By Chris Mulder (email@example.com)
Summary: Ching and the Lady Zara return to earth with the body of Lord Kal-El. [Author's Note: This story popped into my head full-grown, and demanding to be told, while I was watching the two-part 3rd season finale for the 12th (or was it the 15th?) time. <g> I wanted to explore the relationships among these new characters of Ching, Zara and Nor, as well as find out how Clark might fare as Lord Kal-El, and how the people of New Krypton might react to him, and … well, you get the picture. This is based on the TV show, "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman," and not the comics — I haven't been able to afford them on a regular basis ever since I "grew up" and my parents cut off my allowance. <bg> So, I guess I should say up front that any resemblance to the real Krypton, old or New, as well as to any true Kryptonians is purely coincidental, and I extend my sincere apologies now for any myths/facts/beliefs I may have unintentionally bent/broke/left by the wayside.
All recognizable characters are the property of their respective owners. Asterisks around a word (* … *) denotes emphasis.]
The Lady Zara checked the instrument readings again, making sure everything was properly set for their long journey. There was always a lot to do when beginning a trip through space. Once they were on their way, however, there would be hours of tedium to get through until they reached their destination. Even with hyper-light drive it would take several days to get where they were going.
She looked over at her Lord. His face was colored by the various blinking lights on the console in front of him, his dark hair barely distinguishable against the background in the semi-darkness of the room, his slender hands busy at the controls.
He must have sensed her scrutiny, for he looked up at her. "Is everything all right?"
"Yes," she said, a little uncertainly, and then with more conviction, "Yes, of course. Everything is fine."
She turned back to her duties, trying to shake off this feeling of heaviness that had been tightening around her heart of late. They had a job to do, a debt of honor to repay — she must focus on that to the exclusion of all else. They'd left things on New Krypton in the best shape possible; however, it was important to complete their task and return as quickly as they could, otherwise the sacrifices of hundreds of people would have been for nothing. There had already been too many deaths.
Well, she thought, checking the readouts again, everything seems to be functioning as it should. She stood up from her seat.
Her companion turned to look at her and reached for her hand. "Zara
"It's all right. I'll be fine."
He tightened his hold on her hand, and she did the same, reassuring him. She'd relied on his strength a lot over the past few days and she knew he would continue to be strong for her … and New Krypton.
She smiled slightly, squeezed his hand again before releasing it, and turned to leave. She didn't see his dark eyes following her sadly as she stepped through the door into the passageway.
Her steps slowed as she reached her destination — a cargo bay. It hardly seemed suitable, but it had the best climate controls of any area on the ship and it was important that the temperature remain constant. She put on her coat, pushed the button to open the door, and went in. The room was bare except for a low pallet with a cot on it. She walked forward until she stood beside the cot. Sinking down to sit on the pallet she was able to look into the face of the figure on the cot.
"Hello, Kal-El," she said softly.
There was no answer, but then she'd expected none. She hadn't come here for his benefit, but for hers. There were some things she needed to tell him, share with him … things she should have shared with him when she'd had the chance.
She reached up to touch his cheek. His skin was so cold, so lifeless. It was impossible not to remember — and compare — the first time she'd touched him, when their unified touch had activated the image of the long-dead Jor-El. Kal-El had been so moved by the experience that he'd unconsciously started to pull his hand away from the device which was projecting the image. Zara had had to take his hand and replace it over the key in order to stabilize the holograph. There had been such warmth in Kal-El then, such life.
She'd never known anyone like him.
When she'd first met him she'd thought the time he'd spent on Earth was to blame for these differences, that his upbringing had flawed him in some way. As she came to know him in the succeeding months, however, she began to see that maybe Jor-El hadn't been wrong after all in sending his son to Earth all those years ago. Her father had always ranted about "Crazy Jor-El and his crazy notions." Even he had to admit now that those same "crazy notions" had saved New Krypton, and her.
From the time she'd gotten her cover job at the "Daily Planet," through the long journey back to New Krypton and the busy, arduous, difficult weeks of his tenure as Lord Kal-El, she'd watched him. Ching had at first feared this interest of hers, thinking she was infatuated with Kal-El, but nothing could have been farther from the truth. There had been a connection between them, yes, but not an amorous one.
She shifted her position on the pallet a bit so she could put her hands in the coat's pockets. There was a lot she had to say and she'd be able to stay longer if she were warm. Looking at his face, gray and drawn still from his gallant, hopeless battle against a terrible poison, she began remembering all that had led up to this day. Talking to him softly, her breath showed in small white puffs as she recounted their long journey together.
Did he remember their lessons in the Kryptonian language, and how he'd sometimes joke about the mess he was making of the words? He'd had her laughing so hard that she'd had tears running down her face. Ching had come into the room thinking something was wrong — he'd never heard such sounds from her before!
Learning Kryptonian without the aid of super powers was only one of the many obstacles that had awaited Kal-El. She could only guess at how frustrating, or humiliating, some of the experiences of the past few months must have been for him. A few of them she had seen with her own eyes: the times he would bump into things, or otherwise injure himself because years of invulnerability had not taught him to move cautiously; the times when people could startle him because he hadn't heard them coming; the times when he'd get impatient with himself for not being able to work longer — for getting tired or hungry sooner than he'd expected; and the times when he'd had to cope with bouts of minor illnesses or that nonspecific feeling of unwellness that most people have experienced at least once in their lives.
All of that had been completely new to him. The only times he'd ever known pain or discomfort on Earth was when he'd been exposed to kryptonite, and Zara had gotten the impression that those periods had been short-lived. Living without his powers all those months on New Krypton had been difficult for him, and something he'd still been learning to cope with right up until …
She took a deep, long breath in an effort to pull her thoughts away from that painful time. She wasn't ready to dwell on that yet. Instead she forced herself to smile as she remembered his self-deprecating laughter when he'd told her about bruising his shin for the third time in two days on the same piece of furniture.
"I did seem to spend a lot of time bandaging your cuts and scrapes, didn't I, Kal-El?"
But the habits of a lifetime are hard to break, and learning to think about possible injury, and how to avoid it, was only one of the many things he'd had to learn, both on their journey to New Krypton and during his stay there. She came to understand, that, while his powers had confined him for years (until he'd created Superman), they'd also sheltered him. Having to cope with life outside that shelter hadn't been easy for him.
She'd also helped him study Kryptonian history, as well as the geographies of Old and New Krypton. When the colonists had settled on the new planet, she'd told him, they'd wanted to make everything as much like the home they remembered as they could. Consequently, they'd laid out property lines and boundaries as close as possible to the way they'd been before — given the differences in some of the land masses. So it was important that he learn about both worlds in order to understand the people of the various houses, their connections to each other, as well as their places in the social strata.
He'd been fascinated by his people's history and would have spent much more time studying it if he could, but Ching had demanded that part of each day be spent in learning other things as well. Kal-El needed to know how to defend himself.
In spite of having admitted that Kal-El was "the one," Ching had continued to look upon him with a good deal of disdain. He couldn't quite forgive Kal for having been sent to Earth where he could enjoy a childhood free from the struggles and hardships which all the children of New Krypton knew from their births. "He doesn't deserve what's been handed to him," Ching had once said, but, as with most things in life, the more they learned about it the more they understood that Kal- El's childhood hadn't been as carefree as it might have appeared on the surface.
During meals together, on the voyage to New Krypton, Kal-El had shared some of his story with them and they'd begun to see how lonely it must have been for him, having only his parents to confide in. Ching had been so jealous and resentful of Kal's powers, that he hadn't stopped to consider the other side of the coin; the necessity of hiding and suppressing his abilities … always having that feeling of not quite belonging.
Zara had seen the first glimmer of change in her cynical lieutenant's eyes as he'd listened to Kal's retelling of his growing up years. She'd hoped this meant Ching was beginning to accept the new Lord of the House of El, but she had underestimated — and he had kept hidden from her — the true nature and depth of his feelings.
At first Zara had stayed away from Ching's training sessions, thinking Kal wouldn't want an audience. The fatigue he was obviously feeling and the stiffness she saw in his movements she accounted for by thinking he wasn't used to being without his powers. But when she began to see shadows under his eyes, too, she wondered if there was more to it than that.
Then, one morning, during their lesson in Kryptonian, she'd accidentally bumped up against him and he'd flinched in pain. He'd brushed aside her concern and assured her he was fine, but she'd been suspicious enough to sneak into the cargo bay during that afternoon's training session.
The first thing she'd noticed was the gravity level — Ching had adjusted it to a degree that was uncomfortable even to someone who wasn't exerting themselves. She could only imagine what it must feel like to the men — especially Kal-El. New Krypton had higher gravity than did Earth, so she would have expected Ching to have gradually increased the level in order that Kal-El could adjust himself to it. She couldn't imagine what Ching was thinking of to be training someone in hand-to-hand combat at such a level.
