By Nan Smith <email@example.com>
Submitted February 2001
Summary: The fourth in the author's "Home" series. Lori and Clark investigate campus drug murders while settling into their new marriage.
This story is part of Nan Smith's "Home" series. See a list of all the stories in this series and get links.
Ready for the next story in this series? Read Home 4a: A Valentine Vignette. Need the previous story? Read Home III: Memories.
This is the fourth story of the "Home" series. In order to understand the premise, you need to read the three previous stories, Home, Home II: Beginnings, and Home III: Memories. The familiar characters are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros., December 3rd Productions et al, and I have no claim on them at all, but the new characters, settings, and the story itself are mine.
"Clark, what am I going to tell my parents?" Lori said. She and Clark Kent were seated on the big, comfortable sofa in his apartment, only half-watching the drama unfolding on the vidscreen that took up a large part of the opposite wall. It was new. Clark's previous vidscreen had finally decided, three days before, to die a horrible death. Clark, alerted by Lori, had fortunately been available to put out the fire before it caused any damage to his apartment, and a friend had gotten him a deal on one of the latest models to replace his ancient, and now defunct one. Clark had regarded it as a good investment; he would soon, barring alien invasions; women who shrank big people into little people; and attacks of amnesia; be bringing a beautiful new bride, who had the virtue of also being his soulmate, into his home. Sitting on the couch together watching a show presented all kinds of interesting possibilities to a soon-to-be-married couple.
As it had this evening. They had been curled up together on the couch, Clark's arm around Lori, her head resting on his shoulder, and sharing an occasional kiss. Lori had long since lost track of the plot line, finding her companion far more interesting than the characters on the screen, but now her gaze fell on the sparkling stone on the third finger of her left hand. She had been wearing it for three weeks, and it still surprised her to see it there. So far, she hadn't told any of her family of the engagement and she had been worried about it. The reason for her apprehension wasn't her father or sister. Her mother's reaction was sure to be explosive and it was something that she was not looking forward to with any anticipation.
Clark stroked the back of her hand with a forefinger. "You're really worried your mom's not going to like our engagement, aren't you?"
"That's putting it mildly," Lori said. "She'll have a fit. She wants me to do what she never did—have a successful career and I can tell you, to her that doesn't include a husband. She's never let Dad forget that she gave up her career to marry him. I'm not going to be able to convince her that mine is likely to be better because of you."
Clark planted a kiss under her ear. "Maybe not, but you've helped my work, too. I've seen it improve over just the last six weeks. Together we're better than either of us is alone."
"I know, but try to get Mom to believe it," Lori said, trying with only partial success to remain focussed on the subject. "She'll be after me to break it off; I know she will. Did I ever tell you why Marcy left home at seventeen?"
"No. What happened?"
"Mom was the reason," Lori said. "Marcy got tired of Mom criticizing every guy she spoke two words to, and trying to discourage her boyfriends. She took a six-month marriage contract with a guy she managed to talk into it, moved to New York and started modeling swimwear at the local Shaw and Rickman's department store. We didn't even know where she was for over eleven months. When we finally heard from her, some talent scout had seen her work at Rickman's, she'd signed with Sergio's Modeling Agency in New York, and the rest is history. Now she's one of the top-rated models in the industry and has gone through about fifteen boyfriends and six more short-term marriages in the last five years. She says she gets bored easily."
"That's too bad," Clark said. "I don't want to criticize your mom, but I don't think she's being fair to either of you."
"Oh, Mom gave up on Marcy a couple of years ago," Lori said. "Everyone puts on a good show, but they barely tolerate each other. Now she's focussed on me to fulfill her dreams. I do want to be a successful investigative journalist; it's always been my ambition, ever since seventh grade. But I don't see why I can't have that and a husband—and children, eventually—too."
"There's no reason at all that you can't," Clark said. "It's not up to you to fulfill your mother's ambitions. You need to fulfill your own, whatever they may be."
"It won't matter in the long run," Lori said. "There's nothing she can say that will change my mind about you, but she's going to make our lives miserable in the meantime. Do we have to tell her—right away, that is? I'd rather just elope and tell her later."
"Well—" Clark had begun to kiss her lightly along her neck. Lori closed her eyes and leaned against him. "I'm not going to even try to tell you what to do. Whatever you decide, I'll support you."
"Um…yeah," she murmured. "Oh, Clark…" She felt him smile against her neck. "Um…"
He chuckled and kissed her one last time. "I'm not playing fair, am I? Seriously, whatever you're happy with, I'll go along with you. If you really want to get married quietly and then tell them, and maybe have a more formal ceremony later so our families can attend, we could do that."
Lori sighed deeply and reluctantly pushed herself somewhat upright. "I'd kind of like to. That's what Marcy did—except she never had a big, formal ceremony. She and—I think his name was Jerry—just came in and announced they were married. Of course, Mom blew up and said all kinds of awful things and Marcy stormed out. When she did get in touch with us again, she called Dad. She and Mom didn't speak for over a year after that, but eventually things quieted down. It's going to be a mess no matter what we do. But I don't want to disappoint *your* family."
"Believe me, they'll understand," Clark said. "Have Ronnie tell you some time what happened when she and Mason Brent wanted to get married. His parents were dead set against it. They didn't approve of her, don't ask me why. He and Ronnie ended up flying off to Las Vegas to get married secretly, and his parents didn't know about it for six months." He chuckled. "The only reason Mason told them then was that she was four months pregnant with Oliver."
"So what happened?" Lori asked, her attention thoroughly caught.
"They had a tremendous fight," Clark said. "His dad almost threw him out of the family business. It got pretty intense and Mason walked out. It took his parents a while to come around, but they reconciled about six months later, after Oliver was born and they finally realized that Mason valued his wife and child more than his position in the business."
Lori found herself laughing, trying to imagine the circumstances that might have led up to such a situation. "That sounds exciting, but it turned out all right, I guess."
"Well, they'll have been married fifty years this September, so I'd say it was pretty 'all right'. Mason's retired now, and their daughter, Alice, is the CEO of the company. Oliver decided he wanted to be a cop, as I'm sure you recall."
"I could hardly forget," Lori said. "Ronnie's awfully nice, but I'm a little nervous about meeting the rest of your family. I mean, what will they think of me?"
Clark pulled her back against him without much effort. "They're already prepared to like you, sight unseen. Lara and Aaron helped stand guard over your place one night while we were investigating Gaia's Children, you know. That was the night before Ray and Frank kidnapped us. They were hoping things would work out for us. Everyone was, even John." He kissed her neck. "He knew I was afraid to tell you about my past, and he told me to have faith in you. He was right."
"I guess a lot of things were happening that I didn't know about then," Lori said. "I wondered how Superwoman knew my name, but I didn't figure it out at the time."
"You weren't supposed to." He grinned against her hair and resumed his previous, highly distracting activity. "No one will be hiding anything from you from now on, though. Anyway, however you want to handle your mom is your choice. I'll go along with whatever you decide to do."
"I don't want a long engagement," Lori said, dreamily.
"Neither do I," Clark said. He rested his cheek against hers. "I'm anxious to take you off on a honeymoon to wherever you want to go."
"Hawaii?" Lori said. "I'd love to go to Hawaii."
"Hawaii it is," Clark said.
Lori turned her head to look up at him. "Thank you, Clark."
She snuggled into the curve of his body. "For being so understanding about waiting. I know that most guys…"
"Hey," Clark said. "Remember what I said. I'd never ask you to do something you felt was wrong. If you want to wait for our wedding night, we'll wait, and that's the end of it. Besides," he added, "you were more than understanding about *me*!"
"What did I ever do to deserve you?" she asked. "I'm the luckiest woman in the world."
"You didn't have to do anything," Clark said. " I'm the lucky one, to have found you. Other men have to settle for second best."
Lori didn't answer. She tangled her hands in his hair and pulled his face down to hers, shelving the discussion for the moment, but it stayed with her. It would be an awful fuss, of course, but Mariann wouldn't give in easily to the idea that Lori wanted to get married. The horrible memories of what had happened when Marcy had announced her marriage were still clear after seven years, and being the only child left at home after that had been a nightmare. She really didn't want to face her mother's wrath without some kind of insurance. The thoughts of the endless arguments to which she would be subjected, and the pressure Mariann would attempt to bring to bear to get her to change her mind made her cringe. Eloping had been in her mind ever since she and Clark had picked out the ring in Paris, three weeks ago. It wouldn't take much to persuade her that it was the best course of action.
The vidphone chimed. Clark reluctantly raised his head and glanced at the identification on the screen. His eyebrows went up. "It's your parents."
"Oh, great. I left a call forwarding to your number. I probably shouldn't have."
"You better straighten your hair," Clark said.
"Tell them I'm in the bathroom," Lori said. "I've got to fix my makeup. And you better wipe the lipstick off your face." She rose from the couch and fled.
Clark removed the lipstick, ran a pocket comb hastily through his own hair, grinned and picked up a random hard copy of a file they had been studying earlier before the project had been abandoned in favor of more pleasant pursuits. He glanced casually at the screen. "Yes?"
The screen came on. Mariann Lyons looked out of it at him, an expression of disapproval plain on her face. "Mr. Kent, where is my daughter?"
Clark raised an eyebrow. "She's in the bathroom. Is there a problem?"
"What's Lori doing in your apartment at this hour?"
Clark laid the paper down on his coffee table. "We're a reporting team, Ms. Lyons. Journalists don't have set hours like other jobs."
Lori's mother looked unsatisfied with the explanation. "May I speak with her, please?"
"I'm sure she'll be back in a minute," Clark said, peaceably.
Robert Lyons appeared in the screen. He smiled at Clark. "Hello, Mr. Kent. How are you?"
"How's Lori doing? I saw your expose last week in the Planet."
"She's doing fine," Clark said. He turned his head. "Lori, your parents are on the phone!"
"Tell them just a minute, Clark," Lori's voice said, faintly.
Clark turned back to the vidphone. "It'll be a few minutes." He glanced at the indicator on his screen as the vidphone chimed again. "Excuse me, I have another call coming in. Lori will be here in a minute. Hold," he told the vidphone. "Take second call."
The screen shifted. Clark smiled in genuine welcome to the second caller. "Hi, Jon, how's Seattle?"
His youngest son grinned. "Hi, Dad! I heard you're getting married! She said yes, huh?"
"Yes, she did." Clark glanced over his shoulder as Lori emerged from the bathroom, her hair and makeup perfect. "This is Lori, Jon. Lori, this is Jon Kent, my son."
"Hi, Lori," Jon said.
"Hi." Lori smiled timidly at the image of Clark's son. Clark was silent, looking at him. Of his four children, Jon looked the most like Lois. He was a handsome man, with his father's eyes and his mother's nose, smile and coloring.
"Welcome to the family," Jon said. "Dad, the four of us are throwing a barbecue next Sunday, and we wanted you and Lori to attend. All of us want to meet her. Do you think the two of you can make it?"
Clark glanced at Lori. "It's up to you, honey."
Lori hesitated, then nodded firmly. "Sure."
"Good. It starts at noon, so come any time from then on. We'll be having several family members drop in—most of us, actually. We thought we'd take turns doing patrols, just in case. Will that be all right?"
"Sure," Clark said. "Look, Jon, Lori's parents are on my other line. They don't know about this yet, so…"
"I get it," Jon said. "See you later. Good luck." He winked at Lori. "It's nice to finally meet you, Lori. Ronnie described you, and she was right. Dad's a very lucky man."
Lori looked gratified. "Thanks," she said. "I like your family already, Clark."
"Good night, Jon," Clark said, with a slight grin. "We'll see you Sunday. Close second call," he added. "Sorry about that, Ms Lyons. Here's Lori, now."
Mariann Lyons looked sternly at her daughter. "Lori, I expected you to be in your apartment. It's too late for you to be visiting friends, even if it's 'business'." Her tone said she thought it was anything but business.
"Sorry," Lori said. "We had some things to finish."
Mariann scowled at Lori and then Clark and rather obviously bit her lip to prevent herself from saying something that would contravene good manners. Robert Lyons' expression was a little hard to read, but Clark thought he could see a slight smile in his eyes.
"Hello, honey," he said. "We just wanted to know how you were holding up. Your Mom's tried to call you several times in the last couple of weeks, but all she got was your phone's recording."
"I'm sorry about that," Lori said. "It's been a pretty busy two weeks. Clark and I were on stakeouts almost every night."
"So I gathered from your message." Mariann Lyons' tone said she didn't believe a word of it. She surveyed Clark frostily. "Are you certain you aren't getting in over your head, Lori? You were involved in that stolen jewelry thing in—was it Alta Linda?—and then all the trouble you went through on the pharmaceutical black market expose you wrote about last week—I'm not certain I approve of all this. They have an opening at our local paper; I inquired about it today, and I'm sure you'll be happier closer to home. When I told them that you might be interested in a job here, they seemed to recognize your name and they were very favorable to the idea."
"It was Alta Mesa, Mother," Lori said. Clark could hear the stiffness in her voice. "I'm fine, although it *was* a bit of a surprise to find a 2.7 million dollar ring in my purse. And the other thing was okay. None of the shooting got anywhere near me. Clark made sure of that." Her voice rose slightly. "But Mother, I already told you when we were in Houston that I'm very happy at the Daily Planet and I don't have any plans to quit. I'm not interested in a job in Los Angeles."
Mariann Lyons' eyes flicked significantly at Clark. "I trust you remember what I said about certain career hazards, Lori," she said. "We need to talk later in private. I don't want you to make the mistake your sister made. The Herald is a respected publication, and it was willing to offer you an excellent salary. I really don't see your objection to taking a position there, and you could live at home and save yourself the cost of renting an apartment. I hope you'll reconsider." She glanced once more at Clark. "I have to check the roast. The oven's timer is acting up again." She disappeared from the screen abruptly.
Robert Lyons glanced over his shoulder. "Your mother is worried about you, Lori," he explained. "She's afraid you're going to get hurt being involved in all these things."
"It's my job, Dad," Lori said. "I'm doing fine. Clark and I work together as a team. We look out for each other."
Robert Lyons glanced at Clark. "So I gathered. Don't feel pressured to come back to Los Angeles unless that's what you want to do. Take good care of her, Mr. Kent." He smiled slightly into his youngest daughter's eyes. "Good night, Lori."
The screen went dark. Lori looked at Clark. "See what I mean?"
Clark smiled. "Did you hear what your dad said?"
Lori nodded. "Do you think he knows?"
"I'd say so," Clark said. "Your mom's sure suspicious of me, though."
"That's not unusual," Lori said, sounding resigned. She walked to the vidphone and punched in a number.
"What are you doing?" Clark asked.
"Calling my phone and changing the filter settings," Lori said. "I'm officially avoiding Mother for a while longer. She's trying to get me to come home where she can keep an eye on me. She's wanted me to, ever since I graduated. Clark what am I going to do?"
Clark smiled slightly. It wouldn't be normal, he supposed, if his soulmate didn't have problems with her family, although Mariann Lyons certainly seemed to dwarf Ellen Lane when it came to controlling personalities.
"Clark," Lori said, suddenly, "Is it too late in the evening to make a quick trip to Las Vegas?"
"I want to get married before Mother does something I'll regret. We can have another, bigger wedding for the family later. Is tonight too soon?"
"No, of course not. Are you sure?"
"Yes, I am." Lori looked resolute. "I'm not going to do what Marcy did, though. I don't want a six-month contract unless you do."
"I'd like a lifetime one," Clark said.
"So would I. Let's go right now."
Clark raised an eyebrow. Well, he couldn't blame her, he supposed, judging from the story about Marcy. It wasn't going to make for good relations with Lori's mother, but he had a strong hunch that the relationship between himself and Mariann Lyons was never going to be a particularly warm one. Oh, well, that was just something he'd have to live with, he thought. At least Robert Lyons didn't seem upset and, if he was any judge, Lori's father had a pretty good idea what the relationship was between his daughter and her partner. Unfortunately, so did her mother.
He gave a mental shrug. No matter how they did this, there were bound to be problems, and he'd already promised to go along with whatever she wanted. Maybe if he and Lois, years ago, had been a little more determined about it, they'd have managed to get married a lot sooner than they had. If there was one thing he'd learned in a century, it was not to be indecisive. Vacillating back and forth caused more trouble in the long run than making a wrong decision. At least if you did that, you could deal with the consequences and get it over with. Being wishy-washy about an important step usually resulted in a lot more worry and trouble than it was worth.
