviously non-functioning wind-up alarm clock and a sack labeled "Smallville Feed Store." Several larger sacks that apparently contained fertilizer leaned against another wall and above them on a shelf, a battery-powered radio held a light coating of dust, which showed unmistakable handprints. A shovel and rake stood in one corner and a rough wooden cabinet in the rear was locked with a tarnished padlock. Wayne reached up to pull the chain on a dangling light fixture overhead and, in the illumination provided by the un-shaded bulb, crossed the room toward the cabinet. Dust floated in the air, visible in the yellow light.

The old farmer removed a heavily laden key ring from his pocket, fumbled with the lock for a few seconds and then it clicked open with surprising ease for such an old lock. He opened the rough wooden door and removed a metal box.

The box was also locked with a padlock. Wayne set the box down on the workbench. If Clark was any judge, the thing was heavy. He moved forward, unobtrusively lowering his glasses and tried to x-ray the contents, only to discover that he couldn't. Wayne selected a second key on his key ring and opened that lock as well.

He lifted the lid and at once a green glow was visible from the depths of the box. Inside, he caught a glimpse of a hunk of what looked like granite, with large, green-glowing chunks of crystal apparently sprouting from its surface. He wasn't given more than an instant to take in its appearance, however, for the pain hit him at once. His muscles cramped in agony, his stomach lurched and a wave of weakness washed over him. The strength seemed to run out of his muscles like water from an upended glass.

Wayne was looking at the mysterious thing and must not have realized at first that anything was wrong. "Since I ain't seen anything like this before, I figured it had to be from somewhere else," he was saying. "You got any idea what it is?"

Clark heard the words as if from a far distance. He braced one hand against the wall, trying to keep his balance. The room seemed to be swaying alarmingly around him and every individual cell in his body was on fire.

"Wayne --" he gasped.

Irig looked up, surprise apparent on his features. "What's the matter?"

"Something wrong --" Clark got the words out through lips that suddenly didn't seem to be able to form them. "Hurts --"

"You think it's this thing?" Irig shut the box at once but Clark was barely aware of it. The last thing he was aware of was the sensation of falling and of blackness rolling up to meet him.

"Clark? Clark, please wake up!" It was Lois's anguished voice calling him that dragged him out of the blackness. Slowly, Clark became aware of his body, and the fact that it hurt, but the urgent need to reassure her made him try to open his eyes.

"He's waking up!" Lois's voice was suddenly breathless. "Clark, can you hear me?"

"Lois --" he whispered.

His head was in her lap, he realized. Her hand stroked his forehead, cool against his burning skin. "It's all right," Lois's voice said. "Don't try to move yet."

In the background, he heard the rumble of a deeper, male voice and Lois's voice said, "Tell them I'll be back in a while. I don't want to have to explain to Lucy and her friend why we can't call the paramedics."

Another, shorter sentence and then silence. Clark struggled to open his eyes. His eyelids seemed to weigh a ton but at last he made the reluctant muscles obey him. The room was dim and above him a blur of colors swam, slowly resolving itself into Lois's face.

"Clark?" her voice said.

He made a tremendous effort. "You're upside down."

She gave an odd-sounding laugh and a warm drop of liquid fell onto his cheek. He raised a shaking hand to wipe it away but Lois performed the service for him. Another drop fell on his face as she was wiping the first one away and he realized she was crying.

"Don't cry," he told her in a slightly stronger voice. "What happened?"

"Don't try to talk," Lois said in a half-whisper. "Mr. Irig has gone to tell Nettie to keep the girls busy. He says he showed you a weird green crystal and you passed out."

The memory was beginning to come back. The green-glowing crystal, the overwhelming nausea and blinding pain. It had diminished now to an ache in his muscles and joints and a comparatively mild sensation of queasiness. He grimaced faintly. If this was anything like the morning sickness that Lois had been experiencing for the last several weeks, he wondered how she ever managed to get out of bed.

"I remember," he said, surprised at how hoarse and weak his voice sounded. "It hurt. I've never felt anything like it before, even before I got my powers."

"What was it?" she asked.

He shook his head slightly, grimacing as his senses swam in response. "I don't know. I've never seen it before. It's not like anything I've ever seen on Earth."

"You mean it might not be from Earth?"

"I don't think it is," he said. Slowly, he got an elbow under him and pushed himself shakily to a semi-reclining position. "Help me sit up."

She hesitated and obeyed but she was still frowning. "You mean it came from outer space? Like a meteor?"

"Maybe. I can't think of anything else it could be," Clark said. "I'm sure we'd have heard of it if something like this stuff had been found before. I've read some books about geology and there wasn't anything in what I read about these green crystals. Wayne's never seen anything like them before either. Besides," he added, "if anyone had found anything like them, they'd probably make jewelry or something out of them."

"That's true," Lois agreed. "And it didn't hurt Mr. Irig, but it hurt you. It seems pretty strange that this stuff that nobody's ever seen before should show up here, so close to where your ship came down, and that it can hurt you. Do you suppose it somehow came with you?"

"I don't know," he told her honestly. "I guess it could have."

"How do you feel?" she asked anxiously.

"Not too good," Clark told her. "Shaky -- but a lot better than a while ago. How long was I out?"

"Almost ten minutes," Lois said. "Mr. Irig called me and told me what happened. He was afraid to call the paramedics. Did you know he'd guessed?"

"Yeah, he told me, more or less," Clark said. "He found the ship right after my parents died and fixed the floor in the storm cellar so nobody else would find it."

"You mean he's kept it secret for eight years?" Lois said. "Wow."

"Yeah," Clark said.

The storeroom door scraped open again and Wayne Irig entered, closing it carefully behind him. He surveyed Clark anxiously. "How're you feelin'?"

"Better," Clark said.

Lois rested a hand on his forehead and pulled it back after a few seconds. "You're awfully hot," she said. "You've got a fever. Whatever that stuff is, we're not going to let it get close to you again."

Wayne Irig nodded. "That's sure," he said.

"That box seems to keep it from hurting you, though," Lois said. She glanced at the object, where it sat on the bench.

"It's made out of lead," Clark said. "They use lead to block radiation. It must block whatever it is that this stuff puts out, too."

"If it glows by itself, could it be radioactive?" Lois asked.

"Maybe. It sure had an effect on me," Clark said. "I think we should keep it closed."

"I'm gonna," Irig said, grimly. "I'm gonna throw it in the incinerator and melt it down into a lump of lead and then bury it in the town landfill. Nobody'll ever find it there."

Clark looked up at the older man's determined face. "Thanks."

"I just wish I'd never found it," Wayne said. "It hit you like a ton o' bricks and you still don't look so good."

"It's probably just as well you did," Lois said. "What if Clark had come too close to the place you found it when nobody was around? He could have died if you hadn't been there to help him!"

Irig considered that. "Yeah," he said slowly. "You're probably right. Whatever that stuff is, I'm gonna keep an eye out for any more. If'n I find any, I'll tell you -- and get rid of it. 'Sides, we don't want nobody else to find any."

Clark nodded. He was feeling somewhat better but still far from normal. After a moment, he made an effort to hoist himself to his feet and would have fallen if Lois and Irig hadn't grabbed him.

"Come on," Lois said. "Let's get you in the car. You should be home in bed." She hesitated. "Would it be all right if Lucy stays here for a little while, Mr. Irig? She and Celia are having a good time, and I don't want her to know what happened."

"Sure," Irig said. "Celia comes over here every Saturday, just about. She's havin' more fun with your sis than she usually does."

"Thanks," Lois said. "I'll come back and pick her up when Celia's ready to go home."

Wayne Irig nodded. Together he and Lois helped Clark out to the car.

Clark leaned back in the passenger seat as Lois started the vehicle and pulled out onto the dirt track that led out to the paved road. She didn't speak and he felt himself drifting slightly. Before he knew it, they were stopping in front of the Kent farmhouse and Lois was setting the brake. He lifted his head.

"That was fast."

Lois cut the engine. "I want you to go back to bed," she told him. "Do you think you can make it into the house if I help you?"

He eyed the short distance doubtfully. "I think so."

"Okay," she said, pushing her door open, "don't you dare move until I get around there to help you!"

"Yes ma'am," he said meekly. Lois eyed him suspiciously but he smiled back innocently at her.

In spite of the fact that his knees seemed to have developed a consistency similar to rubber, they made it in the door. Ellen Lane was still settled on the sofa with a rag over her eyes but she removed it as the screen door swung shut with a slam. She winced.

"You know better than to slam the door when I have a headache," she complained.

"Sorry," Lois panted, letting Clark slide into the nearest chair. "I didn't have an extra hand."

"What's wrong with him?" Ellen demanded, turning her head to look at the two of them. She sat slowly up, dropping the rag to the carpet.

"Clark had an accident over at the Irig farm," Lois said.

"He doesn't look hurt," Ellen said doubtfully.

"A branch fell and hit him on the head," Lois improvised. "He's dizzy and his head hurts." She turned to Clark. "Do you want to rest before you try to make it up the steps?"

He shook his head. "If I need to sit down, I can," he told her. "Let's get it over with."

"Don't you think you should take him to the doctor?" Ellen asked sharply. "If he has a head injury, it could be serious."

"He's already seen Clark," Lois answered. "He said Clark should rest for a while and I'm supposed to check on him a lot, just in case." She turned to help him as he hauled himself out of the chair. "Hang on to the banister," she directed, putting her arm around him. "And if you need to, you sit down right away. Understand?"

