Chapter Six: What's Important
Disclaimer: Characters and premise are the property of DC, I'm just borrowing them for a little non-profit fun.
"Lois, I can't work late," Clark protested. "You know why I can't."
"And I'm not asking you to," Lois said reasonably. "You go pick up Kon-El from the babysitter's and I'll come by once I've checked out this lead, then we can write up the story at your place."
"It's dangerous," Clark argued. "Lois, I can't just let you go on your own."
"Clark, I've been doing this longer than you have," Lois said calmly. "I am perfectly capable of checking out a lead on my own."
Clark considered the number of times he'd rescued Lois since he'd started working at the Daily Planet. He wondered if she'd been more cautious before Superman showed up or just luckier. He sighed. "Give me a minute. I need to call Kon and the babysitter, and try to explain this to them."
Clark found an open conference room and shut the door then called the farm. "Ma? I'm going to be running late tonight... I know Conner is going to be upset, but Lois is going to get herself shot if I don't keep her out of trouble... Could you put him on? I want to explain myself. I'll get there as soon as I can." He grimaced. "But don't keep dinner waiting."
"Conner, I'm sorry. I'm going to have to be late tonight. Lois is getting in trouble... No, she probably won't fall out of anything. When we're following leads we tend to get shot at instead."
"No, you can't help. I'd have to get to Smallville and then come back with you." Clark felt fairly clever at having avoided the 'too small, too easily hurt' discussion. It hadn't gone well the last time he'd tried it.
"I'll come get you as soon as I can," Clark promised. "Be good for your grandparents."
Clark's first clue that he'd out-smarted himself was a panicky call from his parents patched through his JLA comm.
"Clark! He's gone!" Martha exclaimed. "Conner wasn't happy about you being late. We thought he'd gone up to your room to sulk. But he's not there. We searched the whole farm, we can't find him anywhere."
Not for the first time, Clark wished that Lois knew his secret as he glanced across the car at her.
"I'll find him, Ma," he replied using the comm's subvocalizer. Then he switched channels. "J'Onn? You heard?"
"We are looking for him now," J'Onn replied.
"I will be too in just a minute," Clark said. He stole another glance at Lois then slid his glasses down his nose. He used X-Ray vision to pin-point Lois' fuel-line then a burst of heat vision to sever it. A few moments later the car stalled.
Lois cursed and popped the hood. The last time Clark had offered to help with car-trouble he'd gotten an earful about what an army brat could do on her own. This time he waited until Lois started poking around in the engine then quickly left.
He was on the outskirts of Metropolis, flying toward the farm when Clark spotted the white dog with a red cape and a small boy perched precariously on his back.
Clark sighed with relief as he swooped down and plucked Conner off of Krypto's back. "Thank god you're safe," he breathed.
Conner smiled broadly. "See, you didn't have to come get me!" He leaned over to pat Krypto. "Good Superdoggy! Superdoggy brought me to you. Now I can help!"
"Conner!" Clark exclaimed. "You can't just take off! Your grandparents were worried. I was worried. We didn't know where you were!"
"I wanted to help," Conner pouted.
"You could get hurt!" Clark protested. "Your powers aren't as strong as when you were a teenager. I had to kill Lois' car to come look for you."
Conner looked worried. "Is she going to be mad?"
"Not at us," Clark said. "As long as you don't tell her I killed the car."
Conner giggled at that.
"But we better get back as soon as I let everyone know you're alright," Clark continued. "Lois is resourceful, a dead car isn't going to stop her from getting into a fix for long."
"I can help!" Conner cheered.
"NO!" Clark stated firmly. "We're going to have to talk Lois into going home without investigating her lead. No getting shot at until you're at least..." Clark hesitated, even knowing Conner was bullet proof at sixteen didn't make the idea of him being shot at sound any better.
After calling off the search, Clark flew back to where he'd left Lois with Conner and changed back to Clark Kent's ill-fitted suit. Lois was still leaning over the engine. Clark grimaced at the muttered words echoing from under the hood.
"Lois?" Clark called. "Look who found us."
"Clark, I'm busy," Lois snapped. When she turned around and saw Superboy with Clark's hands over his ears, she blushed. "How'd you get here?" she asked.
Conner grinned and pointed to Krypto, who had followed them back to the car.
"Apparently, he didn't like it when I said I was going to be late," Clark said helplessly. "He came to help."
