By Susan Stone (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Summary: Five-year-old Laney Kent gets her biggest birthday surprise after the party is over and her guests have gone home. But finding out your daddy and Superman are one and the same isn't a good surprise, especially when you realize you take after your mom and your sisters take after your dad, which means they'll be able to fly when they grow up, and you won't. A prequel to the author's "Aliens and Strangers" fanfic.
This story is a prequel to my previous fanfic, "Aliens and Strangers," showing Lois and Clark's middle daughter Laney at a much younger age. You don't need to have read "Aliens and Strangers" to follow it, though of course I hope you look it up on the archive if you like this one! :-)
Continuity Note: I came up with the idea that led to this story, along with "Aliens and Strangers" and a few other stories I'm developing, during the summer after second season. Writing them just takes awhile. As third season developed, it contradicted my ideas in several areas great and small. Rather than pick and choose the parts I liked and that didn't contradict my continuity, I decided that only seasons one and two are "canonical" when it comes to my fanfic. The most noticeable divergences from season three are: 1) Clark is the only Kryptonian survivor; 2) Kryptonians don't have telepathy—at least not all of them; 3) Clark has never been sick, except from exposure to Kryptonite; and 4) Lois and Clark married in the spring of 1996, allowing them to have their first child in 1997.
Five-year-old Laney Kent surveyed her birthday loot with delight—mostly. Her party had just ended, and Nana, Aunt Lucy and Uncle Jeff, and all her friends from preschool were gone. Their gifts were piled sloppily across the Oriental rug in the living room. A Lego set *and* a big box of wooden blocks from Mommy and Daddy. A fancy wooden train set from Grandmom and Granddad.
That had come in the mail from Kansas. Laney wished her grandparents had been there. She loved them so much, and knew they loved her too by the way they hugged her so tight every time they saw her and were always so interested in everything she had to say. Grandmom always called her "my beautiful girl." That was special too. Everybody said she was tough or sturdy or big for her age, but only Grandmom seemed to think that made her beautiful. Grandmom must think that because she looked so much like Daddy, and he had been Grandmom's little boy once. Laney knew that her older sister Marty was really the beautiful one, because everyone, and not just people in the family, said so.
Maybe she would grow up pretty. Everyone said Daddy was a good-looking man, and she did look just like him. She was glad about that, because it was only fair that one of his children look like him. Marty looked like Mommy, and Claire looked a little like Aunt Lucy.
She turned back to her presents with a shrug of her broad little shoulders. Aunt Lucy and Uncle Jeff had given her a sweater. She liked its many bright colors but didn't care that much about clothes, really. There was a big dinosaur picture book from her cousins Lindsay and Laurel, but she knew Aunt Lucy and Uncle Jeff had really picked it out, because her cousins had only been born at Thanksgiving and couldn't know how to shop yet. Most of the other gifts were from her preschool friends. They were little things, but nice— coloring books, teddy bears, and the like.
But then there was that stupid Barbie doll from Nana. What did she need with a Barbie? She never played with dress-up dolls. Mostly she liked books, and toys you could build with—all the other grownups in the family understood that! She did have one precious doll, so old that she couldn't remember not having her, but she looked like a real baby, like Lindsay and Laurel, only small enough for her to carry around. Mommy and Daddy said they'd given it to her just before Claire was born, so she'd understand something about what babies were like and how you took care of them. That was different, much more fun and important than dressing up any stupid Barbie.
Of course, Marty liked Barbies, and Nana gave her Barbie everything. Marty's pink bedroom had a whole shelf full of the dolls, and one corner was taken up with a Barbie house that was taller than three-year-old Claire. But couldn't Nana use her eyes and see that Laney played with different kinds of toys? Or did Nana really see any of her granddaughters besides Marty?
She examined the doll's package. It said, "Beach Barbie." Laney could already read a good bit, even though she wasn't even in kindergarten yet. Inside the clear packaging, the doll wore a hot pink bikini with matching sunglasses and sandals and carried a vivid yellow surfboard with pink trim. Laney frowned. Pink was such an ugly color.
She threw the package across the room at the radiator, where it hit with a satisfying thwack. She'd wanted to do that in front of everybody when she'd first opened the present, but Daddy, seated behind her, had laid a hand on her shoulder with a squeeze that was just as comforting as a hug, and said, "Tell your Nana thank you." Mommy, sitting across from them and right beside Nana, had given her a tiny nod. Something in her eyes had told Laney she understood. How come Mommy understood so much that Nana didn't? After all, Nana was Mommy's mother. Daddy acted like Grandmom and Granddad, but Mommy was nothing like Nana. Some things about her family were pretty strange.
She suddenly thought of a worthwhile way to play with a Barbie. Humming tunelessly, she cleared a spot on the middle of the rug and began building a block and Lego fortress. As she worked, Claire toddled in clutching a small bear and squatted beside her, watching her out of clear hazel eyes.