Clark couldn't help smiling at her determination. She was so adamant that he wasn't going to push himself too hard. Whether she loved him or not, it was very obvious that she cared a good deal about him. He could settle for that, he thought, and it might turn into love eventually. It had happened before.

Her mother saw it too, and scowled. "For heaven's sake, Lois," she said, "leave the man alone. He can manage without you telling him what to do."

Clark felt Lois stiffen and gave her shoulders a slight squeeze. She glanced at him, a scowl on her face but he felt her take a deep breath and then she smiled a little. "Come on Clark. Let's get you where you can lie down," she said.

When they finally made it to the master bedroom, Clark was shaking in every limb and was more than grateful to sink down onto the bed with a slight gasp of relief.

"Lie down," Lois directed. "I'll help you get your clothes off."

"I can manage," he protested.

She kicked the door shut behind her, not even wincing when it slammed sharply. "Maybe, but you don't have to and you can't tell me you don't feel terrible," she retorted. "Besides, I thought you liked to have me undress you."

"Well, yes, but that's a little different," he said.

She began to untie his shoes. "No it isn't. I'm your wife and I've already seen you naked," she pointed out practically. "I'll leave your underwear on, at least this time."

He couldn't help laughing weakly. "All right. But I'll get even; see if I don't."

"I'll take that as a promise." She removed the shoes, dropped them to the floor and proceeded to peel off his socks.

She had gotten him down to his briefs when a faint humming began and rapidly grew louder. Clark pushed himself up on one elbow, trying to ignore the throbbing in his skull as he sought out the footlocker that he had returned to its spot at the foot of their bed after the storm last night. In the dimness of the bedroom, with the curtains pulled to exclude the noon sun, the glow of the sphere leaking through the tiny crack where the lid of the chest met the body was unmistakable. He began to drag himself up from the mattress but Lois moved to where she had dropped his slacks to the floor and removed the key ring. A moment later, she had opened the chest and stood back as the globe floated out, glowing brightly enough to make Clark squint.

Absently, Lois moved to the door to turn the lock, never removing her eyes from the blazing globe. Clark held out his hand, and it floated directly to him. The entire sphere had definitely taken on a deeper reddish hue now.

The instant he touched it, he and Lois were standing in the laboratory again, watching Jor-El and Lara at their work. Jor-El's voice spoke again.

"There is no longer any doubt. The chain reaction has begun. As panic spreads, the population awakens, too late, to its fate. Our future is inevitable."

Again the room began to shake violently. Jor-El and Lara clutched various heavy objects until the tremor again subsided.

Then, as the room steadied, a different noise broke the unnatural silence that had followed the quake. A low beeping sound came from the console where he had been working and the sound seemed to have an electric effect on both Jor-El and Lara.

Jor-El stumbled to his feet and did something to the controls before him. The beeping noise went off, but he was staring intently at something before him on the viewscreen. Lara came to join him as another tone chimed from the device and he put his arm around her. Unfamiliar symbols began to scroll rapidly across the screen.

Clark was so intent on the scene that the sound of Jor-El's voice almost made him jump out of his skin.

"At last the computers have located a suitable destination," the deep voice said. "A planet physically and biologically compatible with Krypton, whose inhabitants resemble ours and whose society is based on ethical standards which we, too, embrace in concept, if not always in deed."

As he spoke, the symbols, colors and lights on the screen dissolved and began to take on a familiar shape. A blue, green and brown globe, with a very familiar pattern of continents and capped with ice at the poles, floated in space before them.

"The inhabitants," Jor-El's voice said, "call it simply, Earth."

The scene faded and Clark slowly became aware of his pounding head again. He lay back on the pillows, closing his eyes, and felt Lois take the globe from his hand, then heard the sound of her closing the footlocker.

"I'm going to keep the keys for now," her voice said. "I guess aspirin doesn't work on you, does it?"

"I doubt it," Clark said.

"Besides," Lois said, "for all we know, it might be poisonous to you, at least right now."

Clark hadn't thought of that. "My powers are gone," he whispered.

"I figured that," she said. "Until they come back, you need to be a little careful. Still -- did you hear what Jor-El said?"


"He said Earth is physically and biologically compatible with you -- or you are with us. What do you suppose that means exactly?"

"I don't know," he said. "Probably that I can eat the same things humans do, and breathe the air. I did when I was a child and never had any trouble."

"I guess." He felt the mattress give slightly as she sat down next to him. "I think it means you're enough like us that it doesn't matter." Her hand slid into his. "I'm pretty sure I love you," she said suddenly. "Did you know that?"

He opened his eyes to look up at her. "I hoped you might, at least someday."

"Not someday," Lois said quietly. "Now. I don't think I've ever been so scared as I was when I saw you lying on the ground there in the barn. I was afraid I was going to lose you." She leaned down and kissed him lightly on the lips. "Go to sleep. Maybe after you've had some rest you'll feel better."

He didn't tell her that hearing her say that she loved him had been a better tonic than all the sleep in the world. She got up and went into the small bathroom. There was the sound of water running and she reappeared with a wet washcloth that she laid carefully across his forehead. "Go to sleep," she repeated.

Obediently, he closed his eyes.

When Clark woke it was past four. He turned his head cautiously but the room remained steady and a glance at the clock told him that he needed to get up. Lois and the others would need dinner before he went to work.

Cautiously, he pushed himself into a sitting position and breathed a faint sigh of relief when the world stayed upright. The throbbing headache was gone, he realized, and with it the weakness that had afflicted him right after his introduction to the crystals. Still, something seemed to be missing but it wasn't until he tried to hear the sounds in the house to tell him where everyone was that he realized what it was. He had no super hearing. An attempt to look through the walls with his x-ray vision also met with failure.

He got out of bed slowly, paying close attention to his body's signals. The ache in his muscles and joints had vanished and the nausea was gone as well. He felt perfectly all right, except that whatever it was that gave him the extra abilities that he had possessed for the last few years of his life appeared to be in abeyance. Hopefully that was a temporary condition as well, he thought with determined optimism, as he pulled on his clothing once more. He was already considerably improved since Wayne had first shown him the mystery crystals. Whatever they were, they were something that he didn't want to encounter again. They were poisonous to him; that much was obvious.

He was combing his hair when the bedroom door opened quietly and Lois entered the room.

"Clark! What are you doing out of bed?"

He smiled at her. "I feel all right," he told her. "No headache, no aches and pains or anything."

"You're sure?" she asked.

"Yeah. I feel ..." He paused and his voice dropped. "Normal."

Her eyes narrowed. "Normal? What does that mean?"

"I mean, I feel all right. Just -- no powers."


"No super hearing, no x-ray vision. No flying. I tried."

"Then you're not back to normal!"

"No, but I'm like everybody else," he said quietly. "Maybe it's a good thing."

She shook her head. "No, it's not. Normal for you is extraordinary. Anything less isn't normal."

"Well, yeah -- but I don't feel bad or anything. It's silly for me to be lying in bed like I was sick. Besides, I need to fix dinner."

"I made sandwiches," Lois said, a little defiantly. "And macaroni salad." She paused, looking a little embarrassed. "Mother cooked the macaroni."

"Oh," he said. He put an arm around her. "I'm impressed."

"And," Lois said, "what I told Mother -- that a branch fell and hit you on the head -- I told Lucy the same thing. That's the official story, anyway. And Lucy's going over to spend the night at Celia's."

"Really? It sounds like she and Celia hit it off pretty well."

"Yeah. They both like 'Wham!'."

At his raised eyebrows she laughed softly. "They're thirteen," she pointed out.

"I guess there's no accounting for taste," Clark agreed. "All right. Are you driving her over or is someone picking her up?"

"I'm going to drive her over at about seven," Lois said.

"Any chance you could drive me to work, too? I have to be there at six."

"Clark, you're not working tonight! Not after what happened!"

"I need to," he told her soberly. "Really, honey, I feel all right. Just not...super. We need the income," he added. "I know we don't have to pay rent but there's still a lot of things we do need to pay for and that means I have to go to work."

"I can work too, you know," she pointed out. "You were the one that wanted me to --"

"I didn't say I didn't want you to work," Clark said. "I want you to do exactly whatever you want to do -- but right now you have an education to finish, as well as a mother and sister to keep tabs on while Lucy's out of school. If you want to get a job for the rest of the summer, we'll figure out how we can manage it and still do the rest -- but I still need to go to work tonight. We've got bills to pay."

She was watching him with a puzzled expression. He waited for her to speak but she didn't.

"What?" he asked.

"You," she said.


"Nothing. But I'm going to be waiting for you when you get off work. Don't even think you're going to walk. As a matter of fact, I think I'm going to the movies tonight after I drop Lucy off."

He looked doubtful. "The main feature is 'Conan the Destroyer', he told her, "and the other one is 'The Pope of Greenwich Village'. I don't know if you'll like them much. 'The Karate Kid' is supposed to be pretty good but we don't get it until Wednesday. Smallville Theater doesn't get most of the good movies until they've been out in the bigger cities for two or three weeks."

"That's all right," Lois said. "I'll just watch Arnold and compare him unfavorably with you."

