Disclaimer: 6Teen and all related characters are property of Fresh TV; Superman, Justice League, and all related characters are property of DC Comics; X-Men and all related characters are property of Marvel Comics. This story was written solely for my enjoyment, and I am making no money from this. Enjoy!
Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, September 7, 2009
The early fall sun was high in the sky over Niagara Falls, catching on the spray of the falling water and turning the air into a spectrum as the lone cruise-ferry glided along the river, staying a safe distance from the rim of the falls. On the shoreline, dozens of visitors – tourists and locals alike – gathered, looking out at the impressive sight.
"Yes, Mom, I'm fine! You and Dad deserve a little alone-time!"
Standing by the guard-rail, in her usual olive slacks and violet, custom-ripped t-shirt, matching her mid-length hair, 22-year-old Nikki Wong laughed into her cell-phone. "Yes, I'm sure, Mom! This is yours and Dad's first visit back home in 6 years, and the Arctic snows are not the best sights for getting romantic! Enjoy that ferry-trip, already!"
Her mother's sigh answered her. "Well, that's hard to do when there's a visiting celebrity on-board, Nikki! That Kylie singer and her fans are blocking everything up!"
Nikki shrugged. "I guess her fans never got the memo that the concert is in the evening."
Her mother quickly shifted tracks. "And what about you, Nikki? Has that Garcia boy proposed, yet?"
Nikki rolled her eyes. "Mom…"
"You two have been going out for three years, Nikki! If he's not going to put a ring on that finger..!"
"KKKKHHHTTT! Mom, you're breaking up!" Nikki rasped into the phone, cutting her voice in and out. "I'm gonna…all back later…going through…ead zone! Bye!" With that, she switched off her phone.
The second she did, a smooth laugh echoed behind her, as a familiar pair of arms encircled her waist. "The Fake Phone Cut-Out, babe? Real smooth."
Echoing her boyfriend's laughter, Nikki turned around to return his hug. "What can I say? When it comes to ducking my folks' meddling, I'm the master."
Grinning at his girlfriend's quip, 22-year-old Jonesy Garcia, in his usual black jacket, blue t-shirt, and jeans, kissed her forehead. "So, are they enjoying their cruise?"
Nikki shrugged. "As much as they can when it's the epicenter of a Kylie Smylie fan-storm," she answered. "Does Wyatt know she's in town?"
Jonesy snorted. "Yeah, like he'd ever work up the nerve to go talk to her."
Nikki sighed. "Well, he can't say we don't try to help him out."
Jonesy was about to respond, but he suddenly paused. "Hang on…did you just hear a gunshot?"
Nikki arched an eyebrow. "A gunshot? Why on Earth would you ask that..?" she began…and then she heard it: it was fairly faint…but that dull, concussive thud was unmistakable. It was the sound of a gunshot.
And it sounded like it came from the ferry.
By then, more passers-by had been drawn by the sound towards the railing, watching the ferry…whose course was growing increasingly erratic. Jonesy gulped. "Uh, Nikki? Is it just me, or is that ferry getting awfully close to the falls?"
Following her boyfriend's gaze, Nikki's eyes went wide as she saw how close the ferry was getting to the raging white-water. Frantic, she pulled out her cell-phone and dialled her mother's cell-phone; only a dial-tone answered her, while the ferry grew closer and closer to the edge of the falls with every ring. Before long, the ferry was practically at the rim of the white-water; one more inch would send it falling.
Nikki was borderline hysterical, at the sight; desperate, she screamed out across the water. "Mom, Dad, get OUT of there! The ferry's going over the falls!" But it was too late; seemingly in slow-motion, the boat began to cross over the rim…
And then Nikki heard it.
The sonic-boom echoed in the distance like a thunderclap as the red-blue streak shot out of the sky, lancing down into the falls; pitching forward, the ferry took a nose-dive over the falls…and was lifted back up, carried by super-strong Kryptonian arms, as Superman, hovering underneath its dorsal side, lifted it up over the falls, flying towards the nearest dock. Mere moments after the Man of Tomorrow's save, one of the Justice League's super-advanced jets – Javelins, Nikki thought they were called – shot out of the clouds, hovering above the ferry, before a black shape dove out of its open dorsal hatch; the shadowy silhouette took aim at the bridge with a strange gun, and fired several shots. The first shot blew the cabin open, while the others blanketed it in white smoke. Seconds before impact, the dark shape expanded, snapping open large, black, bat-wings, slowing its descent and letting it land safely inside the cabin.
In minutes, it was all over. Flying over the nearest dock, Superman slowly eased the ferry back down into the water, before swimming out from under it and hopping onto the dock, while the hovering Javelin flew itself over to a clear section of the dock, touching down slowly. Quickly, the dock-personnel moved in, opening the hatches and ushering the borderline-panicked ferry-goers out. Among the first ones out were Kylie Smylie and her bodyguards; the four burly muscle-masses in suits quickly escorted the slim 22-year-old to a nearby limo, her trademark black slacks and yellow-green tank-top slightly ruffled by the incident, her long, wavy, rich brown hair, matching her coffee-cream complexion, a bit mussed. The rest of the ferry patrons poured out, after that…but as the last tourist rushed out, three more people – two teenagers, one male, one female, and one male in his 20s – were ingloriously tossed out, their hands cuffed behind their backs, followed by the Batman.
All of that barely registered on Nikki's radar as she forced through the crowd, looking for her parents, with Jonesy just managing to keep up. Finally, to her relief, she spotted them. "Mom! Dad!" she called out, running towards her parents and pulling them both into a hug, while Jonesy kept a respectful distance. "Oh my God, are you guys okay?"
Returning their daughter's hug, Frank and Melanie Wong, both still in their 70s-style clothes, nodded. "We're okay, honey," Melanie replied.
Frank nodded. "We were on deck; the shooting was on the bridge," he added, before he brightened. "We actually saw Superman catch the boat!"
Looking over her shoulder, Nikki sent a grateful smile towards Krypton's Last Son, despite knowing full well that Superman likely wouldn't notice…and got the surprise of her life.
Superman had been looking at them.
He'd been looking right at them; the second her gaze met his, the Man of Steel politely looked away, before he nodded to Batman and took to the sky, while the Dark Knight headed back to the Javelin.
Inching closer, Jonesy grinned sheepishly. "Wow, Mr. and Mrs. W, I bet you never expected a cruise like that!"
As her parents nodded, Nikki's expression was thoughtful. "Yeah," she murmured…as she started to recall Jude's crazy theory. 'It couldn't be…'
Xavier Institute, Westchester, New York
"…can't thank you enough for looking into my stalker problem, girl!"
Lying on their bed in her and her boyfriend's room, in her usual blue jeans and blue-white tank-top, 19-year-old Alison "Power Girl" Blaire grinned as she spoke into her cell-phone. "Think nothing of it, Kyles! It's the least I could do!"
On the other end of the conversation, Kylie Smylie groaned. "Ugh. I'm starting to think that you had the right idea, walking out of this business when you did," she muttered. "If only I hadn't signed a contract for two more years…"
Alison sighed. "Agents; they're sneaky like that," she agreed. "Why did you agree to it?"
"Uh, because I didn't have the talent to MAKE the agencies desperate to sign me, unlike SOMEONE I know!"
Alison shrugged. "Well, look on the bright side; maybe The Guy will come to one of your concerts!"
Kylie's tone dimmed at that. "I don't think I'll be seeing Wyatt at any of my concerts, Alison; my kind of music isn't his thing. He said so himself."
Alison huffed. "His loss, then," she replied, before her expression turned worried. "So…you're okay, right?" she asked. "Those three wackos didn't..?"
"No, girl; I'm okay. Two of my would-be assailants were just misguided fans; they just wanted to see me. It was the older guy that was the whack-job," Kylie answered. "It's kinda sad."
Nodding, Alison suddenly brightened as she heard a familiar sonic boom in the distance. "Uh, Kyles? I'm gonna have to call you back; Kal's home!"
Kylie laughed. "One of these days, Blaire, I wanna MEET this "Kal" of yours! I swear, if I'm not gushing about Wyatt, YOU'RE gushing about Kal!"
Alison laughed back. "Hey, if you can find a spot in your schedule!" she answered. "Later, Kylie!"
With that, Alison ended the call…and closed her sapphire-blue eyes with a smile, letting the breeze of her lover's motion caress her face as he blurred by, whipping her wavy, strawberry-blonde hair around her face before he came to a stop. "Hi, baby."
With his red-and-blue uniform already exchanged for a light-blue t-shirt and black jeans, 22-year-old Clark Kent returned his girlfriend's smile. "Hi, yourself," he greeted.
Alison's smile turned a little worried. "Everything okay?"
Clark nodded. "Everything's fine, Alia; Batman and I intercepted that stalker and his cronies before they could hurt Ms. Smylie," he answered. "Your intel was right; your friend could have been hurt."
Alison shivered. "It's nuts like those that make me glad I got out of the business," she said. "Kylie's braver than I am, staying in for two more years!"
Clark chuckled. "Have you known each other long?"
"Since I started performing; when I did my first recording, Kylie was just finishing one of hers," Alison replied. "She saw I was nervous and talked to me; we hit it off, and we've been friends ever since."
Clark smiled wistfully. "Glad we could help, then."
Alison didn't need an empathic link with him to tell what was racing through her beau's mind. "You're still worried about Lex's memory."
Clark nodded. "There's still been no change, taushi; his memories of everything are still fuzzy."
Walking over, Alison laced his hand with hers. "He'll remember, Clarkie; you two were best friends for ages. That counts for something." She smiled. "You'll be thick as thieves in no time flat."
Clark lowered his gaze. "If he can forgive me," he murmured. "If his opinion of Superman was anything to go by, I wouldn't hold my breath."
Alison frowned. "People are going to get over that, Clark," she admonished. "Once they remember all the good things you and the League did for Earth, they'll forget about Zod, and stop listening to those ingrates bad-mouthing you!"
"Maybe," Clark said. "I guess I'm just not in a hurry to lose any more friends over this."
Alison arched an eyebrow. "Did something else happen?"
Clark sighed. "It's nothing, really…"
Alison's hands went to her hips. "If it were nothing, you wouldn't have mentioned it."
Clark shrugged. "It's just…after today's rescue, I saw some people I used to know."
Alison blinked. "Wait…are these the ones you told me about?" she asked. "The five kids you met when the Fortress' A.I. almost took away your powers? The ones that know about you?"
"That's them," Clark confirmed. "I saw only two of them: Nikki and Jonesy; Nikki's parents were on that ferry."
Alison looked worried. "Did they recognize you?"
"I don't think so," Clark answered. "Or, if they did, they kept quiet."
"Okay," Alison said. "So, why haven't you looked them up, before now?"
Clark's hand moved to his forehead. "I don't know; it just…never seemed like a good time," he murmured. "My first year here, I was just starting out, getting used to everything; and then in my second year, I had the New Mutants to deal with, plus Magneto and Doom's schemes; and this last year has just been insane…"
"Alright, so the past few years have been a little crazy," Alison admitted. "What's stopping you now?"
Clark grimaced. "Alison, even if they don't know I'm Superman, they know I have powers; it's not going to take a huge intellectual leap from that point to figure it out," he said. "I just…don't want to lose any more friends over anti-Kryptonian sentiment."
Exasperated, Alison sighed. "Clarkie, if they were your friends – which it sounds like they were – then they're not going to fall for that!" she admonished. Smiling sweetly, she looped her arms around his neck. "Tomorrow, you're taking the day off."
Clark blinked. "Come again?"
Alison rolled right over him. "Tomorrow, you are going to take the day off and go talk with them," she insisted. "You've been going almost full-tilt since the crisis with Zod ended; you need a break, to go recharge your batteries."
Clark looked nervous. "But what if..?"
"They won't!" Alison laughed. "And if they do, so help me, I'll kick their butts!" Her smile softened. "You need to see them, tausha; you need a little visit with normality."
Clark blinked at that…and then chuckled, encircling her waist with his arms. "How did I get so lucky as to have a girlfriend who's both wise and a drop-dead knockout?"
Alison shrugged prettily. "Good karma, I guess!" And with that, before Clark could say anything else, she sealed his lips with her own.
Galleria Mall, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, September 9
"So you and Jonesy actually saw Superman? In person?"
As she, Wyatt, and Cate headed towards the Mall, Nikki rolled her eyes for what had to have been the umpteenth time. "Yes, Caitlin, we saw him."
In her usual light rose tank-top and blue-violet miniskirt, 22-year-old Caitlin Cooke let out a mild squeal, her baby-blue eyes scrunched with glee as her long, sunflower bangs danced as she bounced. "That's so awesome, Nikki! What was he like? Did he say anything to you?"
Hefting his guitar-case over his jean-jacket-clad shoulder, 22-year-old Wyatt Williams winced at the squeak. "He didn't talk to Nikki, Caitlin," he said. "He and Batman probably got called away by some other emergency, so they couldn't stay long."
Pushing back her memory of Superman looking their way, Nikki nodded. "Superman and the League are on-call 24/7, Cate; once one crisis is over, they have to get back on patrol, so they can't listen to everyone gushing over them."
Wyatt looked sad. "Not that many have been doing that as much, lately."
Caitlin gulped. "I know, right?" she murmured. "Between that Zod guy and that big space-station he used, almost everybody's totally freaked-out!"
Nikki snorted. "And how's that Superman's fault?" she asked. "Zod was the one blasting away at Earth! Superman and the League stopped him! Seriously, did Zod fire a Dumbass-Ray at half the human race before he got taken down?"