Conner nodded vigorously. Lois looked horrified. Then she sighed. "Well, I can't fix the car anyway, fuel-line's busted." She ruffled Conner's hair. "How about you help us thumb a ride home? Even I'm not checking that place out without a quick retreat handy." Or with a five-year-old in tow, went unspoken.
Clark's shoulders slumped in relief and he gave Lois an apologetic smile.
"We'll get to it first thing tomorrow," Lois decided.
"So! Do I make a convincing sanitation worker or what?" Lois asked.
Clark considered the possible answers and likely reactions, then silently handed Lois a hardhat.
Lois laughed. "Come on Smallville, times' a wasting and we don't want your little shadow showing up now do we?"
Clark cringed. "He swore he wouldn't leave the babysitters' on his own again," he said as he followed Lois into the waste processing center. "But... He remembers being sixteen, he remembers going out and fighting the bad guys."
"Only the spell has him thinking totally like the kid he looks to be, so he can't really grasp that he isn't capable right now," Lois said. "Which way kemosabe? You are the best guesser I've ever met. Someday you've got to tell me how that works."
Clark looked over the rims of his glasses, scanning the surrounding halls for anything incriminating with his X-Ray vision. Down the right pathway he picked out an unusual concentration of locks. After Lois' remark he knew it would probably be better for his disguise if he chose the wrong path, but there was a time element to these things and not just on account of worries about Conner trying to make his way to Metropolis on his own again, there were always those people who liked to shoot at inquisitive trespassers like them too. He led the way toward the high security area.
"Are they making any progress in getting Kon back to normal?" Lois asked. "Batman and..." She trailed off hopefully.
Clark declined to fill in the blank. "They found out that the spell will wear off on it's own," he said instead. He pointed to the locks and Lois set to picking them. "Even before the spell he wasn't really sixteen. He's newer to the world than he looks, a lot newer, but at the same time he is a teenager and so..."
"So he has a teenager's pride and hang-ups. Too uncool to run around and be amazed by everything he hasn't seen before," Lois realized. "Almost there. Someday I'm going to have to teach you to pick locks."
"Yeah," Clark sighed. "I didn't get that about him before. So now that they're certain that the spell will wear off, they're not trying to hurry it along."
"And once again, I wonder how it is you ended up being chosen to babysit," Lois remarked as the door swung open on a store room full of barrels labeled as coming from a LexCorp Genetic Engineering lab. "LexCorp... Who'd of guessed?" Lois deadpanned.
"Superman, is this boring you?" the giant robot asked with Lex Luthor's voice.
Clark glanced down the street to the clock on the bank sign. He had twelve minutes to finish the fight then fly to Kansas before he'd be late to pick-up Conner from his parents'. If he were late Conner might come looking for him. Conner might even manage to talk Krypto into bringing him to Metropolis again. Conner might get hurt. If he were late Conner would worry about whether he mattered to Clark. Conner was getting more confident, but Clark knew he still worried about being abandoned.
"Luthor, I really don't have time for this," Superman declared. He blasted the robot repeatedly with bursts of heat vision, welding it's joints solid. Then he left it in the middle of the square for the Science Police to clean up while he flew off.
"Not even a sanctimonious lecture?" Lex remarked as he watched Superman depart from a building several blocks away from the battle sight. "I think I might be insulted."
On the other side of the room Lex's bodyguards, Mercy and Grace watched their boss superstitiously out of the corner of their eyes. "So, what do you think's up with Big Blue?" Mercy whispered.
"Girlfriend maybe?" Grace whispered back.
"Naw, everything's situation normal with Lane," Mercy disagreed.
"New girl? One who expects more than an exclusive?"
Mercy shook her head, that didn't feel right. "If that S-Shield kid were around more, I'd think that was it. Or maybe it's something to do with the kid going completely off the grid a few weeks back."
"Could be, if the kid's got something wrong with him that would explain it," Grace said. "I mean, the last couple of weeks Blue's heart hasn't been in it. Oh he's still doing the job, but he's got somewhere else he'd rather be."
"Think we should tell the boss he hasn't been replaced as an arch-nemesis?" Mercy wondered aloud.
Grace shrugged. "Depends. Do you think it'll encourage him to get a new hobby or just make him more obsessed?"
When Clark arrived at the farm he found an anxious Conner waiting on the porch under Martha's watchful eye.
As soon as Conner saw Clark he launched himself in the air as high as he could. Clark swooped and caught the five-year-old missile before gravity could assert it's dominion again. "I! I saw!" Conner exclaimed excitably. "On the TV! I saw you fighting the meanie robot! I wanted! Wanted to help! But Moremomma wouldn't let me!"