"Why don't you grab my leather jacket out of the closet?" he suggested. "It's bound to be a little cold at this time of night. Let me just get the wedding rings, and we can be on our way."
The Golden Nugget Chapel in the Old Wagon Wheel Casino and Restaurant wasn't exactly what Lori had dreamed of, but white lace and satin could come later. Right now, becoming Clark's wife was more important. Her mom's phone call to check on her whereabouts and renew the pressure to return home had been the final straw. After months of Clark's friendship, she had realized what it could be like being loved by someone who didn't have a stake in controlling her every action. Once the marriage was finalized, they could deal with the inevitable repercussions. Mariann wasn't going to like this no matter how they did it, Lori knew, but she and Clark would have one thing in their favor. Her parents lived on the West Coast. Three thousand miles as a buffer was a distinct defense against her mother's anger, as Marcy had discovered several years ago. At the time, she hadn't understood her sister's actions but her reasons had become abundantly clear since. And if worst came to worst, she could always shut off her phone.
They completed the legal forms quickly. From somewhere, Clark produced a bouquet for her. Lori fidgeted nervously while they waited for the couple ahead of them to finish their nuptials, and Clark asked her again, "Are you certain this is what you want to do, Lori? I don't want you to be sorry later."
"I'm sure," Lori said. "Unless you don't want to?"
"No, of course not," Clark said, quickly. "I just don't want to cheat you out of anything. I want it to be perfect for you."
"It is perfect, Clark," Lori said. "It can't be anything else, because I'm marrying the man I love. Long engagements are overrated anyway."
"Well, okay—if you're sure," Clark said. He took her hand. "I love you, Lori, and I promise you I'll never willingly give you any reason to regret your decision. And…" He lifted her hand to kiss the knuckles lightly, "I'll never let your marriage to me affect your career for the worse. You're going to be one of the best investigative reporters at the Planet. I know that already." He looked up as the young woman who stood in as one of the witnesses beckoned to them from the chapel door. "Let's go. This is it."
"Okay, kids, which ceremony do you want?" the Reverend Daryl asked. Lori's first impression of him was of a used aircar salesman. He was a tall, slender, man with a thick shock of dark, curly hair and distinct five-o'clock shadow. His black, formal suit looked as if he'd been sleeping in it. "We got one for every kind of marriage."
"Traditional," Clark said.
The Reverend Daryl's eyes widened and his eyebrows flew up. "Traditional? We don't get many of those. Are you sure you don't want a provisional six-month one first, just to be sure you're compatible? Wouldn't want to make a mistake like that, you know."
Lori gripped Clark's hand. "Traditional," she said, firmly. "We talked this out in advance."
"Okay, then. Millie! Angela, let's get this show on the road."
The two women who were apparently the professional witnesses scurried in to take their places. From somewhere, traditional wedding music started to play, no doubt a recording, and Reverend Daryl showed them where to stand. "Okay, okay! Cut the music!"
The music died with a faint squeal, and the Reverend began. "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…"
Lori listened with a fragment of her attention, but most of it was on Clark. The fact that the ceremony was a good deal short of what she had once dreamed about was unimportant. Later, she would remember it as the most beautiful wedding she had ever attended. It wasn't the tacky surroundings or the nasal voice of the man who later signed their marriage certificate—it was the fact that she was marrying Clark. She heard Clark's voice giving his responses clearly, and when it was her turn, she gave them as firmly. Then it was over; Lori was wearing a plain gold band on her finger and the Reverend Daryl pronounced them husband and wife and told Clark he could kiss his bride. While her ears were still ringing from the kiss, Clark slipped the engagement ring back onto her ring finger, next to the brand new one, then they signed their names on the register and the Reverend Daryl smiled benignly at them. "That's it, kids, you're married. Good luck. Next!"
Outside in the warm air of Las Vegas, Clark looked down at his new bride. "Well, it's done. What now? Shall we ask John for a week off so we can go to Hawaii?"
"Not yet," Lori said. "We'll save that for after the big formal wedding. Take me home, Clark."
Clark shook his head. "At the very least, I want to give my new bride a night in a Honeymoon Suite here in Las Vegas. I went back and picked up a few essentials while you were reading the chapel brochure. They're stashed in a rental locker over at King Tut's Hilton and Casino."
Lori giggled and snuggled into the curve of his arm. "Has anyone ever told you that you're the most romantic man on the planet?"
Clark grinned. "I work at it."
"You succeed very well," Lori said.
He led her down an alley, glanced carefully about and spun into Superman. "Let's go. The Hilton is across town."
They lifted quickly out of the alley into the evening air, and flew over the brilliantly lighted city. Las Vegas had been the gambling capital of the country for well over a century. It had grown in size and glitter year by year; structures that were the product of fantastic imaginations and modern engineering sprawled across the landscape below them, outlined in a bewildering rainbow of lights.
The dark bulk of an aircar cruised by a hundred yards away, its headlights illuminating the open space ahead of it. Clark avoided the beams and quickly gained altitude. Lori wondered if they had been seen but even if they had, what did it matter? In the dimness, illuminated only by the pale, sliver of the rising moon and the reflected light from below, her face would be invisible to casual observers, and they were too far away for the car's night sensors to pick up fine detail. Of course, people did wonder now and then who the mates of the supermen were. Every time a new superhero appeared there was a fresh flurry of speculation in the tabloid publications over the identity of the non-super mother or father. In spite of all the attempts of numerous investigators from many different agencies both private and governmental however, no one had ever found out and now she knew why. A little thrill passed over her skin as she realized she was now one of their family, and would one day perhaps, be the mother of super children of her own—a few years from now, of course, when her career had become a little more firmly established.
She slid her fingers along Clark's jaw line and saw him swallow. He wasn't nearly as calm about this whole matter as he was trying to appear, any more than she was. She took a deep breath and deliberately turned her attention to the scenery passing below her.
Seen from above, Las Vegas was an enchanted city. Lori felt as if she was living in a fairy tale just for tonight, flying in Clark's arms through the warm, dry desert air. The skyline was a mass of brilliance. To the west, the sunset was almost gone. The faintest streaks of rose hues were visible against the dark blue of the late evening sky, but the glow of the city lights blotted out the stars overhead. The thin, barely visible streak of the waning crescent moon could hardly be seen, floating like a ghost over the hills to the east but below them, Las Vegas shone.
"It's beautiful," she said.
"Yes, it is," Clark said.
She turned to look at him, and saw that he was watching her. "I meant the city," she said.
"Oh, yeah, the city's nice, too," he said. He brought them down in a shadow and spun into his civvies. Lori looked up at him in the darkness and shivered half in nervousness and half in anticipation. Not only was he Superman, he was her husband now, and they were about to spend their first night as man and wife. She ran a hand up his forearm, feeling the hard muscle under the sleeve of his suit.
"Better not do too much of that until we get to our room," Clark said, a laugh in his voice. "Our reservation is on their computer, along with orders for a bridal dinner in the honeymoon suite and a champagne breakfast in the morning."
"I guess," Lori said, a little nervously, "we'll have to provide the rest of the entertainment for ourselves, won't we?"
"We'll think of something," Clark said. "Come on, let's go get our bags and check in." He took her hand and smiled at her. "It'll be okay, Lori. You don't have to be nervous."
"I'm not nervous," she said, untruthfully.
Clark slipped an arm around her. "Hey, this is me, remember? Your best friend? We'll just take this whole thing slowly and see what happens. If you like we'll just play Scrabble."
"Right, no pressure." Lori nodded. She sniffed her bouquet of flowers and looked up at him. "I'm sorry, Clark. I don't mean to be…"
"Don't worry," Clark said, reassuringly. "Let's just go check in, okay? It's all right to be a little nervous about everything. You've never been married before."
"That's true," Lori said. "Ms. Kent? Should I call myself Ms. Kent now? My mother changed her name after she married Dad."
"Only if you want to," Clark said. "You can stay Lori Lyons if you like."
"But I want to let people know I'm your wife," Lori said. "It's something I'm really proud of. But I don't want to, well, give up my professional name, either. What did Lois do? Was she Ms. Kent?"
"Only when it came to her personal life," Clark said. "When she was on the job she was Lois Lane. We established that before we even got married. You could do something like that if you like," he added. "You might use your professional name for work, and your married name for everything else. That wouldn't be unusual. Or if you prefer, you can be Lori Lyons all the time. That's okay, too. It might make your mom a little happier. Whatever you decide, I don't mind. If you want, we could even do what they do in the Martian colonies—I could take your name. What matters to me is that you're my wife."
"Lori Kent at home, and Lori Lyons at work. I like that," Lori said, brightening at once. "I don't think you should change your name, though."
"Well, to tell you the truth, I'd rather not," Clark said, "but to be fair, I don't see why you should either, unless you want to."
"Well, I kind of want to," Lori said, "but I've been Lori Lyons all my life, and changing my name would be kind of strange, too. I think I'll do it your way—I'll be Lori Lyons professionally. That way I've got my own professional identity on the job." She took a deep breath and looked up at him again. "I'm babbling, aren't I?"
"Only a little," Clark said. "Remember what I said before. I like the way you talk when you're nervous. I'm only sorry you're uncomfortable."
"I'm not, really," Lori said. She ran a hand across his chest. "Just—well, it's new, and something I've never done before, and I don't want to disappoint you, and I'm not really sure what to expect, and—" She broke off. "I mean, Mom explained it theoretically to me, of course and you know, girls talk, and I've read all about it, especially after I met you, and…" She felt herself blushing. "I guess I shouldn't have said that, huh? But—"
Clark gave a little chuckle. "Not at all. It's flattering. Come on, let's go inside, have dinner, and we'll just see what happens, all right? No pressure."
"All right." Lori swallowed, but a tremor of excitement was running through her. Her mother's warnings that a man only wanted one thing and that they were all alike, were being refuted by Clark every day she spent with him. What had Mariann gone through to make her think the way she did? It must have been pretty traumatic to give her the attitude she had, Lori thought. She was beginning to see that her mother was embittered and cynical about the love that could exist between two people. Her dad was a good man. Why couldn't Mariann see that? Why had she tried her level best to keep her daughters from marrying and finding love and happiness with someone? For that matter, why had her father stayed with her mother, given the way she treated him? What kept him loyal and still in love with her? It was a complete puzzle she wasn't at all sure she could decipher.
The honeymoon suite in the hotel was spacious and luxurious. The bellboy disappeared into the bedroom, their bags floating along behind him on the anti-grav cart. Clark set Lori down inside the door with a flourish.
She looked a little less nervous now, he thought, and reminded himself that she was a virgin. She had every right to be nervous. For that matter, so did he.
The bellboy emerged from the bedroom. "You're all set," he informed them. "Your stuff is in the drawers on the left."
"Right, thanks." Clark tipped him a handful of credit tokens and ushered him out the door. The man winked at him.
"Dinner'll be up in a few minutes, sir," he said.
"Thanks." Clark closed the door after him practically on his heels, and heard the man chuckle. He turned back to Lori.
His bride was looking around the spacious suite. Clark removed his jacket and hung it on the coat rack. "Care for a game of Scrabble?" he asked innocently.
Lori broke out laughing. "You said that before. You didn't really bring a Scrabble board, did you?"
"No, but I can get one in a few minutes."
"I can't argue with that." She walked over to him and slipped her arms around him. "I'm sorry I got all nervous."
"No problem," Clark said, returning the embrace. He raised his head. "Here comes—"
The door chime sounded. "Room service."
"—Dinner," Clark finished. He released her and added, "Come in."
The door opened and a hotel employee entered, a cart loaded with delicacies floating before him. "Here we are," he announced. "One wedding dinner, complete with champagne. Where do you want it?"
"Right by the sofa," Clark told him. He glanced at Lori. "Is that all right with you, honey?"
"Sure." Lori met his eyes with a nervous smile. He winked at her reassuringly and went to stand by her as the man set about arranging their dinner. He completed the job efficiently, removed a bucket of ice with a tall, foil-wrapped bottle of champagne in it from the lower shelf of his serving cart, and set it on the floor. "There you go, sir. Enjoy your dinner."
"Thanks," Clark said.
When they were alone once more, Clark locked the door, ordered the room's computer to play soft, background music and activated the "Privacy" setting. The last thing he wanted was to be interrupted in the next few hours. Lori was nervous, and he was as well. On his first wedding night, he had been the virgin, but Lois had not. This time he was supposed to be the experienced one, but this situation was new to him as well, despite his theoretical knowledge. He wanted to be sure that Lori's first experience with the physical side of love was a good one and to do that, he was willing to take all the time necessary.
He settled himself on the sofa and reached for the champagne bottle. "Shall we have a toast?" he asked.
"That sounds nice." Lori sat down next to him, and he smiled reassuringly at her as he removed the foil and eased the cork free.
She accepted the glass he held out to her, half full of the pale amber effervescent liquid. "What shall we drink to?"
"How about to us?" he said. "And to a long and happy marriage?"
"I like that," she said.
"And," Clark said, "to the most beautiful bride of the Twenty-first Century. You are, you know."
"I think I'll drink to the most wonderful groom," Lori said. "I'd feel funny drinking to myself."
He chuckled. "Cheers, then."
She sipped the champagne and hiccuped slightly. "Sorry. Carbonation on an empty stomach always makes me hiccup."
"That's okay." He removed the plate covers. "We can remedy that. Can I interest you in something to eat?"
Clark was careful to keep the conversation light as they ate. The meal consisted of foods that he had learned were among her favorites and he watched as she gradually relaxed under the influence of the banter and champagne. When they had finished, Clark cleared the debris with super speed, left it on the cart outside their door, turned on the vidscreen and found a channel that was showing a romantic comedy. Within a few minutes, Lori was leaning against him and he had slipped an arm around her shoulders as they watched the program.
Once she looked up at him, appearing a little confused. "I thought you would want…well…"
He pressed a kiss on the top of her head. "Only when you want to, honey. There's no rush."
She snuggled into his side. "I want to, Clark, it's just…"
"When you're ready, we will. I can always go get that Scrabble board in the meantime, you know."
She giggled. "I can just see us spending our wedding night playing Scrabble! When you picked up my clothes you didn't by any chance pick up a nightgown for me, did you?"
"Um…as a matter of fact, I brought along one I bought for you when I was in France last week. I'd planned on giving it to you later, but I figured now was as good a time as any."
He saw her swallow. "In that case, I think I'll go try it on."
"All right." He glanced at the mostly unwatched vidscreen. "Screen off. While you're getting your things, do you mind if I take a ten second shower?"
By the time she found her night clothing, Clark had emerged from the bathroom clad in a robe and slippers, his dark hair slightly damp from the shower. She went past him into the Honeymoon Suite's spacious bathroom, to discover her little traveling case sitting neatly on the counter. Clark had seen to everything, she thought. He was trying so hard to make her comfortable, knowing how nervous she was.
Part of her nervousness stemmed from her wish not to disappoint him. Clark had been married before. He must have some sort of expectations, she knew, at the same time telling herself that he must know she wasn't experienced and surely, being the kind of guy he was, would make allowances for that. She'd heard conversations between other girls in college concerning the merits and skills of guys they had been with, and she knew the theory of what to expect, but this was reality.
As she showered and prepared herself for her wedding night, she took the occasional deep breath to calm the butterflies fluttering around under her breastbone but at last, she could delay no longer. She inhaled deeply and opened the door.
He was already lying on top of the covers, waiting for her, wearing a pair of black, silk pajamas. His eyes lit up when he saw her, and he smiled. "You're beautiful, Lori."
She had to admit the pale nightgown of soft, cream-colored satin and lace was lovely, and complemented her coloring perfectly, but he wasn't looking at the gown. His dark eyes were resting on her face with an expression in them that brought a flood of warmth to her cheeks. "I hope I don't disappoint you," she said shyly. "I'm new at this."
"You couldn't possibly disappoint me," he said. He got smoothly to his feet, crossed the room to her and took both her hands. "Don't be scared, honey. I wouldn't hurt you for the world. You know that, don't you?"
She nodded. "I'm not scared; not really, Clark."
"Good." He leaned down to kiss her lightly on the lips, pulling her gently into his arms. His embrace was warm and loving and Lori pressed herself against the thin silk of his pajama shirt, feeling the firm muscle under the light material. She felt him scoop her up easily and they drifted over toward the bed.
It was nearly three a.m. when Lori woke. The room was dim, and for a few seconds she couldn't remember where she was. The sound of Clark breathing beside her brought memory back suddenly and she smiled into the darkness.