"Hey, you don't have to convince us, Nikki!" Wyatt agreed, before he checked his watch. "We'd better get moving; the others are probably here, by now." Nodding, Nikki moved to follow her friends, but the buzzing of her phone stopped her, prompting her to check it.
Meet me outside the Mall, near the main loading-bay. – C.
Staring at the odd text-message, Nikki blinked. "Do we know anybody else with a name starting with C?"
Turning, Wyatt glanced at her phone. "Not that I can think of."
Caitlin did the same, gulping as she did. "Okay, that's kinda creepy," she murmured. "You're…you're not going to actually go, are you?"
Nikki took a deep breath. "I think I need to check it out."
Wyatt paled. "Nikki..!"
"I know, Wyatt, it could be dangerous," Nikki admitted, "but what kind of journalist will I be if I can't deal with tracing dangerous leads?" She smiled slyly. "Besides, you're coming with me."
Wyatt groaned. "Of course I am."
Caitlin looked stricken. "Are you sure?"
"Not really," Nikki admitted, "so we'll need you to tell the others; if we're not back in 5 minutes, come looking."
Reluctantly, Caitlin nodded. "Okay," she agreed, before she hurried off.
Wyatt sighed. "Refresh my memory: how do I let myself get talked into things like this?"
Nikki blew a playful raspberry at him. "That's easy: it's because only the best of friends would tag along on dumbass stunts like this."
Wyatt half-grinned. "Oh, yeah." With that, he followed her around to the back of the Mall.
Before long, the both of them were behind the Mall, near the main loading-bay. Looking around, Wyatt saw no-one else there. "Okay…getting a little more creeped-out, here."
Nikki nodded. "I'm starting to think this is just some bad prank…call?" Her remark was interrupted by the sound of footsteps, as a tall, well-built young man, around their age, clad in blue jeans, a white t-shirt, and a black jacket, his sky-blue eyes framed by glasses, and his short black hair brushed slightly forward over his forehead, sending a few spiky tufts arcing down, walked out from behind a dumpster.
"Hey, Nik, Wyatt."
It took about a minute for Nikki to recognize the nickname…and another minute for the shock to wear off. "C-C-Clark?" she murmured…before she smiled. "Oh my God…oh my GOD! Clark!" Laughing, she ran forward and hugged him…or at least as much as she could get her arms around his massive torso. "I…I can't believe it!"
Clark laughed back. "Neither can I!" he exclaimed, carefully returning her hug. "It's great to see you guys!"
Now Wyatt was grinning, too. "It's great to see you too, Clark; it's been ages!"
Nikki's smile turned wry. "That reminds me." Reaching up, she flicked her finger against Clark's nose.
Nikki wasn't sure if her finger hurt from the impact against Clark's nose, or from his adorably confused reaction. "Hey! Nikki, what was that for?"
"For not checking in with us for seven years, you goober!" Nikki admonished. "Now spill! Where'd you go?" Her tone turned hushed. "Do you still have those…powers of yours?"
Clark sighed. "Those questions kinda have the same answer, Nikki," he answered. "If it's all the same to you, I'd prefer to explain it to everybody all at once; are they still around?"
Wyatt nodded. "We're all here right now, man; still at the same spot."
Nikki smiled. "Yep; all six of us."
Clark blinked. "Six?"
"Yeah; about a year after you dropped by, we added a sixth member to our little posse," Nikki said. "But don't worry; Caitlin's cool. You can trust her."
Clark's smile turned a bit anxious. "Would the others…still want to see me?"
Wyatt laughed. "Are you kidding? If we don't get you over there right now, Jen'll probably freak!"
Nikki grinned, clasping her hand around Clark's wrist. "Come on, Smallville; you're about seven years overdue!" With that, she half-dragged their long-lost friend back towards the Mall, while Wyatt followed close behind.
"Nikki and Wyatt are what?"
As they sat around their usual table – sans giant lemon, as The Big Squeeze had gone out of business, two years ago – Jonesy raised a hand to calm his upset step-sister. "Easy, Jen; don't shoot the messenger, okay?"
In her usual red-white track-suit, her long red hair tied back in a ponytail, 22-year-old Jen Masterson sighed, calming herself. "Sorry, Cate," she said. "It's just…how could Nikki just go after some unknown texter without knowing anything about them?"
Utterly stricken, Caitlin gulped. "I know! I tried to talk her out of it, but you know Nikki!"
Jen's expression was one of horror. "Okay, we need to split up and find them!" she declared. "Caitlin, you go…"
"Whoa, whoa, bra," came the mellow tone of 22-year-old Jude Lizowski, in his usual black t-shirt and skater jeans, his short blond hair covered by his toque, his foot resting on his skateboard as he sat. "Nikki's smart enough not to get into any trouble; same with Wyatt. They're okay," he said. "Plus, if anything does happen, Hero Dude'll save 'em, right?"
Jonesy sighed. "And here we go."
"Jude, just because Clark had superpowers doesn't mean he's Superman!" Jen admonished.
"You got another explanation, bra?"
Jonesy shrugged. "I don't know: mutant X-gene? Cosmic radiation? Radioactive waste? There's so many ways to get superpowers these days, it's not even funny!"
"Guys!" Jen cried. "This isn't helping! We need to find Nikki and Wyatt before they get hurt..!"
"Appreciate the freak-out, Jen, but we're fine."
Hearing that familiar snark, Jen turned around with a relieved sigh. "Nikki!"
Beaming, Caitlin darted towards their two friends. "I'm so glad you're both…" she began, but stopped as she saw the new person with them; frozen dead in her tracks, Caitlin's eyes went wide…before she smiled: an expression they all knew as the "I'm-Totally-Smitten Smile." "Hel-lo!"
The newcomer smiled nervously. "Uh…hi."
Nikki grinned. "Sorry we took so long, Jen; he followed me home, again."
The newcomer chuckled. "Gee, thanks, Nik."
The nickname jogged Jen's memory, as a smile crossed her face. "CLARK?"
Clark just waved. "Hey, guys!"
Standing up, Jude laughed. "Dude! You're back!"
Clark grinned. "Sorry it took me a little longer than I'd thought!"
Jen was instantly on her feet, racing over to hug him. "Oh my God, I don't believe it! You're okay!"
Jonesy chuckled. "Well, duh, Jen! The guy can dive through concrete!" he said, walking over. "Speaking of which, what have you been eating, Smallville? You're huge!"
His smile a bit sheepish, Clark scratched the back of his head. "I guess being big just…runs in my family," he answered. "It took a few years to kick in."
Wyatt nodded. "So, you did pass your old man's test?"
"Pretty much," Clark said. "It more or less changed everything." He sighed. "God…so much has happened, since then."
"Tell us about it!" Nikki agreed, before she grinned. "As you can see, while you were gone, we added a sixth member to our little posse!" She gestured to Caitlin. "Clark, this is Caitlin Cooke; we met her about a year after you showed up. Cate, Clark Kent."
Smiling, Clark waved. "Hi."
Beaming, Caitlin went on auto-gush. "H-Hi, nice to maul you – meet you! N-Nice to meet you here at the Mall, as in shopping, not maul as in on the second date even though we haven't even gone on a first…"
Mercifully, Jen stepped in to save their friend. "So, Clark, tell us, because we're all dying to know: where'd you go?"
Clark sighed, sitting down at their table. "God, Jen…I don't even know where to start, or even if I should tell you…"
Jonesy frowned. "Dude, we're friends, remember?"
Clark looked stricken. "If I tell you guys…the way things are now, you might…you might hate me."
Jen started to understand. "Clark…is this about what you can do?"
Now Nikki caught on. "Smallville, do we look like a bunch of anti-mutant jack-booting skin-heads to you?" she asked with a frown.
Jonesy nodded. "Seriously, man; none of us care whether or not you're a mutant."
Jude piped up. "Nah, guys; Hero Dude's just worried we'll start buggin' out like other people did after that Zod dude went psycho."
Wyatt groaned. "Not this again."
Jen sighed. "We're sorry, Clark, but Jude seems to have this strange idea that you're Superman," she said. "Jude! How many times do we have to tell you..?"
Clark's voice interrupted her, causing the six of them to look at the now-extra-nervous Clark; his expression wary, Clark looked around, making sure the coast was clear. "Actually…" he began…before he quickly lifted up his t-shirt.
Red and blue, with a yellow "S" crest greeted their eyes, before Clark lowered his shirt again.
Nikki's expression was dumbfounded, as her memory re-played the other day, superimposing the Man of Tomorrow's face over Clark's…and her mouth dropped open. "Holy CRAP."
Caitlin's hands flew to her mouth.
Wyatt almost dropped his guitar.
Jude just grinned, as he stood up and pointed at Clark with both hands. "Totally called it, dudes!"
Jen blinked. "You mean…you are..?"
Clark nodded, his face bracing for the worst.
Her expression firm, Jen walked back over to him…and hugged him, much tighter than before, barely holding back tears. "Thank you," she whimpered. "Thank you so, so much!"
Letting out a relieved sigh, Clark carefully returned her hug. "Anytime."
Caitlin blinked. "Huh?" she murmured, before she remembered. "Oh!"
Jen nodded. "Yeah," she confirmed, as her own memories caught up with her…
Toronto, Ontario, Canada, August 17, 2009
"Travis, I'm telling you, I'm okay!"
Walking out of the little convenience store, carrying a grocery-bag, Jen laughed as she spoke with her boyfriend on her cell-phone. "Everything's fine, up here! There are no more alien armies around; the streets are almost empty! People are just starting to come back!"
Laughing gently, her boyfriend, former 22-year-old-Olympic gold-medalist Travis Gibson answered her. "Well, forgive us all for being a bit spooked, Little Miss Fearless! Not even a day ago, the entire planet was a battlezone!" His tone turned serious. "The news is actually showing us a satellite image of this thing Superman and General Zod used; you've GOT to see it, Jen. It's beautiful, if in an eerie, Death Star kind of way…and it's even bigger than the MOON…"
Walking to her car, Jen set her groceries down to open the trunk. "I'll see it when I get back," she said. "I still don't see why I even need to get extra supplies; can't we just all go home?"
"Hey, tell your folks, not me!" Travis defended. "They're the ones who want to hang on for one more day until everything settles, and since EVERYBODY's here, the cupboard needs topping up!"
Jen had to nod at that; when the word had gone out about the invasion, she, Nikki, Jonesy, Caitlin, Wyatt, Jude, Travis, and their respective families had all gathered as many supplies as they could and hightailed it out to the Masterson-Garcias' cabin in the country, which was fortunately large enough for a big crowd. "Well, everything looks okay, here! Put my Mom on the phone…"
Travis interrupted her. "Huh? Hang on, Jen, Nikki's telling me about…WHAT?"
Jen blinked. "Travis, what's going on?"
Travis' reply was shaky with fear. "Jen…there was just a news report," he murmured. "Z-Zod…Zod's lost it!"
Jen paled. "W-What?"
"General Zod's FLIPPED, Jenny! He just knifed Superman and the League in the back!" Travis cried. "For the past hour, he's been using that battle-station as his own private war-machine! The news just updated us on where he's headed: he's en route to Toronto! Jenny, you have to get out of there NOW!"
With her adrenaline rushing in overtime, Jen switched off her phone and fumbled for her keys, practically leaping into her car; starting the ignition and gunning the engine, she raced down the empty streets…before she slammed on the brakes.
In front of her now was a nightmare-vision: a tall, bulky, white-crystalline robot, bearing two large crystals on its shoulders, its head faceless save for a holographic visor blinking with lights…and bearing a warning yellow glow.
It was from the battle-station – "Sentrius," if she remembered right; some unearthly product of Kryptonian science.
And it was here to get her.
Like it was reading her mind, the robot's visor suddenly flashed a malevolent red, its shoulder-crystals flipping down and expanding into cannons. Frozen with fear, Jen couldn't even cringe as she watched the machine prepare to fire…but instead of targeting her, the robot turned and aimed up, firing two massive plumes of energy, blowing a skyscraper's top levels into so much slag, before lumbering off.
Hyperventilating and on the verge of outright hysteria, Jen gunned the engine, peeling out and making a beeline for the city limits. As she drove, she saw six more comet-like energy-bursts blaze across the skyline, but this time, they were intercepted by airborne metal girders thrown by an aerial red-blue blur; after stopping five of the six, the blur shot towards the sixth, and blocked it with himself, sending him crashing into a playground.
Seeing even Superman get knocked around by those terrible weapons kicked Jen's fight-or-flight responses up even higher. Flooring the gas pedal, she raced out of the city, escaping onto the elevated highway that led into the countryside. With Toronto gradually fading into the distance, she finally started to calm…until her cell-phone rang, startling her. Hooking it up to the car's charge-outlet, she put it on speaker. "Hello?"
Her mother's voice instantly calmed her and made tears come to her eyes. "M-Mommy!"
Emma Masterson-Garcia's tone was both soothing and frantic. "Oh, God, honey, are you okay?"
Jen kept her sniffles to a minimum. "I-I'm okay, Mom; I'm on my way out of the city!" she said. "I-I had a close call, though; one of those crystal robots walked right in front of my car!"
"It's okay, Mom; I don't think it was interested in me," Jen added quickly. "It was more interested in blasting half a skyscraper to kingdom come!"
Now Emma sounded near tears. "Jen, you get out of there, right NOW! That monster Zod is supposed to be..!"
"I know, Mom! Travis told me!" Jen exclaimed. "I'm just clearing the city limits, so I should be – OH MY GOD!"
