By Jenni Debbage <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: September 2000
Summary: The Kents travel to an island paradise in the hopes of a relaxing vacation, but soon find themselves facing the threat of a volcanic eruption … without the help of Superman. The sixth story in the author's "Kent Family" series.
It's been quite some time since I visited my Kent family but, for those of you who are interested in their continuing lives, this is their next adventure. These stories stand alone but it might be helpful to understand some references to past tales if you know something of the history of my family.
My heartfelt thanks go out to Yvonne Connell, Laurie Dunn, Carol Malo and Wendy Richards, my beta readers and friends who have encouraged me to keep writing this story through a hectic and difficult time in my life. And a special mention should go to Laurie for sending me an excerpt from her local newspaper on the anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens; the insight into volcanic eruptions was invaluable.
And also my thanks go to my editor, Sarah Murray, who I was very fortunate to spend some time with this summer, showing her around my beautiful country. And finally, it was great to meet with all my fellow Laffers this August. Thank you all for the very positive encouragement you gave me to finish this story.
I have also been asked by some readers to reintroduce Lois and Clark's children and give their ages and who was the eldest:
Julian: Nine (adopted in 'Master Race')
I hope you enjoy and please, feedback is very welcome.
The usual disclaimers apply.
On first sight the island was beautiful. Golden sands lined the edge of the fresh green forest and the waters that lapped the rim of gold were, in the soft light of approaching evening, of a deep indigo blue. As in all the best of these south Pacific islands, at least the ones that adorned the travel brochures, the green-clad hills ascended into cumulus clouds, dominated by a veiled peak of considerable size. Somewhere above the tree line, now hidden from view by a soft, red-tinted ball of fuzzy cloud, the mountain reached its zenith.
Perhaps, during the three weeks the family would spend here, they could climb to the top, the view would be spectacular and with a little boost of super power the ascent would not be so difficult. Lois' thoughts jarred on that last notion since both she and Clark had agreed that apart from two short patrols over Metropolis each week, the use of super powers during this vacation was taboo. Of course major emergencies always overruled that decision, but Lois sincerely hoped that the world would get along without her husband's assistance for the next three weeks.
This was an interlude for them to enjoy as a family, doing the sort of things that any other family would enjoy, swimming, fishing, playing ball games with their kids (and hopefully more adult games with each other) and just relaxing in the warm sunshine. To this end Lois and Clark had chosen a remote spot where the constant demand to help out as Superman would not intrude on their summer break. This past year had been a particularly traumatic one for all of the family and Lois had insisted that on this island idyll Superman would not be invited.
Now as they clung to the rail of the somewhat ancient island hopper, the only passenger ship which serviced the smaller islands in this part of the Pacific, the four children jumped up and down with unrepressed excitement at the view of their holiday home. Normally, the family spent the summer in Smallville and last year there had been the trip to Britain, but that had been a working trip for Mom and Dad and although it had been momentous in the sense that it had brought Julian to them, it hadn't been a totally enjoyable time. This year was going to be different. The island looked really 'cool' and what was best of all, they would have Mom and Dad all to themselves for a whole three weeks.
If there was any disappointment in this, it was that their Kent grandparents had chosen to spend their time in Smallville. Maybe Grandpa Jon, because he had been so ill, had wanted to return to the one place he considered his home.
Actually, Jonathan Kent had recovered from his surgery remarkably well, but in their assumption the children were correct; Jon wanted to return to his roots. The good earth of Kansas with its familiar surroundings and the friends he and Martha had known for almost all of their lives would rejuvenate Jonathan and give him back his balanced outlook on life. Let the young folk go off and explore these faraway places, he was content with his old home.
Besides, it would do the family good to spend sometime alone together. The elder Kents knew better than anyone that, given the busy lifestyle of Lois and Clark, the couple required the help of the extended family to raise their children and both Martha and Jonathan were delighted to participate in the moulding of the future generation of the Kent/Lane dynasty. But Lois and Clark and their offspring also needed time to rely only on each other for their comfort, time to bond together as a new branch of this unique family.
The ship, which had been sailing along the southern shore of the island, now navigated around the most eastern promontory and headed northwards into a large bay where the dwellings of a small township clung to the edges of the only river on the isle. Joseph in travel had informed them that the beautiful Ille de Papillon was indeed named for a butterfly as, seen from the air, the island's shape mimicked the two wings of a butterfly while the long, narrow mountains in the middle were the body of the beautiful creature. Lois was a little disappointed that she could not view this aerial spectacle for herself, but she was not about to break the rules just to prove the travel books right. There would be no unnecessary flying on this trip, it was the reason they had flown by a legitimate airline and now were approaching the island by sea.
The small houses clustered around the mouth of the river grew in size as they sailed ever closer and the painted white wooden buildings became separate entities. A moderately sized harbour came into view with a wooden dock stretching out into the sea and Lois was relieved that she would not have to transfer to the smaller boats she spotted striking out towards their transport. The tiny, frail-looking canoes covered the sea between the ship and land swiftly until the faces of the occupants could be seen clearly, laughing and shouting out their happy welcome. Oh my, Lois thought that this only happened in books and movies, but when you considered that the ship only called once every three weeks, it wasn't surprising that the natives should be pleased to see their one regular contact with the outside world.
If it were possible the Kent children's excitement escalated at the welcoming committee and even their parents' hearts warmed at the sight of the friendly faces gazing up at them from the canoes as the ship negotiated its way to the landing dock. But the time for disembarkation was fast approaching and Lois and Clark called their offspring aside in preparation for going ashore. For the next hour the crew of the ship busied themselves unloading passengers and supplies to the dock. With an almost lazy competency the job was completed; no one hurried around too much in the warmth of the late afternoon sun and when the crated goods that had been awaiting transport had been safely stowed onboard, the ship made preparations to depart.
When finally the family, with all its attendant luggage, was left alone on the pier, an ancient black taxi approached them with its almost as ancient taxi driver. The dark, lined face with a tooth-gapped smile offered to take them to the island's 'Superstore,' for that must be where the new folks were headed, as Madame Blanc had told him just this morning that she was expecting visitors from off the boat. A very moderate fee was arranged and the family, with baggage, piled onboard.
The journey was short and extremely bumpy as the old shock-absorbers tried but failed to cope with the potholed roads. The street from the harbour area climbed along the side of a hill and buildings, lining only one side of the street, perched on the edge of the steep incline with the help of stilts, giving them a very precarious appearance.
Halfway along this road, the driver swung his vehicle into a tight left turn which sent the occupants sliding about inside the car and wondering which (if any) motoring test this senior citizen had ever passed. However, after a short journey along this new road, the ground levelled off and the road surface seemed to improve as it opened out into the town square. Here all the important buildings of the community were situated; the one and only island church; the school; the mayor's office; the single hotel and restaurant and, the Kents' destination, the town store. Each of these buildings was in varying states of repair, depending on their importance to the community, and Lois and Clark were happy to see that the store, with the adjoining hotel, was freshly painted and exuded a highly profitable air. But, as there appeared to be no other competition on the whole island, this was not a surprising occurrence.
Mr and Mrs Blanc, well aware of the ship's landfall, were standing on the stoop of the store waiting to welcome their guests. This was the first time that either party had set eyes on each other, most of the booking communications having been made by phone or on the Internet. Papillon might be far removed geographically from the rest of the world, but its inhabitants were pleased to state that technologically the world had not passed them by and that their town emporium boasted a 'Cybernet Cafe.' Actually it was one computer linked to the world wide web which the Blancs were happy to share with those more progressively minded fellow islanders. There were still many of the 'butterfly people' who were happy to remain in the backwater of life and though most in this category were from the older generation, this was not true of all.
Finally unloaded from the dilapidated transportation, Lois and Clark, surrounded by their children, walked up the steps to join the waiting couple, pleased to find that the Blancs seemed only a little older than themselves and decidedly amiable.
Holding out his hand in a friendly manner, the man spoke up. "Mr and Mrs Kent and children, welcome to our lovely Ille de Papillon. My wife, Eva, and I hope you have an enjoyable stay on our little island." Mr Blanc spoke with a faint French accent but whether the couple had originated in France or had ever visited, Lois and Clark had no idea. Perhaps the accent was a throw back to the days when these islands had been a colony of France.
His wife, Eva, joined in the conversation. "You must have spent a long day travelling and you must be anxious to view the villa. When I went along to check on things earlier this afternoon, I stocked up the fridge with some provisions, so you should have everything you need until you get settled. A couple of the village ladies have agreed to cook and clean for you, so you can just relax and enjoy our old world hospitality. Leah and Sally will be round in the morning to introduce themselves."
Almost overwhelmed by these intimations, Lois thanked the woman for her kindnesses. "Well, you certainly have taken care of everything and you're right, it has been a very long day, so if you could show us where to go to find our accommodation we would be very grateful."
"The bungalow is about five miles south along the cliff road from here," Mr Blanc divulged. "It's very comfortable and it has a lovely view of the sea and its very own beach, which I'm sure you children will adore." This last piece of information was directed towards the kids with a beaming smile.
"That sounds very nice, Mr Blanc, but perhaps we should've held onto the taxi, if it's so far away," Clark suggested. Five miles was no distance for a super-powered being and he could make a few trips once they were out of sight of inquisitive eyes, but he wasn't sure if Superman's help would be appreciated; after all, the man in Blue was not with them on vacation. However, he was spared any further racking of his brain as the store keeper announced, "Oh no, Mr Kent. I have my own transport and I'll be happy to take you to your holiday home. Wait here and I'll bring it round the front of the store." And so saying, he hurried off around the corner of the building.
Clark turned to view the unfamiliar surroundings, his wife and children copying his actions. The view that confronted them was indeed pleasing. In the centre of the square was some sort of memorial stone, topped by a sculpted angel, and surrounding the monument lay a well-tended garden with leafy trees shading a few park benches. The adjoining building behind them sported the sign 'Hotel de Papillon' and stated that all visitors were welcome to enjoy its bar and restaurant. The proprietors' names completed the sign and showed that the Blancs owned the hotel as well as the store.
A small clapboard church bordered the south side of the square and, although it also was surrounded by a carefully looked after graveyard, the building itself looked as if in need of some repair and painting. This was not true of the school, standing directly opposite. In fact, this was a comparatively new building compared to the others and it looked like a great deal of importance was placed on this edifice—a description which could not be levelled at the structure next door. The old-fashioned gas pumps standing in front of this ramshackle barn clued the family into the fact that this was the town garage and definitely not the faded sign that sat askew atop of the large double doors. None of the watchers were surprised to see the old taxi parked outside this building or the old man sitting talking with a younger version of himself, slightly less lined and toothless, as the stranger busied himself now and then beneath the hood of a pickup truck.
Their visual explorations were brought to a halt as a large car was driven up to the foot of the stoop. Were none of the cars on this island postwar (and which war)? A very old but immaculately valeted Rolls Royce convertible, its black surface polished and its chrome work gleaming in the shadows of the evening sun, stopped beneath them. Mr Blanc alighted spritely and with Clark's help began loading the luggage into the trunk. Once the family were aboard, the car set off along a road that branched off from the square behind the little church. Wafting through the open door, they could hear the sound of a number of voices singing sweetly in chorus to the accompanying strains of a rather wheezy organ. Mr Blanc explained that it was choir practise evening.
The drive out to their bungalow was an extremely pleasant one and as they passed beneath the shady archway of trees which bordered their route, tantalising glimpses of sparkling seas could be spotted between the green-clad branches. The road was little more than a dirt track but Mr Blanc was more adept at avoiding the holes than their taxi driver and therefore the journey was not so tumultuous or bone shaking.
Too soon the car turned left off the highway and began to descend the gently declining cliff towards a flattened clearing in the woods where sat a long, low bungalow, encircled on all sides by a covered balcony. Like most of the other buildings on the island the house was built of wood and very recently had been given a fresh coat of white paint. In front of the house, the trees had been cleared away, giving its occupants a panoramic view of the bay beneath—a view that almost took the breath away. Situated along the southern wing of the butterfly, the house looked northwards across the expansive lagoon. And, though the town was cut off from view by a rocky shoreline which was dotted with pretty sandy coves, far in the distance the twin northern wing could be seen rising from the ocean. This was certainly a south sea island paradise.
After enthusing over the magnificent scene, the family turned to explore their new home and were thankful and relieved at what they found. This was the first time they had ventured to book a holiday cybernet style and had been vaguely anxious as to what they might find. The house was extremely clean and tidy and in an excellent state of repair. It was also quite large, providing four bedrooms, two of which were ensuite, a large living room, a separate dining room adjacent to a huge kitchen and laundry room and another bathroom. And all rooms had access to the veranda. For a time it seemed that an argument over who should have which bedroom would follow, but gratifyingly Clara gave up her quest for a room with a sea view in favour of her own private bathroom, one which she challenged her two elder brothers to use at their peril.
Satisfying himself that the family had everything they needed for the night, Mr Blanc left them alone with the stipulation that if they required his assistance they only had to phone. The next hour passed in noise and chaos as the Kents unpacked their belongings and took possession of their temporary home. Supper was prepared by the adults as the children, with the reminder to stay close to the bungalow, set out to explore.
As was to be expected, the children's first port of call was down the path and steps to the beach and when there they quickly divested themselves of socks and shoes and plunged into the water. To their happy surprise the water even at this advanced hour of the evening was warm, unlike the ocean of the eastern seaboard back home and Clara, being something of a water baby, ventured further into the blue depths than her brothers. Perhaps, being the lone female in the family of boys, Clara felt challenged to prove that being a girl was no drawback to being the best, or perhaps she had just inherited her mother's competitive nature. Whatever the reason, it was very often Clara who led her siblings into trouble.
Well aware of this tendency to push the boundaries, Julian called a warning. "Don't go in too deep, Clara. Remember there's sharks in these waters."
"And you wouldn't want that poor shark out there to break his teeth on your thick skin." Joel chuckled at this notion, which wasn't entirely ridiculous.
Over the summer the family had become aware that Clara's skin was becoming impervious to cuts or bruises. Her hoyden personality had in the past led to her body sporting many trophies of adventures gone wrong, but in these last few months, though the adventures continued, her body was slowly becoming immune to at least minor hurts. Occasionally too, she heard things that would be impossible for the normal human ear to pick up on. And she certainly tuned in on the warning about sharks. Small cuts and bruises might not make any impact on her flesh but, recalling her fright and horror while watching the old videos of 'Jaws' and its sequels, she was not prepared to take her chances against the razor sharp teeth of a shark. Even Joel was not completely invulnerable yet.
"Sharks!! Yikes!!" And with a squeal of horror Clara swung round to study the ocean behind her but the expanse of blue sea was completely devoid of the telltale dorsal shape that would herald the arrival of danger. Shrieks and giggles informed her that she had been teased, so she headed back towards shore and her horrible brothers who were falling about laughing at her distress.
Seeing their angry sister splashing through the shallows and bent on taking revenge for their joking, the brothers made for the path and the shelter of their parents. Mad Dog Clara was someone best to be avoided when on the warpath. However, by the time their sister arrived at the house she too was laughing at her swift retreat from the water and at her brothers' craven dash for the safety of Mom and Dad's company. As long as they appreciated who was in charge of the younger members of this family Clara was prepared to be magnanimous.
That evening, in the pleasant cooler air of approaching night, supper was served on the terrace that overlooked the darkening cove. While they ate, each member of the family offered suggestions of what they would most like to do during their stay on the island and a list was made of all the favourite ideas. At the top of everyone's list was exploring and that was designated for first thing the next morning, directly after they had returned to the town to buy some more groceries and find their way about the small township.
Lois had been concerned about their mode of transport during their stay, but Mr Blanc had informed them that the islanders mostly used bicycles to get around and that in a small hut at the side of the house they would find a number of these stored away for use of visitors. If, however, the family wanted to explore further, then the Blancs owned a small pickup truck which they would be happy to rent out for a small fee.
Fortunately, when the bicycles were dragged out of storage, they were found to be more up to date than the cars they had so far travelled in and one even sported a child's seat on the back. The Blancs had certainly done their homework and taken care of all the family's needs. Now Lois' only concern was would she remember how to ride the things. A hilarious half hour ensued before suppertime while a slightly embarrassed mother practised forgotten skills before her adept kids and her ever skilful husband. Even without the use of super powers Clark would always be the consummate athlete. Feeling the odd one out, teetering about on two wheels, Lois wished for just a small sliver of kryptonite to level the playing field, but then pushed that unwelcome thought aside, hoping that this holiday would be devoid of evil villains targeting Superman.
The family that went off to bed that night were agreeably sleepy and happily content with their choice of holiday venue. Therefore, it was in extreme trepidation and shock that they were brought from their beds in the middle of the night by the sound of a massive explosion followed by a deep and far off rumbling.
Collecting in the living room in varying degrees of wakefulness, five Kents gazed inquisitively at their super hero.
Lois instructed her husband. "Clark, go find out what that was." But when he turned to the bedroom to comply, she demanded, "Where are you going?"
"To unpack the suit."
"Oh, no, buster! Superman isn't here."
"Lois, that was an explosion. People may be hurt. They may need my help."
"They might, but if Superman was where he ought to be, which is back in Metropolis, he would have to hear about this through the media and it would take time for him to arrive. If you're here in seconds, you might as well announce to the world that Clark Kent is Superman."
"You have a point, honey. But I can't just ignore this. We agreed I'd deal with the big emergencies, remember."
A huge sigh escaped from Lois; she understood that Clark could never ignore people in trouble. Touching his cheek with a soothing hand, she restated her point. "And you will, but let's not rush into things. First we should find out what actually happened." Another rumble accompanied her words and she grabbed onto Clark to steady herself as her children clung to various pieces of furniture. "Clark, the kids!" Lois screamed, but she was already being whisked around the room, until the whole family stood within the shelter of Clark's arms. After what seemed like an eternity but was in truth only a few minutes the house settled and Lois and Clark spent the next moments calming their children and assuring themselves that their offspring had not been harmed.
"An earthquake?!" Clark suggested.
The ringing of the telephone shattered the almost eerie stillness that had settled over the house, causing everyone in the room to jump. Clark was the first to recover and, still holding onto a clinging Lois, he crossed to the phone and picked up the receiver.
"Hallo, Clark Kent speaking."
"Mr Kent, Philippe Blanc, here. I thought I should check that you and your family are all right after this latest episode."
"Yes!! Solvan's latest utterance."
"Who or what is Solvan?" Clark was developing a bad feeling about this.
"He's our resident fire god." A wry chuckle could be heard from the other end of the phone. "At least, if you take note of what the local natives say. In fact, its Papillon's volcano. And you really have nothing to worry about. Solvan's been letting off steam like that for decades. Newcomers take a little time to get used to his antics. You folks get on back to sleep now, Solvan won't interrupt you again tonight."
"I'm not sure Mr Blanc, that sounded like a pretty large explosion, perhaps somebody was hurt. Maybe we should check it out."
"No need, no need. Most of any debris that Solvan throws up falls on the south side of the island where there are no settlements so no one is ever injured." Mr Blanc sounded very sure. "You can take a look in the morning. You really won't be able to see anything at night, apart from the red glow."
The local man's assertion on both counts proved to be true as Clark discovered when he ventured out at the end of the phone call. Nonetheless, he hadn't wanted to advertise Superman's presence on the island, so donning his darkest clothes he flew up into the heated atmosphere to do an aerial scan. Without the covering of cloud the wide mouth of Solvan could be seen pulsing red in the darkness. But, following Blanc's information, the unseen hero flew southwards and, dropping closer to the earth, searched with vision and hearing for anyone in need of succour, widening his search parameters as he went. Yet throughout the island all was quiet. It seemed that the only people disturbed by Solvan's mutterings were the visiting 'city folks'.
By the time Superman had reached the northern shoreline he was convinced of the safety of the islanders and he turned his face gratefully towards Lois and his children. His direct flight path home took him closer to Solvan's gaping maw than before and, his curiosity tweaked, he hovered above the mountain's peak. From this new position Clark could now view the molten lava bubbling and simmering in the bowels of the volcano far beneath him. Mesmerized by the seething vermillion mass, the hero was drawn unconsciously down towards the crater's edge, gliding closer and closer to the red glow beneath him until he could feel the heat on his skin. Suddenly aware that he had lost altitude, Clark shook away the cobwebs that had formed inside his head and, forcing himself to rise higher in the sky, he resumed his flight home. Boy, was he tired and all his muscles ached. Did super heroes suffer from jet-lag when flying on conventional modes of transport?
Obviously the rest of his family did, because everyone was asleep when he crept inside the darkened, silent house. Stripping quickly out of his clothes, he crept into bed and drawing Lois' warm body against his own, he joined her in sleep.
"A volcano!! With molten lava and hot rocks and everything?!" Lois' voice was muffled by the shower but Clark could still hear the shock that imbued her words in response to the findings of his night flight. The shower was turned off with a vengeance and a towel-clad Lois emerged from behind the shower curtain, regarding her husband with a jaundiced eye. "Let me get this straight, Clark. I asked you to find us a holiday spot where we could have a nice quiet, trouble-free vacation and you chose an island with its very own active volcano."
"Honey, I asked Joseph for advice and he suggested that the south sea islands were the place to go to get away from it all and *you* seemed to like the idea," he reminded his irate wife. "So, when we found Papillon on the 'Idyllic Holiday Destinations' web site, it looked so beautiful and peaceful, I went ahead and booked the place. Absolutely nowhere did it mention a volcano, active or otherwise." Clark spoke placatingly. "Besides, Philippe Blanc said we shouldn't be worried. It appears that Solvan's been rumbling on like this for years. The locals are completely unfazed by it all."
"Well, your wife is not completely unfazed by it all." Lois exited the bathroom with Clark at her heels and preceded to drop the towel from her still slender yet curvy body as she searched through unfamiliar drawers for clothes to wear. She continued her tirade, unaware of the effect her naked form was stirring in her husband. "Traffic pileups; manic Metropolitans; deadlines and demanding editors; even the occasional insane bad guy I can deal with, but natural disasters are not my forte."
"If you want to go home, I could fly us." Clark's suggestion was not heartfelt. He was at present struggling with a very different type of suggestion.
Lois swung back to face her husband as she pulled a very skimpy T-shirt over her head and covered her nakedness, but the plunging neckline and clinging material did little to assuage Clark's discomfort. "And how would you explain the disappearance of the Kent family? It may have escaped your notice, but our ship doesn't return for another three weeks. And the kids would be disappointed to leave so soon. They really love it here. And Lois Lane doesn't turn tail and run from any mountain even if it happens to have its very own resident fire god."
"That's my girl," Clark's arms surrounded his wife, halting her progress in dressing. "I kinda love it here too and you know there is nowhere quite so romantic as a tropical island. Remember when I used to fly us to an island just like this."
He was feathering soft kisses along her shoulder and Lois found herself melting into his embrace. "Oh yes," she whispered huskily, her memory lost in warm reverie. "Four children ago."
As if on cue, a loud knock fell on the door—thankfully, the children were learning to knock first before barging into their parents' bedroom—and Joel's voice enquiring if they were ever getting up today wafted into the room. Clark groaned at his son's choice of words. At this moment there seemed to be little chance of that.
Lois giggled at his discomfort. "Down boy!! Our kids are calling, but don't worry I'm sure that we'll find time for what you have in mind." Clark's mind was not the problem. "I think a cold shower might be in order for the present, sweetheart." And Lois peeled herself away from her husband and finished dressing.
The morning trip into town by pedal power proved to be invigorating, even for Lois and, though the bright sun shone down on the family as they cycled into the square, at this early hour the heat was not yet oppressive. Parking their bikes in the racks in front of the store, they wandered on foot down to the harbour. The dock area was busier than the previous day, with fishermen mending nets and painting boats, a number of which advertised on hand-painted signs propped up by their berths that they were available for hire for fishing trips. Immediately the children sought a promise from their parents that they could participate in that particular pastime and were happy to receive an assent. A number of empty berths along the quay side suggested that already some of the boats had embarked on their employment for the day.
Behind the quay a solitary gift shop was opening its doors and setting out its wares under a gaily coloured awning. Most of these items were hand crafted from shells, ornamental lamps and figures of animals and people, jewellery and nicknacks abounded while some more spectacular shells had been left as nature intended. Paintings too were being hung around the window of the small shop, all various views of the island and surprisingly very skilfully painted. Lois wondered as she meandered amongst the various goods just how profitable was the trade; after all, they appeared to be the only visitors at present on the island. Of course, she was not entirely certain of this point and these types of back to nature holidays were becoming more popular with the population of planet earth, most of whom were living in ever increasing over crowded cities.
Her thoughts were broken into by the sounds of a sweetly purring engine approaching the little dockyard, and as she turned she set her sunglasses back down on her eyes as she stared directly into the sun. Gliding through the water, seeming almost to skim along the blue surface, was a sleek, arrow-shaped yacht of not inconsiderable proportions. Wow! Whoever owns that piece of equipment must be worth a few dollars, Lois concluded in silent wonder. Perhaps this little business might not do too badly if this is the type of passerby it caters for.
Her husband and children were also interested in the approaching newcomer as they angled their steps towards the area of the pier in which the narrow stern seemed to be pointing. The speed of the vessel slowed and with effortless ease it slipped into dock. A couple of smartly dressed crew members jumped down to the wooden quay and securely tied the slim ship to its berth.
So intent were the family in their contemplation of this beautiful seagoing 'lady' that they failed to notice her occupants, who had come out to stand on the bridge and were just as studiously taking in the scene before them. An incredulous shout overrode the bustling noises and a familiar voice reached all the Kents' ears.
"I don't believe it! Amazing! Just amazing!" The body that accompanied the voice disappeared inside the bridge and quickly reappeared by the gangplank which was being lowered to the quay. "I get this really hot tip that something big is about to happen here that nobody else has even got a sniff of, and who do I find already on the job but Lane and Kent, the hottest team in town."
"Jimmy!" Clark called in almost shock to his friend who was now descending the short distance to the ground. "Jimmy, what are you doing here?"
James Olsen grimaced at the question as he walked up to his closest friend and the two exchanged a swift hug and indulged in a little back patting. "Same thing as you I suppose, wanting to be on the spot when he blows; hoping to get some real good pictures and winning another Pulitzer."
Clark was shaking his head in puzzlement. "He blows?! Pulitzer?! I don't understand."
"Come on, CK, this is your old pal, Jimmy. We never used to be in competition and, if this is as big as I've been told, then there'll be enough for all of us. I'll even make a deal; you and Lois write the story and I'll take the photographs. They should be so spectacular I'll probably win an award on those alone."
"Jimmy, will you please stop talking in riddles and tell us what brings you here?"
"I think that Jimmy is trying to tell us that he's here to cover a pretty big story." Lois had walked up behind her husband and her svelte arm snaked through his more muscular one. "Like perhaps a volcanic eruption?"
"Yeah! I knew it! But aren't you guys a little out of your territory and wasn't it a little dangerous to bring the kids along?" The photographer's eyes slid over the children that surrounded them, listening with close interest to what the grownups were discussing. The Kent kids were as sharp as needles, which wasn't surprising when you considered who were their parents.
Lois looked pointedly at her husband with a bright 'I told you so look' then addressed their unexpected friend. "First, Jimmy, we are not on a 'job'; secondly, if we are out of our territory then that's normally what happens when taking a vacation and lastly, we didn't know until last night that we might be in danger." This last word was said with emphasis and her hand tightened on Clark's arm.
Seeing how uncomfortable his buddy was feeling under his wife's accusing stare, Jimmy decided to backpedal. "Well, I'm not really certain just how reliable my information is. Maybe this 'Solvan' isn't set to blow right now."
But Lois would not be decoyed. "Oh, so let me get this right, you came all this way to an island that practically no-one has heard of, because you got a call from a dubious source that there might be a mountain about to blow its top sometime in the undetermined future?"
"Something like that," Jimmy suggested uncertainly, knowing Lois Lane wasn't about to be fooled.
"I don't think so," Lois grumbled. However, she was interrupted by her husband who had spotted a small chance of deflecting the topic of conversation.
"Speaking of method of transport," Clark waved his hand over the gleaming white yacht now moored by their side. He whistled long and low in appreciation. "You, Jimbo, must be doing a whole lot better than Lois and me if you can afford a boat like this."
"I only wish, CK." Jimmy looked rather enviously at the sleek shape then raised his hand in greeting to the young Eurasian couple still standing watching from the bridge. "I hitched a lift from my friends, Roy and Hazel Chen. The Swallow belongs to them. They're taking a cruise on their new yacht, travelling through the islands."
Clark's eyebrows raised as he smiled at the unknown dark-haired pair. "Your friends must be very well heeled to own something like that. Moving up in the world, Jimbo?"
"Hey, what can I say? The guy's a fellow computer buff. His company developed the latest stage in artificial intelligence. Made his fortune practically overnight. Now he just has to keep ahead of the game."
"Tough at the top," Clark said with just a hint of jealousy as his glance followed Jimmy's over the trim lines of the vessel. He could have used his super powers to gain money and position and yet, except for momentary aberrations when he was occasionally overtaken by the green-eyed monster, it never occurred to Clark to use his gifts for monetary gain. Not his super abilities. He was perfectly content to use his writing talents to make his and his family's lives as comfortable as possible and he was not averse to using the 'skills' to help ease that life, but neither his nor Lois' salaries could ever hope to attain anything like the vessel before him.
"Put the green-eyed monster back in his cage, sweetheart, and concentrate on the important issues." A whispered comment interrupted his thoughts. "Like volcanic eruptions."
Turning his attention to his wife's beautiful face that was now showing signs of worry and impatience, all thoughts of owning luxury yachts fled as he tried to defuse the situation. "Honey, we don't know that. Sure, we had a little incident last night, but when I checked everything was quiet and according to the locals Solvan isn't acting any differently than normal."
"One local seems to think so, or he wouldn't have contacted Jimmy," Lois reminded Clark.
Clark's head bowed to touch Lois'. "You have a point there, honey. So maybe we should go talk to this guy."
"Oh no!" The younger man stared in disbelief at his friends. "I don't even get time to unload my stuff off the boat and already you two are stealing my story."
"No, we're not," Lois sounded indignant. "I'm not interested in the story.
I only want to know if my children are in danger."
"Oh yeah," Jimmy's voice was sceptical. "Since when was Lois Lane not interested in a scoop?"
"Since she became a concerned mother, Jimmy." Lois answered with only a smidgen of exasperation; she understood that Jimmy was not questioning her parenting skills and he did have a point. "Besides, a few moments ago you were willing to share."
"Lois, I think this story belongs to Jimmy, but we do need to find out what's happening. So if you don't object, Jimbo, we would like to ask your contact a few questions."
It was Jimmy's turn to look a little sheepish. "Of course, I don't object. And my offer still stands. I'm supposed to meet this guy at lunchtime in the Papillon Hotel. If you can find the place and you have nothing else planned, then why don't you join us? Meanwhile I'll unload my gear and say goodbye to my friends." He waved in the general direction of the yacht.
Lois giggled, "I think we can find the place. Jimmy, it's the only hotel on the island and the town isn't exactly difficult to find your way around. It's right up that hill."
Following Lois' pointed finger, James Olsen's face fell as he saw the steep climb that awaited him, a task made tougher with the weight of the photographic equipment he had to lug up the hill.
A sympathetic smile spread across Clark's face as he read his friend's thoughts. "Don't worry, Jimbo. They do have a taxi service on the island. We'll head back to the square and send the car down for you." An even bigger smile lit his face as he imagined Jimmy's reaction to the ancient taxi. Then, gathering his slightly dissatisfied children to him (the kids had been hoping for a tour and, if they had been very lucky, for a trip on the Swallow), he arranged to meet James later and, shouting their goodbyes, the group set off back into town.
The family, after fulfilling their promise to Jimmy, finished shopping and, as all agreed to feeling slightly peckish, they sauntered into the hotel restaurant to partake of lunch; a meal which proved that the local chef could hold his own with his more sophisticated brotherhood back in Metropolis. Surprisingly, the dining room had a number of other customers and Lois reviewed her earlier estimation of the Kents being the only holiday makers on the island.
Surreptitiously checking out the other clientele, Lois wondered if Jimmy's source was present and if so which of the other diners he might be. Two older couples were sharing a table by the window, yet taking in their dress, their travel literature and slightly bemused demeanour the investigative reporter dismissed them as vacationers.
Hidden away in an alcove a much younger and obviously much in love couple held hands and exchanged loving glances across their largely ignored meals. Lois quickly identified them as honeymooners; she well remembered that encompassing emotion that shut out the rest of the world when first embarking on a new, long life together.
Nearer at hand, a young woman sat alone awaiting the delivery of her order, her nose buried deeply in a book. The sleuth in Lois had noticed that Eva Blanc had greeted the newcomer with pleased familiarity when she had first entered the room and this fact led Lois to suppose that the woman was a local. She may also have decided that this was the contact, except that Jimmy had distinctly stated that his contact was a 'he'. For the moment these were the only occupants of the restaurant and Lois quickly concluded that the said source had not yet arrived.
While the steady ebb and flow of her children's colloquy with her husband had played over her without intruding on her consciousness, the unfamiliar tones of Philippe Blanc suspended her covert observations. The man welcomed them with the usual pleasantries and hopes that they had enjoyed their lunch, but his continued conversation snagged Lois' complete attention.
"I hope you weren't overly upset by that little fire display last night. The volcano every now and then likes to make its presence felt, but there really is nothing to worry about. It could be weeks before he explodes again or he could let off some more steam tomorrow, but whichever it is it's nothing out of the ordinary."
"But you have to admit that it's a pretty scary occurrence for those who aren't used to volcanos," Clark suggested a little disapprovingly to his host. "It would have been nice to have had a warning instead of being turfed out of bed in the middle of the night by a large explosion."
"You're perfectly right and I do apologise," Philippe did sound sincerely sorry. "I probably should have mentioned it, but you folks looked a little frazzled last evening so I didn't think you would welcome the news about occasionally erupting volcanos. I never thought that Solvan would introduce himself before I had the chance to talk with you."
"And you didn't inform us before we arrived on the island, in case we would look for another holiday spot?" Lois interrogated with a hint of annoyance.
"Believe me, Mrs Kent, I understand your irritation and if I seriously considered that anyone would be endangered by coming here I would warn potential visitors." A genuine look of contrition settled on the older man's face, "But then so many people would miss out on the beauties and the kinship that our wonderful island has to offer."
Under the gentle smile of the proprietor, Lois allowed herself to mellow. "You're right about that, Mr Blanc. Papillon is a lovely place and everyone seems so friendly."
Memories of the warm welcome the family had received from the fishing community on their morning stroll down by the shore and the locals' relaxed, laid-back attitude soothed her anxieties and she began to accept that her concerns might be somewhat magnified.
Philippe's smile embraced the whole family as he brightened, aware that the Kents were ready to forgive his omissions. "Please accept my sincere apologies and my wishes that your time on Ille de Papillon will be memorable."
After a few further moments of chatting about his favourite subject, Papillon, the busy man was called away and the family settled down to assess the suggestions for places to explore that the well-informed islander had given them, the notion of volcanic catastrophe receding in their minds at the prospect of more pleasurable pastimes.
While the family were deep in this discussion, Jimmy appeared in the doorway and, spotting his quarry at a large round table in the centre of the room, pulled up a chair to join his friends. Not waiting for a hello, he immediately launched into the conversation. "Hey, CK, thanks a lot for the help with the transport situation, though I must admit that for a while there I wasn't sure whether the old buggy would make it up the hill. But don't tell me, it's the only taxi on the island."
"You got it, Jimbo. Papillon is not exactly a hive of activity and, from what we've been able to find out, the population of the island is pretty small." Clark visualised in his mind the layout of the land which he had flown over the night before, but it had been dark with only the weird red glow from Solvan lightening the night sky and he had probably not gained a completely accurate picture. "There's another small town on the north shore, which serves as a port for the copra trade, which along with the tuna fishing and tourism seems to be the main resource of the island. Oh, and according to our tour guide, who also owns this hotel, there are a few small farms in the interior but we haven't seen any of this since we only arrived yesterday … on vacation."
"Thank you for the travel log," Jimmy at last relaxed and beamed brightly as he perused the menu, it had been some time since elevenses and he was beginning to feel hungry. Looking around at his few fellow diners he commented wryly, "not exactly a bustling metropolis, eh?"
"But a perfect spot for a get-away-from-it-all break, which is just what Clark and I need," Lois added.
"Except for the volcano," Jimmy reminded.
"Are you sure you have your facts right? We've talked to some of the islanders and none of them seem all that worried." Clark was keen to allay this anxiety so his family could enjoy the rest of their vacation.
"Well, my contact should be here any minute so you can ask him yourself."
However, it seemed as if this illusive personage was destined to remain a mystery, because even after Jimmy had finished his lunch the guy had still remained a no show. It was becoming ever more probable that Philippe Blanc was correct in his judgement of the mountain and, that by his non appearance, the so-called expert was perhaps blowing smoke.
By now the children were growing impatient and fretting that they were wasting time inside a stuffy hotel when they could be playing outside on their very own beach. Lois and Clark too decided that they had devoted enough time to researching a hypothetical disaster. They had come to the island to distance themselves from just such an investigation, so leaving Jimmy to check into the hotel while he awaited the arrival of his source, the family returned to the bungalow above the bay.
Being a concerned mother, Lois did not thoroughly approve of her offsprings' desire to spend the afternoon on the shore. It was the hottest part of the day and the sun's rays were at their strongest. She had of course to concede to Clark's assertion that neither Joel nor Clara were likely to be at risk from the dangerous UV rays, in fact quite the contrary, they would probably benefit from the exposure. This was not the case with Julian and perhaps even Nathan. Where Nathan was concerned, for the present they didn't have a problem, as the small boy had fallen asleep on the way home, strapped into the child's seat behind his father. Clark had carried him into the house and the toddler was now napping in the shade of his bedroom.
Julian, nonetheless was determined not to be left behind if his brother and sister were allowed to venture on the beach and, with Joel and Clara ready to sulk if they were forced to remain in the house because of their brother's 'shortcomings,' an uncomfortable argument was building. Fortunately a compromise was reached when Julian was allowed to join his siblings with the stricture that he must wear a T-shirt, which was not to be removed for any reason. As soon as the exposed surfaces of Julian's fair skin were liberally covered in sun-block by a solicitous mom, three happy children went off to play.
Left alone at last, Lois and Clark stored away their morning purchases with a little boost of super speed, and settled down for a comfortable afternoon spent sharing each others' company on the veranda. There were definite advantages in having a super powered husband, Lois thought as she sipped her deliciously refreshing cocktail and eyed her delectably handsome man through lowered eyelashes. Clark could keep a careful watch on his kids from a distance and be with them in seconds should anything untoward occur.
Meanwhile, they could spend a little interlude indulging in more adult forms of enjoyment. With that in mind, Lois slipped onto Clark's lap, fully intent on resuming their interrupted actions of the morning. Clark's eyes darkened in appreciation as he felt his wife's slight form wriggle onto his knee and lean warmly into his chest. A small smile curved her lips as she removed the glass from his hand and placed both their drinks on the table by his side.
"I don't want anything to cloud this moment," she whispered in memory of their very first night 'together.' Then she leaned closer and placed her lips softly on his. Clark's arms tightened around her, deepening the kiss.
He drew back for a few moments and scanned the surrounding garden and woods, making sure they were alone, then with a final check on his children, he gently floated them indoors.
But their love making was destined to be interrupted. Wrapped in each others' arms, lying atop of their bed with the white insect netting draped around them as they began their ritual exploration of their bodies, they were abruptly halted as Julian burst into the room. His small chest was heaving from the exertion of running up the beach path in the searing heat.
"Mom, Dad, you have to come quick," he rasped. The boy was so distracted, he was not as abashed as he normally would have been to find his parents in this compromising position. After a few more gulps of air he rushed on. "Joel and Clara are fighting. You have to come."
Forcing his mind and body back from the edge of a sexual precipice from which he eagerly wished to jump, Clark deftly pulled the sheet up over their state of dishabille and offered some words of comfort, striving to keep the sound of frustration from his voice. "Julian, calm down. There's nothing new about that. Clara and Joel are always arguing. Don't worry about it. They'll soon forget about whatever riled them and be best friends again."
"No, Dad. They're not arguing. They're fighting." Julian's voice was shrill with worry. "With their fists and feet and everything. They're really fighting. You have to come and stop them before they hurt each other."
Lois and Clark exchanged stares of mutual shock. If Lois had been momentarily surprised by the realisation that her husband had been taken unaware by Julian's approach, that thought was speedily quashed by the boy's disquieting revelation. While their children frequently indulged in heated differences of opinion, they had never resorted to settling these quarrels physically and both parents would have been quick to quell that tendency. In a blur too fast for the human eye to distinguish Lois and Clark stood before Julian fully clothed. Scooping up both wife and son in his arms, Clark made for the beach.
The scene that greeted them left all three speechless. The junior protagonists were certainly knocking the stuffing out of each other. Joel had just tossed Clara to the ground and she had landed awkwardly some distance from her opponent, a circumstance which did not deter her. Uttering a primaeval scream, she launched herself back at her brother who, not expecting such a speedy retaliation, was sent sprawling in the sand with a screaming wildcat in the shape of Clara clinging to his neck. The two never broke contact nor paused for breath but proceeded to pummel the living daylights out of each other.
Dismay, fright and anger fighting for supremacy in her brain, Lois clutched her husband's arm for reassurance that she had not been transported to the twilight zone and in a thready voice she gasped her command. "Stop!" Then gaining control of her vocal cords, she spoke loudly. "Stop this at once, you two!" But it was clear that both children were unwitting of her presence. "Clark, do something!" She directed her orders to the man standing nonchalantly by her side … nonchalantly?!
"What would you like me to do, honey?" he queried pleasantly.
Lois was speechless. Their children were attempting to kill each other and Clark was just lounging about with hands in pockets, surveying the proceedings as if he were a spectator at a prize boxing match.
A loud thump punctuated the air as Joel's fist connected with Clara's chin and sent her spinning once more into space.
"Oh, nice hit, Joel," his father praised. "Come on, Clara, you're not going to let him get away with that?" Sending her taunting parent a look that suggested he would be next to feel the extent of her wrath, the small female clambered from her place in the sand and dove back into the fray. "That's my girl!" Clark shouted proudly, shifting allegiance to encourage his daughter.
Watching from the edge of the treeline, Lois and Julian stood frozen at Clark's stupendously uncharacteristic reaction. Surprisingly, the boy was the first to recover and his small hand tugged at his Dad's arm as he spoke questioningly.
"Dad?! Are you okay?"
The tentative words freed Lois from her shocked trance and she rounded on Clark irately. "Stop them! Stop them right now, Clark!"
"Why, honey? It's not as if they can hurt themselves."
This piece of information, delivered airily, more than astounded Lois and left her bereft of speech. Besides, she was not totally sure of the truth of the statement. Perhaps both antagonists having some super powers cancelled out the invulnerability bit. And neither combatant was yet fully indestructible. Fear lent her strength and she rounded on Clark and delivered a forceful hit right in the centre of his chest. Superman looked down in surprise at the balled fist still resting over his heart, regarding the blow as a mere fly swat, yet she did gain his attention.
"Clark! We do not allow our children to kill each other, even if that is impossible. End this … NOW." And when he seemed reluctant to move she pushed with all her strength and shouted. "Superman, separate them … NOW!!."
Superman's eyebrows rose almost to his hair line and he shook his head to clear the ringing in his ears. "Geesh, Lois, there's no need to shout. You're standing right by me." He pointed out helpfully and then with a touch of peevishness, he added. "You'll give me a headache if you're not careful." From the fiery look that Lois sent him, it seemed that a headache might be the least of his worries.