*What's that?* As usual, Claire didn't speak, but Laney could hear her thoughts. Nobody else could talk without talking like that, and Laney knew she wasn't supposed to talk about it outside of the family. Nothing had ever been said, but Laney had noticed long ago that Mommy and Daddy frowned if she mentioned it to outsiders. And for some reason, it was okay to talk about it around Grandmom and Granddad, but not with Nana. Or, for that matter, with Grandfather Lane, but they saw him so that seldom he hardly seemed like family. Several more mysteries there.
She didn't have to speak out loud either to answer Claire. If she just thought at her, her sister would hear. But Mommy and Daddy kept telling Marty and her they had to talk to her, so she'd start talking more—she couldn't get by outside the family on telepathy alone. So Laney spoke. "I'm building a dungeon."
"It's the evil Barbie's dungeon. She's extremely cruel and likes to lock people up." Her eyes fell on Claire's bear. "Like your teddy bear. Put him in."
Claire clutched him to her chest.
"He'll be okay. Superman will come and save him."
Claire smiled and nestled Bear inside the half- finished dungeon. Laney quickly completed it, roofing him in with long, thin blocks. Then she freed Barbie from her packaging. "Barbie kidnapped Bear and locked him up in a dungeon. Now she's standing guard outside the gate." Claire watched solemnly as Laney set up the scene. Laney produced a Superman action figure from her gift pile. "But Superman heard him call for help and now he's flying to the rescue."
There was a noise of light footsteps trotting down the staircase from the second floor. It was Marty, and she pranced in and stood over them, hands on hips, small nose high. She giggled.
Laney scowled at her. "What's so funny?"
"Yes you are! Because I know something about Superman that you don't know! I know something—"
Suddenly, Daddy was there. "Martha Lois Kent, you get up to your room right now, and don't come out until your mother or I say you can." Laney had never seen him this angry, and she shrunk back against the couch. But he didn't faze Marty. With a toss of her thick brown hair and an insolent tilt of her dainty chin, she obeyed, at a walk not a run. Daddy stared after her, frowning, his hands jammed in his jeans pockets.
When she was gone, he turned to the younger girls, and his anger disappeared instantly. "Everything's okay," he told them, and rumpled their hair.
They stared up at him. He shrugged and returned to the kitchen, where he and Mommy were cleaning up from the party.
Laney didn't feel like playing anymore. What did Marty know, and why was Daddy so upset at her for threatening to tell it? The things Marty knew—at least what she told Laney—weren't usually nice to hear, but they were nearly always true. Just a few months ago, two days before Christmas, Marty had told her that Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy were all really Mommy and Daddy. She'd immediately run to them for comfort, sure they'd tell her Marty was lying. Instead, she had learned that they were the liars. They were mad at Marty for giving them away, and upset that she'd found out so young and so close to Christmas, but they weren't sorry they'd told her about Santa in the first place. Mommy said it was a tradition, a fun game that almost all parents played with their children. Maybe it was fun for the parents, but Laney couldn't see where the fun was for the children. It was better never to believe in something that wonderful than to believe with all your heart and then find out it wasn't true after all. And that your parents—your own Mommy and Daddy—had lied to you.
But Superman couldn't be like Santa or the Easter Bunny. She was absolutely sure he was real, because one delightful day last summer he'd taken her flying—just a short little trip to see how the city looked from the air. So what could Marty know? Still clutching the Superman figure, she headed for the kitchen. Claire toddled behind.
The kitchen had an open entryway, no door, so she could hear what they were saying before they saw her.
"We have to tell her now, Clark, before Marty beats us to it."
"I know, but—"
"Tell me what?"
Their heads snapped toward the doorway. Mommy dropped the forks and spoons she was putting away, and they clattered in the sink.
"What can Marty know about Superman? He's not like Santa. I know he's real. He can't be you."
They looked even more upset, as they stared first at her and then at each other. "I'll tell her," Daddy said.
"I'll take care of Claire." Mommy took his face in her hands and gave him a quick, hard kiss. Then she came to the girls and crouched down in front of Laney. They looked at each other in silence for a moment, and Laney wondered why Mommy seemed so worried. Mommy reached out to smooth her hair and pat her on the shoulder. "Remember we both love you very much." Then she swung Claire up in her arms. "C'mon, sweetie, I'll read you a story."
"No. Want to stay with Laney."
"Not now. Daddy and Laney have to talk."
They were gone, and Laney was bewildered. "Why don't you come in here?" Daddy said. She did, and he lifted her onto a tall wooden stool so they could look each other in the eye.
He leaned against the counter across from her. "You're absolutely right that Superman is real."
"I know that."
"But…oh, this isn't how I wanted to tell you this!…You weren't right when you said he couldn't be me." He removed his glasses, and she squinted at him. Suddenly he looked a lot like…but that couldn't be. "Because, you see, I am Superman." He spun around, quicker than her eyes could follow, and Superman stood before her.
This couldn't be real. She would wake up soon.