Her scream came just as a black-red-blue blur shot down out of the sky, milliseconds before General Zod tackled Superman through the concrete mere kilometers ahead of her, causing the entire stretch of highway to literally implode, collapsing around them. Slamming on the brakes, Jen was barely able to stop the car inches from the massive hole the impact had made, leaving her car teetering on the edge.
"Jen? Jen, sweetie, are you okay?"
Mildly dazed by the impact, Jen unbuckled her seatbelt as she took her phone in hand, glancing at the few red scratches on her forehead and face in the rear-view mirror. "I'm…I'm okay, Mom," she murmured. "I'm a little banged up, but otherwise fine." Lifting the door latch, she opened it and climbed out. "The car's another story."
Emma was barely able to hold it together. "W-What happened?"
Jen's eyes went wide as she remembered. "I…I think Superman and Zod just crashed through the highway!" she exclaimed. "I-I have to get out of here!"
"Where are you?" Emma demanded. "I'll get your brother to come get you!"
Running along the highway, inching around the gaping holes in the concrete, Jen glanced at what remained of an overhead street-sign. "I'm on the 405, Mom, heading southbound!" she answered. "If Jonesy takes the 404, he should find me…"
Her voice trailed off as she reached the rim of the largest hole, her every muscle freezing as she glanced down into it.
With concrete raining down around his head, Superman blocked Zod's punch, but the General's follow-up pivot-kick sent him hurtling into a support-column, shattering it and burying the Man of Steel under thousands of pounds of concrete. Managing to control her hyperventilating – barely – Jen whispered into her phone. "Oh my God…oh my God, they're here, Mom; both of them! I-I have to…"
Her whispers ended as she sent one more gaze down through the gap…which froze her to the core.
General Zod wasn't looking at Superman, anymore. He was looking up…at her.
He was looking at her.
Right AT her!
Jen's fight-or-flight response kicked in, setting itself on flight; she had to get away, now! Frantic, she turned to run..!
She was only halfway through her turn when a dark blur whooshed past her, leaving a massive shadow looming over her, directly in her path. Slowly, like a lamb turning to face a hungry lion, Jen turned, her eyes wide with pure terror.
Standing almost seven feet tall, all muscle, and clad in a silver-black version of Superman's uniform, except with a stylized 'Z' on the chest, with two lines through it, surrounded by a square diamond, General Zod glared at her, his thin dark beard twisted around his mouth in a scowl, his dark eyes narrowed as he folded his arms.
Jen started to sniffle. "M-Mommy…"
Emma quickly answered her daughter. "Jen, baby, you've got to run! Get OUT of there!"
Jen's eyes were teary. "I…I c-can't…" she whimpered. "He's…he's standing r-right in…in f-front of m-me!"
That remark drew a gasp of horror from her mother. After a few seconds, Emma began to speak, her tone pleading. "G-General, s-sir…i-if you can hear me…p-please, I'm begging you, d-don't hurt my baby..!"
At those last words, Emma's voice began to fade, drowned out by static, until it was gone. "M-Mom?" Jen whimpered. "Mommy?"
It was only then that she glanced back towards Zod, whose fingers were just leaving the crystal armband encircling his massive bicep: he'd jammed her signal, leaving her all alone. "Tell me, child; who do you suppose heard that little bit of whining you just made?"
The General's cruel voice made Jen's entire world come crashing down, leaving her with a horrific revelation: she was going to die.
She'd never get to see Travis again.
She'd never get to hug her mom, or her stepdad, or her baby sister, or even her dumb younger stepbrothers ever again.
She'd never get to compete at the 2010 Olympics.
She'd never go shopping with Caitlin, or help Wyatt with his music, or listen to Jude's crazy theories, or tease Nikki about Jonesy, or Jonesy about Nikki; she'd never see any of her friends ever again.
She'd never see anyone again, or get to do anything she'd wanted to; there was so much she wouldn't get to do, and it wasn't fair..!
Jen hated herself for doing it, but she couldn't help it; her sniffles turned to sobs, which turned to outright wailing, leaving her bawling like a baby in front of her would-be executioner.
General Zod wasn't impressed, his fingers moving to his temple, his brow narrowed in annoyance. "Stop that."
"I…I c-can't!" Jen wailed. "I…I don't wanna die..!"
And then the thunder roared.
Bursting free of the concrete, Superman rocketed out of the hole in the highway, shaking the air with his flight as he smashed into Zod, gouging the mad General through the road. "RUN!" Superman shouted, but Jen was too hysterical to listen, her feet still rooted to the spot.
To Jen's horror, Zod did a quick handspring, getting back to his feet in seconds; he was about to dart right back at Superman, but the beeping of his armband stopped him, followed by a computerized female voice. "General Zod, I have been in contact with Councillor Wazzo and the Confederate contingent still in orbit. They have requested to speak with you; they are curious about our actions."
The General raised an eyebrow. "What did you tell them?"
"That all military manoeuvres were classified, and that only you were at liberty to disclose them."
A smirk crossed Zod's face. "Excellent. Tell the Councillor I will be meeting with her shortly; for now, target my location with a ZSP – one minute delay."
"Acknowledged; Station-Commander El, please move to safety immediately."
Jen's hysterical brain barely managed to process that…and it didn't help her mental state. 'Oh God…that psycho just called in an AIR-STRIKE!'
"What are you doing, Zod?" Superman demanded. "That's the third time you've called in a Zone-strike! If you're trying to destroy us..!"
"As I told you the first time we fought beside each other, Cadet, my knowledge of theoretical Phantom-Zone physics was limited, so I brushed up on the subject. Quite a fascinating subject; the work of Ber-Om was especially intriguing."
The mention of that name made the Man of Tomorrow's eyes go wide. "The Ber-Om Effect…"
Zod's smirk grew. "Precisely."
Jen did not like the sound of that.
Clearly, Superman didn't either. "You're insane…Zod, you're insane! Do you realize what you could do? You could swallow the entire planet..!"
Zod just laughed. "Destroy the very world I mean to remake? Really, Cadet; I may appreciate a necessary show of force, but even I think that is somewhat much!" His smile darkened. "I do not intend to send Earth in; I mean to pull something out."
"Well, what? What could be so big that you would need to…" but then Superman's voice trailed off. "No…"
"Oh, yes," Zod replied. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I must rendezvous with our Confederate allies; you could pursue me…but that would leave this female primitive at ground-zero of a Phantom Zone singularity. Your choice, Cadet." As Zod flew off, Superman glared after him, before he turned towards Jen, scooped her into his arms, and flew away as fast as he could…
Jen almost didn't see the swirling vortex that suddenly opened up directly above where they'd just been, but she couldn't have missed the magenta dot of energy that shot out of it into the concrete…before it expanded into a massive purple-black dome, swallowing everything it touched. As the terrible dome expanded, it began pulling everything within a 1000 foot radius towards it, sucking up chunks of concrete, trees, her car…everything was snared in its deadly gravity…including them.
Screaming with utter terror, Jen could only stare at the half-sphere of black-violet death looming at her over Superman's shoulder as the Man of Steel accelerated for all he was worth, trying to stay ahead of that monstrous gravity…and then, the dome suddenly collapsed in on itself, vanishing in a tiny dot of white light, leaving a perfectly half-spherical crater in its wake.
Free of the monstrous gravity, Superman accelerated hard, but quickly hit the brakes, coming to a stop just a few feet from the edge of the crater, setting Jen down carefully. "You okay?"
Jen didn't hear him; she could barely make eye-contact with him, she was shaking so much, her breathing reduced to sniffles, while her legs were on the verge of collapsing. Sensing her distress, the Man of Steel enfolded her in a gentle hug. "Shh…it's okay," he soothed. "It's all okay…you're safe, now."
Hearing that gently reassuring voice, Jen was finally able to get her crying back under control. "T-Thank you…" she murmured, just managing to get out a soft whimper, as she fumbled for her phone, calling home. "M-Mom? It's Jen; I'm okay…"
"JEN! Oh, thank God! Where are you?"
Jen nervously chewed her lip. "I'm still on the highway, Mom, but it's torn up really bad; I don't know how anybody's going to come get me…"
"Superman calling Batman: send search-and-rescue to my present location – we need a civilian transport."
Hearing Superman's voice over her shoulder, Jen managed a wan smile. "Never mind, Mom; I think Superman's got that covered…"
"Send Kara and her team to Councillor Wazzo's ship, A.S.A.P.! Zod is en route! After that, contact as many of our allies as possible, and send them to these two locations! While you're at it, hail Namor – tell him to get as many ships as possible ready, and deploy them here: if we can't stop Zod, they'll be our last line of defence!"
Turning around, Jen saw that the Man of Steel had turned away, leaving her only able to catch the side of his face; for a moment, she thought she saw something familiar in him…but that thought got derailed by his next words.
"I know what Zod is planning…"
Leaving her memories behind, Jen looked back up: all the others were sober, with Clark looking down at the floor. "That was, without a doubt, the scariest moment of my life," Jen murmured.
"Goes double for all of us, bra," Jude agreed. "Your Mom had you on speaker-phone; when General Nut-job started jamming you, we thought you were toast."
Clark was finally able to speak. "I'm so sorry…you – ALL of you – should never have had to go through that…"
"Wasn't your fault, man," Jude spoke up.
Wyatt nodded. "You couldn't have known that Zod was nuts."
"I should have."
Sensing that they weren't going to get anywhere on this line of conversation, Jonesy changed the subject fast. "So, what made you look us up now?"
Clark chuckled. "My girlfriend, actually," he answered. "When I mentioned to her that I saw you and Nikki, yesterday, she sorta gave me the kick in the pants I needed to drop in on you guys."
"Cool by us," Jude said. "So, what do you wanna do?"
Clark shrugged. "Whatever it is you guys do, these days."
Jen blinked. "Seriously?" she asked. "Clark, I hate to say it, but our Mall-routine is a little on the dull side in comparison to…well, what you do."
Clark's laugh was hollow. "Jen, for the past 3 years, I've faced down magnetic meteors, magically-enhanced multidimensional imps, rogue mutants, killer robots, rampant A.I.s, invading alien armies, and an insane general to name a few!" he said. "I would love a little "dull," right about now!"
Nikki grinned. "Well, you sure came to the right place, Smallville!" she quipped. She glanced to the others. "Seeing as you guys need to make your respective excuses, why don't Jonesy and I give Clark the run-down on what's happened around here, the past 7 years?"
"Sounds like a plan!" Jen agreed. "Meet us back here in about 15 minutes!"
Nikki nodded. "Gotcha," she replied. "Come on, Smallville; the Mall's a whole different animal, these days."
Clark chuckled. "Lovely."
Once Nikki, Jonesy, and Clark were out of earshot – human earshot, anyway – Caitlin let out a cry of dismay. "Oh my God!" she wailed. "Not only did I just act like a total dork in front of yet another cute guy…said cute guy was Superman! The most eligible bachelor on the planet!"
Jen chuckled guiltily. "I wouldn't feel too bad, Cate. You heard him: he has a girlfriend."
Caitlin huffed. "Darn!" she muttered. "Why are all the good ones taken?"
Seeing Jen's expression, Wyatt arched an eyebrow. "Okay, Masterson: what are you up to?"
Jen blinked innocently. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
Caitlin had seen it, too. "Seriously, Jen: you had the same expression Jonesy has whenever he's going to scam someone."
Jen frowned. "I did not!"
"Sorry, Jen, but you did; we all saw it," Wyatt answered.
Jude nodded. "Hate to break it to you, bra; you and the Jonesmeister have been living under the same roof, too long."
Jen flushed in annoyance. "Ugh! I am not like Jonesy, guys! Nobody's getting scammed!" she protested. "I just had a great idea on what we could do for Clark now that he's back!"
"Sounds cool, dudette," Jude said. "What's the plan?"
Jen shook her head, gesturing towards the direction Clark had gone. "Uh-uh, guys; super-ears, remember?" she said. "If we're gonna pull this off, we'll need to be sneaky!"
Wyatt blinked. "Okay…"
Taking her laptop out of her knapsack, Jen switched it on. "Just trust me, guys!" she said. "Clark may have skipped over most of his high-school years, but that doesn't mean we can't bring him up to speed..!"
As he followed Nikki and Jonesy through the Mall, Clark looked around. "It…doesn't really look like much has changed, guys…"
Jonesy shrugged. "Not much has changed," he agreed, "but the stuff that did has been major." He grinned, nudging Nikki with his elbow. "Right, babe?"
Nikki grinned back. "Oh, yeah; it was the perfect homecoming present!" she agreed, before looking at Clark. "And speaking of homecomings, you still didn't answer me: where'd you go, those four years?"
Clark sighed. "North."
Nikki blinked. "What, you mean Nunavut?"
Jonesy was equally confused. "You were in Nikki's old neighbourhood?"
Clark shook his head. "Further."
Nikki's expression grew more perplexed. "Baffin Island?"
"Even further, Nik; as far north as it gets."
Nikki's eyes went wide. "The North Pole?"
"Hang on…just before that whole invasion thing, there was a report that there was some kinda…thing on the Pole," Jonesy said. "Is that..?"
Clark nodded. "Yeah, that was me," he admitted. "My Fortress of Solitude."
Nikki blinked again. "You mean you spent four years alone, surrounded by nothing but polar ice?" Frowning, she reached up, and flicked his nose again.
"Nikki! Quit it!" Clark protested. "What'd I do this time?"
"Spending four years in the North Pole? Alone?" Nikki retorted. "Do you even have to ask?"