He could feel his face growing pink. Even after being married to Lois for two days and two amazing nights, she still had the power to fluster him. She leaned forward and kissed him on the lips. "Don't be so modest, husband. I've seen a lot of guys take their shirts off in movies, and so far I haven't seen even one that looks as good as you do. Come on downstairs when you're ready. We're eating in a few minutes."

"Hi, Clark." Pete Ross, escorting Lana, stopped at the ticket booth window and Pete shelled out the money for two tickets. "How's it going?"

"Fine," Clark said.

"I hear you fixed up the farmhouse," Pete said casually. "Mind if I come over and see what you've done to the place?"

"No," Clark said. "Come over any time you like."

"I thought you were going to sell the property," Lana said, and Clark detected the faintly acid note under the honey. "My dad's been wanting to buy it but Wayne Irig wouldn't even talk to him about it."

"That's because it's my property," Clark said mildly. "Wayne isn't about to sell it before I'm old enough to take over and I can't do that until my twenty-first birthday."

"That old place," Lana said contemptuously. "Nobody who's anybody farms these days."

Pete glanced at Lana and Clark thought the conversation made him uncomfortable. "Will it be okay if I come by tomorrow afternoon after church?"

"Sure," Clark told him. "Give me a call first, would you? -- just to be sure somebody's there."

"I heard you got married," Lana said, the acid in her voice more pronounced. "I guess that's going to make it hard to go to school this fall."

Clark had figured that was the reason for her attitude. "No. I've been accepted at Midwest U," he said blandly. "It's only an hour from here. It's less expensive living at home than paying for university housing."

Pete cleared his throat. "The rumor's all over town," he said. He looked at Clark's left hand.

Clark glanced casually at the people waiting impatiently behind him. "I'll tell you all about it tomorrow," he said. "Better go on in. You're holding up the line."

Pete nodded, gave him an infinitesimal wink and steered Lana into the lobby of the theater. Clark smiled at the next customer. "How many?"

"Two adults and two children," Allan Graham, the owner of Graham's Rental Cars told him. Clark accepted the money and pushed the requested tickets across the counter to him. Graham took the tickets and herded his wife and twin sons through the turnstile.

As the evening wore on, Clark found it amusing to realize how quickly the word had spread around town that he was married. Lana and Pete weren't the only ones to hint at the subject. Persons whom he barely knew cast glances at his left hand and several asked him right out if he was married, to which he always replied pleasantly that he was. Fortunately, the nature of his job made long conversations impossible, but he was sure that the rumors about who his wife was and whether or not she was expecting were floating around the town. Smallville's grapevine was a well-established plant. It wasn't that he was ashamed of his marriage -- far from it. He simply wanted to be able to control how the information was passed along, at least as much as he could.

He handed two tickets to Hank Weston and Rachel Harris, recalling what Lois had said about Hank and his hands, and hoping that Rachel would be able to keep Hank in his place if he got too aggressive. She probably would, he reflected. Sheriff Harris hadn't raised any wimps for daughters as Rachel and both her sisters had proven over and over while they'd been growing up. Rachel smiled at him as she turned to push through the turnstile into the theater, and glanced at his hand. "Congratulations," she told him.

He smiled back at her. Rachel and he had been friends since first grade. "Thanks," he said.

The next couple stepped up to the window, and Ronnie Davis said, "Two adults, please."

Clark detached two tickets from the roll and accepted the money Ronnie held out. Ronnie was nineteen and his date this evening was Carole Tibbets, who had been the female valedictorian in Clark's graduating class. She and Clark had been friends, and worked together on more than one school project. She smiled at Clark, after the briefest glance at his left hand. "Congratulations, Clark," she said.

Ronnie Davis had barely noticed him but now he turned to look at Clark. "You're Kent, right?" he said.

"That's right," Clark said briefly.

"So you're the guy," he remarked obscurely. A little smile curled his lips. "I guess I should congratulate you too." The smile turned into a grin that wasn't entirely pleasant. "Always wondered what a white knight looked like."

Clark ignored the comment as well as the smirk. "Thanks, Carole," he said with a smile. "Better go on. The movie starts in ten minutes."

By the time his shift had ended and he was closing up the booth, while inside the theater a diminished number of persons watched the last showing for the evening of Arnold disposing of hundreds of various overwhelming foes, he was conscious of a sensation that he hadn't felt since his super powers had started appearing: fatigue. He glanced at his watch, noting that it was two minutes to midnight. Lois would be here in a few minutes. He finished the last details and clocked out only a minute or two late. Emerging from the theater, he saw the little blue VW sitting quietly by the curb, Lois behind the wheel.

As he crossed the sidewalk to where his beautiful wife waited for him, he reflected briefly on how much his life had changed since he and Lois had gotten married, two days ago. His routine had certainly changed but he wasn't complaining. In those two days he had gone from "just best friends" to the man Lois loved, and he had begun to learn about his history. Sure, the green crystal had appeared but, married or not, that would probably have happened anyway and at least now he didn't have to face whatever the result was alone. Lois's mother was going to be a problem but they would cope one way or another. He was more concerned with protecting Lois and Lucy from her dysfunctional behavior, if the truth were known, than anything else. Certainly, he would like to help her but some of that help was going to have to come from Ellen, herself, and it was obvious that, at least so far, she didn't realize that there was a problem, or at least she didn't have the motivation to do anything about it. The fact that she was bitter about life was not an excuse, in Clark's eyes, for making her daughters' lives miserable, or destroying their happiness. He'd seen the cynicism and, to be honest, contempt, with which Lucy regarded her mother's alcoholism, and it worried him. He didn't want Lois's sister to be harmed by her mother's inability to cope with life. The children of alcoholics were more likely to have more problems later in life and that wasn't good. He wasn't sure what to do about it except to show Lucy that he and Lois cared about her and to try to figure out some way to get Ellen to accept the idea of going into a rehab program. How they were going to do that he wasn't sure, but somehow they had to manage it.

He opened the passenger door and got in beside Lois. "Hi."

"Hi." She leaned over to kiss him lightly on the lips. "How do you feel?"

"All right," he fibbed and then grinned at the expression on her face. "All right, I'm a little tired, but I'll bet you are, too, aren't you?"

"Well, yes -- but not too tired. Are you?"

He laughed softly. "Definitely not. Besides, we're still on our honeymoon."

"Good." She started the engine and pulled away from the curb.

When Clark awoke the next morning, Lois was still sleeping soundly. It was past eight and to Clark, who normally woke before seven, it seemed very late. Still, they'd gotten to sleep around one in the morning, and today was his day off, so it wasn't as if he was late to work or anything. Church didn't start until ten o'clock, so Lois could sleep late if she wanted to. If she even wanted to go to church this morning. There was always the service on television if she didn't feel like making her first appearance as Mrs. Kent yet. He figured he'd leave the decision up to her. As for him, the thought of walking into church with the most beautiful woman in town on his arm would be great. Not that Lois was any sort of trophy wife. He grinned to himself at the thought. He had the feeling that before long, Lois would regain her usual stride and would shortly be running the Kent household with the same determination that she had used when running the Lane one. Wayne had been right when he called her a stick of dynamite. He suspected that Wayne had been more right than even he knew.

He dressed quietly and went down the stairs on tiptoe so as not to wake Lois. Waking Ellen wasn't an issue. They had walked in the door last night to discover Ellen snoring on the couch, a half-empty glass of vodka and orange juice sitting on the floor beside her. Clark and Lois between them had managed to get her up to her room and into bed, but Clark suspected that this was likely to be the pattern in the foreseeable future.

Once downstairs, he stepped outside into a typical warm and humid Kansas summer morning. To the east the sun was bright and the sky was a clear bright blue, dotted with puffy, white clouds, but to the west darker clouds were gathering. It looked like another summer thunderstorm might be on its way.

He turned toward the sun, letting the warmth leach into him. The sunlight felt good on his face and arms and he had the momentary impulse to strip off his shirt and soak in its rays. He didn't, of course, but he stayed outside, drinking in the sunlight for another ten minutes while he stood back, looking the house over.

The repair and furbishing-up job that he had done had been a pretty thorough one. The house looked almost new with its bright coat of paint and the new roof. His mother's two rose bushes by the front steps had grown scraggly with time and he decided that a little pruning might be in order. He'd have to read up on the art of pruning them so he could do the job right, he thought. Maybe he could find his mother's book about roses and do that this evening, if he had the time.

But right now, breakfast should probably be next on the agenda. Lois would be waking up soon, and Ellen was going to come downstairs after while, wanting something for her headache. He was tempted to throw away the bottles of booze, but couldn't quite bring himself to take something belonging to someone else, even if it was for her own good. Ellen Lane was an adult, after all, even if she acted like a child. He didn't have the right to make her do anything, even if he thought it would probably be best for her. Besides, she'd probably just go thumb another ride into Smallville and buy more.

Making breakfast at normal speed took longer than he'd expected and he was reminded again that he wasn't invulnerable anymore when he absentmindedly took hold of the iron skillet with his bare hand. He let go at once and stuck his hand under the cold water faucet for several minutes. Fortunately, there didn't seem to be any blisters, he saw when he examined his offended palm. Just a slight reddening of the skin -- but he certainly wouldn't make that mistake again. That had hurt!

He was just setting the breakfast table when Lois came down the stairs, wearing the outfit that he had seen her wear at the church a number of times. "What are we eating? We've got about an hour before we have to be at church."

"Is your mom coming?" he asked automatically.

"Not if she's as hung over as I think she's going to be," Lois said, making a face.