"GO!" An imperious voice commanded and a stiff arm pointed in the direction of the brawling kids.
"Okay, Lois! I'm going … I'm going. Don't get your knickers in a twist!"
Walking forward, the Man of Steel did not immediately act but gazed studiously at the entangled bodies, scientifically deciding how best to obey Lois' stricture. However, after a short pause for reflection, he acted, literally lifting the two up by the scruff of their necks as if they were playful puppies whose momma had grown tired of their squabbles.
Their momma, meanwhile, could not believe her eyes as she saw her erring offspring, legs and arms flailing as they squirmed around in mid air, being held effortlessly aloft by a very smug-looking pappa. Lois ran towards the group.
"Clark! What are you doing?"
"What you asked me to … separate them." A puzzled hero answered his obviously displeased wife. "That was what you wanted, wasn't it?"
"But not like that! Put them down! This instant!"
Opening his hands, Clark dumped his recalcitrant children on the ground and assuming his best super hero stance he asked, much aggrieved. "Are you happy now?!" Sometimes there was just no pleasing the woman.
Both Joel and Clara appeared stunned by the unforseen interruption and their less than gentle tumble to the sand, but as they recovered they began to eye each other antagonistically once more. Aware of this, Lois planted herself firmly between the two and commanded in a determined voice.
"No more, either of you." Adamantly her gaze passed from Joel to Clara and thankfully both had the grace to blush shamefacedly. "Are you all right? Are you hurt?" When she received sullen nods from both contestants, a great weight of anxiety lifted from her shoulders. Good! Now perhaps, if her children would remain passive, she could address the problem of a peculiarly weird husband.
An ancient memory of an apathetic Superman tugged at her mind. Imbuing her voice with a grave but resolute tone, she turned to the presently less than heroic Superman. "Clark, something is very wrong here." She laid tender hands on his crossed arms and, continuing to speak quietly for emphasis, she strove to reach him through whatever phenomenon had possessed him. "You are acting very strangely, sweetheart, and so are Joel and Clara."
"Kids fight, honey," he wheedled.
"Yes, I agree. But our kids don't fight as if they were auditioning for membership to one of Suicide Slum's gangs. And you wouldn't normally act as cheerleader." As her words reached his senses, a deep red blush suffused his face. Great, he was taking this in, which meant that she now had to convince him of the more difficult supposition. "Clark, do you remember years back when you became apathetic and later when your powers were transferred to me …"
"And the time when we were first married I lost control of my powers?"
"That's right." Lois nodded encouragingly. "Now I'm not sure what happened here but I think that some outside force is making you and the kids act a little crazily, so I want you to take Joel and Clara and go back to the house. Julian and I will have a look around down here and see what we can find." Momentarily it seemed as if he might disagree so she played her trump card. "Besides, Nathan is alone in the house. Please, Clark, trust me on this and just get out of here."
A disconcerted shrug was his only answer, however, he turned to the two children still sitting on the sand. "Come on, kids. Let's go." And, when a mulish look settled on both upturned faces, Clark roughly yanked the errant children to their feet. "Hey, don't give me a hard time. Your mom is giving the orders here." Then, almost dragging Joel and Clara in his wake, Clark disappeared up the path, the three giving a very good impression of children being sent unfairly to bed for some trifling misdemeanour.
"What was that all about?" Julian asked, emerging from his stunned silence.
"I'm not sure, Julian, but this happened before a long time ago and usually red kryptonite was the cause."
The boy was quite aware of the results that kryptonite of both varieties had on his father and his hybrid siblings, having heard all the tales and being warned to guard against any future assaults by the toxic stuff. Nevertheless, he was still puzzled. "But why would there be kryptonite around here?"
"That I don't know. I don't even know if I'm right. But it's up to us to find out. You start at that end of the cove and I'll take this." Lois illustrated with a wave of her hands. "And search carefully, Julian, because it's very important that we find whatever is doing this."
"What am I looking for?" Although Julian had heard the tales, he had never actually seen the dreaded rock.
"Believe me, you'll know if you spot it; it's a red crystal and it sort of glows. But if you see anything else unusual let me know. We just don't have any idea what we're dealing with."
Assured by her son's determined nod, the searchers set off to opposite ends of the small bay and for a time silence reigned as both were engrossed in their task. Lois had almost reached the halfway point when an excited cry caught her attention. Looking up from her position on the beach, she could not at first discern exactly where the call came from, Julian being nowhere in sight. Then an enthusiastic wave from deep within the vegetation that bordered the edge of the path alerted her to Julian's position and as she closed in on him, she could make out his words.
"I've found it, Mom, I think. It's red, all right, but it doesn't glow very much and it's black around the edges."
As he spoke, the boy held aloft a fist-sized rock which he eagerly handed to his mother when she reached his side. Studying the offending article, Lois admitted that it didn't resemble the other specimens she had encountered. Dark sooty streaks covered the roughened surface and, so occupied was she in her examination, she did not at first hear what Julian was trying to say.
" … they were all right yesterday."
"I'm sorry, Julian, I wasn't paying attention. What were you saying?"
"This couldn't have been here yesterday." Speaking slowly, as if he were putting things together in his head, Julian continued. "If this is what's making Dad and the others act weird, then it just couldn't have been here the other day. We came down to the beach, remember, and everything was fine. Joel and Clara were perfectly normal."
Reviewing the past day's events, Lois agreed. "So this arrived here either during the night or this morning. But who could have put it here and why? No one knows that Superman is on the island."
"Maybe it came from Solvan," Julian suggested helpfully.
An arrested look crossed Lois' face then, throwing her arms around her son's smaller frame, she exclaimed. "Yes! Of course! It came from the explosion last night. That would explain its charred appearance. This rock has been inside a volcano."
"But Mom, volcanos are really hot inside. Wouldn't it be more like … ash?"
"Well, I'm not into science but I do remember Bernard telling us that kryptonite is one of the densest minerals on the planet. After all, it did survive a journey through space and passage into Earth's atmosphere. And this doesn't resemble the untouched variety much."
"Do you think there's any more here?"
Another diligent search uncovered two other slivers of the offending rock, or at least a facsimile thereof, except these specimens were even more burnt and looked like something left over from a barbeque. Nevertheless, they were gathered in and carried up the path by the troubled pair. On reaching the house, Lois sent her son inside to fetch a particular lead-lined box which the family, due to past uncomfortable encounters, never travelled without, and when Julian returned with his cargo, the embers of kryptonite were securely locked inside.
Now Lois and Julian could safely join Clark and the other children in doors, and as Lois walked speculatively inside she wholeheartedly hoped that her husband and kids had begun to recover from their exposure. The trio were found lounging silently around the living room in varying states of dejection. No longer exposed to the red kryptonite, the worst effects were receding, but it was clear that neither Clark nor the children were back to their alert and sunny dispositions.
Returning from his studious contemplation of the ceiling, Clark announced morosely, "I assume, from the need for the box, that you found kryptonite."
Well, if he wasn't exactly happy, he was at least cognitive. "Yes, honey." Lois answered gently. "At least I think so. But it's so badly burnt that I can't be sure."
"Burnt?!" Clark's voice rose a couple of notches.
"Yes! Almost to a cinder! But Julian has a theory about that."
"Well, we found this at the bottom of the path; in the bushes by the edge of the sand … you couldn't reach the beach without passing this by."
"And so, Clark, yesterday the kids played on the beach and everything was normal."
"And today the Kryptonian branch of the family went a little crazy." Lois rolled her hand over encouragingly as Clark followed her reasoning. "Which means that 'this' appeared sometime in between."
"That's where Julian's theory comes in." Lois was reluctant to continue.
"I'm not going to like this, am I?" Clark's instincts were racing ahead of his thoughts.
Taking a deep breath, Lois plunged on. "Julian thinks that it came from Solvan. In the explosion."
Three wide-eyed stares focussed on Lois and Julian and on the box that was held tight against Lois' chest.
"Great! Not only do we land on an island with a volcano," Clark was perambulating about the room, his hands waving in the air, "we choose an island with a volcano that has its own supply of kryptonite."
"That's pretty much what Julian and I think."
"And you're sure that it's red kryptonite." Clark was clutching at straws, hoping against hope that his family could have just one uneventful vacation. "Let me take a look," yet, at the challenging glare sent him by his partner, Clark rethought the matter. "Not a good idea, eh?"
"Definitely not! I'm not sure what this stuff is but it's staying locked up tight where it can do no further damage. I just wish that Bernie was here to take a look at it." With a wistful sigh Lois walked into the kitchen and placed the box on the table.
Clark followed her quickly and the children shadowed their father. "You know, honey, that's not a bad idea. I could take the box back to Star Labs."
"Oh, Clark." An even more wistful sigh escaped her lips. "We sorta decided that you weren't going to be Superman."
"I was gonna fly back to Metropolis for a patrol in a couple of days anyway, so I'll just move my plans up," Clark reminded her. "And I did say that 'Supes' would put in an appearance for emergencies." He used the nickname he detested, hoping to lighten the mood. "And I think, honey, that this is an emergency."
Lifting the kettle, Lois proceeded to fill it with water and place it on the stove; she felt in great need of some herbal tea to calm her nerves. Actually, what she really felt in need of was a large scotch, but it was too early in the afternoon and not in front of the kids.
"Maybe, Clark, what we really should be doing is packing up and all flying back to Metropolis."
"Oh, Mom, no!" Joel was the first to voice his objections. "We just got here and the island is … great … except for the kryptonite."
"I agree with Joel, honey. Even though I hate to admit it, we can't just fly off. Now I know we could say that we contacted Superman when we got worried about the volcano erupting, but according to everyone we've spoken to that's just not gonna happen. And Lane & Kent don't exactly have the reputation of turning tail and running when things get a little tough."
"Way to go, Dad," Clara interjected and was immediately silenced by a disapproving look from both parents.
"And, more importantly, honey, we just can't fly off leaving behind an unknown and maybe plentiful supply of kryptonite." The emergence of this problem had obviously disconcerted Clark. Over the past years his contact with the dreaded mineral had become more infrequent and he had begun to hope that the last remnants of his birth planet were now safely locked away in the vaults at Star Labs. To find an island polluted with the stuff (at this moment Clark was prone to exaggeration) was an extremely unwelcome discovery. "You'll see, it's only a matter of time before someone else discovers it and it'll be on the black market in no time and every crook I come up against will be wielding their own little souvenir of Papillon."
"Oh my, we are upset." Lois' words might have been tinged with sarcasm but her actions belied that sentiment. She crossed to her agitated husband and, pushing him down into a chair, began to massage his tense shoulders while dropping a comforting kiss on a favourite spot behind his left ear. "Maybe most of the stuff is still inside the volcano and I can't see anyone fishing it out of there and maybe there isn't any more, we just don't know." Her fingers seemed to be having little effect on Clark, but then, although she was trying to make light of the situation, it was a worrying state of affairs.
"Come on, Lois, you don't really believe that."
"Yeah, Mom. Solvan didn't wait for us to come along before he spat up the kryptonite." Joel poured scorn on her attempt to console.
"Yeah, he's most likely been doing it for years and there's tons of the horrible stuff around." Clara added to the gloom.
Searching the dejected faces of Clark and his two 'super kids,' Lois decided that, though the situation was disturbing, the three were still clearly suffering from the exposure to the red K and she could not expect to get an objective view from any of them. Perhaps removing Clark from the vicinity of Papillon for a time was no bad thing.
"Well, I don't think we should make any decisions until we find out a little bit more about what we're dealing with here," Lois pronounced in reasonable tones. "And I agree, Clark, I think you should take the samples back to Star Labs and let Bernie study them."
"Good!" Clark quickly rose to his feet and turned to face his wife. "And I'll ask him if he has any theories as to how the stuff got here." Now that Clark had a plan of action he was more able to fight the mind-numbing effects of the kryptonite and he realized he had a confession to make to Lois. "Because I think that we have to assume that there's more kryptonite inside Solvan. I didn't mention it, honey, mainly because it didn't occur to me at the time, I just thought I was suffering from jet lag … but last night as I flew over the open crater I stopped to have a look inside. I felt kind of strange … light headed … mesmerised and without realising it, I lost altitude. After a minute, I sorta shook myself awake, regained height and flew straight here. And this morning when everything was back to normal I kinda forgot about what happened. "
"Oh, Clark, why didn't you tell me?"
"I'm sorry, sweetheart, but it just didn't seem that important. And we hadn't found the kryptonite at that point, " Clark reminded her. "I just didn't suspect …"
"Who would?" Lois acknowledged her husband's point. "I think the sooner you get this back to Bernie the better." And she lifted the box from the table and placed it firmly into Clark's hands.
Super speeding into the bedroom, Clark retrieved and donned his red-and-blue suit, and with a promise to his family that, barring disasters he would be back in time for dinner, he flung himself at a speed that defied the human eye into the sky. He was in no mood to tarry.
Left to their own devices for some time and, it being a few hours until Lois needed to prepare dinner, the remainder of the family decided to take a walk. Lois' first instinct was to remain firmly in the safe confines of the bungalow, but neither she nor her children were happy to hide away from trouble and no one was content to spend any part of their vacation skulking away indoors. So, with a reminder to Joel and Clara that they must guard against any aggressive feelings or indeed report any uncharacteristic emotions that they might experience, the group set off for an afternoon stroll. Additionally, they would all have to diligently monitor Nathan's demeanour as the small boy was much too young to understand or control any change in behaviour. There was, perhaps, no need to be anxious for Nathan, as Lois suspected that in her younger son the human genes prevailed. Still, it didn't hurt to be cautious.
An unspoken commitment to search for more rocks filled all their minds and the children were soon burrowing around in the undergrowth which bordered the path they strolled along. While the kids diligently searched, Lois allowed her mind to review the past couple of days, well aware that any kryptonite would advertise its presence by the changes in Clara and Joel.
She wasn't happy about the prospect but felt it highly likely that there were further deposits around and if that were so, it followed that Clark's and the children's conduct might be subtly altered. Which might explain why Clark had experienced some unusual envy for the Chens' luxury yacht; Lois had noticed and been more than a little surprised at his attitude. Never before had she witnessed her husband's jealousy over opulent possessions. Long ago, he had been jealous of a few other suitors for her affections, Superman included, and he jealously guarded his and his family's privacy, but Lois was ready to swear that Clark didn't have an acquisitive bone in his body. Could Clark's abnormal manner down on the dock have been the result of being on this island?
If that were so, then the sooner they could leave the better. Yet immediately as her mind assimilated this fact, a little derisive voice inside her head told her that Clark was right; they couldn't just run away and ignore what was left behind on this island. Ideally, they should just hire some people to come in and make a clean sweep of the land, but that was impossible. For one thing, they just didn't have the financial resources. And secondly, the number of persons that she and Clark could trust with such an important task could be counted on the fingers of their hands and as most of these were approaching the autumn of their years, they could hardly be expected to climb all over a wild tropical island. No, if they were to dispose of the problem, again they would just have to rely on Superman and his closest family. Let's just hope that those members who were influenced by the red rock could control the strange effects and, heaven forbid, that there should be any of the green variety, she thought.
At that frightening realization, Lois stridently called her children back to her side. The thought of seeing her kids writhing in agony, as she had in the past witnessed their father, scared the hell out of her. Suddenly the idea of skulking inside the safe haven of the house didn't seem so distasteful.
"Come on, kids, we're going back."
"Geez, Mom, we just got started." Joel's voice had taken on a whining note that was not normally evident. "What do you want to go back for?"
"Yeah, Mom, we'll be real careful and tell you if we feel weird." Clara added. her entreaty.
Julian understood his mother's dilemma. He was aware that his siblings were still suffering slightly from kryptonite exposure even though they didn't quite themselves realise this. However, he felt that the search for more of the red rock was important too and voiced his opinion. "Maybe we should keep looking for now. The more we find and make safe the better." For emphasis he lifted the tube of aluminum foil he carried, Clark having flown off with the lead-lined box.
"I don't know." Lois was vacillating. "You have a point, Julian, but if we should find green kryptonite then it could be dangerous for Joel and Clara." Her teeth worried her bottom lip as she spoke, proving to her kids that they were dealing with one very anxious Mom.
"Dad's come up against it a couple of times and it didn't kill him," Clara reasoned.
"Your father is a grown man, Clara. It might not take so much to hurt you children."
"But we're your kids too, Mom. We're half human, remember." Her junior super hero had apparently given this some thought. "That's got to make a difference, Mom."
Lois hoped wholeheartedly that this was so. "You might be right, Joel, but you don't know what you're up against. Believe me, I've seen what green kryptonite can do to Daddy and I don't ever want you or Clara and Nathan to go through that."
"Maybe it will hurt us, Mom." Joel had taken hold of his mother's hand and, rubbing his thumb over it gently, he replied in grave tones. "Then it's better that we find out here … where you and Julian can get rid of the rock and take good care of us."
When did her young son grow up and become so wise? She was used to him charging about the house, avidly playing computer games and watching TV until she thought he would develop square eyes; bumping into furniture and breaking crockery because he had not yet acquired precise control of his abilities and leaving his toys and dirty clothes strewn about his bedroom, which often resembled a bomb site. But now as she returned Joel's earnest gaze she recognised the warmth and understanding of his father.
A lump formed in Lois' throat as she contemplated the life that lay before her children, all her children, because she knew without a shadow of doubt that, super powered or not, Julian and Nathan would be involved in the super heros' exploits. All the wonderful things that they could do to help the world but then, on the reverse side of the coin, all the horrors they would encounter along the way. And most importantly of all, if their old friend and fellow time traveller H G Wells were to be believed, the foundation of the future Utopia. Hopefully she and Clark would be around to help and guide them in this venture, just as Clark's parents, and to some degree, her own parents were there for herself and Clark.
"Mom! Mom, are you OK?" Joel anxiously shook the hand he held.
Lois surfaced from her reverie to see four worried pairs of eyes regarding her solemnly.
"What's it to be, Mom? Do we go on or are we going back?" Clara had dropped the wheedling voice of earlier, her concern for her mother breaking through the effects of the red K.
"I like to walk," Nathan announced, feeling he ought to let his mom know his opinion. "An' look for the pretty coloured rocks."
"Nathan, the rocks might look pretty but they're not nice," Julian explained to his young brother. "If you find any, you have to give them to Mom or me right away. They could hurt you."
The little boy nodded his head sagely at Julian's words. "Yes, I know. They's red and green. An' you put them in that," and he pointed to the foil in his brother's hands. "Like a 'Santa' parcel."
"Yes, and then they can't hurt you or Clara and Joel anymore," Julian finished.
Listening to the conversation, Lois concluded that she had been outnumbered by the opposition. Graciously she conceded defeat. "All right, we'll go on for now, but you all understand the plan if we find anything."
Lois received four decisive nods of assent and the little party continued on their way, the children returning to their rummaging but this time with the assistance of their mother. But for all their diligence only one more piece of kryptonite was discovered and that a very small charred briquette. Wrapping the rock in layers of foil, the family with more than a modicum of disappointment retraced their steps. By the evidence of the setting sun it was clearly getting on towards dinner time and Dad would soon be home.
Far away in Metropolis, a worried super hero paced back and forth in Dr Klein's laboratory at Star Labs. Even though it was late evening in the city, Superman, knowing his old friend's workaholic nature, had visited the laboratories first and had not been surprised to find the doctor deeply engrossed in some experiment. Nevertheless, Bernie had at once broken off from his regular duties when he had learned of the reason for Clark's unexpected visit. Leaving the samples for analysis, Superman had proceeded to patrol the city while the brilliant but now alarmed doctor examined the charred pieces of rock.
The super hero had helped out at a major traffic accident, caught a purse snatcher and returned the stolen article to a very shaken but grateful old lady who agreed to be carried to the nearest ER unit for a check over, then finally halted a getaway car and delivered the robbers to the police. But everyone he encountered was of the same opinion: Superman was not his usual friendly self. Over time, the Man of Steel had unbent a little with the citizens of his chosen home, and though he still guarded his right to privacy, he was more approachable than in the early years. On this particular night the folks he met would have described his manner as distracted and though he carried out his rescues with his customary efficiency Superman's mind was clearly on other matters.
Whenever he felt he had given Bernard enough time to study the rocks, Clark returned post-haste to the lab, both eager and anxious to hear of the scientist's findings. Entering the darkened room, the only lights ablaze were centred on the doctor's lab bench, Clark could tell by the pained expression on Bernie's face, pinpointed in the glare of the flourescent light, that the news wasn't good.
Purposefully walking forward, he drew the preoccupied man's attention by demanding more bluntly and gruffly than his norm. "OK, Doc, what's the verdict?"
"Superman! Don't creep up on me like that! You scared me half to death," Bernard squeaked in fright, then turned his gaze away from his friend, continuing to study the piece of rock beneath his microscope. "You know, you're right about these rocks. This is Kryptonite of the red variety." He sat back in his high chair and took the sample in his hand, on the brink of holding it up for inspection.
"Hey, be careful with that, Doc. I'm just getting over my last exposure and I can tell you that I didn't exactly cover myself with glory. Lois wasn't amused."
"I'm sorry," and Bernie sheepishly and hurriedly placed all the tiny samples into a lead case and locked them safely away. "Wives, huh! Can't live with 'em; can't live without 'em." He lifted a glass beaker filled with a clear liquid and toasted their respective wives. "Lois and Beth!"
Clark grinned slightly at the doctor's feeble attempt at humour, then his attention returned to the seriousness of the situation. "Bernie! What did you discover?"
"Yes, of course, to the point! They are kryptonite but these rocks have been subjected to extremely high temperatures, so you're probably right about them coming from inside the volcano. It's amazing! We always knew that kryptonite was almost indestructible, but that it can withstand such heat without loss of density is remarkable."
"Well, it's still creating havoc with my family," the younger man revealed morosely.
"The kids too! I guess that figures, after all, they do share your Kryptonian genes. And something else about these particular rocks surprises me; the heat has actually increased the amount of radiation they exude."
"That explains why such a small piece should have such a big effect. How long do you think it's been there?" Clark was almost afraid to ask, yet they had to know the truth.
"I can have the samples carbon-dated but that's going to take a while. And that would only tell us how old the meteorite was," he added somewhat absentmindedly.
"So take an educated guess, Doc?"
"Hmm." Bernie remained silent for a second, considering his answer. "There have been no reports of kryptonite of any colour falling from the sky in recent years. Unless they fell in very remote parts of the world and we just haven't heard about them. That's not entirely impossible. You know, some sparsely populated areas do still exist in this world …"
"Bernie!" Clark brought the doctor back on track. "That idea doesn't exactly fill me with joy, but could we concentrate on these pieces?" He stretched a hand to indicate the lead box.
"Yes, indeed! But I was trying to illustrate a point," said the slightly aggrieved doctor, but recognising the extent of his friend's worries, he continued quickly. "It's my opinion that the kryptonite has been on Earth as long as you."
"I thought you might say that." Clark's brow furrowed with the conception of pending disaster.
"We know your planet exploded, and we know that bits of debris from the explosion followed you to Earth, probably caught up in the wake of your spaceship. Now I had always assumed, and I'm not sure why I did because the other is just as plausible… " Bernard spotted the exasperation flash across the other man's face and hurried on with his deliberation. " … assumed that your ship landed from a lateral orbit, yet there's nothing to say that had to be the case. If my theory is right then …" Crossing to his computer console, closely followed by an attentive Clark, the doctor speedily brought up a globe of Earth as seen from an orbiting satellite and configured the supposed route of the little space craft as it made its way into Earth's atmosphere to Kansas so many years ago. "… if you tilt the flight path from south to north diagonally." Here Bernie rotated the globe on his screen and as the simulated line tilted he sat back in his chair and pointed to the monitor. "Hey, Presto!!
The island of Papillon lies directly in the flight path. My guess is that the kryptonite which followed in the wake of your ship dropped on the island and straight into the jaws of the volcano."
Momentarily, Clark studied the screen, unwilling to accept the dread findings. Still denial was scarcely going to help the situation. "And now that the volcano is threatening to erupt, the kryptonite is being sprayed all over the island."
"Do you know how much there is?" Klein was almost afraid to ask.
"No! So far that's all we've been able to find."
"Then maybe you're overreacting," Bernard tried to console the super hero.
A distraction occurred as a plainly unamused Beth Klein strode into the laboratory, clearly in search of her errant husband. "Bernard, I know that you are nicknamed 'the absent-minded professor,' but I don't appreciate being stood up at a restaurant on my birthday." She halted her tirade as she recognised her husband's visitor. "Superman, what brings you here?" And consciously lowering her voice, "I thought you were in the South Pacific. I hope that there's nothing wrong with the children."
Beth, having attended Lois at every one of the Kent children's births, with the exception of Julian, regarded them as her own special family.
"Not exactly! But we do have a problem. And I'm very sorry. It's my fault that Bernard was distracted and left you stranded. And I'm glad you're here because I'd really like to talk to you both about this."
A suppressed grin almost threatened to overcome the female Doctor Klein as she reflected that Lois' babble habit had eventually rubbed off on Clark. Yet, understanding that he was functioning under considerable stress, she pushed the amusing thought aside and invited him to sit with her and unburden himself of his worries. For the next hour Superman regaled the Kleins with what had occurred since they had arrived on Papillon and his consternation about this previously unknown cache of kryptonite plus his apprehension regarding the effect it was having on his offspring.
Both the doctors' first instincts had been to return with Superman to the island to examine the kids but, as the children seemed to be suffering more mental than physical trauma and, as Superman was not really supposed to be on Papillon, it was decided that a visit could be postponed until such time as when he or the children got physically sick. A prospect that they all prayed would never happen.
There was one brighter spot in the discussion when Beth reminded her husband of the device he had been trying to perfect which, if proved to be operational, would ease the family's dilemma. Happily, the ingenious inventor went to fetch his latest gizmo and spent the next few minutes enthusiastically demonstrating its capabilities.
Clark swiftly learned how to work the machine and, deducing that his family would be anxiously watching the skies for his return, he collected the small package and the lead box, flying off to Papillon with a thank you for the providential gift and a promise to keep Bernard and Beth up to speed on the state of health of himself and the children.
Once back on the island, Clark with his family settled down to an extremely subdued dinner. Lois and the kids listened carefully while he reviewed all that Bernard had been able to glean from the charred rocks and the doctor's supposition of how and where they had landed on the island. In return they had told him of their mildly successful search for more of the dreaded stuff. They also related their thoughts on what their next course of action should be; that they should remain on Papillon and try to make the most of their vacation. Meanwhile they could keep a lookout for other pieces of the crystal while those family members unaffected would very carefully keep watch on the others. Reluctantly, Clark admitted that he had arrived at much the same conclusion and so it was decided that for the present the family should not leave Papillon.
Now that the resolution to remain on the island was made, Clark fetched Bernard's latest invention and with a flourish he unveiled the small electronic contraption which looked like a miniaturized Geiger-counter and indeed was a modified and updated version of the machine that had been tuned into the special radiation emitted by kryptonite. This device, allied with Clark's x-ray and telescopic vision, thankfully lessened the hazard that the island posed. Joel's powers in this department were growing stronger but were still too inconsistent to be relied on totally; however, his parents knew that the young super hero would do his very best to help contain the problem.
By the time the children went to bed the whole family had begun to take a more optimistic view of the situation and Lois declared to her offspring that this was just another obstacle that the Kent family were sure to surmount. Her brave facade, however, began to wilt as the two grown-ups cleared away the supper things and shortly after followed their children's path to bed.
Propped up on her pillows, Lois' unseeing gaze stared through the window into the far distance of the moon-silvered ocean. How could their island paradise have degenerated into a poisoned garden? She sighed audibly as Clark came from the bathroom, his hair glistening wetly, and drying his body with a large white towel at normal speed. He regarded his wife with a mixture of loving concern and … lust, which he determinedly stomped on for the moment.
"Are you unhappy with our decision, sweetheart? Because if you are I can still fly us all home right now. You only have to say the word."
Lois' attention turned to her husband. "No, I think we made the right decision. There would be too many questions to answer otherwise and there is the question of the kryptonite. I accept all that; I don't particularly like it but I'm not prepared to run away from the problem. Lane and Kent don't run from trouble." Her chin firmed at this assertion but she couldn't suppress another sigh. "I just wonder if we're jinxed. I mean, would it be too much to ask to have one vacation when we didn't encounter mad criminals or relics of a dead planet?"
"No, honey. I understand exactly what you mean." Clark finished towelling himself and slipped into bed beside her, arranging the netting around them and very pleased that Lois' worries had been so quickly dealt with. "However, I have other things on my mind tonight. Now where were we before we were interrupted this afternoon?" He smiled seductively as his arms slid around his wife.
"Wait, Clark." Lois' hand on his chest stopped his romantic approach. She was not completely averse to his attentions but some concerns still lingered. "There's something we have to discuss first."
A disappointed look descended on Clark's face but he reined in his frustrations and attended to Lois' misgivings. "What's bothering you, honey?"
"The kids! Or rather Joel and Clara's reaction to the red kryptonite." Lois twisted in the bed to face her love. "Clark, in the past that stuff has made you lose control of your powers, transferred them to me or made you apathetic."
"Sorta like today." Clark had the grace to blush.
"Yes! But it has never made you aggressive." Desperation tinged the worried mothers's voice. "It was almost like the kids were bent on killing each other."
"Lois! I think that's a little strong." He hurried along as he saw her attempt to interrupt. "However, it bothered me too so I discussed the situation with Beth and Bernard and we reached some conclusions."
"Lois, when I first encountered red kryptonite it was at a very emotional time for me. Scardino was hanging round you like a bad smell and it made me so jealous … angry even. I was so mixed up with all the new feelings I was experiencing that probably seeing Dr Frisken was no bad thing. I remember being in her office and getting increasingly uncomfortable with the pointed questions she kept asking me. Lois, I was so mad I punched a hole in her wall and kicked over her couch and then I found the kryptonite. It had been taped to the underside of the couch, and when I thought she had planted it I was ready to strangle her. But then I thought, what the heck; what did it matter anyway? Then I threw the rock out of her window, broke the glass too." Clark lapsed into silence as he contemplated that far off time, unaware that his wife was carefully studying him. Lois had been mindful for some time of the happenings of that period but she had seldom heard such raw emotion raging in his tone. After a moment's contemplation Clark went on. "Maybe I subconsciously used apathy to suppress the aggression. Lois, I have spent my entire life learning to control my temper, knowing that if I ever struck out in anger just what irreparable damage I could do …"
"But the children haven't learnt that control yet." Lois finished his thought. "And there's another thing. As Joel pointed out this afternoon, they're my kids too which means they have my genes mixed in there somewhere. And I never have been very good at controlling my temper."
This had been Lois' constant fear for a long time; that the super powers allied to her volatile nature would prove to be a combustible combination. Yet her anxieties had always centred on her highly strung daughter never on Joel, who so much resembled his father in every way.
"Lois, that's not true. You've mellowed a lot in the past years and you had good reason to be feisty when you were a kid." Clark was quick to reassure. "Besides, did I ever tell you how sexy you are when you get mad?"
Having verbalized their troubling ideas, Clark's feelings were once again and with greater insistence turning to more sexual matters. He seldom could resist expressing his deep love for Lois in the physical worship of her body and since arriving on this exotic paradise his sexual appreciation for her had increased tenfold. Was it the sun and the sand; the knowledge that they had all the time in the world to be together or just the skimpy clothes they were wearing in the island heat? Whatever was affecting him, his libido had gone into overdrive … and there were so many interruptions. Still, he wasn't about to analyse the reasons for this phenomenon but he did intend that they enjoy it whenever they could.
"Clark, how can you think of that right now?" Lois was tempted to giggle but she was also exasperated by her husband's obvious train of thought.
"Easily, honey, quite easily when I'm with you. And," Clark raised himself on his elbow and pointed through the window, "what could be more romantic; a tropical moon; a sleepy lagoon and you."
"Clark Kent, sometimes you are so … corny!"
"Funny, Lois! Very funny!"
But further deliberation was cut off by the exploration of two pairs of lips eagerly seeking the other and for the present all thoughts of kryptonite were forgotten.
A peaceful night and a glorious morning had calmed the Kent family's frayed nerves and next day found them cheerfully picnicking on their own private beach; a beach now free of all dangerous geological deposits. The whole family had enjoyed an energetic swim in the fantastically clear ocean followed by a riotous game of beach football and were now relaxing in the gentler heat of the forenoon sun. Thoughts of yesterday's dread findings were not wholly abandoned but, for the present, they had been relegated to the recesses of their minds in a determined effort to enjoy the vacation.
Young Nathan, not content to nap, was sitting a little way off from the others, his well-rounded bottom plumped firmly down on the warm sands and his concentration firmly rooted on his prized stash of marbles. This was Nathan's latest passion. Ever since he had helped his grandmother with a little spring cleaning and had discovered his Grandpa Jon's boyhood collection, Nathan had been captivated by the bright glass baubles. As soon as the adult Kents had assured themselves that the toddler understood that the attractive balls were not to be eaten, the small boy had fallen heir to the treasure.
Now he sat with the coloured glass balls spread out around him while he picked each one up and dropped it with a resounding plop into his canister; he loved the sound they made and giggled with each solid drop. Finally, he came to his two newest acquisitions; Grandpa Jon would be real pleased and wasn't he lucky that Mommy had made them look for those horrible rocks and he'd found these pretty marbles just lying around. 'Course, these weren't the things they'd been looking for; Mommy had said the rocks were green and red and when they'd found a piece of the stuff he'd seen that it was all jagged and dull and covered in soot, while his finds were yellow gold and shiny and almost round and glowed in the sun.
And he had meant to tell someone; he didn't mean to keep it a secret, but everyone had been so upset yesterday and acting really weird. Joel and Clara had actually knocked the socks of each other … and Daddy … well, Daddy just hadn't seemed like Daddy anymore. And not like Superman either. 'Course, Daddy wasn't meant to be Superman on this trip, but Nathan wasn't quite sure if he was meant to be the way he was yesterday either. Mommy didn't seem too happy about it and she said it was all the fault of these nasty rocks. Thank goodness they'd found them and locked them away in the special box and things seemed to be back to normal this morning.
Nathan held the two amber balls in his chubby little hands and stared in wonder as he held them up to catch the light. He decided to show his new treasures off to Julian. Julian always listened to what he had to say and looked out for him. Not that Joel and Clara didn't do the same, but they were developing the 'powers' and were pre-occupied with learning to control them. At least, that's what Gramma Martha had told him, though Nathan wasn't quite sure what 'pre-occupied' meant. Did it have something to do with the faraway and frightened look he sometimes saw on his brother's and lately his sister's faces? Nathan hoped he wouldn't get the 'powers' if it gave you 'pre-occupied' and definitely not if it made you do bad things when these rocks were around.
Having reached the decision to tell Julian about what he'd found, the small boy closed the lid on the rest of the marbles and pushed himself up from the ground, wrinkling his toes in the sand and carefully making sure he didn't drop the articles in question. His attention, however, was snagged by a movement in the ocean, and, pointing to the sparkling water, he called to his drowsing parents.
"Mermaid," he squealed in awed tones, his toddler's mind equating the beautiful creature with one of his favourite videos. His new marbles forgotten for the moment, he deposited them in the pocket of his shorts. "Mommy, it's a mermaid." And he crossed to stand in front of his parents.
Rousing herself from her contented stupor, Lois raised herself on an elbow and turned her attention to what had caught her son's notice in such a surprising manner. And indeed there was someone immerging from the blue lagoon. Like Aphrodite rising from the waves, the figure waded through the gentle swell and as it approached the shoreline, Lois could distinguish that it was female … and indeed a very lovely female, dressed in a very white and very skimpy swimsuit with a colourful scarf tied sarong-like about her curvaceous hips. The figure was also vaguely familiar.
"Clark! Clark," Lois hissed, trying to attract her husband's attention. "We have company."
"Excuse me," came the languorous reply, Clark not quite wanting to give up his delicious daydreams of the past night spent in his wife's very passionate arms. "What, honey?" But, recognising the faint note of curiosity and surprise in Lois' tone, with a reluctant effort he quashed his sexy visions and, sitting up, turned to search the expanse of beach.
The visiting mermaid had now reached the dry sands and was striding on legs, very long legs, up the beach towards the little group.
"Hi," the stranger called to the family. "I hope you don't mind the intrusion, but I noticed you from the yacht, and the water looked so inviting that I thought I might swim over to say hallo. I'm Hazel Chen." Her announcement was accompanied by a dazzling smile. "We almost met yesterday at the docks."
Behind her, anchored some way out in the bay, the Kents spied the streamlined form of the Swallow. The family scrambled to their feet as their caller reached them but as none of the others seemed ready to speak, Lois took the lady's proffered hand and smiled a cautious welcome.
"Hello, I'm Lois Kent." That unusual introduction surprised her husband as Lois normally preferred to introduce herself as Lois Lane, unless she was dealing with people associated with her offspring.
At least, it would have surprised her husband had he been capable of cognitive thought. Unused to Clark's reticence in welcoming a prospective guest, Lois directed a searching glance at her husband, who was happily oblivious of her study. Clark was leering. Leering! Clark Kent didn't leer, but as she surreptitiously examined him she had to reluctantly admit that it was a definite 'leer.' She had been on the receiving end of too many of these looks from men she considered 'sleaze balls' to deny it. But Clark didn't do that sort of thing.
Yesterday there was nonchalance and now there was … leering. What was happening here? And whatever was next? They'd already cleared the area of kryptonite but Clark was still showing signs of very unusual behaviour. And what was more, Lois didn't like this particular manifestation one bit.
Pushing a stirring of jealousy and distaste aside, Lois spoke tersely. "Clark, aren't you going to say hallo? Mrs Chen has just swum in to visit us, the least you can do is say hallo."
With a conscious effort, Clark tore his eyes away from contemplating the perfect body, revealingly displayed in the wet swimsuit and the colourful, clinging silk sarong. Somewhere in his preoccupied brain he noted the edge in Lois' voice and out of habit he answered his wife's unspoken warning, belatedly recalling his manners. "Yes, of course, forgive me, I'm Clark Kent and these are our children, Joel, Julian, Clara and Nathan. Please, won't you join us." He gestured to the blanket that was spread out over the sand. "We're about to have lunch; nothing very exotic, just sandwiches and fruit but you're welcome to share."
"Thank you, that would be very nice, but actually I thought that you all might like to join Roy and me on the Swallow for lunch. I noticed that you were a bit disappointed not to look over her yesterday and I thought I could make amends."
At her suggestion the children became very animated, anxious to accept the invitation.
"Oh please, Mom, Dad, can we?" Julian asked politely yet eagerly.
"Cool!" That from Clara; everything good in Clara's world was described that way.
"Pretty mermaid!" It seemed that Nathan concurred with his dad's estimation of Mrs Chen.
Joel, however, hadn't spoken, which was strange and Lois shot him a quick look. A startled expression had transfixed young Joel's face as he took in the vision before him. Lois had to admit that the view was stunning. Long black and shining tresses hung down to Mrs Chen's waist … a waist that was unnaturally tiny. Whereas all her other curves were more than adequate. And the face that graced this perfect physique was that of a dusky island maiden, with almost black almond-shaped eyes above beautifully sculpted cheekbones and a full, smiling mouth.
At last Joel found his voice and addressed the object of his adoration reverently. "You're very kind, Mrs Chen. I'm sure my family would be honoured to accept your invitation."
Lois stared aghast at her first born, fervently wishing she hadn't asked the question; what next? Geesh, Clark had competition in his admiration for this woman … his eight-year-old son.
Mrs Chen bestowed a sparkling smile on her young admirer and held her hand out to him. "That was very prettily said," and as she shook Joel's hand gently she looked towards his parents. "And if your mother and father agree, I should be honoured to entertain you."
Did Lois detect a sultry smile sent from beneath dropped eyelids towards the adult male Kent? Yes, there it was, that look of appreciation; the shimmer of awareness that said that this woman found Clark intriguing. Often, in the past, Lois had to deal with women who found her husband attractive, and Hazel Chen was clearly displaying all the symptoms of the gooey-eyed cheerleader, but never before had Lois had to contend with her husband returning the look in spades.
"That's very kind of you, Mrs Chen, but I'm sure you don't want to be bothered with four noisy children running all over your lovely boat." Lois answered with barely concealed exasperation, prepared to use any excuse to distance Clark from this femme fatale, even though she was the recipient of five very disgruntled gazes.
"Please, Mrs Kent, we've been at sea for days and the Swallow is Roy's new toy and, much as I think she's a beauty, I'd love some fresh company. You'd be doing us both a favour; Roy will have the pleasure of showing off his pride and joy and I'll adore spending time in a conversation that doesn't include anything nautical." She shrugged apologetically for her lack of appreciation. "And my name is Hazel."
Lois found herself responding to the heartfelt plea against her better judgement, but she made one last attempt to ward off what she was praying would not be a catastrophe. "What about the sandwiches?" Even that sounded feeble to her own ears.
"Lois, we can eat sandwiches any day of the year." Clark's tone of voice left her in no doubt as to what he thought of her prevarication. "And it'd be churlish to refuse such an invitation." He turned his attention back to the delectable Mrs Chen and bathed her in one of his sunshine smiles. "My family would love to come aboard, Hazel, and please call me Clark and my wife is Lois."
Watching the woman almost melt under the heat of Clark's grin, Lois found herself on the verge of a mixture of anger and panic, yet she forced words passed the lump that was forming in her throat. "Yes, that's me, good old Lois … wife … mother … award-winning investigative journalist and part-time editor and not exactly the best of sailors, I mean the boat trip here wasn't exactly a picnic for me … "
Lois felt Clark's shocked stare fasten on her face. This was the time first he'd heard that she suffered from sea-sickness and she certainly hadn't mentioned it when they'd discussed a fishing trip in a much smaller craft. But still, he completely believed her; it wasn't the first time she'd kept things from him. Lois assuaged her niggling conscience by telling herself she was only exaggerating a little; boats really weren't her favourite mode of transport and the thought of spending time on that particular boat gave her a very nauseous feeling.
But why should Lois feel so threatened? Wasn't she used by now to weird things happening to her family? Except Clark had never looked quite that way at another woman before now and Joel normally thought of the opposite sex, apart from the members of his family, as creatures from another planet.
"The Swallow has very efficient stabilisers, Lois," Hazel was quick to reassure. "Besides, the sea is dead calm. I doubt that sea sickness will be a problem today."
Of course, Lois could see that was a truthful statement; the surface of the bay was like a clear blue mirror. Even nature was conspiring against her.
"Please, Mom …"
"Just for a little while, Mom …"
"Come on, Lois, it'll be good." Clark backed up his children's requests.
"And if you do feel unwell, we can bring you straight back," the female temptress promised.
With this final assurance from her prospective hostess, Lois gave up on her party pooper attitude. Lois Lane didn't run from a fight and besides, she could get the better of a mere child like Hazel Chen with one hand tied behind her back. She just wished that the metaphorical rope wasn't made of kryptonite.
"Oh, okay then," Lois returned with a sheepish smile. "But do we have to swim to get there?" She ended lamely.
"Oh no! They're just waiting on my signal and they'll send the launch over." And with those words Hazel unwrapped the scrap of silk from around her body and waved it high above her head.
The arch of the stretched body displayed Hazel's delectable figure to full advantage and Lois noticed with a sinking feeling that Clark's gaze focussed with rapt appreciation upon the sight. Whatever had she let them in for?
Even without super vision those on the shore saw the answering signal and settled down to get to know each other while they awaited their transport, Lois appearing to be the only one of the party that wasn't enthusiastic about the coming trip.