Now it was Clark's turn to frown. "I told you guys before: I didn't have a choice!" he replied. "After my human father died, I found a nano-crystal in the ship that brought me here – the second I touched it, my subconscious went on autopilot!" His voice turned quiet. "I just…had to go."
That sobered the mood pretty fast. "So…what exactly did you do up there?" Jonesy asked.
"Training," Clark answered, thinking back to those four years. "Four years of the most intensive training I'd ever conceived of, combined with the most immersive education I ever imagined: Kryptonian and intergalactic history, philosophy, science, combat training, combat tactics, you name it, all while getting full instruction on the use of my powers."
Nikki blinked. "Whoa."
Jonesy couldn't help but ask. "So…what exactly is in that…what did you call it? Fortress?"
"More than you could imagine," Clark said. "Nanotech, shield technology, Trans-Warp, robotics and A.I. technology, energy-to-matter synthesis, deep-space astronomy…and that's just the stuff human scientists have names for! Some of my people's discoveries still boggle my mind!" He sighed. "And now every government on Earth knows it's up there."
Nikki quickly got the picture. "Which means that every government on Earth has been acting like a sugar-rushed kid in a toy-store: "Mine! Mine!""
"Pretty much," Clark agreed, as he forced a smile. "But that's enough about that; that's my problem to deal with," he finished quickly. "What exactly am I here to see?"
That brought a grin to Nikki's face. "See for yourself! We're here!"
Following her pointing finger, Clark found himself looking at a health-food shop. "Uh…am I missing something?"
Nikki snorted. "News flash, Smallville: this was where I saved you from the Clones!"
His memory flashing, Clark quickly remembered. "This used to be…what was it? The Khaki Barn?"
"Yep!" Jonesy grinned at that. "It went out of business the year Nikki got back; its closing day was the very day she came home!"
Nikki sighed blissfully. "Like I said: best homecoming gift ever!" she declared. "It was like the fall of the Roman Empire, but in a good way!"
"Wow," Clark said. "What happened to it?"
Jonesy laughed. "Nikki happened to it, that's what!"
Clark blinked. "Come again?"
Nikki's smile drooped. "My secret shame," she murmured. "The year after you left…the only job I could get…was the Khaki Barn."
Clark winced. "Ouch."
"I'll say: day-in, day-out, I had to listen to Chrissy and her Clones' fashion-brainwashing!" Nikki said. "I almost went mental!"
Jonesy chuckled. "But you won in the end, didn't you?" he added. "Seriously, Clark – hiring Nikki was the worst mistake the Barn ever made!"
Nikki grinned proudly. "Oh, yeah; on my last day, before my folks moved north, I grabbed a bullhorn and denounced the Barn for exactly what it was: the embodiment of everything that's wrong with the world today!"
Clark was impressed. "Wow."
Jonesy nodded. "Nikki's little speech gave the Barn so much bad publicity that its sales took a major hit!" he agreed. "A year and a half later, they launched a massive media blitz to try and recoup the losses!"
Nikki frowned sadly. "It almost worked, too…until it backfired in the worst way."
Clark didn't like the sound of that. "How so?"
Nikki's gaze lowered. "A little girl killed herself because she couldn't afford the Barn's latest line," she murmured.
Clark went pale. "You're…you're kidding…"
"I wish, Clark."
Jonesy nodded. "Her mother launched a huge class-action lawsuit against the Barn, representing her daughter and others like her; apparently, she wasn't the first," he said. "And that, my friend, was the Khaki Barn's death-knoll. Months after the mom won the suit, the Barn filed for bankruptcy. The very day Nikki got back, the Barn's store here was slated for closure."
Nikki nodded, her grin coming back. "It was glorious: we walked up just as the store's gates were shut forever! Chrissy had a full, psychotic break! As soon as she saw me, she flipped OUT!"
Clark suppressed a guilty chuckle. "And her coworkers?"
"The Clones?" Nikki asked. "Actually, they ended up taking it better than she did…in the end, anyway…"
Galleria Mall, Toronto, Ontario, September 12, 2006
"Oh my God! Best homecoming gift EVER!"
As she and the others walked back to their old haunting-ground, Nikki hugged her boyfriend. "Thanks for not telling me about it, beforehand!"
Jonesy shrugged. "Hey, I figured you'd want to be surprised!"
Nikki laughed joyously. "More like amazed!" she cheered. "Justice prevails! The Barn is DEAD!"
Jen looked worried as she took her seat. "I'd be a bit more concerned about Chrissy, Nikki: she looked like she wanted to kill you!"
"I know! Priceless!" Nikki agreed, sitting down, before her expression sobered. "I just wish it had come a few years sooner, so that kid wouldn't have had to…you know."
Caitlin nodded. "Yeah; NO cute top is worth that."
Looking around, Jude's eyes went wide. "Don't look now, bra, but your old pals just dropped by."
Wyatt gulped. "This isn't gonna be pretty."
Turning, Nikki frowned as she saw Kristen and Kirsten, the Clones, standing a few feet behind her, both wearing dazed expressions. "Oh, what? You two came to flip out on me, too..?"
Kristen's confused, helpless tone made Nikki pause. "But…it can't be gone!" Kirsten cried, her eyes wide with fright. "W-What'll we wear?"
Kristen echoed her. "What'll we do?"
"What'll we THINK?"
In an instant, both girls were kneeling at Nikki's feet. "HELP us, Nikki!" Kirsten wailed.
"We don't know what to do!" Kristen sobbed. "We don't know how to be unfashionable like you are..!"
"Okay, cut it out!" Nikki barked, standing up. "Okay, One: insulting people you need help from? NOT the way to go!" As the Clones flinched, Nikki kept going. "And Two: are you KIDDING me? You finally have a chance to think for yourselves, and you're just gonna toss it away to follow someone else?"
"But we don't know HOW to think for ourselves!" Kirsten bawled.
"Oh, come ON! It's not that hard!" Nikki snapped. "You two weren't born Khaki-zombies, were you? At some point, you lived without Chrissy's Barn-washing!"
Kristen blinked. "Did we?"
Nikki slapped her own forehead. "Yes! You did!" she declared. "And now, you'll have to do it, again!" She sighed. "Okay: baby steps first! Just finish this sentence: "I am…""
The Clones stared at her. "…what?" Kirsten asked.
"What do you want us to say?" Kristen echoed.
Nikki groaned. "I want you to say whatever's in your Khakified heads!" she shouted. "Come on! "I am..!""
Kirsten gulped. "Uh…uh…"
"It's not brain-surgery, Clones! First thing that comes to mind! "I am..!""
Kristen was starting to panic. "I…I don't know..!"
"There's gotta be SOMETHING in there, you two! "I am..!""
Kristen and Kirsten's shouts popped out at exactly the same time, leaving them both wide-eyed with surprise.
Nikki just grinned. "And we have a breakthrough."
Turning to her ex-coworker, Kirsten blinked. "You're…pink?"
Gulping nervously, Kristen nodded. "Uh-huh."
A smile crossed Kirsten's face. "Oh my GOSH! That is so YOU!" she exclaimed. "You look so cute in pink!"
"Really?" Kristen chirped. "I was just thinking you look totally fetch in blue! You so should dye your hair blue and put in pink highlights!"
Kirsten gasped. "You must be psychic or something! I was just thinking you should dye your hair pink with blue highlights!" At first, both girls squealed, but stopped, slowly looking up at Nikki.
Folding her arms, Nikki shrugged. "Eh. It's a start."
As Nikki finished her tale, Clark blinked. "You're kidding."
Nikki shook her head. "Nope."
Clark was still mildly incredulous. "You actually had to force them to think on their own?"
"Afraid so; those two fashion-sheep needed a little kick to leave the herd."
Clark nodded. "And they're okay?"
Nikki grinned. "See for yourself." With that, she pointed behind Clark, prompting him to turn in time to see two young women walk past, chatting to each other. At first glance, Clark thought they were twin sisters, judging by their identical hairstyles and matching outfits, until he recognized them.
True to her own words, Kristen had adopted an all-pink motif, clad in a light rose miniskirt and matching halter-top, her hair now long and wavy, died a bright pink with streaks of sapphire woven in. Kirsten's wardrobe was borderline identical, except hers was a shade of baby blue, matching her hair, styled like Kristen's, with neon-pink highlights.
As the ex-Clones headed on their way, Clark blinked. "Pink and blue, huh?"
Nikki shrugged. "I'd have gone another way, but it sure beats khaki."
Jonesy nodded. "Too bad Chrissy couldn't see the light; last we heard, she's still in the local psych-ward."
Clark's eyes went wide. "Wow."
Just then, Nikki's cell-phone buzzed, prompting her to check it. "Hang on, guys. Jen's texting me."
As Nikki took a few steps away, Jonesy watched her go…before he looked to Clark, panic in his eyes. "Okay, dude, I couldn't say this in front of Nikki, but I need some serious help, here!"
Clark was instantly all business. "What's wrong?"
Jonesy still looked panicked as he fumbled around in his pockets. "I'm at my wits' end here, Clark; I've been trying to figure out what to do for the past few months, but…I just don't know how to ask her!"
And with that, he pulled out a tiny, dark blue box.
The moment Clark saw the box, he understood…and he grinned. "That's what you're upset about? You can't figure out how to ask Nikki…that question?"
"I'm serious, Clark! I've been stressing out over this for months!"
Clark raised his hands. "Okay, okay, calm down!" he reasoned. "Just think about this: what are you worried about? Do you think she'll say no?"
Jonesy gulped. "Uh…no? Yes? I don't know!" he cried. "And it's not just that: I know her folks have been bugging her about our relationship, lately, but then I remember how my Dad and Mom got married young, and then their relationship fell apart, and I don't want that to happen to us, plus how it'll break up our group if it does..!"
"Jonesy!" Clark stopped him. "I get it: this isn't something to consider lightly!" He took a breath. "I understand why you're nervous: none of us can know the future, how things will turn out. Sometimes, things work out for the best." He sighed, as he remembered what happened with Lex. "And sometimes, they don't. None of us can control that."
Jonesy blinked. "Not even you?"
"Especially not me," Clark answered. "All you can really control is the here and now." He smiled gently. "So tell me, Garcia: how do you feel about Nikki?"
Jonesy looked at him as if he'd grown two heads. "How do I…dude! What kinda dumb question is that?" he exclaimed. "I love her! More than life itself! When she moved away, it was like the best piece of my soul went with her! I can't imagine a day…hell, a minute without her!"
Clark nodded. "And you wouldn't trade that for anything?"
"Not a chance!"
Placing his hands on his friend's shoulders, Clark looked him in the eye. "Then there's just one question you have to answer, Jonesy," he said.
Jonesy blinked. "Okay. What?"
Clark grinned. "What in Rao's name are you waiting for?"
Jonesy just stared for a minute…until he recalled everything he'd just said. Groaning, he smacked himself in the forehead. "I'm an idiot."
"I could've told you that."
Looking over their shoulders, both Clark and Jonesy spotted Nikki walking back towards them. Gulping, Jonesy stuffed the ring back in his pocket. "Everything okay?"
"Yeah, that was just Jen," Nikki answered. "So what were you two talking about?"
"Huh? Oh!" Jonesy replied. "Just…guy stuff."
Nikki snorted. "Is that right?" she teased, looping her arms around her beau's waist. "Listen Clark, I'm afraid we're gonna have to pass you off to Caitlin and Wyatt for now. They're waiting for you at Underground Videos; it's on the first level."
"Why?" Clark asked. "Does it have anything to do with…hold on." His tone turned wary. "Jen's up to something, isn't she?"
Nikki laughed. "Like we told you before, Smallville: when Jen gets on one of her missions, not even a nuke can stop her."
Clark sighed. "Great."
Jonesy grinned. "Good luck!"
Clark grinned back. "You too." With that, he headed off, keeping an ear trained on Jonesy and Nikki, his smile growing as Nikki asked him what that was about.
He was keeping so close an ear on them, he didn't notice as one young lady, on spotting him, fished out her cell-phone. "Trish? It's Missy; hottie alert!" she squealed. "I am looking at a total ten-plus! Cancel the mani-pedi and get down here now!"
"Is my hair alright?"
At Caitlin's latest inquiry, Wyatt sighed. "Yes, Caitlin. You're fine."
Caitlin's corn-blossom eyebrows dipped into a frown. ""Fine"?" she repeated. "Okay, that settles it: emergency touch-up!"
Wyatt could only watch as his friend drew her compact from her purse. "You do remember he said he has a girlfriend, right?"
"Duh! I'm not that pathetic!" Caitlin answered. "But when a super-celeb – and do I mean super in this case – comes to town, it always pays to look your best: you never know who's watching!"
Wyatt chuckled. "Cate, we're the only ones who know he's here."
Caitlin huffed as she finished her touch-up. "It's the principle of the matter!" she declared, before she quickly put her compact away. "Here he comes!"
Sure enough, as she spoke, Clark walked around the corner towards them. "Hey, guys," he greeted. "So, what exactly is Jen up to this time?"
Wyatt grinned. "Sorry, man: Jen basically swore us to silence on pain of lecture."
Taking a deep breath, Caitlin smiled nervously. "Uh…Superman…Clark…about my little tongue-tie, five minutes ago…"
Smiling gently, Clark waved his hand. "Already forgotten, Ms. Cooke. Trust me, that wasn't the most "enthusiastic" greeting I've gotten."
"Oh. Well…good!" Caitlin replied, relieved. "And it's Caitlin."