"Are you sure you want to go?" he asked. "People are going to gossip."

"They'll gossip more if we don't," she pointed out. "If we go and act like we're not trying to hide anything, they'll have less to discuss."

"That's true," Clark agreed. "Let's eat and then I'll go change. We'll leave something out for your mom to fix for herself in case she feels like eating."

"That's a bet I wouldn't take," Lois said. She applied herself to breakfast with determination. "Unless it's vodka," she added cynically.

Contrary to what Clark expected, not many persons seemed surprised when he and Lois walked into the little church together. Pastor Neil was greeting the members of his congregation and smiled at the two of them as they came through the door. "Hello, Clark. I'd heard you were married. Is this your bride?"

"Yes," Clark said. "You know Lois, don't you?"

The minister smiled at Lois. "I met Miss Lane -- I mean, Mrs. Kent -- several months ago. I haven't seen you for a few weeks, Lois. Welcome back."

"Thank you," Lois said composedly. Only Clark was aware of her hand squeezing his tightly. She and Clark went on into the church and found a place near the back.

From a spot halfway down the pew, Harold Johnson, one of the coaches for the Stingrays, was seated next to his wife. He lifted a hand to Clark and would have started a conversation if the organ hadn't begun to play, drowning out all but the loudest voices. Lois reached for one of the hymnals and opened the program pamphlet that was provided for the use of the congregation, and Clark drew a faint sigh of relief. His powers still weren't back, judging from his failure to lift the front of their car in the parking lot, but at least this part of the day was going well. Pushing aside for the fiftieth time this morning the worry that his powers might not return, he, too, reached for a hymnal, hoping devoutly that Lois wouldn't expect him to do more than mouth the words. Singing just wasn't one of his talents.

The sensation of being watched made him look around. The Langs were just taking their seats across the aisle and Lana was glaring at Lois. Lois glanced up and Clark could swear that he heard a distinct click as the two women locked gazes. Clark swallowed. He hoped Lana wouldn't start anything in church; he really didn't feel like dealing with the results if she lost her temper. He knew Lois well enough by now to know that Lana would run into an unpleasant surprise if she were to try to start something with Lois Lane. Lana was looking at Lois in a way that made Clark profoundly nervous. Lois, on the other hand, met Lana's gaze with an expression so blank that Clark might have thought that she didn't have any idea of the hostility being directed at her, if he hadn't known better. Lois raised her eyebrows, gave Lana a faint, aloof smile and turned her gaze back to the hymnal.

After church, they stayed only a few minutes. Clark was anxious to leave before Lana caused a scene but the Langs didn't approach. With luck, he thought, her parents might persuade Lana that a public catfight over Clark's choice of brides wouldn't do her social standing any good. He and Lois bade goodbye to Pastor Neil and headed out toward the parking lot and the little blue car.

One of Clark's former football teammates hailed them on the way and they stopped to allow Bill Norton to catch up. Bill had been the Stingrays' starting quarterback for the past two years and had graduated at the same time Clark did. He was an inch or so shorter than Clark, well-built, blue-eyed and blond, with a crinkle in the bridge of his nose -- a momento of the incident in his sophomore year when he had been tackled by a linebacker from an opposing team and ended up with a broken nose.

"Hey, Clark!" Bill trotted up, a grin on his face.

"Hi Bill. How are things going?"

"Great. I got accepted at Midwest U on a football scholarship." He looked at Lois. "Hi," he added. "You're Lois Lane, right?"

"That's right," Lois said. "Only it's Lois Lane Kent now."

"I heard you'd gotten married," Bill said to Clark. "Congratulations. You're a lucky man." He smiled at Lois in a friendly way. "I was supposed to ask Clark if he'd volunteer for the water balloon booth at the Corn Festival."

"Water balloon booth?" Clark asked, slightly dismayed.

"Yeah. They're short a target. You'd only have to do it for a couple of hours," Bill told him. "I'm one of the others. It's for the orphanage fundraiser, you know."

"Sure," Clark said at once. "Where do I sign up?"

"I'll tell my mom," Bill said. "She'll call you about it. What's your phone number?"

Clark gave it and Bill carefully wrote it down. "Thanks," he added. "Mom'll really appreciate it." He smiled at Lois. "You married the last boy scout, you know," he added. "I'll talk to you later," he told Clark.

"Sure," Clark said. He opened the car door as Bill trotted off. Lois got into the driver's seat.

"I'd forgotten the Corn Festival," Lois said. "Weren't you the target for the water balloons last year?"

"Yeah. One of them," Clark admitted. "It's for a good cause."

"He said you were the last boy scout," Lois said. "I guess he was right."

Clark shrugged. "Do you mind?"

"No; not a bit." She leaned her head against his arm for an instant before starting the car. "I used to think boy scout types were a bit dorky -- or maybe they had to have an ulterior motive -- but I changed my mind after I met you. Do you think we managed to kill the gossip?"

"Probably not, but it won't be as juicy now as it would have been. People will find something else to talk about before long."

"Lana was sure giving me the evil eye."

"I noticed. Lana dumps guys; they don't dump her. The only thing was, I didn't. She dated other guys besides me, and I dated, too."

"The way I heard it, Lana told Rachel Harris to back off and Rachel told Lana what she could do about it," Lois said.

"Oh yeah?" That surprised him.

"You mean you didn't know?"

He shook his head.

She reached over to pat his arm. "That's part of your country boy charm," she said tolerantly. "I probably shouldn't even admit that the girls on the cheerleading squad liked walking behind you while you were in your football uniform. I wouldn't want you to get any ideas."


"Those uniforms have very form-fitting pants," Lois said innocently, "and you have a very nice --"

Clark felt the heat flood his face. "Lois!"

"Well, you do," she said.

Clearly he wasn't going to win this one. "I guess," he said, changing the subject, "we should head for home."

She nodded. "I have to study this afternoon. My Monday evening class is having a test."

"Yeah. I've got some stuff I need to work on around the house. Do you happen to know anything about pruning rosebushes?"

"No," Lois told him. "I have a brown thumb. I kill plants just by being around them." She paused. "Any sign of your powers coming back?"

He shook his head. "Not yet. I sure hope they're not gone for good. I've only had them for a few years, but they're something I really don't want to give up."

"Especially the flying," Lois said.

"Yeah," Clark agreed.

The phone was ringing as they walked into the house. Ellen Lane, sprawled on the sofa with a wet rag over her eyes, groaned and covered her ears, making a futile swipe at the instrument. Clark picked up the hand set and went into the kitchen. The swinging door closed behind him.

"Hello?" he said.

"Hey, Clark!" Pete's voice said. "I'm going past your place in a little while. You going to be home?"

"Sure," Clark said.

"Great. I'd like to drop by for a bit."

"Okay," Clark told him. "I don't suppose you know anything about pruning rosebushes, do you?"

"Only that you need to wear gloves," Pete said.

"Oh," Clark said. It looked like he was going to have to get out his mother's rose book. He'd noticed it among some of the books he'd retrieved from storage and arranged in the hall bookcase. "Okay, see you in a while."

Lois had gone upstairs to change, he saw when he re-entered the living room. Ellen Lane looked at him with bloodshot eyes and lurched off the sofa, making her wavering way toward the kitchen. Clark set the phone down on the charger on his way past and hurried toward the stairs to change out of his good clothes and into a pair of jeans and a T-shirt before Pete arrived. At the top of the stairs, before entering the bedroom, he tried to X-ray through the door but the results were disappointing.

Lois was pulling on a pair of snug jeans when he entered the room. Clark gave a low wolf whistle. "Too bad Pete's coming over in a little while," he said.

Lois grinned. "Did I mention that I liked walking behind you, too?"

He snorted. "Well, now you know why I liked walking behind you."

"Mmm. Maybe we could get to bed a little early tonight," she suggested.

"I'd like that," he said.

"Me too. Any sign of your powers coming back yet?"


Instantly she dropped her teasing tone and came to put her arms around him. "Is there anyone you can go to for help?" she asked.

He shook his head. "Nobody knows about me but you and Wayne, and you're the only one who knows about the powers," he said. "The only thing we can do is wait."

"I don't have any way to back it up," Lois said, "but I have the feeling that it's going to be all right. You feel all right, don't you?"

"More or less -- except for not having any powers."

"That's what puzzles me," Lois said. "This stuff knocked you out and took away the powers you've had since you were what -- eleven?"

"I started getting stronger at ten, but I think I'd been getting harder to hurt before that -- I never got a skinned knee or a cut after I was about eight, although I picked up a few minor bruises. I fell out of my tree house when I was nine and landed on the back of my neck. I was a little sore for a while but I was fine by morning. Looking back now, I should probably have been killed."

"So you've had at least some of your powers for nearly ten years," Lois said. "It doesn't make sense that this green crystal could just take them away. I wonder if it's sort of like a cold and when your body overcomes it, they'll come back."

He kissed the tip of her nose. "Maybe. I hope you're right."

"I'll bet I am."

The sound of a car engine outside made Clark release her. "That's probably Pete. I've got to change."

"I'll tell him you'll be right down," Lois said.

He was pulling the shirt over his head when Lois opened the door and slipped inside. She put her finger to her lips. "It's Daddy!" she said in a whisper.

"Your father?" Clark tucked the shirt into his jeans and tightened the belt. At her nod, he reached for the comb and ran it quickly through his hair. "I guess you'd better let him in. I'll be right down. Where's your mother?"