Clark sighed with relief. "We've talked about this remember?" he said. "Your powers aren't as strong as when you were bigger. You could get hurt charging into fights."
"But! It was really big! And mean! And you were fighting it!" Conner protested. "I wanted to help! So you wouldn't get hurted either!"
Clark settled to the ground. He sat on the porch steps with Conner in his lap. "I know you worry," he said. "But remember why you can't fight right now?"
" 'Cause I'm too little," Conner replied sulkily.
"Right, and your powers are less now because of that. I'm all grown-up and I have years of experience fighting things like that. You don't have to worry."
" 'Kay," Conner agreed snuggling closer. Being held and feeling protected it was hard to remember why he'd been afraid. Conner smiled to himself, 'After all, his daddy was the best hero in the whole world. He wouldn't get hurt.'
When Conner relaxed Clark stood up, shifting the little boy to his hip. "Ma, we'd better get going," he said. "Lois said she was going to make dinner tonight."
"Did she now?" Martha asked with a gleam in her eye. "Well, you'd best be going in that case. You'll have to invite her out to the farm soon."
"As soon as I can find time to get here by car," Clark agreed.
Once they were back in Metropolis Clark landed in a quiet blind alley several blocks from his building and retrieved the spare set of clothing he kept stashed there. Once he was appropriately attired as Clark Kent, he and Conner took the last leg of their trip on foot.
Clark stopped in at a grocery just around the corner. When Conner saw what he was looking at the little boy gave him a reproving look. "Could have asked Moremomma for better pie."
"Better, but much harder to explain to Lois," Clark said. "Do you want to help me pick an ice cream flavor?"
When they got back to the apartment Lois was already home. She was scowling fiercely at the depths of Clark's pantry. "Smallville! Where are your pot holders?" she demanded as soon as they walked through the door.
"Er, well, mostly I just use a dish towel," Clark lied.
"Bachelors," Lois sighed. "Well, at least get me a clean towel. The macaroni's almost ready to drain and I've got everything chopped for the stir fry."
"We brought desert," Clark said as he procured the towel. Conner took the ice cream out of the bag and showed it to Lois proudly. It was blue and had gummy bears in it. He'd never seen something so brightly rainbowed before but anything that colorful had to be good.
"Looks yummy!" Lois said. "We better not let it melt." She lifted Conner up so he could put the ice cream in the refrigerator.
Clark took Conner from her and sat him on his shoulders to keep Conner out from underfoot then took over the stir fry while Lois mixed cheese, milk and bits of bacon into the macaroni.
Several minutes later Clark caught himself a moment before grabbing the hot frying pan with his bare hands. 'Getting too easy to relax and let my guard down with Lois,' he thought.
When the stir fry was finished, Clark held the pan while Lois leaned around him to scrape it into the serving bowl. Conner jumped off of Clark's shoulders on to the counter. He leaned over the side and pulled open the silverware drawer and counted out the utensils for the three of them, then stood on the counter to reach the shelf with the plates. "Oh no," Clark protested as Conner prepared to jump down with plates, forks and knives in hand.
"Helping!" Conner protested.
"Hand 'em over," Lois said. She took the stuff to the table while Clark lifted Conner down. "Now you can help," Lois said when Clark set Conner in the booster seat that had been acquired in the weeks since Superboy had been de-aged.
Conner stood in his chair and leaned over the table to put a plate and silverware at everyone's place while Lois and Clark brought the food over.
After dinner Clark did the dishes while Conner sat on the counter and dried then handed them off to Lois to put away. "Time to get back to work," Lois said when the last dish was up.
Lois and Clark spread their notes from the last few weeks' investigation across the coffee table. Lois curled up in the corner of the couch with her laptop. "I'll type, you can proofread," she informed Clark.
While they worked Conner claimed Clark's corner desk for his own and diligently copied out the Kryptonian alphabet several times.
"We might have become suspicious due to the mutilated strays, but the story starts with the pay-off to get the sanitation contract," Clark pointed out.
"Bribes are humdrum and the company's only a LexCorp subsidiary," Lois declared. "Plus Jimmy's got that great shot of Superman capturing our poor, demented, mutated trashman, the victim of LexCorp using the sanitation contract to cover illegally disposing of mutagenic waste from their genetics labs. That guy should be our lead: Crazy, super-strong feral guy running around the sewers ripping stray animals to shreds then up and dying a few days after he's put in jail is a much better hook than corporate pay-offs."