Wyatt grinned. "So, Clark, I've just gotta ask: what's it like being a superhero?"
Clark sighed. "Incredibly difficult, and yet incredibly rewarding," he answered. "When we have bad days, they're bad days." He managed a faint smile. "But on the good days – when we manage to make everything work out – it's all worth it."
Caitlin nodded. "What made you start?"
Clark shrugged. "Well…it seemed kinda obvious: like that was what I was supposed to do with my powers," he answered. "I first started figuring it out when I was five: my folks took me to the local swimming hole, and I heard this kid in trouble, so I swam out and saved him."
Wyatt's eyes were wide. "Wow."
"Yeah," Clark agreed. "Ever since then, he and I were…best…friends…" His voice trailed off as he remembered that day…and everything that had happened since.
Caitlin blinked. "Clark?" she asked. "What's the matter?"
Clark lowered his head. "Have you guys heard about what happened to Lex Luthor?"
"The head of LexCorp?" Wyatt asked. "Yeah, he'd been shot in the head months ago, and fell into a coma; he only just came out of it, a few weeks ago. What does that have to do with anything?"
Clark just stared.
Caitlin caught on. "Wait…he's your friend?"
Wyatt was bug-eyed. "You're friends with Lex LUTHOR? The guy who has more money than…than Gates?"
Clark snorted dryly. "I was," he said. "These days, though, probably not."
Caitlin looked stricken. "Why?"
"Because I nearly got him killed, that's why!" Clark cried. "Several months ago, I found out that Lex got involved with a bunch of shady characters who, among other things, sponsored an uprising in Wakanda!" Grimacing, he looked down. "I…I didn't want to believe it; I begged Lex to deny it…but he didn't."
Wyatt paled. "Oh my God…"
Clark nodded. "I gave him a choice: either turn himself and his co-conspirators in, or I'd bring him in," he continued. He faintly smiled. "In the end, Lex was going to do the right thing."
His smile evaporated. "His co-conspirators, however, weren't going to go nearly that quietly."
Caitlin gasped. "Y-You mean..?"
"They had two snipers: one on a rooftop, and one in his limo," Clark finished. "I only saw the one on the rooftop." He looked at his hands. "I…I can still feel the spray from the second bullet's hit, sometimes."
Starting to catch on, Wyatt placed a hand on their Kryptonian friend's shoulder. "Clark, this wasn't your fault…"
"Wasn't it? Who made Lex turn himself in? Who wasn't thinking about what his cohorts might do?" Clark retorted. "God, if I'd just been thinking clearly, we could've extracted Lex and got him to safety, before we took those others down! Because of me, the closest thing I have to a brother almost died! And now, he doesn't remember me!"
Caitlin's hands flew to her mouth. "You're kidding!"
Clark shook his head. "Extensive selective amnesia: he doesn't remember a thing about me or our friends!" he lamented. "Plus, I'm pretty sure he hates Superman and the League!" He snorted bitterly. "I wonder why?"
Wyatt frowned. "I suggest you keep wondering, man, because I can't think of a reason why he'd hate you!" he countered. "Lex made his own choice, Clark: you didn't make him do that! Maybe it was a mistake, but he put you in that position! You did the only thing you could: the right thing!"
Caitlin piped up. "Yeah, Clark! I mean, I used to have a BFF that did tons of mean things!" she added. "Granted, none of them were illegal, but I never had the guts to call her on any of that!"
Wyatt nodded. "You held Lex accountable, Clark," he finished. "That's all there is to it."
Clark sighed. "So who's going to hold me accountable?"
Wyatt chuckled. "You seem to be doing a good enough job of that all on your own, man."
Caitlin smiled helplessly. "Yeah; try giving yourself a break!"
Slowly, a thin smile came to Clark's face. "Thanks."
Wyatt grinned. "Anytime."
Clark's smile grew a bit. "So, enough about me: what are all you guys doing?"
Wyatt shrugged. "Just trying to finish up our degrees and get our careers started, man," he answered. "I'm in Music Theory, Jude's doing Philosophy, Nikki's in Journalism, Cate's going for a Bio Major, Jonesy's going for pre-Law, and Little Miss Overachiever Masterson-Garcia's pre-Med, while training for the 2010 Olympics."
"Wow," Clark said. "Wait…did you say Masterson-Garcia?"
Caitlin nodded. "Jonesy's dad and Jen's mom totally got married, 6 years ago!"
Clark gulped. "Bet that was awkward."
"No kidding: the wedding almost got derailed because Jen and her sister fought so much with Jonesy and his brothers!" Wyatt agreed. "We actually had to get Ron to hammer out a peace-treaty between them!"
Caitlin smiled. "Thankfully, things calmed down after that…mostly," she said. "Even when Emma came along, it never got that crazy!"
Clark blinked. "Huh?"
"She means Jen and Jonesy's baby sister," Wyatt explained. "She was born the year Nikki left. Except for having to help take care of her, Jen was thrilled…although I think a lot of that was relief from not having another Garcia boy to deal with."
Clark chuckled. "Yeah, I can imagine having four Jonesys as siblings could be a mite daunting."
Caitlin giggled. "Try traumatizing!" she corrected. "The only thing worse would be..!"
Caitlin's smile collapsed. "…her."
Just as Caitlin spoke, another young woman, petite and about her own age, with long mahogany hair tied in a wavy ponytail, flashing green eyes, and moist ruby lips curved in a flirty smile, wearing her usual deep-violet halter-top and dark blue miniskirt, zipped up to Clark, batting her eyelashes as swiftly as a butterfly's wings. "I haven't seen you around, before!" Spotting Wyatt, she frowned. "Williams." As her gaze fell on Caitlin, her chestnut eyebrows dipped lower, her ruby mouth becoming an out-and-out scowl. "Caitlin."
Caitlin crossed her arms. "Tricia."
Now it was Clark's turn to recognize her, his face showing recognition for only a moment, before he regained his cool. "And you would be..?"
"Patricia van Sloan, but you, handsome, can call me Tricia," Tricia purred, her arms encircling his right elbow with the coyness of a master flirt. "So tell me: why on Earth would you want to be stuck with the Loser-Brigade when you could be hanging with the A-List?"
Clark's eyes narrowed, as he politely but firmly removed her hands from his arm. "As far as I'm concerned, Miss van Sloan, I am hanging with "the A-List.""
Startled by the rebuff, Tricia's eyebrows shot to her forehead. "You're joking."
"Do I look like I'm joking?" Clark's expression was firm. "I'm not interested in hanging with anyone who still puts my friends down."
Tricia blinked. "Huh?"
Caitlin smirked. "From what I've heard, Trish, you've met this guy before."
Recovering, Tricia fixed another flirty smile on Clark. "Oh, I think I'd remember meeting a hottie like this guy…"
"I'm sure you do!" Clark replied. "It was about 7 years ago – I used to wear a lot of flannel."
Tricia burst out laughing. "Flannel? Are you kidding me? What kind of loser would wear that?" she guffawed. "The only person I've ever seen get caught dead in flannel was…" Her laughter died down, as she started to connect the dots. "Was…"
Clark arched an eyebrow. "Go on, van Sloan; finish that sentence."
Blinking, Tricia stared hard at Clark's face…before her mouth dropped open, her eyes wide with utter horror. "No…"
Grinning, Wyatt nodded. "Yep."
Caitlin chuckled. "As you can see, seven years was more than enough time to go from Dorky Duckling to Swan Prince."
Quickly, Tricia tried to back-pedal with a nervous laugh. "Uh…okay, I may have been a teensie bit hasty…"
"Think nothing of it!" Clark answered. "I've found that people tend to show you who they really are when they think it doesn't matter." He turned back to the others. "Caitlin, Wyatt, let's go. Good day, Miss van Sloan."
Tricia bristled angrily. "What?" she fumed. "You…you can't just blow me off!"
Caitlin smirked. "I think he just did, Trish! 'Bye!"
Tricia stamped her foot. "Cute or not, nobody disses me like that, buster! I know people..!"
"Not any of the people I know, thank Heaven," Clark retorted. "Good day, Miss van Sloan."
As they walked off, leaving the irate Tricia behind, Caitlin suppressed a mild squeal. "Is it wrong for me to say that was awesome?"
Wyatt shrugged. "Wrong or not, it was worth it."
Clark nodded. "I see some things haven't changed, around here."
"Yeah, and they probably won't!" Caitlin agreed. "And the worst part of it is that Little Miss Liberal Arts Party-Girl probably has a job lined up for her, courtesy of her rich daddy!"
Wyatt sighed. "While we're stuck trudging along," he finished. "So much for justice."
Clark looked worried. "Hey, guys, it'll work out!" he assured them. "Trust me, taking the long way is tough, but it's worth it! People who take shortcuts like Tricia just end up cheating themselves! You'll both be okay!"
Wyatt and Caitlin exchanged sly smiles. "And so will you and Lex!" Caitlin chimed.
Clark blinked. "Wait…you mean you both just..?"
Wyatt nodded. "Yep."
Clark chuckled. "So I see Jen's not the only sneaky one, around here."
Wyatt laughed. "And you're surprised?"
Caitlin suddenly looked guilty. "Clark, I think I kinda owe you an apology," she confessed. "You know how Tricia sent a photo of you to someone, that first time you met her?" She gulped. "That someone was me. Sad to say it, I…I kinda used to be…like her."
"You were never that bad, Cate," Wyatt said.
"Well, maybe, but I still laughed at that photo!" Caitlin exclaimed. "Even after Tricia dropped me, I still got a laugh out of it until you guys told me about him, that time!" She drooped. "I'm so sorry, Clark."
"It's perfectly fine, Caitlin: you didn't know any better," Clark answered, before he chuckled. "Besides, I was kind of a dork, back then! I was goofing up with my powers, left and right!" He half-grinned. "Picture the movie "George of the Jungle" without vines, and you'll have my first few times flying!"
Caitlin giggled. "Shut up!"
"It's true!" Clark answered. His face turned serious. "So why exactly did Tricia stop being friends with you?"
Caitlin sighed. "You know that lemon-hat Jen used to wear?" she asked. "The year after you left, that was my job! Trish took one look at me in that hat, and dropped me!"
Clark frowned. "Sounds like something she'd do."
Caitlin's smile came back. "So you actually made Tricia run away, before?"
"Sent her running for the hills."
Wyatt nodded. "A classic moment if there ever was one!"
Clark started to smile again. "Yeah, I learned not to worry about the opinions of girls like her, pretty darn quick," he said. "Not when I could listen to the ones that mattered."
Caitlin caught on. "Your girlfriend, right?" she asked. "How'd the two of you meet?"
Clark was about to answer, but his face took on a faraway look…before he grinned. "Why don't I let her tell you, herself?"
A few minutes earlier
"So you've got everything, bra?"
As she typed furiously on her laptop keyboard, Jen glanced back at Jude. "Yep! Just need a few more minutes…"
Jude grinned. "Gotta say, Jen; Hero Dude's gonna get a kick out of…"
"Ssshhh!" Jen shushed him. "Jude! Super! Hearing!"
His eyes wide, Jude looked around the food-court, making sure he hadn't accidentally blown their cover. "Right, bra. Sorry."
Turning back to her laptop, Jen resumed typing, while Jude glanced over her shoulder, his smile growing. "Looks awesome, Jen! Clark'll love it!"
By then, Jonesy and Nikki had returned to the food-court. Walking over, Nikki took a look at Jen's work, and grinned. "You've had some hare-brained plans in the past, Masterson, but this one just might work."
Jen frowned. "Excuse me? When have my plans been hare-brained?"
Jonesy laughed. "Does the phrase "Caitlin-Date-Sushi-Barf-on-Roller-coaster" mean anything to you?"
Jen huffed. "I was right about that, you know..!"
Turning to look over their shoulders, the four of them spotted a young woman, in her late teens, sporting blue jeans, a darker blue jean-jacket, and a baseball cap, with tufts of strawberry blonde sticking out, her eyes hidden by dark shades, and a white-furred dog – possibly a breed of Labrador, Jen hazarded – sitting by her feet, panting happily. Meeting their gazes, the young woman smiled sheepishly. "You're Clark's friends, right? The ones he met about seven years ago?"
Automatically wary, Nikki raised one eyebrow. "And you would be..?"
"I'm…Alia," the young woman answered. "Clark's girlfriend."
Jude waved. "Cool, bra. I'm Jude, that's Jen, and these are Jonesy and Nikki…"
"Whoa, Jude!" Jen exclaimed, before glancing to the newcomer. "How do we know you're telling the truth?"
Alia sighed. "You mean, besides the fact that Clark himself will likely tell you when he gets back here?" she replied. "Just take a look at Krypto's collar." At her gesture, the dog took a few steps forward, and sat back on his hind paws, allowing Alia to lift up his collar…which bore the exact same 'S'-crest as Clark's uniform.
Jonesy gulped. "You…you know?"
Alia nodded. "Just like you do," she said, her expression turning a bit nervous. "I've…kinda been keeping an ear on all of you since Clark told you about himself, just in case he needed me…"
"No worries, dudette; Hero Dude's secret's a major thing, so we get how you'd wanna watch his back," Jude said.
Nikki's expression turned regretful. "Yeah; sorry about the third degree, there."
Alia shook her head. "Don't worry; if it had been me dealing with anyone potentially trying to get at my Clarkie, I'd have demanded a urine-sample."
Jen's nose scrunched. "Okay, that was pretty much crossing the "T.M.I." line, just now!"
Alia lightly flushed. "Sorry."
Jonesy shrugged. "So, how long have you known the big guy?"