She should have known. There had been no need to be nervous. Clark—her husband!—had been just as wonderful on their wedding night as he had been about everything else. He had been gentle and understanding with her nervousness, even to the point of admitting to her that he was a little nervous as well. In a way, that had been reassuring. And now…
She turned on her side. His slightly exotic features were barely visible in the faint glow of the bedside chronometer. She studied them, the dark brows and lashes, his full lips, the lock of hair that fell across his brow, and raised a hand to brush her fingers across his cheekbone.
"I love you, Clark," she whispered. "You have no idea how happy you've made me."
His eyes opened and met hers. He smiled. "I love you, too, Ms. Kent," he said, very quietly. "I never thought I could ever be this happy again."
"I'm glad," she said. A little twinge of doubt crossed her mind, as it had intermittently from the moment he'd told her the truth about himself. She'd subdued it in the face of the fact that he was so obviously in love with her, but it still nibbled at her now and then. "I only hope I can be as good a wife as Lois was."
Clark pushed himself up on an elbow and leaned over to kiss her. "I'm not worried, Lori. I'm not comparing you to Lois. You're yourself, and you don't have to try to compete with anyone."
"I just want you to be proud of me," Lori said. "I don't want to disappoint you. How long were you married to Lois, Clark?"
"A long time," Clark said. "And I loved her very much from the moment I met her. But now there's you." He stroked her face lightly with a forefinger. "You can't imagine how proud I am of you, Lori, or how it makes me feel that you were willing to marry me. When I saw you that first time, I felt like I'd been hit by lightning. I knew it was happening all over again, and all the rest of the night I kept seeing your face and trying to figure out how to arrange for Clark Kent to meet you."
"Do you think your family will mind that I'm taking her place?" Lori asked.
"No." Clark pulled her into his arms. "I talked to all four of them about this months ago, and they urged me to go for it. Lara said that Lois spoke to them privately, years back, without telling me about it and just about ordered them to make any new wife of mine welcome."
"Yeah. I don't know why it should have surprised me, though. She would have been furious with me if I'd stayed single to honor her memory or something." He kissed the tip of her nose. "She made me promise that if I found the right person, I wouldn't go all noble and do something stupid out of a misplaced sense of duty. I used to be famous for doing stuff like that. I had this idiotic idea that, since I was Superman, I could make decisions for the good of other people without consulting them. Lois nearly killed me a few times for it, but fortunately she finally managed to break me of the habit—mostly, anyway."
Lori found herself smiling. "I guess I owe her something for that, then. I'm glad you decided to do what she told you."
He laughed. "Me, too. And now I've got you to tell me what to do." He began to kiss her lightly along the jawline. "Is there anything I can do for you right now, Ms. Kent?"
"Well," Lori said, sliding her arms around him, "now that you mention it…"
Clark lay awake for some time after Lori had gone to sleep with her head on his shoulder, feeling as if he had come home. Lori wasn't Lois, of course even though like Loisette and Lulu she had the same soul. She was a person in her own right, and a very attractive person at that, but the part that made her his soul mate was very much evident to him. Up until a few months before, he had almost despaired of ever finding her. Now…
He pressed a kiss lightly into her tousled hair, vowing to himself to love and protect her as long as she lived against anyone who would try to hurt her. Lori murmured in her sleep, and Clark's arm tightened slightly around her. It was a little frightening to realize how much of his happiness was tied up in this one, young woman. Fortunately for his peace of mind, Lori didn't appear to be quite as reckless as Lois had been, although now and then he had seen her display flashes of Lois's assertiveness. Lori was, in her own way, as strong a person as her previous incarnation had been, just as intelligent, and would doubtless keep him on his toes. It wasn't an unattractive prospect at all.
The reason for the suddenness of their marriage crossed his mind, and he frowned slightly. Her mother was going to be difficult to handle, especially when she learned of this latest development. For a brief moment, he found himself nostalgic for Ellen Lane. For all Ellen's faults, she had sincerely cared for Lois's happiness. She might have had a different set of priorities than Lois, but she had never tried to relive her own life through her daughter. By all appearances, Lori's mom was determined to see to it that Lori lived the life she felt she should have lived, herself. He hoped he was wrong. It wasn't pleasant to think that Mariann would willingly sacrifice Lori's happiness to achieve her own ambitions. They would have to wait and see, but Clark had no intention of letting her bully Lori. He knew his bride had a pretty good idea of what they were in for, and the fact that she had wanted to get married so quickly as a defense against her mother's meddling spoke volumes. Lori had impressed him right from the start as an ambitious but levelheaded young woman—a surprising quality, considering how much her upbringing seemed to have damaged her belief in herself. Clark's lips thinned, thinking about that. Mariann seemed to have gone out of her way to instill in her the conviction that no man would be interested in her for any kind of long-term relationship. He was glad that he seemed to have been able to convince her at least partially that her mother had been, to put it politely, mistaken.
Whatever the real reasons for Mariann's behavior, he had the feeling that it would make Lori unhappy to end up with the same relationship with her that Marcy had. It was probably a good thing that he'd already been through the Lane school for dysfunctional families. He had the feeling that he was going to need everything he'd learned there, and more, before they were done. Not for the first time, he missed the presence of Jonathan and Martha Kent. They could have helped him to figure out how to handle the problems that were bound to crop up in the not-too-distant future. His mother had always seemed to know what to do.
Fortunately, Robert Lyons appeared to be a stable and loving father. If he was any judge of character, Lori's father was a lot like his son, Brad. The fact that the man had stayed with Mariann through what had to have been a turbulent marriage said a lot about him. He must love her in spite of her controlling behavior, so there must be good qualities there somewhere; at least he hoped so. Somehow, Clark didn't believe that Robert Lyons was at all intimidated by his wife. The whole thing was a puzzle, all right. Mariann's frequently voiced belief that Lori's career would be destroyed by marriage didn't make any sense to him. In this day and age, a woman's career was limited only by her own ambition. Maybe someday, he'd figure out the reasons behind it but in the meantime, he didn't intend to let someone else's emotional hang-ups hurt his wife. Mariann was going to have to learn to live with the situation, and that was all there was to it. Eventually she would see that Lori's career wasn't suffering at all because of marriage. Of course, that might spark more of the feelings of jealousy toward her daughter that he had already detected in her. Mariann seemed to him in some ways a rather pathetic person, always wanting more than she had. What was it he wondered, that could have caused her to become that way?
Clark gave himself a mental shake. Lori's mother couldn't be an entirely terrible person or her daughter wouldn't have turned out like she had. He didn't really know enough about her to be able to figure out what her actual motivations were. All he could do was look out for Lori when things hit the fan. Somehow, they would cope and the problems would eventually work themselves out. They always did.
Satisfied that he'd settled a few things, at least in his own mind, he put his other arm around Lori as well and drifted off to sleep.
The soft beeping of his wrist talker on the bedside table awoke Clark. Beside him, Lori stirred, and he reached out quickly to shut off the noise. Silently, he picked up the little device, rose from the bed and hurried into the living room of the suite.
"Clark Kent," he said.
"Clark!" It was John Olsen's voice. "Is everything okay? I got your message that you wouldn't be in this morning, but I thought you'd want to know, we've managed to track down two of those three pieces of jewelry and have a line on the third."
"That's great, John," Clark said. "Yeah, Lori and I are okay. We had a little change of plan last night, and we're in Las Vegas right now. We'll be in to work tomorrow at the usual time."
"Las Vegas?" John said. "Anything going on there that we should know about?"
"Nothing of international importance," Clark said. "Lori and I got married at a Las Vegas chapel last night. It's a long story. The big wedding is still on track, though."
"Sounds like there's more to it than you're saying," John said.
"Well, yes—sort of. What about the jewelry?"
"Oh, that. Well, two of the pieces were a set—a pair of earrings. They were purchased by a college student at Metropolis City College. One of our representatives located her and explained that they were part of a collection of rare Native American jewelry that had been lost. Don't worry, we paid her the price of the earrings, plus a bonus for her inconvenience. The other piece is a ring. We're still tracking the buyer, but we expect to have more information in a few days."
"That's a relief. I'll feel a lot safer when it's under our control."
"So will the rest of us. Take tomorrow off, too, Clark. Your bride deserves at least that much time to get used to being married before she comes back to work."
"Thanks, John. The real honeymoon will take place after the formal ceremony, though. Lori's thinking Hawaii."
"Are you going to be at Jon's on Sunday?"
"Wouldn't miss it," John said. "Aaron's providing the transportation for Marilyn and me. How often does the patriarch of the whole clan get married, after all? This is a big deal."
"I guess," Clark said. "I just hope everyone will remember not to overwhelm Lori. She's only 21, remember, and not used to this sort of thing."
"Don't worry," John said. "I think I know her pretty well. I already warned Jon about it and he says he'll take care of it."
"Thanks," Clark said. He raised his head at the sound of Lori's sleepy voice. "Lori's awake. I'll talk to you later."
"Bye," John said. "And Clark…"
"Thanks." Clark shut off the wrist talker and opened the door to the bedroom. Lori was sitting up, holding the thin silk of the bed sheet up to her shoulders. The lovely nightgown that he had brought to her from Paris lay carelessly on the floor where it had landed last night, along with his black silk pajama top.
"I wondered where you were," she said.
He slipped back into the bed. "We had a phone call. I didn't want to disturb you." He had not failed to notice the fact that under the sheet, his bride was wearing nothing but her bare skin. "I told them to bring breakfast up about nine. We've got an hour to kill. Can you think of any way we might pass the time?"
Lori giggled. "What happened to my nice, gentlemanly, polite, restrained fiance? I could swear he was with me when we got to Las Vegas."
"He turned into your husband, who thinks you've got an irresistible, beautiful, sexy body, of course."
"Oh," she said, unable to hide her pleasure at his description. "Well, in that case…"
"So," Clark said, "welcome to your new home." He set her down inside the threshold of his apartment.
Lori looked around the place that had heretofore been only Clark's and sighed in satisfaction. "This is wonderful, Clark. You have no idea how glad I am to be out of that poky little flat."
"I think I do. Give me a few minutes and I'll have your things over here, and you can decide what to do with them."
"Okay." Lori looked after her husband as he flashed out the skylight, changing from his civvies into Superman in a blur, and was gone. She walked into the bedroom to remove her sweater. It was wonderful to even *have* a bedroom after weeks of living in the tiny, one-room flat that she had called home after her graduation from New Troy State. This one was larger than the bedroom she'd had at her parents' home in Los Angeles, and Clark had a double bed, too. Her cheeks grew warm at the thought of that.
There was a gust of wind in the other room and then the whoosh of Clark's departure again. Lori hung her sweater on the hook behind the door and looked around the room with a new viewpoint. This was the room she and Clark would share in the future. Clark had a double dresser against one wall, and a big closet. He would have to make room for her things there, or get her another dresser. On the wall was a small, framed photograph that she had noticed before in passing, but now she moved across the room to examine it. The picture was that of an older couple, smiling, and now, looking at them, she experienced the oddest feeling of deja vu. Their faces were familiar, although she knew she had never seen them before. Curiously, she removed the small, framed picture and turned it over. On the back was a line of faded handwriting that she recognized as Clark's: "Jonathan and Martha Kent, 1999."
These had been Clark's parents, his human parents, who had found his ship when it landed in Shuster's field in 1966. Lori turned the photograph over once more and examined the two faces, wishing she had known them. These two people had found the baby who would one day become Superman, and raised him to be the remarkable person she had married.
Slowly, she replaced the old photograph to its position of honor on the wall. While she had been examining it, she had been aware of several more arrivals and departures in the other room, and now she turned at the sound of a step behind her. Clark, still in the famous red and blue Suit, was standing there watching her, a smile on his face.
"Hi," she said. "I was just looking at the picture of your parents."
"They were terrific people," he said, soberly. "I wish you'd known them."
"I knew they must have been," Lori said. "But, you know—it happened again."
"That really weird feeling, like I'd seen them before. Just like when I saw your picture at the Planet, and when you proposed. It happens all the time, and I sure wish I knew why!"
Clark said nothing, but began to slowly pull off his Suit, unlike his usual lightning change, a puzzled expression on his face. "Do you have any ideas?" he asked, after a moment.
She shook her head. "No, and it's really annoying."
"Well, maybe we can figure it out. Tell me the next time it happens, okay?"
"Okay. I just hope you don't think I'm crazy or something," Lori said.
"Not a chance." Clark's teeth flashed in that devastating smile that had the usual effect of making her knees weak. "I think you've got a pretty strong grip on reality."
"I brought our bags from Las Vegas and all the stuff from your flat," he said, changing the subject. "I thought while you checked them over I could clean out half the closet and dresser for you. We'll take care of all the other details of moving and then we could go and do something fun together. John's giving us tomorrow off, too, before we go back to work, just to get used to being married."
"That was nice of him," Lori said. "I guess I should call my old landlord, too, shouldn't I? I'm paid through the end of the month, so that ought to cover the two weeks notice…" She took a deep breath. "And then, we probably better call my parents."
"Yeah," Clark said. "I guess so. Do you want to do the talking, or shall I?"
Lori hesitated, the temptation to let Clark handle the hard part tugging strongly at her, then sighed. "I guess I better, but will you stay with me?"
"Do you even have to ask?" Clark said. "Of course I will. Whatever happens, I'll back you up, you know that."
Lori nodded. "Yeah, I *do* know that. I feel a little guilty about it, too—dragging you into the middle of it. Mother's not going to like this."
Clark dropped the top of his uniform on the bed and crossed the room to put his arms around her. "That's probably an understatement, but I can take it. There's no way I'd leave you to face this alone."
"Thanks, Clark." She stood on tiptoe and kissed him. The kiss was threatening to become something more when she pulled free. "I better go check over my stuff while you change. If we get started, we might forget to call them at all. We'll get back to this later."
"Okay, but I'm taking that as a promise," Clark said.
"Count on it." Lori made her way toward the doorway, but she was unable to resist glancing back in time to see him remove the leggings. Seeing Clark in nothing but his shorts was definitely a treat she didn't want to miss. This being married thing certainly had its perks.
Far too soon, they had finished the chores and Lori braced herself. It was time to make the fatal phone call. She settled beside Clark on the sofa and looked at him. "I guess this is it."
"Yeah." He took her hand. "You know what to expect, so try not to let it get to you. Remember, this is your life, not your mom's. She has no right to tell you that you can't get married."
"Tell my mother that," Lori said, glumly. "Are you ready?"
"Yeah. You don't have to use the touchpad. I authorized you as a new user before we left."
"Right." Lori gulped and spoke to the vidphone. "Robert and Mariann Lyons." Rapidly she recited the code to set it in the phone's memory and they waited, Clark gripping her hand tightly.
The screen lit up with a soft chime. Mariann Lyons' face was looking accusingly at them.
"Well," she said, acidly, "I'm glad you finally saw fit to call me, Lori. Your phone refused my calls. I wanted to speak to you *privately*, however."
Lori inhaled deeply. Facing her mother with the news she was about to impart was just as difficult as she had expected. "I know, Mother, but this is important. Clark and I were married last night."
"*What?!!*" Lori felt Clark's hand tighten around hers at the sound of Mariann's raised voice. The following explosion was all she had expected and more. Somewhere in the ensuing tirade, Robert Lyons appeared in the background, frowning as he tried to decipher the reason for his wife's wrath. When it became clear to him, he glanced at Clark with an expression Lori couldn't read, but remained silent.
Lori didn't try to defend herself, but kept her lips tightly closed in the face of her mother's fury. Clark looked at her and then back at Mariann several times and said nothing, but he never released her hand. It gave her the courage to ride out the storm with reasonable calm. When her mother finally ran out of things to say, she spoke quietly.
"Are you finished, Mother?"
"I can't believe you would do this, Lori, after all I've told you…"
"Mother, I don't think you need to repeat that. I remember."
"Obviously you didn't absorb a thing I said. Your career comes before marriage, young lady! Marriage ruined my career as a business consultant." She glanced at Clark, and Lori was shocked at the dislike that showed on her face. "At least everything isn't lost. When your six month contract is up and you've gotten all this out of your system, you can come home and work at the Herald. I *knew* it was a mistake letting you go to school so far from home, and see what's come of it! I was against this job of yours at the Daily Planet right from the beginning! It isn't good for you to be so far away, involved in all that investigation and traveling. You're too young!"
"It's not a six-month contract," Lori said. Her voice sounded stiff, even to her. "It's not even a year contract. It's lifetime."