He spun around again and was Daddy. "Do you understand? I'm Daddy. I'm Clark Kent. But I'm also Superman. Whenever I hear or see that someone needs me, I change like I just showed you, only I go somewhere where no one will see, and then I go help them."
"Yes. It's true."
Her mind struggled to process the evidence her eyes had shown her. "But…but…why didn't you tell me before?"
He blew out his breath and stuck his hands in his pockets. "Because you were too young. Kids much younger than you can't keep secrets—"
"But I keep the secret about Claire! And…and…you wouldn't tell me now if Marty hadn't started to!"
"Laney, I promise, we were going to tell you soon. In a few weeks. We just didn't want it to be on your birthday."
"When did you tell Marty?"
"About a year ago. She and Courtney both fell off their bikes onto the sidewalk when they were playing together, and she asked us why she didn't get hurt when Courtney did."
So being Superman's daughter made you like Superman yourself? Was that how it worked? Someday she'd be able to fly? But—she wore a band-aid on one finger. She ripped it off and frowned at the almost-healed cut. A few days ago, she'd snuck Mommy and Daddy's scissors out of their desk drawer because hers were so dull, but she'd quickly discovered how sharp theirs were. Now she shoved the finger at his face. "But I get hurt!"
He turned his head aside. "Yes. You seem to take after your Mommy that way."
"So Marty will be able to fly and all that stuff when she grows up and I won't."
He sighed. "It's still too early to tell for sure. But yes, probably."
"That's not fair! And you…you lied to me!"
"Laney, calm down. I can explain—"
"No! I hate you!" She noticed that she still held the action figure in her lap. She flung it at him as hard as she could, aiming for his face. He caught it one-handed, once again moving quicker than she could see. When he saw what he held, he turned pale, and he took his focus off her long enough for her to grab the first object that came to hand—a wooden spoon. She hurled it at him, and her aim was true. It struck him square in the nose. She was casting about for another weapon—the knife block looked tempting—when he lifted her off the stool and held her firmly, one arm around her waist and the other pinning her arms.
She squirmed and kicked, but of course it did her no good. Now she knew why it was always Daddy, not Mommy, who dealt with her when she was this mad, and why nothing she did ever seemed to hurt him in the least. "Let go of me!"
"Not until you calm down. You could hurt yourself."
She redoubled her wriggling. "I hate you! I hate you!" She felt him wince, but he didn't relax his grip. Finally, overwhelmed by the futility of it, she went limp.
"Are you calm now?"
"No more throwing things?"
He set her down. As soon as her feet touched the floor, she ran away, out of the kitchen and up the stairs. He called after her, but she didn't slow down or look back. She slammed her bedroom door, reveling in the loud bang. Sobbing, she threw herself onto her bed and wrapped herself in the bright patchwork quilt Grandmom had made for her.
A few minutes later Marty walked in without knocking.
She just smiled and stepped daintily across the room to stand at the foot of the bed. "You know, don't you?" Laney frowned so hard her eyebrows hurt. "Told you."
"I hate you!"
Marty sniffed. "I don't care! Because I'll be Superwoman when I grow up and you won't!"
Laney flung the quilt off, jumped at her sister, and succeeded in knocking her to the floor. Of course Marty never got hurt—Laney should've suspected something strange long ago from that alone—but she was nearly as big as Marty and had no trouble knocking her down from a jump or a run. Not that she could do anything more once she had her pinned, but that was satisfaction enough.
Within seconds, Daddy was there, and he pulled her off Marty and pinned her in his grip again. Mommy ran in as quickly as an ordinary person could.
"Let go of me! She started it!"
"I was just telling the truth," Marty said, all round- eyed innocence. Marty had the eyes and look of a Disney character, part Belle and part Jasmine.
"She already knows," Mommy said. "She doesn't need you to tell her."
"And besides," Daddy said, "I believe I told you that you were supposed to stay in your room." She had the grace to look guilty. "So go back there now. You can come down at dinner. But you can't go play with Courtney tomorrow." She pouted. "Go on." She shuffled out.
Laney held perfectly still, and Daddy put her down. "We still need to talk—" he began.
"No! I don't want to talk to you!" She climbed back onto her bed, wrapped herself in the quilt, and faced the wall. She heard Mommy and Daddy sigh and leave, shutting the door quietly behind them. What was that soft bumpy thing under her head? Oh—Perry Bear. She hugged the plump polar bear against her cheek and began to cry again.
She'd loved Superman when he was just the guy on the news who always put out fires and caught bad guys and made everything all better. She'd been proud that her parents actually knew Superman, and she'd bragged at preschool about the time he took her flying. Now that flight seemed like a particularly nasty trick. She'd acted so silly then, like he was Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny all rolled into one, when all the time he was just her Daddy.
But she'd loved her Daddy, too, when she'd thought he was just like everyone else's father, only much more kind, handsome, and fun. But now! He'd lied to her, pretended to be ordinary. It wasn't right. Parents should always tell their kids the truth.