Alia's blush grew. "Since I was about five," she confessed. "The first time we met, it was at his family's farm in Smallville, where my folks were visiting his; I tripped and skinned my knee, and Clark helped me, and I just…fell in love!" She giggled. "Although I didn't figure it out until I was older!"
A gentle laugh answered her. "Neither did I!"
Hearing his voice, everyone turned towards Clark as he, Wyatt, and Caitlin walked up. Seeing him, Alia beamed, practically glowing. "Hi, baby."
Clark beamed back. "Hi, sweetheart," he greeted back, before his tone became teasing. "I thought I heard you and Krypto tailing me!"
Alia shrugged. "Just making sure I was right!" she retorted. "Which I was!"
Clark laughed. "Yes, taushi, you were; I admit it." He then turned to Jen. "Okay, Jen – what's the scam?"
Jen was the picture of innocence. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Don't play dumb, Masterson; you've had everybody else keeping me running in circles, and now I'd like to know what's up!"
Jen smiled helplessly. "Could you just…give me a couple more minutes? I almost have everything put together…"
Now Alia was intrigued. "Have what put together?"
Jen sighed. "Clark told us how he had to miss most of his teenage years, so we were going to put together a little momento," she confessed. "It's the least we could do, especially after he saved me."
Alia blinked, before pointing to Nikki. "But I thought Clark saved you…"
"He did, 7 years ago," Nikki answered. "This year, when General Nutjob was on his rampage, it was Jen."
Alia paled. "You mean..?"
Clark nodded. "Yeah; when Zod deployed Artillery Drones to Toronto, Jen was in the engagement zone."
Jen suppressed a faint sniffle. "Scariest moment of my life," she said. "He was right there – right in front of me, and I thought I was dead, right there! I can't imagine anything scarier…"
"No offence, Jen, but I can," Clark whispered. "Fighting him."
Alia flinched. "Clark…"
"Going against Zod was a nightmare," Clark murmured. "He knew every single technique, tactic, and move I knew – hell, he probably developed more than half of them, and knew 10 different counters for each of the rest! He had more experience with his powers than I did, and as Krypton's supreme military commander, he was able to take control of Sentrius almost without effort! He had all of us running in circles, trying to outmanoeuvre him, when we were playing into his strategy, all along, and I just couldn't see it until it was too late, just like how I was so blind to what he was, just because…because he was…"
Jen blinked. "Because he was…what?" she prompted.
His eyes scrunched shut, Clark buried his forehead in his palm. "Family."
Noticing everyone's dumbfounded expressions, Alia elaborated. "Before Krypton went up, Clark's birth-father and Zod were best friends; Zod was even named Clark's godfather, and was supposed to look after Clark in case anything ever happened to his dad," she said. "Just before the blast, it came out that Zod was guilty of war-crimes, which Zod oh-so-politely never mentioned to anyone after Clark let him out of the Phantom Zone."
Jen's mouth dropped open as she tried to get her head around that. She tried to talk, but no sound came out.
Fortunately, Jude picked up the slack. "Dude…that's like finding out your own mom's some kinda super-villain…"
Alia shuddered. "Tell me about it," she murmured, before flinching. "I-I mean, I see what you're saying!"
Jen managed to get her voice working. "You…you had to fight your own family..?"
"I had to look him in the eye and tell him he could either let a nuclear warhead kill him or throw himself into the Phantom Zone," Clark answered. "I knew he wasn't the same person my father once knew…but he was still a person."
He cast a weary gaze towards them. "Still think I'm a hero, Jude?"
Walking over, Nikki pulled Clark into a quick hug. "If for some reason he doesn't, the rest of us do, you big knucklehead!"
Jen nodded. "Facing down a family member would have had anyone else diving under the bed and bawling like a baby, Clark!" she agreed. "I can't think of anybody who'd have been able to do what you did!"
Alia laughed. "Thank you! That's what I've been telling him!"
Slowly, Clark started to smile again. "I guess I have been a stick-in-the-mud about a few things, huh?"
Nikki chuckled. "No kidding."
Giggling, Alia hugged him from behind. "I blame that infamously thick Kent skull!" she teased. "But don't worry: we love you anyway!"
Grinning, Clark turned to reciprocate his girlfriend's hug. "Good to hear!" he answered. "Now, will someone please tell me what all of you are planning..?"
His expression turned faraway. "Uh-oh."
As Krypto started barking, Alia blinked with confusion. "Huh? What's the…uh-oh."
When Alia took on the same expression as Clark, Jen really got worried. "What? What's the matter?"
"League alert: there's a malfunction at a nearby hydroelectric plant!" Clark said. "If somebody doesn't get there, it could breach and flood two nearby towns, and the rest of the League is busy..!"
"…except for us!" Alia finished. "Sounds like we need to get moving!"
Wyatt blinked. ""We?""
Alia smiled. "You didn't think a normal girl could handle the pressures of dating Superman, did you?" With that, she removed her shades…allowing them to recognize her.
Jonesy, Wyatt, and Jude all did double-takes. "HOLY..!" Jonesy exclaimed. "You…you're dating..?"
Clark shrugged. "What can I say?" he asked. "Don't people usually meet their future spouses at work?"
Alia – Alison – giggled as she replaced her shades to hide her blush. "Sorry we have to dash like this!"
"Hey, no worries, dudette," Jude answered.
Wyatt nodded. "We'll see you when you get back."
Clark grinned. "Thanks!" With that, he, Alison, and Krypto all headed for the exit.
As the trio headed off, Nikki moved to follow. "Nikki?" Jen asked. "What are you doing?"
Nikki grinned back. "What, like you guys are gonna miss this?"
"The betty's got a point," Jude agreed. "This kinda stuff doesn't happen too often."
Jen started. "Well…I suppose we could just watch while he flies off…"
Jonesy chuckled. "Good enough for us, sis!" Nobody argued the point further, as the six of them headed out of the Mall.
Emerging onto the parking lot, the six of them were in time to spot Clark's arm as it vanished into a nearby alley. "Huh; guess Hero Dude and Dudette need to get their game-faces on," Jude observed.
Jen frowned. "Well, we can't make it too obvious!" she warned. "If somebody sees us watching that alley, they'll put 2 and 2 together!"
Nikki nodded. "Jen's right, guys; we have to act natural…"
"Where is he?"
The six of them collectively froze as an indignant Tricia strutted up to them. "Uh…where's who, Tricia?" Wyatt asked.
"Don't play dumb with me, Williams!" Tricia huffed. "I saw you losers go after your pal, just now! I want to know where he is, so I can give him a piece of my mind!"
Nikki's tone was dry. "You mean you've got enough to spare?"
Tricia's glare was murderous. "Consider yourself lucky I'm more interested in telling off that ex-nerdling, Wong!" she snapped. "Nobody disses Tricia van Sloan and gets away with it, and your pal did it twice: once today, and once seven years ago!"
"Well, he's obviously not here, Tricia!" Jen shot back. "So why don't you just get lost!"
Tricia smirked. "If he's not here, Masterson, then what are all of you doing here?"
Jude gulped. "Uh…"
"I thought so!" Tricia declared. "So where is he?"
Caitlin cringed, as she glanced around…her eyes momentarily stopping on the alley. "He's not here, Tricia! That's what we're trying to tell you..!"
Unfortunately, she hadn't looked away fast enough to convince Tricia of that. "He's in that alley, isn't he?" Her smirk growing, Tricia turned away, marching towards it.
The six of them exchanged panicked expressions. "Trish, seriously, do not go in there!" Jonesy shouted. "He's not even in there – we saw him head to the burger joint in the other direction..!"
Tricia didn't fall for it. "Listen up, you flannel-loving geek! I know you're in there!" she snapped, stopping a few feet in front of the alley. "I suggest you get your butt out here now, because I've got something to say to you..!"
Three sonic booms in quick succession drowned out Tricia's threat, as two blurs – one blue-red, and one red-white – shot straight up into the sky, flying off, while a third streak – a bright silver one – shot right past Tricia, sending her spinning to the ground in its wake, before shooting straight up to rejoin the others.
Watching their friends fly off, Jude whistled. "Duuuuuuude…"
Wyatt nodded. "You can say that again, man."
Jen smiled. "Hearing him admit it is one thing…but seeing it is still so cool…"
"Oh. Em. Gee."
Tricia's awed voice drew their attention towards her, still flat on her butt, her expression dazed…but with a growing smile. "Oh. Em! GEE!" Tricia exclaimed. "That was…that guy was…HIM!"
Caitlin gasped. "Guys, we've got a problem, here!" she whispered, frantic.
Jonesy was already ahead of her. "You're deluding yourself, van Sloan."
Nikki was close behind. "What, you actually think Superman was hanging with us? Seriously, did all those spa-creams and conditioners get in your brain?"
Tricia, however, was too far gone. "This is…this is HUGE!" she squealed, getting back on her feet. "Forget sales at Albatross & Finch – this is GLOBAL!"
Caitlin's eyes narrowed, as she walked towards her. "You're not going to tell anybody, Tricia."
Tricia smirked. "And why not, Cooke? Do you realize the kind of celeb status this would mean..?"
"Three reasons!" Caitlin cut her off. "One: it's not even true, so you'd just look like a complete nut-job! Two: even if it was true – which it's not – you have no proof; none of your satellites are here, all of us will deny it, and the only photographic evidence you had seven years ago, you gave to me! You've got nothing!"
By then, Caitlin was right in Tricia's face. "And Three?" she finished. "If you tell a soul about this, you'll also have to tell them that, seven years ago, you could've dated the guy who grew up to be the Man of Tomorrow…but instead, you dissed him." She smirked. "Can you say "social suicide"?"
At Caitlin's words, all the colour just drained from Tricia's face, her mouth and eyes wide with sheer horror as she realized exactly what her former friend had just said…before her eyes rolled up in her head, and she fainted dead away.
As Tricia collapsed, out like a light, Jude grinned. "Epic, bra; all I'm gonna say."
Caitlin let out a light squeal. "Okay, I know I'm probably horrible for saying this, but that felt awesome!"
Nikki laughed. "Hey, nobody here's gonna fault you for it!"
Jen nodded. "She more than had it coming!"
"So what now?" Wyatt asked.
"Easy, dude: we just sit back and let the big dude do his hero-thing," Jude answered.
Jen paled. "Crap! I still need to finish up our present!" With that, she bolted off.
Jonesy chuckled. "Think we should help her?"
"Yeah, like she'd ever give us a choice!" Nikki replied, before the rest of them headed after their friend.
Compared to some of the incidents of the last few months, repairing the hydroelectric plant was fairly tame: Power Girl quickly evacuated the workers on-site, allowing Superman and Krypto to repair the growing breach in the main reservoir, with Krypto pushing the damaged sections back into place, while Superman welded them together with his eye-rays.
Minutes after they'd arrived, the crisis was over, prompting the three of them to take to the skies once more. "Is it wrong to say that that was a little on the boring side?" Power Girl asked with a smile.
Superman laughed. "Like I said to the others, taushi: a little "boring" is just what I needed today!"
Power Girl's smile grew. "So you feel better?"
Superman nodded. "Loads better, Alia."
Beaming, Power Girl hugged him. "Good," she cooed, before she laughed as an excited Krypto raced around them in a circle. "And I think Krypto thinks so, too!"
Grinning as he gave his pet a scratch behind the ears, Superman looked back into his girlfriend's sapphire eyes. "I think we've kept our friends waiting long enough, don't you?"
Power Girl shrugged. "Probably." With that, the three of them flew off, back towards the Mall.
Reaching Toronto in minutes, the three of them descended back into the alley, re-donning their disguises, while Krypto scratched his collar with his hind paw, retracting his cape back into his collar, before they headed back into the Mall. As expected, their six friends were waiting for them at their table. Seeing them approach, Nikki smiled. "Everything go alright?"
"Pretty much," Clark replied.
"Nothing we couldn't handle!" Alison agreed.
Jonesy grinned. "Dude – and no offence, here, Nikki – but…SCORE!" he laughed. "You're dating Alison Bla..!"
"SSSSSSSHHHHHHH!" Clark and Alison both shushed him.
Jonesy calmed. "Oh. Right. My bad."
Clark sighed. "We appreciate the thought, Jonesy, but Alison and I cannot let on that we're together!"
Alison nodded. "Seriously, it would be a media-circus at best!"
"Gotcha, dudette," came Jude's sage reply. "We'll keep it on the down-low."
Jen looked curious. "So Clark is this guy "Kal" you're supposedly dating?"
Clark nodded. "It's my Kryptonian name: Kal-El."
Caitlin blinked. "Wow."
Clark smiled sheepishly. "Yeah; I guess that's twice you guys have been shocked, today."
Wyatt shrugged. "Not really; we've kinda met someone on the Hollywood scene, before."
Jonesy laughed. "You mean, you met someone on the Hollywood scene, dude!"
Alison blinked. "Huh?"
Wyatt scratched the back of his head. "Six years ago, Caitlin won a contest to spend a day with the singer Kylie Smylie…"
Caitlin quickly picked up from there. "…and the second I brought Kylie by the place where Wyatt worked, she was hooked!"
Wyatt sighed. "Seriously, Caitlin: she's probably forgotten all about me, by now."
"Wait a minute!" Alison declared. "Did…did the two of you sing a duet, that day?"
Wyatt smiled nervously. "Kinda."
Alison laughed joyously. "Oh my God! You're The Guy!"
Now it was Wyatt's turn to blink. "Huh?"