"We never conclusively proved the LexCorp waste caused the sanitation engineer's mutation," Clark warned.
"What do you call that robot destroying the body before it could be autopsied?" Lois demanded.
"Something Lex can weasel out of," Clark answered. "Superman recognized his voice from the robot's speaker system but it won't hold up in court. Lex will claim that voice recognition is questionable at best, that Superman is biased against him and that with the amount of public speaking he does it would be simple for someone to get a voice sample and use it to frame him. He's done it before."
Conner felt warm and peaceful as the air of comfortable familiarity between Lois and Clark extended to fill the room. He only felt a little left out when he and Clark heard a disturbance several blocks away and Clark had to make an excuse to disappear for about fifteen minutes.
"Kon, it's almost your bed-time," Clark said when he got back from putting an end to the shooting noise. "Why don't you get your book?"
Conner grinned and retrieved 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' from the bookshelf. Then he curled up in Clark's lap to listen and read along. He could still remember how to read for himself, but that didn't make listening to Clark's voice any less nice.
Once they finished the chapter Clark put the bookmark back in it's place.
"One more chapter Daddy?" Conner whined. Then he froze, he hadn't meant for that last word to sneak out.
"It's bedtime," Clark said. "Come on, I'll tuck you in. The story will still be there tomorrow night."
Conner let himself be put to bed without further protest. The story would still be there tomorrow, and so would Clark, his daddy.
"Well, I'd better head back to my place tonight," Lois declared when she and Clark finished off their article. "It's been an age since I was home long enough to wash clothes."
"I've been thinking," Lois continued. "Tomorrow, why don't you and Kon stay at my place... I actually have a spare bedroom. And as much fun as I've been having, making you sleep on the couch, I think you've done your penance. You were being an idiot about Kon at first, but you stopped and he's happy now."
"Kon got dropped on me like a bomb," Clark sighed. "At first I just didn't know what to think, it was so unexpected. Then I tried not thinking about him at all. I was procrastinating and ignoring that I wasn't the only person being affected. Until some good friends provided a much needed kick in the pants... Thanks."
Lois chuckled. "At least you admit it. Oh, by the way, I've been wondering: How old were you when the Kents adopted you?"
Clark frowned at her. "Is there a reason you're digging into my past? Or is it just general nosiness?"
"Less digging, more fishing." Lois shrugged apologetically.
Clark sighed. "And I just confirmed I was adopted didn't I? It's not really not a big secret, I was about three, almost anyone in Smallville would know that. But Lois, if you want to know something just ask, okay? Don't treat me like a story."
"Ingrained habit," Lois admitted. "Clark, you know you're not a story to me."
Lois groaned at the insistent ringing sound which was cruelly dragging from the land of nod and fumbled for the snooze button on her alarm while pulling her pillow over her head. When neither the pillow nor the snooze button worked it occurred to her that it was her phone ringing and not the alarm clock disturbing her sleep.
She grimaced and rolled out of bed. "Who ever it is better have a damn good reason for calling at this god-awful hour," she muttered. When her feet hit the icy floor she shivered and reached for her bathrobe. "And what the hell happened to the heat?"
The phone stopped ringing just before her answering machine would have picked-up. A few moments later it started up again. Whoever it was knew she wasn't a morning person. Lois glared darkly and muttered dire threats under her breath as she stumbled out of her bedroom.
There was a healthy breeze whipping through the living room, coming from a broken window. 'Well, that explains where the heat went.' Lois thought. Then she noticed the unhappy lump of teenager curled up beneath the window. She forgot about the phone.
"Kid, you're back to normal."
Superboy nodded but didn't look at her or stop hugging his knees to his chest. To Lois he looked exactly like he had the morning Superman had dropped him off while he dealt with the rampaging monster of the week the day after the boy had been de-aged.
In the background Lois' voice mail message began playing.
"Kon, what happened?" Lois asked as she crouched beside him.
"Lois! Kon's missing!" Clark's voice exclaimed in a near panic from the answering machine. "I woke up this morning and he was gone! Krypto's accounted for. He's not with his friends! If you can think of anywhere I should look... Anyway, tell Perry I won't be in today."
"I woke up and I was sixteen again," Conner said and Lois didn't know how someone who could smash through concrete walls could sound so much like spun glass. "Before all this, when he'd turn away, I'd tell myself it didn't matter, that I didn't care." Conner looked at her with stark terror in his eyes. "What if he stops liking me again?"