And it simply wasn't fair that Marty was going to grow up like him and she wasn't. Marty was stuck-up and mean enough without any extra advantages. And how come Marty was the one with the powers when she, Laney, was the one who looked like Daddy? Like Superman.
She heard the doorknob turn, and she buried her face more deeply in Perry-bear's plush stomach.
"Laney, honey, it's Mommy."
Laney considered. Of course Mommy had helped Daddy keep up his lie, but at least she was still the same person Laney always thought she was. She sat up in bed, sniffling and swallowing sobs. Mommy sat down beside her and held her tight. She leaned against her, still swallowing sobs but soothed by the even beat of Mommy's heart and the steady rhythm of her breathing. "How are you feeling?" Mommy asked when she grew calm.
She pushed away so she could see her face. "Bad. You should've told me before."
"We wanted to. We didn't like keeping it a secret from you, but you were too young."
"That's what Daddy said, too, but it's not true! I never tell anyone about Claire having tel-telepathy."
"I know you don't, honey. We noticed how good you are at keeping that secret, so we were going to tell you about Daddy soon. But when you were smaller, you don't remember this, but you used to brag to everyone about how you always knew exactly what Claire was thinking. Everyone thought it was just big sister talk, so no harm was done. But if you'd known about your Daddy back then, you might have said something we couldn't explain away."
"But that was such a long time ago."
"I know, but we couldn't read your mind to know when you'd grown up enough."
That wasn't too unreasonable. She drummed her fingers on her leg. Maybe Mommy could help her with some of the questions that bothered her. "How come Marty is going to be like Superman and I'm not? And is Daddy why Claire has telepathy? He doesn't have it."
Mommy smiled. "You ask good reporter questions. I'll try my best to answer them. You and Marty are different because children are a mix of different characteristics from their parents and grandparents and so on. Except for identical twins like Lindsay and Laurel, no two kids are just the same mix. You have Daddy's hair and eyes, my nose—and my temper." Mommy chuckled. "And you're like me—and like a regular human kid—because you have a body that can get hurt and sick. Marty is just a different mix. She looks more like me, only a little darker, but she has a body like Daddy's that doesn't get hurt."
"That's not fair."
"I don't think so either. I wish all three of you had been born the same, whether like me or Daddy. But my wishing for it couldn't make it happen—it doesn't work that way. For better or worse, you're like me, and like everyone else in the world."
"But what about Claire? Who is she like?"
"Frankly, honey, we're still trying to figure that out ourselves. She hasn't ever been sick or hurt, so she must be like Daddy, too." Somehow Laney didn't mind as much when it was Claire. "But neither of us has telepathy, and we don't know what to think about that. Some people say they have telepathy, or that they can read people's minds or see into the future. Most of them are faking it. But some of them seem to have real powers. Maybe one of my great-great-great- grandparents was like that, and Claire gets it from my side of the family. And maybe it's stronger because she's a mix of human and Kryptonian. Sometimes it works that way when you cross different kinds of plants or animals, so maybe it's the same way with different kinds of people."
"It's what Daddy is. He was born on another planet, far away, a planet named Krypton, but his parents—their names were Jor-El and Lara—"
"What about Grandmom and Granddad?"
"I'm getting to them. As I was saying, his parents on Krypton knew their world was going to end, and they couldn't save themselves, but they could save their baby. So they put your Daddy in a little spaceship and sent him here, to Earth, because humans and Kryptonians are so much alike that they knew he could live here and be happy. His ship landed in Kansas, near Grandmom and Granddad's house, and they were the ones who found him and adopted him."
Laney didn't know what to think or say. She'd woken up that morning thinking she was just like everyone else, and now she had Superman for a father. And he wasn't even from this planet. She knew about other planets from science shows on TV and from books. She could rattle off the planets in the solar system, and she knew scientists had found planets around other stars but didn't know much about them. But her father had been born on one. It was too much to understand.
Mommy sensed that she didn't want to talk anymore. "Would you like me to leave you alone for a while?"
"Okay. But remember, you can talk to me about this anytime you want. Always."
Mommy kissed her forehead, tucked Perry and her quilt around her, and left. Alone, she tried to make sense of this new world that she hadn't asked for or wanted but now had to live in. She still wasn't ready to forgive Daddy. It was too unfair that she was the only kid not to get the superpowers. And it was too mean of him to have lied for so long. If she'd known about it all her life, it would've been a lot easier to deal with.
For the next few days, Laney tried to pretend the afternoon after her birthday party hadn't happened. That was easier when she wasn't around Daddy or Marty, so she played alone or with Claire. Mommy and Claire were family enough for her—she didn't need this Superman-Daddy, or a big sister stuck on herself because she was going to grow up to be the next superhero.
There was still snow on the ground, which Mommy, Daddy, and the weatherman on TV all said was strange for March. Laney played outside every chance she got, hurling snowballs at trees and trash cans. More often than not, she hit her targets. Daddy had always praised her for her good aim, she remembered, and made a fresh pile of snowballs.