The visit to the Swallow lived up to most everyone's expectations and even Lois had to admit that apart from a few flirtatious exchanges both Hazel and Clark behaved themselves. A few pleasant hours were spent in viewing the yacht's obvious attractions and if only the hostess had been a little less attractive the visit would've been a resounding success.
Roy Chen proved to be a studious but unassuming young man who was devoted to the two ladies in his life; his wife and his boat. And Lois would swear that he was completely oblivious to the undercurrents that were passing between his wife and his extremely handsome male guest.
Or were the hidden suggestions a figment of Lois' vivid imagination; not really there? But she was a first-class journalist; someone who dealt with the facts, she didn't imagine things. No one could accuse Lois Lane of paranoia, could they?
Lois was beginning to give herself a hard time when Julian sidled up to his mom as she stood by the rail of the ship, supposedly viewing the scenic panorama of the island while covertly keeping a close eye on her husband and his new 'friend' as they shared an animated discussion on the merits of International Cuisine.
"What's up with Dad?" came the strained whisper as Julian watched a possessive hand being placed on his Dad's arm. "What is he doing?" The boy's disapproval increased as Clark laughed warmly at something Hazel had said. "Is it still the red kryptonite?" His question was desperate, willing to accept any excuse for his father's strange behaviour.
A trill of laughter spilled across the deck towards the concerned mother and son and Clark's deeper, huskier voice could be heard as he described a more adventurous meal that he had shared with an Aboriginal family while back-packing across the outback of Australia.
Snaking an arm around Julian's slight shoulders Lois sighed audibly. "I do hope it's the kryptonite, but she is a 'babe,' don't you think?"
There was a moment of silence as Julian considered the lady draped over his father's arm. "She's all right, I suppose, but you're much prettier, Mom."
His direct gaze looked up into her face and she noted unconsciously that he no longer had so far to look up. He had grown so much in this last year. Both her elder sons were tall for their age, but Julian was built on much more slender lines than Joel.
Lois' arm tightened round her son. "Thank you, Julian."
"And it's not like Dad can do anything really wrong, not with his shadow sticking to him like glue." The last statement was accompanied with a wry smile and he gestured with his chin at his brother who was determinedly inserting himself between the two. "Joel's making just as big a cake of himself as Dad."
< Now why hadn't I thought of that?> Lois reflected and for the first time a laugh brightened her troubled spirits at the sight of Joel attempting to usurp his father's place at this siren's side. "It has to be kryptonite," she announced with conviction. "Because under normal circumstances Joel would give a female like Hazel Chen a wide berth. You're very smart, Julian." And she re-enforced her words with a hug.
A delightful blush spread over Julian's fair skin as they exchanged grins, only to be replaced by a worried frown. "But we cleared the beach yesterday and Solvan hasn't erupted since. Does that mean there's kryptonite here on the Swallow?"
"I hope not, Julian, because the next question is how did it get here and why; and do the Chens know about kryptonite and who Superman really is?"
"Mom!" An exhilarated cry broke the tension and Clara came running from the bow of the yacht, followed by the Swallow's owner, who was shepherding Nathan carefully along the deck. "Mom, Roy says there's a school of dolphins around the point and he was swimming with them this morning and he says he'll take us swimming too, if it's all right with you and Dad." Her words tumbled out in excitement. "Please say yes. It would be the very best thing … to swim with the dolphins. Dad, you'd love it too."
Clark pushed himself up from the deck-lounger he'd been resting on and, extricating himself with some reluctance from Hazel's slender arm, caught his happy daughter as she launched herself at him. On many of his sorties around the world Superman had often plunged into the aquatic animals' world and he'd shared many happy hours in the company of this wise and caring species. It didn't surprise him that his animal-loving daughter would want to share this joy. However, he wasn't totally ignorant of the fact that Lois wasn't quite so enamoured of this time spent with the Chens and though he wasn't sure why, he wasn't prepared to antagonise his little tornado by stretching out this visit any longer.
"You're right I would love it, princess," he agreed as he hoisted her to his shoulder, "but we've been here too long already and Uncle Jimmy's coming to dinner tonight so I'm afraid the dolphins will have to wait for another day. Can we take a rain check on that, Roy?" He directed his question at the younger man.
"No problem," came the immediate answer. "The island is so beautiful that Hazel and I have decided to spend some time around here and explore. Just let us know when it's convenient and we'll power up the Swallow and go track down those dolphins and that's a promise, Clara." Roy Chen beamed a smile at Clara and lifted Nathan up into his arms. "It's been a real pleasure having you folks. Come back any time you wish."
The man seemed so sincere but Lois had met plausible villains before. Yet there really was no proof that the Chens were other than they seemed, apart from the fact that both Joel and Clark had started acting bizarrely the minute that woman showed up on the beach. But what was even more troubling was that they were Jimmy's friends and she just prayed that they wouldn't discover that the couple were criminals. The memory of Kiaya Olsen still haunted Lois.
A whimsical thought sparked through Lois' gloomy meanderings; just where had Hazel Chen hidden the kryptonite? The woman looked like she'd been poured into that swimming costume and it displayed every curve to perfection, hiding a jagged rock on her person, no matter how small, would have been impossible. The only jewellery Hazel was wearing was a delicate golden chain bracelet with a tiny droplet of amber and, Lois' sharp eye discerned, she wasn't wearing make up; no kryptonite lipstick here.
Why oh why hadn't they brought Bernard's Geiger counter gizmo with them and this question would be academic? Foolishly, wishing to put the whole scenario behind them for one relaxing morning, they had left the device back at the bungalow. But then, it would have been a fairly difficult item to explain away.
>>Excuse me, but do you mind if we bring along our newly patented kryptonite finder just in case you have some stashed away for the express purpose of destroying Superman?<< Well, that would certainly be a conversation-stopper. Lois giggled nervously.
Maybe the Chens were innocent and Lois was being paranoid. She and Clark had to talk this thing through but this time that prospect didn't fill her with confidence; her partner wasn't exactly his usual clear-thinking self.
With her mind seething with unanswered questions, Lois gathered her family together and boarding the high-powered launch, headed with relief for the shore.
"No, Lois, please! You cannot be serious!" Clark regarded his wife with an incredulous eye.
Lois hadn't wanted to broach the subject of Clark's extra-curricular activities on the Swallow when they had first returned. If there had been kryptonite on the yacht, then she thought it best to let him recover from the exposure before opening the discussion. And so she had spent the rest of the afternoon trying to bury her concerns under a flood of activity.
Clark and Julian had been sent off into the little town to buy the food for the evening meal which Clark would prepare later, Jimmy having hinted strongly that he would prefer to eat edible food at dinner; the cheek of that man. At first, Lois had been loath to allow the 'super hero' out of her sight, not knowing how he would behave on the trip and if he would find any other personable females to impress. Nevertheless, she had Julian's assurance that he would steer his father clear of any other members of the fairer sex. And surely he could find little to distract him on such a short and mundane jaunt.
Clara and Joel had been instructed to help in the tidying of the house, their protests that the place had already been visited that morning by the cleaning lady being promptly dismissed. There was nothing like good, old-fashioned hard work to clear the two half-kryptonians' minds of the effects of red K.
Even Nathan had been targeted by his mother's uneasy temper. The trip to the Swallow now over, the little boy's attention had returned to what he had been intending before the lady had walked from the water. Rescuing his marbles from the beach where they had been left with the rest of the gear, he had carried them carefully back to the house. Nathan had been about to fish the two new ones from the safe haven of his pocket in order to show them off to the family when his mommy's edgy voice had interrupted his action.
The painted enamel canister which had begun life as a biscuit tin, cradled like a treasure chest in her son's podgy arms, had caught Lois' attention, and not wishing to have the glass balls beneath her feet while she charged around the room in full house-keeper mode, she had banished her small son's precious hoard to his room.
Disappointment had descended like a blanket on Nathan; did no-one appreciate these toys except his Grandpa Jon? Well, they didn't deserve to view the pretty pair he'd just found and in a slight huff Nathan wandered into his bedroom and with a disconsolate sigh had deposited the amber marbles in their cask and stuck the lot beneath his bed. Immediately he'd returned to the family room, where he was recruited to plump up the large cushions on the cane furniture; and this he had done with great gusto, punching and jumping up and down on the overstuffed cushions. This work was good fun and within no time his sunny spirit had returned and, unfortunately for his family, his problem had soon been forgotten.
Now completely unaware of their small son's involvement in the affair, Lois and Clark faced each other across the expanse of bed as they hurried to get ready for the arrival of their dinner guest.
"I don't flirt, unless it's with you!" Clark was indignant but his wife was just as adamant.
"Normally, no you don't. But believe me, Clark, you were definitely flirting, and with a female that wasn't me." Lois was struggling to pull up the zip on the back of her dress and Clark came round the bed to help. "And admit it, buster, you did find her very attractive." That was thrown over her shoulder as she turned to give Clark access to the zip.
Clark's eyes glazed over in silent reverie. "She's a very sexy lady and that body," a picture of Hazel emerging from the sea flashed into his mind. "Gorgeous …"
Lois rounded on her daydreaming spouse and jammed a finger into his unyielding chest. "See, you're doing it again … you're drooling."
"I am not!" came the nettled reply.
"Believe me, Clark, you are. And I bet you're picturing her in that skimpy bathing costume … and don't bother to deny it because I know you too well."
A red stain suffused Clark's face and he grinned apologetically. "Okay, Lois, you're right. I didn't mean to, but she just popped right into my head. Why would I do that?!" he asked, almost bemused.
"Kryptonite! And in case you didn't notice, you weren't the only one who was affected. Joel was thinking the exact same thing—well, I hope it wasn't the exact same thing. I mean he's only eight … going on nine. Do eight-year-old boys think these sort of thoughts … ?"
That suggestion hit the concerned father like a ton of bricks as he reviewed the direction of his lecherous daydreams about Hazel. "I hope not. But now you mention it, he was bowled over by Mrs Chen."
"Hopefully in a purely hero-worship sense. But, Clark, you do realise that this means there might have been kryptonite on board that boat. You and Joel were both perfectly normal until that woman showed up."
"You think Hazel had kryptonite on her, but where could she have hidden it in that swimsuit?"
"Believe me, honey, I've already asked myself that … but the more important questions are, do the Chens know about kryptonite and do they know that Superman is really Clark Kent?"
For some moments Clark contemplated those momentous suggestions. Something didn't seem right and then his mind latched onto a flaw in Lois' reasoning.
"Clara! Clara wasn't affected!" Grabbing Lois' hands, he hurried to explain. "Clara's developing the powers too and yesterday she fell under the influence but today she wasn't displaying any weird fancies for anyone on board … was she?" Clark had to admit that in his entranced state he might have missed some unusual behaviour from Clara.
"No," that was said with some reluctance, Lois not wanting to give up on her kryptonite theory, threw in the first thing that sprang to her mind. "But then, women are less promiscuous than men."
"Well that's a sexist remark if I've ever heard one!"
"Yes it is … and I have no idea why I said it because I don't really believe … take Cat for instance … on seconds thoughts don't take Cat … I doubt you'd be able to resist her in your present state …"
"Lois! I was never interested in Cat and never would be!"
"And don't sidetrack me with thoughts of Cat …"
"I didn't!" Clark was floundering in the face of Lois' babbling but he was uncomfortably aware that Lois only babbled when she was upset and in this case he was the cause of her disquiet and that bothered him.
A distressed silence fell between them until Lois returned to the current discussion about their daughter. "I have no idea why Clara wasn't affected but she's only seven and Roy Chen is hardly the type of man to set a young girl's heart a flutter."
"And there weren't any handsome sailors aboard?"
"Clark, think about it. If you had a wife like Hazel Chen would you employ hunky men to be around her?"
"I guess not, honey," Clark admitted with a pout of dejection.
"And I wouldn't persist with this line of reasoning, if I were you." Lois fixed her errant spouse with a steely eye. "Because if you weren't affected by kryptonite you've a lot of explaining to do."
The pit that Clark had dug for himself suddenly opened at his feet. "I take your point, honey. Believe me, I really didn't know what I was doing." But that sounded too trite and wasn't exactly true. "Or to be more honest, it just seemed like the thing to do."
Lois understood how that felt. Once she had driven her car over a cliff because a madman had placed the thought in her head. Now it seemed that a rock had a similar crazy influence on her husband. Of course, a rock couldn't put an idea into Clark's mind, but it was definitely messing with his conscience, allowing his baser instincts to surface. And if Clark hadn't been the gentle, caring man he was, then the situation could have been a whole lot worse. Talk about Jekyll and Hyde.
"Then it had to be kryptonite." There was no note of triumph in Lois' voice at winning her case. The competitive days of Mad Dog Lane scoring points off her partner were well and truly over.
Throwing himself in exasperation back on the bed, Clark, aka Superman, heaved a heartfelt sigh. "Geesh, Lois, you think that we could have one trouble-free vacation. Now we have a volcano, kryptonite and a couple of villains."
"Clark, honey, we don't know about the last one." Lois sat on the bed beside the very disconsolate hero. "Maybe Hazel and Roy were exploring and picked up the rock quite innocently. I mean if it wasn't all that burnt, kryptonite can look real pretty … if you're not a super hero that is. And we do try to keep the fact of what kryptonite can do to Superman a secret, so it wouldn't be totally impossible for the Chens to not know what they've got …"
"Or to think that it would have any effect on Clark Kent and his family." Clark was beginning to sound a little more optimistic; at least he was beginning to dismiss the suggestion that the Chens might be criminals. "And another thing," Clark popped up into a sitting position and turned to his wife, desperation clouding the warmth of his brown eyes. "red kryptonite has never had this effect on me before … turning me into Casanova! I am so sorry, Lois. How could I have treated you that way … chatting up another woman right in front of you? It was unforgivable of me." A guilt-ridden Clark was threatening to obsess. "I don't know why you put up with me."
Truth to tell, Lois was astounded by her own reaction. The Lois Lane of long ago would have packed her bags and run away just as fast and as far as she could. But Lois had learned a lot since those early times and she knew Clark almost better than he knew himself. After years of basking in his unconditional love she trusted him with all her heart. Granted, she hadn't enjoyed his behaviour and she was about to ensure that there was no repeat performance, but he hadn't exactly been in control of his rampaging hormones and her own son's similar antics were proof of that.
Now that he was aware of his shortcomings he was deservedly both ashamed and contrite, which was no bad thing (a little introspection was good for the soul), yet they had a bigger problem to face and it was time to close the book on his unprecedented lapse in fidelity. She lifted her hand to smooth the frown that creased his forehead.
"I put up with you because I'm completely in love with you and I don't think that you're quite yourself at the moment. But, I warn you, Clark, don't make a habit of fancying other females, not unless you have a yearning for the single life again."
His eyes darkened as he took in the sight of Lois sprawled across the bed clad in a very revealing dress and regarding him with such love and tenderness. Immediately he felt his body respond to her siren's call and, leaning over, he kissed her with mounting passion, yet after a few moments he drew back to search her earnest face.
"You do know that you're the only woman I have ever wanted …" Clark brushed her lips softly with his own and trailed feather light kisses across her cheek to that sensitive spot behind her ear. "The only woman I will ever truly want … and it isn't just lust …" His mouth slid caressingly down her slender neck as she leaned her head away to give him access …
"Mmmm, sweetheart," Lois regretfully pulled back from Clark's searching mouth, "I really don't mind as long as I'm the recipient of your lust, but this isn't exactly the time nor place. Jimmy will be here any time now and you've still to take a shower."
Clark flopped again onto the bed as Lois squirmed out of his embrace and with a blown kiss and a backward glance she gave him his instructions. "Hurry, honey, we don't have much time."
Turning onto his back, a groan escaped from Clark's lonely lips. "Looks like it'll be another cold shower. Papillon is playing havoc with my libido!" Quickly levitating off the bed, he super sped into the bathroom.
Jimmy, surprisingly, arrived at the appointed time; and, surprisingly, he wasn't alone. A slender, somewhat shy young woman was standing by his side and Lois at once recognised her as the pretty island girl in the hotel dining room. Did this mean that Jimmy was starting to recover from his short and tragic foray into marriage? Lois and Clark certainly hoped so.
However, the couple were even more puzzled as Jimmy and his young lady stepped inside, revealing the presence of yet another guest, a very handsome boy in his early teens who bore a striking resemblance to Jimmy's 'date'?
"Hi guys!" Jimmy spoke up, sounding unusually unsure of himself. "I hope you don't mind but I brought along a couple of friends. I mean, I know how much food you guys usually prepare for guests so I know there'll be plenty to go round and I thought you might be interested to hear what Paul here has to say about Solvan."
The implication that the boy might be the mysterious source wasn't lost on the two reporters and so, with a pleasant smile to the strangers and a pointed look directed to their old friend, they ushered the unexpected guests inside.
"You know any of your friends are welcome, Jim," Clark assured his visitors, pushing back vague feelings of disquiet at the reminder of impending doom.
"Thanks, CK. This is Tula Valliere and her brother Paul," Jimmy announced as he handed over a couple of bottles of wine to his hosts. "The Valliere family own most of the island and run the copra plantation, but Paul is also an expert on Solvan and he was the person who contacted me about the volcano." With a trace of self-satisfaction, Jimmy produced his missing source.
The fact that the 'expert' was obviously a youth of around fifteen years raised certain questions about the validity of his theory that an eruption was imminent, but neither Lois nor Clark was ill-mannered enough to raise objections without listening to what the boy had to say.
Meanwhile, dinner was ready to be eaten and Lois and Clark concluded that the interview could be postponed till after the meal and, understanding that more information could be discovered from a relaxed source, used the intervening time to put the islanders at their ease. Fortunately, they were unconsciously aided and abetted in this task by their children's eager banter.
Tula and Paul were well-mannered and amiable and also very knowledgeable about their home, which they clearly adored. And though both exhibited a certain shyness in the company of these worldly visitors to their shores, within a very short time the sister and brother had won the approval of the whole Kent family.
An hour or so passed in a friendly exchange of views on the differences of life growing up in a busy city to that spent on a quiet island but in time, as the conversation began to lag, it became obvious that Paul Valliere was anxious to impart his findings on the volcano. So once the remnants of dinner were cleared away, Clark led the members of the party into the immaculately tidied lounge and invited them to sit. An awkward few minutes passed as everyone arranged themselves on the furniture around the room and looked expectantly at each other, wondering who would be first to speak. At last Jimmy elected to break the ice.
"Lois, Clark," Jimmy cleared his throat, well aware that the talk that was coming would upset his favourite family. "According to Paul here the people on this island are in great danger and I think that I should just let him tell you his story."
"That's why you brought him here, Jimmy." Lois' voice wasn't exactly encouraging but the smile she threw the young man belied her words. "Paul, I can see that you're feeling anxious, but whatever you want to tell us we'll give it careful consideration, so why don't you begin."
Her skill at interviewing soothed the nervous teenager and with an apologetic grin he began. "Firstly, I know that I'm pretty young to be a volcanologist and no, I haven't been to fancy schools or college, I haven't ever left the island, but I do know about volcanos and particularly about this volcano. I've been studying Solvan all my life, and believe me, I know that the mountain has changed lately."
"Do you have any scientific proof to back up that statement?" Lois asked, in full reporter mode.
The boy's uneasy gaze dropped to the floor and dejection coloured his words when he replied. "No, not really. I mean, I don't have any electronic tiltmeters or lasers or seismographs and that's why no-one will take me seriously, but that doesn't mean I'm not right!" The last was said with a measure of defiance and he raised his head to face the others in the room.
"No, it doesn't," Clark attempted to soothe the youngster's ruffled feathers. "Paul, we don't mean to doubt you, but your implications are very serious. We just want to get this right. Forget about the technology and just tell us what you do know." The empathetic smile that was often turned on his own children accompanied Clark's words and their visitor visibly relaxed.
"Thanks, Mr Kent." Paul returned the encouraging grin and settled into his chair to recount his findings. "Like I said, I've been interested in Solvan ever since I was a kid and I've kept a diary, so it wasn't difficult for me to spot the differences. The other islanders are right, Solvan has been moaning and groaning for years, but he's building up to something big; I just know it."
"What sort of differences?" Clark probed kindly.
"There's a lake high up on the shoulder of the mountain. It's just a small lake and because it's fed from underground streams the water's always warm. It was a favourite spot for us kids to go swimming. Only lately, it's got hotter and the plants around the lake have been dying off; on the south side, furthest away from the side of the mountain, the trees that used to stand on the shoreline have their feet in the water now."
"What would make that happen?" Julian asked, wholly engrossed in the subject. Of all the Kent children Julian showed the most interest in science and there was nothing he liked more than spending an afternoon in his Uncle Bernie's lab watching that genius at work. The eminent scientist also was impressed by his young protege's acumen and encouraged Julian to visit whenever he could.
"I guess you folks don't know much about volcanos." Paul was starting to unwind and was becoming animated about a subject in which he was completely absorbed. "When a mountain is set to blow the magma builds up inside the underground chamber and the ground above starts to swell. I think the floor of the lake nearest to the mountain is being pushed upwards and displacing the water."
"Sounds feasible," Clark remarked. "Are there any other signs?"
"There have been a number of small earthquakes on the island recently, which is a sure sign and the gas emissions have slowed down."
"Shouldn't that be the other way round?" Lois put in. "I mean, wouldn't you expect more gas to escape?"
Paul was enjoying being taken seriously for once and he was quick to explain. "Sometimes that happens, but sometimes the magma pushes upwards and blocks the vents and the gas can't escape …"
"Which means the pressure in the chamber is increased and there's more chance of an explosion." An increasingly worried father finished the sentence.
"Hey, Lois, it's a pity you and Clark didn't ask Superman along on this vacation," Jimmy's announcement dropped like a stone into the ensuing silence. "He'd be real handy at the moment for x-raying the mountain to find out what's going on inside."
Lois was the first to answer. "Well, he's not here and we have no way of contacting him, so let's just deal with this ourselves for the moment."
"Isn't he on the phone?" A wishful look crossed the teenage volcanologist's features. It would be so cool to be rescued by Superman.
"Not that we know of!" In her anxiety to cut this line of questioning dead, Lois sounded a little curt.
"Don't you just scream 'Help Superman,' Mrs Kent?" Tula finally joined in the conversation.
"Not for a very long time! And besides, Superman may have excellent hearing but even he would have difficulty over such a distance."
"Hey, you guys can't tell me that you're not in contact with the Big Guy, because I don't believe you." Aware of the long association between the super hero and his friends, James Olsen was indeed sceptical, but the twin dagger-edged looks he was receiving from the adult Kents convinced him to drop the subject, at least till he could snag CK alone.
"Paul, if you can convince us that this volcano's about to blow at any moment, maybe then we can try to get hold of Superman, but for now we'll leave him out of this." Clark's statement brought this line of conversation to a close.
"I can't tell you exactly when it's going to happen, Mr Kent, but it's pretty soon. Yesterday morning, when I went up to check the mountain, something strange had happened to the lake. It's why I was late meeting Mr Olsen." All eyes were glued to the young boy in dread anticipation. "The water had turned a funny yellow colour, I guess it was the sulphur, and there were fish floating on the surface, dead!"
"They were poisoned?" queried Clark with a lift of his eyebrows.
"Yes," Paul was glad of this man's quick appreciation of the pending disaster and he rushed on. "But that's not all; I managed to land a couple of the fish … and they were cooked!"
"The water boiled?!" This was starting to sound dire and it looked like Superman would be needed; he could tunnel out a few vent holes to allow the pressure to escape from the magma chamber … Only Clark was pretty certain that the powers couldn't be relied upon at this time and the closer he got to the kryptonite the riskier his situation would become … that was assuming there was more kryptonite, of course.
"Exactly!" Paul's excited cry interrupted Clark's obsessing. "Sometime during the past 48 hours the water temperature of the lake rose high enough to cook the fish."
James Olsen swallowed hard at the thought of being boiled alive. Thank goodness no human being was in the lake at the time. "CK, I think that now might be a good time for contacting the Big Guy," he suggested hopefully. Award-winning pictures aside, Jimmy wasn't too keen on being that close to the action.
"Later, James, later." And when Clark used that name in that particular tone Jimmy heeded the warning.
"Yes, would you look at the time," and Lois pointedly looked at her watch. "It's getting late. How about I make us coffee or hot chocolate, whichever you prefer, and then you all can get off home? It must be the fresh island air or something, but I'm almost ready for bed." A yawn accompanied her words and Lois just hoped that her visitors wouldn't realise how much it was forced.
Without waiting for an answer, she rose from her position on the couch and headed for the kitchen.
"Mrs Kent, would you like some help?" The shy offer came from Tula and as Lois gratefully accepted, the two women disappeared into the kitchen.
For the moment it seemed that the problem of erupting volcanos would be given a short respite as the Kent children began bombarding Paul with questions about how he'd gotten all his knowledge. A rueful smile momentarily lifted Clark's gloom, watching his little princess finally succumb to the spell of red K as she insinuated herself forcefully next to the good-looking boy on the sofa. A twinge of jealousy warned him that he might have to deal with that unhealthy emotion in the distant future, but for the present they had problems enough to contend with.
Seeing his family was preoccupied, Clark tapped his old friend lightly on the shoulder and signalled with a roll of his eyes that Jimmy should follow him outside. Clark was well aware that although the subject of Superman's involvement had been dropped, Jimmy was still curious to know why and so he got right to the point.
"Jimmy, you're right about us being able to contact Superman and we already have." His audience stayed silent but regarded him with a questioning glance, waiting. "But there's a problem; a big problem. We didn't really contact him about Solvan, more about what Solvan's been peppering around this island for goodness knows how long."
James Olsen was a good reporter; after all, he'd learned from the best, and his instincts immediately went on full alert. There was apparently more trouble brewing, though what could be more trouble than an erupting volcano did not exactly spring to Jimmy's mind.
"Normally, Lois and I wouldn't exactly be advertising this fact and we wouldn't if we hadn't known you forever and have complete faith in you. What I'm about to tell you, Jimbo, has to remain a secret …"
"… you're Superman!!"
"What!!" Clark was thunderstruck. Had Jimmy known all these years? And if he did, how did he find out … and when?
"Ha! Only kidding, CK! You seemed so serious I thought I would lighten the mood."
"Jimmy, this is a serious situation." Clark wasn't amused by the attempt at humour or, at least, that particular foray into humour. "A volcano might be about to explode and we can't rely on Superman for help."
"But you said you could contact him."
"But he can't come here and he wouldn't be much use if he did." Jimmy was clearly confused by this piece of information so Clark ploughed on with his explanation. "This island is littered with pieces of kryptonite."
A bald stare was all the reply Jimmy offered.
"That's what has to remain confidential. Could you imagine how many criminals would give their eye teeth to get their hands on that stuff, and on Papillon you can pick it up off the beach."
"Kryptonite! No kidding!" Jimmy ran a hand through his hair. "How did you find that out?"
"Believe it or not the kids found it when they were playing on the beach." Clark usually found that sticking as close to the truth as possible was the best policy. "And later when Lois and the children went out walking in those woods," he airily waived his hands in the direction of the now dark forest, "they found some more."
"And it was definitely kryptonite?"
"Well, it certainly has a big effect on super powers."
Even in the shadows Clark could see the shocked expression on his colleague's face. "You brought Superman to an island stuffed with kryptonite?"
"Yes … I know that sounds bad but we weren't sure what we had. The rocks are kinda burnt. Anyway we decided that Superman should take them to Doctor Klein. So we stuck them in a lead-lined box and Superman flew back to Metropolis, the further he got from the island the better he felt. To cut a long story short, the Doc confirmed it was kryptonite and that it'd been subjected to very high temperatures …"
"Inside the volcano … How much is there?" Jimmy's senses sharpened. This would make a prize-winning story, but even as the adrenalin started to pump through his veins he realised that he would never write it; some things were more important than the news. With a small sigh of disappointment he returned his attention to CK.
"That's the problem, we don't know how much of the stuff is lying around or is inside the volcano," CK's sigh was more heartfelt. "Dr Klein thinks it probably followed Superman to Earth and landed inside the volcano and now that Solvan is erupting it's being thrown all over this island."
"Then maybe it'd be a good thing if the kid was right and Solvan went out in a massive explosion. They say the power of an erupting volcano is tremendous and even kryptonite wouldn't survive that."
Clark regarded the other man with a look of horror. "You're missing the point, Jimmy, we're all stuck here and this island is poison to Superman. If Solvan erupts we're on our own."
James Olsen blanched as various news broadcasts of clouds of hot ash and boiling lava streams invaded his mind and he forgot momentarily that it was the prospect of shooting such pictures that had brought him to the island. "Hey, maybe we shouldn't stick around to find out. Let's just pack up and get the hell outta here."
"And how would we do that? The island hopper isn't due back for almost three weeks."
Jimmy shook his head emphatically. "Wouldn't be a problem, CK. I'll talk to my friend Roy Chen. I'm sure when he finds out what's going on that he'll take us all off the island."
"And what about the islanders? Would you be prepared to leave Tula and Paul behind?" Clark asked with gentle inquisitiveness.
"No! No way! I was planning on taking them along."
"And the others?"
"The Swallow's pretty big and if what you say is true then Papillon's population is fairly small …"
"True, and there's a few smaller fishing boats that seem pretty high powered but no one else seems to think that anything is going to happen and, unless we can convince them that Paul's right, they're not going to leave. Now I don't know about you, Jimmy, but personally I couldn't just sail off and leave these people behind to their fate."
Even without the full use of his powers Superman couldn't abandon those in need, and standing in the shadows, having overheard the last snippet of conversation, Lois smiled somewhat wistfully into the darkness; she had long since learned that the super hero's strength came not from his extraordinary abilities but from the depths of his compassion.
Here we go again on another quest to save the day. Would she and Clark ever share a quieter life? Would they even enjoy a quieter life? Sometimes Lois wondered and, shrugging her shoulders, she stepped forward into the porch light and placed her tray with its coffee on the small round table.
"I thought you guys might want this out here and Tula offered to watch the kids." The unspoken suggestion that they had things to discuss that she would rather not raise in front of her children hung in the air as she handed out the steaming cups.
"Thanks, honey." Clark's free arm automatically snaked round her shoulder as she came to stand by him at the rail and he took a cautious-seeming sip of the steaming coffee. "And, Jimmy, what about that Pulitzer? Didn't you come here to shoot a volcanic eruption?"
"Yeah, you got me there, CK." Jimmy also lifted his mug to his lips and almost scalded himself on the first mouthful. CK must have asbestos lips cause he was still drinking the hot liquid. "It seemed like a good idea at the time but I guess reality is a bit harder to take. But you're right; we can't just high-tail it outta here and leave innocent people behind. We've got to convince them that they have to escape."
"And to do that we have to find proof … and the proof would seem to be up there." Clark pointed up into the sky where Solvan's peak shown eerily red against the black curtain of night.
Three concerned gazes remained fixed on the pulsating glow. The fiery light ebbed and flowed across the heavens, mirroring the bubbling magma in the cauldron below. The spectacle was mesmerizing and for moments the friends were silent until finally Jimmy spoke.
"I mean, normally we would get some advance warning, wouldn't we? Like lava flows or hurling rocks. We'd have time to get everybody away?"
"Sorry, Jimbo, I don't know. I'd think we would but I'm not the expert here." Clark turned his back on the hypnotising view and guided Lois to the swing where he sat the two of them down. "I suggest that tomorrow we get Paul to take us up the mountain and show us the signs he's talking about and if we think he's right then maybe we can convince the others."
"Sounds like a plan to me," Jimmy concurred. "And I could talk to Hazel and Roy … fill them in on the situation and alert them to the fact that we might need a real fast rescue."
"Jimmy, what do you know about those two?" Lois, at last, tentatively joined the conversation. "Have you known them long?" She tried to sound casual, not wishing to alert Jimmy to the fact that she was suspicious of his friends.
Unfortunately, Jimmy knew her all too well. "Lois, not everyone I meet is an undercover terrorist!" There was a hard edge to his voice as he answered.
"No! Of course, not!" Lois was quick to reassure. "Clark and I just worry about you, Jimmy."
"You might not have noticed, Lois, but I'm not the newsroom gofer anymore. And I'm not about to jump into any more relationships without testing the water first …"
Lois rose from her position beside Clark and hurried to her dearest friend's side. "Oh, Jimmy, I didn't mean to open old wounds and I didn't mean to imply that I doubt your judgement. Quite the opposite, in fact; I'd really like your opinion on them."
Buried in the dim lighting, Clark hid a small grin behind his hand. Lois' people skills had increased tenfold since she frequently dealt with the varying moods and troubles of her children, not to mention the frequent crises handled during her temporary editorship of the Daily Planet; James Olsen didn't stand a chance. Besides, Lois genuinely cared for Jimmy's welfare; they both did.
"The thing is, we were invited to lunch on the Swallow today," Clark decided to help his wife out, "and they seem nice people but you know, Lois and I don't have a very good track record in our choice of acquaintances …" Memories of Bob and Carol and Umar and Paula sprang to mind.
"Uh, tell me about it, CK, I know where you're coming from. But I'm pretty sure that Roy Chen is a straight-up guy. He's already made more money than you and I can dream about and he's only twenty-six. He's a genius in his field so I doubt that he has to resort to illegal means to maintain his fortune."
"Not everyone becomes a criminal to make money; some people like the power it brings, like Lex Luthor." A shiver passed through Lois' body as her memory returned to a far distant past and the horrors that had been wrought upon Clark and herself by that egotistical maniac.
"Umar and his terrorist group, 'The Hand of Retribution' …" Clark's thoughts echoed his wife's.
"Come on, CK, Lois, you can't honestly believe that Roy is like them," surprised filled Jimmy's word.
"Both these men were very plausible, Jimmy, they fooled a lot of people for a very long time." Clark reminded his friend.
"But why would you suspect the Chens? You didn't even know them until yesterday … did you?" Jimmy's puzzled gaze shifted between Lois and Clark. "Are you hiding something from me?"
"No! No way!" Lois hurried to assure. "It's just that we're worried about Superman and the kryptonite … and then you showed up with the Chens …"
"Who were just supposed to be dropping you off …" Clark interjected.
"But who now seem to be interested in exploring the island …"
"And we wondered if they'd somehow found out about the kryptonite." The male member of the famous investigative team ended lamely.
Jimmy looked askance at the pair. "And that's all you've got?" His head began to shake disapprovingly. "Guys, Perry would be sending you out to cover dog shows if he knew about this."
"We're reaching, aren't we?" The corner of Lois' lips turned up in a grimace.
"You could say that. And, by the way, you're completely wrong in what you're thinking. The Chens had no intention of stopping by Papillon. That was my idea." Jimmy took a seat by the table then, finishing off the rest of his coffee, he placed the empty mug on the table. "Roy told me he was taking a vacation on board his new boat a couple of days before I was contacted by Paul Valliere. I checked Papillon on the map and discovered that it was in the general vicinity of where Roy was headed and so I asked him for a lift; Roy and Hazel had never heard of Papillon. And look at this place, it's like paradise, if you forget about the volcano; you can hardly blame them for wanting to stick around for a few days."
"I guess not." Clark realised that, because of their concerns, Lois and he had probably misjudged the Chens and how foolish their suspicions had sounded to Jimmy. "This whole volcano and kryptonite situation has spooked us a little and we're seeing bad men round every corner. We're sorry for doubting your friends, Jimmy."
"No sweat, CK. I'm a little spooked myself. But if this Solvan is about to erupt we'll be lucky to have Roy Chen and the Swallow."
A pregnant silence fell on the three old friends. They'd faced many dangers together but always in the background had been the knowledge that when things got really hazardous they could rely on super-powered help … this time they had no such comfort. Lois was the first to emerge from her depressing thoughts.
"Hey, guys, I refuse to fall into a blue funk. We don't even know for certain whether we're in danger. And there's nothing we can do tonight, so let's just get a good night's sleep and we can deal with Solvan tomorrow."
The evening visit quickly wound up after that and with an arrangement to meet the next morning at the foot of the mountain trail, the Kents bade their visitors a fond goodnight and the family retired to their third night on the beautiful, doomed island.
In the Home of the Fire God
The mountain trail proved to be slightly harder and steeper than anticipated and during the ascent Clark received further unwelcome evidence of what this island was doing to his super powers. He was perspiring and Clark hardly ever broke sweat. Was the close proximity of Solvan effecting his powers even more? Granted, he was piggy-backing Nathan up the mountainside, but under normal circumstances Clark could cart his small son around for hours and never know the difference. And, even more disturbingly, he noticed that neither Joel nor Clara seemed to be finding the going tough.
In fact, Clara was up ahead, sticking with the leader of this expedition like glue, all her attention given over to the teenage Paul Valliere. Clearly Clara was exhibiting all the symptoms of a young girl's first crush and a doting Dad, much to Lois' amusement, was feeling decidedly left out in the cold. The reminder from Lois that his daughter was displaying the same effects of the red kryptonite as both he and Joel had the previous day did allay his foolish fears, but coupled with his huffing and puffing his way up the mountainside, Clark was feeling … old!
Old! He was only forty … that wasn't old … and Lois appeared to be doing okay and she was only a year younger than him. And he was Superman! Superman's metabolism stabilised and slowed … he ought to be in his prime. Unless he was beginning to miss those years he'd given up to restore Jimmy and that old gangster, Conor Shank, back to their youth. That thought was hardly comforting. Please don't let it be that, he prayed.
Clark's back and shoulder muscles ached under the strain and he hitched Nathan a little further up on his back. At the unexpected shift, Nathan tightened his arms and legs around his father's neck and torso and at the closer contact a surprised groan broke from Clark's lips.
"Nathan, what the h …!" Something round and hard was uncomfortably sticking into Clark's back just above his kidneys. "Have you brought those darn marbles with you?"
"Yes, very pretty marbles," Nathan announced with pleasure, happy that someone had at last shown an interest in his new toys. "Would yoo like to see?" He cocked his head to the side like a gleeful puppy.
Twisting round to look into his son's face, Clark disappointed the toddler yet again. "Not now, Nathan. We have to check out this volcano to see if something really, really bad is going to happen." At the crestfallen expression on the small face Clark hurried to add. "You see, we might be in danger here, son, and there's no time for games, but I promise to take you on in a game of marbles as soon as things get back to normal."
As if on cue something particularly not normal happened up ahead; a rumble could be heard from deep underground and the earth trembled and shifted beneath their feet. A steep scree of rocks above the path began to slip and slide, right over the heads of Jimmy and Tula, who for a few scary moments seemed frozen to the spot.
Father and son's conversation was forgotten and Clark, swiftly thrusting Nathan into Lois' arms, launched himself at the endangered couple. With only seconds to spare Clark reached the two and cast his body over them as an avalanche of boulders of varying sizes bounced around and over them, plunging their destructive way down the mountain and uprooting trees and plants in their wake.
After an agonizingly long time the landslide passed the little group, leaving the air thick with dust and rubble and as this too began to settle, two very shocked and amazed people sat up from what might have been their rocky graves.
"Tula! Tula, are you all right?" It was obvious from the concern in Jimmy's voice that the photo-journalist was quite taken with his new friend, and as she rose to a sitting position beside him, he gently wiped the grime from her face, uncovering a small cut on her forehead as he did so. "You're bleeding!"
"No, Jimmy, it's just a scratch." Tula's hand too went up to her head and her voice betrayed her alarm. "I'm fine, I think … how about you?"
" Yeah, me too … I'm okay."
For moments Jimmy reviewed the sensations in his body in wonder. Surely he should have some cuts and bruises, not to mention the odd broken bone. It had all happened so quickly; the awful noise and the rocks falling in their direction and he had done the first thing that he had thought of when he realised that he and Tula didn't have time to escape the path of the rockslide; he had thrown her to the ground and attempted to shield her with his body. If that were the case the boulders must have hurt him when they hit, but they hadn't touched him … because CK had been there …
"CK!" Jimmy cried out, scanning the rocky strewn ground around him for his friend. "Clark! Where are you?"
Jimmy had known that his friend had bravely tried to protect them with his body, but where was he now? Had the relentless press of earth and rubble carried him away from them?
"Clark!?" Lois had reached the edge of the slide and fright filled her voice as she called to her husband. Ordinarily, she wouldn't worry about a few old rocks, but things were far from ordinary and she had watched in stunned horror as the man she loved most in all the world was rained upon by a ton of mountain. "Clark, speak to me!"
Dimly she heard voices from the other side of the slide and through the cloudy air, still glistening with particles of dust, she could make out her other children with their escort and a tentative voice reached her through the ensuing stillness.
"Mom, is Dad under the rocks?"
Joel's voice betrayed his horror, as he turned a concentrated eye on the stone filled trail before him. Only his x-ray vision wasn't co-operating and he speedily abandoned the futile effort and started clearing the boulders aside, flinging them down the mountain, unconcerned whether he gave away the secret or not. Julian and Clara were quick to aid him and, after shaking himself out of the state of shock which had overcome him at what had befallen, so too did the young islander.
Seeing the children settling to their task, working their way towards him, Jimmy started moving the rocks nearest to him and he stilled in horror as his labours unearthed the sight of a dirty white T-shirt. "Clark?!" He squeaked, his voice shrill with fear.
Everyone froze; then in a concerted effort to reach their stricken loved one they converged on Jimmy's find and for some moments no-one spoke as stones and rocks were hurled off Clark's still form.
"Clark! Sweetheart! Please, talk to me!" Lois dared not think of the worst scenario and she concentrated her efforts on clearing away the debris from around Clark's head. "Come on, honey, you're all right … you have to be all right."
But Lois wasn't so sure of that as more of the rubble was cleared away and Clark's body was revealed. The material of his top was torn and bloodstained and through the gaping splits huge bruises could be seen purpling the skin of his back.
"Oh, Clark!" A sob escaped from Lois at the sight of his injuries.
The weight was being lifted from Clark's shoulders … strange, he knew he'd been complaining of carrying Nathan but surely a three-year-old didn't weigh this much, and besides, this enormous pressure was affecting all of his body. He struggled to move his legs but they were trapped beneath something hard and heavy and he only managed to wiggle them a few inches. He could hear someone above him … someone crying … someone repeating his name … Lois!
"Lois!" He mouthed the word silently and then decided to try again. "Lois!" It was barely a croak but those above heard him because they were redoubling their efforts and whatever was laying on him was disappearing fast.
Small familiar hands were at his shoulders and he was being gently lifted and turned but the movement released a cloud of dust which wafted up his nose and into his throat and he was coughing … coughing painfully … but at least he was alive. His gaze lifted to see the five very anxious faces of his family surrounding him and behind them Jimmy and the Vallieres.
"What happened?" Clark managed to whisper through the thick coating of dust clogging his lungs and throat.
"Half a ton of mountain fell on you, CK," Jimmy informed his prone friend. "You probably saved my life and Tula's, but hey, who did you think you were, barrelling in like that … Superman? You almost got yourself killed!"
The truth of that statement was evident in Lois' worried and accusing gaze, and in the now emerging pain from his bruised and aching body. Clark grimaced in the knowledge that his protective aura was almost gone.
Somewhere off to his right a loose boulder shifted from its resting place and went tumbling down the mountain following the path of its predecessors.
The group jumped as one at the sound; a firm reminder that they were still in an extremely vulnerable position.
"Mr Kent, can you walk?" Paul asked carefully; these people had come to help him and because of that this very nice man had been hurt. "I think we should get out of this scree path. The trail ahead flattens out as we reach the lake. It should be safer there."
An affirmative nod met the question, Clark decreeing to save his energy for the gigantic task of getting himself up to his feet, but with the help of his wife and Jimmy and an added boost of super strength from Joel the task was accomplished without too much bother.