She'd watched the struggling, sweating men, listening to Ching barking out his commands and hearing the derisive tone in his voice … taunting his opponent. Kal-El's breathing was coming in ragged gasps, but he kept trying to do what was expected of him; determination etched hard on his face. Zara was about to call a halt when Ching saw an opening in Kal's defenses and used it, knocking his feet out from under him and throwing him down. Zara cried out, distracting Ching momentarily so that he lost his grip on Kal. Without Ching holding onto him, Kal-El hadn't been able to slow his forward momentum and had hit the floor hard. Zara had stared in horror at Kal-El, unconscious and gasping for air, and then turned her fury onto Ching.
She'd found and switched on the controls which would slowly and automatically restore a saner gravity level to the room and then, stalking forward, she'd slapped Ching — hard. He'd once accused her of having lost sight of their objective, now she turned his own words against him.
How could he do a thing like this? Was he trying to kill Kal-El? She grabbed both men's jackets from where they lay on nearby crates and covered Kal, ignoring any claims Ching might have had to his own garment, then ordered him to hold the other man to help ease his breathing while she pressed a towel against the cut on Kal's head.
They'd had a royal argument that day, hissing and spitting at one another over Kal-El's unconscious form, but it had cleared the air. By the time a normal gravity level had been restored and they'd gotten Kal into his own bed, they'd reached a better understanding, and they'd outlined a more reasonable training schedule.
She'd been astounded to hear that Ching still believed her to be infatuated with Kal-El, because she'd thought they'd left that foolishness behind them on Earth. As the only other member of their party who was of noble blood, she'd considered it her duty to instruct Kal-El in matters relating to his heritage, and his House. There was nothing more to it than that.
It had taken some convincing, but eventually she'd made Ching understand that she saw in Kal the brother she'd never had — only that, and nothing more. Once that misunderstanding had been cleared up, it had been possible for Ching to begin to be more tolerant of his "pupil."
"You gradually won him over, didn't you, Kal-El?" she said to the unresponsive figure on the cot. She reached out a finger to lightly trace the scar left by that cut. "Just as you won over so many others on New Krypton. They were suspicious of you at first, weren't they? … as Ching had been. But your sincerity and genuine willingness to help, your sense of humor and your gentleness made you many new friends."
She laughed softly at a sudden memory. "I don't think I've ever told you this, but I knew things were going to be all right between you and Ching the day he came to me boasting about how you'd thrown him during practice. You'd used some trick you said you'd seen in a fight back on Earth. It was a move he didn't know, Kal-El, and he was impressed by it. With his soldier's mentality, he was bound to respect anyone who could prove himself a worthy opponent. Did you notice how his attitude towards you began to change after that? I've often wondered."
She paused, but not because she was expecting an answer. It was more to give herself a chance to think.
She studied the still face near hers. "Such a little thing, but it was the final key, wasn't it? You two became as brothers; working together — talking and planning, long into the night sometimes. I think you confided in him more than in anyone, didn't you?"
She moved, changing her position on the pallet slightly, to ease a cramp in her right leg. Her movement disarranged the elaborate, embroidered cloth which covered him, and she smoothed it out again with gentle hands.
"In the beginning you spoke to me of Earth and the people you'd left behind. Those were the only times on New Krypton when I heard you speak in English. At some point you stopped, though, and I always meant to ask you about it. I knew you still longed for your home because I would sometimes see you looking up at the night sky while fingering the ring Lois had given you. I wish now that I had gone to you instead of silently walking away. Maybe you needed someone at that moment, and now … I'll never know."
She felt tears forming and got up hastily, pacing to the other end of the bare room and back again. Once more, she felt that tightening in her chest.
So many sacrifices! Had it all been worth it? Had they done the right things?
There were no answers for her, though. Not from her surroundings, nor from the silent figure on the cot … not even from her own heart. She had to *believe* that their purpose, their cause, had been noble, otherwise … how could she face the future and all the work that still lay ahead? Otherwise … how could she bear to recall the past?
Zara resumed her pacing, agitated by all the emotions she could feel welling up within her; guilt, remorse, sadness, and helpless anger. If only they'd been a little more careful. If only they hadn't allowed their elation over their apparent victory to blind them to impending danger. If only they'd stopped, just for a moment, to remember with whom they were dealing.
Lord Nor. A hated and hateful individual whose sole purpose in life seemed to have been to make those around him as miserable as possible while he, himself, performed whatever despicable acts occurred to his twisted mind.
Even as a child, he'd been feared by his peers and suspected of committing various crimes, but nothing could ever be proven and his father had been powerful enough to ensure that his son never came up before a magistrate. As he'd grown, however, he'd broadened his scope until, it was widely believed, even his father was afraid of him. Whether that fear had been justified or not, Nor's father *had* died mysteriously when the young lordling was only 15, suddenly making him Lord Nor, and head of his household.
Everyone had been scandalized by his subsequent behavior: forcing his mother out of her dead husband's house and back to her own family; sending his only brother off into dangerous territory on an expedition to discover new sights for possible mining; hurriedly marrying off his youngest sister to his closest crony, instead of to her birth-husband; and refusing to allow his other sister's union to her birth-husband, a man who had openly condemned Nor's actions in the past.
No one was surprised when the expedition, which had left with 20 men, returned with only three, but all were offended by the party Nor threw to "mourn" the fact that his brother was not among those who had made it back. Everyone whispered when the six-months-married-sister gave birth to a full-term, stillborn child, and most were sympathetic to Nor's mother at the disgrace of being cast out of her home. To a man, however, they'd laughed behind Nor's back when his other sister's birth-husband managed to spirit her out of the house during one of the wild parties the young Lord liked to throw for his friends.
The laughter had infuriated Nor, but instead of striking out and possibly doing something foolish, which would have given the Tribunal an opportunity to charge him with an actual crime, he'd become coldly calculating. While outwardly cleaning up his act, he'd worked behind the scenes, consolidating his power, first with those most easily intimidated and later with marriages and pacts entered into with him by the unsuspecting. By the time the rest of New Krypton had awakened to the fact that he was the embodiment of evil, he had people who answered only to him placed in many key positions (including in the Tribunal and the Council), and he owned, or had influence over, one-third of the arable land as well as almost one-half of the mining interests. He was now a force to be reckoned with and knowing that, he began to be bolder.
His agenda became clearer, but his methods remained obscure. Even when something was suspected, it could never be proven and with his powerful friends he was able to "arrange" that proof was unobtainable. In twenty years' time he'd married and buried three wives, arranged marriages with several households for his children, and now that his House was aligned with most of the minor houses and two of the major ones, he'd set his sights on the biggest prize of all — the House of El, and eventual rule over all of New Krypton.
Zara stopped her pacing, standing still until her footsteps no longer echoed through the cool room. The chill in the cargo bay matched the chill she remembered feeling in her belly when her father had told her of his suspicions about Lord Nor's plans — marriage to her, which would have given him access to two of the oldest, most prestigious, and richest Houses on New Krypton.
As one of Jor-El's closest confidants, her father had been privy to Jor's plans for his son. His final visit to his boyhood friend had been just weeks before Krypton had exploded. He'd tried one last time to persuade Jor-El and Lara to join the colony on New Krypton with him and his family. Jor had refused, insisting that the young Kal-El would be better off away from New Krypton. He believed there were forces at work there — self-serving, malicious forces — which he feared even more than he did the self-destructive, geological ones lurking beneath the surface of his home planet.
Jor-El and Lara had listened politely to all of the arguments put forth by the Lord of the House of Ra, but they'd remained adamant about completing their work before they joined the colony. They knew time was growing short, for they'd already sent their people ahead to New Krypton, but they were determined to continue their search for a more suitable, and more secure, home for Kal-El. They would board the first available transport once their son was safely away — not before.
Her father, always quick to be hurt and the first to forgive, had left his friend with harsh words on his lips and an ache in his heart. When he'd learned of the explosion of Krypton, he'd mourned Jor-El as he would have a brother, refusing to arrange another marriage for Zara even though his contemporaries called him foolish. No! Jor-El's friend would abide by their pact, hoping against hope that somehow the young Kal-El had indeed been sent off-planet in time.
To honor his lost friend, he'd safeguarded the lands and property which had been deeded to Jor-El's family — holding them in trust for the day when the true Lord would return and claim them. As the only child of her house, Zara would one day take her father's place as steward of those lands — control of Zara would therefore give Nor control of both the House of Ra and the House of El.
What no one could have foreseen, and what would eventually make the House of El such a prize to Nor's greedy eyes, was what would be discovered underneath the pebbly soil of its western-most quadrant. Possession of it would increase Nor's prestige in the eyes of the people of the New Krypton, ally him with the best Houses, and make him rich … extremely rich.