Her mother seemed bereft of speech for several seconds. In the background, she thought she could see a slight smile on her father's face, but she didn't say so. "Mother, I'm not going to talk to you when you're so upset. Clark and I are still a reporting team and being married to him isn't going to affect that at all. You'll see that after awhile. I love Clark, and I've never been happier than I am right now."
"Lori, you don't know anything about love and marriage." Mariann looked venomously at Clark. "This *man* has completely deceived you. A man only wants a handmaiden and a bed partner. Your career will suffer, and in the end you'll be nothing!"
"Mother, lots of women have marriage and a career," Lori said, with some spirit. "You could have, too, if you'd wanted it."
Mariann looked as if she were going to explode. Lori glanced desperately at Clark.
"Ms. Lyons," Clark said, quietly, "we wanted to tell you and your husband about this as soon as possible, but I think everyone is upset enough. We'll discuss this a little later, if you don't mind."
"Goodbye, Mother, Dad," Lori said, quickly. "Love to both of you." She cut the connection before Mariann could object.
"Well," Clark said after a moment, "I guess that might have gone better."
The phone began to beep. Clark glanced at the identification on the screen. "Your mom's calling back."
"I don't want to talk to her right now," Lori said. Her voice was shaking.
Clark pulled her into his arms. "It's all right, honey. She'll get used to it."
"I know." She took a trembling breath. Clark held her tightly. After a few seconds, he realized she was crying softly.
"Hey," he said. "It's okay. You knew she'd be mad."
"I know," Lori said. "Hearing it is something else. I shouldn't have said that."
"That part about women having marriage and a career. Mother hated her career, and after she married Dad, she quit and never went back. All these years, though, she's pretended that it was because of being married to Dad. It wasn't. But she was being so nasty about you…"
"I guessed that," Clark said. "She probably doesn't appreciate it being brought up, though. But, honey, just because she had a problem doesn't give her the right to run your life. You're of age. It's not your fault the way her life turned out." He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and began to dab at the tears.
Lori sniffled a little and clung to him. "You're right. And I'm not sorry I married you. I'm glad."
"Good." He bent his head to kiss her lightly. "So am I. Give her some time to absorb it. It's up to her, now. If she wants to have any kind of relationship with you, she's going to have to decide to tolerate your decision even if she doesn't like it. Between us, we'll show her that you're career is just taking off, not falling apart."
"She won't like that either, now," Lori said. "I'll be doing something she didn't—or couldn't."
"That's not your problem," Clark said. "In the meantime, I think we should go and do something that has nothing to do with your mother. What do you say?"
She nodded against his chest. "Okay. You're such a wonderful guy, Clark."
Clark wrapped both arms tightly around her. "Without you, I'm just another character flying around out there in tights."
She gave a watery giggle. "Right. Just an ordinary guy. What do you want to do? Shall we go somewhere, or stay here?"
Clark hugged her. "We can give the bedroom its initiation a little later. Why don't I take you flying? There's this place in Switzerland I know that makes the most decadent chocolate you ever tasted. I think you need some of it right now."
When they returned from Switzerland and an aerial tour of the Alps three hours later, there were fifteen messages waiting on the vidphone recorder. Clark scanned them at high speed while Lori was changing into clothes more suited to Metropolis in the late summer. Fourteen calls were from Mariann Lyons, and contained mostly short, angry monologues and demands that Lori call her back. He unceremoniously transferred them to the phone's archive. If she really wanted to see them, she could retrieve them later when things had calmed down a bit, although there was nothing new or of interest in any of them.
The remaining call was from John Olsen. Clark ordered the vidphone to play the call, just as Lori re-entered the room.
"What is it?" she asked.
"John called. I thought we better find out what was up."
The screen lit up and their editor's face appeared. "Hi Clark, Lori," he began. "I'm sorry to interrupt you, but do you think you could give me a call back when it's convenient? Something's come up. It's private, so I don't want to leave any details on the phone. Bye—and congratulations again."
"John sounds worried," Lori said. "Would he be at the office right now?"
Clark glanced at his wrist talker's time display. "Yeah, maybe. I'll call there. If he's out, it'll relay."
The vidscreen lit up seconds later. Their editor was sitting at his desk, and the worried look on his face relaxed somewhat when he saw them. "Thanks for calling back," he said, without preliminary. "I'm headed home in a few minutes. Do you think you could meet me there?"
"Sure," Clark said.
"I'll let Marilyn know you're coming," John said. "I don't want to discuss this over the air."
"No problem," Clark said. "We'll see you in half an hour."
"Right." The screen went off.
"I wonder what's going on," Lori commented. "John sounded upset."
"Yeah, he did." Clark nodded at the vidphone. "I archived your mom's calls, if you want to see them. Nothing unexpected, I'm afraid."
"Delete them," Lori said. Her jaw tightened. "I don't even want to listen to anything she says while she's in this stage. I heard all of it about Marcy, seven years ago. It took her weeks to run down. I'd rather concentrate on business—and us."
"Good idea." Clark was glad to see the investigative reporter emerging once more. Lori appeared to be handling the situation with Mariann well, but he didn't like to see her unhappy. Still, she seemed to have regained her equilibrium since the painful phone conversation with her mother, earlier.
She made a face. "Clark, if we don't set the rules now, we'll have trouble for our whole married life. I don't want to be fighting with her forever, or barely speaking to her the way it is with Marcy."
"I think that's sensible," Clark said. "I'd rather not fight with your mom either, to tell the truth, but I'm not going to let her push you around."
"Thanks, Clark. I appreciate the support." She walked over to him and put her arms around him. "I think most of this is my fight, but I couldn't do it without you."
"You've got as much of it as you want," Clark said. He returned her embrace. "Tough love isn't very pleasant for either side, but it looks like the only thing that's going to work. I think you're doing the right thing. It isn't just your fight, though. It's *our* fight—together. You can call the shots, but I'm right here with you, all the way, no questions asked."
"You don't think we made a mistake getting married so quickly?"
He shook his head. "I think this would have happened no matter what we did, and at least this way we're getting the worst over sooner rather than later. I do think we ought to set a date for the big ceremony in the near future, though—and invite your parents and your sister. What do you think?"
"I think you're right," Lori said. "How about October? That isn't too long, but we'll need to arrange it pretty quickly."
"I have some female relatives who love to help arrange weddings," Clark said. "Rhonda already volunteered. I told her I'd ask you."
"Do you think she really wants to?"
"I know she does," Clark said. "Ronnie likes you, you know; she says I needed someone who was going to keep me hopping. I think that's how she put it. She'll be at the barbecue. Why don't you talk to her, then?"
Lori nodded. "Okay, I will. We better go. I take it you know where John lives."
"Of course. It's only a couple of minutes by Superman Express and he has a back yard with plenty of trees and shrubbery for family members who choose to come by air. Let's go."
A bare ten minutes later, Superman and Lori touched down in the secluded back yard of John Olsen's house. Clark spun back into his street clothing and led the way to the back door. It opened as they approached, and a tiny, dark-haired woman of perhaps forty stepped out. "Clark! John phoned. He said you'd be coming over." She smiled at Lori. "You must be Lori. I'm so glad to meet you! I'm Marilyn, John's wife."
Lori smiled, feeling unaccountably shy. "Hello."
"Marilyn knows all about us," Clark said. "Lori and I were married last night, Mari."
"John told me. Congratulations, Clark, but I hear the big wedding is still on?"
"Yes," Clark explained. "Sort of the official one for our families."
"I see. That sounds nice. Well, come on in and sit down. John should be here soon."
Clark let Lori precede him into the neat kitchen of John's house and followed. Marilyn led them into the living room and gestured them to seats. "Can I get you anything to drink? Coffee, Lori? I know Clark drinks tea."
"Whatever's convenient," Clark said. "Do you have any idea what this is about, Mari?"
She shook her head. "No, John wouldn't talk about it over the phone, though, so it must be pretty serious." She turned to Lori. "John's told me about you, Lori. He tells me you're one of the Planet's rising stars. Don't tell him I told you that, though."
"He said that?" Lori looked gratified.
Marilyn grinned. "He did indeed. I'll be right back." She whisked out of the room.
"I like her," Lori whispered.
"So do I," Clark said. "Don't let her fool you with her homemaker image, though. Marilyn's a senior engineer and department head over at Genie Electronics. She and John have been married almost twenty years. They've got three kids, one in college and two in high school. She's a poster child to refute your mom's thing about women's careers and families."
"Why are my ears burning?" Marilyn inquired, entering the room with a tray of coffee cups. "You said anything, Clark, so you're getting coffee."
"That will be fine," Clark assured her. "Can I help you with anything?"
"No, thanks. I'll be right back with the sugar and cream." She disappeared from the room, to reappear again almost instantly. "Here you go. So, Clark, why the sudden wedding, or shouldn't I ask?"
"Probably not," Clark said. "And, no, it's nothing like what you're probably thinking."
Marilyn laughed. "Don't worry, Farmboy, I know what a Boy Scout you are. The thought never crossed my mind." She winked at Lori.
"Oh," Clark said. "Well, it had to do with…um, an eccentric relative. You don't even want to know the details."
Lori had never heard her mother described as an eccentric relative before and surprised herself by laughing. Clark glanced at her with a raised eyebrow and the expression on his face made her laugh again. "Sorry," she apologized. "It's pretty complicated."
"Oh," Marilyn said. "One of those things, huh? Well, I hope it works out all right." She raised her head. "I think John's home."
"He just pulled up," Clark said.
A moment later, the door opened and John Olsen entered. He smiled when he saw his visitors. "Good, I'm glad you're here." He gave his wife a peck on the cheek. "Hello, honey. Has Meriel called?"
"She left a message that she'd be here later," Marilyn said. "What's going on?"
"She came to see me this afternoon," John explained. "Her best friend is in the hospital fighting for her life. It's Rena Harcourt, Mari."
"Oh, my God." Marilyn's face had drained of color. "What happened to her?"
John set his briefcase on the floor next to the couch. "I better start from the beginning," he said. "Clark and Lori don't have any idea who I'm talking about." He sank onto the sofa and ran a hand through his hair. "Could I have one of those coffees? I've been stewing about this all afternoon."
"Sure," Marilyn said. She handed him a cup of coffee. "Cream, and no sugar in this one. Is that okay, honey?"
"Yeah." John took it and after testing it cautiously, downed half a cup in one swallow. "That's a little better."
"Meriel is their oldest daughter," Clark told Lori. "I haven't seen her for about four years, ever since I left Metropolis to become a free lance journalist."
"That's right," John said. "She's nineteen, and just finished her first year at New Troy State in June. She's picking up some credits by attending their summer session. Finals are this week. Rena Harcourt is her best friend. We've known her family for years. The two of them started NTSU together and are roommates."
"What happened to her?"
"Meriel said that last night, Rena was cramming for her organic chemistry final in the morning. She woke up about four a.m. to hear Rena vomiting. At first she thought Rena had the flu or something, but she couldn't wake her up in spite of what was happening, and then she started convulsing, so Meriel called the paramedics. Rena was taken to the emergency room, and a little later, the cops showed up to interview Meriel. It seems that Rena had taken a dose of dream dust, and reacted badly to it. She's got about a 50-50 chance of survival. Whether she'll have brain damage is another question."
"Dream dust!" Clark said.
"Oh, my God," Marilyn whispered.
"Yeah." John finished the coffee. "Meriel's in pre-med, Clark. She's heard some things around the campus, and she has some friends in the ER at New Troy State Medical Center. That's the university's affiliated teaching hospital, you know."
"Aren't the police investigating?" Lori asked.
"Oh, the hospital was required to report the case, of course," John said. "That's why the cops talked to Meriel, but they've got higher priorities than a college kid overdosing on dream dust. Meriel's worried. She said there's some things she thinks we should know."
"What things?" Clark asked. He raised his head. "I hear a car."
"Meriel?" John asked.
Clark glanced toward the front walk. "Yeah. She'll be here in a minute."
Clark almost did a double take when Meriel Olsen entered the room. The gawky, slightly chubby teenager he had known had grown into a slender, very attractive woman with a strong resemblance to her father. Normally she wore a smile, but today she was frowning, and her eyes were reddened as if she had been crying recently.
"How's Rena?" Marilyn asked at once.
Meriel closed the door carefully. "Still the same," she said. "Her parents are there, and they wouldn't let me see her. Hello, Gra—uh, Clark."
"Hi, Meriel." The fact that Clark's descendents usually called him by his first name might have surprised some people, but Clark had made a point of asking them, once they were grown, to address him that way. In light of his appearance, someone uninformed of the actual circumstances might have thought it extremely odd if a man or woman who looked nearly his own age were to call him "Grandfather".
"Your dad asked us to come over," Clark explained. "He thought we might be able to help. This is my wife, Lori, who's also my reporting partner."
Meriel looked Lori over curiously. "Hi," she said at last. "Dad's told me a little about you. Didn't you graduate from NTSU last June?"
"Yeah," Lori said. "I was the editor of the NTSU Clarion."
"I thought you were," Meriel said. "I remember the big flap over campus security." She sat down suddenly in an armchair. "Maybe you and Clark *can* help. I tried to tell the cops I talked to, but they wouldn't pay any attention. I heard one of them tell another one that he had better things to do than interview 'dreamers' trying to fry their brains. It wasn't *his* best friend that was in the hospital, maybe dying!" She clenched her fists and a stray tear leaked from the corner of one eye. "She told me she'd stopped using it. I believed her, but she was having a really hard time with the course. She must have decided to use it just one more time."
"My roommate used it a couple of times when she had big exams coming up," Lori said. "I could never convince her that it might kill her—or worse." She pressed her lips together for a second. "She'd always be hung over afterwards, but by that time she'd aced the test. Your friend must have figured it was worth the chance."
"What did you try to tell the police?" Clark asked. "John said you'd heard something you think might be related to what happened to your friend?"
"Yeah," Meriel said. "There have been some rumors. According to what I heard, the paramedics took another student out of our dorm in the middle of last Monday night. He didn't go to the university's medical center—I think his parents had him taken to their private doctor, so I don't *know* it was dream dust, but that was the story. While I was waiting at the hospital, I talked to a couple of friends of mine who work there."
"What did they say?" Lori asked.
"There've been six other students through there this week, before Rena," Meriel said, "All of them came from NTSU. One of them died, and one is going to be brain damaged for the rest of his life. That's a lot more than they usually get during a finals week. About three times as many."
Clark whistled softly. "Anything else?"
"Just a couple of things I overheard. There's somebody called 'The Professor' that you go to for help if you're having trouble passing the tests. I don't know if that's important or not and I don't know how to find out who he is, but someone's dealing this stuff around the campus and I'm afraid there's going to be more of the same sort of thing happening if something isn't done."
"I don't blame you," Clark said. "This 'Professor' could be a dream dealer. If he's a free lancer who's manufacturing it on his own, the stuff might be purer than the usual street dust, and the kids who buy it wouldn't be used to it at that strength."
"That's possible," John said. "I called a friend of mind at the 13th Precinct about it. They're not convinced that there's anything unusual happening. My contact said they think it's just a fluke. There's always an incident or two around exam time, and you know how the cops regard it. Dream dust's not addictive and there are far more deadly and common drugs available. It's not a high priority with them."
"It's more insidious, though," Lori said. "Kids use it because it's an easy way to pass tests. Read the material, snort the dust and in the morning, they remember everything as clear as a bell. Most of the time the only cost is a nasty hangover but once in a while, something happens like what happened to Meriel's friend. I know a lot about it because I researched it to write an article on it for my high school paper. The guy who would have been our class valedictorian put himself permanently in a care facility on exam week by using it. It was pretty bad."
"Kids playing with their lives," Marilyn said. "No one ever thinks it will happen to them. Do you think you and Lori can do anything, Clark?"
"I'd like to try," Lori said. "I hate dream dealers."
Clark nodded. "I think we should. If nobody else will take it seriously, maybe we can stir up some outrage over it."
"If you think I can help, just ask," Meriel said. "I'll do anything I can. I want to bring whoever did this to Rena down."
"It's almost the end of the summer session," Lori said. "It's too late for me to go undercover as a student, even if the school administration would let me get anywhere near the campus. They still don't like either one of us very much after we embarrassed them over the security problems."
"We can still look around," Clark said. "We have a couple of days before the end of exam week, then the fall session starts in a little over three weeks. How do you feel about starting tomorrow? I know that cuts in on our time off, but…"
"But there's not much time," Lori concluded the sentence. "Maybe John will give us another day off afterwards."