Joel still had super powers? This didn't make any sense. He understood that red K didn't have any effect on his physical abilities and so far they'd only found the red variety but since this morning's escapade and the curtailment of his aura there had to be green K around too. But why wasn't Joel suffering the same loss? And he could see from the confused glances that Lois kept throwing in his direction as she slid her arm around his waist to help him cross the boulders that still lay in their path, that she was having the same disconcerting thoughts.
However, for the present it was all he could do to negotiate the trail to safety and so he concentrated on placing one foot in front of the other while he leaned on Jimmy's proffered shoulder. Slowly the small group made their way further up the steep trail and hopefully to some form of respite.
The pain in Clark's back wasn't much better but at least sitting on the trunk of a fallen tree was giving his legs a much needed rest and the vertigo, which had been threatening to overcome him as he made his way up the rest of the trail, was receding. He drew his breath in with a painful gasp as Lois attempted with care to cleanse the dirt and earth from out of the cuts on his shoulders and back. Fortunately, these appeared to be mostly superficial, but Lois was determined to remove any traces of dirt which might lead to an infection; there was no certainty that on this island Clark would be immune to any bacteria. So she busied herself with using the water from their drinking bottles and a handkerchief to wash down his torn back.
To distance himself from the stinging soreness Lois' ministrations were causing, Clark studied the still water of the lake, but even here nature conspired against him; the water was a sickly shade of yellowish green … not his most favourite colour … and the smell emanating from the water was exceedingly unpleasant.
"How are the kids doing?" Clark decided on conversation to distract him from his discomfort.
"Hmph!" Lois turned her attention momentarily to the little group strung out along the shore. "Nathan's upset that he nearly lost his daddy but Tula and Jimmy are taking care of him; Tula must be remarkably good with children because you know how he normally is with strangers, but he seems to like her a lot. And now that Clara knows you're safe she's giving a good rendition of love's young dream and Julian is smitten with a very bad case of the green-eyed monster, excuse the use of that particular colour, and Joel's obsessing that he couldn't stop you from being hurt … I wonder where he gets that from … and, oh yes, he's still sulking over the fact that we chose to climb this mountain instead of taking up the Chens' offer of swimming with the dolphins and spending more time with his latest girlfriend …"
"Doing that well, eh …" Clark couldn't repress a grin at Lois' babble.
"In other words, another day in the life of Lois & Clark and family."
Lois finished her task of very temporary medical treatment with her mini first-aid kit and, moving round the edge of the makeshift bench, she sat beside him and slid her hand inside his. "Oh, Clark, what is happening to us? You could have been killed."
"Well, I'm clearly not invulnerable anymore, but my powers can't have faded completely or I really would be dead. Now that I can think more clearly I remember that some of these rocks were pretty heavy and they would've killed an ordinary man." Clark arched his back tentatively. "They definitely hurt me."
"That's obvious! You should see the bruises! But, Clark, this shouldn't be happening … we only found red kryptonite and that doesn't usually have any physical effect."
"Exactly! And another strange thing, sweetheart, Joel doesn't seem to be suffering from any loss of powers …"
"That's not true, Dad. Something weird's happening to me too." Joel had come up quietly on his parents and he joined them on the log. "When you were under the rocks I tried to use my x-ray vision to find you but it wouldn't work right, and it was really hard to lift the bigger boulders. I was so scared I wouldn't be able to reach you in time." Joel dropped his head into his clasped hands and a muffled sniffle escaped from behind his hand.
"You did great, Joel!" Clark praised his young super hero. "Even without your full powers you did good … you all did! And I'm fine … really." His free arm encircled Joel's slight shoulders and pulled the troubled child against his side. "All you can ever do is your best and hope that it's enough. Even super heroes can't do everything."
"That's what I used to have to tell your dad when he felt sad about not saving everyone," Lois added, anxious to calm her son's fears.
"That's true, I used to feel just like you, in fact, I still get pretty down if a rescue doesn't go well. But you can't let it stop you …"
"You just have to go on and do whatever you can and your dad and I are very proud of you."
It wasn't the first time she and Clark had had this conversation with their young super hero, and it probably wouldn't be the last. Both she and Clark had made it perfectly clear to Joel since his powers had begun to manifest themselves that he would be the one to decide whether to follow in his father's footsteps, but to Joel it just seemed the natural thing to do and he often used his developing abilities to help out.
"Thanks, Mom," Joel blushed and squeezed closer to his father "I'm just glad that you're okay, Dad."
Lois leaned over and ruffled her son's dark hair, then her brow furrowed as she broached the subject which had been niggling at her consciousness since they'd dug Clark from under the landslide "So, since you were both affected physically, I take it that we're assuming that there must be green kryptonite around?"
"It has to be, Lois." Clark stated adamantly. "As far as we know nothing else can do that to us."
"Then why didn't Bernie's box bleep?"
Two expectant adult gazes turned on their puzzled son and they asked in chorus. "Joel?!"
The two elder Kent boys had asked to be in charge of the machine on this expedition.
"No, it didn't! I would've told you if it did! Julian and I have been watching it real close. Well, I have," Joel added with a disapproving glance at his sibling who was at this very moment insinuating himself between Clara and Paul. "Julian seems to have other things on his mind."
Lois smiled at the feeling of deja-vu; just yesterday the boys' situations had been completely reversed and Julian had shown similar disapproval of his brother's actions.
"Don't worry about it, Joel," Lois smoothed the hair she had just rifled. "Julian's feeling neglected because your sister's going gooey-eyed over someone else …"
"Stupid girl!" Joel interjected with feeling. "Paul is much too old for her and he doesn't even notice her! She's just making a fool of herself."
Lois' smile turned to a fully fledged grin. She was tempted to spout the old adage that the pot was calling the kettle black; however, on second thoughts, she wasn't about to bring up the subject of Joel's … and Clark's, for that matter, similar descent into foolishness. And the thought suddenly struck her that though she and Clark had discussed the bizarre results of the exposure to the red K, they had not yet shared their ideas with Joel. Clark would now be on his guard against any further developments in the field of romance but, judging by Joel's dismissive reaction to Clara's conduct, the young boy wasn't even aware of his own enthralment.
Clark, on the other hand, had no such inhibitions. "Joel, you do not call your sister stupid! And, besides, we're hardly squeaky clean ourselves in the 'making fools of ourselves' department. Haven't you got a huge crush on a certain Ms Chen?"
"No way! I do not! I hate girls!!" A red-faced Joel was vehement in his denial.
"Come on, son, come clean. We both held a candle for her." Clark's face was stained with the same blush as his son's.
The young boy slowly searched the face above him which was almost a mirror image of his own. "You too, Dad? But you love Mom, don't you?" A wistful note had crept into Joel's voice as he reprised the afternoon spent on the Swallow. His Dad had been spending a lot of quality time with Ms Chen and he recalled wishing that Dad would just go away and leave him alone with this very nice lady.
Did this mean that Dad no longer was in love with Mom? And if that were so, then that was … just awful. Pictures of some of his friends whose parents no longer were together came into his mind. Divorce … alimmm … or whatever it was his friends said their mothers were always complaining of … separate houses … and seeing dad only at weekends and … stepmoms and dads, who wouldn't exactly like you and who definitely wouldn't understand about super powers, all sprang to mind … it would be horrible … and it happened to other kids, not to him and his brothers and sister. Mom and Dad were always together. In fact, sometimes he'd be embarrassed by the way they were always kissing and cuddling and things. Oh, he'd never complain about that again for as long as he lived. Please just let Mom and Dad love each other again.
Joel's mental babble showed all too clearly on his distraught face and Clark jumped in quickly, guilty that he'd carelessly caused his son pain. "I do love your mom, Joel; I've loved her from the beginning and I'll love her till the end. But I was drawn to Hazel Chen and I didn't even realise what I was doing until Mom pointed it out and I've felt really, really bad about it ever since. Yet that doesn't mean that I don't love your mother You mustn't worry about that. We'll always stay together. " And to reinforce his words he retook Lois' hand firmly in his own clasp. "What happened yesterday on the boat was a … mistake … a very big mistake and the fact that we both made it must tell you something."
"And Clara's making it right now, you're the one who said so," Lois reminded a still puzzled Joel.
"We've all been affected!" In his excitement, Joel spoke louder than he had intended and for a short moment the little group attracted the attention of the others. However, after checking that things were okay everyone soon lost interest and the threesome on the log returned to their enlightening conversation. "Sorry," the youngster announced sheepishly, "forgot!" His voice dropped to conspiratorial tones. "It's the red kryptonite! You said it changed the way we acted, Mom. How weird is this!"
"Well, I've encountered it a few times over the years and each time it's had a different influence, but this is definitely a new development. And it's never harmed me physically before."
"So that must mean that there's the green variety about here somewhere, yet it's not close enough to register on Bernie's Geiger gizmo."
"Or Uncle Bernie's machine isn't working." Joel suggested helpfully.
"No, son, it worked on the samples I took back to Star Labs."
"And on the piece that we found later. Julian and I tested it. So it has to be the first option, which means that we can't rely on an early warning system," Lois gloomily stated. "I guess we're on our own again."
"We've been there before, honey, and survived, and we'll survive this." Rising with care from his makeshift bench, Clark pulled his wife and son to their feet and at once regretted the exertion; the cuts and bruises on his back ached abominably. "Come on, we came up here to investigate Paul's findings, so let's get that done and get off this mountain."
Conscious of her husband's pain, Lois slipped an arm around Clark and with Joel supporting his other side the little entourage made their way slowly to the others. As they came abreast of them, Jimmy spoke up.
"Hey, CK, I hope you're doing better, you really gave us a scare back there. I don't think this hillside is good for the health." The photographer sniffed the air distastefully. "I'm no scientist but I'd say that this lake reeks of sulphur … it smells horrible and it doesn't look much better," he declared with disgust. "But there's another smell in the background and I can't make it out … but it's making things twice as bad."
Always in the past, Clark had discovered that his more passive powers, those of hearing and scent were the last to leave him and the first to return and his sensitive nose was already defining the obnoxious odours.
"Yeah, Dad, what is that?!" Clara enquired as she and Paul, followed closely by their ever-persistent guardian, joined the rest of the expedition.
Inhaling sharply, Clark considered before replying. "Rotten fish, I'd say, with a whiff of decaying vegetation mixed in."
"It's gross!" Clara gave her decided opinion with a grimace.
"Well, I'd have to agree with you, princess, but you're just going to have to put up with it for a while if we're to do some investigating." Clark turned to Paul. "I think I've read somewhere that all these changes are a clear sign of an impending eruption."
"Yes, Mr Kent, and the landslide was probably caused by a minor quake which is another sign." It was evident from young Valliere's expression that he was grateful to be taken seriously. "These things have been happening for a time now but they're growing more and more frequent and I'd stake my life on it that this volcano's going to blow pretty soon."
"Let's hope it won't come to staking your life," Lois said with passion. "Apart from us, who have you told about this? I mean, if the evidence is so conclusive, why is no one taking you seriously?"
The handsome adolescent face, a strange blend of hopeful youth and the confident man he promised to become, slid away from Lois' questioning stare as Paul studied the ground intently.
"I think it's time you came clean, Paul," Tula interposed gently from her spot on the ground, carefully keeping her tone from betraying any reproval.
"These people are trying to help, I think they deserve the truth."
Brother and sister stared at each other for a long moment, Paul's expression showing a certain exasperation, until a sigh broke through the teenager's annoyance. "I guess you're right, Tula. Okay, this isn't the first time I've thought that Solvan was about to erupt," he finished with a trace of belligerence.
"How many times?" Lois queried.
"Three," his eyes still stayed locked on the ground at his feet. "But I was a lot younger then … and more excitable." At last his embarrassed glance rose to face the group around him.
"Three!!" A hint of cynical resignation coloured Lois' voice and she threw Jimmy a 'shouldn't-you-have-checked-your-sources' look.
Jimmy replied to the unspoken censure. "Hey, this is the first I've heard about this!"
Always more attuned to people's emotions, Clark attempted to soothe the youngster's mortification and to get at the truth. "Everyone makes mistakes, Paul, but maybe you could tell us what happened and what makes you so sure that this time is different."
When the youngster still stayed silent, Tula took up the tale. "Like we told you, Paul's been interested in Solvan ever since he was a little boy and at first, everyone was impressed by his understanding and determination. Philippe Blanc and my Uncle Butto both used to take Paul up on the mountain and fill his head with the stories of Solvan … and Grandmere Mia was the worst; she'd spend hours telling him all the ancient legends, so it isn't surprising that Paul became fixated on the whole thing." Tula paused briefly in her recital to see if the subject of her narration might like to take up the story, but he remained withdrawn. "The first time Paul came down the mountain and announced that Solvan was going to explode he was seven years old, and of course, no one took him seriously, except Grandmere. But they didn't make fun or anything, in fact, Philippe and Butto went back with him and explained that some of the phenomena he was experiencing were just things that Solvan did from time to time."
"Excuse me," Lois interrupted, hating to be in the dark about any part of a story, "Grandmere? …"
"Grandmere Mia; she's our grandmother and she raised us. She's also the only pure-bred surviving daughter of the ancient royal family of this island. Butto is her nephew but as he's our only other relative we call him Uncle and he looks after the plantation for us …"
"You own a plantation?" Jimmy asked with a hint of surprised interest.
"The Vallieres own the island, actually," Tula stated with less pride than she had told them of her grandmother's ancient lineage. "They came from France over three hundred years ago and took over the island. It's a common and sometimes uncomfortable history but eventually both the indigenous and immigrant peoples learned to live with each other and became native Papillons. A couple of generations ago the two main families finally united when my grandparents married and for a time everyone on the island prospered …"
"What happened to your parents?" Clark, not surprisingly, picked up on that part of her story.
"They were killed in a plane crash when Paul was a baby."
"I'm sorry." Clark's sympathy was heartfelt.
He knew what it was like to lose your parents and though he had been the most fortunate of children to be found and raised by the best Mom and Dad he could ever have, the sadness of never having known Jor-El and Lara would always remain buried in his heart. Even his subsequent unsatisfactory meetings with his own people hadn't dispelled the notion that his biological parents had been loyal and compassionate people.
"Don't be, Mr Kent. It was a long time ago and Paul and I have been very lucky in our guardians … we love Grandmere and Uncle Butto … and all our friends." Her eyes had strayed to her brother again, wondering if he still regarded many of the islanders as friends. "But I was explaining why everyone is sceptical of Paul's reasoning. The second time took place three years later and no one took much notice of his predictions and after a few weeks when Solvan settled back down to sleep Paul had to admit that he'd been wrong."
"And the third time?" Lois prompted as it seemed that Tula's revelation was running dry.
"The third time I was wrong again and everyone laughed." Consternation filled every word of Paul's assertion. "I made a fool of myself; I insisted that I was right, and because I was a little older, eventually Philippe and Butto began to take me seriously and they contacted a volcanologist. Professor Decker and his assistant arrived and set up their fancy equipment and stayed taking soundings and readings for a couple of weeks. According to them Solvan was just letting off steam and a big eruption wasn't imminent so they left and the mountain quietened down for a while until a few months ago when it all started again. But believe me, things have never been this bad. I've seen the water yellow before but never like this and there's never been such big quakes that I can remember; not enough to set off a landslide."
Silence reigned for some moments as the group surveyed the stretch of water and the surrounding landscape.
"I don't know much about Papillon, but it seems to me that there's some pretty inaccessible forest around here," Lois shaded her eyes as her gaze swept the barren hill above them and dropped to the tree-clad lower slopes. She suggested mildly, not wishing to further upset their guide. "Couldn't there have been a slide somewhere you might not know of?"
With a shrug of his shoulders Paul grudgingly acceded. "I guess so."
Clark left the group and wandered wearily a little way along the shoreline.
His gut instincts were telling him that something about this place was geologically out of kilter. Insidiously, the dread smell assaulted his sensitive nose once more, reminding him of the decomposing bodies. "Has this water ever gotten so hot to kill off the fish before?"
"No, never!" Paul perked up at the question as he joined Clark at the lake's edge.
Turning to face the others, Clark posed a question to the two Vallieres. "Is there a laboratory anywhere on this island where we could have this water analysed?"
"We have a small lab at the plantation, mostly to do soil samples, but I'm sure they could test the water." Tula had followed her brother, still holding hard to Nathan's small hand, and the little boy scurried to keep up with his new friend. "There's also a pharmacy in the town, though I'm not sure that they'd have the facilities."
"Then I think that's what we should do." Clark made the decision. He wasn't sure why, he wasn't an expert on volcanology, but somehow he agreed with young Paul. Perhaps it was what he'd witnessed when he had gazed down into Solvan's molten maw from his aerial position. He'd been mesmerized and overawed by the power of the boiling magma almost as if he'd met something that could match or even exceed his own strength. "Lois, have you a water bottle I could use to fill up?"
And, pulling the flask from her backpack where she'd stashed it after cleaning Clark's wounds, Lois hurried to join Clark and watched with trepidation as he skimmed some water off the surface of the lake. Who was to say that the contaminated water wouldn't harm Clark if he inadvertently splashed some on his skin. The action, however, was completed without mishap; and straightening stiffly, Clark once again addressed the group.
"I think we've seen enough for now and we should get off this mountain before anything else bad happens to us."
"But don't you want to get nearer to the crater, Mr Kent?" Paul spoke with a mixture of disappointment and supplication.
Having a very good idea of what was hidden within the crater, that was the last thing that Clark wished to do. "No, Paul, I doubt if that's necessary. I mean, it looks like a tough climb from here and I really don't want to put anyone else at risk." At that he turned a warning look on his children who, no doubt, were eager to explore further. "We've already been involved in a landslide and to tell the truth I'm not feeling so good. I'd appreciate going home."
Clark was perfectly willing to use his injuries as an excuse and, besides, his statement wasn't totally untrue. A moment before, he'd scooped Nathan up into his arms since the toddler had seemed a little careworn, and that had been a big mistake. His strained muscles had immediately protested at the added weight and his head swam dizzily.
"Hey, CK, you should have said you weren't feeling well. I'm not surprised; you took a few hard knocks, and I agree we've seen enough for today. Let me carry Nathan. Come on, Superboy, come to your Uncle Jimmy," and he coaxed the child into his arms and turned to walk back down the trail. "Nathan, have you still got that cool Superman doll?"
Tula hurried to catch up with the pair and Nathan's baby giggles floated back to the others as Jimmy strove to entertain his passenger. Clark's equilibrium had thankfully settled almost back to normal at the removal of Nathan's weight and he quickly addressed their disgruntled guide.
"Paul, if it makes you feel better, you've already convinced me that we've a problem, but there's not much we can do about it up here. Come on, guys, it's almost dinner time and I'm starving. We can hold a strategy meeting back at the house."
Slowly the little group complied with Clark's suggestion and they wandered off in the direction that Jimmy and Tula had already taken. Once more Clara had followed her hero and Julian had trailed dejectedly in their wake with Joel laughing quietly on his heels.
Left alone by the lakeside, Lois slipped her arm around Clark's waist, taking care not to touch any of the tender bruises and cuts. She leaned closer and whispered in his ear. "Liar!"
"Now, Lois, you know Superman never lies," he smiled ruefully. "Believe me, it really does hurt."
"Not that, lunkhead! The part about being hungry. I'll bet that food is the last thing you want right now."
"Honey, I'm the one who's supposed to be telepathic, but I never seem to be able to hide how I'm feeling from you." Clark shook his head carefully in wonder; although the giddiness had much improved his stomach still felt decidedly queasy.
"Well, the fetching pasty tinge to your skin did give me a clue." Lois attempted to make light of Clark's injuries, though she fretted inwardly. The Man of Steel was supposedly invulnerable, but Lois knew differently. She started walking, steering Clark on the downward path. "Come on, Superman, let's take you home."
The trip down the mountain was hot and wearisome and all the gallant explorers were glad to reach the denser shade of the tree line. Clark, who had found the glaring sun scalding the lacerated skin of his back through the remnants of his shirt, was unusually thankful to gain the shadows. Even the hand towel that Lois had dragged from her backpack (being a mom she came prepared for most eventualities) and draped across his shoulders, could not protect him completely from the searching rays. Unfortunately, the contents of the first-aid kit which also accompanied her had already been utilised, but the small bandaids could only cover the tiniest of the cuts and the antiseptic cream had long since dried into his skin; so much for invulnerability.
Tula and Jimmy, with his tired yet buoyant passenger, were the first to reach the comfort of the thickening forest and both their pace and their conversation picked up in the cooling shadows of the burgeoning trees.
Nathan, already comfortable with his uncle, who he remember fondly from the past, now bloomed under the attention he was receiving from this new grown-up friend. Tula might not be quite as pretty as the mermaid of yesterday, but she was nice and Nathan hadn't really liked the lady from the yacht … she had made his mommy sad. But this young lady was no threat to his happy family and Uncle Jimmy seemed to like her a lot, which was a commendation in itself, and she had a lovely smile which she used often … and she lived on this island. Oh boy, Nathan had a knowledgeable audience at last.
"Ms Valler," Nathan was taught to be polite to grown-up strangers, and he hadn't known Tula for so very long. "Ms Vall … Valleyere," he tried again to get his tongue round the strange-sounding name and was pleased with the result; grinning broadly, he continued. "Would yoo like to see what Nathan found?"
Tula was indeed taken with the Kent children and especially with this small dark-haired chubby cherub whose spontaneous grin seemed to fall somewhere between angel and imp.
"Secret treasure! The very best kind! I'd love to see, Nathan."
The island girl's voice was imbued with genuine enthusiasm and Nathan's smile broadened. She was reacting in just the way he'd hoped Mom and Dad would … only they'd been too busy with that other thing and now Daddy was hurt bad … he'd never really seen Daddy sick before and a shadow dulled his happiness. Nathan's lips trembled as his smile faded and Tula at once recognised where the small child's thoughts had fled. Her tender heart was touched by the downcast look and she immediately set about reviving Nathan's spirits. This was something she could do to help the family who had taken such an interest in her brother.
"Do you have it here, Nathan?" She spoke encouragingly. "Cause I'd really like to take a look at it and I'm sure that Jimmy would too." A conspiratorial glance at Jimmy accompanied her words.
"Oh yeah! That would be real cool! And don't worry, Nathan, if it's a secret treasure, Tula and I won't tell a soul. You can rely on us," he confided with a wink.
As desired, the little boy was distracted from his troubling thoughts and, digging deep into his pockets, he produced the goods with a flourish, opening his two hands as if to the sound of a silent drum roll. The two adults stared hard at the glassy golden spheres and finally Tula whispered, her voice imbued with a wonder that wasn't wholly feigned.
"You are a clever boy! They're amber and you don't often find them. You are so lucky!"
"May I?" Jimmy asked permission and took one of the proffered articles, rolling the smooth surface over and over in his palm. "Amber? Is that what they are?"
"Well, I've never actually had them checked out, but I've looked them up in a couple of books and they certainly fit the profile."
"Marbles," announced Nathan with a precise nod of his head. "Ammer marbles!"
"That's right, Nathan. Amber marbles," Tula stressed the word amber for the sake of her small friend. "I've found the odd piece in the forests once or twice before but never such nice specimens. They really are rare. Which is a pity because I use them to make jewellery and they're a big seller in the gift shop. Only I never find enough to make much money out of them."
At these words Nathan snatched back his prize from a startled Jimmy and his fist closed possessively over his possessions. "Nathan's marbles!"
"Indeed they are, Nathan," Tula assured. "Finders keepers."
But already, Nathan was having a change of heart. Mommy and Daddy would not be pleased if they knew he'd been greedy. But it was hard sometimes to always do what was right … and they were such special marbles. But if Tula needed them to make money for her family then he'd do what Superman would do, 'cause he was Superman's little boy.
"Sorry, Tula, Uncle Jimmy," with his reluctance barely showing he went on determinedly, "if yoo need them for your shop, Ms Valleyere, please to take them." Fighting back a stray tear for the loss of his treasured toys, he opened his hands to Tula.
If Ms Valleyere wasn't already hooked by this entrancing child, she was now totally won over. "Nathan, no!" She offered the toddler a tremulous smile as her own hands closed the tiny fists once more on his marbles. "These belong to you and it was very sweet of you to try to give them to me, but I don't need them. I have lots of other things to sell and you mustn't worry about that. But you must promise me to keep these safe." Her hands gently squeezed Nathan's. "They will be a special memento of Papillon and when you're back home in Metropolis you can look at these and think of the island and me."
The tiny face beamed once more; he had been given these by this lovely island lady and now they really were his to keep. He would take care of them for ever and ever.
The Kents' first view of the Vallieres' island home was indeed surprising. Most of the houses on Papillon were constructed of wood but this impressive edifice was built with stone and was of a singular design. Clark was reminded of the ancient chateaux of France and was not at all shocked to hear that the original aristocratic immigrants had recreated the home they had left behind, although on a much smaller scale. What was surprising, however, was the fact that the castle did not look out of place in its tropical setting. In fact, the expanse of carefully tended lawn that ran up to the turreted structure nestled amid the exotic trees and brightly flowering plants as if placed there by mother nature.
The Kent family had been invited by Tula to partake of dinner with the Vallieres while her Uncle Butto, who appeared to be in charge of the running of the plantation, supervised the analysing of the water sample from the lake.
Lois and Clark would have rather returned to the bungalow but, apart from being untypically rude, they could think of no reason to refuse the offer. Besides, if the analysis helped to prove Paul's assumption, then they hoped to persuade this uncle to aid them in the task of convincing the population of Papillon that it would be a good idea to start making contingency evacuation plans. And Lois had a third and very needful reason; Clark was exhausted and the house was near at hand.
So it was that the family were welcomed into the grand hall of the chateau by a tall, regal lady, whose classic beauty could not be wholly marred by age. The lady's white hair was braided and piled on top of her head like a crown, showing off her long neck and finely boned shoulders that, though wrinkled, were neither shrunken nor bowed. She was clad in a colourful, flowing full-length dress that was the typical attire of the native island women; and yet this woman was undoubtedly like no other. Clearly this imposing figure was Grandmere Mia and the equally tall man by her side must be her nephew, Butto.
A smile of uncommon graciousness adorned the lined, bronzed face as the chatelaine quickly crossed the cool stone-flagged floor to the little group in the doorway and her voice when she greeted them was low and melodic.
"Welcome to my home, Mr and Mrs Kent, and to your children. I have long wanted to meet the eminent reporters Lane & Kent. I do so admire the integrity of your work; not a quality often associated with some of the world's fourth estate."
Since the Daily Planet first began its publication on the Internet some years previously, the fame of its two star reporters had escalated greatly.
The Planet had been one of the first newspapers to realise the potential of the world wide web and the hottest investigative journalistic team of Lane and Kent had become household names in many countries of the world. Still, the two members of that team were a little astounded that their fame had spread to such a distant corner of the world.
Recognising the couple's astonishment, the lady continued with a faintly satirical smile. "I know that we're in rather a backwater here, but we do like to keep up to date with what's happening in the world outside and I find reading the Daily Planet is an interesting and well informed way to do so."
"Oh no, I'm sorry, Mrs Valliere," Lois stumbled over her words in an attempt to make amends for their unspoken faux pas. "Clark and I never thought that you lived in a backwater …"
"Why not, my dear, it's true. Didn't you bring your family here to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big city?" Her soft tones robbed her statement of any censure.
"I think my wife is trying to say that we didn't suppose you would be uninformed, and yes, we did choose Papillon to get away from our busy lives." Clark joined in the conversation to aid his wife.
"Then it's such a pity that you chose to visit at the time our volcano decides to awake …"
"Mia, you know that hasn't been confirmed and you shouldn't alarm our guests unnecessarily," the solemn man who had remained in the background interrupted. "My name is Butto and I too bid you welcome. You must be tired after your sojourn on the mountain; dinner will be served soon but in the meantime, if you would accompany me into the drawing room, perhaps you would like to partake of some refreshment."
The gentleman ushered them toward a set of double doors which stood ajar to allow a cooling breeze to pass through the shaded house. The family drifted after him but as Clark passed his hostess a stifled cry of dismay issued from her and immediately she put up a hand to retain him.
"Mr Kent, you're hurt! Whatever happened? Please come with me and let me take care of you."
"No really, there's no need. I'm fine … really … it doesn't hurt much," he lied bravely. "Lois has already seen to it."
Lois was quick to disagree. "No, Mrs Valliere, I couldn't do an awful lot with the first-aid kit I had. I'd appreciate you taking a look at Clark's wounds," she confided, ignoring the dagger-like gaze of her husband. Clark might expect that his recuperative powers would kick in at any moment since he'd distanced himself from the volcano, but he couldn't see the angry red cuts or the way his skin was beginning to blister with sunburn. Clark's injuries were in need of medical care and Lois was determined that he would receive it, even if it meant turning him over to the ministrations of a stranger. "Please, sweetheart, for my peace of mind, let Mrs Valliere help you."
When Lois looked at him in just that way there wasn't much that Clark wouldn't do for her, and his back really was hurting like hell, so he nodded in assent and let himself be led upstairs by the elderly lady.
Turning his back to the large mirror above the white porcelain sink and twisting his head around at an awkward angle, for the first time, Clark was able to see his lacerated back and now he understood the reason for his pain and why Lois had been so adamant that he be treated as soon as possible. It was not a pretty sight; purplish, black bruises vied for space with deep red gashes, and to top it all, his skin had blistered with the heat of the sun. Normally, he would have expected the sun's rays to heal him; but, here on the island, they had only caused more damage.
He felt his stomach react sickeningly to the sight of his torn flesh and as his legs gave out, he was relieved to sink into the chair in front of the vanity bar. His hostess had taken him to a guest bathroom and instructed him to rest before hurrying off to find her medicine chest, yet nonetheless, when the elderly lady returned he was taken aback by the size of the box she carried, seemingly effortlessly, into the room.
Mia Valliere smiled again at her guest's reaction (it appeared that she smiled a lot) and she quickly sought to reassure the younger man seated before her. "Don't worry, Clark; I may call you Clark, may I?" She hastened along before he had a chance to answer. "I'm not a shaman or a witch and I won't be treating you with eye-of-newt or skin-of-toad or whatever cures self-respecting witch-doctors are using at the moment. I am, however, a herbalist and quite a knowledgeable one too. I was taught by my grandmother as it appears I have the gift," she confided, punctuating her words with yet another smile, this one a little self-deprecating. "I prefer to place the basis for my skills on the wide variety of plant life found on the island and it seems such a shame that very soon it might be buried under a thick layer of lava."
As she spoke her hands busied themselves with opening bottles and jars and mixing their contents together in a small bowl, adding what appeared to be dried leaves and crushing the whole with a marble pestle. And, though she had assured Clark she was not a sorcerer, he would not have been surprised to hear her mumble an incantation over her brew.
Finally, Mia seemed satisfied with the mixture because, taking a clean white linen cloth, she dipped it into the bowl and, with a quick warning of pain, began to gently but firmly sponge the open wounds. Clark's breath drew in sharply as his body tensed with the onslaught.
"I'm sorry, I know this stings dreadfully, but this concoction is the best I know to cleanse your cuts and ward off infection. And once that's done I'll apply one of my soothing balms which should take away some of your pain. I can even make some up for your wife to apply later. You know, this is very strange to find you so hurt like this; I had thought you invulnerable."
So intent was Mia on her ministrations she failed to see the stunned look overtake her patient, freezing him into a solid block of desperation, and she continued talking as her deft fingers flew over the ugly cuts. "In fact, I had thought that you'd come to the island to help. Though I must admit, I considered it a little strange and foolhardy that you brought your family along with you … though, I never really knew before now that you had a family …"
"Excuse me, Mrs Valliere!" Even to Clark his voice sounded sepulchre-like. "I'm afraid I don't understand what you're talking about… Of course I have a family."
"Oh, come now, young man, you know perfectly well what I mean. I may be old but my eyesight hasn't failed me yet and I know what I saw." The older woman's tone was uncompromising but not unkind. "Though I was disappointed not to see you in your uniform."
"What uniform?! I don't wear a uniform!" Clark hated lying, but when needs must …
"No, I don't expect that Clark Kent does, but Superman most certainly does!"
Clark turned in his seat to confront his accuser. "If you're saying that I'm Superman, then you're … you're way off beam." He stumbled over the denial. "I'm not sure what you thought you witnessed, but I'm not who you think I am!"
"And you didn't go flying the first night you arrived on Papillon? The night that Solvan exploded … and you didn't hover over the mouth of the volcano? And let me tell you, my boy, that you scared me witless, getting so close to Solvan's mouth like that. I fully expected you to fall inside and I wasn't sure whether you'd survive a bathing in molten magma … you gave me quite a turn … and now I find that you might very well have been hurt or killed … I almost had palpitations and I was so relieved when you rose in the air and flew off …"
It seemed that Lois Lane didn't have the monopoly on the babble gene; the matriarch of the Vallieres was doing a very good impression of his wife. And she certainly didn't sound threatening … in fact she sounded very concerned. But the Vallieres' home was some distance from the crater's rim; even if she had seen a flying man in the sky she couldn't possibly have identified him as Clark Kent; human eyesight just wasn't that good … unless …
Clark turned back in his seat, the twisted position of his back was uncomfortable, and he regarded the lady in the mirror before him. She was watching him carefully, with a look that was both encouraging and reassuring.
"Yes, you're right. I used a telescope … a very powerful one as it happens. They're all over this house, thanks to Paul's fixation with Solvan. He likes to keep a watch on the mountain and spends all his allowance on equipment to help him." Mia could see her visitor was in a state of shock and she resumed her task of medical repairs, allowing time for the revelation that someone had discovered his secret identity to sink into his brain. "It's a very strange thing, but when a person grows older they seem to need less sleep, wouldn't you think the opposite would be true? But I'm a very light sleeper and on that particular night I was awakened by Solvan. I didn't feel at all tired so I came downstairs and out on to the terrace to watch the spectacle of the Fire God's wrath. Imagine my surprise when I saw a figure silhouetted in the red glow … a figure of a man. Well, of course, I knew that the only man who flies on this world is Superman and I at once assumed that he'd come to check out our volcano."
There was a moment's pause as Mia waited for Clark to assimilate the information.
"Please go on, Mrs Valliere," Clark said with a hint of resignation.
"My dear, if you will call me Mia, I promise to call you Clark and not Superman," Mia grinned as Clark gulped. "I'm a curious old woman and I had a fancy to see Superman up close, he doesn't often appear around this part of the world, and there was one of Paul's telescopes right there on the terrace … so I peeked and you can imagine my surprise when I saw not a blue-clad hero but a man dressed in black clothes and, though I would never describe you as ordinary, you do look different without the suit. Of course, I've only seen photographs and watched TV news reports, but you hadn't slicked back your hair either … and not realising you had an audience you forgot to not let your feelings show. You were afraid, stuck there in the jaws of Solvan, and I wanted so desperately to help you; then you revived and flew off." Coincidently, the lady made the same hand signal for flying as was used by his family. "However, I didn't realise who you were until we were introduced downstairs. I recognised you immediately. Which brings me to the most important point … what has gone wrong with your powers? And is Solvan responsible?"
Long moments passed as Clark struggled to come to terms with what he'd just heard. He had always assumed that someday someone would see through the disguise, but he'd never expected it to happen on a remote island with an old lady who he'd never met before. "I'm sorry, Mrs Valliere." An arched eyebrow rose in a lined forehead at the formal title, then she smiled as he made amends. "Mia, this is a whole lot for me to take in and to tell the truth, I'm not feeling so good …" Clark was eager to consult with Lois before he continued with this conversation.
"And I have only caused you more distress," Mia spoke contritely. "Please, forgive a foolish old woman who's extremely worried about the fate of her island and her people and who had thought she'd found salvation." Her straight posture slumped momentarily and her hand came to rest on the younger man's shoulder. "Why don't you take a few moments rest and I'll send your pretty wife to you. I'm sure you'd much prefer her to massage you with this healing balm." At her words she placed a stoppered vial on the counter in front of him. "This is for one application and it should ease the pain. I'll mix up some more for you to use later." Placing the various bottles back into their chest and locking it tight, Mia turned to go but she hesitated in the doorway. "Oh, and if it helps you to know, your secret is safe with me. I will never reveal your identity."
With a last serene smile the lady left the room to her special guest. Oh boy, and this was supposed to be a quiet vacation.
"I tell you, Lois, she knows!"
"That's impossible! She can only be guessing! She couldn't have gotten a clear view through a telescope … not one that could give a true identification."
"Lois, they can see what's happening on the surface of the sun through telescopes."
"Clark, they don't have that sort of telescope on Papillon," Lois remonstrated sardonically. "And please stop pacing and waving your arms about … you're supposed to be resting."
Clark halted in front of his wife, who was seated on the bed. They had taken their discussion into the guest bedroom to talk in comfort, but other than reiterate that their hostess had learned their secret, the troubled super hero had little else to impart.
"Well, perhaps in court a predatory lawyer might throw doubt on her identification, but believe me, she's sure about what she saw and that's all that matters."
Pulling her husband down to sit by her side, Lois stroked his arm gently. "Don't be so upset, sweetheart. We've been in this situation before and managed to prove the accusation wrong and we can do it again," she reminded him. "Do you know what she intends to do?"
Clark shrugged and his free hand motioned in the air. "Nothing, I think. She says my secret is safe with her."
"But can we trust her?"
Clark gave another shrug. "I think so. I mean it's not like she's a villain or even an ambitious reporter." That feeble attempt at humour earned him a playful swipe. "And it doesn't seem as if she needs the money." His gaze trawled around the luxurious room filled with beautiful antique furniture. "Actually, she thought that I was here to help."
"Help … ?"
"Yes … you know, as Superman … with the volcano … but now she knows that's out of the question."
"Because you got hurt!" Lois jumped up and now it was her turn to pace around the room. "But that's it! She knows you're injured and Superman is invulnerable … How can she possibly believe you're him?"
"You'll have to ask her that, honey, but Mrs Valliere saw what happened to me over the mouth of Solvan … she knew I was in trouble … so she knows that the volcano has an effect on me …"
"Does she know about kryptonite?" Lois asked wide-eyed, her voice dropping to a whisper.
Again there was a shrug in response. "She didn't mention it and I didn't clue her in."
"So what do we do now?" Even Lois' optimism was fading. "Oh, Clark, this was supposed to be a wonderful vacation … a chance for us to relax and enjoy ourselves as an ordinary family …" Returning to her seat on the bed, she laid her head on her husband's shoulder and automatically Clark's arm settled round her waist and pulled her against his side. "Now it seems we have a possible villainous couple; an exploding volcano and your secret is out."
Two heartfelt sighs drifted in the still air of the shady room as the couple silently commiserated with each other over the happenings of the last few days. Their reverie was interrupted by a gentle knock on the door and seconds later the subject of their conversation peeped round the edge of the heavy door.
"May I come in?" Mia asked politely but rather hesitantly.
"Why not?" Lois commented with a touch of sarcasm. "This is your house and it appears that we don't have any secrets from you."
Walking slowly into the room, the lady regarded them quizzically. "I understand how distressed you must be, but there's no reason to be anxious. I would never be a threat to either your family or Superman."
"So you say!"
For that comment, Lois earned a censorious look from Clark, before he turned his attention back to Mrs Valliere. "Truthfully, Mrs Valliere, that sort of information is more likely to put *you* in danger … If anyone suspected …"
"Oh, I doubt that any criminals would ever suspect that an old lady from a remote island would have any knowledge of Superman's identity. And as I don't intend to advertise this fact, I doubt that I'm in jeopardy, so you mustn't worry about that." Crossing to the couple on the bed, Mia shook out the bundle she was carrying to display a colourful shirt and offered it to the despondent man in front of her. "It may not be quite your style and a little bit roomy but at least it's whole."
Gratefully, Clark took the proffered item of clothing and slipped his hands in the sleeves very carefully; although Mia's salve that Lois had applied to his skin earlier had taken away the worst of the stinging sensation, his muscles still ached horribly. Lois moved quickly to help him dress in the gaudy shirt and all three took the opportunity this action required to regroup their thoughts. Finally the elderly woman broke the silence.
"This has clearly been a huge shock for you … for both of you, but believe me, I didn't go out of my way to learn your secret; it just happened and I can't undo it. And I appreciate that it's difficult for you to trust a stranger with this knowledge … but I wish you nothing but good." The lady drew up a chair close to the couple and sank thankfully onto it as if she too had been troubled by the revealing conversation. She turned a candid stare toward Clark. "I admire you in both your personaes; you do so much good for this world as Clark and Superman. When I saw you that night I believed that Superman had come to check out Solvan and I believed that he would save us, but that's not possible, is it? I should have known that no one, not even a super being, could withstand the power of nature and I'm sorry that it should have been my island that hurt you." The elderly lady fell silent as she contemplated Superman's fate.
"Mia, I doubt that Papillon had anything to do with what's happened to me, at least not directly …"
"Clark! Don't!" Lois objected, shocked that her husband was about to confirm the truth of his identity.
Clark sent Lois an apologetic shrug as he answered resignedly, "Lois, there's no point in denying it; Mia knows what she saw and I'm certain we can trust her." He slid his clasp over Lois' nervously fluttering hands. "And if Paul's right and the volcano is about to blow, then maybe Mia can help us."
"You can trust me," the object of their conversation assured, "and I don't want to know any more than you're comfortable telling me, so please let's say no more about your secret identity. The safety of my island and everyone on it is my most immediate concern. We have to convince the others that the island must be evacuated and, I'm assuming, for reasons which I don't wish to learn, that super powered help is out of the question."
"I'm afraid so, Mia." Clark wasn't exactly ecstatic about this woman knowing so much about him but there seemed little he could do about it now. How could he have become so careless?
"Sorry, honey, but there's no use crying over spilt milk." Lois' commiserating words breached his thoughts; it was uncanny how she did that. "We've grown a little lax over the years, but things could've been a lot worse." Lois decided to accept the inevitable and addressed her elderly hostess. "Ms Valliere, Clark and I will be forever in your debt if you chose to forget what you've discovered."
"Oh, indeed, yes! You have my word on that score." A wrinkled hand covered the couple's clasped hands as Mia sought to convey the depth of her commitment. "And if I can ever help you in any way please don't hesitate to ask." The subject of the super hero now seemed complete and with a final squeeze of their hands Mia stood up. "Now to the business at hand; dinner will be served shortly and later perhaps we can convince Butto to join us in our mission to save the islanders. I fear that the fate of Papillon lies in Solvan's omnipotent hands."
Thus Spake Solvan
The incandescent light of morning intruded into the quiet bedroom and, passing through the white netting of the protective curtain, shone more gently on the sleeping couple in the bed. To say their night's rest had been a peaceful one was not exactly true; the news they had received that day and the important activities of this coming forenoon had led to a troubled bedtime discussion which ended with them comforting each other in the way that they most appreciated. Finally exhaustion had claimed them but their sleep patterns had been interrupted by dreams of exploding volcanos and menacing faceless villains.
Now, as the diffused light touched the face of the lovely woman, her heavy eyelids twitched while she fought off the remaining shrouds of sleep. She stretched languorously, like a sleek jungle cat but her movement was restricted by a heavy arm draped possessively around her waist. Her hand stroked the encircling muscled arm absentmindedly while she spent some moments reviewing the latter events of yesterday.
Dinner at the Vallieres' home had passed off pleasantly enough, thanks mainly to the efforts of Jimmy and Tula and the children. A slight air of tension between the hostess and Lois and Clark had permeated the air when first they had returned to the grand dinning room but fortunately the others had taken over the burden of conversation until little by little the three relaxed and joined in the friendly chatter.