"In the kitchen, looking for the aspirin, she says. She has a hangover, just like I predicted."

"I figured she would," Clark said. "You'd better tell her the aspirin's in the bathroom."

"Actually, I think she went looking for the vodka," Lois said, a faint note of disgust in her voice. "She sometimes does that to try to get the hangover to go away."

"Does it work?" Clark asked curiously.

"I have no idea." She turned back toward the door. "He's knocking. Don't take too long."

"I'll be right there."

True to his word, he descended the stairs barely two minutes later, while Lois was still letting her father in. Sam Lane looked exactly the same as he had the other night, except for the lack of a lab coat.

"Hello, Dr. Lane," Clark said.

"Hello, Clark." Sam Lane was looking around the interior of the farmhouse. "This is a very charming house."

"It's my parents' house, sir. They left it to me."

"I'm aware of that, but I expected it to be somewhat run down. I believe you said that your parents were killed eight years ago. It's in very good condition."

"I've been renovating it," Clark said. "I'm not completely finished with it, but --"

"You've done a good job. I came to see what sort of conditions my daughters were living in. I'm pleasantly surprised."

"Thank you, sir."

"Is Lucy around?" he asked.

"Lucy will be home in an hour or so," Lois said. "She stayed overnight at a friend's."

"Will you come in and sit down?" Clark asked. "I can make some coffee."

"Thank you. Is Ellen here?"

"Yes," Lois said expressionlessly. Her father looked at her with a raised eyebrow.



Sam Lane sighed. "I don't know why I should ask. I'm sorry, Princess."

"Clark and I cope just fine," Lois said. "I've learned not to expect anything from Mother."

Lois's father entered the living room and took the chair that Lois indicated. He glanced toward the window where the sky was now a cottony mass of storm clouds. "It looks like rain."

"I thought so this morning," Clark said. "So, is there anything you'd like to know? Lois or I could show you around the place. Or if you'd like to know how Lucy's doing --"

"Actually, I'd like to talk to you about that," Sam Lane said uncomfortably. "The last time I tried to speak to her --" He let the sentence drop. "How is she?"

"She's doing all right," Lois said. "She's going into the eighth grade in the fall. Believe it or not, she was on the 'B' honor roll last semester -- Clark and I helped her with some of the lessons and she's doing better than she was in Metropolis."

"That's encouraging."

"She's also in Scouts. She earned another badge on their camping trip last weekend, and she's made some new friends."

"Who did she stay with last night?"

Clark spoke up. "Celia Johnson. She's the granddaughter of our closest neighbor, Wayne Irig."

Sam nodded. "I'm not really trying to pry. I just feel that I should pay more attention to what my children are doing than I did, considering the situation. How are you doing, Princess?"

"Better," Lois said. "The morning sickness seems to have gone away."

"That's good," he said. "Have you seen a prenatal specialist yet?"

"Yes," Lois said. "He says everything is going well and my due date is January twelfth."

"Good. I want my grandchild to be born healthy. I hope you remember that alcohol of any kind should be avoided."

"You couldn't pay me to drink!" Lois said. "If it weren't for Mother, we wouldn't even have any in the house!"

Her father gave an apologetic smile. "Sorry. I realize you have more reasons than most kids your age to stay away from alcohol but not everybody is as conscientious as you."

"One alcoholic in the family is enough," Lois said shortly. "I'm not in any hurry to drink."

"I think that's probably wise," Sam Lane said.

"Would you like to see Lucy's room?" Lois asked deliberately changing the subject. "Clark gave her the attic bedroom. It's warm, and bigger than Mother's. She loves it. She's always wanted a room of her own."

"I remember that," her father said, apparently relieved at the abrupt shift in the conversation. "You don't think she'd be happier in Metropolis?"

"Why don't you ask her," Lois said. "I think she's made more friends here than she had in New Troy."

"That's one positive thing," Sam agreed. "Is she happy?"

"As much as she can be," Lois said. "Mother doesn't make it easy. Still, that isn't any different than it was before."

He nodded. "I admit that it would be inconvenient to have a teenage girl living in the townhouse right now. My housekeeper wouldn't be the ideal chaperone for her. She's in her sixties, and couldn't possibly keep up with her. Still, if it's difficult for you, I could take her back to the city. If things become inconvenient, there's always that option. Of course, I'd have to deal with the legal issues before I did it, so if there's any problem, you should tell me now."

"There isn't any problem with Lucy," Lois said. "I think she's doing well. If there were some way to make Mother enter an alcohol rehab program it would be better for everyone, but --"

"Unfortunately, that would require a court order, and unless she does something that shows she's a danger to herself or to Lucy they're not likely to issue it," Sam said.

"I know." Lois got to her feet. "I'll show you Lucy's room."

Clark got to his feet as well. "Why don't you go with your dad," he suggested. "I'm sure you'd like to talk alone. I'll make the coffee and I need to start dinner, anyway." The truth was that he wanted to check on Ellen Lane. She had been in the kitchen for longer than she should have been if she were merely looking for the aspirin -- or the vodka, for that matter. Perhaps it was unworthy of him, but he simply didn't trust Lois's mother. She seemed to have lost ground just over the last couple of days. Of course, he hadn't been living in the same house with her before and Lois hadn't seemed to think anything was unusual about her behavior. Still, he couldn't help feeling uneasy when Ellen did something that wasn't within her usual pattern. He wanted to check on her without Lois's father being any the wiser. If what she was doing was harmless, she deserved the right to some level of privacy but if she wasn't, he wanted to know what it was.

Lois cast him an odd glance. She knew he wasn't being exactly truthful but apparently was willing to let it go for she started for the staircase. "This way, Daddy."

There was no one in the kitchen when he pushed the swinging door open. He frowned, thinking. Lois had said her mother was in the kitchen but it was possible that during the short time that Lois had been upstairs Ellen had, for some inscrutable reason, gone up to her room. He, of course, wouldn't have known since his super-hearing wasn't functioning.

Then he saw two things. The empty vodka bottle was in the trashcan and Lois's purse lay on the table. Open.

The bottle had been in the refrigerator this morning with about a half inch of its contents still remaining. Ellen must have finished it off and realized that there was no more to be found.

Instantly he ran to the window, looking out into the area of packed dirt between the house and the barn. The blue Volkswagen no longer sat in its customary spot and a quick riffle through Lois's purse told him that the car keys were not in it.

He pushed open the kitchen door, looking frantically around. The blue car was nowhere to be seen.

Ellen had taken the car and probably headed toward town to purchase herself more liquor. The fact that she had no license wouldn't have been a factor in her undoubtedly impaired state and he had no way of catching up, except possibly in Sam Lane's car. He had turned to retrace his steps to the house when he saw Pete Ross's car turn into the lane from the highway.

He ran toward Pete, waving his hands frantically. Pete pulled to a stop and rolled down the window. "Hi. What's the matter?"

"Did you see Lois's car go by out there?"

"Huh? I don't know. I wasn't paying attention. Some woman in a blue VW just about ran me off the road."

Clark pulled open the passenger door. "We've got to go after her."

"What's the matter?"

"Lois's mom has a...problem. She's not supposed to drive but sometimes she sort of forgets. We need to catch her before she kills somebody."

Pete pulled into the open area in front of the house and turned his car around without argument. "You mean like my Uncle Bert?"

"Yeah," Clark said, belatedly recalling the incident that had taken place when he and Pete had been fifteen. Pete's great uncle had crashed his car into a tree while driving under the influence and nearly killed two innocent bystanders. Bert Ross hadn't been so lucky.

Pete accelerated down the dirt road as fast as he dared to drive while Clark was fastening his safety belt. "She was headed toward Smallville. I don't know if we can catch her."

"Don't have an accident," Clark said. "She isn't driving in traffic. The road's usually pretty clear at this time on Sunday."

Pete eased up just slightly as they approached the turn onto the highway. The red Chevrolet skidded around the corner, the rear of the car fishtailing slightly and Pete straightened it out, shoving his foot to the floor as he did so. "I don't want any more drunks killing anybody -- even themselves. Why didn't they take her license away?"

"They did. She took Lois's keys," Clark said, peering ahead. As they went over a slight rise in the highway he could see the Lane car, a tiny spot of blue far ahead on the straight, wide-open stretch. "There she is."

"Yeah." Pete set his jaw. "We'll catch her."

Clark unobtrusively gripped the edge of his seat as they nearly flew after Ellen Lane. The blue car grew steadily nearer and Clark could see that she was weaving slightly. The remaining vodka in that bottle, taken on an empty stomach, had definitely had an effect. "She's going to hit the turn in a minute. If she doesn't slow down she's going to go right over the bank into Wingate's pond. We're not going to make it."

A short distance ahead of the blue car the highway swung to the right in a wide arc. It was a known hazard to most of Smallville's teen driving population. On a dark night more than one car, returning to Smallville from the somewhat larger town of Rattlesnake Bend, had taken the turn a bit too fast. At the bottom of a ten-foot drop was a small pond and it wasn't at all unusual to see a car lying in it, half-submerged in the water. It had been some time since there had been a serious accident involving the pond but Ellen hadn't driven on this highway except as a passenger, and she wasn't exactly in top driving form at the moment.

Another car was approaching from the opposite direction. The other driver was moving at a moderate speed, obviously ready for the turn. Ellen didn't slacken her speed one bit and Clark gritted his teeth, knowing what was going to happen.