She went to preschool as usual, but a lot of her friends were out sick, and many who were there were sniffling and coughing. The teachers clucked and complained about the cold, messy winter, and made everyone wash their hands often and drink lots of orange juice.
On Wednesday she woke up feeling tired and feverish, but she willed herself not to complain. Maybe if she didn't make a fuss about it the sick feeling would go away. To think that Daddy and Marty and Claire didn't even know what it was like to feel this way! It wasn't fair, like it seemed nothing was. She wouldn't give Marty the satisfaction of knowing she was sick, and she didn't want Daddy acting all loving and sympathetic when he couldn't understand what she was going through.
Somehow she made it through the day at preschool, by staying quiet and spending a lot of her time lying on the beanbag in the Book Nook, paging through her favorite picture books. It was harder that night at dinner. There was a tickle in the back of her throat that made her want to cough. She talked as little as possible, and surprised Mommy and Daddy by going to bed early.
But then she woke up in the middle of the night, coughing painfully, her nose running out of her control. Within a minute or two, Mommy was there, wrapped in a flannel robe and holding a thermometer and a bottle of medicine. "Oh, Laney, you sound terrible! Daddy heard you coughing—" So Daddy spied on her with his superhearing. "— And he woke me up to check on you."
"I'm not sick." It didn't come out the way she wanted it to sound, because she couldn't stop coughing.
"Oh yes you are, with that cough and runny nose." She sat down on the bed beside her and felt her forehead. "And you're burning up. Here, open your mouth."
"But I don't want to be sick."
"No one ever does." She held out the thermometer, and Laney obediently took it under her tongue. While they waited, Mommy held her and sang softly:
"Fly me to the moon, and let me play among the stars
Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars."
Mommy had a beautiful voice, and even in her misery Laney loved to hear it. She recognized it as a song that was special for Mommy and Daddy. They played it a lot, and always gave each other that big-eyed grown-up lovey look. She dimly understood that if that was the first song that came to Mommy's mind in the middle of the night, while she sat pale and red-eyed from interrupted sleep, holding a sniffly daughter, she must love Daddy very much.
When enough time had passed, Mommy held the thermometer to the light, squinting. "One hundred and one. Not as bad as I thought, thank God." She shook the bottle of medicine and poured out a spoonful. "Now take this." Laney swallowed, gagging at the bitter taste. "That should stop your cough and make you feel better, and we'll see how you are in the morning. Now try to go back to sleep."
She kissed her and tucked her back in. When Mommy turned out the light and left, Laney resolved that she would feel better enough in the morning to go to preschool. She had no intention of being sick if Daddy and Marty weren't. Soon the medicine worked as Mommy promised, and she fell asleep.
When she awoke, it was starting to get light outside, and she felt much better. But she didn't want to move, not really, and she lay under her quilt, one hand outside it tracing its bright patchwork.
Mommy came in, dressed for work in a blue wool dress, but with her hair still in curlers. She carried a tray laden with the bottle of medicine, a cup of juice, another of tea, and a saucer with one of Daddy's buttermilk biscuits made from Grandmom's recipe. "Good morning, honey."
"How do you feel today?"
"Much, *much* better."
"You look a little better. Let me take your temperature again."
While they were waiting, Marty burst in, half-dressed for school in a short-sleeved yellow print dress. "Mommy, can you zip me up? I can't reach all the way on this dress."
"You can't wear that anyway. It's much too cold out."
"*I* don't feel the cold, and I like this dress. I'm afraid I'll outgrow it before it's warm enough to wear it."
"Marty, my dear, you know you have to dress as if you felt the cold. Now go back and put on jeans and a sweater. If it doesn't get warm before you outgrow that dress, I'll buy you another one like it. Now go."
Marty stayed put, and appeared to notice Laney for the first time. "Is she sick again?"
Laney moved to rip the thermometer from her mouth so she could tell Marty how much she hated her, but Mommy forestalled her. "This is the first time she's been seriously sick all winter, and it's just the flu that all the kids at her school have."
"Will she have to stay home today?"
"Maybe I should stay home, too. If I have to pretend to be cold, and wear a sweater, maybe I should pretend to be sick sometimes too."
"And miss the ice cream party at the end of the year for all the kids with perfect attendance?" Marty blinked. "I thought not. Now go change, before I decide to make you stay out sick the first day Laney is well enough to go back."
She scurried out, and Mommy removed the thermometer. "Ninety-nine point five. Much better."
"Oh, can't I go to preschool?" She coughed, swallowed, and went on. "I feel ever so much better, and my fever's only a little above normal."
"I'm sorry, but no. You won't go back until your temperature is normal and your cough is gone for a whole day. Otherwise, you'll just make yourself sicker, and you might pass it on to other kids. You don't want that, do you?"
"I guess not."