Yet all the pleasantries had ceased when, at the end of the meal, an anxious Butto had returned with the results of the analysis. The lake water was toxic indeed; a heavily laden cocktail of sulfuric acid and native sulfur. The results had shocked and convinced the local man that action had to be taken, but he was unwilling to concede that a mass exodus of the island was required. Finally, a compromise had been reached and the Kent family had returned home, having agreed that Butto would call an emergency meeting of the island council in the Blancs' hotel for early the next morning.
That appointment was fast approaching and Lois galvanised herself into action. She twisted her head to search the still unconscious face of her husband and, satisfied that he was still resting peacefully, she lifted his arm and carefully slid from the bed and his loving embrace. Devoid of her husband's warm presence, Lois' naked body shivered slightly and, hurriedly slipping into her robe, she returned to stand beside the bed, studying the face and form of the man she loved above all others.
Very seldom in their married life had Lois actually experienced the trauma of Clark being physically hurt. Yet the fear was always there, buried like a stone deep in her unconscious mind, that one day he would encounter something or someone that was more powerful than himself. Was this that time? Mia Valliere had stated that nothing could compare with the might of Mother Nature once she unleashed her strength. And then, of course, there was the added problem of the kryptonite.
Stretching out a hand, Lois tenderly caressed a hard muscled shoulder, unusually clad in a cotton T-shirt. Clark was not naked as she had been … and with a worried smile she remembered her fusspot words as she helped him dress in the light top, reminding him that he should protect his injured back from accidental damage which might occur during their very pleasing yet very physical nocturnal activities.
Assuring herself that he seemed to be suffering no undue pain, Lois decided to leave Clark to sleep while she showered and dressed. The extremely crucial meeting of the island council might very well prove stormy and they didn't have much time, but she was reluctant to wake Clark from his much needed rest. Perhaps by the time she had showered he would awake naturally … and if not … her thoughts turned to some delicious ways with which she had learned to bring her husband from slumber.
"Bad girl, Lois," she admonished herself. "There's no time for that sort of thing and Clark is sick and you still can't leave him be. You'd think that weird kryptonite poisoning was affecting you. Is that possible? Could I become susceptible through association?" Lois voiced her thoughts aloud as she stepped beneath the jets of the shower. "Or am I just a sex mad crazy woman?"
After careful, though whimsical, consideration, Lois decided that this last option was probably true, at least, where her husband was concerned. But she really ought not to be pondering on such trivial matters. There were much more important subjects to attend to, namely the fact of an exploding volcano. Nonetheless, Lois spent the rest of her time as she dressed, happily reviewing the intimate details of the night.
Her little scheme had worked. As Lois walked back into the bedroom, Clark was slowly emerging from the realms of Morpheus, gently flexing his muscles and pulling himself into a sitting position.
"Hi, honey!" Clark rubbed his fist into his eyes as he welcomed his wife with just a tiny amount of disappointment. "Hey, you're all dressed! You didn't wait for me. I would've liked to share your shower … This is a small island and its utilities are probably pretty stretched. We really should help out with water conservation and all that, you know."
"Oh yeah, we have to look after the water," Lois agreed with a heavy touch of sarcasm, but nevertheless, she crossed to the bed and sitting, dropped a lingering kiss on his lips. Her hand rose to his forehead, partly as a caress but mainly to test his temperature. Pushing her fingers through his rumpled hair she asked with a touch of apprehension. "You sound a little chipper this morning. How are you feeling?"
Clark tested his body by stretching his back and raising his arms above his head. That felt so much easier than it had last night. "I'm better." He encircled Lois with his arms as he brought them back down and gave her an experimental squeeze. "Yeah, my back definitely doesn't hurt so much." And enjoying the sensation of having his wife back in his arms he suggested hopefully. "Why don't you come back to bed and we can test out just how much my health has improved."
"You are incorrigible, Farmboy. Please behave! We have an important meeting to attend this morning." Her words were scolding but her eyes twinkled momentarily before her demeanour turned more serious. "Have you forgotten Solvan? You have to get up and dressed quickly and I'll see to breakfast."
Swinging away from the bed, her eyes caught sight of a small jar, sitting on the bedside table; Grandmere Mia's famous salve. Clark had already had two applications of the ointment and he seemed to be improving so she might as well continue with the treatment. Of course, it might be his own remarkable healing ability returning but it didn't do any harm to cover all bets. Holding the jar aloft to indicate her intentions, Lois instructed. "Clark, take off your shirt and turn around, you're due for another dose of the magic mixture."
Doing as he was bid, Clark remonstrated with his wife through the folds of cotton. "Honey, there's no need to be so demeaning. Mia was only trying to help and that stuff really does soothe …"
It took a moment or two before he realised that his wife was being unnaturally silent. He twisted his head around to view her and was surprised by the startled look on Lois' face.
"Clark, either your powers are back or this stuff really is magic!"
Clark concentrated his gaze on the bedroom wall. "Hey, I can see Joel and Julian," he informed Lois triumphantly. However, after a brief moment his triumphant tone faded; as did his glimpse of his sons. "Well, I did for a little while." He screwed up his eyes and tried again and was rewarded for his efforts when a hazy picture of his sons' bedroom swam into focus. He tried something else, also with little success. "I can just make out the kids' room but no levitation. So the powers are still patchy and definitely no flying."
"Sweetheart, your back is almost healed."
Placing her hands on Clark's shoulders she turned him around until he could view himself in the mirror on the closet door, then she crossed to the window and threw the drapes aside. In the full light of morning the extent of Clark's healing process was revealed. His skin wasn't completely back to normal but the rejuvenation within the short time was certainly not that of an ordinary man. The angry red patches surrounding the cuts had died down and the cuts themselves were almost sealed, while the dark purple bruising had faded considerably. On closer inspection, underneath the injuries, Clark and Lois could make out the pale pink of new healthy skin.
"Your own powers must be kicking back in since you've distanced yourself from Solvan … it can't be this goo," but even as she spoke Lois was digging her fingers into the thick creamy mixture and spreading it liberally across the expanse of back before her. She wasn't about to take any chances.
"Hmm, honey, do you think you could go a little easier. I know it looks a lot better and it feels a lot better too, but it's still not fit for the Mad Dog Lane treatment."
"Sorry," Lois apologised with a blush and with a final flourish, she decreed, "it's all done, poor baby. According to Mia this stuff is waterproof, so off you go and take a shower. I'll get the kids up."
Lois hurried through the house like the little tornado that Clark often likened her to, banging on doors and shouting out to the children that it was time to rise. She ended up pushing open the door to her baby's room, to find him already awake and sitting up in his bed. The white linen sheet was scrunched around his body like a nest and lying in the folds were his favourite toys. Lois flung back the curtains and turned to pluck Nathan from his bed.
"Oh, these are very pretty," she commented, surveying the glass balls directly in front of the small boy. "Where did you get those?" Lois was sure she'd never seen these particular marbles before, but, as Nathan was always getting new ones from his Grandpa Jon, she couldn't always keep up.
"Nathan's," the tiny voice announced determinedly. "Tula said they was mine! Tula said Nathan had to take good care of them."
Remembering her stroll through Tula's gift shop on the first morning of their stay, Lois recalled the few pretty pieces of amber jewellery she'd admired; in fact, she had made a mental note to return and buy a small pendant for her mother, thinking that it would be the ideal holiday present for Ellen Lane. They weren't particularly expensive jewels but they were very unusual and if Tula had been kind enough to give her son a couple of samples, then she wasn't about to object. Besides, they had more important matters to attend to.
"Then of course you must look after them, sweetie, but we don't have much time before we've to be in town, so how about you put them back in their box for now and come and get ready to go."
Lois held out the ancient biscuit tin, its lead-painted surface somewhat scuffed and faded, though the pictures of a rustic farmyard were still visible. Understanding that his mom was using that particular tone of voice which meant business, Nathan did as he was bid and then giggled loudly as Lois tickled his tummy when scooping him up into her arms to carry him off to the bathroom.
And for the next hour or so, life became pretty hectic in the normally serene setting, as the Kents transposed their customary busy morning routine to their island home. Yet out of the chaos, order finally emerged and all members of the family were ready to go at the appointed time.
Amazingly, the dining room of the Hotel de Papillon was filled with curious islanders, given that the meeting had only been arranged the previous evening; the island scuttlebutt must have been quite as successful as that of the Daily Planet. But then, both Lois and Clark concluded that the Vallieres must have a good deal of influence, which wasn't particularly surprising since they owned most of the island.
What was astonishing was the fact that the visitors, including the Chens, were also present. Had Mia convinced Butto to take the prospect of an eruption more seriously? And, even more importantly, had the older stateswoman persuaded Philippe Blanc of the gravity of the situation? The hotel patron, along with all his other jobs, was also the mayor of the small community.
One end of the long room was slightly raised, as on happier occasions the dining room served as a ball room. A couple of tables occupied the spot and seated behind them, in earnest conversation, were Mia and Butto and Mr & Mrs Blanc. One other unknown gentleman made up the podium party but as he was wearing a dog-collar, the Kents surmised that this must be the local priest.
An anxious and enquiring mumble rose from the floor of the small auditorium, while Lois and Clark shepherded their children toward the only other people they knew in the room. Jimmy and Tula made a pretty picture, standing close together in the large bay window and Lois couldn't repress the wish that these two young people should fall in love. Heaven knew, her friend deserved some happiness in his life. She and Clark had worried that the photo-journalist had become too solitary since the end of his tragic foray into marriage. It was encouraging to see him so relaxed and happy in the company of this attractive unassuming young woman.
Disquietingly, from Lois' point of view, Ron and Hazel Chen were also with Jimmy and she fervently hoped that Clark would now be able to ignore the strange attraction that he had for this beautiful female.
As if reading her mind, Clark's arm tightened round her shoulders and his voice whispered close by her ear. "Don't worry, sweetheart, I can handle this."
With that reassurance Lois was content and she smiled pleasantly at the little group by the window as they made their way through the crowded room. However, it seemed that one of her other favourite males was not quite so competent at holding his hormones in check, as Joel, beaming brightly on his first fancy, hurried to Hazel's side.
"Hi, Mrs Chen, it's real nice to see you again," and then recalling both his manners and the information that his mom and dad had given him about the effects of red kryptonite, Joel added, blushing profusely, "and you, Mr Chen … Tula, Jimmy."
"Well, hello," his temptress purred. "I'm happy to meet you again too, and all your family." Her eyes took in the others as she bestowed on them a stunning smile. "Though from what Jimmy's told us, I could wish it to be in different circumstances. Are you feeling better, Clark?" The sultry voice lingered over the name like a caress and Lois could feel her hackles rising as the lady stretched out a svelte arm to lightly touch Clark's shoulder.
Mid-strike, Lois caught the straying limb and deftly changed the subject. "What a pretty bracelet, Hazel … amber, I believe. It's one of Tula's, isn't it?"
Hazel snatched her hand back and annoyance sizzled just below the surface of her gorgeous exterior. "Yes, Roy bought it for me. Tula's quite a talented young woman. But I'm more concerned for your brave husband … "
"Fine! I'm fine! Thank you!" Clark wished it was his hackles that were rising and not his temperature. Oh boy, I can handle this, he thought. "Lois is taking care of me just fine." He tightened his hold on Lois as if she were his lifeline and thankfully regained control of his traitorous instincts.
Roy Chen added his concerns to those of his wife. "I'm glad you're okay, Clark. Being buried under a load of rocks can't have been very pleasant. But what's your opinion on this volcano? Do you think we should be leaving?"
Chen's questions betrayed the depths of his anxieties. The astute business man could keep his cool in a boardroom full of sharp negotiators, and a rough ride through the money markets did little to his blood pressure, but natural disasters were something else. When Jimmy had first asked him for a ride to Papillon and explained his reasons for going, he had thought that witnessing a volcanic irruption might be exciting. The reality was however somewhat different … People could get hurt. Clark Kent already had been.
A sharp thud of a gavel could be heard throughout the room, interrupting Roy's musings and calling order to the gossiping crowd. Stillness settled as Mr Blanc stood, the scrape of his chair sounding loud in the silence. The man surveyed the assembly, taking some time out to compose his conflicting thoughts.
Since he and his wife had been visited by Butto the previous evening his feelings had teetered between the complete denial of their supposed plight to the desire to put as much distance between his people and the island that was their home. Hadn't they reached this point before when they had listened to young Paul's suspicions? And at great cost they had called in the assistance of an eminent volcanologist, who had assured them that a catastrophe was not imminent. The Professor had left with the assurance that their volcano would be monitored by his team back in the US and they had received no further communications from him; no worried messages from the man advising them that an evacuation was necessary. Surely that must mean that everything was normal and the islanders were safe.
Philippe would have been less sanguine had he been aware that Professor Decker, on returning Stateside, had suffered a massive brain haemorrhage and in the subsequent jockeying for position in his department, his assistant had failed to convey the unstable state of the volcano to the rest of his superiors; the fate of the butterfly island had been lost in the politics of a far off institution.
Yet none of the islanders were cognizant with these distant happenings and so they gathered today unaware that danger threatened. Clearing his throat and his mind Philippe Blanc began to speak, striving for impartiality.
"My friends and visitors to Papillon, I have called you here today to acquaint you with certain happenings which might mean that we are all in jeopardy. Most of you know Paul Valliere and you also know that Paul has made it his business to study our mountain, Solvan." The eyes of everyone in the room strained to find the teenage boy who leaned self-consciously against the far corner of the window bay, partially hidden by those in front of him. "It's also common knowledge that Paul believes that Solvan is about to explode …"
A babble of sound filled the air as the attendees agreed volubly with this statement and a single voice rose above the others.
"Paul's been thinking that for years and we've never taken any notice." A native man named Taz, who was a foreman at the copra plant, had chosen to speak for the assemblage. "Why should this time be any different?"
The young prophet of doom squirmed uncomfortably at the scepticism that coloured the spokesperson's words. Conversely, Philippe found himself defending the teenage scientist.
"Nevertheless, certain things have happened in the past couple of days that suggest that Paul might not have been exaggerating." That statement had the effect of silencing the scornful chatter and of sparking a mild state of anxiety throughout the listeners and Philippe found himself the centre of everyone's rapt attention. "We've all witnessed Solvan's explosions of anger and though we've convinced ourselves that this is normal, perhaps we should be more honest and admit to his outbursts being more frequent of late. And yesterday Paul convinced some of our guests to accompany him up the mountain to view for themselves some of the signs he had been monitoring. I have to tell you that these visitors to our shores are none other than the famous reporting team of Lane & Kent, Metropolis' finest journalists, and Mr James Olsen who is also an award-winning photo-journalist. I would remind you, while you consider what I am about to tell you, that these are not impressionable people, but highly objective professionals and their opinions cannot be dismissed lightly."
Surreptitious glances were directed to the little party by the window as the gathering tried to identify the famous reporters. Many islanders had read their work but few had ever seen their faces and their curiosity was aroused. These well known cosmopolitan strangers had chosen to visit their shores and some of those in the room started to wonder why; were they lured by the chance of a worldwide exclusive on a volcanic cataclysm? But then, as speculation in the room grew rife, their attention was redirected to the man on the podium.
"Mr & Mrs Kent and their family came to the island for a well deserved vacation; they knew nothing of Solvan until they arrived. However, they were sufficiently impressed by Paul's summation of the situation that they agreed to check out the mountain. Yesterday the little group, escorted by Paul and Tula, climbed Solvan and found certain disturbing things…"
Philippe continued for some time explaining the chapter of events of what had happened on that journey. He told them of the rockslide and the withering plant life; of the yellow water with its dead fish and the subsequent results of the test on the water from the lake; he left nothing out. When he finished the crowd began talking all at once and shouted questions were directed at the podium where the people, whom the islanders considered in charge of running the island, tried to answer the flurry of anxious queries. It was clear that a major panic was about to ensue and the mayor lifted his gavel and brought it down hard on the table top … once, then twice, and the room stilled.
"These signs are very disturbing and so before this meeting I tried to contact Professor Decker at the Institute for Geological Studies, however, I couldn't reach the good gentleman but I'm assured that someone will return my call as soon as possible."
Another silence ensued as the gathering took in this information, but finally Taz asked the questions that filled everyone's minds.
"What should we do in the meantime? And where should we go if Solvan does explode? Who's going to help us?"
Philippe cleared his throat and attempted to calm the growing unease. "Taz, I'm sure that the outside world will not turn their backs on us. International rescue teams have been set up for just such emergencies and I'm sure that if we need their assistance …"
"What about Superman?!" A youngish man called from the back of the hall.
"Yes, that's who we should call on," Taz immediately jumped on the suggestion. "If anyone can stop Solvan it's the Man of Steel."
A woman's hopeful voice joined in the conversation. "Yeah, isn't that what Superman does, help people?"
The cry of Superman was taken up by a number of others in the small auditorium.
"Now there's a man I'd like to meet up close and personal," Hazel Chen announced with a sultry aside.
Lois bit back a hasty retort. The rumours of her romantic association with Metropolis's hero had faded with the years and she wasn't about to resurrect them with a show of jealousy. Nevertheless, it took all of her determination not to snap at a woman she considered an undeniable flirt.
"That's just who we need here," Roy agreed with relief. "Jimmy, you know the man … in fact, Lois, Clark aren't you his close friends? Don't you have a way of contacting him?"
Clark shuffled nervously. There was no way that Superman could help out on Papillon but there was also no way he could tell anyone that, or indeed give the reasons for the Man of Steel's impotence on this island.
Once again an unexpectedly loud thud of the gavel was heard as help came from an unexpected source. Mia Valliere had risen to her feet and called the milling crowd to order.
"Please, my people, I'm sure that Superman would come to our aid if he could, but he is a long way from here …"
"But Superman's fast, real fast. He could be hear in minutes…"
"We just have to call for him …"
Various suggestions were thrown at the lady on the platform.
"I agree," Mia understood that her people were frightened and not about to listen to reason; they were an ancient people and, though many of them had embraced the new religion, their instinctive beliefs came from a time far before the French settlers had arrived. "Superman is very fast and very strong but he is just a man and Solvan is the God of Fire who has all the forces of our Mother Earth at his disposal, perhaps Superman's power would not prevail. And maybe it would be wrong of us to call upon him now. Surely no one here would willing put Superman in jeopardy?"
The question of Superman's vulnerability in the face of the volcano was fated never to be answered, as with a rolling rumble like distant thunder Solvan spoke.
All those in the hall froze as the roar swelled in volume but as the wooden floor below them rippled like waves on water a general exodus of the premises took place as the inhabitants scrambled over each other in a rush to vacate the concertinaing building.
On the platform, Philippe called for people to remain calm, but as the walls of his hotel started to buckle, he too decreed that it was time to leave, and grabbing his wife and Mia, he pulled them towards the kitchen doors. Most of the others were trying to escape through the lobby of the hotel and tragically the exit was becoming blocked by too many bodies. The hotel proprietor called to those at the back of the scrabbling queue to follow him through the kitchens but only a few heeded his words, the majority remaining deaf to his instructions in their panic to escape.
At the edge of the crowd in the comparative quiet of the window recess, Clark surveyed the disturbing scene with the untypical feeling of uselessness. In normal circumstances Superman could have taken charge and, as he had found in the past, fear-stricken people responded to the hero's presence by regaining their wits and obeying his directions. Now there was nothing he could do for these people; he shared their vulnerability … and yet …
Aware of her husband's inner turmoil Lois laid a comforting hand on his arm. "Clark, this isn't your fault. There's nothing you can do to help them for now and we have the children to think about. We have to get out of here."
As she spoke, Lois dragged Clark backwards. Keeping his wits about him, Jimmy had immediately opened the large window and with the help of Roy was ushering the kids and the women through it to the comparative safety outside.
Clark's gaze swept from the retreating backs of his family and friends to the others trapped in the doorway and with an apologetic glance sent Lois' way he ran across the shifting floor, doing his best to avoid falling ceiling lights and chunks of plaster, and physically attracting the attention of the tail-enders, he directed them to the open window.
After a few minutes another pair of hands appeared at his side; Lois had come to aid him in his task and they were making a difference, now a steady stream of people were heading for the open window.
Suddenly, an ominous crack was heard from above them and, though Superman had lost his powers, he had retained his knowledge of similar disasters; the upstairs rooms were about to cave in on them. Shouting a warning and grabbing at a few unsuspecting bodies, he shoved Lois across the room in front of him.
Time stood still! If only he had super speed! But the old hotel had been built well and for a short time it resisted the pull of gravity, thankfully allowing the little group to reach the safe haven of the exit. In their haste they tumbled through the opening, rolling clear as they hit the ground.
Clark pulled Lois to her feet and backed off, joining the others who had already moved a safe distance from the collapsing hotel, but Lois resisted and with a frightened gasp pointed aloft. There in a first storey window a young man and woman clung to the sill. The honeymoon couple had found more pleasant pursuits to pass away the morning than joining in a town meeting and were now trapped in their upstairs room. Slowly, ever so slowly, the wall leaned ever outwards and tiles from the roof began falling around Lois and Clark. The couple were tipping towards the ground.
"Jump!" Clark called in his best super hero voice. "You have to jump clear! Jimmy, Roy, get over here and help me catch them!"
Without any hesitation the two men did as they were bid; there was something compelling about Clark Kent when he talked in just that way; at least, Jimmy had always thought so and it seemed as if his friend agreed.
Fear was written clear across the faces of the pair who now hung precariously from the window ledge.
"Jump!!" This time it was a command.
The two obeyed and they dropped, if not directly into the arms of the men waiting beneath, their fall was cushioned by the human shield. Swiftly and less gently than intended the pair were dragged back by their rescuers as the hotel collapsed with a hefty groan and a cloud of dust.
All around in the square chaos reigned as terrified folks ran from falling buildings, yet there was little safety to be found in the open, where the ground heaved and tossed like an angry sea. Across the once pretty garden the children scurried screaming from the school, supervised by their teacher as best she could under such dire circumstances. Parents who had attended the meeting hurried to collect their offspring in an effort to protect them from the wrath of Solvan. But where could they find refuge?
But slowly out of the confusion a pattern seemed to emerge and the general consensus of opinion centred on the ocean as most of the islanders headed in small groups towards the harbour and the hopeful safety of their boats.
As Clark watched the scene of panic with a deepening sense of frustration, an urgent hand clamped onto his shoulder and a voice shouted above the noise.
"Clark, lets head for the Swallow!" Roy Chen determinedly pushed back his fears in the face of positive thinking. "I think she's the safest place to be right now. We can get all these people off the island."
Looking round, Clark now saw, that their group comprised not only his family and friends and the honeymoon couple but the other four elderly visitors. However, Mia and the Blancs were nowhere to be seen and that worried him, yet under the circumstances he had no time to search for the missing islanders and his first priority was to Lois and the children.
"What about tidal waves? Don't they usually go along with earthquakes?"
"Sometimes, yeah! I guess it depends on the size of the quake. But the Swallow's a good ship and she's fast. If we can get far enough out, I'm sure we could ride it out."
Just as Roy stopped talking, another thunderous explosion was heard and as all eyes turned toward the mountain, a great plume of gas and steam spewed into the air, belching ever higher and wider and threatening the fleeing people below.
"You're right! Anywhere is better than here." Clark quickly made the decision and, turning to the others, he called out instructions. "Listen up, everybody, we're heading down the hill to the Swallow. Roy's getting us off the island, but we have to hurry." He resisted the urge to pass on his fear that the cloud could dump burning ash on them at any time, hoping to avoid panicking his charges anymore than was necessary. "Lois, lets go!"
A frightened but determined Lois hoisted Nathan up on her shoulder and stepped over to her husband, while Clark took hold of the hands of Clara and Julian. Jimmy, grabbing onto Joel and Tula, speedily followed the others, leaving Paul to shepherd the rest of the little group out into the open square.
Roy and Hazel led the precarious way, dodging wood and boulders and the ravaged remains of what had once been a flowering paradise. The party soon became a disjointed line as they picked their way amongst the devastation, the ground still lurching now and then beneath their feet.
Suddenly, the air was filled with a strange wooshing sound and all those who heard halted their forward movement, searching the cloudy air above them for the source of the eerie sound. They hadn't long to wait before enlightenment dawned; hurtling through the sky towards the town was a fiery burning rock.
No one could move! Where would it land?!
As if in slow motion the missile blasted downwards until it hit the earth with a tremendous shock wave. The rock ploughed its way through the soil towards the memorial stone which still stood somewhat askew amid the chaos, but now, hit by the molten lava, it disintegrated in a burst of flame.
Whatever cohesion was left in the exodus vanished as the retirement to the harbour became a rout. People ran in every direction, hoping to escape the rocks that rained in ever greater numbers on their town. The remnants of the church took a direct hit and fire quickly took hold of the two wooden walls still drunkenly standing erect.
Taking charge once more, Clark urged his flock onward. "Come on! We have to keep moving! We'll be safer out at sea!"
"I just hope that one of these missiles doesn't hit the Swallow," the worried owner confided in Clark. "The sooner we're off the island the better."
"How many can you take off? Some of the islanders will need rescuing too."
Roy Chen nodded his head to show he understood but conserved his energy for running as fast as was possible. He was pushing his wife ahead of him when, with an accompanying shudder from the ground, she disappeared …
The far side of the square and the road leading down the hill with the school and all the houses slipped slowly down into the waters below, taking with it in a heaving mass of earth and building materials, many of the islanders who were hurrying to the harbour.
Hazel clung with desperate hands at a large bush close to the top of the steeply shelving precipice while her husband threw himself prone along the edge to grab at her scrabbling body. But Clark Kent's reflexes were faster. Shouting a warning to Lois and Jimmy to pull back, he too leaned headfirst over the lip. The woman was just out of his reach. Clark wriggled the top half of his torso further down the slope and snatched at the slender wrist. His large hand closed round the shapely arm just as the roots of the leafy plant pulled clear of their anchorage and tumbled down the cliff.
With every ounce of strength that was left to him, Clark took the strain of the falling woman. He could see the stark terror in her eyes as she stared up at him.
"Dig your feet into the earth," he commanded as he braced himself to take the strain. "I'll try to pull you up."
Fortunately, Hazel obeyed his instructions and for a moment the pull on his muscles eased. Yet it was only a temporary respite; the ground underneath Hazel's scrabbling toes was still falling away and within seconds her legs were once again flailing in the empty air.
Clark could feel the girl's arm slipping through his fingers and he tightened his grasp. But still the silky skin slid downward until his hand came in contact with the fine chain about the lady's wrist and the tiny teardrop of amber buried itself into the palm of his hand.
From this angle Clark could see just how shapely Hazel Chen was, staring down into her delectable cleavage. Geesh! Where on Earth had that thought come from and at such a time as this?! Consigning his inappropriate thoughts to the garbage can where they thoroughly deserved to be, Clark concentrated on dragging this body, shapely or otherwise, back to the comparative safety of what was left of the square.
Yet it was so hard! If only he still had some of his super strength! He felt his grip weakening. His shoulders and arms ached from the strain and his injuries of yesterday were adding to the pain. He had to hold on, with or without super powers. He couldn't allow this woman to disappear into the abyss.
Thankfully, his ordeal was almost over as Roy finally managed to catch Hazel's other hand and slowly, ever so slowly, the two men crawled backwards, dragging their burden up and over the edge. The three lay prone for a number of seconds, oblivious to the destruction continuing around them, but the crashing of another burning rock close by, brought them rudely to their senses.
The two men stood, bringing Hazel to her feet between them and gingerly they started to make their way back to the others. They'd gone only a few yards when once more the earth heaved titanically and a crack opened up before them, widening and widening until they were left on a platform of shifting soil. The platform dropped.
"Clark!" Lois' frantic cry rose above the cacophony.
Through the deepening gloom, Clark's gaze locked with that of his wife, only now he had to look up. Struggling to retain his balance while steadying the Chens, Clark tried to reassure his wife. "It's okay, Lois! We're fine! We didn't drop too far!"
"Hey, CK, can you get back to us?" Jimmy enquired anxiously.
Clark studied the chasm that had parted him from his family. "I'm not sure, Jimmy. This thing is pretty deep."
His stare followed the line of the crack, searching for a way to cross over. Instead his eyes opened wide in horror at what was revealed. Far on the right of the used to be square stood the remains of the ramshackle garage, now reduced to a burning heap of ancient timbers. But that was only part of what had caught his attention; the gas tanks buried underground were now exposed and ruptured and their contents were spilling out in rivulets over the broken ground, seeping ever closer to the fiery pyre.
"We have to get out of here, now!" Clark's voice had taken on a more urgent tone and he pointed to the newest hazard that beset them. "That thing is going to blow any second now!"
Roy at once recognised the extent of the danger. "You're right! But there's no way we can cross that gap. We have to go down … keep going to the harbour and hope that the Swallow is still there and in one piece. The cliff's steep but the earth's soft … we should be able to make it."
A harrowed face turned in his direction. "Roy, I can't and I won't leave my family!"
"Clark, I know it's hard, but unless you can fly, there is no way you can get to them. And they need to get out of here too." The younger man took hold of Clark's arms and his fingers dug into the skin in an effort to reach through Clark's fears. "The road south looks fairly untouched; most of the fallout is hitting the town. If they can make it to your beach then the Swallow can pick them up there."
Clark hated to acknowledge defeat, but he recognised the truth of Roy's words; without his super powers he couldn't reach Lois and the kids and time was of the essence … for all of them … once the gas reached those flames …
"Lois, honey, you have to get away from here." Clark cupped his hands round his mouth and shouted as loud as he could. "The gas station is going to explode." As he spoke he waved his hands in the general direction of the old garage. "We can't get to you so we're going to try to make it to the Swallow. I want you to take the others and get to the house. We'll meet you in the cove with the boat. I'm so sorry I have to leave you."
"I understand, Clark." Lois' voice came back to him faintly through the ferocious din. "We'll meet you on the beach. And Clark, take care … I love you!"
"I love you too, sweetheart … kiss the kids for me … be careful … please!"
With a heavy heart, Clark turned at Roy's bidding and the three began their treacherous climb down the newly formed cliff, hoping to find their one form of rescue still intact.
It seemed the small circle of frightened survivors, standing by the ruins of the hotel, were all that was left of humankind amid the devastation. Lois stood forlornly watching her husband disappear down the cliff face. She felt so bereft. So often, in the past, she had stood by as Superman had flown off to save the day, but then she had believed him to be invincible; this time he was all too vulnerable.
A gentle tug on her arm brought her back to the present and the desperate situation they were in. "Come on, Mom," Joel whispered cajolingly, though the young boy's voice still trembled from shock at witnessing his father's fate. "We have to go meet Dad at the bungalow."
Lois shook off her self-wallowing and became the decisive, competent professional that most people associated with the personae of Lois Lane. She had the responsibility of getting her children and friends out of this mess and she wasn't about to shirk her duties; if only she knew a little bit more about volcanos and what to expect next. There was, however, an expert on hand.
"Paul, what do you think? Can we reach the bungalow by road?"
The teenage boy turned to survey the mountain top now obscured by a dense mushroom of black cloud, through which fiery missiles continued to hurl high into the sky. Around them the atmosphere was thick and hot. Paul was somewhat stunned by the reality of his prediction, yet these people needed his expertise …
"Paul!" Lois placed her hands on his shoulders and swung him to face her. "Paul, we need to know!"
"The road … yes, I think so. Most everything's falling on the town and to the north. The further south we go the safer it should be … unless …"
"Unless …" Jimmy prompted.
"We get caught up in a pyroclastic flow," Paul finished in a rush.
"Pyroclastic flow," Lois digested this piece of information. "Do I want to know what that is?"
"Not really … but it's deadly."
"Then we shouldn't hang around to find out." Attempting to find the most comfortable place to carry Nathan on her hip and grabbing for Clara's hand, Lois started down the road. "Come on people, lets get out of here."
Clara, still staring aghast at the spot where she'd last seen her father, was almost yanked off her feet at Lois' tug, but dejectedly she turned at her mom's command. "Mom, will Daddy be okay?" she asked in a tiny voice.
Time might be their enemy but Lois took a moment of the precious commodity to reassure her small daughter. "Oh, sweetie, of course he will. It'll take a lot more than a stupid volcano to beat your Daddy," Lois replied with forced confidence. "And the sooner we get to the bungalow the sooner we'll all be together …"
A startled shriek halted her in her tracks as the newly-wed bride pointed to the mountain. "Look!!"
The group obeyed in unison and their terrors escalated at the sight. From out of the smoke blanketing the crater, streams of bright red lava began their journey down the mountain, following the river bed and destroying everything in their path.
"It's heading for the town," James Olsen bellowed. But even in his panic, the instincts of the trained reporter never left him. Lifting the ever-present camera that hung around his neck, he snapped off a few pictures as he began the retreat, pushing Joel and Julian before him in the direction of the way south.
They ran as fast as they could out into the countryside, helping the slower members to keep up. The destruction was less apparent in this part of the island, though a few trees and bushes had been uprooted and a few more holes had appeared in the surface of the road. Indeed, as with the town, the forest on the coastal side of the road had suffered the worst damage and in places large swathes of earth had fallen away into the sea. Lois prayed that their holiday home had not met with this fate.
Out of the mists they had left behind came an unexpected hooting and the sound of a well-honed engine. As they peered backwards, emerging from the clouds, came the gleam of chrome and the shinny black nose of Philippe Blanc's classic car; its stout top in place to protect those inside. It bumped across the uneven roadway and stopped by their side, revealing its driver and passengers to be Philippe and Eva, along with Mia and the old priest.
"Grandmere!" Tula could not contain her surprise or her joy and she leaned into the car to hug the old lady. "You're safe! Thank goodness!"
"As are you, my dear," the lady replied with a great sigh of relief. "And Paul … and all your friends. I'm so happy to see you." Mia's glance took in all the members of the party. "But … oh my … ! Lois, where is your husband?!"
"We got separated," came Lois' troubled reply. "He's headed for the harbour and a boat. We're to meet him at the beach below the bungalow. I just hope he'll be all right."
Tula had been examining the interior of the car and what she didn't find disturbed her. "Grandmere, where has Uncle Butto gone?" She prayed that her guess about his destination would be wrong, but knowing her uncle she didn't think so; Butto took his responsibilities seriously.
"He's taken the jeep and headed for the copra plant; there's a ship in dock and he wants to oversee the evacuation. And he's hoping to pick up some of the farmers who weren't at the meeting along the way." The old lady looked just as worried as her granddaughter by this turn of events. "I did try to persuade him otherwise, but you know how he is; he can't stand by and watch people in trouble without trying to help and neither can your husband, my dear Lois." Mia's comforting gaze rested on the two anxious women. "We shall just have to have faith and trust in their resourcefulness. Now, we have to do our part." And she turned business like toward the driver. "What do you say, Philippe; will this ancient relic of yours take on some new passengers? It'll be an uncomfortable ride but we'll make quicker time than on foot."
The owner of the 'ancient relic' seemed rather peeved at this insult to his prize possession. "Mia, this 'relic' is the most reliable car ever made; they built them to last in these days and she'll take on more than any modern motor could. Come on, everyone, climb on board; it might be a squeeze but we'll manage."
That said, Philippe exited the car and started loading bodies into the interior. And a tight fit it was. The older members of the party were squashed on the wide back seat with the children deposited on their laps. The roomy floor took Lois and the honeymooners, while the two male visitors, whose names were Arthur and Tom, piled themselves awkwardly into the trunk. Eva found room for Tula alongside her in the front passenger seat and Jimmy and Paul were left clinging to the running boards.
The confident owner climbed back behind the wheel and the antique motor purred into life, the huge tyres gripping the uneven road surface as the over laden vehicle moved off slowly but certainly along the road south. And not a moment too soon as another loud explosion of a different origin reached them from the town; the gas station had finally blown.
Under normal circumstances the journey had seemed short, but these were definitely unnatural times and the trip appeared unbelievably long to the worried passengers. Nonetheless, all journeys end and everyone was relieved when Philippe turned the car into the drive leading to the holiday home.
There, to the surprise of all, sitting untouched in the clearing was the lovely cottage. Indeed, nothing had changed, except the blue sky of the morning had turned black and the far off rumbling still assaulted their ears.
The passengers tumbled out of the transport and gratefully stretched muscles and limbs that had stiffened painfully due to the cramped conditions. Free from the interior of the motor, Lois and her children ran immediately to the top of the cliff path to view the expanse of sea beneath them, but much to their disappointment the now grey murky waters were shrouded in ashy cloud and the bay, in the short distance they could see, was devoid of any ships.
"Mom, where is Daddy? You said he'd be here." Clara's fears for her dearest Dad had robbed her of her usual confidence and she sidled closer to her remaining parent, her hand stealing plaintively inside that of her mother. The three boys too huddled around Lois.
"On the Swallow, sweethearts. He's going to come and save us." Lois' feelings didn't match her assured tone, but she wouldn't allow her children to be upset by her frightened imaginings.
"There hasn't been time for Roy and your dad to climb down the cliff and get to the Swallow and sail it here, kids." Jimmy had come up silently behind them and he added his reassurances to keep the children calm. "You'll see, they'll be along soon and then we can all get on board and sail out of here."
Turning at the sound of his voice, Lois mouthed a silent thank you to her old friend. But was Jimmy just being optimistic, or did he truly believe that Clark and the Swallow were out there?
"And you know, we seem to be pretty safe here for now," Jimmy added, keeping his tone upbeat, "so why don't you children go and pack up your things, because we want to be ready to leave just as soon as your dad gets here."
"Should we, Mom?" Joel asked reluctantly. His place was by his mother's side. While his father was away, he was the super hero of the family. "I can stay with you if you want me to."
A gentle smile lit Lois' face as she recognised Clark's eager yet serious expression in the face of her son. "No, Joel, I'll stay on watch here while you all pack your stuff. But mind, we can't take everything with us. The space on board the Swallow will be needed for survivors, so only pack the things you most want to take home … and only use one suitcase … and don't make it too heavy … we're not dragging an overweight bag around with us." At Clara's crestfallen look, Lois quickly reminded her offspring. "We're the lucky ones; everyone else here has had to leave without taking any of their things with them. The people who live here have lost all their belongings."
"That's okay, Mom, we understand." As always Julian was the first to comprehend the islanders' plight and his tender heart was filled with compassion for these people whose homes had been or might be destroyed. "Come on, Clara, you've enough stuff back home anyway."
Brave and headstrong, little Clara Kent was not without kindness. "You know, Julian, maybe I could share some of my things with some of the kids here …"
"That's a great idea, Clara. And maybe we could get some of our friends to share some of their stuff too …"
"We could have a collection for the children," Joel added his ideas to his siblings' suggestions.
"Wou … would Nathan 'ave to share mine marbles?" The toddler's concerns hung in the heated, ashy air, his little legs paddling harder along the ground as he hurried to keep up with his older brothers and sister.
Julian pulled the tiny worrywart against his side and laughingly ruffled his hair. "Oh, I think that you could keep your marbles, Nathan; I mean they are your very special toys."
"And mine Superman doll … ?"
The children's laughter trailed back to their troubled mother as they picked up their feet and ran the last few yards to the house and disappeared inside
"They really are great kids, Lois," James Olsen vocalized his almost envious thoughts; if only his marriage had worked out then he might have had a child by now. "You and Clark must be very proud."
"We are … but they're not always little angels," she grinned ruefully. "And now I should really go and supervise their packing or there's no telling what we'll end up taking home."
"No, Lois! It's obvious that you want to stay and look out for Clark. I can take care of the kids. And, besides, I know just who would like to help me." A knowing look passed between the two long term friends. "It'll give me a good excuse to spend some time with her."
"You really do like her, Jimmy?" Lois enquired and at his nod of acknowledgment she continued. "I'm so glad for you."
"Well, we've only just met and you know my track record isn't that good on whirlwind romances," Jimmy admitted with a grimace. "But it feels like I've known her forever."
Lois placed a comforting hand on Jimmy's shoulder. "You don't have to rush things, you know. Something tells me that Tula's going to need a friend … a best friend, in the next few months." She leaned over and brushed an encouraging kiss on his cheek. "Be that friend and let the future take care of itself," she advised, then sent him in the direction that her children had taken.
Her attention returned to the fate of her husband; was he safe? And if he had escaped the volcano, had he managed to steer clear of Ms Chen's clutches? To say that Lois was growing a little annoyed and frustrated by that woman's actions would be a slight understatement and if Clark didn't deal with Hazel's unwelcome advances soon, then she had every intention of doing so. A frown creased Lois' clear-skinned brow as she contemplated the problem. She was assuming, since she'd made Clark aware of his bizarre behaviour, that he did find Hazel's flirting distasteful … but what if he didn't … ? Where did that leave her?
"You seem very troubled, Lois, but I'm sure there's no need for concern. Clark will come back to you."
The intrusion startled her. Lois still wasn't sure just how much she trusted this old lady, but as she searched Mia's tired face she could find no trace of guile, only a returning gaze of warm sympathy and steadfastness. Under the older woman's kindness, Lois felt her barriers give way; she was so weary and the need to share her concerns grew stronger. And this elderly gentlewoman reminded her so much of Martha …
"But this island has changed Clark …" Lois' voice was barely more than a whisper.
"My dear, I doubt that it's only his physical capabilities that make Clark strong."
"But you don't understand, Mia. He's not just changed physically. Since he came to this island Clark has been acting strangely."
"And because of that you think he might fall prey to that little vamp who intends to make him her next notch on the garter belt she obviously favours."
Lois gazed in wide-eyed surprise at this aristocratic being. Did anything get passed these all-seeing eyes? "You noticed!"
"Well, I admit to being extremely interested in the real man behind the super hero, in a purely altruistic way. So perhaps I was paying close attention and I've lived a very long time and met all sorts of people; women far more predatory than that beauty." Mia stretched her hand out to take hold of Lois' nervously twisting fingers. "But your husband loves you very much; that's something else my old eyes have noticed. And more than that, child, he needs you. He needs your support and understanding and he's wise enough not to throw all that away for a cheap thrill with an empty-headed bimbo who doesn't mean a thing to him, no matter how changed he is."
The old lady's voice had grown quite fierce and Lois could not repress a grin at Mia's terminology. Somehow she felt much more sanguine. Of course Clark wasn't the type of straying male who had little respect for his wife or his marriage vows. She was simply overstressed and wallowing in self pity.
"You're right, Mia; I should have more faith in Clark …"
"But you're still anxious. Perhaps you could tell me why. Have his injuries grown any worse?"
"No! In fact they seemed to be quite a lot better this morning," Lois felt confident enough in passing on this information; Mia already knew the secret. "At first we thought his powers might be returning, but unfortunately not."
"That's a pity because we certainly could use Superman right now. Still, there's no use bemoaning what can't be helped." For a few seconds the old woman appeared to procrastinate, then taking the bull by the horns, she asked the important question. "Lois, what is it about my island that has robbed Clark of his powers?"
There it was; the six million dollar question that Lois wasn't sure she was prepared to answer. Would Clark want her to dissemble? After all, if this information fell into the hands of an enemy it would be disastrous for her family. And yet, would there be much left of the island and the kryptonite after this explosion? She really didn't know enough about volcanos to be sure of her facts.
But one thing she would almost bet her life on was her growing gut instinct that this Mia Valliere posed no threat to Superman and his children. The noble lady had been steadily slipping under Lois' natural defence system and she found herself confiding in her new friend.
"How much do you know about … you know who?" Even with all the background noise Lois lowered her voice.
"I know he's a very special person and that we're very lucky to have him. The world is a much better place since he decided to become Superman, but now I've met you, I suspect that's just as much Clark Kent and Lois Lane's doing."
"Thank you … but I meant what specifically do you know?"
"You mean that his powers are solar induced …?"
Lois nodded and continued quickly before she lost her nerve. "Mia, have you heard of kryptonite?"