The VW swerved suddenly as Lois's mother belatedly realized that the road was turning. She took the curve too fast and swung wide, crossing the double line just as the other car hit the curve in the opposite direction. Brakes screeched as Ellen jammed on her brakes. The blue car nicked the rear bumper of the other vehicle and skidded sideways in a slow spin. The other car slewed around as the driver fought for control but the VW's wheels hit the shoulder and the car tilted almost in slow motion and rolled over the bank.

Pete brought his car to a screeching halt and Clark shoved open the door and leaped from the vehicle almost before they had stopped moving. Without a pause, he charged to the bank and skidded down it, nearly losing his footing as the soft dirt crumbled under him.

The VW was lying in the pond nose down and sinking slowly sideways. He could see Ellen through the window. His mother-in-law wasn't moving and he scrambled down toward her, praying under his breath. If Ellen had been killed, Lois would never forgive herself for leaving the keys where her mother could find them. He reached the pond and plunged into it without hesitation.

Against all odds, Ellen was actually wearing her seat belt, and he could see her breathing, although she appeared to be unconscious and her nose was bleeding. Clark seized the door handle and tried to wrench the door open.

It was locked and the car was sinking by the second. He looked frantically around for something, anything, that he could use to force open the door.

Pete's head appeared over the top of the bank. "Is she alive?"

"Yeah, but the door's locked. Do you have a tire iron?"

"Yeah. Just a second." Pete's face vanished. Clark turned back to the sinking car and rapped on the glass.

"Ellen! Wake up!"

She didn't open her eyes, but at least the car appeared to have stopped sinking. On the minus side, water was rapidly leaking into the car through the opposite door. If Ellen was badly hurt and didn't wake up, she could easily drown or die of her injuries before Clark could get her out.

From above, Pete reappeared and slid down the bank toward him, clutching a tire iron in one hand. "Here!"

Clark took the metal bar and examined the car, looking for the best place to use it. If he broke the window next to Ellen's face he could easily cut her. The rear window looked like his best bet, he decided, and he went to the back, raised the bar and hit the glass. He hoped Lois would forgive him for breaking the window, but there didn't seem to be any other choice. Hopefully the VW wasn't beyond repair. There were several large dents in its exterior but at least it wasn't on fire or anything. Besides, it was insured.

Carefully, he broke all the loose glass out of the frame to minimize the possibility of cutting himself and reached cautiously through the aperture. He couldn't quite reach the lock, no matter how he stretched but suddenly an idea hit him. He took the tire iron in his hand and tried again. The bar reached easily and, after a moment's fumbling, he managed to hook the tire iron under the button and pry gently upward. After that it was the matter of a moment to squirm backward, make his way around to the door and open it.

Mindful of the first aid class he had taken the previous summer, he eased Ellen out of the car, assisted by Pete, keeping her back and neck straight. When they had her lying on the muddy bank of the pond, he glanced up the side of the ten-foot drop, belatedly recalling the other vehicle. "Is the other car all right?" he asked.

"Yeah." Pete got to his feet. "They were stopped on the shoulder when I went to get the tire iron."

"Hey!" The call came from above. Clark looked up.

The face of Tom Johnson, Wayne Irig's son-in-law, was looking down at them. "Are you guys all right?"

"Yeah, but she's not," Pete said. "We need an ambulance."

Another man appeared, this one in a Sheriff's uniform, and Clark took a relieved breath as Vern Harris, Rachel Harris's father, slid over the bank and dropped beside them a moment later. He knelt beside Ellen Lane, ascertaining that she was still breathing, and then glanced at Clark and Pete. "Are you two all right?"

"Yes sir," Clark said.

"There's an ambulance on the way," Sheriff Harris said. "Want to tell me what happened?"

From above three other faces appeared, looking down at the drama below. Appalled, Clark saw Barbara Johnson, Celia Johnson and Lucy Lane. From somewhere in the distance but approaching rapidly, came the distinct wail of a siren.

"Mrs. Lane has a concussion," the doctor said. "She's conscious but slightly disoriented. She was lucky to have been wearing a seat belt. It probably saved her life."

"She's going to be all right?" Clark asked.

"Barring complications, we believe so," the doctor said. "She'll be spending at least a couple of days here, in any case."

Lois hadn't removed her hand from Clark's since she had walked into the hospital waiting room, accompanied by Sam Lane, an hour ago. She nodded but said nothing. The doctor smiled at her. "If you'd like to see her, I'll permit one person, for a minute, but that's all."

"Thank you," Lois said.

The doctor nodded pleasantly and left.

"Do you want to see her?" Lois asked her sister.

Lucy shook her head and looked at the floor.


Sam Lane bit his lip. "No," he said after a moment. "You go, Princess."

Clark hadn't pulled any punches when he had explained to Sheriff Harris the circumstances of the accident. Hiding the truth wouldn't do Ellen any good in the long run and the event might just possibly furnish the circumstances he and Lois needed to force Ellen to face her problem. The bald fact was that she could easily have killed Lucy when she'd lost control of the Volkswagen. It had been only luck that had caused her to clip the rear fender rather than plow head on into the main body of the Johnson family's car. All in all, everyone, even Ellen, had come out of it remarkably well but Lucy had been at first upset and then angry when she realized what had happened. Calling Lois from the hospital had been one of the more difficult things he had ever done. He thought that Ellen's alcoholism had caused more harm to her daughters than she realized -- if the thought had ever occurred to her at all. Maybe this incident would force the matter. He hoped so.

Motion at the door of the waiting room caught his eye and he turned to see Sheriff Harris enter. The man nodded to him with a faint smile and approached Sam Lane. "You're Mrs. Lane's husband?"

"Not any more," Sam said. "We're divorced."

"Oh." The Sheriff paused and glanced at Lois. "You're her daughter?"

"Yes," Lois said.

"I'm afraid I have some bad news," he said. "Your mother's being charged with driving under the influence, reckless driving and driving with a suspended license. The judge has set bail at a hundred thousand dollars."

Lucy, who had been sitting quietly on the waiting room's sofa, stared at him for a moment. "Wow," she said, with relish. "I guess Mom's going to have to stay in jail for a while."

"There's a bail bondsman a block from the Sheriff's office," the Sheriff said. "You might want to see him about arranging bail."

"We'll talk about it and decide what to do," Lois said. She looked at Clark. "What do you think?"

"I agree," Clark said. "Once she wakes up completely is more than enough time to decide."

"The judge set a court date for next month," Vern Harris said. "She'd better get herself a good lawyer."

"We'll talk it over in private," Sam Lane said. Clark heard his voice speaking to the Sheriff and Lois, but his father-in-law's voice was suddenly a minor matter of importance. It had been almost like snapping a switch. One instant, he had been listening to the conversation taking place with the Sheriff, and the next the thrumming of blood flowing through veins, and the familiar thump of Lois's heartbeat filled his ears. His super-hearing was back. Quickly he focused his x-ray vision on the wall of the emergency room, seeking out Ellen Lane by the sound of her heartbeat. The barrier dissolved before him and he saw his mother-in-law lying in her bed, her neck in a brace of some kind and a large bruise on her forehead. His powers were back. He was no longer blind and deaf.

Lois had, as usual, been right. As she had told him, normal for him was extraordinary, and he was back to normal once more.

It was a wonderful feeling.

In Sam Lane's rental car on the way back to the farm, Lois's father was silent for some time. Rain pounded on the windshield as they made their way down Smallville's Main Street, headed toward the highway. A bolt of lightning some way off lit the sky briefly with an electric white glare. Finally he spoke. "I suppose, if you'd like, I can arrange bail."

Lois looked at Clark. "I don't think so. What do you think, Clark?"

Thunder rumbled briefly in the distance.

"She's your mother," he said carefully.

"Don't do it," Lucy said. "Remember how you always say everybody has to pay for doing stupid stuff? She nearly killed me, all because she wanted to buy more booze!"

Her father was silent for a moment. "It's your call, Princess," he said finally. "You and Clark are the ones who have to cope with her."

Clark squeezed Lois's hand. "I sort of agree with Lucy," he said finally, "but I'll go along with whatever Lois wants to do. I don't really have a vote."

"Yes you do," Lois said. "If you're my husband, you can at least tell me what you think."

"Well," he said slowly, "if it were me making the decision, I'd let her deal with the consequences of what she's done. If she wants out of jail, I think we should let her handle it herself -- and let her hire her own lawyer, too. I don't think anyone should make it easier for her."

"She got herself into it," Lucy said, with typical teenage bluntness. "Let her get herself out of it."

Lucy was still pretty upset, Clark thought. On the whole, however, he agreed with her. Ellen Lane had thrown her responsibilities on Lois's shoulders for too long. Physically she might be an adult but she was acting with the irresponsibility of a child. She might be in pain -- she had to be in a good deal of emotional pain to have let herself slip this far -- but anesthetizing it wasn't going to make it go away.

It wasn't that he didn't sympathize with Ellen Lane to some extent. Her husband had divorced her, and apparently, according to Lois, had strayed with other women during their marriage more than once. Where the actual fault might have originated he had no idea but the fact was that only fools and children thought life was fair. That was something Jonathan Kent had said to him many times. Life wasn't supposed to be fair and Mother Nature didn't care whether the hand you were dealt was fair or not. It was how you coped with it that mattered. Retreating into an alcoholic haze wasn't the solution, he thought, and a little tough love might be exactly what Ellen needed to make her understand that.