With Nor closing in, Zara's father had been forced into a desperate decision. Searching his memory for clues from long ago conversations, and using all the means at his disposal, he'd narrowed the probable destinations for Kal-El's ship to one possible location — a place called Earth. Sending his only child with his most trusted bodyguard to search for the young Lord Kal-El, he knew he could be putting himself at risk, but he had little choice.
Kal-El, if they could find him, would be an unexpected obstacle for Nor — the last line of defense against an implacable enemy. The bitterest thought of all to the Lord of Ra, was that this might merely be a stopgap measure — that he might be putting his best friend's only son in mortal danger to protect that which was already doomed to be lost. The thought of the treatment Zara would receive at Nor's hand, of what Nor would do to defile the noble name of El, and of the sufferings of Jor's people under such monster, compelled Zara's father to try, despite the risks.
It was no comfort to remember that if they'd listened to Jor-El, they might not be in this situation now. He, and a handful of other Council members, had urged caution and foresight in the selection of the first colonists. They'd argued for diversity of skills and a sampling from each of Krypton's social strata to make up the pool of colonists.
Instead, officials had opted for quantity of cash over quality of population — giving the nod to whomever could pay the most, rather than to those with the most to offer. Consequently, the "cream" of Kryptonian society, their servants, workers, bodyguards and chroniclers had journeyed first, leaving behind skilled artisans and technicians who were not tied to a particular House. There had been protests, but it was considered logical to make as much money as possible with the first wave of trips in order to finance — at reduced rates — flights for the next group. Neither the population nor the government had awakened in time to the true seriousness of the situation.
Many on New Krypton had often wished that more scientists or researchers had made the journey instead of Nor and some of his cohorts. Now, they were locked with him in a critical battle for control of this space rock they were all inhabiting.
Zara had taken a tender farewell from her father, knowing she might not see him again. In the past, Ching had managed to deflect two attempts on the old Lord's life, and she was afraid for her father's safety once this most trusted and resourceful ally would be gone.
It had been a relief to find her father still alive upon her return, but her relief had been fleeting. From Nor's behavior towards them, it was clear that he was still certain of eventual victory. What they didn't learn until later was that he'd decided to set his sights on a higher goal.
Based on his later actions, and also on testimony given by former associates at Nor's posthumous trial, they'd been able to piece together his plan. If he could have succeeded in removing Kal-El from his path, there would be no one left to stand between Nor and his marriage to Zara. As Kal-El's widow, Zara would have come into possession of all the assets of his House — and Nor would have been able to style himself as the Lord of the House of El. As Lord Nor-El he would have had much more power than he would have had as a mere steward.
With such a prize in the offing, Nor could afford to be patient. He knew it was only a matter of time before someone would make a mistake — a fatal mistake. Then, a few well- chosen threats to the grieving young widow regarding the fragile state of her father's health would surely make her more amenable to becoming his fourth Lady. After the wedding, a word or two in his bride's father's ear would no doubt persuade him to sign certain necessary papers in exchange for assurances that his daughter would be treated as a lady … and not as a whore.
There was only the matter of this new, so-called Lord Kal-El. Nor had only half-believed the things Tez had told him about Kal-El. When Nor saw Kal for himself, he was not impressed. The young Lord looked strong, but Nor had defeated bigger men — men with more wisdom and experience than Kal seemed to possess. The defeat of Tez must have been sheer chance.
So Nor had made his plans and waited, smug in the certainty of his victory.
Zara walked back towards the pallet and stood looking down at the quiet figure on the cot.
"He never understood you, did he, Kal-El? Anymore than you could understand him. He watched in amusement as you worked to learn Kryptonian ways, making derisive comments about your attempts to speak the language. He made light of your efforts to get to know the people, high or low; the way you listened rather than commanded, how open you were with everyone. He thought you a fool, beneath contempt, and a less than worthy opponent.
"And you … it took you a while to see just how wicked he really was, didn't it? You always believed there must be *some* good in everyone, even Nor. Even after you'd acknowledged the extent of the evil that was in him, it was difficult for you to combat his plots because you were incapable of thinking the way he did. It's good we had Ching for that — if not for his strong sense of duty and honor he probably would have made an excellent criminal.
"That's why your partnership with Ching worked so well. He could recognize the good you were accomplishing with the people, and you knew you could count on him to provide counterattacks for each of Nor's moves. Between you, you made a formidable opponent for Nor, stepping time and again between him and his ambitions, until, in his frustrations over his continuing lack of success, he grew careless."
Unhappy over a Council ruling which hadn't gone his way, Nor had accosted and publicly assaulted a wily old Lord who'd managed to persuade all the members not on Nor's payroll to vote against him. Nor had correctly, if belatedly, connected this small insurrection with Kal-El's growing popularity and the fact that many people saw something in him which gave them hope. His anger had spilled over and since Kal-El, the true object of his hatred, was out of reach he'd attacked another — the grinning ancient one standing in front of him.
Public outrage had been immediate and encompassing. Demands for his imprisonment and the seizure of his lands and property began to be heard. People, who heretofore had been too terrified to speak up, now came forward and told of witnessing atrocities or being privy to other evidence. The Tribunal met and it was decided that Lord Nor should be "invited" in to answer the various charges being made against him. But when the magistrates had gone to collect him, he was nowhere to be found.
Soon, raids were being reported by outlying households; food, clothing, bedding … and women, were disappearing. Men were being attacked, fields and out- buildings burned. Soldiers and officers of the law were dispatched to subdue and capture the brigands, but without success. One bloody battle followed another. They'd been unable to stem the flow of weapons to Nor and his followers, and they couldn't find their hideouts. It seemed like a stalemate … until a message came from Nor's camp.
Hand-to-hand combat with Kal-El was what he demanded. If he lost, he'd turn himself in; if he won, some arrangement would be worked out whereby he'd pay restitution to the families of his victims or whatever else the Tribunal deemed necessary to re-establish himself in the eyes of the people of New Krypton. They'd sent his courier back to him with a response not to his liking … and the raids had resumed.
Two weeks later, the offer was made again, and the implication was clear. It was public blackmail. Either he got his fight with Kal-El or the killings, rapes, and thieving would continue. Officials convened once more, less self-assured than before, and asked the young Lord of the House of El to help them.
Ching was bitterly opposed to any contact between Kal and Nor. Knowing how treacherous the man was, Ching was afraid for Kal. The Council made light of his concerns, saying that every precaution would be taken to ensure the safety of everyone involved — what could one man do against all of them?
Kal-El had put a hand on Ching's shoulder to silence him, then looking at his friend, but speaking to the room at large, he'd agreed to meeting Nor. Only Ching and Zara had been close enough to him to hear his sad, "I have no choice" over the clapping and cheering that had erupted in the Hall.
A time and a place for the contest were set and plans were made to prevent, absolutely, Nor being able to carry out whatever devious plot he might be forming.
"But all our precautions were for naught, weren't they, Kal-El?" She lowered herself to the pallet once more, and leaning forward, rested her head against his shoulder. "You didn't deserve this, Kal. I'm so sorry. Please forgive me."
Only silence greeted her words. No hand came up to pat her shoulder, no voice spoke up to tell her not to worry. She would never again hear his voice, or see his smile or feel his reassuring arm across her back. That would be her penance, she knew, to live with the memories of his kindnesses and his laughter, to know that she and all of New Krypton had lost forever a hero … someone to believe in.
That's what Kal-El had been to many, many people. Yet if you'd asked individuals to describe what he'd meant to them, the answers would all be different. The Old Ones might recall how he'd sat at their feet, literally, drinking in all they could tell him about old Krypton and his family, while the children would speak of the Earth stories he'd told them in his funny Kryptonian.
The workers still talked about how he'd visit with them and work beside them. They'd been astounded — Lords didn't do such things! He'd laughed and told them about growing up on a farm and doing chores. He was used to handling tools and getting dirty, and they'd soon counted him as one of them.
He'd wanted to see all there was to see, and help out wherever he could. The people and the ruling families had at first been suspicious of him, but his quiet friendliness and genuine interest in everyone and everything had eventually won the day.
Traveling with his bodyguards, he'd managed to visit all the tenants and workers who lived on his lands. He was curious about everything; from farming to mining, from food preparation to construction. He asked questions and he listened, and he learned some things which astounded him.
He'd already been told by Zara's father that the bulk of his wealth was derived from the sale of a unique substance which was mined and processed on his land. This material was invaluable for constructing houses that could withstand the all- too-frequent earthquakes which shook their adopted planet. What he hadn't been told was that many of his own people could afford to purchase only the most inferior grade of this substance.
It wasn't considered expedient to make the higher grade available to all the people — it might encourage them to spend too much time building and maintaining houses which were too large, when they could be better occupied with other things. After all, each Lord looked after the people entrusted to him, and provided assistance when necessary — that was expected. They knew, as the people could not, that money needed to be spent on more important things: developing new technologies, maintaining a strong fighting and peace-keeping force, and financing the government and the courts.