"Yes," Mia's whisper was filled with concern, "but only what I've read in the media." Amazement and horror showed clearly on the kindly countenance as she grasped Lois' meaning. "You believe that there's kryptonite on Papillon? But how did it get here?"
"Well, our doctor thinks that it followed Clark's space ship to Earth all these years ago and dropped straight into the mouth of the volcano."
"Bernard Klein of Star Labs in Metropolis; he's sort of the family physician, but I don't have time to explain that right now …"
"And this doctor is here on the island?"
"Oh no! Clark's powers didn't desert him straight away and when we first found the pieces of kryptonite Superman flew them back to Metropolis for analysis. Anyway, after a quick study, Bernie concluded that they'd spent some time inside the volcano. He believes that probably just a few small meteorites landed in there, but over the years they've been broken up and burned and now that Solvan is exploding they're spreading all over the island."
"Burned, you say … , Lois, are they red and green and charred round the edges?"
"You've seen them?! And there are definitely two colours?" The wife of the only full-blooded Kryptonian on Earth fidgeted nervously as she awaited the answer.
"I'm afraid so, my dear," with an equally apprehensive grimace, Mia explained. "I never realised what they were, but you're right, they're all over the place. Oh they're not that easy to find and there's more red than green." A sudden thought occurred to the islander. "Do they both have the same effect on Clark?"
Lois shook her head wrathfully, as she considered the dire consequences that her husband's dying home planet had on her family over the past years.
"No, the green harms him physically and robs him of his powers and the red effects him psychologically. The green is far worse, believe me."
"Then it's fortunate that it's more rare. And you mustn't worry that just anyone could pick them up because I've found most of them when I've been rooting around the woods gathering herbs for my medicines. You know your doctor's theory about them being inside the volcano makes sense because the forests round the foot of the mountain are the most prolific for my healing plants and for bits of your rocks. In one particular area, where an underground stream comes out of the mountain they've even coloured the soil a little. When Paul was a small boy, he would help me find my plants and it was his favourite spot; he called it the rainbow ground. Kryptonite might be bad for super heroes but it certainly is a good fertiliser; the growth rate of the plants in that particular spot is amazing."
The idea that had started life in Lois' brain as merely a whim suddenly began to have substance. "Mia, the salve you gave us for Clark; did the plants come from that place … the rainbow ground?"
Mia glowed under the younger woman's interest in her lifetime hobby. "Oh yes! The plants that grow there have especially effective healing properties."
"Then they could have healed Clark's injuries?"
"I expect so, yes," the elderly herbalist puzzled over where this young and extremely intuitive woman was going.
"But normal medicines don't work for Clark or for most of our children."
Julian was the obvious exception but in the past year or so it had seemed that Nathan was both susceptible to earth illnesses and their cures, leading his parents to believe that the small boy took after his mother in the genetics department.
"But if these plants are growing in a kryptonite-laden soil, could they have somehow mutated or something?" Lois was reaching here because biology wasn't one of her best subjects.
"Well, I suppose they could have synthesised some of the properties of the kryptonite from the soil and because of their own healing characteristics somehow nullified the harmful parts. But I'm not a scientist, dear; my craft was handed down from my grandmother and her grandmother before her. We never questioned how Mother Earth could help us. We just accepted the gifts she provided. Perhaps your doctor Bernie could provide you with some answers."
"That sounds like a very good idea, Mia … Only … I don't suppose that you've any of the stuff on you. I finished what we had this morning."
"I'm afraid I left my medicine chest behind with all my other things," with these words the reality of the situation struck the lady and slow tears filled her eyes and spilled silently over her cheeks. "I never suspected that Solvan would take us unawares. I thought we'd have time to evacuate." Suddenly every one of Mia's years was visible as her posture drooped. "Everything's lost … my home … my favourite things … my island …"
Lois' sympathetic heart reached out to this gentlewoman who she had come to trust and value and taking the now frail body in her arms she drew soothing circles on the stooped back. The Kent family was about to lose quite a lot of their possessions, but her home was waiting for her back in Metropolis … Metropolis, her base … her inspiration … her home … No! Clark was her home, wherever he was she would be happy. Everything else was just material trappings and though some things she considered emotionally valuable, she could live without them as long as she had her husband and her family.
But she didn't have her husband … he was out there somewhere and he was hurt and vulnerable. And she had just uncovered something that, for the first time ever, could perhaps save him from further pain and it was about to disappear forever under streams of molten lava. Lois Lane was not about to let that happen.
It seemed too as if the gods were smiling on her proposed endeavour, for slowly, as if a thunder storm had rolled on its relentless way, the rumbling subsided and a comparative calm descended eerily on the tiny forest clearing.
Swinging round to confront her only source of knowledge, Lois shouted; her voice, still pitched to be heard above the deafening roar, dropped into the stillness. "Paul, what's happening?"
"I think that its stopped." Paul stated the obvious as he hurried from the veranda on which he'd been sitting with some of the others and looked through the murky clouds of gas and steam in the direction of the crater.
"I don't know, but I doubt it. Once volcanos start erupting they can go on for days. But I've no idea when the next explosion will be. It could be minutes or hours and it could be worse."
"Worse!" One of the elderly visitors squeaked as she clung to her partner. "Worse! We're all going to die."
The little band of refugees that Lois had collected around her were obviously showing signs of wear. Grey sooty slag streaked their skin and settled on their hair and clothes. They were tired and frightened and it hurt to breath the thick ashy air. They were all close to panic. Lois stalked determinedly towards the house and the strangers who were sharing her family's jeopardy. Had these people known her they would have recognised that Mad Dog Lane was now in command.
"No, we are not going to die! And I won't listen to anyone who tells me different! My husband is bringing a boat to rescue us." Her brown eyes flashed fire as she aired her wishful thoughts. "Now it appears that Solvan has given us a break for the time being, so let's take a moment to compose ourselves and make some plans."
Lois's stare defied any one of them to disagree and thankfully Eva Blanc hurried to assist. "What do you all say to a nice cup of tea?" The woman sent an apologetic smile to Lois at the feebleness of her suggestion, but hey, it was better than doing nothing.
"Tea! Tea would be good," Lois reinforced.
"Well I'm very dry," Mia, who had come to stand by Lois' side, added with a cheerfulness that was just a little forced, " so I'd really enjoy a drink. Do you have Oolong, Lois?"
"Now why am I not surprised that you drink that brand, Mia?" She was warming more and more to this lady, which was fortunate for the plan she had in mind.
Once more Eva addressed her hotel guests, proving that she was quite equal to the task of bolstering failing spirits, "Would you ladies care to give me a hand? And I'm sure that we could all do with something to eat."
"Oh no!" The smaller of the two women wailed. "I couldn't eat anything. I have a nervous stomach you see … and I would be sick for sure if I ate anything."
"Now, Lily, you know how much you've been enjoying my cooking at the hotel and I'm sure I could rustle you up something light." Eva's arm snaked around Lily's thin shoulders and her brightly rallying tones drifted back to the others as the three women disappeared inside. "It's almost lunch time and everyone must be hungry. Besides, we don't know how long it'll be before we get our next meal; better to eat now while we can."
"Exactly," Lily's friend could be heard agreeing. "We need to keep our strength up to face the ordeal ahead." Clearly Lily's friend was hardly the optimistic type.
"Sorry about my wife," the man called Arthur offered. "She's a prey to anxiety attacks… always has been. We had one hell of a job persuading her to come on this trip … I guess she'll never step foot outside New Jersey ever again. That's if we get off this island in one piece…" Arthur caught Lois' ferocious stare and quickly amended. "When … when we get off this island."
"Good!" A sharp nod of satisfaction accompanied Lois' snort. Then she turned her attention to the newly-weds who sat near her on the steps. "I'm sorry, I've yet to introduce myself. I'm Lois Lane Kent and my children are in doors. My husband, Clark, was one of the men who helped get you out of the hotel and he is as you know … not here. Now, as it seems we might be spending some time together I think we should all get acquainted."
"Sounds like a good idea," the young man spoke up with a smile, "and I might as well start the ball rolling. My name is Patrick and this is my wife, Amy." His face reddened slightly at this still unfamiliar title.
For a short while the group's troubles were forgotten as they each introduced themselves and told a little of their histories and fortuitously Lily and friend emerged from the kitchen with trays of coffee and tea. Shortly afterwards, Eva helped by Tula, Jimmy and the children carried a small lunch of sandwiches and fruit out to the waiting band. This welcome repast was consumed quickly, not only due to the fact that most found themselves very hungry, but to enjoy the food before it became contaminated by the smoky atmosphere.
Having eaten and drunk her fill, Lois found herself retracing her steps to the top of the cliff path, only to be disappointed once again by the empty inlet beneath her. Nevertheless, she was determined not to sink into a depression. There was a job to be done. Squaring her shoulders, with one last wistful look around the bay, she approached her old compatriot in many a risky mission. Yet had any of these past trials been quite so full of deadly danger as the one she now contemplated? And, in order to secure his support, a secret had to be revealed, which did not sit happily with her conscience.
James Olsen was sitting as close as he dared to the girl he tentatively hoped would be his newfound love interest, while Tula in turn sat with her grandmother on the swing-seat. The trio were seated at the far end of the veranda, a little way from the rest of the group, which suited Lois' purpose entirely; for this conversation she needed seclusion. At Lois' approach, they smiled consolingly up at her.
"No sign of CK yet?" Jimmy asked solicitously.
"'Fraid not. But I'm not about to give up on him yet." Lois' answering smile was tired but defiant. "Tula, the kids are getting fairly restive, worrying about their father and all, and you're so good at taking care of them … and I wondered … please, would you mind?" Lois asked pointedly.
She hated to deceive her new acquaintance in this way but Lois deemed it necessary to be rid of the younger woman while she revealed her intentions. Mia already knew the secret and Jimmy was an old and trusted friend whom she required to assist her in her quest. But, though Lois was pretty sure that Tula was also trustworthy, old habits die hard and she wasn't about to disclose Clark's other identity if it wasn't needful.
Thankfully, Tula was as good natured as she was kind and she obligingly set off at Lois' request to tackle her task of child minding. Even though she was aware that Lois had an ulterior motive in wishing to speak privately to her grandmother and Jimmy, Tula stoically accepted that whatever the subject was, it was definitely on a need to know basis. Another person, however, was not so disinterested in what was going on and surreptitiously sidled forward to eavesdrop, if he could, on the conversation.
Knowing Lois of old, James Olsen too was convinced that a plot was devolving in that foolishly brave mind of hers and he jumped right in with his enquiry. "Okay, Lois, what are you planning? CK told us to meet him here and I doubt he'd be too happy if we went out looking for him. Besides, the visibility isn't that great and we'd probably end up by passing each other."
"That wasn't what I had in mind." Lois made herself comfortable in the spot on the swing that Tula had just vacated.
"But you do have something up your sleeve … I know that look too well … and it gives me a bad feeling."
"James Olsen, you're getting to be as big a fusspot as Clark." But evasion tactics were useless in this case and she just couldn't afford the time to cajole him. Taking the bull by the horns, Lois plunged right in. "I want to try to get back to Mia's house."
"Lois!!" Was all that Jimmy could stutter.
"Oh, my dear, don't you think that's a little dangerous," warned Mia, but it was clear she wasn't totally averse to the idea.
His stupefied glance swung back and forth between the two women; the younger female filled with steely determination and the older unhappily resigned.
"Oh no, I can't let you do that. CK would have my hide when he gets here and finds you've gone." Jimmy's self-survival instincts rose to the fore.
Lois' chin lifted a little higher. "And how do you propose to stop me?" But knowing full well that she needed Jimmy's help with this, she abandoned her 'no one messes with Lois Lane' image for a more subtle attack. "And Clark won't kill you because you won't be here … you'll be with me."
Jimmy gulped; Lois had finally lost her marbles. "I was afraid you were going to say that. Lois, you're crazy. Why would you want to go back into that inferno?"
"It may have escaped your notice but the inferno has stopped and … " even now Lois hesitated at the final fence, "and Mia has something that I need."
"Yes, it has stopped, for now, but who can say how long that's gonna last. And what could Mia have that would be so important that you would risk your life … and mine, for that matter? And you'd better tell me, because I'm not going anywhere unless you convince me it's worth both of us risking our necks."
A faint smile crinkled Lois' lips as she realised that she'd already won James over, but he did deserve the truth. A simple appeal for him to trust her just wasn't enough in the face of such danger. "Jimmy, what I'm about to tell you is a huge secret and I know that you're a reporter, a great reporter, and this information could win you a Pulitzer, but I need you to promise me that you'll never write this story … that you'll never tell anyone … ever."
"A Pulitzer!? And you've been sitting on it for … how long?" Jimmy shook his head disbelievingly. "Lois Lane turning her back on the ultimate prize … it must be important, unless … ," and he was not without his own intuition, "does this have something to do with Superman?" The hero was the one person on this Earth, apart from her family, for whom Lois would be prepared to kill a story.
"Yes!!" Lois immediately seized on this suggestion. Could she possibly get away with this prevarication? Yet even as she contemplated the possibility, her mind rejected the idea of pulling the wool over the eyes of someone she valued so dearly. "Well, yes … sort of!" Some sort of explanation was required here. "You know that Mia is a practitioner of alternative medicine," and here she touched lightly the woman sitting by her side. "And we both think that she might have, and I say might because we can't be certain …"
Recognising that Lois' tendency to babble was settling in, Jimmy prompted, "Yes, Lois, I get the picture, but could you hurry this along, because I'm not sure how long we've got."
With raised eyebrows at her one-time acolyte's temerity, Lois did as she was bid, under some measure of pique. "We both feel that she might have discovered something that could help to protect Superman from the effects of kryptonite poisoning. But we can't be sure and that's why we want to take some of the stuff back to Bernie Klein in Metropolis. Only, we don't have any of it here and I want to go back to Mia's home and fetch some."
"WE want to go back and fetch some!" Mia interjected calmly.
"Mia! You can't! It's too perilous!" Lois exclaimed in horror.
"No more for me than you, my dear. And we must be practical; I know where to look and you don't. And forget about suggesting that I could tell you where to go, because that might be easy enough for finding the medicine chest, but the real treasure is in the plants and the soil and we don't have time for orienteering. Providing of course that the particular area isn't already under a river of lava."
Mia's logic could not be refuted, but Lois felt she had to try. "But, forgive me, Mia, you're old and the going could get very rough."
"Yes, my child, I'm old and I've lived a very lovely life. I have no regrets and so, if necessary, I'm expendable. If we get into trouble and I'm slowing you down then you must leave me …"
"No way!! You're not coming if you think we would ever dream of doing that. This is not a suicide mission!!" James Olsen was adamant.
Lois clasped Jimmy's hands and her eyes glowed with relief. "Then you're in, Jimmy?"
"Well, I can see what a good thing this would be for Superman and if this can help him do his job then I can't really refuse. But …" James Olsen was no fool and he'd been taught his job of investigating by two of the world's best. "But, how come you know this about Superman? I mean CK told me that Superman came here when you first found the kryptonite, but you and Clark specifically said that you wouldn't bring him back … so how would Mia know that anything she had could effect Superman? What's going on here, Lois? What are you hiding?"
Finally, James Olsen had asked the right questions and finally, Lois had reached the time and place where she could no longer lie to their longest and dearest friend.
"That's the other part of the secret, Jimmy, the big part."
While Lois talked, Mia hung her head, not wishing to influence the younger woman in any way, though, in all honesty, she agreed with Lois' take that it was the moment for a revelation.
"You know how much Clark and I care for you and, well, that might be one of the reasons why we've kept this from you, because this is a dangerous secret and anyone who knows could become a target. But it isn't the only reason; it's just that we've kept this to ourselves for so long that it's become a habit and the only people who know are those that have to or, like Mia here, have somehow found out by themselves."
A puzzled frown creased Jimmy's brow, yet deep in his eyes was a hint of realization, almost as if he knew what was coming. "Found out what?"
With a gulp of resignation, Lois finished quickly, "Clark is Superman!"
Shades of long past memories chased there way across James Olsen's frozen face. There was no denial as the reasons for once mysterious and puzzling happenings fell neatly into place.
"CK … and Superman!" It was almost inaudible. "Clark is … Superman!" His tone hardened. "But why couldn't you tell me… All these years … You must have known you could trust me!"
"Of course we trust you, Jimmy," Lois was quick to reassure. Even though many years had passed, she well recalled her hurt sensibilities when finding out that piece of information; her feelings that somehow Clark had betrayed her. But there was no time to indulge Jimmy's bruised emotions. "All the terrible traumas we three have faced and overcome together must prove that to you. And we've only ever kept this one thing from you."
"It's a pretty big thing, Lois," Jimmy regarded her ruefully, "finding out your best friend isn't who you thought he was."
"Oh, Jimmy, I know how big a shock this must be, but Clark is still CK; the same person you watch football with or drink a few beers with. So, okay, he happens to have a few other … unusual physical abilities but it doesn't change who he is or the fact that you are his closest friend." Lois searched the shut face to see how he was reacting to her words. "Jimmy, I don't mean to downplay your hurt feelings, but we don't have time for this discussion. Later, when we get off this island you can rave at us as much as you please, but right now Superman needs your help … I need your help. Will you come with me, Jimmy, to find something that could make a difference to Clark and to our children? They're half Kryptonian and kryptonite hurts them too."
"It does?! No kidding!" The Jimbo of old surfaced for a moment. "Though I guess that figures." His eyes strayed to the cliff top as if he expected Clark Kent to appear, floating over the edge, but then he'd just found out that was impossible thanks to the kryptonite. "Hmm, I don't really have a choice, do I?"
"Of course you do, Jimmy. I would never coerce you into doing anything you weren't comfortable with."
This time a heartfelt grin split Jimmy's face. "Oh no! Since when did you change, Lois Lane?! I've lost count of the number of times you've persuaded CK and me into doing something against our judgement. Hey, and that means Superman too. You are amazing, Lois, and I should have known that only a super husband could keep up with you. Okay, so how do you plan on doing this?"
Joel had been horrified to hear of his mother's intentions. Thankfully the loud background din had ended a short while ago and he had been able to creep closer to the side of the house, using the veranda as a cover. His super powers still weren't working and he'd had to rely on normal hearing to eavesdrop on his mother's conversation, but he'd heard every word.
Now he made his own plans. He was well aware that this was a dangerous undertaking and he wasn't about to let Mom and Uncle Jimmy go off alone without the benefit of a super hero, albeit a very junior one. Of course, he understood that his mom would certainly veto his suggestion that he should join them, yet Joel didn't allow that knowledge to interfere with his decision. He would simply stow away and not reveal himself to her until it was too late to turn back.
But in order that his plan should succeed he needed someone to cover for his absence when the expeditionary force left (Mom was sure to want to say goodbye), which meant that he had to let Julian in on his plans. However, it was at this point that he discovered a large flaw in his supposing.
"No way!! I'm not about to let you go off exploring on your own, Joel."
"Julian, I'm not exploring. This thing is very important. It could mean a lot to Dad and the rest of us. It's not as if I want to go. To tell the truth, I'd as soon not," Joel admitted readily, "but this could be a cure for kryptonite and Dad would want me to protect Mom."
"I didn't mean you shouldn't go," his fellow conspirator confided, "just that I should go with you."
"That's crazy, Julian! You could be hurt," the youthful protector stated determinedly.
"So could you!" Julian hissed back with just as much determination. "You don't have any powers at the moment and you've also forgotten a very important point. You're going to find soil that's got kryptonite all through it and as its called the rainbow ground I'm pretty sure that means it has red and green in it. So this time I can probably help Mom better than you." He finished on a triumphant note, but Julian wasn't the type to crow, so he added kindly. "And we always share each other's adventures; we look out for each other."
Unfortunately, Julian was right. Joel had never encountered green kryptonite before but from what Mom and Dad said, it could really make him sick and he wouldn't be able to do anything if he was sick.
"Okay, I agree," he grinned sheepishly at this admission and received a reciprocating smile. "We can get Clara to cover for us. Then we need to find a way to sneak into Mr Blanc's car, because that's what Mom's going to travel in."
Julian was entering into the spirit of things. "That's not a problem; the car's parked at the side of the house. We can slip round the back of the building and climb into the boot … I mean trunk, of the Roller." Occasionally Julian's British heritage surfaced. "Mr Blanc never locked up after the men got out."
The two gave each other a high-five and hurried to carry out their plan and almost met with another stumbling block. It seemed that Clara wasn't about to cooperate; she too wanted to go adventuring. For a while the three argued over her participation, but finally the secretly terrified girl allowed herself to be persuaded by Julian's insistence that at least one of his children, who knew what was happening, should be around when Dad arrived. And it wasn't as though anyone else could be let into the secret of the significance of a kryptonite cure and Dad needed to know why half his family had disappeared into the interior. Thankfully, Clara saw the importance of putting Daddy in the picture and she knew her father well enough to realise that he'd be real upset and would need his 'favourite daughter' to comfort him.
Within minutes Clara was proving that she was her mother's daughter as she added her inventive mind to conclude the plotting. "Okay, I'm in. But you guys better get going, because it looks like Mrs Valliere is about to talk to Mr Blanc about using his car," and indeed Mia had approached the said gentleman and was avidly explaining her need for the use of his vehicle. "I'll tell Mom that the two of you have gone down to the beach to watch out for the Swallow. And let's hope that she's in too much of a hurry to come looking for you."
Then she surprised both her brothers by giving them a swift hug. "Get going and be careful … and look after Mom and just make sure you all get back here."
Clara's eyes were moist as she watched them disappear in the direction of the cliff path. Hopefully if anyone else was watching they would assume that the boys were headed for the beach and wouldn't notice that the two shortly left the path for the cover of the bushes and doubled back around the bungalow. Within a very short time Joel and Julian had hidden themselves away and pulled the trunk lid almost shut behind them. They fervently prayed that no one would notice the tiny gap that was left and slam the lid home, as being locked inside would severely curtail their plans. With bated breath they settled down to await the arrival of the others—a wait which was not overly long as Mia used her considerable power of persuasion on the incredulous Philippe Blanc.
"You want to do what?!" was his stunned reaction.
"Philippe, it's not as if I want to go back for sentimental reasons, but I must fetch my medicine chest. Even you must admit that there are very good reasons for not allowing it to be destroyed."
"Yes, indeed, I find the practise of alternate medicine very worthwhile," Lois heartedly concurred. "Well, to be honest I don't know much about it, but my mother-in-law is a Kansas farm wife and she always says that the old remedies are the best." This statement wasn't exactly true as Martha was a very modern-thinking person, but then again she wasn't the type to dismiss any concept out of hand. "And I have a scientist friend back in Metropolis who would love to study Mia's cures." And that part was definitely no lie although Lois was certainly not going to explain the whole story.
"Philippe, Solvan seems to have calmed down for the moment, so now would be the best time to go and if you let us use your motorcar then it wouldn't take so very long," the old lady cajoled.
The thing was that Philippe was feeling extremely ambivalent; he was pretty sure that the situation was much too volatile to allow these women to go off on their own, but he also couldn't disagree that Mia's medicines were worth saving because both he and his wife had benefited from the old lady's doctoring.
"Perhaps I should go with you. I mean I'm the best person to drive the Rolls; she is a bit temperamental," the man reluctantly offered; he really had no wish to venture back into Solvan's path.
Lois quickly cut in, "Oh, no, Mr Blanc, that's not necessary. You really should stay here and take charge of the others. Besides, Mr Olsen, here has offered to take us and he knows a lot about old cars."
Jimmy blushed at Lois' testament, after all the only vintage cars he'd driven were those old buggies he had owned when he'd been the newsroom goffer and couldn't afford anything better. Nevertheless, he rose bravely to the occasion. "Yeah, I'm kinda interested in old crocks … er cars, that is." Jimmy smiled apologetically for his obvious gaff. "I'm sure if you give me a quick lesson I'll get the hang of things."
"Hmm," was the proud owner's only comment and frowning uncertainly he led Jimmy away to give him a crash course in driving his prize possession.
Lois, meanwhile, took the opportunity to advise her children of her plans and to remind them to heed Tula while she was gone. She was surprised and dismayed to discover from Clara that Joel and Julian had gone down to the beach to watch for the approach of the Swallow. To tell the truth, she didn't really blame them for going off; her own nerves were frayed from waiting and worrying about Clark and she understood that her boys would prefer to do something constructive rather than cool their heels waiting around here. So she contented herself by relaying her instructions to Clara and asking Tula if she would take on the responsibility of child care for a short time.
Understanding, from the looks that her grandmother was sending her, that this was somehow a very important quest, Tula assured the worried mother that she would be pleased to look after the children and wished the little party godspeed.
And so, after hugging and kissing Nathan and Clara with more fervour than usual, she gazed longingly at the cliff top, wondering if there was time to descend to the beach to kiss her eldest children. But Lois was well aware that time was of the essence and the boys might not be readily found. She turned reluctantly at Mia's behest, veering off to enter the bungalow to emerge a moment later with the essential lead-lined box. These plants were growing in kryptonite rich soil and if they were to travel back to Metropolis with the family, Lois wanted them safely locked away. The two women, young and old went to join Jimmy in the Rolls Royce and the dangerous mission began.
The ground beneath Clark's feet was soft and slick, a result of the earth-fall mixing with the river that flowed by the small town and the converging tumult from the quake further up the mountain at the river's source. The soil had a treacherous habit of giving way just as he gingerly placed his weight on the other foot in an attempt to claw a way down the newly hued slope. If only he still had some of his powers he could have used them surreptitiously to help the Chens and himself reach safety. But there was no use dwelling on the loss; he had to make it to the Swallow in order to rescue Lois and the children … failure was not an option.
Of course, that was presuming that Lois and the kids were still in one piece and that they would make it safely to the beach below the bungalow. Stop!! Don't think like that!! He had to believe they were safe!! And thankfully, he hadn't felt the breaking of that connection that he shared solely with Lois. Somehow he knew that she was still alive and that she was striving with all her resources and spirit to be with him again. And he vowed not to let her down. With or without the super powers he would rescue her … and his children. The kids were so young … he wasn't about to let them die on this godforsaken island.
But the task seemed to be getting harder. The fire had finally reached the gas tanks and for some time the resulting explosions had vied for dominance with Solvan. Not only were rocks and ash being hurled down on them but bits of flying wood and metal from the disintegrated garage rained on their heads. Clark prayed that his family had left the village in time.
Roy Chen had been hit on the head by part of the debris. Fortunately, it had just been a glancing blow which, however, had cut a nasty gash in his forehead and blood flowed freely down his soot blackened face and into his eyes, blinding him with blood and dirt. Clark decided that leading a blind man down the difficult terrain was an added encumbrance he couldn't afford. Halting the descent for some moments, he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket from which he made a temporary bandage to cover Roy's wound. It wasn't an ideal solution, and some blood still trickled from under the white linen, but it was better than nothing.
Immediately after the makeshift first-aid treatment was done, the three moved as quickly and cautiously as they could onwards. They weren't alone on the slope. Some of the islanders from the meeting and some children from the doomed school were also picking their way down towards the river mouth and the harbour. Only, where once sparkling water flowed to meet the sea, a thick soup of brown mud now spilled out into the smoke-filled bay.
Clark turned to reconnoitre the land below him, which due to the poor visibility was an almost impossible task. He knew that the quay was around the small headland of the river mouth and he prayed that the boats waiting there had been somewhat sheltered from the worst of Solvan's shelling.
A startled squawk brought him back to reality and he was only just in time to catch Hazel as she slid past the two men, in a helter-skelter of ooze. The woman scrambled back up the slope using Clark's body as some sort of ladder, pressing closer to him in an attempt to regain her footing. It was uncomfortable; it was suffocating; it was almost sexual harassment. And though one tiny primordial part of him stirred in anticipation, the whole man felt a growing degree of distaste. Did Hazel really have to cling to him in just that way? Or did she have an ulterior motive?
Clark's uneasy stare met that of Roy's above the smaller form of Hazel; was that only fear of the situation that lurked in the younger man's eyes? A notion that maybe Roy could sense the attraction that Hazel held for this stranger took root in Clark's mind, rendering him even more ill at ease. This was Jimmy's friend, and according to Jimmy, he was a straight-up guy. Roy didn't deserve to be put in this position. Clark didn't deserve to be put in this position. They were in the middle of a volcanic eruption, for goodness' sake! This woman shouldn't be playing her silly games at a time like this. Clark experienced an unfamiliar twinge of dislike stir against Hazel Chen.
But the vagaries of nature await the introspection of no man, super hero or mortal and with another almighty boom that smote the eardrums of all those below, Solvan tossed the tiny outcrop of land down into the sludge-filled sea beneath.
Screams filled the already laden air as bodies were tumbled headlong down the incline. Clark, already holding his unwanted bundle, nevertheless tightened his clasp. He had established the fact that he didn't really like Hazel Chen but that was no reason to abandon her to her fate. Hopefully her husband would survive the fall and he could hand her over to his care.
Long, heart-stopping moments passed, until finally Clark and the woman came to an abrupt halt against the remnants of a large tree trunk. Thick sloppy water lapped around their bodies and Clark used the platform of the felled tree to push himself and his passenger up the slope and out of the unpleasant quagmire.
Sticky mud clung to Clark's clothing and skin and filled his nostrils, his mouth, his eyes. In an automatic gesture, Clark put his hand up to check his glasses; they were still there, if a little squint, and he certainly couldn't see through them any more. He pulled them from his face and dashed a thumb across the lens to clean them but only succeeded in smearing the glass further. Oh well, it wasn't as if anyone was going to recognise him caked as he was in this stuff, so he folded them carefully and stashed them in his shirt pocket. With a groan he dashed his hand across his eyelids in a futile attempt to clear his vision and peered groggily round for Roy Chen. When his sight failed to find the object of his search he shouted hoarsely.
"Roy! Roy! Can you hear me?!" A raspy coughing fit interrupted his desperate cry as his lungs tried to evict the evasive muck. "Roy, talk to me!"
A weak but strangely easily heard call came back. "I'm here! Over here! I'm okay … I think … just winded. Have you got Hazel?!" The question was filled with trepidation.
"Yes, she's here and she's safe!" Clark reassured him while searching through the murk toward the direction of the voice. "Roy, keep talking so that I can find where you are."
In the stillness, the disembodied voice came back to him. "I'm in the water! And I can't get out!" The rising crescendo in Roy's voice warned that hysteria threatened.
It was weird but Clark could hear the frightened man quite clearly … could his super powers be coming back? His hearing always seemed to be the first to regain its strength and out in the mud-filled bay he could make out the sounds of other survivors calling for succour, the answering cries of rescuers and the slap of liquid against the sides of boats.
With a shock of disappointment, Clark realised that his increased hearing was simply due to the halting of the background roar. The continued thundering had numbed his eardrums to such a degree that it had taken a few moments of silence for his brain to catch up with his senses. But surely the fact that the eruption had ceased for the present was a good thing. They should make the most of the timely respite and try to find their way to the Swallow and on to rescue Lois and the kids.
He trained his eyes in the direction from where Roy's disembodied voice came. Through the swirling gloom, he could just make out a figure splashing helplessly some yards out from the indistinct shoreline. Hooking a bedraggled Hazel up in the branches of the partly immersed tree, Clark commanded the woman to stay put and struck out as strongly as he could toward her husband. He only hoped that neither tree nor woman would float off into the sea.
Swimming in this thickly congealed water was a nightmare, a little like trying to stay afloat in Lois' early attempt at oatmeal … gooey and sticky and not very pleasant to taste; the latter fact he discovered when accidentally breathing in at the wrong moment. Still, the exercise must be working the stiffness out of his muscles as he found his strength increasing with each stroke. Not exactly super powered but certainly forging through the water with the competence of a practised swimmer.
A few strokes onward and his hand connected with a human shoulder …
"Roy?" The person before him was so coated in the dirty liquid that it was difficult to make out the facial features. "Roy, is that you?"
The almost hysterical man clutched at his rescuer in terror and for a second or two the tightly locked pair sank below the surface. Clark, with a desperate effort kicked his legs and fought his way back to the air above, gasping for breath as his head cleared the water. With all the strength that was left to him he dragged Roy Chen from a watery grave, and shouting at his burden to remain still, began the task of returning to the unstable land.
By reason of their struggle in the bay, the two men gained the shore some way off from Clark's starting point and some precious time was lost in finding the tree and the clinging Hazel. Finally, however, the Chens were reunited and a watching Clark turned away enviously as Roy hugged his wife to him as if she were the centre of his world. Would that it were Lois …
"Hm hm," Clark cut in with just a shadow of impatience. "I hate to interrupt, but we really should get out of here. The volcano seems to have quietened down and we should take advantage of the break."
Reluctantly the pair broke apart, though Roy retained a firm, possessive hold of his wife's hand; a gesture that was noted with some relief by Clark. Perhaps Roy could distract Hazel from paying such unwanted attention to himself and he could concentrate solely on finding their way to the harbour.
Searching around for some form of recognisable landmark that would send them in the right direction, Clark was dismayed to find the terrain totally changed. A fact that wasn't particularly surprising since the town had been the centre of an earthquake.
"I'm not sure, but I think that the harbour is that way." Clark pointed off to his right.
The other man too scanned the surrounding area. "I'd agree with that. If we're facing the sea then the Swallow has to be moored to the right. Mind you, I'm so dizzy with everything that's happened, I'm not sure which way we're facing anymore. This is a nightmare."
"Yeah, that pretty well covers how I feel, but from what I'm hearing the water is out there and there are boats out there too, picking people out of the sea," Clark tried to sound upbeat but it was hard. "I hope that means that your yacht is still in one piece and that they haven't sailed off without you." The latter statement was his greatest dread … he needed that boat to save his family.
"They wouldn't do that," this time it was Roy that reassured. "The skipper is one of my best friends … we grew up together, before he joined the navy. I got lucky and when I made my money I offered him this job. He might have stood off when the mountain blew but he wouldn't abandon me. I'd stake my life on that."
With that comforting thought the dishevelled little party picked its way south along the line of the beach and away from the increasing torrent of the river, often splashing through murky water that sucked at their heels and threatened to upend them. Frequently they had to climb round various displaced objects that lay in their path, slowing up their progress. At one time when a large monolith barred the way the three had to climb back up the incline to make their way past and as Clark groped his way around the obstacle, he felt rather than saw indentations in the large slab.
"The monument from the square," he announced softly and sadly. "Or at least a part of it." The angel was missing. "There isn't too much left of the little town. I just hope that the islanders fared better."
It was the one part of his not being Superman that bothered him the most … that he couldn't save more lives. Of course, Lois would remind him that it wasn't his fault and that he was doing pretty well without the powers, but that didn't stop him obsessing for a time.
"From the sounds of all that activity out there," Roy gestured with his chin out into the misty, choppy river mouth, "I'd guess quite a few people must have escaped."
And indeed there were increased sounds of life beyond them. Either some of the islanders had managed to put their boats to sea or the fishermen who had left earlier that morning had returned to rescue their compatriots.
Clark's spirits began to lift as he came to believe that he could be reunited with Lois; and, thankfully, that awful woman was no longer clinging to him like a limpet. The slide into the sea and her subsequent dousing in the cloying mud had subdued Hazel's behaviour. Besides, she had seemed genuinely pleased to see her husband again and she now followed quietly in Roy's footsteps.
They were starting to make speedier passage towards their goal, climbing up and over what had once been a grassy promontory. As they moved carefully across the rubble, a breeze from the sea momentarily lifted the dense cloud and there below them, by a damaged and twisted quay, was moored the lovely lady … the Swallow.
A spring now in their step, the trio hurried down the spur that separated them from their deliverance. But fate had another obstacle to throw in Clark's path, his foot caught up in an exposed root system and he tumbled head over heels, landing spreadeagled on his back with a solid thump on the uneven ground. The injuries he had received the day before now bore the brunt of this latest trauma but that wasn't Clark's greatest fear; the familiar vertigo and the excruciating waves of pain warned him of the cause of his present hurt … green kryptonite.
"Clark, Clark! Talk to me!"
Through a haze of pain and dizziness Clark heard Roy's voice.
"Come on, Clark, you can't give up on us now … we're almost there. Hazel, help me try to lift him."
The blackness threatened to engulf Clark as two pairs of hands slid around his shoulders and attempted to raise him.
"Boy, he sure is heavy," Roy panted as he took most of the strain, but between them they managed to manoeuvre the injured man into a sitting position. "Stay with him, Hazel, I'll get someone to help us from the Swallow …"
"Wait, Roy! Look!" Clark's new position had exposed Clark's back to view and the young, traumatised woman, now pointed with dread to what she had espied.
"What?" Roy asked in exasperation but he retraced the few steps he'd already taken on his mission to see just what was scaring his wife. "Oh, God!"
A small but jagged piece of muddy rock was protruding from Clark's flesh and from round the edges of the embedded stone fresh blood was seeping. Quickly, Roy placed his fingers round the invading article in an attempt to draw it from its bed but his hand was stopped by a worried Hazel.
"No, Roy, I don't think that's a good idea right now. We don't know how big that is or how far its travelled inside. It might have struck a vital organ or something and if we pull it out Clark might bleed to death."
The Eurasian man's fingers shifted absentmindedly over the offending rock as he contemplated his wife's words. Indeed, he had heard of cases where stab victims had perished because the knife had been drawn out by well intentioned helpers who hadn't realised that they would start a haemorrhage by their actions. The motion of his fingers rubbed away the dirt.
"Hey, Roy, look at this … it's green … I've never seen anything like it before. Kinda like an uncut emerald."
His wife's exclamation broke into Roy's deliberating and he looked down at what he held in his hand. Sure enough, even through the dirt, it really was a strange-looking rock. "Well, whatever it is, that's not important right now. We have to get Clark on board the Swallow before he bleeds to death and Freddy can take care of him."
"Go!" Hazel commanded. Under the ash and mud that clogged his skin, the man in her arms was turning a very strange colour of grey. "I'll take care of him, just get someone back here fast."
So, with the best of intentions, for the present, Clark was left under the influence of the only substance on the planet that could bring about his death.
Hazel tried to wipe some of the dirt from his face and moved him gently till he was propped against her shoulder but she was careful not to send the dagger-like shard further into his flesh. Her heart was torn at the pitiful state of a man she found extremely attractive and her sadness for a friend who had saved her life and who would leave behind a family she found very likeable. Unfortunately, Hazel was an incorrigible flirt who could never resist a handsome face, especially if it was allied to a charming personality, as it was in this man. She knew that Roy understood her failing and that was one of the things she loved about her husband, but she really must be more careful. One of these days she might just push Roy too far and she had sensed that in her untimely actions during the descent down the cliff, she had annoyed both men. Well, here was her chance to make amends … she would make sure that Clark survived … and perhaps later, when he was completely healed, she could renew her playful pursuit …
"Clark! Clark!" Hazel patted his cheek with just enough pressure to bring him out of his faint. "Clark, you must wake up … fight it Clark … you have to stay awake!"
The words were those familiarly spoken when he had been brought down by kryptonite, but the voice was new. Had some other woman discovered his secret? Clark prised opened his heavy eyelids and the mud-caked face that leaned so close, regarding him so anxiously was one he knew. << Oh, no, not Hazel Chen … she would probably blackmail him into having an affair in exchange for keeping his secret.>> His eyes closed again and he tried to shift away from her nearness, but the pain that smote him forced a groan from his lips.
"No, Clark! Don't leave me! It's important that you stay conscious." His pain-filled gaze returned to her face and she strove to keep him with her. "You tripped coming down the slope and you fell heavily …"
Yes, now he did remember … Desperately he nodded his head and a fresh wave of giddiness overtook him.
"Try not to move," the kind female voice instructed. "When you fell you landed on a sharp piece of rock and it's embedded in your back. We can't tell how much damage it's done but Roy's gone to fetch help and we should have you on the Swallow very soon and Freddy can treat you. He's our resident paramedic; we wooed him from your military so he's seen all sorts of wounds …"
"You have to … pull it out …" It cost Clark a precious amount of his failing strength to gasp out these instructions but, sadly Hazel wasn't about to comply.
"No, Clark, that's the worst thing I could do. You could bleed to death before they got you back to the ship," Hazel explained gently.
"You … don't … understand …" Clark was drifting once more toward the darkness. Of course she didn't understand and he couldn't tell her. "I'll …die if you … leave …" His voice faded as he swooned away.
"I won't leave you," she whispered, "and I will save you." Hazel brushed the matted hair tenderly from his brow and as she did so her bracelet brushed the side of his face, unwittingly harming her patient further. "I won't let you die."
She could hear the noise of succour before the rescue party appeared through the shifting shadows. A stretcher was laid by the side of the fallen man and quickly and efficiently they placed Clark face down on the stretcher, Roy and his crew being instructed by a very tall, thin man who sported small wire-rimmed spectacles … the estimable Freddy.
With the extra help the group was soon aboard the Swallow, though the going had been slowed down by the rough terrain and the strict orders from the paramedic to jostle the patient as little as possible. Still, within a very short time, in very unheroic style, the man also known to the world as Superman was lifted with great care onto an examination table in the yacht's sickbay.
Clark didn't sense the powerful engines gearing up or experience the relief felt by the others onboard as, leaving the stricken town behind them, the slim bow turned toward the ocean and their humane expedition to rescue those others trapped by Solvan.
After a consultation with his captain, explaining the need to reach the rendezvous point with as much speed as possible, Roy made his way to the sickbay. He should have followed Hazel's example and taken a shower to rid himself of the muck that clung to his body and clothes, but first he had to check up on Clark Kent.
The man had made quite an impression on Roy. He was a very successful journalist (who hadn't heard of Lane & Kent?) and, Roy noted, he was also a very well balanced and intelligent individual, who thought the world of his family. That much had been obvious, even though the man had succumbed to Hazel's flirtation on his first visit to the Swallow. Well, Roy was used to that and, creditably, Clark hadn't followed up his interest … in fact, he had seemed somewhat embarrassed by Hazel's subsequent attentions.
The important thing in Roy's mind was that Clark Kent, at great risk to his own safety, had saved Hazel's life … twice; not to mention fishing Roy himself out of the water where he would most likely have drowned. In Roy's opinion, Kent was a hero and he wasn't about to let him down. The Swallow would pick up Kent's family and friends and anyone else who needed rescuing and then they would sail out of here, away from the danger of Solvan.
He pushed open the door to the infirmary and tread softly inside, not wishing to disturb Freddy, who was concentrating on his patient. Obviously, Clark's first treatment had been a quick strip and wash as Roy could now make out, between the medics surrounding the table, the injured man's unhealthy pallor. Standing quietly in the background Roy watched as the competent paramedic drew the shard from Clark's unresisting flesh and tossed the unlikely weapon into an enamel dish on a side table. Then with quick and capable hands Freddy cleaned and stitched the gaping wound, completely unwitting of the fact that his patient must be injured indeed if the wound did not repair itself. The fact was that Superman had been exposed for too long and too closely to his nemesis … kryptonite in any form.
But thankfully, the normal human beneath the super powers was a healthy individual and before long, Freddy was satisfied with the injured man's condition and he instructed his assistants to lift Clark from the table and place him, on his stomach, in the waiting bed.
"How is he?" Roy asked as he came to stand by the bed.
Freddy took a few moments to answer. "Stable, and as far as I can ascertain, there are no internal injuries. But that rock was filthy, so it could quite easily start up an infection, which might explain the fact that the guy's temperature is pretty high … though that might just be due to trauma. From the state of his back, I'd say that he's been through a lot in the past few days. Anyway, to err on the safe side, I've given him an injection of antibiotics and I'll set up a saline drip." The medic spoke in a matter of fact tone, little realising how unusual the fact of puncturing Clark's skin really was. "I'll keep a close eye on him but I expect he'll regain consciousness fairly soon. He's going to be pretty stiff and sore for a time, but I'm fairly confident he'll be okay."