"Almost ever since I met her, Kylie's told me about this guy she met back when she was sixteen, and her Dadager was being a total Nazi about not letting her date!" Alison exclaimed. "Wyatt, she's been pining after you for years!"
Clark arched an eyebrow. ""Dadager"?"
"Dad-slash-manager, Clarkie; music-biz lingo."
Wyatt started to smile. "Are you serious?"
Frowning, Alison held out her hand. "Phone."
"What?" Wyatt asked.
"Your phone. Gimme!" At Alison's insistence, Wyatt handed over his phone. Flipping open Wyatt's phone, Alison drew her own, auto-dialed one of her contacts, switched Wyatt's phone on and pulled it into a conference-call, before handing it back to him. "Don't say a word until I give the go-ahead!"
Wyatt was more than a little confused. "Okay, what exactly are you trying to..?"
At that familiar voice, Wyatt froze stock-still. Alison just smiled. "Hey, Kyles!"
"Hey, girl!" Kylie greeted. "I was just thinking about giving you and Lila a call; there's this new boutique opening up that I wanted to check out, so if you two can find a break in your superheroing schedules..!"
Alison giggled. "Sounds good to me!" she said. "But first things first: remember how you were telling me about The Guy?"
Alison could practically hear the blush in Kylie's voice. "Um…yeah."
Casting a critiquing eye towards Wyatt, Alison answered her friend. "He's a little under six-foot, lean, dark complexioned, coffee-brown eyes, with short dreadlocks, a guitar, and a goofball smile."
Silence answered her for a moment. "Alison…how on Earth did you..?"
At that, Alison pointed towards Wyatt…who was grinning that very smile, in a mild daze, prompting Alison to shake him out of it. "Uh…h-hi, Kylie."
A small gasp echoed across the phone-line. "W-W-Wyatt?"
"Y-Yeah," Wyatt stammered. "So…how are you?"
"I'm…I'm good!" Kylie murmured back. "It's just…God, it's been so long!"
"Yeah; too long!" Wyatt agreed. "Sorry I didn't call before…but, in my defence, I never had your number, and I thought you were busy…"
"N-No, it's okay!" Kylie quickly replied. "I just…t-this is such a surprise!"
Beaming, Alison spoke up. "You can thank me later, Kyles. 'Bye!"
As Alison hung up, leaving Wyatt and Kylie alone on the phone, Wyatt stood up, his smile dazed. "Uh…guys, I'm just gonna take this call elsewhere, okay?"
Jonesy chuckled. "Whatever you say, you lady-killer!"
Watching Wyatt walk off, Nikki looked to Clark and Alison with a grin. "Okay, so your girlfriend both knocked Tricia flat on her butt and got Wyatt a date in the same day?" she asked. "It's official, Clark: you have to marry this girl."
As Clark and Alison both went rosy, Jen's expression turned grave. "Uh, Clark? I hate to tell you this, but we have a problem," she said. "I'm pretty sure she doesn't know your name, but…Tricia knows that our mysterious friend is Superman."
Alison paled. "What?"
Clark groaned. "Terrific."
"But it's okay! We handled it!" Caitlin piped up. "She doesn't have any proof, nobody will back her up on it, and even if she did say anything, she'd also have to admit just that she dissed Superman, seven years ago!"
Clark blinked. "And that worked?"
Jude nodded. "That mean betty fainted right then and there, dude."
Alison started to smile again. "Sounds like what you did with Doom."
Jen looked perplexed. "Huh?"
Clark sighed. "Long story."
Alison still looked a little worried. "So you guys are sure this "Tricia" won't talk?"
Nikki shook her head. "Van Sloan's a total popularity-nut; if she let on that she blew it with Superman, she'd get laughed out of every single dance-club in the country. She'll keep her mouth shut." She shrugged. "Plus, if she does, she knows I'll kick her butt into next week."
Alison lightly frowned. "We appreciate the thought, Nikki, but you'll do no such thing: as Clark's girlfriend, I reserve the right to throttle any spoiled bimbo that tries to mess with or move in on my man!"
Nikki laughed. "Fair enough!"
By then, a goofily-dazed Wyatt walked back towards their table. "Kylie…she…wow…"
Clark chuckled. "Good news?"
"Kylie said she'd be in town, this weekend," Wyatt murmured. "She said that…that she'd love to see me, again…"
Caitlin squealed. "Wyatt, that's awesome!"
Wyatt's grin was wide enough to split his face. "Clark, your girlfriend is a miracle-worker."
Clark chuckled. "I could've told you that!" Glancing towards Jen, he spotted the triumphant look on her face. "So, Jen, are you finally going to tell me just what it is you've been up to?"
Jen's smile was mildly wistful. "When Jonesy and Nikki said that you'd been up north for four years, I knew I had the right idea," she began. "You missed out on a lot, Clark…"
Clark sighed. "It was necessary, Jen; I try not to dwell…"
Jen's raised hand quieted him. "You missed out on a lot…so we decided to bring you up-to-speed!" she finished, as she turned her laptop towards him, showing a photo slide-show…of them.
The first photo was the five of them, exactly as he'd first met them, with a younger Caitlin, with shorter-cut hair, and Jen's former apron and lemon-hat over her blue miniskirt and pink tank-top; the six of them were crowded around their table, the Big Squeeze in the background, and the caption of "Wish You Were Here!" superimposed over the picture.
Seeing Clark's expression, Jen quickly explained. "You missed your teen-years, so we decided to share ours."
Clark didn't know what to say. "Guys…"
Chuckling, Nikki playfully elbowed him. "Just clam up and watch, Smallville."
Turning his gaze back to the screen, Clark saw the image change; still around their table, most of the gang looked disgruntled, with the exception of Jonesy, who sported a vaudeville-styled broad-rimmed hat and cane. "Our first week of work," Wyatt explained. "We were all stressed-out, so Jonesy snuck us into the amusement-park he was working at for some R&R."
The screen shifted again, showing a zoomed-out image of the Big Squeeze, next to a gigantic, totem-decorated lime, manned by a sombrero-clad Jonesy brandishing maracas, while a delighted Caitlin looked on from the Squeeze. Jonesy grinned. "The Party Lime; now that was a sweet gig!"
Once more, the image changed, showing Nikki on a stage, pulling off some slightly goofy dance-moves. Nikki groaned. "Ugh; did you have to put this in, Jen?"
Jen laughed. "Back then, I conned Nikki into entering a contest to meet Dog Toy!"
Alison lightly squealed. "Oh, I used to love those guys!"
"Me too!" Caitlin squeaked.
Clark blinked. "Who?"
The girls all stared at him. "You're kidding," Jen said. "Dog Toy! Back then, they were the hottest boy-band around!"
Alison sighed. "Don't hold it against him, Jen; when it comes to science, tech, tactics, and bad-guy-busting, Clarkie's the man, but as far as music and pop-culture's concerned, he's clueless."
Clark frowned. "Gee, thanks."
Alison giggled, as she squeezed his arm, amending her statement. "But I still love you."
"Anyway, like Jen said, she emotionally blackmailed me into this contest," Nikki continued, "and then she has the nerve to get ticked that I won!"
Jen chuckled. "That was before we found out you were a closet Dog Toy fan!"
Nikki grimaced. "Okay; next slide!"
The screen now showed an image of Jude, on his skateboard…which was wedged between the rails of the Mall's adjacent escalators. The image changed again, showing Jude and his board in mid-air, flying over the Mall's fountain. The image then changed again, showing Jude lying curled up on the ground, inches from his board, as he howled in agony. "As you can see, Hero Dude, me and my board have tricked off practically everything in this Mall," Jude said. "Sometimes it worked out…and sometimes it didn't."
Clark flinched. "So I gathered."
The next image showed the gang around the table, with Wyatt's head pressed against the table in dismay. "I think this one was after Wyatt got dumped by Serena," Caitlin said, before her hands flew to her mouth. "Oops."
Wyatt chuckled. "It's okay, Cate; I'm over it, remember?"
"Try telling you that, back then!" Jonesy groused. "You were mopey for months; angry songs, bad poetry, you name it!"
Wyatt sighed. "Yeah, Jonesy; I admit it, I was a little obsessed."
Jen smiled. "Until Marlowe came along!"
The next image backed up Jen's statement, showing a guitar-playing Wyatt on stage next to a red-haired young woman, in jeans and a violet tank-top, also playing a guitar. Seeing the photo, Wyatt chuckled. "Yeah; it took me a while, but I figured out there was life after breakups."
Clark shrugged. "Hey, at least you didn't work yourself into near-psychosis."
Nikki blinked. "Huh?"
Clark and Alison answered as one. "Long story."
The image changed, showing Nikki on a podium in the food-court, making a speech to a bunch of dress- and tuxedo-clad teenagers, including her five friends, while an irate Tricia looked on. Nikki laughed. "You guys actually kept this one?"
"Watching you beat Tricia at her own game and do your speech about the coral-reefs?" Jen asked.
"How could we not?" Caitlin added.
Nikki shrugged. "I just wanted to get the word out; me winning Spring Queen was a total fluke."
Jonesy grinned. "Good thing somebody sabotaged Trish's speech, huh?"
The next photo made Caitlin cry out. "Guys!" she wailed. "Why'd you put that one in?"
Glancing at the image of the Vomit-Comet in the top arc of a loop-de-loop, with a pale yellow stream of vomit streaking down to the ground – starting from Caitlin's mouth – Jonesy chuckled. "It was that or the time we were at Wyatt's poetry-reading and you…"
Jen smiled gently. "Don't worry, Cate; the next one's better." Sure enough, the next photo depicted the Mall's skating-rink, shrouded in mist, with Caitlin, in a golden-coloured gown, dancing with a young man of 16. "Your Sweet 16, remember?"
Caitlin smiled dreamily. "Yeah," she murmured, before frowning. "Too bad I scared him off, almost the next day…"
The next photo depicted Jen and an older girl resembling her, both in violet gowns, glaring at Jonesy and two younger boys resembling him, all in tuxedos and glaring back. "This was taken before your parents' wedding, I take it?" Clark hazarded.
Jen sighed. "Yeah; not the Masterson-Garcias' finest moment," she confirmed. "That's my big sis Courtney, and those are Jonesy's brothers Robbie and Diego."
Jonesy nodded. "Sad to say, things went downhill from that moment on, until everyone else got Ron to step in."
Glancing around, Clark raised an eyebrow. "Speaking of which, where is he? I haven't seen him, all day."
Nikki grinned. "Later, Smallville."
Smiling, Jen continued. "Fortunately, things smoothed out later." The next picture proved her words true, showing the six of them – including Jonesy in a clown suit – along with Courtney, Robbie, and Diego, all crowded around a hospital bed, where an older woman, resembling Jen and Courtney, with mid-length auburn hair, lay in a hospital gown, cradling a newborn baby girl, with a tall, athletically framed older man, resembling Jonesy and his brothers, sitting next to her, his arm around her shoulders, his smile matching hers. "Baby sis Emma fixed that, pretty quick."
Alison beamed. "Oh, she's beautiful…"
Jen's smile turned a tiny bit strained. "Yeah…although I wasn't fussy about all the crying."
Jonesy shrugged. "You get used to it after the first few times your folks bring another kid home."
Jen half-frowned at her stepbrother. "Fortunately, Emma did grow out of the crying-phase; she starts Grade One, this year." She grinned. "And that's not the only interesting thing."
As he saw the next photo, Clark did a double-take. "The Rent-a-Cop got married?"
"Yep," Jude answered, glancing at the wedding-photo of the slightly older and slightly less stern Ron the Rent-a-Cop, his uniform exchanged for a tuxedo, placing a ring on the finger of a curvaceous 40-something-year old woman in a wedding dress, with a red-headed, tux-clad adolescent holding the pillow the ring had been on, slightly sullen, while the six of them cheered in the background. "The dude always had a thing for the Yummy Mummy; got hitched, last winter."
Alison blinked. ""The Yummy Mummy"?"
"Yeah; she was this total cougar that prowled the Mall with her psycho son Stanley, every day!" Nikki said. "That's probably why Ron retired, this year: whipping that little punk into shape was probably a big enough job on its own!"
The next picture showed a dark-haired, slightly stout, grungy-looking guy standing in front of a video-store. Clark arched an eyebrow in confusion. "And this guy would be..?"
"…Wayne, my old boss when I used to work at Underground Video," Wyatt explained. "The guy was – and still is – the ultimate indie-movie buff; he once refused to sell one part of a trilogy because the customer wouldn't buy the other two parts."
Clark's eyes went wide. "Wow."
Wyatt nodded. "The poor guy went out of business because of that; he actually had to work with me when I went to work at Burger McFlipsters," he agreed. "Fortunately, he somehow managed to save enough to buy back his old store, this year."
"Hey, the dude's a grouch, but he's doin' what he loves," Jude interjected.
The next photo depicted a slightly older Jen – around 18 – in a prom-dress, posing for a photo with an African-Canadian youth the same age, in a tux. Alison looked thoughtful. "Huh…that guy looks familiar…"
"He should; that's Travis "The Arm" Gibson!" Jonesy said. "The guy was the youngest ever to win a gold medal in shotput at the Olympics!" He grinned. "And, for some reason, he was hung up on Jen."
Jen just smiled, completely ignoring her stepbrother's remark. "Yeah; we got back together at prom!"
Caitlin squealed. "It was so romantic!" she gushed. "Still, the most romantic moment ever had to be this one!"
As if on cue, the scene changed, showing a 16-year-old Jonesy and Nikki – Jonesy in a tux, and Nikki in her street-clothes, with a corsage on her wrist – dancing together, oblivious to all but each other. Nikki blinked. "Huh; I thought I saw one of you flash a camera, that night."