That was all well and good, Kal-El had told Ching and Zara, but he didn't want to see one more child hurt in a earthquake if he knew of a way to prevent it.
Publicly thanking the Lord of the House of Ra for the fine and honorable stewardship he had provided for the House of El and its people, Kal had then quietly gone about making some changes. He'd raised his workers' salaries by a fair percentage, while lowering the price of the earthquake- proofing substance by an equal amount. Zara's father had been livid — hadn't the boy been listening?
The blow to Kal-El's personal economy, which the old Lord had direfully predicted, never came about, however. True, there was a slight dip in the revenues for a while, but eventually they had to hire more miners and processors to keep up with the demand. Additional workers, and more importantly, workers with money to spend, meant the shopkeepers and market managers were happy. Trade picked up, which made some of the other Lords take notice. Several of them visited Lord Kal-El and went thoughtfully back home, to institute some changes of their own.
Lord Nor and his cronies began to be aware that their people were deserting them faster than ever before, seeking asylum with Kal-El or one of the Lords who thought and acted as he did. Nor watched grimly as his power base shrank a little more with each passing month. His efforts to stem the rising tide of this upstart Lord's popularity had met with little success and his assassins had been singularly inept. Thwarted in his attempts to ridicule, neutralize or eliminate Kal-El, his frustration had led to his making that fatal error in the Council Hall, his own death, and ultimately, the division and dissolution of his House.
Zara raised her head from Kal-El's shoulder to look at his face once again. "If only we could have held out against Nor a little longer, you could have done so much more."
Which isn't to say that everything had gone his way or that Kal-El hadn't made mistakes of his own. Not everyone had welcomed him or accepted him — there were a couple of the old Lords who'd refused, to the very end, to even acknowledge his right to claim his place as the head of the House of El.
There were also times when he was tired and discouraged, but he was careful to let those feelings out only with Zara or Ching. She often thought his experiences as Superman must have helped him in those instances. Superman couldn't afford to let his feelings show, either.
Looking back now, as she was doing, and reflecting on all that had happened, she thought that he'd probably been more lonely on New Krypton amongst his own people than he'd ever been on Earth. It was easier now for her and Ching to understand why he'd chosen to be Clark Kent rather than Superman … why he'd suppressed his abilities and gifts. Ching had once referred to Kal-El's use of a disguise as "skulking around," and had been exasperated that he hadn't "imposed what he knows to be a better way" upon the people of Earth.
Watching Kal as he had shown the same patience and consideration to each person he encountered, they'd realized that imposing anything on anybody was not his way. He preferred to be accepted for who and what he was inside, rather than as Superman or Lord Kal-El.
Her own personal memories of this man, though, included something so intimate that she'd never be able to share them with anyone but Ching.
During their journey to New Krypton, Zara, Ching and Kal had talked about the various methods they would use to block Nor's schemes. One of the first and most important things would be to publicly affirm Kal and Zara's commitment to their pre-arranged marriage and the alliance between their two powerful houses. This would necessitate the appearance of an actual union — they'd have to share a room. Zara tried to take a pragmatic view of this, knowing it was part of the plan. Kal-El had agreed to it, but it was clear he was uncomfortable with it — his own forced separation from Lois, and his growing friendship with Ching made this difficult for him. What they hadn't counted on was Nor's response.
He'd appeared to accept their avowals, and then bided his time. When there was no sign of a future heir, he'd started a whispering campaign against Kal-El, calling him a eunuch and other things even more unkind. Kal had been unconcerned when he'd heard these stories, but Zara and Ching were not. They knew, as he didn't, what a disgrace it was for a Kryptonian man not to be able to father children.
Zara had gone to Kal and, keeping her eyes downcast, had explained the seriousness of the situation, telling him she would understand if he felt he needed to disprove the rumors. The silence that had followed her pronouncement was a long one. Finally, she could stand it no longer and had glanced up. He hadn't been looking at her, though, he was looking at the ring hanging from the chain which he always wore around his neck. Without taking his eyes from the ring, he'd said, "I love Lois, Zara, and I always will. I know you love Ching … and he loves you. Keeping those relationships safe is more important to us than what people might think, don't you agree?"
He had looked at her then, and she had nodded slowly.
"Good," he'd said. "Then we won't need to talk about this again." He'd lovingly replaced the ring and its chain inside his shirt, next to his heart, and walked away. They'd never spoken of it again. He'd continued sleeping on the floor in their room and giving her the bed, and if the rumors ever did bother him, he never let on.
In fact the only time he got to lie in that bed was when they brought him to it after the fight, when Nor's treachery had wounded and poisoned him. Ching and the doctors had decided they could guard him more easily in his own house than in a healing center. So he'd spent his last pain- filled days on New Krypton in that bed, using his dwindling energies to ensure that Nor's final act of perfidy would not succeed in destroying the House of El, and plunging them all into civil war.
She'd stood beside that bed with Ching and the planet's ministers as Kal-El had outlined his plan, arguing eloquently for his unorthodox solution. She'd helped to steady Kal's hand as he'd signed the official document which would make Ching his brother by law, just as he had so long been in deed, and she'd knelt beside Ching at the foot of that bed as they were pledged to each other in the presence of the Lord of their House. And finally, much, much later, after all the ministers and officials had left, she'd sat by the side of that bed, holding his hand as he'd slipped into unconsciousness, aided by the drugs he'd refused to take until all the legalities had been completed. He hadn't wanted anyone to be able to say later that while drugged he'd been coerced or manipulated into signing away his rights.
And now she was keeping her last promise to him … to take him home to those he'd loved the most.
She'd been able to tell when the drugs had begun to take effect because he could finally relax his limbs and take a deeper breath. The pain lines in his face had smoothed out and he'd sighed softly as his eyes had closed. She'd had to listen closely to hear his last request to her, but once she had there'd been no hesitation on her part —
"Yes, Clark, I promise."
His eyes had flown open at that and he'd started to weep. "No one has called me that in such a long … long time."
She'd held him then until she could feel the drugs claiming him once more, then she'd stayed beside him, watching over him as his breaths got farther and farther apart … until she couldn't see his chest rise and fall any more. Only then had she let go of his hand, and only then had she become aware of someone else still in the room. Ching had come forward to stand beside her — he'd been there the whole time, guarding the door and giving his "brother" the only thing he had left to give … peace.
She'd stood, stiff from her long vigil, and he'd gathered her into his arms. They'd wept together for the loss of someone they'd both loved.
Zara came back to a sad, guilt-filled present. These memories of past tears sparked new ones, and soon she was crying, her sobs the only sound in that still, cold room.
The sun was just peeping over the top of the barn when Martha heard the knock on the kitchen door. It must be Wayne, she thought, needing Jonathan's help with something or other. She dried her hands and went to the door.
So many months had passed since Clark had left for New Krypton, that she'd stopped looking for him with every knock on the door, so she didn't realize right away the significance behind the visit of the vaguely familiar young woman who was standing on her porch. It was only a few seconds, however, before she had a name to go with the sad, young face … Zara!
She looked past Zara, trying to see into the early morning gloom … trying to locate her son. Finally, Zara's stillness, and the probable reason for it, hit her and she could feel her knees giving out.
Zara was through the doorway in a heartbeat, grasping the older woman to her and whispering fiercely, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."
Martha collected herself and pulled back from Zara, composed now, trying to be strong. "Where is Clark?"
"I'll take you to him. Is his father here?"
Jonathan. Oh, god … how will Jonathan take this?
"Yes," Martha replied unsteadily. "He's down at the barn."
They were starting to go to him, when they heard a tragically familiar "whoosh". Martha felt her heart leap into her throat at that sound. She looked around to see Ching landing in the yard with Lois in his arms. As soon as he set her down, Lois ran to Martha and held her. Martha had seen tears in Lois's eyes, but her voice was determinedly calm. "I'm here, Martha, I'm here. Does Jonathan know?"
They turned to go to the barn and saw Jonathan standing at its door, pale and stricken. In his heart, he'd never let himself believe that anything would happen to his son, and now that this moment had come …
His wife and the young woman he'd hoped someday to call "daughter" hurried to his side.
They walked together to the clearing behind the house where Ching and Zara had left the small orb ship. How well Lois remembered that fragile-looking vessel! She'd worried about Clark traveling all the way to New Krypton in it, but Zara had told her it was only a shuttle — that there was larger ship which would take them the rest of the way.
Ching seemed to disappear inside the wall of the ship for a few moments, and when he reappeared he was guiding a floating platform which supported a cot-like bed. He brought the cot and its lonely occupant to them, then stood respectfully back.
They moved forward tentatively — Jonathan going to one side of the cot, while Martha went to the other. Lois stayed by its foot, looking down at someone she hardly recognized. It was Clark, but an older-looking, careworn Clark, with the signs of his last illness still upon his face. It was obvious that they'd dressed the body with great care and respect, but the Kryptonian ceremonial robes made him seem even less like "her" Clark.