"Good, Freddy, be sure you take good care of him. Clark saved both Hazel and myself from certain death, so I intend to repay the favour." Roy offered his medic a grateful smile. "Now I'm off to clean up … I'm beginning to feel like a refugee from a rubbish tip … I smell like one too," he grimaced as he caught a whiff of his own odour. "When Clark wakes up it's my guess he'll be pretty anxious, so tell him that we're on our way to rescue his wife and kids and then let me know he's awake. I'd like to thank him for what he's done."
"Mr Chen!" The conscientious medic stopped him in his tracks. "Maybe I should take a look at your head before you go."
Roy had almost forgotten about his own injury. Now he raised a hand to his unadorned forehead, the handkerchief having long since disappeared, probably floating off into the ocean with the rest of the remains of the town.
"That's okay, Freddy. It's just a small cut and it stopped bleeding a while ago. There's a small first-aid kit in my cabin and I can clean it up myself." He waived a hand in the direction of the bed. "You just concentrate on the real patient."
An appreciative Chen exited the room, leaving his new friend in the capable hands of Freddy. With renewed energy Roy strode to his state room. First he'd get rid of this abominable dirt and then he'd oversee the rescue of the Kent family.
The Swallow sailed on slowly through the murky gloom, the captain unwilling to make much speed in case of collisions. A number of times they stopped to pull frightened survivors from the water or from other boats that were so laden with bodies that they were threatening to sink. Once, when they were hailed from the shore, the yacht put in as close to the land as was possible then launched the dingy to pick up a terrified family from where they were stranded.
But cautiously, amidst the derelict strewn sea and the heated cloak of ashy air , the sleek ship and its anxious company sailed ever closer to the meeting point …
Who Dares Wins
The beautiful island paradise had turned into a landscape of the worst nightmare. Blackened trees and still burning foliage rose ghost like out of the gloom on either side of the stately motorcar as it moved slowly through the forest. Even though it was early afternoon Jimmy had to resort to switching on the headlamps; it might well have been the darkest night.
Those inside the car were silent, too horrified to comment. The only sound was that of Mia occasionally passing instructions to Jimmy on which route to take and her voice was stark with dread and sorrow. Would the home where she had spent the best years of her life still be standing or would it, much like the countryside they traversed, be a gaunt ruin?
Lois remained quietly buried in the smooth leather of the huge back seat, drumming her fingers in nervous tension on the lid of the lead casket cradled against her thigh. Her eyes registered the terrible devastation but her thoughts were with her husband where ever he might be. And she had hated to leave her children … But at least they were safe … for the time being. She was well aware that Jimmy regarded this as a foolish undertaking and she had a slight suspicion that Clark might well agree with their friend. But Lois Lane was famed for taking chances and she deemed that the probable reward from this venture was well worth the risk.
The driver cursed loudly and yanked the steering wheel off to the left in a wild attempt to avoid a drunken tree that swayed precariously in their path. The car lurched to do Jimmy's bidding and bumped its way across the undergrowth at the edge of the road. And not a moment too soon, as the tree's charred branches scraped over the roof and crashed to the ground.
James Olsen was finding the going very tough. But then it was hard to concentrate on driving while his mind went over, again and again, the fact that his best friend had lied to him for well over ten years. Well, perhaps lying was too strong a term, but definitely pretending to be two separate people when, in reality, he was just one person. Surely CK and Lois knew that he could be trusted to keep that secret. And just how many people did know … was Perry White one of the chosen few? And if so why hadn't his editor and long-time mentor told him? But Jimmy already knew the answer to that question. Perry might be one of the best newsmen in the business, but he was also the most stalwart of friends, one who would carry such a confidence to his grave.
His thoughts were rudely interrupted as the wheel was jarred from his hands and the two women screamed as they were pitched against the side doors of the car. The Roller's right front wheel had sloughed into a large hole created by one of the flying boulders from the earlier eruptions. For some worrying time the tyre spun in the soft earth of the newly hued ditch, seeking traction as Jimmy changed gears in an attempt to coax the vehicle out of the trap. But the old car had been built stoutly and slowly it inched its way forward, finally lurching out of the deep indentation, carrying its passengers surely toward their destination.
And suddenly, without warning they were passing beneath the arched gateway of the Vallieres' estate. The stone arch was still in one piece though one side of the wrought iron gates hung perilously from one hinge while the other was nowhere to be seen, having fallen into the undergrowth that bordered the drive.
At her first sight of the mansion, Mia's eyes widened in disbelief. While the perfectly manicured lawn was now a carpet of dirty ash and pitted here and there with rocks and fallen trees, the house at the end of the driveway looked remarkably untouched. And yet, as the car navigated the pockmarked drive and halted in front of the sweeping staircase that led to the front doors, the three explorers could see that this wasn't quite true.
A film of greyish ash coated the entire structure; it just blended in more readily with the stone walls of the building. Nevertheless, as their feet disturbed the residue while they mounted the stairs, the fine muck rose into the air and choked the intruders. Coughing and spluttering, but undaunted, the three continued on into the interior of the house.
If the thunderous din of Solvan exploding had been terrifying, the eerie, pregnant silence now sent tremors up and down their spines; was this the calm before the storm's return? Even their tread made no sound on the silted tiled floors as they sped across the hallway to the main stairs; none of the three wished to tarry.
Mia determinedly made her way to her bedroom and study where her precious medicines were kept, followed closely by Lois and Jimmy. Nervously, she swung open the large door and with bated breath walked inside. The room had been tidied before the household had left for the meeting that morning and all looked spic and span. Indeed, due to the windows facing in the direction of the sea the cindery deposits were much lighter here and the colour scheme of the room showed through its veil, proving that the lady favoured the lovely blues, pinks and lilacs of the flowering shrubbery that abounded on her native island. The elderly woman hurried into her den while the Metropolitans killed time by perusing Mia's chamber.
Lois found herself examining the many photographs that covered the antique oak dressing table; a brief summarization in pictures of Mia's life and the people she had shared it with. Quickly, Lois found herself stuffing some of these pictures in the large purse she had brought with her … Mia should have something more tangible to keep than memories of the life she had led.
As she picked up the photos, some of people she recognised and others of folks she had never met, her hand touched a fine chain which was draped over the corner of a large picture portrait of an almost ethereal young woman and hanging on the chain a slim oval of the now familiar amber.
Lois studied the lovely pensive face that gazed at her from out of its silver frame. The soft smile was very reminiscent of Tula. A gentle hand touched Lois' shoulder and she jumped anxiously at the unexpected contact.
"My daughter-in-law," Mia explained. "She was very beautiful and very talented; Tula gets her gifts from her mother. Helene was a full-blooded Frenchwoman and she came to the island to study her painting. She met my son; they fell in love and she never left, except for that last fateful time." The elderly woman's voice was coloured with sadness as she detached the necklace from Lois' fingers. "She made this for my birthday, the first that she shared with me on this island. You know, Helene was the first one ever to find these stones. I was very flattered that she made it for me. Now you must have something nice to take with you from Papillon, so I want you to have this."
"Oh no, Mia, I couldn't take your gift," Lois murmured emphatically and tried to avoid her generous new friend's outstretched hands. "These are your mementos."
"My dear, I don't need possessions to remember my family. They are with me always, locked here within my heart." Her right hand hovered light as a butterfly over where her heart would be. "But so many terrible things have happened to you here that I want you to have something good, something made out of love, to remind you of my island."
"To tell the truth, I already spotted these pendants in Tula's gift shop," Lois admitted with a guilty smile, "and I decided to buy one for my mother as a vacation gift."
A glimmer of a tear shadowed the island matriarch's eye, but she dashed it away and spoke resolutely. "Sadly, Tula's shop is probably no more. So I want you to have this one for your mother." Mia slipped the delicate piece into Lois' open purse. "Please take it with my best wishes."
Impulsively, Lois cast her arms around Mia's frail shoulders in a loving hug.
"Hey, you guys, you have to see this!" Jimmy's awed cry cut into the women's emotional moment and the two scurried to join him on the balcony.
The eddying clouds had thinned and the group could see across the top of the devastated countryside all the way to the sea. And slightly to the north, where once had stood the thriving township, was a great gaping hole and rushing to fill the gap was a horrendous mix of molten lava and muddy water.
"Oh my god!" Lois' knees almost gave out. "It's heading straight for the harbour. Oh please, please let Clark be away safely."
Jimmy's arm snaked around Lois' waist offering support. "Lois, that was ages ago. I'm sure that Clark is aboard the Swallow and on his way to pick us up. Which means that we have to get outta here." Olsen's history spent photographing war zones and natural disasters lent steel to his words. "If we've got everything we need let's move on. We've been here too long already."
"You're right! I have all I need; we must hurry." Mia's voice was quiet but firm and with added urgency she crossed to the wooden ottoman by the foot of her bed and lifted the large chest she'd placed on it earlier.
"Here, Mia, let me carry that for you," a gentlemanly James Olsen offered and hoisting the medicine box into his arms with a grunt, he ushered the ladies from the room.
Within minutes the three were exiting the ghostly house, surprising two very shocked young men who had taken the opportunity to leave their cramped hidey-hole to stretch their legs.
In horror Lois spoke. "Joel! Julian! Just what do you think you're doing here?"
Lois, once again, sat in the back seat of the car as it headed out toward their second destination. Positioned between her two sons, she held tightly to their hands; this time she wasn't about to let them out of her sight.
A short but unpleasant interlude had taken place outside the Valliere villa while a very angry Lois had bemoaned her lot as the mother of two very disobedient children. She had marched up and down before her crestfallen boys, demanding to know whatever had possessed them to try such a crazy stunt.
A wry smile fleetingly crossed Jimmy's face at that last statement; something about 'people in glass houses' sprang into his mind, but he wasn't about to risk his neck by repeating that out loud.
The two young Kents had stood silently listening to their mother's tirade, shifting uneasily from foot to foot. It wasn't that either boy was afraid of Lois, they had learnt long since that she never carried out her most outrageous threats, but she could make life very uncomfortable for the both of them. What bothered them most was the fact that they had upset her when they knew she was already concerned about Dad. So they had waited quietly for Lois to finish her rant, a tactic they had picked up from their father, knowing that she would eventually run out of steam and be more inclined to listen to their reasons. Joel and Julian disliked causing her anxiety, but in this case, they were determined that they would look out for Mom, whether she approved or not.
The journey to the rainbow ground was, as Mia had said, only a short distance in terms of miles. However, due to the distinct lack of visibility and the many obstacles that lay in their path which had to be circumnavigated the trip seemed unbearably long. And as he made the necessary adjustments to avoid these hazards, Jimmy gave thanks to the long dead craftsmen who had built this classic car.
"Is it much further, Mia?" Lois asked in alarm. Her apprehension had increased tenfold since she discovered that her sons were also in danger.
"No, my dear, not far now." Understanding the reasons behind Lois' jumpiness—she was a mother and grandmother herself—Mia was quick to offer what comfort she could. "We should be there very soon."
But the trail was proving ever more difficult to traverse as they drove further inland and nearer to the mountain. Fortunately they were on the south shoulder of the volcano and well out of the path of the lava flow. Unless …
"Let's hope that there are no lava trails headed in this direction," Jimmy added, obviously growing a little antsy himself. "And that other thing … pyro … something or other that Paul talked about."
Lois fervently hoped that too. From the little that Paul had mentioned and her vague recollections of watching some TV programmes about natural disasters they certainly wouldn't survive a pyroclastic flow; yes, that was the name …
"Pyroclastic, Jimmy." Lois informed almost distractedly.
"I don't think there's anything like that coming this way. At least, I don't hear anything." Joel decided it was safe to speak up. "But that could be because my powers still aren't working properly."
"You have powers too, kiddo?" Jimmy asked in amazement. Lois had intimated that this was so but to hear it from the person in question … "Hey, that's cool."
"Well, yes, but they aren't all that good yet … and I can't fly. But Dad couldn't fly till he was eighteen, so I don't suppose I will either."
"Is that a fact?" James Olsen had learned more about Superman in the past few hours than he had done in years of following the hero. Finding out this secret might not be a bad thing … of course, it was strictly off the record … CK was his best buddy. Even if it meant winning another Pulitzer, he wasn't about to destroy his friend's private life, which was bound to happen if the secret ever got out. Which was probably the reason why the Kents guarded the secret so closely. And another thing, Jimmy had just acknowledged that CK, aka Superman, was still his closest friend. His spirits rose dramatically with that realisation. He still intended giving CK a hard time … he deserved some small amount of revenge for being kept in the dark for so long, but that was for another time … when they were safe. Meanwhile, Lois was inquiring into the state of Joel's powers.
"I'm sorry, Mom. For a while back there at the house, I thought they might be coming back … a little bit. I could hear the roar from the town and there wasn't anything any closer, that's why I think there's nothing headed this way … but my powers have gone again so I'm not sure." Joel slumped dejectedly.
"Well, guys, there's certainly something." Jimmy remarked hollowly as he stopped their vehicle once more to wipe the ash and drifting leaves for the windshield, which the old car's wipers hadn't been able to cope with. "Boy, oh boy. I'd say that's something."
Everyone turned in the direction of Jimmy's pointing finger. They had halted on the edge of a deep crevasse over which arched a narrow stone bridge, just large enough to accommodate one vehicle at a time. A little way off was a sheer rock face with a tall tumble of water flowing down to fill the stream at the floor of the gorge … only at present it wasn't water that fell down the cliff, it was a crimson ribbon of hot, glowing lava.
… were the various comments, as the little group piled out of the car to witness the spectacle and Mia crossed herself, giving a clear sign of which religion she followed. Thankfully, the ground on which they stood, being of a higher elevation, seemed in no danger from the deadly stream, but even from their viewpoint they could feel the heat from the boiling lava and red shadows from the incandescent liquid played across their skins.
Lois moved nearer to the edge, Joel and Julian walking closely and protectively by her side. Peering over the lip, she was mesmerised by the bubbling cauldron far below her. The viscose lava had pooled at the foot of the cliff face and then, finding the bed of the natural stream, seeped along the ready made channel.
"Does that stream come out anywhere near the bungalow?" Consternation was clearly written on Lois' face. Dread-filled visions of Clara and Nathan drowning in the red-hot river passed before her eyes.
"No! The stream flows south to meet the sea and the lava seems to be taking that route. Your children are safe, Lois!" Mia's voice was hard-edged and determined, cutting through the hysteria that was rising in Lois' mind. "And no doubt their father has arrived by now and we really should hasten while the bridge is still in one piece. The place we're looking for is just about a half-a-mile on."
A frown creased Jimmy's brow as he regarded the ancient bridge. "Do you think it's safe?"
"Well, it has been standing for a couple of hundred years," the native islander reasoned.
"And the lava is down there, not up here," Lois added.
"But there has been an earthquake which might have affected it," Julian, the budding scientist, felt compelled to remind his mother. "We should check it out first."
"And how do we do that?" Jimmy enquired, already knowing the answer and not at all happy with it.
But Mia pre-empted everyone by striding resolutely onto the bridge, placing her faith in her ancestors who had built the bridge so long ago. She began to kick and stamp on the long hued stone, peering carefully at the surface and parapets, searching for telltale cracks. She was quickly joined in her makeshift tests by a resigned James Olsen and the two made their way slowly across the bridge.
"Lois, you and the kids stay back," he advised as forcefully as he dared, aware that this was Lois he was dealing with. "There's no reason in all of us risking our lives here."
However, at present, he was addressing not Lois the reporter but Lois the mother and she readily saw the wisdom in his instructions. If she ventured onto that bridge there would be no way she could stop her sons from following … and she had no intention of placing them in additional danger.
"Hey, Joel, it's a pity your powers aren't working," Jimmy called back to the little band waiting by the motor. There was a laugh in his voice that lightened the situation. "X-ray vision would come in real handy right now."
To please his uncle, Joel concentrated one more time and almost lost his footing as his gaze seared through the outer layer of stone. In his state of shock the picture blanked out, but the youngster quickly focussed again and squealed in triumph.
"It's working! I can see all the way through the bridge!" Joel's eyes scanned the structure from one side to the other. He was much too young to have learnt anything about engineering but there didn't appear to be any hidden splits in the stonework and the ground at either side of the bridge seemed solid enough. "I don't know much about building but it seems okay, Uncle Jimmy."
"Then that's good enough for me," Jimmy announced, returning to the road and the car with Mia hurrying in his wake. "We should get this show on the road." And as he spoke he ushered his passengers inside the Roller. Only one of his flock still stood by the ravine's edge. "Lois?! Lo-is! Earth to Lois! Are you with us?"
The beginnings of a puzzle were niggling at the edge of Lois' concentration; what was it about this island that caused the super powers to fluctuate so wildy? Joel had thought his powers were returning back at the mansion but then in the car they vanished again only to reappear when he was standing by the bridge … was there kryptonite in the car? That didn't seem possible. Since Philippe Blanc had picked them up on the road the little group and its transport hadn't been subjected to any falling rocks. And surely she and the boys would have noticed the dreaded presence—or were they all too traumatised by the eruption that they had forgotten to keep watch? It was more likely that the kryptonite had lain somewhere in the bushes and trees along the route, but there weren't any pieces actually around this spot.
And why was Clark more affected by the kryptonite than his children? Well, she could possibly explain that one; Bernie Klein had once speculated that the children's Earth genes might give them a certain amount of immunity to the radiation sickness. She'd have to tell him that his supposition was very likely correct. But as to the other question, there was no way she had time to solve it. Jimmy was calling her; the immediate task was to pick up some of these plants and get back to the house to meet Clark. Shelving the question in the recesses of her mind, she ran the short distance back to the car and climbed inside.
Mia's estimation had been right and they very soon reached their destination. It was easy to see why a young Paul had christened it the rainbow ground; even from the shelter of the vehicle, iridescent shades of green and red sparkled in the gloom.
Again, they all piled out of the car, anxious to complete the mission, Lois carrying the essential lead box while Mia brought her trusty gardening tools.
But they had only gone a couple of yards when Lois stopped, depositing the box on the ground. "Joel, whatever are you thinking? That ground is polluted with kryptonite. It's too dangerous for you." She brushed a soft hand through the hair that fell onto his forehead; it was so much like Clark's. "Please stay by the car." Her words dropped to a whisper and there was a catch in her voice. "I don't want to lose you too."
Joel offered her a sympathetic smile and this time did as he was told. Meanwhile, Mia was plowing into a clump of leafy green shrubs which reminded Lois of stinging nettles, except these must be minus the sting as the elderly woman seemed oblivious to any hurt from the plant. She watched in trepidation as Julian forged on into the leafy patch.
"Hey, don't they look like nettles?" Julian suggested. There was a hint of excitement in his tone. The budding scientist in the boy was enthused by the thought of discovering something new to take back to his Uncle Bernie at Star Labs, especially since this something might help Dad in the future. "But they're okay, Mom, they don't sting or anything."
"Hmm!" At Julian's reassurance Lois hoisted up the box once more and stepped gingerly into the shrubbery only to find that her boy was right. "Who would have thought that nettles had healing powers?" Lois asked wryly, amazed that in such a bizarre situation the treasure she was seeking should look as ordinary as a common garden weed.
"Well, they're not strictly nettles as you know them," Mia explained, all the while working diligently at digging up some of the smaller new plants, "though they are of the same family, and besides, nettles can be quite nutritious if prepared in just the right manner; haven't you ever heard of nettle soup?" she asked almost absentmindedly.
"Nettle soup … ugh! I doubt if even Dad could make that taste good," came Julian's verdict on the suggested delicacy.
"Oh, does your dad cook too?" Mia inquired with an interested smile, grateful to have the gloomy mind pictures of her ruined home replaced by a happier scene of the Kents' domesticity. "He's quite a talented gentleman."
"He is! And he does most of the cooking … Mom isn't too bad now, though I'm told that when they got married at first her cooking was a disaster. I've only been around since last year so I couldn't say if it was that bad, but she's okay with the easy things now."
"Thank you, Julian, for that vote of confidence … I think." Lois offered with a grin, distracted in spite of the dangerous situation they were in. "And it's just as well that you weren't too derogatory or next time Dad flew off to save the world you kids would be going hungry."
"Come on, guys! We don't have time for this!" Jimmy interrupted with a sense of urgency. "Much as I'd like to trade stories on Lois' culinary skills … I have a few little anecdotes of my own about those … but I think they can keep till we're somewhere a little safer."
They all looked a little sheepish at Jimmy's reminder of their plight and Mia returned to her task with gusto. Skilfully she wielded her trusty trowel, as she dug into the soil around the chosen plants, extricating them with a small amount of earth, making sure that their root systems remained undamaged. Quickly Mia transferred them to the tiny pots she had brought with her and placed them into the lead box that Lois had now placed by her side.
"I've made sure to leave a soil ball around the roots because the plants stand more chance of surviving if they are undisturbed in their growing medium," Mia explained. "And, of course, I think the soil content is more important than the plants themselves. But your doctor friend can test that out when you get home …"
Whatever, else Mia was going to impart remained unsaid as the ground beneath their feet shook hugely once again. The little group staggered under the impact and tried to hold each other upright, while Joel clung to the door of the motorcar. The earth continued to lurch for a number of minutes, much longer than any of the other tremors they had yet experienced. Trees at the edge of the clearing swayed wildly and some were uprooted and crashed to the forest floor, the noise adding to the tremendous rumbling.
"We have to get out of here … now!" Olsen instructed, bending to close the lid of the casket and sending the others in the direction of the car. "That quake was stronger than the last and so far the quakes have meant that Solvan's about to erupt." He picked up the box, there was no sense in leaving the object of their mission, and ran like hell to the car, shepherding the others as he went.
With as much speed as James could risk, he turned the car around in the clearing and set off in the direction they had come. Was it only his imagination or was the road even more bumpy than before? Had the quake opened up more holes? And if the road was different, what about the bridge … ?
There it was before them … still in one piece … and, uttering a prayer to any deity who cared to listen, James Olsen drove the car speedily onto the bridge.
But today the gods weren't in a receptive mood … They were almost across and Jimmy and his passengers were just about to heave a gigantic sigh of relief … when an ominous cracking sound heralded a subsidence in the surface of the bridge.
There was deadly silence in the car's interior as the travellers assimilated their fate. With bated breath they awaited the final drop. But, thankfully, the bridge hadn't collapsed totally … at least for now, though it didn't change the fact that they were in a dire predicament.
"Any suggestions as to what we do now?" Lois squeaked.
"We get out of this car for starters," Jimmy answered.
Swiftly the others complied, running to the comparative safety of the edge of the ravine, grateful to be on solid ground. Only Lois issued a small protest as they surveyed their immobilised transport.
"That's all very well, Jimmy, but we'll never make it back to the coast on time if we have to walk."
Unspeaking, the little group studied the position of the motor; both its large back wheels had dropped into a newly formed depression, but the rest of the vehicle seemed untouched.
"I might manage to drive it out of the hole," Jimmy suggested doubtfully.
"The rest of us could push," Lois proposed, "if you think that would help?"
"That's assuming that the bridge won't give way when we walk onto it …" Mia's reminder was not helpful.
Joel's eyes creased in concentration … it worked before … and it worked again. His x-ray powers were functioning fine … Maybe it was something about this bridge … Whatever the reason he wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
"No, I don't think it will," he spoke up, surprising his listeners as he continued. "The road surface sunk a bit but the bridge is still pretty solid. At least, it looks that way to me," he added as he caught the wide-eyed stares.
"You were right last time, buddy, so I'm willing to take the chance," Jimmy announced, astonished that he really had faith in this young boy's take on the situation.
"Me too," Julian concurred.
Mia opened her mouth to agree but was cut short by Jimmy interruptus, "No way, Mia, that car is much too heavy and I don't want you having a heart attack on us." The old lady closed her mouth, unwillingly giving into the wisdom of the words but not prepared to like them. However, she brightened at the young man's next question. "Actually, I was hoping that you could drive this thing. I mean you're the lightest adult and it'd leave Lois free to help with the pushing."
"Of course I can drive, young man … We may live in a backwater but I've been driving motor cars since before you were born." Mia sounded only slightly peeved at the lack of trust in her accomplishments. "And fortunately, most of the cars I've driven have been of a somewhat similar vintage to Philippe's Rolls-Royce." Now, immensely pleased with herself, Mia hurried back to the slanting car and, belying her years, nimbly climbed into the driver's seat, calling back over her shoulder. "You don't know how happy you've made me; I've been wanting to drive this monster for years, only Philippe would never allow it. He said he valued his 'baby' too much to turn it over to my tender mercies."
Trooping out onto the bridge, a slightly worried James wondered if he'd been wise to hand the driving over to Mia; however, he recognised that there was no way he could oust the elderly denizen from her position, so he marched to the rear of the car with another silent prayer.
Soon Jimmy, Lois and the two boys were straining their muscles against the weight of the heavy vehicle. Only their efforts were pretty much in vain and after a few unproductive tries they took time out for a breather.
"This thing weighs a ton," Jimmy commented, beginning to have serious doubts about the success of their efforts.
The apprehension, written clearly on the adults' faces, was not lost on Joel. They needed to rescue the car from this ditch and they just as clearly couldn't do it without the added assistance of super strength. His vision had worked well in this spot, so perhaps he could summon up a boost of super power or a blast of super breath. Only he couldn't control his breathing yet under the best of circumstances and this situation was anything but normal. No, it would have to be a super push, he just hoped he could muster up enough strength.
A quick glance at the others around him showed Joel that all three were resting their weary bodies against the back of the motor and that they each had closed their eyes. Now would be a good time to act, while his mom was too distracted to interfere. Willing his body to do his bidding, the diminutive hero placed his shoulder to the rear wing of the car and heaved with all his might. The car moved.
Three aching bodies jerked upright in an effort to keep themselves from falling as their resting place was jolted away. But Jimmy was too slow and his backside hit the ground with a painful thump. Lois and Julian, caught unawares, stared incredulously as their miniature superman strained to keep the heavy vehicle rolling forward.
"Come on, Mom, we have to help," shouted Julian as he threw in his meagre weight to help his brother.
Lois was quick to respond, leaving Jimmy sitting in shock on the ground. The photographer had seen many amazing things in the course of his job, but watching that small figure, who seemed no bigger built than an average boy, moving the monster of a car, left him temporally frozen to the spot.
"Jimmy!" Lois' gasping cry broke into his daze. "We sure could use your help here."
Jimmy scurried to add his strength to that of the others, but the instant his hands touched the car they were hit by yet another quake, this time of stronger velocity but luckily of shorter duration. The solid bridge snaked like a silken ribbon in the wind and a few flat boulders from the parapet tumbled to the gorge below.
Lois screamed and all four clung for dear life to the rear of the motor. Though if the bridge gave way their anchor wouldn't save them from falling into the fiery pit.
"It's no use! It's too dangerous! We have to leave the car behind." As the shaking steadied, Lois grabbed the children to lead them off the bridge.
"No, Mom!" Joel dug in his heels and Lois was yanked to a stop. "Mom, I can do this. We need the car. It'd be too dangerous to walk back to the house."
"And we'd have to carry the boxes," Julian reminded. "We can't leave them behind."
"The kids are right, Lois," Jimmy added. "After all, that's what we came for. It would seem a pretty pointless exercise to go home without them."
Lois was torn between the idea of taking her children and running for dear life and the desire to take back what might be a cure for kryptonite poisoning. During the last tremor the car had settled even deeper in its pit; it seemed a hopeless task to free it. But she wasn't a quitter.
"Please, Mom, trust me," Joel entreated.
There was no time to lose. Lois acceded to her son's earnest plea, as once more she was reminded that this was not only the son of Clark Kent but the son of Superman.
At Lois' silent nod Jimmy took control. "Okay, Joel, do your best and the rest of us lets give him some help." He peered through the dirty back window. "Mia, are you all right in there?"
"Fine," came a rather shaky reply, a cough and with a thumbs up sign. "I'm ready whenever you are."
"Okay, people, let's give this one last try and make it a good one." Lois couldn't help but grin as her friend gave a very good impersonation of Perry White in full editorial command. "We'll go on three … one … two …"
"Do you mean you'll say three or we push on three?"
Lois shrugged in apology and Joel, believing it was time to end this conversation with action, didn't wait for the others but began to lift and shove. Swiftly the others joined in and were amazed that somehow the load seemed a whole lot lighter than before. True to his super word, Joel was taking the strain. His body shuddered under the stress, but he wouldn't give up. And they were making a difference. Inch by torturous inch the car was lifting out of the trap.
The minute the wheels hit solid ground the driver slipped the car into gear and the engine once again took up the strain. Mia had been ready. She had watched Joel's progress in the wing mirror of the car and, although she too had been astounded by the child's super ability, the elderly lady had been alert to react and she drove the car deftly off the bridge. Meanwhile, the four pushers, aware that their position wasn't exactly secure, hurried in the vehicle's wake, only stopping to rest when they reached the safety of the ravine's edge.
His herculean labours over, Joel collapsed, trembling, into the waiting arms of his mother, while Lois showered him with kisses. Julian too leaned into Lois' embrace and for a moment the little family breathlessly clung to each other for comfort.
"Wow, kiddo, that was smooth … real smooth." And a grateful James Olsen took the youngster's hand and gave it a generous shake. This child was just … super. "That was …" He shook his head from side to side, unable to find the words.
"I know," Lois agreed with a laugh. "Even now it leaves me speechless …"
"Wow, Lois Lane, speechless! That really says a whole lot!" Jimmy teased, the escape from a fiery grave making him somewhat euphoric.
"I don't mean to interrupt your conversation," Mia called from the car, a bright smile lightening her face and softening her slight reprimand. "But don't we have someone to meet …"
A Safe Harbour
The darkness was lifting a little and the terrible pain that had sent him into the blackest pit had receded. True, his back still felt very sore and, as Clark tried to lift his head from its soft resting place, his muscles screamed out in protest. A gentle hand touched his shoulder and an unknown voice sounded close by his ear.
"Don't try to move, Mr Kent, you've been through a lot and you're probably still in a lot of pain. I've given you a painkilling injection but it might not have kicked in yet. Actually, I didn't expect you to regain consciousness so soon."
"Where …" Clark was sure that his voice could hardly be heard so he cleared his throat and tried again. "Where am I? And who are you?"
But his companion had heard him and answered quickly. "You're on the Swallow, in the sickbay to be exact, and my name's Freddy. I've been taking care of you."
As Clark became fully aware of his surroundings, he realised that he was lying face down on a narrow bed and his head was resting on a pristine white pillow. He tried once more to push himself upwards, this time with a little more success. With a bit of a struggle he managed to get a hand underneath him and, propping himself on one arm, he turned to face the man called Freddy.
"I was going to put an IV into you," the medic held up the cannula and gave an apologetic shrug, "but since you're conscious it isn't really necessary."
The apparatus in Freddy's hands reminded Clark that he had lost his invulnerability and that he was also very thirsty. There was nothing he could do for his first problem, but the latter could be remedied.
"I could do with a drink," Clark suggested.
And, as the medic was busy fulfilling his request, he tried to take stock of his physical state. His whole body ached and he felt weak and lightheaded, all familiar symptoms of green kryptonite exposure. Clark turned in his bed. His breath caught in his throat as a searing pain stabbed into his back just under his left shoulderblade. The pain recalled the facts of what had befallen; he remembered tumbling over and over and when he had landed on his back something had jabbed into his flesh. That something had to have been kryptonite … and where was it now? Experimentally he rippled his back muscles. It didn't appear to be still in his body.
Freddy returned to find his patient craning his head to see over his shoulder. "Your water," the medic held a plastic cup out to Clark. "If you feel up to eating I could get you something light from the galley."
Clark took the beaker gratefully. "No thanks, water will do for now. Perhaps later."
Watching the dark-haired man cautiously sip at the cool liquid, Freddy continued to inform his charge. "We removed the piece of rock from your back, it was a pretty lethal-looking splinter, and I've put in a couple of stitches. The bleeding has stopped now, but be careful, I doubt that it would take much to start it off again."
"Thanks for all your help." Clark genuinely believed that the man had probably saved his life and his husky voice conveyed the depth of his gratitude.
"No sweat, it's my job and, besides, the boss said I was to take real good care of you."
"Your boss?" Clark's brain still felt like it was filled with cotton wool.
"Yeah, Roy Chen. This is his boat you're on, though you were dead to the world when we brought you onboard so it's not surprising you're having a hard time getting it together. We only just got you into bed and like I said I didn't expect you to wake so soon."
Could the fact that the kryptonite had been removed from his body mean that his invulnerability was returning? Clark certainly didn't feel very super and he was still in a lot of pain; and when Freddy had suggested food he had felt decidedly queasy. It was most likely that the kryptonite was still somewhere in this room and was still having some affect on him. Which, when you thought about it, might be no bad thing. If his wounds suddenly started closing up in mere minutes then that might just make this very helpful nurse extremely suspicious.
Clark was aroused from his cogitations by Freddy's words from across the room.
"You know you were a very lucky man, this rock might be small but it's as sharp as a dagger." Freddy was picking up a metal dish from a small table and walking back towards the bed. "Hey, you might want to keep this as a reminder of just how lucky you were." As he reached Clark's side he lifted the object from the dish and offered it to his patient.
The patient turned pale and the cup fell from his unsteady fingers as water splashed on his bare chest. "Please, no!" Clark entreated.
The medic quickly deposited the rock and dish on the table by the bed and grabbed Clark gently by the shoulders. "Take it easy, Mr Kent. You're still in pretty bad shape. Maybe you should lie down and rest for a bit."
Clark allowed the man to lay him back onto his pillow but he warily eyed the green shard lying in its metal cradle. "Do you mind taking that away," he gestured with his head toward the offending article. "I'm not a masochist and I'd really rather not have to look at the thing that put me here."
"No sweat, Mr Kent. Everyone to his own but you'd be surprised at what some people want as souvenirs, teeth, gall stones, even body parts. Personally, I always thought that body parts were a bit over the top …"
Shutting out the drone of Freddy's voice, Clark attempted desperately to regain some of his equilibrium. He had to get out of this room and away from the influence of the kryptonite, but as long as it was sitting on the bedside table, staring him in the face, he doubted he could even summon the energy to crawl from its vicinity.
And he couldn't afford to languish here on his sickbed. Lois and the kids were expecting him to come for them and right at this moment he couldn't even rescue himself. Help, however, was at hand, as Freddy lifted the metal dish and, crossing to the far corner of the room, locked it and its contents away inside a metal wall cabinet.
The relief was immediate, if not total. Traces of radiation sickness still lingered and Clark knew well that he had been on the island under the influence of kryptonite too long for his powers to return anytime soon. But, at least, he now felt like a regular guy, who had received a substantial, if not life-threatening, injury. Which was better than nothing. Maybe if he could just rest up for awhile, while the boat was in transit, then he might feel up to finding his family.
Clark closed his eyes, not wholly in an attempt to stop the worthy but loquacious Freddy from carrying on a fairly one-sided conversation on the theme of patients' eccentricities, but also in the hope that when he once again opened his eyes the room would not sway quite so much.
But here, the medic's monologue took on a more informative and certainly more discomforting bent.
"Oh boy!" Freddy cried as he grabbed hold of the gleaming steel counter while the sickbay rocked dramatically. "My stomach feels like it's on a rollercoaster. There must be something pretty big happening under the sea bed, because, you know, normally the Swallow's stabilizers can cope with most of the storms we've sailed through."
It was nice to know that he wasn't the only one experiencing the cabin's spinning. But on the other hand, the fact that there was movement from the ocean floor was pretty disquieting … maybe the Swallow might not be able to ride out Solvan's eruption after all. Clark determined not to allow that thought to take root in his mind; the yacht was their only available method of escape and he wasn't about to dwell on what ifs.
Neither was he prepared to lay here in this bed. He had to find out how long it would take to reach the pickup point, since it would seem a pretty certain assumption that Solvan was building up for the final act of destruction. Time was running out for all of them.
Clark pushed himself up into a seated position and swung his legs to the floor, fighting off the giddiness that assailed him. Thankfully, the room had settled and apart from the steady thrum from the powerful engines as they thrust the vessel through the water, the motion of the boat had little effect on him. After a few moments his vertigo receded some and suddenly he became aware of his state of undress. He was wearing only his underwear and his socks.
"Freddy!" Clark thought that the man had named himself this. "Do you have my clothes?"
The man's attention was yanked from the tidying up of his domain from the after effects of the Swallow's pitching to the precipitate actions of his patient.
"Hey, Mr Kent, what do you think you're doing?" Freddy hustled across the room to assist his charge back into the bed. "You should be resting."
Clark raised his hand to stop the concerned medic's progress. "Freddy, I'm fine … really. You've taken real good care of me and I appreciate it, but I can't stay here. I need to be up and about to search for my family. So if you'd just give me my clothes …"
There was a touch of steel in Clark's voice and instinctively Freddy made to comply, only there was a problem. "Well, that might be difficult," came the rather sheepish answer. "We didn't know how badly you were injured and in our haste … we sorta cut you out of your clothes. But it's not a problem. You can wear a pair of my scrubs. We're about the same height … though you might be a little bit broader than me …" This was indeed an understatement. " But the scrubs are loose, so there shouldn't be a problem …"
How come everyone whom Clark met when he was parted from his wife had this tendency to babble? It reminded him of just how much he missed the genuine article.
"Fine, Freddy. They'll do nicely …" And Clark raised his eyebrows expectantly, giving the man no other option but to fetch the suggested clothing. But clearly something else was amiss as the medic seemed decidedly abashed. "Freddy!" Clark prompted.
"I sure am sorry about your glasses, Mr Kent," that was said in a rush. "We just didn't know that they were tucked up in there and they fell on the floor … and to cut a long story short, one of the guys who brought you in here stepped on them … I'm afraid they're well passed repairing …"
Oh boy, that was a problem but, if he looked as bad as he felt, and he was pretty certain that he did, Clark surmised that no-one would be likely to connect poor, sick Mr Kent to the super hero.
"Don't worry about it, Freddy, these things happen and I have a spare pair at the bungalow. Now, if you have that suit."
Within minutes a crisp green tunic and pants were produced, which the medic handed, a little reluctantly, to Clark. Freddy still wasn't convinced that his patient was ready to leave his care, but he'd also retrieved Clark's shoes and resignedly set about cleaning them up as the injured man carefully dressed himself.
Truthfully, Clark was also not as confident in his recovery as he pretended, yet he was determined to get up on deck to find out what was happening. With slow but deliberate actions he finished dressing and was grateful when Freddy, without commenting, knelt in front of him to slip his trainers on his feet; somehow he just knew that if he'd bent down to tie his laces he'd never have managed to get up again.
In the same way, when he was fully clothed, Clark accepted the medic's help to rise and clung to him with just a touch of embarrassment as he waited for the room to settle down.
"Thank you, Freddy," Clark whispered as he shook the man's hand then made his way slowly to the door.
"Glad to be of service," the jaunty medic's reply followed him. "Good luck … You'll need it. We'll all need it." But Clark didn't hear Freddy's last mumbled comment as the door closed on the determined ex-patient.
After a torturously laboured climb to the upper deck, Clark finally found his way onto the bridge, where the captain and the yacht's owner were busily conferring over a chart of the island's coast line. Following a few moments of deliberation, the skipper altered course and obediently the Swallow's stern slipped inwards toward, what the crew hoped, would be the chosen cove.
"What's happening? Where are we?" Clark announced his arrival with the questions that were uppermost in his mind.
Roy Chen was shocked by his guest's arrival and even more shocked by his appearance; the man looked liked he was being held aloft by strings.
"Clark! What are you doing, man? You ought to be still in the sickbay."
"Roy, I couldn't stay there while Lois and the children are in danger. I need to know what's going on."
Still, Clark had to admit that Chen had a point, he did feel decidedly shaky and he certainly didn't argue when both Roy and his captain escorted him to the skipper's chair, a highly elevated swivel contraption which was thankfully made of heavily padded leather.
"Thanks," Clark muttered as he eased himself back into the comfortable seat.
He didn't want to seem ungrateful, but he was growing just a little frustrated at how helpless he felt and how reliant on others for his well being he had become. Peering through the large glass frontage of the bridge, from his perch he could see only a swirling dirty fog. Obviously, the captain was relying on his instruments to find his way and, fortunately, the Swallow did support all the state-of-the-art equipment that was available in the world today. But oh for just a snippet of super vision to see through the murk and perhaps even spy Lois and his kids waiting at the shoreline.
"By Skip's reckoning, we should be sailing into your bay right now," Roy answered Clark's earlier question, "and we should be seeing the coastline any minute, though in this smog I wouldn't count on it."
"That's great, Roy!" And for the first time in an age, Clark sounded animated. "I can't wait to see Lois again." And to hold her was the overwhelming desire that occupied his mind.
A sudden swell threatened to evict Clark from his chair and he clung, white-knuckled, to the leather arms while the other occupants of the bridge grabbed for anything that would steady them.
"What's happening?!" The shaken super hero was almost afraid to ask, but he needed confirmation of his own and the medic's earlier, less than expert opinion.
"I'd guess that the volcano is having an effect on the ocean floor and creating mini-tidal waves." It was the captain who answered.
"Yeah, that's what I thought," came Clark's dejected reply. "If Solvan blows what do you suspect will happen?"
There was a very pregnant pause. "My guess would be a full-blown tidal wave." The skipper was only a few years older than his employer but he spoke with the assured authority of one who understood and loved his work.
"Would the Swallow survive?" This from Roy Chen.
"If we can make enough water … yeah, that would be my take."
"Then the sooner we can get in and out of here the better." Roy didn't doubt his captain's assessment of the danger that threatened, yet he wasn't about to abandon these people on the island while he hightailed it to safety.
"What about the other smaller boats?" Clark couldn't help but worry about the rest of the island community.
Again the more experienced seaman answered. "That's more difficult to say … some of the more powerful fishing boats might be okay but I certainly wouldn't like to be in some of the craft we've spotted. We've been picking up survivors from the little boats and telling the others to get the hell outta here. And we've been sending out an SOS since this whole thing started and we've even had a couple of replies. Help is on the way but no one is that close."
A young crew man who was standing in the background decided to join this conversation. "Hey, if this thing's hit the news wires, maybe Superman will show up to help!"
All eyes turned at the boy's suggestion, all except Clark's, whose gaze started studying the floor; he echoed the young sailor's expectations. And he was feeling stronger; if only he could keep away from kryptonite then perhaps his super powers would return. Of course, a quick burst of sunshine would work wonders. Right now, however, he had to quash the hope that had appeared on all their faces.
"I'm sure Superman will get here if he can, but I don't think we should rely on his help. We have to do what we can ourselves." Clark wondered just how often he would have to reiterate this point. Had people become so reliant on the Man of Steel that their own survival skills had become blunted? If so, that wasn't an entirely healthy situation.
"I agree," Chen seconded with a good deal of enthusiasm. Adrenalin was pumping through Roy's veins and he was beginning to enjoy the challenge; trying to outwit Solvan was almost a bigger rush than trying to ride the stock market.
In Chen's case it seemed that Clark's assumption was wrong. As the young tycoon surmounted every obstacle that was thrown in his path, he appeared to grow in confidence. A circumstance that Clark was happy to encourage.
"Good, Roy! This rescue shouldn't take too much time. No doubt Lois, the kids and the others are standing on the shore wondering what's taking us so long."
And proving that lady luck was really on their side, the mists began to clear and a thinly veiled sun shot a bolt of light on the water-lapped beach, revealing a straggling group of worried watchers.