"Oh kiddo." Lois wrapped an arm around Conner's shoulders. "It's going to be okay," she promised. Then she raised her voice. "Clark! Get here now! I found him."
Conner tensed, ready to run. Lois held on to him more tightly. "It's going to be okay. Trust me. Trust him. It's going to be okay."
Then Superman was there. "Conner, you're alright," his shoulders slumped with relief. "You can't just take off like that! You were gone! I didn't know what happened to you!"
"The spell wore off," Conner explained. "I thought- I wasn't sure-"
"And no matter how many times I've said it, you don't have much reason to believe I wouldn't reject you again," Superman sighed. He picked Conner up and set him on his feet then hugged him. "I'm sorry about before. I was an idiot, I shouldn't have ignored you. You're still Kon-El, still my family regardless of wether you're five or sixteen. Will you let me prove that to you?"
Conner nodded and smiled tentatively. He thought for moment then remembered the first time Clark had implied that there relationship would continue after the spell was gone. He asked, "You said you'd explain about M'Gann once I was my right age?"
"So, how'd it go?" Lois asked.
"The spell's gone, I've been assured we don't have to worry about any strange after-effects," Clark said. "Kon's friends decided I'd been monopolizing him this last month and declared that he's theirs for the rest of the weekend. I can expect to get him back at 10:00PM Sunday night."
"That's great," Lois said, "But I was actually asking if you survived 'The Talk'."
Clark gave her a dirty look, "Yes, we managed." Clark hesitated for a moment. "This afternoon was that more fishing?" he asked warily.
"No, just the fastest way of getting a response," Lois replied. "Your 'disguise' sucks, but it works because of two incontrovertible and apparently irreconcilable facts: Clark Kent is from Smallville, Kansas. Superman is from the planet Krypton. Once I'd resolved that contradiction the blinders fell off. And then you went and asked me not to pry. I didn't know how to tell you I'd already figured it out."
Lois shook her head and laughed. "All the times I've interviewed your alternate identity and you didn't even have to lie. Never once did I bother to asked how long you'd been on Earth. We all just assumed that someone like Superman couldn't go unnoticed long… Even when it's blatantly obvious that you were familiar with US cultural norms. Blame it on Americanitis, we think everyone else is exactly like us, so we never thought to question an alien with an American Heartland upbringing."
"So what happens now?" Clark asked tensely.
Lois glared at him. "Have a little faith. I told you I wouldn't do anything to hurt Superman, and that was before I knew he was you, my partner and one of my closest friends. The public's right to know doesn't top that. My turn, what happens with the kid?"
"First off, I'm going to need to find a larger apartment..."
Clark glanced up at the Daily Planet building nervously. Bruce had taken care of all the paperwork needed to make Conner Kent an official resident of Metropolis. Lois had tried to poke holes in their cover story; tracing the paper trail and quizzing Conner; she'd deemed it solid enough to withstand scrutiny.
He glanced over at Conner then caught the teenager's wrist, preventing him from rubbing at his new contact lens. Lois had nixed glasses, saying they emphasized the mirror-image quality between the two of them too much. The lack of glasses left Conner's face with the appearance of a slightly different shape from Clark's while still turning his sapphire blue eyes an unremarkable hazel.
"You ready?" Clark asked, not feeling terribly ready himself.
Conner nodded. "I remember: Don't volunteer information unless someone asks. If they do ask, my mom was Lori Lemaris. She knew you from a summer camp while you were in high school. She recently died of cancer and I don't like to talk about it. She never told me anything about you until just before she died."
"Good job," Clark said, repressing a wince. He could deal with people's reactions to his having an illegitimate teenage son, Conner couldn't deal with being unwanted. Besides Lois and his parents knew the real story. "Just remember, only answer the question they ask, don't supply the whole story without making them prompt you for it."
"I remember," Conner reiterated. "And I won't call anyone by name until after they introduce themselves. And I won't stick my fingers into anyone's pencil sharpener or put another gash in the floor. And if we hear any trouble I will follow your lead and not give away our identities."
"I've mentioned this a few times?" Clark asked with chagrin.
"About five times... since we left the apartment," Conner said. "I lost count of how many since breakfast."
"Then I suppose we should just go in."
Several minutes later, once most of the Daily Planet's staff was trying to subtly stare at Clark's guest. Clark put his hand on Conner's shoulder and glanced around the room, "Everyone, I'd like to introduce you to my son."