"Okay, then. Here's some more medicine, and to wash the taste out, I brought you apple juice, strawberry-kiwi tea, and a biscuit with plum jelly."
"Mmm." She ate and drank. She couldn't taste as much as normal, but she was thirsty, and the sweetness of the drinks and the flaky warmth of the biscuit soothed her throat.
"Don't eat too fast," Mommy cautioned. Neither said any more until she had finished her little breakfast.
Then Mommy studied her hands uncomfortably, avoiding Laney's eyes. "I have to go to work today, but Daddy will stay home and take care of you."
"No!" she yelled, and then coughed. "I don't want to stay with him! I want to stay with you."
"I'm sorry, honey, but that's not the way it's going to work."
"But why don't you stay?"
"Because today I'm scheduled to interview a woman who won't talk to Daddy, just to me. He can't take my place at work today, but he can take care of you. Now, if I were raising you by myself like some of your friends' mommies are, and you didn't have a Daddy who loved you, I'd cancel that interview and stay home with you. But you do have a Daddy who loves you, and he'll take good care of you."
"What does he know about sick people anyway?" she muttered. "I don't love him!" That she said aloud.
Mommy winced. "He still loves you. But I have to go now. Give me a kiss?" Laney shook her head. "Okay. Why don't you try going back to sleep now? The more you sleep the quicker you'll get well. And I'll see you as soon as I get home."
When Mommy left, Laney found it easy to fall asleep again. It wasn't deep sleep, more like a series of naps, and she was vaguely aware that Daddy tiptoed in a time or two to check on her.
She awoke able to breathe clearly and with the scratchy feeling in her throat much less noticeable. The Dogbert clock by her bed read 11:48 a.m. That was good; she'd managed to sleep half the day away and avoid Daddy. But now she was hungry and thirsty, and she really needed to use the bathroom. She got up, fumbled for her house shoes, used the bathroom, and went downstairs.
Daddy was in the kitchen, stirring the contents of a pot on the stove. Her weakened nose faintly registered a chicken aroma.
"Good morning, sleepyhead," he said. She was silent. "How are you feeling?"
"I'm glad. I've got your lunch nearly ready. How does chicken soup sound?"
"It's the best food in the world for you when you're sick." His voice was full of forced cheer.
"What do you know about being sick?"
"I…well…every mother and grandmother for hundreds of years has fed her kids chicken soup." When she didn't respond, he shrugged and ladled soup into a bowl. She watched him. He wasn't wearing his glasses, but he still looked more like her Daddy than Superman, with his hair uncombed and dressed in faded jeans and a University of Kansas sweatshirt. But he was barefoot on the tile floor, and her feet were a little cold even in her thick slippers.
He set the bowl on a tray that already held a cup of apple juice, two leftover biscuits from breakfast, and a peeled, sectioned tangerine. He'd obviously heard her moving upstairs and worked as quickly as only he could to have all this ready for her just on time.
He carried the tray to the kitchen table and set it down. She sat down and began eating without looking at or speaking to him. The warm soup soothed her throat and settled pleasantly in her stomach, and she could actually taste the sharp tang of the tangerine.
Daddy walked out and came back with a small blue blanket, which he tucked around her shoulders. She was glad for the extra warmth—all the downstairs rooms tended to be cold in the winter—but she didn't like the contrast the bright blue made with her red and yellow plaid pajamas. Entirely too many of her clothes were in those three colors. That would have to change—more green, purple, black, orange, and white. But no pink, not like Marty.
After a moment of silence, Daddy sat opposite her. "Actually, Laney, I do know what it's like to be sick. Kind of."
She sniffed. "How's that?"
"Well, you see, there's this rock from Krypton, my home planet. When Krypton exploded, some pieces of this rock, called Kryptonite, ended up here on Earth."
"A rock? But you're talking about being sick."
"This rock makes me sick. It's like a poison. When I'm around it, it makes me dizzy and weak, and I think if I were around it for too long it would kill me."
Poison rocks. Hmm. She'd never heard of such a thing. "But couldn't you just get rid of all the bad rocks?"
"We've tried to, but it's impossible to know if we've found all of it there is."
"Oh. Would it hurt Marty or Claire, too?"
"I don't know. It might. It might even hurt you. I hope we never have to find out."
She nibbled a biscuit. "So you have been sick?"
"A few times. I've never had a runny nose, though."
"It's not fun," she assured him. So Superman wasn't as perfect as she'd always thought. But still, getting sick a few times from one poison rock wasn't the same as getting colds and the flu and stomach viruses all your life.
Maybe she ought to forgive him. After all, she had to live in this family until she grew up. Maybe she should make the best of it. But it wasn't fair! She hadn't asked to be part of this family. If anyone had asked *her*, she would've told them she wanted an ordinary father and sisters like everyone else's.
She frowned over her soup. Daddy watched her for a moment, frowning too. Finally, he stood up. "If you need anything, I'll be in the living room."