"Probably," Clark said. He opened his refrigeration unit and removed a bottle of chilled wine. "Why don't you open this so it can breathe for a few minutes before we eat."
"Sure." Lori took the bottle and set about searching for the corkscrew. "Dinner smells delicious, Clark."
"Only the best for my bride," Clark said. "You've had to adjust to an awful lot. I mean, I told you where John fits on the family tree—he's my great grandson. His mom is my oldest son's daughter, and he has a daughter only a couple of years younger than you. That would shake up a lot of people."
Lori was working on removing the lead foil. "I've always liked sexy older men," she said, teasingly.
"Yeah, but I think we took it to the extreme," Clark said. "You're a remarkable woman, Lori."
"Nothing about our relationship is ordinary," Lori said. "What's one more little difference? Ordinary is dull. How many descendents do you have, Clark?"
"Well," Clark said, "there's my four children, and their twelve children, and then *their* children. And *their* children, after that. Aaron—he's Blue Lightning—is John's older brother, and *his* son and daughter-in-law just had a little girl of their own, so we're getting into the great-great-great grandchildren now. I could figure it out—the family keeps a record of the family tree in an archive at the Superman Foundation—but I couldn't really tell you right off the top of my head. There might be a few that I don't know about by now. At a guess I'd say something like a hundred, and about a third of them have or will have super powers. You'll meet a lot of them at the barbecue on Sunday. I hope it doesn't scare you off."
"Just so long as you're with me," Lori said. The prospect was a little intimidating to be sure, but at least Clark's family had so far welcomed her and approved of their marriage, which was a distinct difference from the way her mother had greeted the news. "If my mother didn't scare *you* off, I don't see why your family should scare me."
He dropped a kiss on the top of her head. "The only person who could have chased me away would have been you. I did want to ask you, though, if you have any idea where she got this notion that you getting married would hurt your career. I mean, your dad doesn't seem like the kind of guy to try to subjugate his wife or something, and I'd think if he was, he wouldn't put up with her blaming him for everything that's wrong with her life."
"He isn't," Lori said. "Dad has never mistreated Mother. She does pretty much what she wants. I never thought much about her attitude while I was growing up—kids don't, you know. To them, how they grow up is normal no matter how weird it really is. It wasn't so…so *intense* then, either, of course. It seems like she's gotten a lot more fixated about my career, since Marcy left home. She never let me date in high school, but I wasn't really very interested in dating, and I didn't think much about it until I left home to go to college. Mother's attitude *is* really peculiar, and I don't understand it, but it isn't funny, because I think she actually believes it. What really puzzles me is why Dad stays with her. I'm glad he does—I'd hate to see my parents break up, but most guys wouldn't put up with it."
"He must love her in spite of herself," Clark said. "I guess I can understand that. You seem to love me in spite of all the strikes against me."
Lori threw the cork at him. He let it bounce off his forehead and reached for her, laughing, but the ensuing kiss was interrupted by the whiff of food beginning to scorch. He released her and returned to the stove to remove the stir-fry before it was irreparably damaged.
"Oops! I think we're okay, though. Grab a couple of plates, would you?"
"Right here." Lori removed two plates from the cupboard and set them on the kitchen table. Clark transferred the contents of the pan onto the plates, while Lori poured the wine. Dinner with Clark was always fun; he was such a well-informed person—which was reasonable, considering his vast experience—but he was never pedantic or boring. He was able to tell funny stories based on things that had actually happened to him, and bring to life things that, to her, had been until then a dry history lesson out of a book.
After dinner, Lori discovered that even cleaning up the kitchen, a chore she had always hated, was actually fun when they did it together, in spite of the fact that Clark could have finished the job in seconds. Watching the vids was forgotten this evening in favor of other pursuits more attractive in the eyes of newlyweds, and which Lori found far more interesting than any characters on the vidscreen.
Falling asleep in her new husband's arms some time later, she murmured, drowsily, "It's a good thing I didn't know how wonderful it was before. I wouldn't have waited so long. But maybe it wouldn't be so nice if it wasn't with you."
Clark chuckled softly and pulled her closer. "If I'm lucky, you'll never find out."
"Here's the information you asked for," John told them the next morning. "Meriel talked to her friends in the ER, got the names of the six students who came through with dream dust poisoning, and told me not to ask who her friends are."
"So much for confidentiality," Clark said. "Do you think you can break into the school computers from here, Lori, or are we going to have to get into the Administration building?"
"It depends on if they changed the passwords on the Clarion's computers," Lori said. She took the little disk and turned toward the door. "Let me get to work with this and see what I can dig up."
"I appreciate you coming in like this," John said to Clark as Lori exited. "I feel a little guilty, eating into your time off, considering you've been married less than 48 hours."
"There'll be time later," Clark said. He glanced after his wife and raised an eyebrow. "I see Fred is back."
"He got back yesterday," John said. "Let's hope that sensitivity training class did some good."
"It better have," Clark said, a little grimly. "I've had all I intend to tolerate of his mouthing off to Lori."
"If he can't behave, he'll be job hunting before long," John said, "that is, if Lori doesn't decide *she's* had enough. I get the feeling Fred is on thin ice with her."
Clark couldn't suppress a grin. "So do I, and Heaven help him if she loses her temper. He still blames her for the Gaia's Children debacle."
"I don't care if he blames her for last week's earthquake in China," John said. "He better watch his step. I won't tolerate sexual harassment in this office."
"Yeah," Clark said. "I…" He broke off, raising his head.
"What is it?"
"Emergency. I'll see you later." He was gone out the window on the word.
John slowly closed it behind him and shook his head. "I wonder what they do with their clothes," he murmured, thoughtfully before returning to the current task on his computer screen. "They never seem to leave them any place."
The essay question had not been all that difficult for a student who knew her material, and Meriel Olsen finished the test ten minutes before the allotted time was up. English was not her favorite subject, but she had chosen to take as many general education classes during the summer as she could fit in, in an attempt to get most of them out of the way. Now she scanned what she had written, made a minor correction and transmitted the test to her instructor. This was her last exam until the next semester started in September and she and Rena had planned to visit a beach resort together for part of their vacation. Instead, Rena was in the hospital, in a coma, and the question of whether she would recover completely was still unanswered.
Meriel detached her pocket-sized computer from the desk terminal, closed it up, picked up her small handbag and left the testing room. Her little groundcar was a short distance away and she walked slowly toward it, oblivious of the fact that it was a fine, sunny morning in mid-August. A brisk breeze was blowing and tiny white clouds scudded across the sky.
She had reached the car when a tall, well-built young man stepped up beside her, trapping her between the car and the hedge. Meriel glanced at him in mild irritation. "Do you mind? I can't open my door."
He smiled. "Sorry about that, Ms. Olsen. Somebody wants to talk to you."
"Well, I don't want to talk to him," Meriel said, irritably. "I'm going over to the bookstore to sell my books."
"I'm afraid not." The young man was suddenly pointing a small, ladies'-sized stunner at her. "Get in your car and don't make any noise or you'll be waking up with a headache. Do it now."
"What?" Meriel gaped at the weapon. "Are you out of your mind?"
"*Now*, Ms Olsen." He kept the weapon pointed directly at her midriff. "I really don't want to stun you."
Meriel removed the electronic key from her handbag, mentally gauging the distance between herself and her opponent. He had moved back a step or two to allow her room to open the door. If she let him get in the car with her she would never be seen again, she knew. This couldn't be a coincidence. She had been asking questions of too many people in too many places and someone must have gotten worried.
As she withdrew the electronic key from her purse, she fumbled it and dropped the ring onto the synthastone pavement. The young man moved forward a step, his attitude menacing. "Pick it up! Open the door!"
The key, of course, was sensitive to her fingerprints. Her would-be kidnapper couldn't open the door or start the car unless she, personally, inserted it correctly. Meriel leaned forward to retrieve the small, flat item, shifted her weight as she straightened and slammed her heavy, little computer against his nose with all her strength.
Blood gushed, and he staggered back with a scream, clapping a hand to the injured member. Meriel shoved the key into its slot, yanked it out, jerked open the door of her car, jumped in and slammed it behind her all in the space of two seconds.
The door locked automatically. She pushed the key into the ignition slot harder than necessary.
"Engine on!" she gasped out.. "Emergency! Manual override!"
The engine roared to life. Meriel shoved her foot onto the accelerator, gunned the motor and backed out of the parking space with a squeal of tires. A faint tingle washed over her and her head swam slightly; the man had fired his stunner, but the shielding of the car had attenuated it to a nearly harmless level. The alarm to warn her that a human being was in her path sounded, but she didn't stop. Her front fender struck him a glancing blow, jarring her as she swiveled the wheel, still backing, and she saw him flung sideways into the hedge, stunner flying from his hand. She stomped her foot on the brake, jammed the car into forward and peeled out of the lot, the tires screeching in agony. "Grandpa Clark!" she cried. "Help me!"
Clark was returning from the site of an aircar accident, his flight taking him directly over the grounds of New Troy State University when he heard Meriel's scream, not only in his ears but in his mind. Instantly, he changed course to zero in on the cry. He saw her groundcar lurch drunkenly across the street, nearly sideswipe a second car, the collision prevented only by the other vehicle's automatic defenses, and swooped down to seize the erratically weaving vehicle.
Inside, he could see Meriel, her face white with panic and tears flooding down her face.
"Meri!" he shouted. "It's all right! Take your foot off the accelerator!"
His voice must have startled her out of her shock, for the engine ceased its roaring, and she collapsed forward over the steering wheel, her shoulders shaking. Clark brought the car to a stop at the side if the road. The door was locked, and for an instant, he considered the wisdom of tearing it from its hinges, then thought better of it.
"Meri, unlock the door," he told her. "It's all right. You're safe."
It took several repetitions for the message to get across, but at last, she obeyed. Clark pulled the door open and had to catch her as she flung herself into his arms.
"Easy there. It's all right," he told her. She was trembling, and he could hear her heart pounding furiously. Something had happened, all right, but she was too shaken to answer him coherently at first. "You're safe. What happened?"
"He tried to kidnap me," she gasped out finally.
"Him! The guy in the parking lot! I hit him with my car."
Clark hadn't seen anyone in the parking lot, but he hadn't really been looking. He slipped an arm under her knees and the other behind her back and lifted off from the street. An instant later they were hovering over the lot, but there was no sign of Meriel's attacker.
"There's no one here now," he said. "What happened?"
She stammered out enough to give him some idea of what had occurred, and he scanned the area where her groundcar had been parked with his enhanced vision.
"Drops of blood," he said. "He was here, but he isn't anymore." He examined his great, great, granddaughter's face. The pupils of her eyes were dilated widely. "Are you all right, Meri? What's the matter with your eyes?"
She closed them and dropped her head on his shoulder. "He fired a stunner at me. I was in the car." She gagged slightly. "I feel a little sick."
That explained her erratic driving. "Just keep your eyes closed and take some deep breaths," he directed her. "You'll feel better in a few minutes."
"Okay." Her voice sounded muffled.
"I'm going to take you to the Daily Planet," he said. "We can come back for your car later. Just hold still and breathe."
She inhaled deeply, obviously trying to regain control of her stomach. "Thanks, Grandpa Clark," she said. "I…I guess I shouldn't have called you. I should have called the police, but I didn't even think of it. I just screamed for you."
"I'm glad you did," Clark said, soberly, "even if you didn't mean to. But it looks like you did pretty well on your own."
She shivered. "It was like it was somebody else doing those things," she said. "Then, when I got away, I just fell apart."
"That's not surprising," he said. "You did fine. It's almost like old times, isn't it?"
Meriel's giggle was half-hysterical, but it told him that she was recovering from the shock and the stun beam. "Yeah, it is." She took another deep breath. "It seems like you were always getting me out of trouble when I was little."
"Well, yes. *How* many times did I pull you out of trees or something?"
"I lost count." Another deep breath. "My stomach's starting to feel a little better."
"You didn't get much of the charge. Just take it easy. It'll wear off pretty quickly."
He made the flight through the air as smooth as possible. After a few minutes, she sighed and raised her head. Her complexion was still pale, but her eyes looked normal again. "I feel better."
"Good. I'd hate to have you throw up all over my Suit."
"It wouldn't look very good for Superman, would it?" Meriel agreed. She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. "I'm awfully glad you're back, Grandpa Clark. I've missed you."
"I missed you, too," he said. "I'm sorry I left like that."
"You were looking for her, weren't you?" she asked. "Your soulmate. Like in the story you told me when I was little."
"You remember that?" Clark asked, a little surprised. "You were barely three!"
She nodded, careful not to move her head suddenly. "Of course I do. *Were* you?"
He smiled. "Yes."
"And all along she was here in Metropolis."
"Well, not really, but that's where I found her." He regarded her soberly. "We always knew you had my Kryptonian telepathic ability, like your dad, Meri. You have the photographic memory too, don't you?"
"Yeah," she said. "I don't need dream dust to pass tests. I wish I could have given it to Rena."
"So do I," he said. "We're going to catch whoever's distributing this stuff, Meri. That's a promise, and I think you can help us even more than you already have."
"The guy that tried to kidnap you. Do you think you could describe him to an artist?"
"I guess so," Meriel said. "What artist?"
"Me," Clark said.
"Oh, yeah," she said. "I didn't think. You used to draw all those pictures for me when I was a kid."
"I still can," Clark said. "We'll try it when we get to the Planet."
When Clark and Meriel finished talking, there was a silence around the table in Conference Room 1. John's face was ashen, and he seemed unable to form words for the moment. Lori, ever curious, fastened upon one aspect of the story.
"Meriel, you and your dad have Clark's telepathy. You could have called for help, and the guy would never have known. Why didn't you?"
Meriel looked a little embarrassed. "I never even thought of it. As kids, we were always taught that trying to read the minds of our relatives is bad manners. I'll sure remember it next time, though."
"There's not going to be a next time," John said. He looked grim. "Clark, I don't care what you and Lori have to do, but I want this guy caught. And Meriel, you and I are going to practice thinking at each other. You're not a little girl anymore. It's time you got used to using it— just in case."
"Okay," Meriel said. "I'm sorry, Dad. I really messed up, I guess."
"No, you didn't," Clark said. "You stayed alive, and that's the important part. Meriel and I are going to try to draw this guy, John. She got a good look at him, so we'll see if we can produce a good enough picture to try an identification."
"When you get the picture drawn, give it to me," Lori said. "I managed to get into the University's files through the Clarion's computer." She smiled, feeling quite pleased with herself. "Somebody forgot to change the password since I was the editor. If you can give me a fairly good drawing, I can have the comp compare it to the pictures in the records. We might find a match if he's a student there."
"Check out the roster of instructors, too," Clark said. "He might be a TA. Meri did say there's this 'Professor' who might be involved. You never know."
"That's a scary thought," John said, "although not entirely unprecedented."
Lori was cross-checking the schedules of the six students whose names Meriel had supplied, when Fred approached her desk. Lori ignored the copy boy. Ever since the day he had made the mistake of accusing her of sleeping with her partner, the two had maintained a sort of armed truce, but Lori was well aware that Fred regarded her as the enemy. Fred stood still, watching her expressionlessly, then he smirked. "Didn't take him long, did it?" he asked.
"Huh?" The remark was genuinely confusing. "What the dickens are you talking about?"
"Your partner." He nodded at the conference room, where Clark and Meriel could be seen in deep conversation. "I guess he got tired of you, didn't he? Not that I blame him."
Lori looked incredulously at Fred for a long moment, then burst into laughter. "Fred, go pester somebody else before I tell Mr. Olsen what you're saying about his daughter!"
Fred had obviously not expected her reaction. He stared at her for several seconds, then turned and walked away. Lori snickered to herself. She had his number, now. Routing Fred was going to be something she enjoyed. The office boy was crafty and certainly capable of holding a grudge, but he was neither imaginative nor particularly bright, and when she had the opportunity to arrange it, he was going to meet his Waterloo. She had a number of things to settle with him, and she was definitely going to let him know who was boss. Why she had ever let the pathetic little weasel upset her was a mystery to her now. The fact that Clark Kent, a man so incredibly superior to Fred that there could be no comparison, had fallen in love with her and married her outright had been a tremendous boost to her self-confidence, and she found that because of it, Fred's barbs had no power to hurt her.
"You look like you're enjoying yourself," Clark's voice said in her ear.