Martha laid her head lightly upon his chest and Lois could see that she was silently weeping. Her own throat felt tight as she watched Jonathan put one hand on his wife's trembling back and the other on his son's pale forehead.
Zara's sad, tremulous voice broke the stillness. "We've brought him home to you, as he asked. It was his last wish to be buried on Earth." Her voice faltered, and she had to pause to steady herself. "I wish I could tell you all that he meant to the people of New Krypton. He was a hero … and a friend, to many, *many* people, all of whom miss him dearly." She stopped again and looked helplessly in Ching's direction.
He stepped forward and facing Lois said, "I don't know if it will help you in your grieving, but his murderer is himself dead."
Lois's head came up and she returned his regard steadily. "Yes. Thank you. It does help."
"Thank you for bringing him home to us." Jonathan's grief-stricken voice brought Lois's attention back to Clark's parents. She saw that Jonathan had gone to his wife's side and was holding her.
"Take care of them, please." These had been among the last words Clark had spoken to her. Had he somehow known, or merely been afraid, that he might not come back?
Lois walked forward now, taking the spot beside the cot that Jonathan had left. An early morning breeze was playing through Clark's hair, pushing it onto his forehead.
His hair is longer than it was when he left, she thought inconsequentially, as she reached to smooth it back. She leaned forward to kiss him. "I haven't forgotten my promise, Clark," she whispered to him. "I'll take care of them for you."
She gazed into his much-loved face for a long time while the silence in the clearing lengthened. Finally, she looked up at Ching, her eyes glittering with tears. "How did he die?"
"He accepted a challenge to fight Lord Nor in hand- to-hand combat. Kal-El won the fight. Nor, being the treacherous villain that he was, then struck him down with a poisoned knife despite all our precautions to make sure that no such weapons were available."
"Without his selfless act," Zara added, "the fighting caused by Nor's band of criminals would have continued and intensified. He saved the lives of hundreds and possibly thousands of people."
Lois looked back down at Clark and thought, You couldn't not help out, could you, sweetheart?
Zara's soft voice interrupted Lois's thoughts. "I'm sorry, but we must return as soon as possible. If you could tell us where … "
Ching had stepped forward and was lifting Clark in his arms.
Jonathan said, "Yes, of course, we understand." He looked to his wife and then back to Ching. "Would you take him to his room?"
Ching nodded and moved to follow Clark's parents. Lois fell into step behind him, and Zara, pausing to collect a box which had been under the cot, brought up the rear of the sad procession.
Just before she rounded the corner of the house, Lois paused to look back at Zara. She seemed to be waiting for the others to get out of sight, then she turned towards the ship and spoke loudly and clearly some words that Lois did not understand, but assumed were Kryptonian.
Starting forward again, Zara quickly reached the spot where Lois was standing. Shifting the box to carry it under one arm, she pulled on Lois's arm with her other hand. "Come," she said urgently. "We must hurry."
Lois started to ask her what was going on, but something about Zara's demeanor stopped her and she picked up her own pace. In no time they'd caught up with Ching and the others.
Ching turned when he heard them. "Is it off?"
"Good." He looked to Jonathan. "Please, we must move quickly. Where is Kal-El's room?"
Lois could see that both Jonathan and Martha were too stunned by the sudden change in their visitors' manner to answer Ching's question. "I'll show you," she said.
When she'd reached Clark's room and opened the door, Lois found the windows shut and the curtains drawn. The bed had been stripped and the throw rugs rolled up. She'd opened the curtains and was starting on the windows when Martha came in carrying clean bedding. Together Lois and Martha hastily made the bed, just as anxious for Ching and Zara to be gone as they seemed to be to leave.
Ching waited for the two women to finish, holding Clark easily, as if he weighed no more than a pillow, but once the bed was made, he and Zara began moving quickly again. While Ching gently laid Clark down, Zara brought the box she was carrying to the other side of the bed. Silently, they worked together to remove Clark's heavy, funereal clothing.
"Oh, my god!" Jonathan's quietly stunned exclamation accurately expressed what Martha and Lois felt. Clark's once beautiful body now bore the marks of numerous injuries, new and old. The three of them looked at each other in horror. Some of these he would have gotten in that last fight, but the others … What had they done to him on New Krypton? What kind of hellish place had it been?
Lois was so overwhelmed by this sight that at first she didn't understand what else she was seeing. Zara was giving Clark what looked like injections, using a device she'd taken from the box, and Ching was tending to an ugly-looking wound which was just above Clark's left breast. As he removed pink-stained bandages in preparation for putting clean ones in their place, something inside her snapped.
"He's not dead. Is he? He's alive." Anger flared up inside her. "You … you … How could you?"
Ching answered her grimly, "We had no choice."
"No choice! You heartless … ! How could you let us think he was dead?"
Ching responded quietly, yet urgently, still not taking his eyes from his task, "Because everyone on New Krypton thinks he is dead, and they must continue to do so."
Lois looked at Martha and Jonathan — their faces reflecting the same shock and outrage she was feeling. "I don't care what the people of New Krypton think or don't think." Lois's voice dripped venom. "You and your precious Kryptonian logic … if fooling them was so important, couldn't you think of a way to get that across without scaring *us* half to death?"
Zara had begun to gather her instruments but at this accusatory question, she straightened. "There wasn't any other way. You don't know the kind of people we're dealing with. Lord Nor is dead, true, but some of his followers are still around, still in power. Any hint that Kal-El is not dead would ruin everything he risked his life for … and all that he wanted for the people of his House."
Lois started to protest again, but Martha put a hand on her arm to stop her. Looking at Zara she asked reasonably, but with a note of censure in her voice, "Why didn't you just explain what you wanted, we could have … "
"I wish that would have been possible, but there wasn't time. Even now the chronometer on the ship is counting the minutes. If we stay here too long, if there's too long a break in the recording, someone may question what we were doing." She came around the bed to face them. "Please believe me, if there had been any other way, we would have taken it, but there wasn't."
"Is that what you were doing out there?" Lois asked. "Shutting off a recording?"
Ching's voice recalled their attention. "These bandages will do for a while." He picked up the quilt that Martha had brought earlier and covered Clark, then he, too, turned to face them.
"We must leave soon, and there are still things you must know, if there is to be any hope of saving him."
Martha looked steadily into his eyes. "You mean, he might still die?"
Martha glanced quickly at Jonathan and Lois, then turned back to Ching. They couldn't afford the luxury of recriminations or regrets now. All that mattered was Clark. "Tell us," she said.
Zara took up the tale. "The poison Nor used is one for which we were unable to find an antidote. It works by gradually inhibiting the ability of the body's tissues and major organs to use water. The resulting death is slow … and painful. Wounds can't heal and toxins build up … "
"We did everything for him that we could," Ching interjected, "but nothing worked against this poison. When we realized we couldn't save him on New Krypton, Zara and I decided to gamble on getting him back to Earth in time for your yellow sun to help him.
"We revealed our plan to a physician who has long been a friend to Zara's family and who also knew, and admired, Jor-El. He tended to Kal-El during his last days on New Krypton, and helped us with the drugs we would need to feign his death. He is the only person, besides Zara and myself, who knows the truth. Not even her father knows.
"We've allowed everyone else to think that Kal-El died so he'll be able to stay here on Earth, with you. No one will come looking for him. He'll be able to live out his life in the only place that has ever been home to him."
"If he survives."
Ching looked at Lois. "Yes. If he survives."
Zara brought the box to the foot of the bed. "In here," she explained, her voice breaking a little, "are the instructions you'll need to care for him. I've written it all down in the back of one of his notebooks, translating it for you from the doctor's notes, which were in Kryptonian."
"Notebooks?" Jonathan asked.
"Yes. He wrote in them every day until he became too sick to do so." She opened the box, revealing other things besides just the notebooks; the Superman suit he'd worn that last day on Earth, photographs of Lois and his parents that he'd carried with him, mementos of his visit to New Krypton … but not the one thing Lois hoped to see.
She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to see Zara at her side, holding up a ring. "I'm sorry that I cannot also return to you the chain, but it was broken and mangled beyond repair. Nor cruelly tore it from Kal-El's neck during their struggle. It took two days of searching before it was found." Zara tenderly placed the ring in Lois's trembling hand. "He wore it every single day."
"Thank you," she said softly.
"Zara … " Ching gently prompted her.
She looked over at him. "Yes, of course, you're right. We need to go." She reached into her coat pocket and brought out a small box. She opened the box while handing it to Martha. "In these vials is something to ease any pain he might feel upon awaking. Instructions for administering it are in the notebook."
Martha took the box from her gratefully.