"There they are," shouted the youngest crew member exuberantly, pointing out through the window and almost bouncing in his excitement.
The captain raised his binoculars to his eyes and with a quick word verified the other man's sighting. The Swallow edged closer and orders were given for the smaller powerboat to be launched. A feeling of optimism permeated the yacht; they would make the pickup and be off before Solvan did his worst, sailing out to the open sea and safety.
Remaining on the bridge from where he had a clear view of the cove, Clark scanned the area and for a number of minutes it didn't register that he was seeing the same view as the skipper had through his spyglasses.
Those waiting were strung out along the beach and they were jumping up and down and waving wildly with relief and joy. There was Clara, supporting a huge grin, and Nathan was being held in a woman's arms. A woman who was smiling happily and pointing to the boat … a woman who wasn't Lois.
A shiver of fear ran down Clark's spine as he scanned the sands. There were his two youngest children and Tula and Paul and the Blancs, flanked by a few other strangers. There was even a small pile of luggage … but no Lois or Joel or Julian. What had happened? Where were they? And for that matter, he couldn't see Jimmy or Mia.
He raised his sight to the cliff tops and only then did he realise that his telescopic vision had returned, along with his x-ray powers, as he searched inside the bungalow for his lost wife and family.
Turning his thoughts inside himself he sought the connection which he always shared with Lois. The link still held strong. A great feeling of relief swept through him, to be followed swiftly with one of exasperation.
"Lo-is! Whatever scheme are you up to now?!"
And Clark, forgetting that he was a sick man, pushed himself out of his chair and marched determinedly out to the deck.
Red Sky at Night
The journey back to the coast was, in comparative terms, fairly uneventful. A few minor shakes had given the passengers of the Rolls Royce some anxious moments, but while they drew nearer to the sea where the clouds had lifted somewhat, so too did their spirits.
They had been successful. Now locked securely in the box by Lois' feet were the precious plants which would be transported back to Star Labs and to the investigations of Bernie Klein. And if Lois' gut instincts were correct then, for the first time, Clark and their children might have some protection against the poisonous kryptonite. Mad Dog Lane could not resist the temptation to crow, at least internally. Which was not a wise emotion to throw in the face of the gods.
They backtracked along the same route as the outward trip, bypassing the lava and mud river that had engulfed the remains of the thriving little town. Was it only yesterday that they'd traversed this road on the way back from the Vallieres' home? So much had happened in the interim that it seemed like light years ago. A feeling of surrealism permeated the motorcar as the occupants sat silently reviewing their own thoughts, passing only a few disjointed comments as they made their way to the bungalow and hopefully, rescue.
Joel appeared to be almost asleep and his mother presumed that his amazing trial of super strength had left him drained of all energy. Lois passed her arm around his deceptively small shoulders, drawing him closer to her warmth and comfort. Over his dark head she caught the eye of her eldest son, who had chosen to sit on Joel's other side in an attempt to offer his own support. Brown eyes gazed into blue in mutual understanding that they would both do whatever they could to help and sustain Joel, their phenomenal superboy.
Not for the first time, Lois wondered how she could ever have been wary of admitting Julian into the close ranks of her family. This forlorn young orphan had quickly carved out a place in her heart that would be forever his. A shared experience of childhood trauma, of isolation and insecurity had forged a bond between the two that none of the other family members shared or wholly understood. And while Lois dearly loved all her children, it sometimes seemed that it was with Julian that she shared the closest connection. Perhaps it was the fact that in this remarkable family, Lois and Julian were the only two pure bred 'Earth humans' and, as had been discovered on this island, sometimes human abilities were the only thing that stood between the Kryptonians and extinction. Once more it had been proved that together they were stronger than one alone.
Round the final bend in the road, safety beckoned, but Solvan had not been appeased. With a roar that seemed to herald the ends of the Earth, Solvan hurled his fury into the air.
"Let me get this straight, Clara. Your mother has gone where exactly?"
Clara stared owlishly at her dearest Dad and attempted skittishly to once more answer his interrogations. It wasn't that she was afraid of her father; never that, but she did understand how much her information was distressing him.
Immediately Clark had stepped from the Swallow's launch and strode ashore, he had claimed his 'kitten' and led her to the tree line, some distance from the others and had plunged into this uncomfortable question and answer session.
As Clara's stumbling explanation drew to a halt, an exasperated Clark swung away from his troubled daughter. The child's eyes followed his worried perambulations, watching anxiously as her father's hands combed through his hair, ruining his earlier attempt to muss his hair onto his forehead, hoping to look less like his alter-ego. Though, truthfully, that had been a somewhat unnecessary operation. Wan-faced and bruised as he was, no one was about to connect the two men.
Returning to face Clara, having gathered his tumultuous emotions under some manner of control, he continued his rant.
"So, in the midst of a volcanic eruption, Lo … your mother," he couldn't quite bring himself to say her name at this moment, "has gone off to do a spot of gardening, not only unheeding of her own safety but taking your brothers along with her."
"Yes, Dad! But she didn't know that Joel and Julian had tagged along," Clara explained helpfully. "That was all their idea."
"Why doesn't that surprise me?" Clark rolled his eyes as he spoke. "You kids are too much like your mother for your own good!"
Normally that circumstance would not disconcert Clark, in fact he could think of no better role model, and Lois had been far more circumspect in her attitude to dangerous situations since she had become a mother. Just as he had restricted his super activities in favour of his children's well being, so Lois had become more careful in her pursuit of a story.
So why had she decided to plunge into one of the most dangerous situations that the family had ever encountered? From what he had gleaned from Clara, he could understand Lois' reasoning but he couldn't agree with her choice of actions.
The fact that Clark's powers were practically nonexistent and therefore he might not be able to save them if they ran into trouble, was making him more fussy than normal. And if the channel to Lois was not still open he would be even more frantic.
Then all reasonable thought was ended as Clark's ears were assaulted with a wall of sound that literally blew the people standing on the beach to the ground. Clark grabbed his daughter to him and held her close as the powerful sound blast swept over them, uprooting trees and sending huge sections of the cliff sliding down to the shore below.
How long he sheltered Clara in his arms as the holocaust eddied around them Clark could never be sure, but as soon as he had checked on the vital signs of his children and those others on the beach, thankfully to find that all of them were at least alive, Clark took off running up the disintegrating path. He could hear Nathan crying for his mommy and Clark's heart was breaking, knowing that he must leave his small son to others for comfort.
Another sound had reached him through the cacophony of noise, though one he was sure he heard with his heart and not his senses. Lois had screamed.
Desperation lent him strength and with each stride his powers surged to the fore. He didn't care if anyone should witness Clark Kent running at super speed, he just needed to save his wife. The question of witnesses, however, was not a problem; the people on the sands were still stunned from the hammer blow of sound and were too busy checking on their condition and happily shocked to find that they were still in one piece. And those aboard the Swallow who had been watching, waiting for the evacuation to begin, were now far too occupied keeping the boat afloat in the suddenly stormy seas.
Only Clara witnessed her father disappear into a blur and her whispered plea echoed in his path. "Please save them, Daddy. Don't let it be too late!"
As Clark reached the clearing on top of the cliff, a scene of devastation lay before him. The pretty house with its sheltering trees had been laid flat as if by a gigantic hand. But Clark did not linger. With dread as his companion, he sped onwards, toward the source of the scream and within seconds had found the old car less than a hundred yards from the turning to the house. Like a toy, the ancient vehicle had been tossed and tumbled into the forest, its nose coming to rest buried amongst the broken trunks and branches, leaving the two rear wheels pointing to the murky sky and showing its dirtied underbelly to the frightened Man of Steel.
Fear held Clark in an immobile vice as for moments he could only stare at the view before him. Then quickly and with great apprehension he employed all his senses to discover whether his love was still alive.
"Lois!?" His terrified cry split the now silent, desolate forest.
"Clark Kent, get over here! You've obviously regained some of your powers and we need you! Now!"
A hysterical laugh burst from Clark's lips at the sound of that beloved voice, but it was quickly choked back as his x-ray vision discerned that not everyone in the car was in a fit state to scold. And besides, he could feel his strength draining away and as he would possibly need every iota of his remaining powers to cut the survivors from the car, there wasn't a moment to lose.
For some frantic minutes, filled with concentrated activity, some super powered and others with simple human determination, Clark worked to free his family and friends from the tank-like car, whose very sturdiness had lent its occupants a degree of safety that had clearly saved them from death. Not, mayhap, from injury.
As one by one Clark lifted them from the twisted steel, he checked them over as best he could. Only his x-ray vision had disappeared again and he had to resort to running his hands over their limbs to check for broken bones.
Joel was the first to scramble free from the wreckage, perhaps due to his own small amount of super abilities, or perhaps because his slim agile frame fit more easily through the broken rear window. He quickly acknowledged to his dad that he was perfectly fine, if a little shaken.
Next came Julian and Clark was dismayed to see a fiery graze running from just below the boy's eye down his smooth, pink cheek, but fortunately, after a quick inspection, the worried father concluded that this was the only injury.
Hurriedly making sure that the two boys were safe on the more solid ground of what had once been the road, Clark returned to the job of rescuing the others and his heart lifted as Lois' head popped up through the gap, looking a little dirty and dishevelled but otherwise untouched.
"Lois, are you okay?" Clark reached a hand to brush away tiny particles of broken glass that sparkled in her hair.
"Fine, Clark, I'm fine … probably a little bruised … but nothing's broken." Lois was quick to reassure, yet her hands were still out of view, busy with something inside the car. "Clark, grab hold of this," and with her command she pushed her purse in his direction.
"Lo-is! We don't have time for baggage! Lo-is!" He spoke to the empty air as his wife ducked back inside, leaving him holding the overstuffed object.
"There are things inside that we need." Her reply was muffled and her breath caught as she struggled to drag the heavy lead box towards the opening.
Aware that arguing with Lois over her priorities would just waste more time, Clark leaned down into the wreck and pulled the familiar container out into the open and rested it on the shell of the car. Besides, he had enough faith in Lois to realise that the contents of the box must be important. However, he wasted no more time on conjecture and stretching inside again, he wrapped his arms around his wife's body and dragged her upwards as carefully as was possible, passed the twisted metal struts of the damaged bodywork.
His muscles protested at the strain, but thankfully Lois' body was still the same trim shape as the bride he had married all these years ago and she came easily through the gaping hole. He couldn't resist hugging her hard against his chest as he carried her across the mound of tangled wood and bracken that was all that remained of the verdant forest, setting her down on the road beside her sons.
"Thank god you're safe," he whispered into her tangled hair, gratefully breathing in her sweet familiar scent. "I was so afraid … please, honey, don't ever scare me like that again."
"No, oh no," she readily agreed, traumatised by the events rather more than she was about to admit to. "And you either… I thought I'd lost you, Clark…" She pressed ever closer to her husband's muscled form, anxious to assure herself that he was still in one piece. A small part of her mind had been surprised at his attire and as she ran her hands across his back she was shocked to find the thick padding of a sterile bandage. That was new! "Clark!?"
Clark pressed a fleeting kiss onto her open lips. "I'll explain later, honey."
Then he was speeding back to the Rolls, treading lightly in fear of shifting the vehicle's unsteady cradle. If only he could levitate…
The exit route taken by his family would not be an option for the two passengers in the front seats and Clark picked his way round the upturned car in search of the best form of rescue. Thankfully the motor car had come to rest with its hood buried in the dense thicket, leaving the passenger compartment sticking up in the air; this was a convertible and he doubted that the fitted roof could have stood the strain of bearing the total weight had the car landed totally upside down. It would have been likely that those inside would have been killed instantly.
Peering into the interior of the wreckage. Clark discerned that the two remaining victims had not been so lucky as his family. Jimmy had been dislodged from his seat behind the steering wheel, but not before he had made some contact with the offending object, and he was now lying, deeply unconscious, slumped sideways across the old lady.
The front of Jimmy's colourful shirt was covered with blood and Clark was afraid that his chest had been crushed with the impact; if only the damage wasn't too severe, yet the noise of his rasping breath gave Clark cause to think that a lung might have been punctured. Clark well remembered just how dangerous that could be, having suffered from that same injury after Diana Stride had succeeded in crippling him with intravenous kryptonite.
A grating moan and a wrinkled, shaky hand struggling toward him, returned Clark with a sense of urgency to the problem in front of him and Mia's insistent voice reached him.
"Clark! Can you lift Jimmy up from me? He's still breathing, but we need to get him out of here."
"Mia!" Clark cried out, amazed that the elderly woman should still be awake and cognizant and worried about another being. "Are you all right?"
"Well, I think I might have broken my wrist, old bones aren't made for being tossed around inside cars, but I'm in much better shape than your friend." Mia's voice broke on a gasp of pain, but the indomitable old lady swallowed hard and continued with a touch of remorse. "That should be me there… I should never have allowed him to take over the driving again … but there's no sense in what ifs… We have little time to lose; we have to find him medical help."
"If we can get him back to the Swallow there's someone there who might be able to treat him." Clark's hand had reached to stroke Jimmy's forehead and he pushed back the hair that had fallen over his oldest friend's brow. He was stunned by the pallor that was revealed. "But if we move him we might do more damage."
"Clark, if we leave him here, he will definitely die." That came from Lois who had come to join him to assess for herself the state of her friends. "And you might have forgotten that we're in the path of a volcano that keeps exploding. We all have to get out of here and as quickly as possible."
"I know," Clark acquiesced. "So what's the best way to do this to save Jimmy any further hurt?"
"Maybe I could crawl inside, Dad, and push while you and Mom pull," Joel suggested as he unexpectedly appeared at his parents' side.
"On no!" Lois swiftly quashed that notion. "It's too dangerous! Much too dangerous! That car is balancing on a pile of broken sticks; it could give way at any time and I don't want you hurt too."
"Sweetheart, I don't like the idea either, but I think that might be the only way to ease Jimmy out of there." Clark spoke comfortingly and gently forced Lois to lean down until she could see more clearly inside the car. "See, honey, his foot is trapped beneath the gas pedal. And before you suggest it … there isn't much room for me to get in there and besides, I'm heavier and there's more chance of me bringing the whole pile of matchwood down."
A forlorn sigh escaped Lois as she desperately searched for other methods to release Jimmy from this trap, yet reluctantly she had to agree…
"You're right, Clark … there's no other way. But, Joel," Lois reminded her son as she threw her arms around him in a swift hug, "be careful and listen to what your father tells you."
In normal circumstances Joel would have been embarrassed and a little impatient with his mother's fussing, yet with everything that had happened to them since coming to the island, the boy understood her concerns and was glad of them.
"Don't worry, Mom, I'll take care." And he returned her hug with one of his own.
Clark squeezed Joel's shoulder then led him round to the back of the car. The rear window was still the clearest access route and, once Joel was inside, if Superman could just summon up one last burst of super strength, he was hoping to wrest the front part of the roof away from the car and create another exit. It shouldn't be so difficult as small sections of the roof were already torn away.
After shepherding his son safely inside, Clark moved to take hold of the ripped edges. "Lois, do you think you could help me here?"
Already deducing Clark's strategy, Lois moved speedily to his side and, at what they considered the most weakened place, together they began to pull the roof away from the shell of the car. So close to Clark was Lois that she could plainly see the tension in the tendons of his jaw and neck. The powerful muscles in his arms bulged as he sought one more ounce of his awesome strength. His eyes closed as he concentrated all his efforts, but Lois' gaze never left her husband's face. Whilst she gave of all her own human physical strength, she mentally communed her will to join with his and, as had happened so often in their past, their combined powers prevailed. Little by little the metal frame that held the roof in place began to bend outward, peeling back more quickly as their momentum grew and soon a hole, big enough to accommodate an adult, was created.
Clark's eyes opened on Lois' drawn yet still lovely face; she never let him down; with her at his side there was nothing he couldn't do. If any thoughts of another beautiful woman still remained in the darkest corners of his unconscious mind they were now banished forever, driven away by the eternal flame that was his love for the woman he had chosen many years ago.
"Thank you," he whispered simply.
"Dad!" The shared moment was interrupted by a troubled cry from the youngster buried deep inside the bowels of the motor car. "Uncle Jimmy's foot is jammed and I don't know if I can get it free."
"What if we could take his shoe off?" Surprisingly another youthful voice issued from the darkened interior, close to where Joel's voice had come.
"Julian!?" Clark leaned into the dimness the better to assess the situation.
"Julian, there was no need for you to go back inside," Lois' anxiety leant her voice a querulous note. "Why is it that all my children rush into dangerous situations?"
"'Cause we take after you, Mom!" Joel's giggled explanation bubbled up from the car.
"Out of the mouth of babes," suggested Clark bravely while he sent Lois a soothing smile. Then with a sheepish shrug he delved back inside the newly made gap. "If you can reach the shoe, guys, I think that would help a whole lot."
Lois clambered over Clark's obtruding shoulder to see for herself what was happening. She could just make out in the shadowed interior the forms of her two sons as they busied themselves with trying to remove the stuck shoe. Her gaze slid up Jimmy's limp form and Lois winced as she took in the bloodied shirt; hopefully the injuries looked worse than they actually were, but she didn't really give much credence to that thought.
Passing onward, Lois could see Mia, pressed against the side door of the Rolls, waiting patiently for the human burden to be taken from her. The deep lines between Mia's eyebrows proved, without a shadow of doubt, that the dear old woman was in considerable pain.
The two boys worked as briskly as they could in the cramped space, Julian attacking the laces whilst Joel attempted to remove the shoe from the foot and within minutes Jimmy was free.
"Hey, we did it!"
Both children grabbed hold of the legs of the comatose man and trying to straighten his body, propelled him upwards towards the opening where their parents waited.
"Dad, can you reach Uncle Jimmy?" Joel managed to ask through his exertions; he was still suffering from his earlier feat and it was difficult to gain much purchase in the confined area. And judging from the groans coming from his brother, Julian was struggling even more than he. Who would have thought that Uncle Jimmy weighed so much?
Mercifully, help was at hand and as Clark succeeded in slipping his hands under Jimmy's arms the weight on the children eased and between them James Olsen was lifted from the steel trap. Very gently he was borne by the man he knew as CK, who he had just discovered was also Superman, and laid with loving care on the roadway.
"How bad is he, Clark?" Lois called from her position by the car. Although she was tremendously worried by Jimmy's condition, she was concerned for Mia and her two boys' position inside a motor car that was so precariously balanced and she wasn't about to move until all the occupants were safely outside. In truth, there would be no safety for any one of them until they had left this doomed island behind.
"Pretty bad, Lois. My x-ray vision's gone so I can't confirm it, but I'm pretty sure his ribs are broken and that at least one of his lungs has been pierced." Clark had moved back to Lois as he spoke and was now studying Mia's position.
"That's what I thought too," Lois concurred. "I remember how you sounded."
She appeared more than a little dejected as she leaned into Clark's body for comfort. Yet, Lois was not one to dwell on negative emotions and with a lightening change of mood, she placed her hand on her husband's chest and determinedly lifted her chin.
"But, you got better and so will Jimmy; we just have to get him outta here and to a hospital. So let's rescue Mia and get back to the Swallow and sail away… The Swallow is waiting for us?!"
And proving that actions speak louder than words, he lifted Mia to safety while Joel and Julian quickly exited the car in her wake. The empty sepulchre that had once been a proud symbol of wealth and prestige astonishingly remained standing like a memorial stone, a reminder of happier times on this idyllic island.
The small group surrounded Jimmy's prone figure in the comparative clearing of the roadway, debating how to transport him down to the beach. Ordinarily, it wouldn't present a problem, but Clark at this point had none of his super strength. The instinctive surge of power that had resulted from a massive adrenalin rush at his terror for Lois and his children had evaporated and Joel was just as bereft. They would just have to rely on natural human abilities and be as cautious of the injured man as that would allow.
It was obvious too that Mia would need someone to help her on the trek back to the Swallow. Mia's own diagnosis of a broken wrist was very probably correct and Lois had directly torn a strip of material from the elderly woman's long flowing dress and immobilised the injured arm by strapping it across her chest.
The shorter-length frock revealed a long, nasty-looking cut on Mia's shin and, not for the first time, Clark wished for a burst of heat vision that would seal the wound. Instead he had to content himself with binding the leg with another piece of cloth as tightly as was prudent; no way did he want to stop the flow of blood to Mia's foot. That done he turned his attention back to the quandary of carrying Jimmy to the Swallow.
"Dad, there's an old tarpaulin in the trunk, Julian and I used it to hide under." Joel tentatively offered a solution. "Could we use it to get Uncle Jimmy to the beach?"
"Good idea, Joel!"
And as Clark hurried to fetch the makeshift stretcher, a feeling of pride in his children surged through him. Both his boys had been wrong to stow away on this perilous journey and he would have to tell them so if he didn't want them to be constantly throwing themselves in harm's way, but he couldn't help but admire the spirit and the consideration for their mother's well being that had prompted their actions.
Having retrieved the tarpaulin, Clark turned to retrace his steps only to stumble over Lois, who was struggling with the lead box.
"Lois, we have enough to worry about without carting that back with us." Clark pronounced with more than a touch of exasperation.
"Clark, there's a possible cure for kryptonite poisoning in this box and since we risked our lives to get it this far, I'm not about to leave it behind." And she turned tail and marched back to the waiting group, giving her openmouthed husband no chance to comment further.
Recognising defeat, Clark followed and silently and as quickly as he dared he lifted Jimmy onto the open canvas. It wasn't an ideal stretcher but it was better than nothing. Lois passed her burden over to her children and instructed the boys to help Mia, then she moved to Jimmy's feet and, grasping hold of both corners of the tarp, she signalled Clark she was ready to lift.
Between them Lois and Clark lifted their precious cargo, praying that Solvan would stay quiet long enough for them to reach the safety of the shore and the boat that awaited them. But it was not an easy task; Clark was still suffering from his encounter with the kryptonite shard and Lois was beginning to tire…
"We found them!"
An exuberant shout filtered through the gloom and within minutes a buoyant Roy Chen, accompanied by the bridegroom from the hotel, raced up to the weary little party.
"Thank goodness you're safe," Chen remarked with feeling. "You were lucky to survive the explosion; we all were. Luckily we only caught the edge of the blast; the main force blew out the north side of the island." Nevertheless, his smile slipped when he took in the condition of his friend lying cocooned in the tarp. "What happened here?"
"There was a car accident … and Jimmy got hurt … we need to get him some help real fast." Clark's explanation was ragged due to the fact that he was trying to catch his breath. Jimmy was a little heavier than he once was; he'd have to tease him about losing some weight when they were all back home.
Roy Chen was worried about his friend; however, he wasn't about to give in to despair; given the care with which Lois and Clark were handling their burden, Jimmy was still alive and the quicker they got him to the Swallow then the better his chances of survival would be. "Here, let us take that! Clark, you really shouldn't be carrying anything with that injured back."
At these words, Clark could sense Lois' searching stare glide over his body but, thankfully, she forbore to comment at this time.
"Thanks, Roy, but right now we need all the manpower we can get." Nevertheless, with a great sense of relief, Clark surrendered one corner of the tarp to the younger man. Now that he was once again 'Earth normal' his back was starting to ache abominably and he'd begun to doubt whether it would last the distance to the Swallow.
With two able-bodied men to share the load the group made faster progress and when they approached the cliff path there were others who had come to search. Lois and Clark were soon relieved of the makeshift litter by younger and abler hands and the descent was accomplished in record time; no one wished to tarry in this stricken place.
Apart from the waiting powerboat with one attendant crewman the beach was empty; the other survivors and their small amount of baggage having already been ferried to the Swallow. The water of the lagoon had calmed a little although the tide had turned and there was a heavily running swell. Soon the little stretch of sand would be covered with water and everyone was aware that time was running out.
Swiftly but with the greatest care the stretcher bearers handed their load on board then lifted Mia and the children through the surging sea to the boat. For some moments Lois and Clark were left alone at the water's edge; as one they turned to survey the scene.
"Oh, Clark, it was such a lovely island."
"I know, honey, I know … and we could have had a great vacation …"
A sad smile hovered on her lips as she thought of her first sight of Papillon and how she had been so lighthearted on that first morning walk through the streets of the little town and her browse through the small shops on the harbour… It was all gone now, blown away by a force of such destruction and even Superman had been unable to avert the course of nature.
Seeing her so forlorn, Clark pulled her closer and whispered comfortingly. "But at least we survived, sweetheart. The children are safe and all our new friends…"
"Jimmy's a fighter, Lois. He's come through a whole lot; he'll be okay. I just wish I could've done more for the islanders…"
"Clark! This wasn't your fault," Lois was quick to jump in, squelching his obsessing before it had a chance to take over. "This wasn't anyone's fault. And you did what you could."
"Hey, Lois, Clark, this isn't a time for sightseeing." Roy's shout had an impatient edge. "Who knows what Solvan has planned next. We really need to put some distance between us and the island; somehow I don't think we should hang around for the finale."
As soon as they climbed aboard the Swallow a number of things happened; Jimmy was swept away to the sickbay; the skipper gave the orders to get underway with all speed and Hazel welcomed her husband back with a passionate kiss. Lois had no quarrel with this last occurrence, though she did object very strongly when the woman moved on to Clark. Not that she actually kissed him, but she did hug him with more familiarity than Lois considered healthy and Hazel's voice was sexy and smooth as she whispered into Clark's ear.
"There you are and all in one piece. I was so worried that all Freddy's hard work would be undone."
Clark squirmed self-consciously whilst trying to disentangle himself from his admirer's clutches. "We're fine, Hazel, thank you … we all are … and I found my *wife*," Clark stressed the word, "and my family and that's the most important thing for me."
The female, however, seemed impervious to hints. "Oh yes, Clark," she cooed as she turned and surveyed his family, while still keeping a presumptuous arm around Clark's waist. "I'm so relieved to see you all and so happy that you're well, but I have a particular interest in Clark because he did save my life and I did take care of him when he was hurt…"
"Not everyone is well, Hazel," Roy cut in curtly. "Jimmy's hurt pretty badly and Mia's not doing so well. So maybe you could leave Clark to his family and help Mia down to the clinic; she needs Freddy's attention too."
There was more steel to Roy's words than she had ever heard before and once again Hazel realised that she had stepped over the bounds of propriety; she just had to be more careful in Roy's presence. Throwing her husband a contrite smile, she hurried to comply with his request, leading Mia away from a scene that threatened to turn unpleasant.
The wily old lady was quite happy to play her part in extracting Hazel from the vicinity of Lois. "Thank you, my dear," she moaned in a thready voice, "I do feel a little faint."
And indeed, it wasn't all play acting, Mia did feel distinctly ill; her arm and leg hurt so, but she did manage to wink conspiratorially at Lois as she was led away.
Mia's audacity calmed Lois's seething spirit. She had been sorely tempted to remove Hazel's arm by force. What right had that woman to monopolize Clark … and what had she meant by taking care of him when he was hurt?
"Clark! What was she talking about … when you were hurt … ? And why do you have a bandage on your shoulder? Your back was getting better; I saw it for myself…"
A full Lois babble was imminent and Clark directed Lois towards the stateroom.
"Lois, I can explain…" Their two extremely interested and amused children followed them inside; things were certainly getting back to normal.
The Swallow had to reduce speed due to the heightened waves and the amount of flotsam that bobbed about in the sea; the remnants of a beautiful island. They encountered other vessels standing off from the land and, as before, they stopped to rescue the occupants of the smallest boats who were in danger of floundering in the high seas. The result was that the Swallow was more than full to capacity and the captain informed his owner and friend that they could take on no further passengers without endangering the ship and all who sailed in her.
There was one happier occurrence in the whole debacle and that had been the sight of another large vessel sailing round what had once been the northern promontory. Radio contact had been made directly and it was established that this was the container ship which had been loading its cargo at the copra-plant. Even more amazing and welcome was the fact that Uncle Butto had reached his destination and was one of the survivors onboard. The Vallieres were overjoyed at this piece of news.
The possible transfer of some of the yacht's extra passengers was discussed but due to the heavy swell which would render any operation arduous and the inexperience and fear of those who would be transferred, it was considered too risky an undertaking. Besides, the cargo vessel was in much the same circumstance as the Swallow; they too had been picking up whatever survivors they could along the way.
So it was that Lois and Clark deemed themselves fortunate to find themselves and their children the occupants of a fairly large cabin on the foredeck of the yacht. Most of the others were crowded into the stateroom down the corridor or were sheltering in the various nooks and crannies to be found on deck.
The two elderly couples who had shared in the adventurous escape, along with Philippe Blanc and his wife Eva, had been allocated the last remaining guest cabins, while Tula, her brother and the young newlyweds were crammed into the crew's quarters. The priest had no particular abode, choosing to rove round the boat, offering what comfort he could to his distressed flock.
But such was the nervous anticipation of all those on board that only the more elderly remained below decks. Many of the survivors stood crowding the rails of the deck, watching with tearful eyes as their beloved island home fought its last battle with Solvan.
In the dim light of the upper cabin Lois supervised her children as they climbed into the big bed. A whining argument had threatened as the children demanded that they remain awake to witness the island's final death-throes, but their parents for once remained adamant. Their offspring were practically asleep on their feet; in fact, one little boy was struggling to stay awake.
After a joyful and tearful reunion, when Nathan had left the temporary haven of Tula's arms for the more familiar one of his mother's and Clara had launched herself into her Daddy's embrace, their host had escorted the family to the bedchamber reserved for business acquaintances and clients and whomsoever Roy Chen sought to impress.
Indeed he had been impressed by this famous couple and their children. He hadn't thought to find such a closely united family in these famous citizens of a worldly and cynical city like Metropolis. He envied the deep love the couple so obviously shared and prayed that one day he too would have such kids to be proud of.
Still, he wasn't about to hold his breath waiting for that to happen; Hazel wasn't the maternal type. It was just his luck that he had to go and fall head-over-heels in love with a femme-fatale. He had found Hazel in a bar in the more sleazy area of Bangkok and had at once been enchanted by her dazzling beauty. But Roy Chen saw past the lovely painted facade to the frightened girl beneath; the girl who had been sold by her parents to the highest bidder and had learnt that her survival lay in the pleasing of men.
Roy had been happy to rescue Hazel and to marry her, despite her past. Yet he was also aware that her dreadful experiences had somehow damaged her; Hazel still sought out the company of men. In fact, occasionally her flattering attention had been instrumental in winning him a sought after contract and although he assured her that this type of conduct wasn't necessary, she frequently played dangerous games with attractive males. Roy doubted that her flirtations went beyond the playful stage … at least he hoped that they didn't. He didn't want to discover that they did because then he would have to do something about it.
Chen hated the direction that his traitorous thoughts had taken; especially if it meant confronting Hazel's latest target, Clark Kent, a man he would like to befriend. And this was certainly not the time to start a personal vendetta; one of his closest friends lay in his infirmary grievously injured and they were not yet free and clear of the volcano. Shrugging his distasteful conjecture aside, he hurried to see to the people who had found sanctuary on his ship.
The interior of the luxurious cabin was hushed and dimly lit. The patio windows which made up the outer wall were covered by their thick drapes that shifted slightly in the cooling sea breezes. Due to the heavily heated air which seemed to pervade the whole area round the stricken island, Lois had requested Clark to open the doors slightly before sending him to discover the state of Jimmy's health.
"Oh Clark," she confided in the privacy of their bedroom, "I told Jimmy your secret. I felt that I didn't have the right to ask for his help without telling him why it was so important. And he was beginning to figure it out anyway." Lois' voice was low and Clark struggled to hear her. Suddenly she seemed very small and vulnerable in Clark's arms. "Then I thought that maybe I was wrong; he didn't seem to take it very well … the fact that we've been pretending all these years … and I wanted to take it back. I mean, it's a dangerous secret and the less people that know about it the better it is for us. But I didn't mean for Jimmy to be hurt and maybe he'll die and it won't matter anyway… and … oh, Clark, it'll be like I wished for it to happen," she finished on a gulping sob.
"Lois, that's nonsense! You love Jimmy and you wouldn't wish him any harm and he isn't going to die." Clark lifted her chin with a gentle hand and he caught her troubled gaze with his own earnest stare. "It was time to tell Jimmy. I've thought about it myself over the years, but the timing just never seemed right. Everything is going to be fine. Jimmy will recover and he and I will have a long talk about me being … Superman. That's if I am still Superman."
"Clark, of course, you're still Superman. You haven't lost your powers forever … just as soon as we get away from here they'll come back. I mean, even on the island they worked when you really needed them. And Joel saved our lives. But even if your powers never returned," Lois stepped closer into her husband's embrace and trailed her hand down his perfect chest, "you'd always be my super man…"
A chorus of giggles from the large bed interrupted what had promised to be a mind-blowing kiss and Lois and Clark turned to confront their errant children.
"Hey, guys, I thought you lot were supposed to be asleep," said Clark with mock severity.
"We're worried about Uncle Jimmy, Dad," Joel confided, choosing to be the spokesperson for his siblings. "He is going to be okay, isn't he?"
"I believe so, son, but I was just on my way to the sickbay to find out. I'll let you know as soon as I hear anything, but in the meantime you all get some rest. You're tired out."
Clark joined Lois in tucking his children into bed and with a kiss and hug to each one of them he went about his errand.
Left alone with her children, Lois sat on the edge of the king-sized bed; it really was a very big bed, did you get emperor-sized beds? She could understand her kids' sleeplessness, they had been through so many traumas today, but she also recognised exhaustion when she saw it and she was determined that they should get some sleep.
"Come on now kids, give me a break and go to sleep. You'll all feel much better in the morning and if anything happens, we'll be sure to let you know."
"You won't go 'way again, Mommy?" Lois' littlest son caught her hand. "Tula's nice but I love yoo, Mommy." And he crawled from under the duvet and nestled in her arms.
"No, sweetheart, we're all together now and we're going home." Lois planted a tender kiss on his baby-soft hair as she rocked him gently. "Back home to Metropolis; to our own house and to your grandmas and grandpas. You'll like seeing them again," she crooned.
"Yes," Nathan agreed sleepily. "Nathan loves Gramma Martha and Grandpa Jon; Grandpa will love Nathan's new marbles …" The little boy sat bolt upright and regarded his mother with dawning horror. "Nathan's marbles! Nathan leaved ahind his marbles!" Tears threatened to cloud his huge eyes at this sad realization.
"Nathan!" Julian called to attract the attention of his distraught younger brother. "Nathan, don't worry about your marbles, squirt. I put them inside the bag. They' re over there with the rest of our things."
The mollified toddler looked to where his brother indicated. The large solitary suitcase contained all of the Kents' belongings which the children had managed to pack before they had to evacuate the island. Lois followed her baby's gaze and smiled ruefully; it wasn't much when you considered the amount of luggage they'd arrived with, and yet they were the lucky ones. So many people had lost everything.
Lois' expression softened knowingly at Nathan's words; she could always measure just how tired or anxious her cherub was by his slide back into 'baby-talk'.
The little boy leaned over and gave his 'hero' a sloppy wet kiss, which Julian accepted with only the faintest trace of a grimace. Then Nathan made no altercation as his mommy slid him back beneath the quilt between his two brothers and bade him go back to sleep and with all his worries allayed he directly complied with her request.
Very soon in the quiescent room Nathan's siblings joined him in slumber and Lois rose from her vigil and crossed to a deep cushioned chair by the window, pulling the drapes aside a little so she could watch the progress of Solvan. From this distance she felt detached from the nightmare and she sank with relief into the comfort of the easychair. The land mass had practically disappeared under a poll of thick black smoke and the only clue to the island's position was in the red and orange rays that shot through the cloud to dance across the sky above as intermittently the fire god belched flames and gas into the atmosphere.
The swirling crimson patterns were mesmerizing and very soon Lois felt her eyelids drooping. She did not know how long she dozed but in time the husky voice of that annoying woman broke into her half sleep. Yet it was not until she heard the distinct tones of her husband that she came fully alert. Hazel Chen had evidently ambushed Clark on his way back to the cabin and they were now standing not far from the window.
Hazel sounded sultry while Clark Kent sounded … angry; angrier than Lois had ever known him to be.
"Mrs Chen, don't!" There was a warning in his voice and he pulled Hazel's clinging arms from round his neck.
Unfortunately Hazel chose to ignore the warning. "Clark, don't be coy. I know that you're attracted to me. I've known from that very first day on the beach…" Her arms slid round his neck once more and she closed the space between them until her ample curves were pressed against his body.
Clark was tempted to use more force to remove her and that scared him. Heaving a huge sigh, he attempted to halt her assault by words. "You're a beautiful woman, Hazel; I suspect that most men are affected by your looks, but it doesn't mean anything, not a thing. And I'm a married man, a happily married man."
"And I have a husband, but your wife and my husband need have nothing to do with this. And don't worry, I can be very discreet. Neither Lois nor Roy need know about our little dalliance and you know what they say; what they don't know can't hurt them."
Clark was completely horrified; he was not so unworldly as to be unaware that such women existed. He had even met a few in his time though perhaps not quite this closely. But basically, no matter how exposed Clark had become to the more sophisticated side of life, he still retained his Kansas farmboy morals.
"Hazel, I have no idea of the state of your relationship with Roy, but I have no intention of cheating on my wife whether she would learn about it or not." Clark caught the marauding hands again and this time he held them in an iron grip, the bracelet about Hazel's wrist digging into the palm of his hand; his mind momentarily blanked but he fought back to concentration and went on determinedly. "I do not dally with other women; I do not need other women. I love Lois in every way known to man; I respect her; I trust her and there is no way I would ever betray that trust. Lois completes me. So if you don't mind, Mrs Chen, go find someone else to play your games with or, better still, go back to your husband; he seems a fine man to me and one who deserves a little faithfulness from his wife."
Hazel pouted at Clark's stiff retreating back. She'd been so sure that he would welcome her advances … boy, had she ever been wrong. Well, who needed Mr Fuddy-duddy Kent; there were plenty of men around who appreciated a little fun with the desirable Mrs Chen. Let Clark Kent go back to his *old* wife; some men just didn't know when they were in luck. With a flick of her silky black tresses Hazel went to find her husband; Roy always knew just what to say to cheer her up…
Clark slipped noiselessly through the gap in the glass doors and was immediately confronted by a confusing sight. His wife was curled up in a large armchair just inside the doorway. She sat so still and in the strange glow of the night sky he could see the traces of tears on her pale skin.
He looked at her with such love in his eyes; how could she ever have doubted him? No amount of kryptonite could ever break the bond they shared. Lois launched herself into his arms.
"Thank you," she whispered against his lips.
"For what?" Clark managed to ask, his mouth occupied in more important and much more pleasant matters than forming words.
"For … choosing me," Lois greedily accepted his kisses and generously gave of her own. "For … loving … me."
At her hesitant words, Clark drew back an infinitesimal distance to search her face. "Lois, did you ever think that I didn't?" His question was gentle as he caressed her cheek with his hand and tenderly smoothed away the tracks of her tears.
"Not really, no," came the considered answer. "I can't say that I wasn't hurt by what happened between you and Hazel…"
"Lois, nothing happened between me and Hazel!"
"Lois, I love you…"
"… in every way known to man…"
A shadow of a smile touched Clark's lips. "You heard?"
"It was beautiful."
"It was the truth."
Words were no longer needed and Clark tightened his hold on Lois and lifted her into his arms. He sank into the chair, which still held the warmth of his Lois, the woman he was destined to love forever, and settling her on his lap, he demonstrated that love in some of the ways known to man which would not be too embarrassing if they were witnessed by their children.
After some breathless moments, Lois recalled the reason for Clark's departure and she reluctantly sat back in the circle of his arms, but without taking her own hands from where they rested on his shoulders.
"Clark, how's Jimmy doing?" she questioned cautiously, almost afraid of the answer.
"He's doing okay, sweetheart." Clark's hand soothingly stroked up and down Lois' back as he spoke. "It appears that one of our elderly tourists is a retired veterinarian and I know from experience that Freddy is a very good medic. Between them they managed to straighten Jimmy's ribs and drain his lung and they're pretty sure they can keep his condition stabilized until he can get to a hospital. He even woke up for a few minutes when I was with him; I told him that when he felt up to it, we'd like to have him come stay with us in Metropolis … get sorta reacquainted, as it were … and he kinda liked that idea." Jimmy had been unable to talk but the memory of a small grin and a slightly bigger squeeze of his hand warmed Clark's heart. "I think Jimmy's gonna be able to handle the Superman part just fine. He'd fallen asleep again by the time I left."
A watery smile crossed Lois' face at the good news. "Oh, thank goodness … I was so scared that I might have gotten him killed…"
"Lois, Jimmy's a grown man; he knew how dangerous your expedition could be and he went anyway … so did Mia."
"Mia! I'd forgotten about Mia" Is she all right?"
"That is one indestructible old lady. Her broken wrist's been set and her leg's been stitched up, but she refused to take the sedative they offered her. She wouldn't even stay in the sickbay; said she wanted to be where she could say goodbye to her island. So she's up on the bridge with Tula and Paul, sitting in the captain's chair and being pampered by the crew."
"Poor Mia, it must be hard to find a new home at her age." Lois' smile faded as she thought of the challenge that faced the lady she had grown so close to.
"I think Mia will be all right and she has her family with her."
"She reminds me of Martha."
"Me too; I suspect that's why I trusted her so easily. By the way, Mia and Tula both said to tell you 'thank you' for the keepsakes you grabbed for them. That was a real kind thought, Lois."
"It wasn't much," Lois shrugged off the compliment, "I just wanted them to have something of their home to keep." She was silent for a moment and when she began again her demeanour had changed. "But you're still not very happy about my going to pick up the plants?"
"No, Lois, I'm not. It was a very risky thing to do." Clark too had assumed a totally serious air. "It's a wonder that you all came back and comparatively in one piece. And before you start obsessing, like I said, I don't blame you for what happened to Jimmy and Mia; they're clearly as crazy as you. And I know that Joel and Julian went without your knowledge… I intend to have a little talk with them about that…"
"I already did that…"
"I'm sure you did." Clark couldn't suppress a grin at the thought of the dressing down Lois apparently gave to her two boys. "I don't intend to play the heavy-handed father, but I think I'd like to point out that we don't approve of them throwing themselves into dangerous situations. Though why I suppose I should have any more success with them than I do with their mother, I have no idea."
"Not fair, Clark Kent! You know that I've restrained my tendency to 'dangle above the jaws of death'." She affirmed her sense of injustice by swiping his arm… lightly, Clark might not yet be invulnerable and they both sported enough bruises without collecting anymore. "Besides, Clark, this was important … too important to lose under a mountain of lava."
"So I'm sorry if you disapprove but it was something we had to bring back…" Lois blinked. "You agree!?"
"In this case I think the end justifies the means. A possible cure for kryptonite poisoning is just too crucial to throw away, especially since we now know that the kids aren't immune to the stuff. Sometimes, when I think of what could happen to them if anyone found out about who they are, I feel physically sick. Guess I understand now why Dad used to harp on about laboratories and frogs when I was a kid."
"Then you understand why I had to take a chance?"
"Yes, Lois … I don't like that you had to put yourself in danger to do it, but I do understand. It's one of the things I love most about you, the fact that you're willing to risk everything for the sake of those you love."
"I love you, Clark Kent."
"I love you, Lois Lane."
Lois laid her head on her husband's shoulder and Clark wrapped his arms tighter around her. In shared silence they sat, watching Solvan's final display of might as the Swallow ploughed her way through the stormy seas towards the safety of the open ocean.
Clark Kent was at peace. The danger had passed them by and they had survived, though at times it had been a close run thing, thanks to the remnants of his long dead planet. Super powers might desert him, but as long as he had Lois by his side, he would prevail.
THE END (or to be continued)