She looked around and up at him, and he surprised her by bending down to kiss her squarely on her half-open mouth. Someone cheered, and there was a patter of applause. Clark straightened up and grinned unrepentantly. "Okay, everyone, now that we have your attention, I'd like to make a short announcement," he said. He waited until the slightly surprised murmur died down and continued, " I'm very happy to announce that Lori and I were married day before yesterday." He reached down and held up Lori's hand to display the wedding ring on her finger. Lori felt herself blushing as applause rippled over the room, but she couldn't restrain a smile.
"All *right* Clark!" someone shouted.
Again, Clark waited until the noise died away. "We'll be holding a Traditional ceremony for the benefit of friends and family in October," he continued, "but we thought we should let everyone here know. Okay, that's it. As you were." He bent down and added softly in Lori's ear, "That should take the wind out of Fred's sails."
"You heard?" she asked. "Wait, what am I thinking. Of course you heard."
"Yes, and you handled him perfectly," he said. "I just thought I'd add my two cents."
Andrea Waltham drifted up to Lori's desk and looked Clark over wistfully. "Oh, well," she said, "I tried. Nice catch, honey. As for you, Clark, you better treat her right." She winked suggestively at Lori and glided away, leaving the pair of them staring after her in astonishment.
"I hate to think what that means," Lori said.
"You know perfectly well what it means," Clark said, with a grin. "But, since it already runs parallel to what I was thinking…"
"Behave yourself!" Lori said, trying not to giggle. "Did you and Meriel manage to produce that drawing?"
"As a matter of fact, we did. Here you go." He presented her with a sheet of printer paper with the face of a handsome young man sketched clearly on it.
"Wow," Lori remarked. "Meriel's got a great memory."
"Photographic," Clark said, very softly in her ear.. "And my being able to see the picture in her mind when she's thinking hard about something helps. Will this do for your project?"
"It better. Let me scan it and we'll let the comp do its magic," Lori said. "How's Meriel doing?"
"Better. She's tougher than she looks."
"I guess that would follow. She's your descendent. If we get a match, what do we do?"
"Research on his background for starters, and after that we'll do what seems appropriate, depending on what we find."
It was approximately ten minutes later that she saw Clark lift his head and then make the flying signal to her. She nodded and watched him hurry out of the newsroom. A moment later, John exited his office, headed for the elevator. At her desk, he paused. "Where's Clark?"
"He left a few minutes ago," she said, making the same signal Clark had made. John nodded.
"Okay. I've got a lunch meeting with the suits upstairs, if anyone asks. When Clark gets back, you can tell him that we've got a lead on the last piece of jewelry. Some guy named Gerald Smitt bought it. He was a geology teacher over at Metro City College, but he's changed apartments and jobs, so we're still trying to get his new location. Shouldn't be long, now."
"Clark will be glad to hear that," Lori said.
John smiled slightly. "Gotta run. Meriel's in my office. She mentioned wanting to get her car back pretty soon, before Campus Security issues her a citation. She and Clark sort of left it by the side of the road, earlier. You might tell Clark, if you see him before I do."
"Okay," Lori said. "Have a good lunch."
When John left, Lori leaned back in her chair and stretched. The computer was still working and for the present, she had nothing to do. After a moment, she stood up and headed for the editor's office.
Meriel Olsen answered her knock, and rather shyly invited her in. This was the first time they had had the chance to get acquainted without the presence of John and Clark. Lori hesitated, almost changing her mind. "Am I interrupting anything?"
"No. To tell you the truth, I'm a little bored. Dad doesn't want me to go anywhere I might usually go, at least not alone. He's afraid something will happen to me."
"That sounds familiar," Lori said. "We were on stakeouts the last couple of weeks, and Clark was worried about leaving me alone the whole time."
The two young women laughed together. "That sounds like Clark," Meriel said. "Gra—Clark used to regularly get me out of trouble when I was a kid, and lecture me about it afterwards. I could tell you stories you wouldn't believe."
"Oh, I don't know," Lori said, recalling some of the events in her life for the past few weeks. "I might. Why did he have to get you out of trouble so much?"
Meriel shrugged. "I liked to fly with him, so I was always climbing things. Once I got stuck on the roof of our church. One of the choirboys—an older kid named Billy Stevens— dared me to do it and naturally, I couldn't back down. I was about seven."
Lori giggled. "Of course you couldn't," she said. She was beginning to like Meriel. "So, how did you get down?"
"Clark got me down," she said. "Naturally he couldn't do it as Superman, because Superman wasn't supposed to be around then, but he 'climbed' up and back down with me hanging on piggyback. Actually, he was flying and I knew it, but no one else did. Then Dad got hold of me and I lost my vid privileges for a week, but flying with Clark was worth it."
"I'd think so," Lori said, wondering what it would be like, growing up as a non-super child in a family where many of the adults could fly. "Didn't you ever feel cheated, not being able to fly, yourself?"
"Sometimes," Meriel said. "But neither of my brothers could fly, either, and neither could Dad or Mom. Uncle Aaron and Aunt Carrie sometimes took us flying, but that wasn't the same thing. After Henry and his sisters started to fly, it was a little different. I envied them for a long time, but I really felt sorry for Edward."
"Who's Edward?" Lori asked, feeling a little bewildered.
"Oh, I forgot, you haven't met most of the family, yet," Meriel said. "Edward is my cousin. He's thirty, and he's the only one of Uncle Aaron's kids who doesn't have super powers. He was pretty disappointed for a long time, but he finally got over it."
"Poor kid," Lori said. "That would be awful!"
"Well, he's a research scientist now," Meriel said. "He's smarter than all the rest of us put together, except maybe Clark. He also races aircars in his spare time and holds some kind of amateur title. I think he's making up for it in his own way, to tell you the truth. Anyway, I liked flying with Clark most of all. He'd fly with us sometimes, but he was really careful not to be seen. All of us kids were crazy about him. He actually enjoyed playing with us, not just pretending like some people do. I think he really loves children."
Lori hesitated again, wondering whether she should ask the question. "Do you think he'd like more kids of his own, someday? I do, in a few years, but I know he's already been through it, once."
"I think he'd love it," Meriel said, at once. "If there's one thing Clark really enjoys, it's children. Why do you think he always volunteers at those Christmas charity things every year? It's so he can play with the underprivileged kids and make them feel special for a day. In some ways, I think he's a big kid at heart."
"That sounds like Clark, all right," Lori said. Her stomach chose that moment to growl and she laughed. "I'm hungry, and I bet you are, too. Let's go get some lunch, and you can tell me more about the family I've married into."
"What I'd really like to do is go get my car before Campus Security tows it," Meriel said, "but Dad doesn't want me to. Do you suppose Clark could take us? We could go to lunch afterwards. I *am* hungry."
"He's out on some kind of emergency," Lori said. "Look, why don't we go get it, ourselves? Nobody's going to bother the two of us together. Then we can drop in down at Mamacita's, if you like Mexican food, and I can tell you what happened the first time Clark tried to take me there. We can leave a note for Clark and John."
Lori and Meriel descended the elevator to the lobby and exited out onto the street. It was just noon and the sky was a bright blue with tiny clouds dotting it. Meriel glanced at Lori, assessing her beloved Grandfather Clark's new wife. Lori was a beautiful girl, she thought, not very tall, but athletic and slim, exactly as Meriel had always dreamed of looking. Her eyes and hair were very dark brown, almost black, and her eyelashes… Meriel sighed, aware of a slight touch of envy. She had to wear false eyelashes to achieve that look, but she could tell right away that Lori's were real. If she hadn't been so nice, Meriel could cheerfully have hated her, but she didn't. For one thing, Clark was obviously crazy about her, and it would have made him unhappy to think that Meriel disliked Lori. For another, Meriel just liked her. Lori was smart and friendly, and obviously trying hard to help find the persons responsible for putting Rena in the hospital.
Lori glanced at her wrist. "Darn!"
"Oh, nothing important. I just keep forgetting. My wrist talker's at the repair shop as of this morning, in critical condition."
"What happened to it?" Meriel asked.
Lori grimaced. "Would you believe the strap came apart and it fell off in Clark's microwave oven? I didn't even notice it until I came back to take out the oatmeal."
"Ouch," Meriel said. "That couldn't have been good for it. It sounds like it would be less expensive to just get another one."
"Not exactly; it's kind of special. My brother, Brad, gave it to me for my twenty-first birthday. Anyway, Clark thinks they can repair it, but until then I'm without a chronometer."
"And a wrist talker," Meriel said. "I don't have one either. I was going to pick mine up from the shop this afternoon, after my English exam. The guy in the parking lot kind of messed up my plans for the day."
"We can do it after we get your car, I guess," Lori said. "It's too bad we haven't got better transportation, though. We'll just have to use the slidewalk. It won't take too long."
"I guess there's no reason for Clark to have a car," Meriel agreed. "I never thought about it before."
"No, and I haven't gotten one yet," Lori said. "Oh, well, walking's healthy, I guess. Where is your car, exactly?"
"Not far from the English department," Meriel said, "on 'H' Street. Clark put it on the shoulder of the road, just opposite the statue of the Founder."
"I hope the pigeons don't carry it off," Lori observed dryly. Meriel laughed.
"It's a subcompact, so they might," she said. "I just hope whoever that guy was, he's not watching the car, waiting for me to come back."
"He's probably sitting somewhere with an ice pack on his nose," Lori said. "I never heard of anyone using their computer for self defense, but that was really smart."
"It was all I could think of," Meriel said. "I took a class in women's self defense for physical education, but I never really expected to use it."
""Well, it was a good thing you did," Lori said. "Whoever is behind this, they must have overheard you asking questions and gotten worried."
"That's what I figured," Meriel said. "If someone is dealing on campus, though, why would he worry about someone like me asking questions? I'm not a cop or anything."
"I don't know," Lori said. "It makes you wonder if there's something more behind it than just people dealing dream dust. Where were you asking the questions, anyway? Was there anyone around who could have overheard you?"
"I don't know," Meriel said. "I asked questions at the dorm, I know. I was trying to find out about Pete Bremerton, the guy they took out last Monday. I talked to my friends in the ER, after Rena was admitted there, too. I guess someone could have been listening."
"Maybe," Lori said. "Who did you talk to at the dorm?"
Meriel thought about it. "I talked to his roommate, and a couple of other students who were in his geology class with him. Nobody wanted to talk about it, really."
"I guess that doesn't surprise me," Lori said.
"No, I didn't really expect any answers," Meriel admitted. "You don't suppose one of them might have told whoever is distributing this stuff that I was asking questions, do you?"
"Maybe. When was this?"
"Last night, after I got back from Dad's. Nobody knows where Pete is or what happened to him—at least no one will tell me if they do know."
"Do they know what happened to Rena?"
"Probably. The paramedics weren't exactly subtle when they came in. You know: big flashing blue light and a siren that could be heard six blocks away. They woke up the whole dorm."
"Yeah." Lori was looking thoughtful. "I wonder if it would do any good to look around his room at this point."
"I don't know," Meriel said. Was Lori really advocating that they sneak into Pete's room without permission? Still, Mel, his roommate, wasn't being very forthcoming with answers. Maybe they could find something. "His stuff's probably been taken out by now, but we could try."
Lori raised an eyebrow at her in an exact imitation of Clark. "Maybe, and maybe his roommate knows more than he's saying, too."
"Yeah, I guess he might. Somebody must have told on me. It could have been him."
"Unless it was just a random carjacking attempt, and it didn't sound like it. Do you want to take the risk?"
Meriel hesitated. If they got caught, they could be in trouble but if they found something that could lead them to whoever had sold Rena the dream dust, it might be worth it. Besides, if someone came in, she could make some sort of excuse about having lost something last night while she was there. "Sure. What do we do?"
"You can still get into the dorm, can't you?"
"Sure. I don't have to check out until Saturday, actually. Exams are still going on through tomorrow."
"Okay. After we pick up your car, here's what we'll do…"
The little, red groundcar pulled into the dorm's parking lot and Meriel Olsen cut the engine. It was nearly one o'clock in the afternoon, and here and there students hurried along the University's paths and slidewalks, or lounged on the emerald green lawns, shaded by the leafy trees dotting the greensward. Some had their recorders, portable computers and electronic books spread out around them as they studied for exams, others were simply enjoying the early afternoon sunshine, and one or two slept, stretched out on the grass oblivious to the occasional gnats and bees buzzing about the area. The air was warm, but not too warm, the sun was high in the sky and little white cirrus clouds dotted the blue expanse. It was a perfect day.
Lori and Meriel left the car and walked briskly toward the doors of the shabby, white building where Meriel had lived for nearly a year.
Lori glanced around, grimacing at the plain, utilitarian hallway as they hurried toward the stairwell. She had lived in another dorm very like this one for three years until last June, when she had graduated and the most exciting part of her young life had begun. The big, uncurtained windows let in the afternoon sun, and she could smell the familiar scents of the dorms—the faint aroma of cooking food drifting in from somewhere, the smell of the commercial disinfectant solution the cleaning staff used to wash the floors and the sharp, over-perfumed odor of cheap floor wax. It was amazing, she thought irrelevantly, how familiar they were, although when she had lived in her dorm she had never before been consciously aware of them.
"My room is on the third floor," Meriel said. "Pete's is on the second."
"Okay," Lori said. "Lead on."
They took the stairs to the second floor. The first floor hall had been nearly deserted; many students had already departed to enjoy the short vacation time left to them before the start of the new session, some were taking finals, and others were in their rooms, cramming for their upcoming tests. Many were simply outside, enjoying the warm, summer day. Meriel and Lori emerged onto the second floor and stood for a moment, taking in the situation.
This corridor was completely deserted. Here and there, a door gaped open, and Lori could hear the hum of a computer and an occasional voice as students talked, or listened to recorded lectures. Somewhere, a soap opera was playing. Lori recognized her mother's favorite, a long-running drama to which she had been subjected every summer for as long as she could remember, and grimaced. "The Lonely Road" held no interest for her, although Mariann had practically identified with Inga and her numerous marital troubles a couple of summers ago.
"This is it," Meriel said, softly. They had paused before a closed door, halfway down the hall. Lori held up crossed fingers, raised her fist and rapped sharply on the panel.
Silence greeted them. Lori knocked a second time and they waited, glancing hopefully at each other, but no one came.
"Looks like no one is there," Meriel said.
"Okay, stand behind me in case someone comes," Lori said.
The locks in the dorm weren't electronic. The University never spared money for anything they didn't have to when it came to student housing, and the ancient dorms had been there for at least fifty years, subject to various repairs and innovations. The cheap, mechanical locks were a cinch for anyone who had taken the minimum time to figure out how to open them, as Lori had the first year of her residency here. A long, twisted wire, a minute spent feeling around for the tumblers and the shear point, and she applied pressure in the correct place, aligning the two. There was a click.
"Wow," Meriel said. "How did you do that?"
"Practice," Lori said. "I always wanted to be an investigative reporter, and that sometimes means getting in where they don't want you. Come on." She eased the door open silently, and they slipped inside.
There were two beds in the room, one unmade and the other with the bedding carelessly pulled up to cover the pillow. The spread dragged on the floor and several electronic books, a stack of computer disks and half of a somewhat desiccated cheese sandwich adorned the upper surface.
Meriel made a face. "That was there, last night when I talked to Mel," she said, indicating the sandwich.
"I guess Mel didn't sleep there, then," Lori said, stepping over a soda can that lay on its side on the floor. "Or, at least I hope he didn't. Check the dressers for starters."
Both dressers had clothing in them, but nothing unusual emerged. Meriel dug in the closets and under a pile of dirty laundry there without results.
"This place is a pig sty," Lori observed, feeling under the mattress of the half-made bed and then under the box springs. "Nothing here." She proceeded to the other bed and treated it in a like manner. "Nothing…wait." She knelt, feeling under the end of the bed. There was something here, although it was probably just a discarded bag of fast food or something, judging from the condition of the rest of the room. It was stuffed up under the box springs, and difficult to reach, but at last she managed to grasp it with the tips of her fingers and wiggle it loose.
A small, wadded-up paper bag emerged. In some disappointment, Lori opened it and looked inside. In the bottom, folded up, was a plastic bag, half full of a fine, greyish powder. She regarded it for a moment, then unsealed the bag, took a tiny pinch of the substance between her thumb and forefinger and carefully resealed it. The only container she had available was a little metal box in the bottom of her purse that had contained cold pills, but it would do. She found it, dusted the greyish power into it and snapped it shut.
Dropping it into her bag, she turned. "Meriel, look at this."
Meriel emerged from the bathroom where she had been searching the medicine cabinet, and hurried to her side. "What is it?"
Lori held up the bag. "Look. Is this what I think it is?"