Only one last thing remained — to make their farewells. Zara went first, leaning over the bed to speak quietly to him in Kryptonian, and gently kiss his forehead. Then Ching stepped forward and laid his right hand lightly on Clark's chest, over his heart. He, too, said something in Kryptonian, before turning to take Zara's hand.
They were almost at the door when Lois stopped them. "You … loved him didn't you?"
Zara could feel her self-control beginning to break. She buried her face in Ching's shoulder and felt his arms come around her.
He had to answer for them both. "Yes, we loved him very much."
"And … you'll never know whether or not he survives, will you?"
"No," Ching acknowledged sadly. "We'll never know." He tightened his hold on Zara. "We dare not risk it — even telepathically. If Kal-El is to be left in peace … if we are to have any hope of fulfilling his wishes for the House of El, no one must ever know what we have done."
Lois felt Martha and Jonathan come up behind her. She knew without looking that Jonathan's arm would be across Martha's shoulders protectively.
"Thank you," he said, "for everything." He held out his hand and Ching took it, a lump in his throat at this simple Earth gesture. His own people did not touch in this manner and he knew he would miss his brother's touch very much.
For a moment longer they lingered, looking at the quiet figure on the bed, at this room which had witnessed his growing, and at these people who were so central to his happiness. Then they were gone.
Clark's family decided right from the beginning that he *would* survive, and that all their combined energies would go towards accomplishing that one goal.
By the time Ching and Zara were on the porch, Martha had found the right notebook and was reading over the instructions provided by a physician light years away from Smallville. While Ching reactivated the ship's recorder and collected the pallet, Lois was phoning Perry with an excuse which would preclude her showing up for work for the next few days. And before Zara and Ching could complete their pre-flight checks, Martha, Jonathan and Lois were already working out a schedule for keeping up the farm and nursing Clark.
Someone was to be with him at all times, that was immediately agreed upon, and yet the animals needed to be tended to, meals for themselves prepared, periods of adequate rest set aside. So, they settled upon a routine which was to occupy all their waking hours for the next few days.
Everyone read and became very familiar with the treatments Clark had already received, the extreme methods Ching and Zara had been forced to use in order to try and save his life, as well as the recommendations for his current care. They learned that the drugs, which had slowed the progress of the poison by reducing his life signs to the bare minimum, would also inhibit his body's ability to absorb the healing properties of the earth's yellow sun. It would be something of a race to see which would win.
Clark was cold. Colder than he'd ever thought it possible to be. Cold beyond shivering, almost beyond feeling. Even worse than the cold, though, was the complete lack of sound … in fact, there was nothing but "nothing" where he was. Nothing. Not even his own heartbeat.
He didn't think he was dead because he felt that he was still inside his body … still knew he had a body. He'd shrunk inside that body, though, until his essence — the thing that made him who he was — was so small that it was in danger of disappearing altogether. If that happened, Clark knew he would die.
He huddled inside himself, a tiny spark, all alone, and frightened.
The first few hours after Ching and Zara had left were the hardest, and the longest, for Martha, Jonathan and Lois. They knew, from reading the doctor's notes, that the injections Zara had given Clark would help his heart rate, temperature and respiration return to more normal levels. They understood that this would have to happen gradually.
Understanding that, and waiting patiently for it to happen, though, were two different things.
Their natural inclination would have been to expose Clark to the sun immediately, but the doctor had foreseen that and warned against it. In this weakened state, and with his bodily functions operating at such reduced levels, it would be all too easy for Clark to become dehydrated, sunburned or suffer sun stroke. The sunlight filtering in through the windows would have to suffice. It was more important that he be kept warm, and that his wounds were cleaned and dressed often. Once he was better, then he could sit in the sun.
Once he was better …
They were very careful, also, to follow the doctor's instructions for their own safety — sterilizing everything and wearing surgical gloves whenever they tended to one of Clark's wounds. If they were to come into contact with the poison, the Earth's yellow sun would be no help to them.
Fortunately, since they were used to being isolated during unpredictable Kansas winters, the Kents had most of what they'd need to care for Clark at the farm already, and they knew they could improvise rest. They wouldn't have to risk starting any gossip by making a sudden run into Smallville for medical supplies.
During those first anxious hours, there was hardly a moment when all three of them weren't there by Clark's bedside. No one wanted to leave him — or the support they were receiving from each other. When something else needed attention, it would get taken care of, but quickly, and then all three would be back in his room … holding his hand, or rubbing his arms and legs; talking to him or stroking his face and hair. They all felt it was important to try and reach him, to let him know he wasn't alone … and they all needed to touch him, be with him, to help them believe that this was real.
Lois's admiration for Martha and Jonathan grew tremendously as she watched them cope with their fears, and hers. She'd been fond of them for a long time, but now she knew she loved them — for themselves — almost as strongly as she loved Clark.
They fussed over her as they'd always fussed over their son; making sure she took her alloted breaks, cajoling her into eating and encouraging her when she became disheartened by the crawling pace of Clark's progress.
It pleased her more than she could have imagined when she was able to do the same things for them.
The clock's hands crept around as the hours passed, and they finally began to see some improvement. He gained a little color and his breathing became stronger. As his circulation increased his skin grew a bit warmer to the touch, and his wounds drained more readily, which necessitated more frequent changes of bandages and linen.
All of these signs were encouraging, but Lois longed to see him move, just a little … even involuntarily. He lay absolutely still. If it weren't for the fact that she could see the covers rising and falling with each slight breath, she wouldn't have been able to tell he was alive. She'd never seen anyone who wasn't dead lay so completely motionless.
What was that? A voice? … or some other sound? Had it even been anything?
There it was again … wasn't it? No … Yes …
Like the last echo in a deep canyon, the sound that wasn't quite a sound remained tantilizingly beyond his grasp.
Even if he couldn't comprehend it, he greeted it with relief. At least there was a sound, no matter how faint or garbled. Where there was sound, there was "something," and with the arrival of "something," the "nothing" had fled.
Clark knew he wasn't alone.
Martha and Lois carried the sandwiches and glasses of iced tea into Clark's room and set them on the dresser. The three of them had exhaustively discussed the rival merits of eating in shifts, and whether to leave one or two people with Clark, and who should go first, and who was hungriest, or least hungry, until finally they'd settled on fixing something simple and eating together in Clark's room.
The room was quiet, each one forcing down food they didn't want but knew they should eat. Jonathan sat in a chair on one side of the bed, while Martha and Lois perched on the bed; Martha by Clark's shoulder and Lois near his legs. When Jonathan put his half-eaten sandwich aside, and reached to hold his son's hand again, the two women exchanged glances, but didn't say anything.
The silence in the room was offset by songs of birds in the trees outside Clark's window, and the sound the breeze made as it surfed among the leaves. A beautiful spring day, Lois thought, as she looked out the window, past ruffling curtains and up towards the cloud-studded sky. The kind of day when a guy might want to be out flying, feeling the wind in his face, and smelling the flowers and the newly-turned earth.
All of a sudden her throat felt too tight for swallowing and she put her plate down beside her. She heard a slight sniff and looked up to see Martha trying to smile reassuringly at her through her own tears. Simultaneously they reached to hold each other's hands, wanting to give to one another what they, by themselves, did not have.
Jonathan's quiet voice broke the stillness. Unable to bear this enforced inaction any longer, he'd found something to do which he hoped would take their minds off of depressing thoughts. Opening the first of Clark's notebooks, and shifting his chair closer to his son's bed, he began to read aloud:
"Dearest Lois, Mom and Dad … "
The sound was taking form. It was a voice. Clark was sure of that now. Probably Ching or Zara … maybe the doctor.
In his heart's memory, though, were other voices … ones he knew he'd never hear again. His mom's greeting — all loving and warm, but with laughter bubbling just below the surface. His dad's calmer tones, giving good advice and strong support. Perry, barking orders and galvanizing a newsroom full of reporters. Jimmy's young, exuberant greeting, "Hey, CK!"
And Lois … teasing, demanding, sardonic, questioning, tender, scared, brave … loving, oh so loving, Lois. His heart was full of Lois and how many times he'd dreamed of being with her again.
If only he could have seen her, touched her … held her, just once more. The thought of what she would go through when she learned of his death nearly crushed him, but the spark which was him wasn't ready to accept death just yet. He would hold on as long as he could.
Clark's notebooks were their solace. Whenever there was a break in changing bandages, sterilizing sheets, or bathing wounds one of them would read to the others about his first journey with Ching and Zara, or of his adventures on New Krypton. It was fascinating to look over his shoulder as he struggled to learn a language which had 15 words for duty and only one for love, to study with him the history of a people he'd believed to be long dead to him, and to listen in on the plans for a defense against a cruel and heartless enemy.
His skills as a writer made his descriptions of the people he'd met and the places he'd visited very real to his readers. They came to see that his decision to go to New Krypton had been a good one, and, despite all the loneliness and discomfort he'd had to endure, they could see that he'd thought so, too.