Lois squeezed his hand. "I'm glad you agree," she said. "This time Mother's done something she can't just drown in liquor. Don't arrange bail, Daddy. Clark and I have been trying to figure out how to get her to go into a rehab program. Maybe this is the lever we need."

Sam turned onto the highway. Out in the open the wind buffeted the car and the rain pounded on the windshield and roof like bullets. He leaned forward, squinting through the downpour. "All right," he said. "As long as you're comfortable with it."

"Well, comfortable might be a little strong," Lois said. "Mother's going to be furious but I think it's the only thing that has a chance of working."

"On the whole, I think you're right," her father said after several seconds. "As for her being angry with you, you can blame me if you like. Just tell her that I refused to arrange bail for her. She can afford it, herself, with the alimony she's getting. She'll just have to stick to a strict budget for a while."

"That'll be the day," Lucy said.

"I'll send you a little extra for anything you need for Lucy," Sam added. "Just don't mention it to Ellen."

Lois nodded silently. Clark put his arm around her.

When Sam Lane had departed for his hotel room at the Smallville Motor Court, following the dinner that Clark had put together quickly in the farmhouse kitchen, Lucy asked, with unaccustomed meekness, if she could stay up to watch television for an extra hour. Lois agreed, if she promised to go to bed at eleven sharp. Tomorrow was a workday for Clark and Lois had a test coming up for one of her night classes on Monday night and would need some time to study, since she hadn't had the opportunity that day. She and Clark headed up the stairs as soon as he finished cleaning up the kitchen.

"I don't know how you're going to get into town," Lois said as he closed the door. "I have to call the insurance company about the car and it's a ten mile walk for you. Does Smallville have taxis?"

"No," Clark said, "but it doesn't matter. I didn't have a chance to tell you with everything going on. While we were at the hospital, my powers came back." He levitated several inches to demonstrate. "I'm normal again!"

Unexpectedly her eyes filled with tears. Alarmed, he dropped to the floor and pulled her into his arms. "Hey, what's the matter? I thought you'd be happy!"

"I am!" She made a futile effort to wipe her eyes with the back of her hand. He let her go and handed her his handkerchief. "It's just --"

"Oh; I get it," he said. "But maybe things are starting to turn around, finally. Sheriff Harris told me somebody from the local DA's office would probably call me in the next few days and I'm going to level with him about your mom. We might be able to get the judge to issue a court order for her to get help."

She sniffled and gave her eyes a final determined wipe. "Do you really think so?"

"I sure do. Hochstetter was elected on a platform that included cracking down on drunk drivers."

"I hope he cracks down on Mother," Lois said. "If nothing changes she's going to drink herself to death -- if she doesn't kill somebody first. When I think how close she came to killing Lucy, and Mr. Irig's family --"

"Well, she didn't," Clark said firmly. "It turned out a lot better than we could have expected." He kissed her on the forehead. "Why don't you get ready for bed. You're tired out."

She began to unbutton her blouse. "And I haven't thanked you and Pete for pulling her out of the car."

"You don't need to," Clark said. "We'd have done it for anybody."

"I know." She said. She sniffled slightly. "That's what makes you so special."

He smiled. "If my wife thinks I'm special that's a good thing. I thought most wives thought their husbands were doofuses. I've even heard you call me one, a couple of times."

"You are," Lois said. "But you're a wonderful doofus and I love you." She leaned forward and kissed him. "And Lana can eat her heart out!"

He laughed. "Lana's going to Berkeley in the fall," he said. "Pete told me so -- so she's going to be out of your hair, too."

"Hmm. Well, I guess you were right when you said things were turning around," she said. "Ronnie Davis told me back in March he was leaving in September to go to college, so he won't be in town either."

"Good riddance. I don't want him around, trying to make things uncomfortable for you," Clark said.

"I don't think he would," Lois said. "He denied that this was his baby, you know -- even though he said he'd pay for an abortion. It couldn't have been anyone else's, though. You believe me, don't you?"

"Of course I do," Clark said. "But he was right. It's not his baby -- it's my baby under the law. There's no way he can claim it. The only thing he can do is spread rumors, and I don't really think he's likely to do that. He wouldn't like it if we came after him for child support or something."

"I hadn't thought of that," Lois said. "Maybe things really will be better."

"They will," Clark said. "We may have a few rough patches to work through first but they'll be better."

"I'm starting to believe you," she said softly. "Do you know you're the best thing that's ever happened to me?"

"I hope so," he said. He slipped his arms around her, starting to lower his face to hers when a familiar sound began: a low hum that grew in volume until it seemed to fill the room. Both of them turned toward the footlocker, to see the stream of light leaking from it.

At once Lois went to the door and turned the lock while Clark bent to unlock the chest. At once the globe floated out, blazing with energy and he extended a hand toward it. The glow had a blood red tinge to it now and, as his hands touched it, the scene around them dissolved into Jor-El's familiar laboratory. Only now, another familiar object had been added. The ship that Jonathan Kent had hidden in his storm cellar could be seen. Jor-El and Lara bent over the console and Jor-El's hands lifted the globe.

"We have installed the hyperlight drive and tested it as best we can," Jor-El's voice said. "So much is unknown."

He placed the sphere in a depression on the ship's surface. The globe's image of Krypton dissolved and became a map of Earth. Its light disappeared and it appeared to freeze in its spot, evidently locking onto the tiny vessel.

"Contained within the sphere," Jor-El's voice said, "is the navigational computer that will guide the ship through the maze of hyperspace, as well as this account of our final days." The image of the ship drew closer. It was open and within it nestled the capsule that cradled and protected the baby. "All is in readiness," Jor-El continued. "We have selected the ship's exact destination on Earth and programmed it into the computer."

Lara moved to his side and together they looked down at the smiling infant within the tiny craft. The baby looked back at them, waving his arms.

"Kal-El, our child," Jor-El's voice said. "Under Earth's sun you will have powers and abilities no Kryptonian has ever had. You are the last son of Krypton."

The scene in the laboratory faded and Clark turned to look at Lois. She was staring at him as if she had never seen him before. "'The last son of Krypton'," she repeated. "That means you were the only one who escaped. Oh Clark!"

He bent to return the globe to the footlocker. "Not escaped," he said soberly. "Saved by my parents. They must have known they couldn't get away, but they were determined that I would. I wish I'd known them."

"Me too," Lois said. She resumed the task of unbuttoning her blouse, which she had begun before the globe had activated. "I think you do, though, in a way. They loved you -- and they sent you to two people here on Earth who could raise you to be a man they would have been proud of. I'm proud of you, you know."

He locked the chest and rose to his feet. "I want to be someone you're proud of," he said. "Whether I'm an alien or an ordinary man, I want live up to having you for my wife."

She put her arms around him and instinctively he wrapped his around her. "I am proud of you," she whispered.

"Even if I'm a doofus?"

"Especially because you are!"

The wail of a fire siren brought Clark out of a sound sleep and he fumbled for the phone, glancing at the clock. It was just past one in the morning. He grabbed the receiver and dialed with the other hand. The dispatcher at the fire station answered after two rings. "Fire station."

"Hello, Miss Rogers. This is Clark Kent. Where's the fire?"

"Over at the Heyer farm," she told him. "Can you get over there?"

"Yes ma'am," he told her. "I'll be there in fifteen minutes."

Lois had pushed herself up on one elbow. "What's going on?"

"The Heyer farm is on fire," Clark said. "I'm a volunteer fire fighter. I have to go."

"It was raining! How can it be on fire?"

"I don't know. It happens, sometimes. I need to go."

"Go," Lois told him. "Be careful."

"I will." He kissed her hurriedly and scrambled out of bed, grabbing for his clothes.

The Heyer farm was five miles from the Kent farm by way of the road but as the crow flew it was less than two. Clark cut across the wet field at a run and as soon as he was out of sight of Lucy's window, he took off.

From the air he could see the fire more clearly and poured on the speed. The roof was blazing and from somewhere within the structure he could hear the squalling of Bill and Elinor Heyer's six-month old baby. A woman's voice was screaming shrilly from somewhere. Smallville's single fire engine was in the yard and the four members of the volunteer fire department who had been on duty were struggling to get the pump going. In the yard a bucket brigade had been organized and a number of men and two women were passing buckets from the well to throw on the burning building. Clark dove toward the fire like a meteor, scanning the farmhouse with his x-ray vision as he approached. Below him the sky was lit up by the flames but from his vantage point he was invisible to any eyes on the ground.

The baby was in the smallest bedroom, blocked from the rest of the house by the fire that had overwhelmed the hallway. Moving almost faster than the eye could follow, he went through the burning roof into the attic and directly through the flames toward the door that led down into the hall. The fire and smoke couldn't block his vision, but he clutched his glasses in one hand to protect them from the heat. He ducked through the wall of fire and into the bedroom, slapping absently at a spot on his shirt that had begun to smolder.

The baby was still crying, although the smoke was getting heavier. He snatched the child from its crib and wrapped it snugly in one of its blankets. He had to get the baby out before it was overcome by the smoke, and jumping out the window wasn't the solution. Too many witnesses. But there was always the way he'd come in.