The taller girl examined the plastic bag. "It might be," she said. "It sure looks like it."
Lori replaced the plastic bag inside the paper one, closed it and shoved it back into the springs as close to where she had found it as she could get it. "So they have dream dust here in the room—if that's what this stuff is. I suppose it might be Pete's, but that's an awful lot of dust for one person. Do you suppose one of them was selling it?"
"Maybe. Which means either Pete or Mel might know the supplier," Meriel said. "We've got to find out where Pete was taken. If he's still alive and able to communicate, we might be able to identify who's behind this."
They grinned at each other. "In the meantime, let's get out of here," Lori said. "I think we've pushed our luck about as far as we should."
"I'm with you there, girlfriend," Meriel said. "Let's go."
At the door, they paused, listening. Footsteps were approaching, and as they waited, the sounds stopped just outside. A man's voice said: "I've got some on hand. Wait here and…" The voice broke off. "That's funny, the door's not locked."
Meriel's eyes met Lori's, agonized. The panel swung open. A thin, blond man stared at them in shock. "What are you two doing here?" he demanded.
When Clark returned to the Daily Planet, he glanced automatically at Lori's desk, but she wasn't there. As yet unperturbed, he looked around the room and in the editor's office and conference rooms, but there was no sign of Lori or Meriel, and he couldn't hear her heartbeat anywhere in the building.
Fred went past, a box of doughnuts in his hands. Clark debated for an instant, and hailed him. "Hey, Fred, do you know where Lori went?"
"Nope." The copy boy continued on his way.
Clark glanced around. Andrea Waltham was working at her computer, frowning slightly in concentration. "Andrea, where did Lori go? Do you know?"
The gossip columnist looked up. "She and Ms. Olsen left about an hour ago, I think. Lori said she left you a note on your desk."
"Thanks." Clark returned to his desk, but a brief search confirmed that there was no note. Well, maybe Meriel had left one for her father. He scanned the editor's office, but nothing resembling a note was to be seen. That was odd. He tried to consider the situation objectively. If the two of them had left together, it was possible they had just gone to lunch. But knowing Lori's curiosity and determination to dig up the truth, and the fact that she was with Meriel, who, like her great, great grandmother Lois, always seemed to attract trouble like a magnet, left him a little worried.
Another question remained as well. If Lori had told Andrea that she'd left a note for him, then she'd left a note, so where was it? Perhaps it had blown off his desk. He scanned the room with his enhanced vision. The note wasn't on the floor but… There was a wadded-up ball of paper in his trash basket, with Lori's handwriting on it. Could that be it? He x-rayed the paper and read the message with only the slightest of effort:
"Clark, Meriel and I have gone to get her car before Campus Security tows it. We'll probably go to lunch at Mamacita's afterwards.
P.S. If you get back in time, why don't you join us?"
Oh, great. Clark sighed in resignation and fished the note from the trash, holding it by a protruding corner and using the tips of his fingers. It was unlikely that Lori had discarded the note, so someone else had. Why someone would do such a petty thing was unclear, but he intended to find out who it had been, if possible. In the meantime, at least if they got into anything too bad, Meriel could call for help. The last thing he wanted was for Lori to feel that he didn't trust her. She was young, but she had a lot of common sense, and neither of the two women was stupid. He wrapped the wad of paper in his handkerchief and tucked it into his pocket. He'd just have to hope for the best, he decided, optimistically, and with any luck, they'd be back before long with the car.
"What are you two doing here?" Mel demanded.
Meriel smiled. "Hi, Mel," she said, doing her best to sound cheerful. "I wondered where you were."
"How did you get in my room?" Mel demanded. Behind him a dark-haired young man whom Meriel recalled vaguely as having seen around, appeared to be trying to retreat quietly into the background.
Meriel frowned. "You left the door unlocked," she said. "I thought you must be around here somewhere, because I knocked and it just swung open."
"I left it locked!"
Meriel shook her head. "Maybe, but it wasn't when we got here. Anyway, I just came by to see if I dropped my monogrammed pen while I was here, last night. My dad gave it to me for my birthday, and I had it in my purse when I came down here. Have you seen it? It's gold, with a capital M on it in rhinestones."
"No," Mel said, curtly. "Next time don't come into my room unless I'm here."
"Okay, I'm sorry!" Meriel said, striving to sound annoyed. "Look, if you see my pen, let me know, okay? I really don't want to lose it."
"How long have you been here?" Mel asked, suddenly.
"A couple of minutes," Meriel said. "Since you weren't here, we figured you'd gone to somebody else's room or something, and waited for you."
"Well, next time wait *outside*!"
"Okay! Geez! You don't have to have a hemorrhage over it! Come on, Lori, I guess we're not wanted!" Meriel flounced out the door, past Mel, and Lori followed quickly, looking offended. Neither of them relaxed until they had reached the door to the stairs and gone through it. Then Meriel exhaled explosively.
"Whew! That was close!"
"You were great!" Lori said. "You should have been an actress. You almost had me convinced!"
"Thanks!" Meriel fought the desire to giggle nervously. "I guess now we better go tell Clark what we found, don't you think?"
"Yeah, I think we've taken enough risks for one day," Lori agreed. "Did you hear what he was saying to that guy?"
"I sure did. I hope he's not selling him any dust. You think Mel is our dealer?"
"Well, it's either him or Pete," Lori said. "Assuming that stuff was really what we thought it was. We'll find out."
"What do you mean?"
Lori grinned and patted her purse. "I got a sample. Clark knows some people who can analyze it for us."
Clark was on the verge of going in search of the two women when the vidphone on his desk chimed softly. He glanced at the small screen and sighed in relief. The call was coming from Meriel's car.
"Clark Kent," he said.
The palm-sized screen lit up. "Hi, Clark," Meriel said. "Did you get our note?"
"Yeah, but I want to talk to you about that," Clark said.
"Want to meet us at Mamacita's? We'll be there in fifteen minutes." Lori's face had appeared behind Meriel's. "We have something to tell you that we don't want to talk about over the air."
Clark had to resist the urge to breathe heavily. Obviously, the retrieval of Meriel's car had not been the only thing on the agenda. At least they were both all right. "I'll be there."
The lunch traffic at Mamacita's wasn't heavy today. When Clark arrived, after hiking over on foot, Lori and Meriel were just pulling into a parking spot. His pretty wife waved at him cheerily, and the two young women hurried over to the entrance where he stood waiting for them.
"Clark, who do you know that can analyze something for us?" Lori asked at once.
"I guess Arnie could help us, over at STAR Labs," Clark said. "Some of his colleagues handle that kind of stuff. Why?"
"We need to find out if the powder we found in Mel's room is really dream dust," Meriel said, matter-of-factly.
"*What?*" Clark had to work to keep his voice fairly level. "I thought you were just going to pick up your car!"
"Well, we decided to check on something while we were there," Lori explained. "It was on our way. Anyway, I found a bag under his mattress, and I got a sample."
Clark took a few seconds to remind himself that Lori was just being an investigative reporter and that neither she nor Meriel had gotten hurt. The friendship the two of them had obviously struck up promised to cause serious disturbances for his peace of mind in the future, however. It looked as if Rhonda's wish for him to marry a woman who would keep him hopping had been fulfilled.
Lori's expression changed slightly, and she put a hand on his arm. "I'm sorry, Clark. Are you mad?" she asked, a little apprehensively. He inhaled deeply and shook his head.
"No, I'm not," he said, firmly. "You did what you thought you should do. I'm not going to tell you that you shouldn't." It wasn't an error he'd make a second time, he told himself. Lois hadn't liked his attempts to protect her from herself by making decisions for her, and he was at least smart enough to learn from his mistakes—if someone hit him over the head with them often enough. Even he could learn a lesson like that, eventually.
Lori's smile told him he'd said the right thing. He put an arm around her, telling himself to calm down. Lori and Meriel were smart women. Besides, if they'd gotten in too deep, they would surely have called him. "Let's go get something to eat," he said.
"Good idea," Meriel said. "I'm starved."
"Me, too." Lori slipped her hand into Clark's, and he squeezed it lightly. "I feel like having a Combo Grande. I didn't eat much of my oatmeal after I found my wrist talker in it."
"Oh, yes, the shop called while you were gone," Clark said. "Their technician was in, and he thinks he'll have to replace most of the inner parts. He recommended scrapping it and buying another one. He said it would cost less. I told him to replace the inner parts anyway, because the talker was a gift from your brother. He estimated two weeks before it's fixed, but he said he could do it."
"Thanks, Clark," Lori said. "You didn't need to do that."
"Yes, I did," he said. "Some things are more important than saving money."
While they sat waiting for their meals, Lori and Meriel filled Clark in on their afternoon activities. Clark listened, consciously making an effort not to criticize. They had gotten caught, but had talked their way out of the situation and were justly proud of themselves. As a matter of fact, he was proud of them, too. If he looked at it dispassionately, they'd done a pretty good job. It was just that from his perspective, it was hard to be dispassionate.
"Nice work," he said, when Meriel had finished. "Maybe you should have been a reporter instead of a doctor, Meri."
His great granddaughter grinned, but shook her head. "A doctor is kind of an investigator, too, Clark, and that's what I want to be. Right now, though, I want to find out who's poisoning the students at NTSU."
"We haven't got very long," Lori said. "Tomorrow is the last day of exams."
"That doesn't mean we won't be able to track down the source," Clark said. "Classes start again in three weeks, and it's probable they'll be back."
"Maybe," Lori said. "I've got a kind of bad feeling about this, Clark. Whoever is behind it apparently went after Meriel just because she asked some questions. What if there's something more involved that we don't know about?"
"Like what?" Clark wanted to know.
"I don't know. Something, anyway. I just have the feeling it isn't only about someone selling dream dust to college kids."
Clark considered that. Lori had an almost intuitive instinct about such things. Maybe she was right. "Well, the only thing we can do right now is attack it from this angle until we get more information. I'll get the sample to Arnie right after lunch, and we'll see what he comes up with. By the way," he added, "where did you leave the note that you wrote me?"
"On your desk," Lori said. "I set your coffee cup on top of it, so you'd be sure to find it. Why? Shouldn't I have?"
"That wasn't where I found it."
"Where was it?" Lori asked.
"Somebody crumpled it up and threw it in my trash can."
"Who would do a thing like that?" Meriel asked. "I saw where she put it."
"So did other people in the office," Clark said. "Somebody threw it away."
Lori stared at him, her forehead puckered slightly, then realization dawned. "Fred!" she said, indignantly. "That little creep!"
"Who's Fred?" Meriel asked.
"The office copy boy," Clark said. "He blames Lori for the upcoming end of the world."
"What?" Meriel said. "It sounds to me like he's got a serious mental problem."
"That, too," Lori said. "He's part of the Gaia's Children movement."
"You mean that group of whackos that tried to sabotage the Mayflower?" Meriel asked.
"That's the bunch," Lori said.
"Lori had a packet of information about one of their leaders and they were trying to get it back," Clark explained. "We think they used Fred to spy on Lori and set her up for a kidnapping, but we were never able to prove it. After we uncovered the plot, Fred blamed Lori, since the organization thinks that when the big ship gets to Alpha Centauri, Armageddon is going to arrive here."
Meriel shook her head. "Fanatics," she said. "You know, there's a lot of different groups out there that are out of the mainstream—people that still think the Earth is flat, people who think technology is going to destroy the planet—but Gaia's Children has got to be one of the strangest."
"Exactly." Clark glanced around. "Here comes our food."
"Arnie says he'll give it top priority," Clark told Lori an hour and a half later. "One of his colleagues said he'd get right to it as soon as he finished with what he was working on, so we ought to have the results before the end of the day."
"Good." Lori squinted at him. Her eyes were watering from the overly bright computer screen, and she wiped the moisture from her cheeks with the back of her hand. A dull headache had begun behind her eyes some time ago and she closed them momentarily, pressing the heels of her hands against them.
"Are you all right, Lori?" Clark's voice sounded worried. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing. I've just got a headache. The lights are a little bright in here."
Clark's warm hand rested against her forehead for an instant. "You don't seem to be running a fever, but you don't look like you feel well. Are you sure you're okay?"
"Yeah, I think so. It's just a headache."
Clark moved around to massage her shoulders. "I guess it's been a pretty stressful couple of days. Does this help?"
"A little," she said, untruthfully. If she were entirely honest, she might have admitted that she felt slightly nauseated as well.
Clark wasn't fooled. "Lori, what's the matter? You look terrible."
"I don't know," she said. "My head hurts, and I feel a little sick to my stomach. You don't suppose it was the Mexican food, do you?"
"I doubt it. Mamacita's is a good restaurant. You could be coming down with something, though." Again, he rested the back of his hand against her face. "I think I should take you home to bed. To rest," he clarified.
Lori nodded, reluctantly. She was feeling more miserable by the minute. "All right."
Clark helped her out of her chair. "Okay?"
"Uh uh." She clapped a hand over her mouth. "I think I'm going to…" Lori ran for the ladies' room.
When she returned a few uncomfortable minutes later, Clark was waiting by the door. "I told John I'm taking you home. Come on."
"How about Meriel? Is she okay?"
"She's feeling fine. I don't think it was the food." He put an arm around her. "Come on, honey, let's go."
Lori was eternally grateful that Clark didn't try to take her home via the slidewalk. He guided her through the door to the stairs and then she felt herself swept up in a pair of strong arms. She put her throbbing head down on her husband's suddenly Spandex-clad shoulder and closed her eyes, barely aware of it when he shifted into super-speed mode. Within what was probably seconds, she felt herself being tucked into bed. The bedsprings creaked and sagged as Clark sat down next to her. He rested a hand on her cheek again. "Lori?"
She forced her eyes open. The light in the room seemed incredibly bright and she closed them quickly.
"Just a minute." Clark moved away, and even behind her closed eyelids, she could see the light dim. "Okay, try again."
She cracked an eyelid. The illumination of the room had lessened considerably, but her stomach lurched slightly. "Clark?"
"I'm right here. Honey, I think you need to see a doctor. You got sick awfully fast."
She moaned faintly. "I don't want to move."
"Okay, I won't make you." He stroked her cheek with one finger. "I'm going to call Rhonda. I don't like this."
"Okay." Lori couldn't bring up the will to protest. The room seemed to be rocking unsteadily, like a ship at sea and it was making her sick. She closed her eyes and fought the urge to lose the contents of her stomach again. There couldn't be much there after the episode in the ladies' room at the Planet.
From somewhere, she heard vaguely the whoosh that announced the arrival of one of Clark's relatives and then the murmur of voices, but it was all in the background as she fought a desperate battle with her stomach. She started retching again and was barely aware when a pair of warm, masculine hands lifted her head and held a basin for her. Eventually the dry heaves subsided. The voices in the background slowly faded away as well, leaving only confused images dancing in her head. Then those also vanished, leaving nothing.
She wasn't Lori. She was moving through a bedroom that was familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Somewhere was the vague knowledge that she was dreaming, but she had never had a dream like this one. This was the townhouse, her home, something in the back of her mind told her. Part of her had never seen this place before, but another part had. She looked in the mirror of an antique cherry wood dresser and saw a face that was familiar and yet strange. The face was more mature, and resembled hers, and yet it wasn't. Lori didn't understand, but when she heard Clark's voice call, she knew he was speaking to her. Lois. He had called her Lois, and she was Lois.
Clark came into the bedroom. He was Clark, but he was a different Clark. He wore the glasses she had seen him wear in the photograph at the Planet, and he was dressed in the period clothes of the turn of the century. He was waiting for her. The Kerth Awards were tonight, and they were up for their first joint Kerth. The smile on his face, however, wasn't for that. They had learned only today that they were expecting their first child. Clark hadn't been able to stop smiling since he had heard the news, and she, Lois, who had never wanted children until she had married Clark Kent, was thrilled and happy. Part of her mind found all this strange and foreign, but part of it wasn't at all disoriented. This was natural and normal, the way things should be.
Somehow, then, she was looking at the scene from the outside, an observer. The woman who was herself and yet not herself and Clark were suddenly outside the townhouse on the sidewalk, and Clark was opening the door of a silver ground vehicle that she had never seen before. She felt herself drifting farther away from them, the scene beginning to fade.