He'd touched so many lives, so many people, but with all the good he'd been able to do, there was always the longing for home. And home to him was, and always would be, Earth … the farm … Metropolis. Whenever he wrote of "family" it was Martha and Jonathan and Lois who were mentioned, not Jor-El or Lara. His birth parents were people to be proud of, certainly, and they had given him life, but they were not his family.
The closest thing he'd had to a family on New Krypton was his friendship with Ching and Zara. He'd hoped to establish a relationship with the last remaining member of the House of Lo — the House his mother, Lara, had left when she'd married Jor-El — but it hadn't worked out.
His uncle had greeted him kindly enough, if unenthusiastically, but it was clear that the elderly widower did not want company. He did show Clark a hologram that had been taken of Lara when she was a young girl, and he related to his nephew the few memories he still retained of her, the youngest of his sisters.
When Clark had said good-bye, his uncle had invited him to visit again, but in a rather absent manner, as if merely adhering to proscribed social norms. There was no warmth or sincerity in his invitation and Clark, much as he would have liked to have learned more about his mother, had not felt inclined to accept it.
He was already almost unbearably homesick, but that incident had made his longing for home even more acute. He told them in his writings how much he'd missed talking with them, asking their advice, and feeling their love. There was no one on New Krypton he could laugh with or share things with, the way that he could with them. No one he could hug or be hugged by in return.
Surrounded day and night as he had been, by Kryptonian reserve and Kryptonian logic, he couldn't help but compare it to the very different life he'd known growing up in Smallville. He'd always carried inside him those same characteristics, but they'd been tempered by the loving upbringing he'd received from his adopted parents. After living for a while in a society created by almost unrelieved reserve and logic, he was even more grateful than before that Jor-El had risked so much to send him to Earth.
Martha and Jonathan listened sadly as Lois read this part of his story aloud. One of the thoughts which had reconciled them to Clark's going to New Krypton was the hope that he'd meet and be welcomed by members of his extended family.
He wasn't just a spark any longer. His essence — his being — was growing stronger. It was more like the flame on a candle, which was good in one way because it meant he was making progress. On the other hand, this greater awareness gave him a much better idea of how far he still had to go.
The cold had retreated enough so that it no longer troubled him. There were more sounds, too. Indistinct and unrecognizable as yet, but they were there.
What he was waiting for now was for his sense of touch to return. He knew he must be lying in his bed, but he couldn't feel the mattress beneath him, or the covers above him. Feeling as disconnected as he was from his body, it was doubly disconcerting to feel that his body was disconnected from everything else. He'd always taken that for granted — being able to feel, being aware of where *he* ended and everything else began. At this moment, he would have given almost anything to be able to tell where his toes were, or his hands.
Martha looked at her watch again, and then re-read the doctor's notes.
"I'm not so sure about this, Martha."
"Neither am I, Jonathan, but the doctor wrote that at this point Clark should be able to take sips of water. It's been several hours since he received the injections and he'll need to take in fluids to replace what he's been losing through his wounds."
"He hasn't moved, Martha," Lois said with concern in her voice. "If he can't move, how do we even know he'll be able to swallow?" Her face reflected the doubt they all were feeling.
"I don't know. The doctor must know how these drugs work, though, and he said Clark would recover the use of his facial and neck muscles first. I guess … I guess we'll just have to trust that it will all work out."
Lois smiled a little, remembering something Clark had once told her about their relationship … about taking a chance. "Clark would certainly understand that."
It was now a little after five on what they all believed was one of the longest days of their lives, and they were tired. Since dawn they had been carefully nursing Clark and monitoring each bit of progress. And, he had made quite a bit of progress … but he continued to lie so unnaturally still, that they couldn't quite shake their fears for him. So, it was with great relief that they saw his eyes open — even briefly — when they moved him.
They managed to get him into a half-sitting position, leaning against (and being supported by) Jonathan, who was sitting at the head of the bed. It was such a boost to their morale to have seen that brief sign of life, that they felt re- energized, and much more hopeful about his ability to drink a little water.
Martha gave it to him a teaspoonful at a time, while Lois and Jonathan looked on and offered words of encouragement. It was difficult for him at first, and it seemed to hurt him to swallow, but it got easier as they went on. He opened his eyes a few more times, although they were fairly certain that he wasn't capable of really seeing anything yet.
Things were going well — they were all congratulating each other, and starting to speculate on how quickly they might see more improvement, when they heard a small sound of distress from Clark. At first they couldn't imagine what could be wrong, but then Martha noticed tiny beads of sweat on his forehead, and Lois could feel the muscles in his arms and legs tightening into spasms.
"He's in pain!" Jonathan exclaimed. "Where's that stuff Zara gave you, Martha?"
Martha put the water glass and spoon on the bedside table so fast that she almost tipped them over. She hurried over to the box, where it sat on Clark's desk, and pulled out the container in which were the vials of painkillers. By now Lois had joined her and they both quickly scanned the notebook to refresh their memories about the dosage.
"Please hurry," Jonathan pleaded from the bed, holding Clark and trying to soothe him by word and touch.
"I will, honey, but I want to be sure we don't give him too much." Martha's voice sounded so calm, that Lois was amazed. However, when it came time to pour the correct amount into the dosage spoon, she could see the older woman's hands shaking.
They brought the medicine to the bed and helped Clark drink it. The sounds he was making were so pitiful that they made keeping a steady hand that much harder.
Clark was pretty sure that one of the voices he could hear was the doctor's. It was definitely a man's voice, but it belonged to a man who was older than Ching. The other voices he wasn't sure about yet.
His sense of smell was returning, too, even though it wasn't working very well, yet. He would get vague impressions of scents, but they were too transient for him to be able to identify them.
He felt, and yet didn't feel, himself being lifted. Involuntarily, his eyes opened — surprising him. It was disappointing not to be able to see anything beyond blurry, shifting shapes in black and white, but at least it was something. After a bit of trying, he was able to open his eyes on his own.
Someone put a spoon to his mouth and gave him something to drink — water he thought. It cooled his mouth, as he struggled to coordinate the muscles necessary for the act of swallowing. The first few swallows were uncomfortable to a throat unused to such activity. As it got easier, though, the soreness diminished and he began to realize how really thirsty he'd been.
He was just starting to be able to drink without having to think about it, when he got his wish about being able to feel where his toes were. Suddenly, he knew not only where his fingers and toes were, but also where every muscle, tendon and bone was. The pain came roaring back in a technicolor blast — grabbing him by the throat and threatening to choke off the fragile flame he'd been so carefully nurturing. It was worse than the time before because he couldn't move to ease the cramps and he couldn't tell anyone how bad it was.
He struggled to escape it, but without success. It was robbing him of all his hard-earned progress: the voices were fading, as were the smells and his recently reborn sense of touch. The "nothing" was returning and he was shrinking inside himself again. He screamed in agony and frustration, but the sound went no farther than his mind.
Bitterly disappointed, and terribly frightened, he didn't know from where the help came, but gradually he knew that there had been some. The primary colors that had been exploding in his brain faded to soft blue-grays and green- browns as the pain gave way to the anesthetics.
Released from its grip, he was able to relax and even could feel his senses tentatively resurfacing. He was aware of his arms and legs again and knew that someone was holding him. Just before he could slip completely into unconsciousness, he recognized — in that split second between wakefulness and sleep — in whose arms he lay.
He knew these arms, for they had held him hundreds of times; he knew this shoulder, for it had been there whenever he needed one to lean on; and he knew these hands, for they had reached to steady and guide him since before he could remember. They belonged to his father … and he knew he was home!
They watched in relief as Clark relaxed into the painkiller's embrace.
"Oh, dear lord," Jonathan breathed shakily, clutching his son to him — his tears dropping onto Clark's dark hair.
Lois and Martha slowly straightened from where they'd been bending over the bed.
"I'm sorry," Martha murmured. "I should have been faster. I'm sorry."
Lois went to Martha's side. "Don't be, Martha. You were wonderful."
"No," Martha shook her head slowly in a dazed reaction to the suffering they'd just witnessed. "I should have been faster."
Lois was smiling sympathetically through her tears, as she reached to hold the other woman. "You sound just like Clark does when he thinks he could have done better on a rescue. And I'm telling you the same thing I tell him … " She paused, and drew a halting breath. "You … were … wonderful."
"Oh, Lois, I … I … " She put her head on Lois's shoulder and cried.
Lois lay on the living room sofa, watching for the first light of dawn to come in through the east window. She'd gotten enough sleep, and she felt rested, but she knew that if she showed up too early for her shift, Martha would be concerned, so she stayed where she was.
They'd made it through two days and nights now, and the rate of Clark's progress seemed to increase with each passing day. Once the healing process had well and truly begun, they'd practically been able to watch it happening.