He left. Through the open doorway, she heard him click on the TV. From it, a crowd roared, bands played, and a pair of sports announcers kept up a running commentary, though the volume was too low for her to figure out who was playing what.
As she finished eating, it dawned on her that whatever Daddy was watching was making him upset. He kept yelling things like "What?", "Oh no!", and "C'mon!" In spite of herself, she was curious, so she joined him. At that moment, a commercial was on. "What are you watching?" she asked.
"Basketball. Kansas and Princeton are playing in the NCAA tournament."
"It's how they decide who has the best college basketball team in the country. Sixty-four teams are picked, and they play each other. If you lose, you're out, so it works down until there are only two teams left. Here, I'll show you." He picked up a newspaper section from the other couch cushion and opened it to show her a chart that reminded her of the roots of a plant, with four brackets narrowing to one central point. The outermost layer had names printed in; the rest of the grid was completed in pencil, in Daddy's firm, big writing. He pointed to the top corner. "See, this game that's on now is Kansas-Princeton. The loser will be out. The winner plays the winner of the Mississippi State-UMass game."
Laney saw that he had written in Kansas as the winner. As a matter of fact, he had Kansas winning every game. They were penciled in with all caps in the very center, in the box marked with words she had to sound out—"National Champion." "You wrote down who you think will win?" she asked.
"Yes. We're having a contest at work to see who can do the best job of picking the winners."
"You think Kansas?"
"Yes." He sounded depressed about it.
"Because that's where you're from?"
"That, and because they're *supposed* to be one of the best teams in the country."
The commercials ended, and Laney and Daddy both turned their attention to the screen. On the basketball court, a group of overjoyed cheerleaders in black and orange costumes was spurring on a roaring crowd. The announcer's voice broke in. "We're back here live from Lexington, Kentucky, watching what could be an unprecedented upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The sixteenth-seeded Princeton Tigers from the Ivy League are leading the top- seeded Kansas Jayhawks of the Big Twelve 42-38, with four minutes and fifty-eight seconds left to play."
"Kansas isn't winning, Daddy."
"I know!" It was the first time since she'd learned the secret that he hadn't used that extra-sweet, extra-patient tone in speaking to her.
The other announcer spoke. "You know, Brent, you have to wonder what the selection committee was thinking giving the Ivy champ the sixteen seed. After all, if you look at it historically the Ivies have had incredible success in this tournament compared to the other small conferences. Just look at last year! You had Penn in the Sweet Sixteen, beating the likes of Syracuse and NC State. And look back to 1996, the last time Princeton was here. They knocked out UCLA, who was the defending national champion, in the first round. I tell you, the way these Penn and Princeton teams play, they ought to call themselves the Poison Ivy League."
"Still, I think the committee was justified in its seedings," the first announcer said. "It's been eight years since Princeton was here last, and that was back when the legendary Pete Carril was head coach for the Tigers. This year nobody was dominant in the Ivies. Princeton had to beat a weak Penn team in a post-season tie-breaker just to be here."
"Which also happened in 1996."
"True, but that was a Carril team. These Tigers are an unknown quantity."
"Hey, the fat lady hasn't sung yet! There's still five minutes left. I'm betting Kansas will pull this one out. No sixteen seed has ever beaten a one seed, remember? A few have come close—notably Princeton themselves against Georgetown back in the Eighties—but none of them have pulled it off yet."
"But this could be the day, so sit back and enjoy, folks! This is what makes March Madness the most exciting three weeks in sports."
The cheerleaders left the court, and two teams filed on. One wore white with red numbers and trim, the other black with orange. To Laney's untrained eye, the obvious difference between the two was that the players in white were much taller. Most of what the announcers said made no sense to her. She knew the point of the game was to try to get the ball into the basket, but all this talk of Sweet Sixteens and Pete Carril teams was like a foreign language. She seized on two of the terms they kept repeating. "Daddy, what's a sixteen seed, and what makes Princeton an Ivy?"
"The Ivy League is a group of eight colleges that are really good schools—you have to be smart to get in—but they aren't as good at sports because they don't offer scholarships, where they pay the way for the athletes to come to school. Seeds are a little more complicated. Remember what I told you about the sixty-four teams being in the tournament?"
On TV, the team in white scored as one of its tallest players jammed the ball into the basket and dangled by his hands from the rim. "Slam dunk!" Daddy yelled. "Go Mason!"
He calmed down and continued to explain, watching the screen rather than her. "The sixty-four teams are divided into four groups of sixteen, and all the teams in a group are given a seed, from one for the best team down to sixteen for the weakest. In the first round, one plays sixteen, two plays fifteen, and so on."
"That's not fair to sixteen. They don't have much chance to win."
Princeton had the ball now. The Kansas players were packed close to the basket, preventing Princeton from getting an easy shot. They were ranged around the outside, and they patiently passed the ball back and forth. "C'mon, pick it up!" Daddy said. "Don't let them play at their pace."