Quickly, he inhaled deeply, stuck his head out the door and blew out freezing air. The fire went out and he ran quickly to the steps that led to the attic. It was only the matter of a quick flight up the steps, inhaling again as he did so and as he burst into the attic, he blew out again, quenching the flames in the small area through which he must travel. An instant later he was soaring through the night air, the whimpering child held tightly in his arms. He came to a quick landing behind the barn and surveyed the situation. Elinor Heyer was standing in the area just behind the bucket brigade, sobbing helplessly, held back by one of Smallville's four Sheriff's deputies. Clark hurried quietly to the side of the house, which was not yet burning, and trotted conspicuously around the corner into the area lit by the fire, clutching the baby against him.

Elinor Heyer saw him and screamed again, breaking away from the deputy to run toward him. Clark hurried to her and deposited her son in her arms. "I think he's okay," he told the hysterical woman. "Better have them check him over to be sure."

In the ensuing confusion over the baby, he managed to vanish into the crowd and joined the bucket brigade, his glasses firmly in place. The farm might burn but the baby was alive and unhurt. Still, over the next three hours as they fought the fire, he found himself wishing, not for the first time, that there was more that he could do. His powers gave him so much ability to help and yet he had to watch a home burn to the ground because he couldn't let anyone see him use them. There had to be some way, he thought again. Maybe Lois could help him come up with an idea. So much had changed for him in the last few days. Maybe she could change that as well.

Fortunately for all involved, Clark's work shift didn't begin until noon and he didn't require as much sleep as ordinary humans. As it was, by the time he climbed back into bed at five-thirty in the morning, he felt as if he'd been through the wringer. He awoke some three hours later, to hear Lois's voice on the phone.

"I'll be over to see you as soon as I can," she was saying. "Unfortunately, I don't have any transportation at the moment. The insurance company is checking into the possibility of a rental for us until the car is either repaired or replaced...I'm not being snippy!" Clark winced slightly at the gathering anger in his wife's voice. "Now just a minute, Mother! I wasn't the one that wrecked the car by driving drunk!" Clark cringed. "All right, if you want the truth, I am angry at you! You had no business driving the car. You don't have a license and you were drunk besides. You came close to killing Lucy! And you drove our car over the edge of a cliff and into a pond! If it hadn't been for Clark and Pete Ross you could have drowned, so don't tell me I'm out of line! I'll be over there when Daddy comes by to give me a ride and you can talk to him then. Now," she said bringing her voice back under control with an obvious effort, "I have to go. Clark was out last night fighting a fire at one of the nearby farms and he's going to want some breakfast when he wakes up. I'll talk to you when I get there."

By this time Clark was out of bed, showered and drying himself off. He stepped out of the bathroom, wrapped in a towel, just as Lois quietly opened the door and stuck her head in.

"I'm sorry. Did I wake you up?"

He shook his head. "No. I guess your mom wanted you to come see her?"

Lois shrugged, entering the bedroom fully. She was wearing her bathrobe, he saw. "Yeah. She was upset. It seems the Sheriff came by this morning and arrested her. She wants me to do something about it."


"I told her there wasn't anything I can do, so now she wants to talk to Daddy."

"Oh boy," Clark said. "The next few days are going to be interesting."

"Yeah. She sounded funny, though. I hope she's okay. I shouldn't have lost my temper."

"Honey, you have as much right to defend yourself as anybody else. It was your mom who got herself into trouble. You didn't do it."

"I know." She let him put his arms around her and rested her head on his shoulder. "If I didn't have you, I don't know what I'd do right now."

"We'll get through it, though," Clark said. "I wish I could go with you when you go to see her, but I have to be at work at noon. Just don't let her turn it around on you. You had nothing to do with what she did." He released her in order to clutch at his slipping towel. "Oops, sorry. I'd better get some clothes on."

She had stepped back a little and her gaze had dropped slightly. Now she reached out to twitch the towel out of his fingers. "Not so fast, husband. I was too tired last night, but I'm not tired this morning."

He felt his eyebrows fly up almost of their own accord. "Mrs. Kent, are you by any chance propositioning me?"

"Of course I am," she replied. "If I have to go see Mother this afternoon without you, you can at least make it up to me in advance."

"Where's Lucy?"

"Sound asleep," Lois said. She turned to lock the door. "Now, are you going to do your duty or not?"

He grinned. "I'm the one standing here in the buff," he pointed out. "You know very well how conscientious I am."

"Absolutely," Lois said.

Some time later, Lois lay beside him, her head on his shoulder. Clark ran a hand over her tousled hair. "I love you," he said. "Even with everything that's happened, I can't imagine being without you now."

"Sometimes I wonder how I managed being without you for as long as I did," Lois said. "Do you know, the day I met you, I thought about you for hours afterwards, and I had to keep telling myself how silly I was? If somebody had told me I'd be married to you a year later, I'd have laughed in his face. Now I wouldn't go back to the way it was before for anything -- even with all the headache Mother is giving us and the baby and -- well, everything. I only wish it were really your baby. I'll never forgive myself for that, Clark. Not completely."

He kissed the top of her head, since it was the only part of her that he could reach. "Don't," he said. "If it hadn't been for the baby, it might have been much longer before I stopped being afraid I'd scare you off by letting you know your best friend was in love with you. This may be the only baby I'll ever have a chance to raise. I said that before. How could I possibly regret it? The only part I regret is what you've had to go through alone. I love you and I love the baby too. We can make it through all of this, as long as we stick together. That's a promise."

"When you say it like that, I believe you," she said. She glanced reluctantly at the clock. "I guess we'd better get up."

"I suppose so," Clark agreed. "Not that I don't like your sister, but one of these days I'd like to be able to spend a day off just with you, doing just what we want. When's her Girl Scout troop's next camping trip?"

Lois giggled. "In August, I think. And what would you like to spend the day doing, Mr. Kent?"

"Lots of things," Clark said. "And lots of this."

"That's what I thought," she said. "It sounds like a wonderful agenda. I'll look forward to it."

"So will I."

Clark had just finished his second shower and was waiting while Lois finished dressing when the telltale hum of the globe broke the silence. They looked quickly at each other, and Clark knelt at once to release it from its hiding place.

The continent in Krypton's ocean was pulsing with a deep red this time when Clark reached out his hand to take it. As he did so, he felt Lois's hand close around his free one. Instantly now, the laboratory appeared, and with it Jor-El and Lara looking down into the ship.

"I try to picture you where you are now," Jor-El's voice said, "as you hear this last chapter. What do you look like? Are you alone? What have you become? Lara and I will never know. But that you should live to experience this...that is enough. We are content."

He bent to close the hatch of the tiny ship. Lara reached out wistfully to touch the capsule and the baby within lifted a hand, reaching for her. Jor-El moved to seal the hatch, and the room began to shake.

"We give you to Earth," Jor-El's voice said, "to a realm called America and a place called Kansas. Remember us but do not regret our passing. All is fate."

The picture shifted suddenly. All at once, they were looking down on Krypton from a position somewhere in space. A tiny dot flared and rose, tracing an arching trajectory off the surface of the planet.

The tiny ship passed close to where they floated. Before them Krypton hung in space, peaceful and beautiful, surrounded by a reddish glow. Then it exploded. For an instant a huge cloud that had been the planet billowed before them and rapidly dissipated, leaving nothing but a starry black void, and a glowing spot that was Krypton's star.

The scene vanished and Clark found himself staring at Lois in the bedroom of their home. Lois looked stunned. In Clark's hand the globe had ceased to glow.

"We knew it had to be something like this," he said after a long silence. "If it hadn't been a world wide catastrophe, they wouldn't have done what they did."

"But now you know for sure," Lois said. "They were heroes. Both of them were. If they hadn't been so determined that their baby was going to live, you'd have died with the rest of your world, and I'd never have met you."

Clark nodded. After another moment, he knelt and replaced the globe in the chest.

"Now what?" Lois asked as he stood up.

"What do you mean?"

"Now that you know where you came from, what now?"

"Now," Clark said, "we go on doing what we have to do. We deal with your mother. We take care of Lucy. You have our baby and we raise it. We get an education so we can start our careers. But there was one thing more that I was hoping you could help me with."

"What's that?"

"I saved a baby's life last night," he said. "At the fire. But I had to let a home burn to the ground because I couldn't let anyone know what I could do. I could make a much greater difference if I could somehow use my powers openly -- without ruining our lives. Do you think we can come up with a way to do it?"

"I don't know," Lois said slowly. "There must be some way. That's another of the projects we're going to have to work on." She tightened her belt. "It figures," she said.

"What does?"

"I said your parents were heroes. It only figures that their son is, too."

"I'm not a hero," Clark protested. "I went in after the baby knowing I could do it without being burned."

"You're my hero, you doofus," Lois said. "I know it, even if you don't."

"I'm back to being a doofus again," Clark said, smiling at her.

"You never stopped," Lois said. "But you're the man I'd pick all over again if I had to. And you're the man I'll love for the rest of my life. I don't have to explain that, do I?"

"No," Clark said.

"Good," Lois said. "But if I have to cook breakfast, even your steel stomach might not be able to take it. Let's get something to eat. I'm starving."

"Your wish is my command," Clark said, slipping an arm around her waist. He opened the door for her and let her precede him into the hall. As he closed the door, she turned.

"It always was, wasn't it?" she said softly.

"Yes," he said. He leaned forward to take her face in both hands and kissed her gently. "It always was. And it always will be."

The End