Wyatt looked sheepish. "Sorry, Nikki; Jen guilted me into snapping a photo."
The next series of photos were of the six of them around the Mall: at stores, visiting the amusement park, hanging out at the food court; the main difference was that, each time, Jonesy had a different work-uniform. Finally, Clark had to ask. "Jonesy, how many jobs did you work, that year?"
Jonesy shrugged. "One or two."
Wyatt laughed. "Hundred, you mean!"
"Dude got fired a lot," Jude added.
Jen suppressed a chuckle. "It was practically a running gag!"
Clark had to smile. "Well, you guys have had quite the life."
Alison giggled. "You're all so much like the Six Musketeers, it's not even funny!"
"Come again, super-betty?" Jude asked.
"My old posse, back in Smallville," Clark explained. "It was me, Lex, Wally, Arthur, Victor, and Oliver."
Beaming, Alison looped her arm around her boyfriend's elbow. "Basically, they were a Smallville-bound, junior Justice League, except with a lot more hijinks."
"Yeah, well, you can thank Lex for most of those."
Nikki laughed. "Now this I've gotta hear!"
Clark's smile was a bit embarrassed. "Really, we weren't that big a deal…"
"Baby, you guys busted up almost every crime in Smallville once you all got together!" Alison said. "Granted, there weren't that many, but still..!"
"Maybe, but the other half of the time we were defusing Lex's pranks," Clark countered. "Remember Lex's Beef-Patty Caper?"
Alison suppressed a laugh. "It rings a bell."
"120 plastic hamburgers, Alison; he swapped out half of the burgers at the Smallville High football team's fundraiser barbecue. We barely managed to swap half of them back."
Jonesy burst out laughing. "That's GENIUS!" he declared. "What about the rest of them?"
Clark sighed. "That was the worst part: nobody noticed," he answered. "The burgers we didn't get to went out, and everyone chomped on those plastic patties for a good minute straight before they tossed 'em. The barbecue was a flop, all on its own."
Now Jude was laughing, too. "Dude! The second he gets his memory back, you tell us! I have got to meet this guy!"
Jen frowned. "Moving on," she said, cycling to the next photo, "that brings us to the end…with one little addition."
Clark glanced at the photo, depicting the six of them at their table, smiling. "What? What do you..?" And then he stopped, as he saw it.
In the corner of the photo, in the background by the Big Squeeze, a semi-ghostly image of him – of his 15-year-old self – came into view, along with one overhead caption.
Here In Spirit.
At Clark's dumbfounded expression, Caitlin held up her phone. "I sent Jen that photo Tricia took of you so she could photoshop it in," she explained.
Jen nodded. "Clark, if it hadn't been for you, none of us would have had the lives we've had!" she said. "If we'd lost Nikki, our group probably would've fallen apart!"
Nikki's smile was wistful. "You told us not to lose the joy we all shared that day, Clark," she agreed, "and we didn't: we all lived our lives like you asked."
Jude nodded. "It was like you were still with us, Hero Dude."
Clark felt his eyes start to sting, removing his glasses to wipe them. "Guys…God, I don't know what to say…"
"You don't have to say anything, Clark," Wyatt said.
Nikki's smile was mildly chiding. "Just don't wait another seven years to look us up, okay?" she asked. "Because I will charter a flight to the Pole and kick your big blue butt."
Managing to keep his eyes dry, Clark nodded. "Count on it."
Glancing at her watch, Jen flinched. "I'm so sorry, Clark, but we have to go; I need to pick up some medicine for Emma's headaches, and the semester's first classes start, tomorrow, and we need to pick up our books!"
"Translation: Captain Worrywart here wants us to drop by the bookstore before we even know what books we need," Wyatt quipped.
At Jen's annoyed frown, Clark stepped in. "Don't worry about it, Jen," he said. "We probably need to get going, too; in the next week, the new international committee overseeing Sentrius' operations is convening, and we need to prep for it."
Jude shuddered. "You guys have to face down a buncha suits, dude?" he asked. "Now that's scary."
"Tell us about it!" Alison agreed. She smiled again. "But don't worry: I'll make sure my worrywart keeps in touch!"
Alison's words sent an idea racing across Clark's mind. "Guys?" he asked. "Could you take out your phones?" Confused, the six of them did so, while Clark fished out his belt-computer from under his jacket. Opening it, he quickly swept a discrete transcanner wave over each of their cell-phones, analyzing their signals.
As the wave touched them, each phone let out a single ring-tone, before softly beeping. "Clark?" Caitlin asked. "What did you do?"
Clark's fingers were blurring over his computer's tiny holo-keypad, entering one line of code after another. "I scanned each of your phone's signals."
Jen arched an eyebrow. "Uh…why?"
Clark grinned. "So I can send you all my present." Entering the last bit of code, he tapped the send-command; instantly, each of their phones beeped again, as a new app appeared on their phone-screens, represented by the red-yellow symbol of the Broken Eternity, identical to the symbol on his uniform.
Glancing at the crest of the House of El, Jonesy looked perplexed. "Okay, and this would be..?"
"…a program that allows each of your phones to broadcast a distress signal on the League's frequency; once Beacon – the Watchtower's OS – picks it up, it'll forward your signals to me," Clark finished. "If any of you ever need my help, you just hit that symbol, and barring a world-ending crisis, I'm there; otherwise, one of my teammates will be."
Now it was the others' turn to look touched. "You…you designed a phone-app just for us?" Caitlin asked.
"Just make sure you don't hit it by accident," Clark warned.
"Yeah, because then you might have to explain that to whoever's on Monitor-duty…which would most likely be Batman," Alison added, "and boy, does he ever get a bug up his butt about those kind of things."
Wyatt gulped. "Got it."
"Just don't think that's an excuse not to talk to us!" Jen teased. "I want your guys' e-mails, so I can e-mail this album to you!"
Clark and Alison shared a look. "No problem!" Alison said. "We're both on MSN: I'm Care-Blaire, and he's LSOK010."
Nikki's eyebrow shot up. ""LSOK"?"
Clark shrugged. "Last Son of Krypton."
Jen's teasing smile turned a bit sad. "You will look us up soon, right?"
"I will, Jen; don't worry."
Caitlin gulped. "Promise?"
Clark grinned. "I never lie."
Getting up, Nikki walked over and hugged Clark. "You'd better stay in touch!" she warned with a laugh. "And whenever you two decide to tie the knot, you'd better send us invites!"
Alison giggled. "We will if you will!"
Releasing Clark, Nikki blinked. "Huh?"
At Jonesy's panicked expression, Clark jumped in. "Nothing, Nikki; just a joke!" he said. "We'll keep in touch, don't worry!"
"Good to hear, Hero Dude and Dudette," Jude said. "Stay righteous."
Wyatt nodded. "Take care."
Glancing at Alison, Caitlin piped up. "Ooh! If Wyatt and Kylie hook up, you think you and her would want to go shopping with Jen and I?"
Alison beamed. "Count me in!"
Clark smiled sadly. "See you guys later?"
Jonesy nodded. "You bet, man," he agreed. "Until then, you just keep doing that hero-stuff you do."
Jen quickly added to her stepbrother's statement. "And be careful out there!"
"We will," Clark answered, as he turned to go. "Thank you for today, guys; I really needed it."
"Hey, it's the least we could do, considering how many times you and your pals saved Earth's collective bacon, dude," Jude said.
Jen nodded. "It was great seeing you again, Clark!"
"You, too," Clark answered. "Bye, guys." With that, he, Alison, and Krypto headed out, while the others headed in the other direction.
As they left the Mall, Alison playfully nudged Clark with her elbow. "And you thought they'd hate you."
Clark chuckled, looping his arm around his beloved's shoulders. "Shows what I know, huh?"
Alison's expression turned mock-stern. "You are going to keep in touch with them, right?"
"Good." Her face light again, Alison asked, "So where now? Back to the Watchtower?"
"In a minute, taushi," Clark answered. "There's something I'd like to see, first…"
"Come on, guys! We've gotta get moving!"
Following Jen out of the Mall, the others sighed. "Jen, don't you think you're overreacting a little?" Wyatt asked. "Almost nobody visits a university bookstore before the semester starts!"
"Guys, this will be our last year in our programs! We can't afford to goof up, now!" Jen insisted. "Plus, Emma really needs her headache medicine!"
Caitlin looked worried. "It's that bad?"
Jen nodded. "It's always worse whenever she has nightmares, and she's had a lot of those, lately!"
Jude flinched. "Bummer for the mini-dudette."
As they headed out, Nikki was about to follow the others, but Jonesy's hand on her elbow stopped her. "Nikki?" His tone was mildly nervous. "Can I talk to you for a minute? Alone?"
Nikki felt a bit nervous, herself. "Sure," she answered. "We'll catch up in a minute, guys."
Jen's smile turned knowing. "Don't rush on our account, you two!"
Nikki arched an eyebrow as their friends walked off. 'Okay, what was THAT about?'
Once they were alone, Jonesy took a deep breath. "Nikki…the past few years we've been together…they've been awesome; I wouldn't trade them for anything in the world."
Nikki felt her heart jump into her throat. "Okay…"
Jonesy gulped. "Six years ago, when you left, it felt like…like my entire world was falling apart," he confessed, before smiling. "And then when you came back...God, I can't even describe how happy I was…how happy I am that we're together."
That didn't sound like a guy who was going to break up with his girlfriend, Nikki observed. "Alright…"
Jonesy steeled himself. "The point is that I've lived life with you and without you, Nikki…and I'll take life with you, any day of the week!" he declared. "I love you, and I don't want to imagine a minute without you!"
As Jonesy dropped to his knees, Nikki froze. "J-Jonesy…"
His hands shaking, Jonesy took out the small box he'd been keeping in his pocket, and opened it, revealing the shining silver band, adorned with a tiny diamond, encircled with a loop of jade. "Nikki…Nicole Grace Wong…will you marry me?"
Nikki couldn't speak.
Jonesy started to panic. "I know what you're thinking, Nikki; I know how young we both are, and how a lot of marriages, like my parents', end in divorce..!"
Nikki got her voice working again. "Jonesy…"
Jonesy was on autopilot. "…and I know the odds are against us, but they were against us when you moved, too, and we stayed together..!"
"…and sure, neither of us really knows what's gonna happen, but I know that if we're together..!"
Nikki's shout stalled Jonesy's rambles. "Huh?"
Suppressing happy sniffles, Nikki smiled at her beau. "Yes."
Jonesy blinked, dumbfounded. "What?"
Nikki laughed. "Yes, you idiot! Yes, I'll marry you!"
A joyous, doofus grin crossed Jonesy's face. "You…you will?"
Nikki laughed again. "What, you actually thought I'd say no?"
Jonesy barely registered that, as his hands grasped her hips, lifting her up and spinning her about, before pulling her into a hug. "You WILL!"
As the sheer joy of the moment began to settle, Nikki realized something. "Wait…is this what Clark and Alison meant, a few minutes ago?"
Jonesy looked sheepish. "I've…actually been trying to work up the nerve to ask you, the past little while," he confessed. "Clark gave me the kick in the butt I needed to go for it – OW!"
Jonesy's confession was cut off as Nikki playfully flicked his nose. "That's for taking so long to figure out I'd say yes, you goofball!"
Jonesy half-frowned. "I'm starting to see why Clark isn't fussy about your nose-tweak…"
Nikki's smile turned sultry. "Shut up and kiss me, Mr. Garcia."
Jonesy grinned back. "Whatever you say, Mrs. Garcia-Wong." And with that, he leaned down to her, as Nikki stood up on her toes to meet him.
After a few blissfully long minutes, their lips parted, although their foreheads kept touching. "Think we should tell the others?" Nikki asked, still smiling.
Jonesy nodded. "Jen'll get it out of us, sooner or later; better we come clean now."
Nikki chuckled. "Yeah, probably."
The minute they started moving, a faint sonic boom echoed in the distance, causing Jonesy's grin to widen. "Think Clark was keeping an eye on us?"
Thinking back to that half-glimpse of blue and red she'd seen, three years ago, Nikki smiled back. "He always is," she answered. With that, the two of them headed back to rejoin their friends…as three blurs – one white, one silver, and one red-blue – raced across the distant sky, towards the horizon.
Author's Note: Hey, all! I'm back! Sorry it took me so long to finish this story; between final term-papers, studying for final exams – two of which were in-semester – working, and Skyward Sword, I've been quite distracted! Hope you all enjoy this story!
After finishing this little interlude, I think I've decided to officially make the 6Teen crew part of Book Four's recurring cast; they won't be around all the time, but they will be around! Now that it's done, I can finally get to work on Crusade, Smallville Chronicles, Book Four, and the next part of the Hanging Ten Saga! It'll be tough, but I think I'm up for it! Sadly, it'll probably be a month or two before I can even THINK about posting, again.
While we're on the topic, I recently found out that CMR Rosa has actually started a Wiki page for my Hanging Ten Saga! Plus, my Last Son series has a TvTropes page! My mind is doubly blown! I'll be posting links to both pages, so if you guys care to check them out, I encourage you to do so!
Since it'll be a while before I can post again, I plan to add little mini-teasers to some of my future fics, like my upcoming Hanging Ten stories; consider it a small thank-you for being so patient with me!
In closing, I'd like to thank you all again for your continued support! I hope you enjoy the story, and I look forward to hearing from you all in the future! Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you all! See you in 2012! Later!