"The sixteen seed doesn't expect to win," he told her. "They're happy just to be there. It's supposed to be harder for them. The one seeds have been the best in the country all season, and nobody is happy if they get knocked out the very first game of the tournament."
A Princeton player attempted a long shot, which thudded against the backboard. As soon as he released the ball, the Princeton players raced down the court to guard their goal, not even attempting to beat the towering Kansas players to the rebound. Laney studied them. All the players in black, their coaches, and even their cheerleaders, now kneeling behind the goal, had faces like rubber bands stretched to the breaking point. "I don't think Princeton is happy just to be there, Daddy."
"It doesn't look that way, but…oh, YES! Three points!" A Kansas player had just made a long basket, and the score flashed on screen: Kansas 43, Princeton 42. A few in the crowd cheered, but the Princeton bench and cheerleaders slumped.
"Three points?" Laney asked.
"Yes. Anything from outside that circle drawn on the court is worth three points. A normal shot is two. And a free throw, when someone from the other team breaks a rule and you get a free shot, is one point."
Once again, the Princeton players calmly passed the ball back-and-forth beyond the three-point line. Finally one shot and missed as a Kansas player collided against him. A horn sounded. "Ellison will go to the line and shoot three," the announcer said. "Kansas is up by one with three minutes and twelve seconds left to play, their first lead of the second half."
"He gets three free throws because the Kansas guy fouled him when he was trying for a three-point shot," Daddy said, anticipating her question.
"Oh." Gripping the couch arm, she watched as the grim-faced Ellison, his brown hair soaked with sweat, missed his first shot and made the next two. Along with most of the crowd, she squealed her approval as Princeton regained the lead.
"You're cheering for Princeton?"
"But why?" He sounded angry and hurt.
"Because I like them! They're little and they're not supposed to win. It shouldn't be so easy for Kansas just because they're big and strong."
They frowned at each other, but he looked more thoughtful than angry. "Just don't yell yourself hoarse," he said. "Your mommy will be awful mad at me if you're feeling worse when she gets home."
The game see-sawed back and forth. Each team scored on nearly every possession, Kansas quickly and Princeton deliberately. Both teams took several time outs, and Laney decided the last three minutes of a basketball game were just as slow as time on Christmas Eve.
Finally, Kansas scored with twenty seconds left on the clock to go ahead 52-51. Princeton had no more time outs, so they brought the ball down the court rapidly, for them, and settled into their standard pattern of passing it around. Laney and her father sat in silence, each gripping a couch arm. Laney's knuckles were white.
Excitement crept into the announcer's voice. "Ten seconds…they've got to take a shot…five seconds…" As the clock ticked down, the player with the ball bounce-passed it to a teammate who'd slipped over next to the basket. He sunk the ball through the net as the buzzer sounded.
The crowd roared, and the Princeton bench, coaches, and cheerleaders swarmed onto the court, leaping and hugging. "Unbelievable!" the announcer yelled. "The sixteenth-seeded Princeton Tigers have just upset the top- seeded Kansas Jayhawks, fifty-three to fifty-two, on the strength of a backdoor pass from Melaragni to MacPherson, who scored with the easy lay-up. You can't beat the Ivies at the basics!"
Laney jumped up and down, screaming her triumph. Daddy slumped with his head in his hands.
"I'm sorry your team lost, Daddy."
He looked up at her and smiled with half his face. "No you're not. But I'm glad your team won."
"No you're not." Together, they laughed, and before Laney had time to think about it they were hugging.
After a moment, she pulled away, struck by a new idea. "Do girls play basketball?"
"They most certainly do. The women's tournament is going on now, too. We can watch it, if you want."
"That would be nice…but do you think *I* could play basketball?"
He looked her over from head to toe and grinned. "Sure you could. As a matter of fact, I bet you'll be great. God knows you can aim well enough to hit the basket. As soon as you're feeling better, I'll start teaching you."
Within a few days, Laney felt completely well. On Monday, she came home from preschool to find Daddy in the back yard setting up a small plastic basketball goal. "It's adjustable, to grow along with you," he told her. "And in a few years, I'll build you a real one." She hugged him. She had a great Daddy.
17 years later:
Lois and Clark sat in the best seats either had ever had at the Metropolis Coliseum, accompanied by Marty, Claire, and even Clark's parents. Jonathan had endured a heart attack and a bout with colon cancer in the last two years, so they didn't travel so much anymore, but some things were too good to miss.
Every seat was filled, and the air was electric. Clark nudged Lois, who was pointing out something in the program to Claire. "They're about to announce the starters." They clasped hands and leaned together.
The announcer's voice boomed over the loudspeaker. "And now, the starting line-ups for the 2021 NCAA Women's Basketball Championship Game, featuring the University of Tennessee versus Stanford University. For Stanford, at guard, a 5'9" senior from Metropolis, Lane Kent!"
The crowd went wild as the hometown heroine, featured on the cover of the latest Sports Illustrated, entered the court, but none cheered louder than her father.