They were a team now, she and Martha and Jonathan. And, as grueling as their ordeal had been, she wouldn't have traded places with anyone. They'd even managed to have some fun together, once they'd known that Clark was going to be all right.
He slept so much that, once his wounds didn't need almost constant attention, they'd had more time on their hands. They kept returning to his notebooks, continuing to read them aloud to each other, but Martha and Jonathan had also entertained Lois with stories of Clark's childhood.
She'd been fascinated to hear more about how his various powers had developed, but the ones that charmed her even more were the ones about normal, everyday things. So, they told her about how the treehouse came to be built, and about the time Clark asked for a little brother for Christmas.
Martha had laughed while telling that one. "That's when I knew we hadn't done as good a job of explaining adoption as we'd thought."
Jonathan had fond memories of reading to Clark at bedtime or taking him fishing and camping. "He couldn't join the Scouts, you see, because he'd have to go on camping trips. And with his habit of floating in his sleep, we couldn't risk it … so I took him. We had some fine times together. Never had to worry if our matches got wet, that's for sure!"
Lois smiled to herself as she stretched, and prepared to get up. No, with Clark around you'd never have to worry about that.
She passed Jonathan on his way outside to feed the animals, said "Good morning," and got a cheery greeting and a hug in response. Just as if I really were his daughter, she thought wistfully. Her own father had never been that demonstrative.
Martha also treated her to a smile as she tiptoed into Clark's room. "Did you get something to eat?" she whispered.
Lois nodded. "I made your tea while I was at it. It's waiting for you. How are you doing?"
"Fine. A little tired, but I'll get some sleep as soon as I've had something to eat." She looked over at Clark. "He had a good night. Jonathan said he slept the whole time he was here, and he was only awake twice with me. Not for very long … just wanted something to drink. And look … " She lifted the covers off of Clark's shoulder, so Lois could see his torso. "Most of the bruises and smaller wounds have faded completely away now, as have the old scars." Martha tucked him in again. "I'll bet the rest will have disappeared by tonight."
"That's great, Martha," Lois said, as the two women hugged. They stood arm in arm a moment more, looking down at a man they both loved, then Lois turned to Martha. "You'd better get going, or your tea will get cold. Jonathan and I can handle things for a while."
"Thanks, honey." Martha gave Lois a quick kiss and a motherly pat on the back, as she whispered, "See you later."
Lois watched her leave the room, then leaned over to lightly kiss Clark good morning. Martha was right about the bruises and scars being gone. He really did look so much better — the changes were quite striking, especially since she hadn't seen him for five hours. He was turning back into "her" Clark again.
"Her" Clark … who loved flying and who loved to take her flying.
She reached for the notebook Jonathan had been reading from the other night, and opened it, searching for a particular passage. Finding what she wanted, she took the book to the chair beside Clark's bed and sat down to read.
It had been his second month on New Krypton, and Clark had been having a particularly rough time: Nor was in the midst of his taunting campaign against Clark and Zara, some of the other Lords were still giving him the cold shoulder, Zara's father was holding endless meetings with him to show him all that had been done to and for the House of El over the past 29 years, and many of his own people hadn't begun to trust him yet. He was discouraged and irritated … tired and lonely, so he'd retreated to his room and the solace of his writing:
"I don't know what to do, Lois. Nothing I do seems to make any difference. How can I help people if they won't trust me?
"Oh, how I wish you were here.
"It was really bad today, sweetie. I felt as if I were drowning in statistics and numbers and ledgers. The latest stuff spewing from Nor's mouth is particularly foul, and there was another attempt on my life. I wanted so desperately to get away, and for a moment I thought I had. For a few seconds, it actually felt as if I were flying — that's how badly I wanted it.
"Always before, when things got too bad on Earth, I could just think about the sky and suddenly I'd be there. Flying has always been such a joy for me, but it's also been my safety valve — a means of escape, a way to cope.
"Today, when I realized I couldn't fly — might never be able to fly ever again — it suddenly hit me that I might never see Earth again. I guess I'd always known that that was a possibility, but I'd never allowed myself to believe it because I couldn't bear the thought of life without you. I'd been naive enough to think I'd be able to come here, do what I needed to do and then go home again.
"But, when I couldn't fly — when I couldn't do what for me is as natural as breathing — reality suddenly slammed into me like a wrecking ball. What if I can't do what I came here for? What if I never get to go home again … never get to take you flying again?
"I'd do anything to be with you, Lois, and I'm not going to believe that we'll never be together again. Somehow, there has to be a way to get back to you, I just haven't found it yet.
"I'll be back, my love. We'll go flying. That's a promise, Lois."
That night, Lois persuaded Martha and Jonathan to sleep in their own bed and to set up a cot in Clark's room for her. He was still weak and unable to stay awake long or say more than a few words, but he'd made such wonderful progress, that Lois didn't feel there was any reason to sit up with him any more. His parents had agreed to her suggestion, but only on the condition that she call them immediately if she needed any help.
It was a little after 3 a.m. when some strange noises woke her. She slipped from her cot and crept to the side of the bed. The sounds were coming from Clark! He was muttering something in his sleep. He was dreaming!
Lois was so happy, she had to stop herself from running to get Jonathan and Martha. Dreaming meant normal sleep — not the death-like sleep they'd been seeing for the past three days. Normal sleep … what a relief!
She continued to watch him, ready to help if the dream should turn into a nightmare, but it didn't. When his dream ended, he moved in the bed, talking a little in his sleep as he turned onto his left side. She waited to see if he would shift positions again, but he didn't … so obviously that shoulder wasn't paining him any more. She lingered a minute or two longer, but he seemed to have settled down. With a smile of great contentment, she headed back to her cot.
She opened her eyes in the morning and saw him awake, and watching her. She was off the cot in two seconds and over to his bed to find his arms already open to receive her.
They held each other, and stroked one another — alternately kissing and whispering endearments to each other. It was wonderful and magical to finally be in each others' arms again.
Clark had lots of questions. Even though he'd known since the day before yesterday that he was home, he hadn't been able to really see or hear clearly enough — or stay awake long enough — for them to be able to explain everything to him. His last clear memories were of a room and people who were millions of miles away on New Krypton. With a voice hoarse from disuse he asked her how his return had come about.
She told him of Ching and Zara's sacrifice, and of their love for him, and then held him while he grieved that he'd never get to take his leave of them.
"They were really the closest thing I've ever had to a brother and sister, Lois."
Jonathan peeked in to check on them and was overjoyed to see his son awake, sitting up and feeling so strong. He called to Martha, and Lois moved aside so Clark could hug and kiss his parents. They couldn't get over how much better he looked — almost like his old self. Smiling and crying at the same time, they rejoiced to have him back with them, filling him in on much that had happened since his return.
Then Martha, suddenly practical, scolded herself for standing around and talking when everyone must be starving. She gave Clark another hug and kiss before bustling away to fix breakfast. Jonathan left to get dressed and tend to the animals, but not before promising to help Clark take a brief walk later on.
The excitement over for the moment, Lois fastened her robe with its tie and turned to look at Clark. He'd laid back down in the bed and looked a little tired after his parents' exuberant greeting.
She smiled and went to sit next to him. He reached up to stroke her cheek and she leaned into his hand before taking it in one of her own and kissing it. The miracle of having him back with them was so immense that she couldn't find any words to express what she was feeling. She kissed his hand again and felt him tug on her, pulling her towards him.
She chuckled a little through her tears, and allowed him to pull her down onto the bed with him. She snuggled next to him and felt his arms go around her. He kissed the top of her head and held her a little tighter.
"I'm sorry, Lois, for putting you through all this."
She looked up at that. "No, Clark! You shouldn't be sorry. We've been reading your notebooks, so we understand why you had to go, and we're all proud of what you were able to accomplish. Don't be sorry."
He was smiling down at her. "So, Zara brought my notebooks back, too."
She nodded, then reached up to kiss him. "She also returned your Superman suit and the photos you took with you … and this." She held up her left hand to show him the wedding ring.
His eyes widened in surprise and delight. "They found it! I thought it was lost during the fight." He had taken her hand and was turning it around so he could see the ring from all sides.
"Zara said they searched two days before they found it."
He kissed the ring, and then her hand. "It looks wonderful on you."
"Yes, I think so, too." She leaned forward to meet his kiss. "I think we should make it permanent, don't you?"
"And the sooner, the better. Before anything *else* happens."
He laughed at the tone in her voice. "I don't think you have to worry about me going to New Krypton anymore, Lois."
"New Krypton! You'll be lucky if I let you go to New Haven! Or New Caledonia, or New Bedford, or New Anything, Buster! I plan to keep you so busy you won't have time to even think about going anywhere."
"Ohhhh! And how do you plan to do that?"
He watched as her teasing look turned to one of great love and tenderness. "Like this!" and she kissed him again.
"Powers, or no powers … one man can change any world." — Lois Lane, "Tempus, Anyone?"