What was happening to her? Lori thrashed about, the figures in her dream becoming distant and shadowy again. She didn't want to leave this dream. She tried desperately to grasp the images, but for all her frantic struggling, she couldn't move, couldn't hold on. The dream shapes melted like mist, and she nearly cried out in her frustration. There was something about what she was seeing that meant something, but what it was she hadn't discovered. There was something she didn't want to lose…
Lori opened her eyes to find herself held tightly in Clark's arms. Her husband was lying beside her, holding her with her head tucked under his chin. Lori lay still for several confused minutes, trying to figure out what had happened. The stomach-churning nausea was gone and so was the throbbing headache, leaving only faint discomfort. The painful, over-sensitivity of her eyes to light seemed to have disappeared as well.
"Clark?" Her voice didn't want to work and the word came out cracked and raspy, but the effect on Clark was like magic. His arms tensed and then slowly relaxed, releasing her.
"Lori?" He sat up, looking down into her face. "Ronnie! She's awake! No, Lori, lie still. Ronnie!"
"Take it easy, Clark, I've still got my super-hearing." Rhonda Klein was standing in the doorway. For the first time since Lori had met her, except for a very brief interval when she, Lori and Clark had been in disguise, she wasn't wearing the pink costume of Ultra Woman. Clark's granddaughter was wearing a pair of jeans, a white blouse, tucked in at the waist, and a pair of jogging shoes. Her dark hair was tied back in a swinging ponytail, and she was half-smiling at Lori.
"Ronnie?" Lori asked. She rubbed her face and blinked at the doctor. "What's going on?"
Rhonda moved forward and sat down on the edge of the bed. "That's what we're hoping you can tell us, Lori. We'd like to know what happened. No, don't move for now. I don't want you to start feeling sick again."
Lori frowned, trying to make sense of the words. How was she supposed to know what had happened? Then the second part registered. "I don't feel sick."
"No nausea?" Rhonda leaned forward, examining her eyes. "No headache? Your eyes look normal. No photosensitivity?"
"A little headache. Not much." Lori cleared her throat. "I feel…pretty okay, really. Kind of…spacey, I think." She blinked, still frowning, noting for the first time that a line of plastic tubing was connected to her arm, running from a bag, half full of a clear fluid, hanging at the head of the bed. "What happened?"
"Lori, you had an adverse reaction to a dose of dream dust," Rhonda said. "Fortunately it was a very light dose; only a trace, really. If it had been any stronger, we'd have had to put you in the hospital. It was touch and go there for awhile whether I was going to admit you anyway."
"Dream dust?" Lori wasn't sure she'd heard it correctly. "I didn't… That can't be…"
"It was dream dust," Rhonda said.
"But, how could I have…"
"That's what we're trying to figure out. Clark told me you found a bag of what you thought was dream dust in someone's dorm room. Did you smell it? Maybe to try to tell what it was?"
"No, of course not! I'm not crazy!" Lori said, horrified. A little pulse beat of pain, like a shadow of the previous one began to throb behind her eyes. "All I did was take a pinch of it and transfer it to the pillbox. I never got it near my face. In fact, I held my breath while the bag was open."
Rhonda looked searchingly at her for a long moment. "You're sure."
Lori nodded, cautiously. "Of course, I'm sure. She grimaced slightly and pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes.
"Headache?" Rhonda asked.
"A little bit."
"Close your eyes, lie still and relax," Rhonda told her. "It's all right. You'll feel better in a little while." She glanced at Clark. "So, she didn't inhale it at all. All she did was touch it."
"I told you she wouldn't," Clark said.
"I know," Rhonda said, slowly, "and I believed you, but I had to be sure. It looks to me like we've got a bigger problem on our hands."
"I better call Arnie," Clark said. He squeezed Lori's hand. "I'll be right back, honey. Don't go anywhere, okay?"
"Not likely," Lori mumbled, closing her eyes in relief.
Rhonda's hand rested lightly on her forehead. "The stuff is mostly out of your system, Lori. You should be feeling normal in a couple of hours."
"Ronnie, how could I have…"
"Shh." The superwoman spoke soothingly. "That's what we're going to find out. Don't give us a scare like that again, okay? Clark was almost frantic."
"I know. I never thought you did it on purpose. Try to go back to sleep, now. It's the best thing you can do for yourself."
"Ronnie, I don't get it." Clark kept his voice low so as not to disturb Lori, sleeping in the next room. He could tell by listening to her deep, even breathing that she was resting far more peacefully than she had been a short time before. Her restless tossing and turning had scared him and threatened to pull out the intravenous tubing Rhonda had placed in her arm several hours ago, and he had ended up lying next to her, holding her to prevent the thrashing. "Why did she react so violently to the little amount you said was in her bloodstream? Kids have to snort it to get the usual effect."
Rhonda shook her head. "Kids snort the usual stuff to get the effect. This isn't the usual stuff."
"I figured that."
"I was talking to Dr. Frazier while you were in there with Lori," Rhonda said. "The powder was dream dust, all right, but there's been a chemical alteration made to its structure. That was why I had to make sure of the way Lori contacted it." She poured herself a cup of the tea one of them had made several hours ago and warmed it absently with her heat vision. "She touched it, Clark. She didn't even inhale it. Under normal circumstances, a person could roll in the stuff and not have any reaction to it at all as long as they didn't inhale it or inject it. It doesn't penetrate the outer skin. Not normally."
"But it must have this time," Clark said.
"Yes, exactly. It's somehow been changed to pass through the epidermal barrier and into the capillaries—and thus into the bloodstream. It probably took a while—that would explain the delayed reaction."
"You mean, it isn't instantaneous."
"No," Rhonda said. "Especially on the skin of the hands. If she'd washed her hands within a few minutes, there would probably have been no effect at all."
"We went to lunch about half an hour later," Clark said. "She and Meri went into the restroom to wash. Neither one was impressed by the cleanliness of Mel's room."
Rhonda shook her head. "She would have absorbed some by that time. It may have lessened the effect, though. That may be why she only had a trace of it in her system. I hate to think what the full dose might have done."
"And a trace amount was enough to do that to her."
Rhonda shook her head again. "Yes, and that's something I haven't figured out. The stuff *is* more powerful than standard dream dust—there's no question about that, but it shouldn't have affected her so badly, unless there's something else about it that we haven't figured out yet. Arnie said they're not completely finished with the analysis. He'll probably have more for us in a couple of days." She paused, frowning. "You said there's been more dream dust cases than usual this exam week."
"That's what Meriel's friends in the ER said. About three times as many and it's only the summer session. There aren't as many students taking exams as there are during the normal school year."
"There might not be a connection," Rhonda said, "but I tend to distrust coincidences like this."
"In other words, something about this stuff causes more people to react badly to it than the ordinary, garden variety dream dust."
"That would be my guess. 'Why' is another question, though. An ordinary chemist just manufacturing dream dust to sell wouldn't go to that kind of effort, and certainly wouldn't deliberately produce a product more likely to kill or cripple its buyers. So what's really going on?"
"Lori said she thought there was something else behind it," Clark said. "On less evidence."
Rhonda's expression relaxed into a smile. "She still does it, doesn't she, Clark? It's almost like old times."
"Yeah." Clark poured himself some tea and heated it up. "Don't mistake her for Lois, though, Ronnie. She isn't."
"No, of course not. But I still see her do things that remind me of her." She sipped the tea slowly. "Are you going to tell her?"
Clark didn't answer for a long moment, then he shook his head. "I don't know. Certainly not for a long time, unless something really unforeseen arises. What would you do if someone came along and told you that you were the reincarnation of his dead wife?"
Rhonda grimaced. "I see your point. I'd think he was crazy."
"In Lori's place, wouldn't you be hurt, too, thinking I'd married her because I thought she was Lois, come back? I couldn't do that to her. I love her too much."
"You're probably right. How many people know?"
"CJ knows. Lara, Jon, Ann, you and John are the others. Meriel guessed about her being my soulmate from a story I told her when she was little, but she doesn't know about the past lives aspect."
"That's just as well," Rhonda said, thoughtfully. "None of us will say anything, of course. It isn't our decision to make."
"Thanks." Clark tuned his hearing to Lori's breathing, relieved to hear her slow, natural respirations. "It isn't an irrevocable decision. If it seems like the right thing to do, I will, but the circumstances would have to be unusual. Some odd things have happened, though. I'm not sure how to explain them."
"You remember the Kryptonite bracelet. She somehow knew enough to dislike it. She's seen things of mine that she saw as Lois and she keeps having deja vu over them. I'm not sure what to think."
"What things?" Rhonda asked.
"There's a picture at the Planet of Lois and me receiving our first joint Kerth, for one. That also happened to be the day we found out that we were expecting CJ. It was an important day for us in two ways. And, there's my fertility statue." He jerked a thumb at the little object sitting on the bookcase shelf.
"Is that all?"
"Other things, here and there. The picture of my Mom and Dad was another. But it didn't happen when she saw CJ, Lara or Jon—or even you. I don't understand it."
"Grandma never had it happen to her, did she?"
Clark shook his head. "Not like this. Everyone has an occasional case of deja vu."
"Yeah." Rhonda poured more tea into her half-full cup, frowned at the now lukewarm liquid, and Clark saw the faint flicker of red in her eyes. Steam began to rise from the surface. "I wish I could give you an answer, Clark, but I don't have any." She smiled ruefully. "Science thinks there's a physical explanation for everything, and maybe there is, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions in the world. Maybe your friend HG Wells could explain this one."
Clark made a face. "Let's not talk about that," he said. "Every time he appeared on the scene he brought trouble with him. It wasn't his fault, but it happened, all the same. I'll find my own answers."
"I don't blame you a bit," Rhonda said. "Tinkering with time raises a whole new set of problems I'd rather not even think about, much less tackle."
"That's about how I feel." Clark poured himself more tea and heated it. "This dream dust mess, though…"
"You and Lori are going to keep investigating, aren't you?"
"I guess so," Clark said, a little reluctantly. "We have to, really—unless we can convince the authorities to take it seriously. I just don't want to expose Lori to that kind of danger again."
"A lot of choice she's going to give you," Rhonda said.
"Yeah." Clark looked morosely at his granddaughter. "I hope you're happy."
"I am. You need a wife that keeps you on your toes, Clark. She'll do it, too."
"To say the least." Clark rose. "I need to make more tea."
Rhonda got to her feet as well. "I'm going over to STAR Labs to talk with Arnie and his friend. Maybe we can figure out a few more things about this new variety of dust. It's going to take some time to study it completely, but I think we need to. I'll be back to check on Lori before I go back to Houston, though."
"Thanks." Clark dropped a kiss on his granddaughter's cheek. "Has anybody ever told you that you're a pushy woman, Ronnie?"
"Sure. Lots of people."
"They were right, and it's a good thing they were. Thanks for all your help."
"You're welcome. Lori's a sweetheart. When she wakes up, tell her I'll be glad to help her with the big wedding. We'll talk about it at the barbecue."
Waking up the second time was more pleasant than the first. Lori opened her eyes to the aroma of classic chicken soup cooking. The wall chronometer told her it was past eight o'clock in the evening. Had she really slept that long?
"Clark?" she called.
Clark appeared in the doorway on cue. "Hi, honey. How do you feel?"
Lori stretched, noting that somewhere along the line Clark had changed her office wear for a pair of pajamas, and the plastic intravenous tubing had disappeared. "Pretty good, actually. Where's Ronnie?"
"She had to go home, after she checked you over one last time." He came to sit on the edge of the bed. "I was scared, Lori."
"I'm sorry," she said.
"It wasn't your fault." He reached out to pull her into his arms. "I don't know what I'd do if I lost you now."
She cuddled into his embrace. "You're not going to. I promise I'll be more careful from now on."
He hugged her tightly, then released her. "Good. I've got something on for you to eat. Ronnie said your stomach might be a little sensitive for awhile, so I stuck with my mom's old standby—chicken soup and herbal tea. Would you like me to bring you some?"
"Could we eat in the living room?"
"Sure. Let me get your robe." He turned to retrieve it from the bedroom chair. She slid her feet over the side of the bed groping for her slippers. Clark turned back.
"Here you are. Can you walk okay?"
Lori sighed. "I'm *fine*, Clark."
"Okay." He waited while she put on the robe. Lori sighed resignedly.
"If you'd like to give me a hand to the bathroom, I'll be there in a minute."
He grinned. "Sure. I'm sorry, honey. I'm just worried about you, that's all."
She held up her hands and let him give her a boost to her feet. "I know, and I really appreciate it, but I'm not made of china, you know."
The way he handled her said otherwise, however. Lori figured that to a man who could swallow bombs, most of humanity indeed must seem as fragile as the proverbial china. That was probably why Clark, and Superman, was the gentle soul that he was. He had to be. She sighed. That was something she wasn't likely to be able to do much about if the indomitable Lois Lane hadn't been able to. How could she possibly convince him that something so incontrovertibly true to him wasn't? She glanced up at him and shook her head, wryly. Oh well, there were much worse things a woman might have to put up with than a husband who was unfailingly considerate of her welfare.
"What?" Clark asked.
"Nothing." She let him put an arm around her and help her to the bathroom. "I'll be fine, Clark. Why don't you go set out the soup?"
"Okay." He released her and waited until she closed the door. Lori shook her head again, but had to smile at the same time. She vaguely remembered lying miserably in the bed, throwing up, and Clark holding a basin for her. If that wasn't the true test of love, what was? It would be easy for Clark to tell her he loved her when all was going well but when he still loved her, even in such thoroughly unromantic circumstances as that, there wasn't much else to say. No matter what anyone tried to tell her from now on, she knew the exact truth of Clark's feelings for her.
"Lori Lyons," she murmured to herself, "you are one very lucky woman."
She negotiated her way into the living room a few minutes later. In spite of her claim, she discovered that her legs were a little shaky, and she had to stop and rest a couple of times, grasping onto various pieces of furniture for support. Clark had set out two bowls of soup and some French bread (probably really from France, too, she thought) along with two cups of herbal tea and his genuine Chinese teapot. He had arranged the cushions on the sofa for her comfort and drawn the big armchair up to the coffee table so he could sit across from her, and as she negotiated her unsteady way into the room, he was there to extend a supporting hand. "Doing all right?"
"Yeah." Lori settled onto the big couch with a sigh of relief. "I'm sure I'll be fine by morning."
"I'm sure you will," Clark said. "Especially if you take it easy tonight. Want to try some soup?"
Lori picked up the spoon and tasted the liquid cautiously. It was hot, but not too hot, and tasted delicious. "This is really good, Clark. Where did you learn to be such a great cook?"
"My mother taught me a lot of it," Clark said, settling back in his chair. "When I left home, I learned a lot more. Cooking got to be a bit of a hobby for me for awhile, and then when Lois and I married I did most of the cooking. Lois was brilliant, but she wasn't a cook."
"Yeah. Oh, eventually she got so she could handle basic stuff, but it was never something she did well, so it was my job, mostly."
"And this is your mother's chicken soup recipe?"
Clark nodded. "I was never able to improve on it. I really didn't want to, anyway."
Lori nodded. "I can see why. I wish I'd known her."
Clark smiled a little sadly. "I miss her. I miss them both, really. They would have liked you, I'm sure." He turned his head as the vidphone chimed. Both his eyebrows went up. "It's your dad's office calling. Want to take the call?"
Lori hesitated. "I guess so, but if it's Mother, I don't want to talk to her."
"Screen block on," Clark said. "Yes?"
"This is Robert Lyons," Lori's father's voice said. "I know you're not taking calls from Mariann, but I need to talk to Lori."
"Block off," Clark said. The screen lit up and Robert Lyons' face appeared. Her father looked a little worried, but he gave her a one-sided smile when he saw her.
"Hello, Clark, Lori. Am I calling at a bad time?"
"No," Lori said. "I just don't want to talk to Mother, unless she's prepared to be reasonable about Clark."
Her father smiled ruefully at her. "I understand, Lori. Your mother can be trying, to say the least. First, I wanted to say congratulations to both of you."
"Thank you," Clark said. "We appreciate that, Mr. Lyons."
"Rob," Lori's father said. "You're my new son-in-law, after all, Clark." He turned to Lori. "Are you all right, honey? You don't look well."
"I'm okay, Dad. Clark's taking good care of me."
"I'm glad to hear that. I'm going to be in Metropolis on business tomorrow. I wondered if I could come by to see you? I wanted to talk to you, and to explain a few things."
"Sure," Lori said. "That is, unless something happens. We're sort of in the middle of an investigation right now."
"Would eight be all right?"
"Eight will be fine," Clark said. "Mr. Lyons—"
"Rob," Clark said, "I'm sorry if we've caused you any problem over this."
"No, don't be," Robert Lyons said. "Mariann has her own ideas about how Lori should live her life. I'm happy to see that Lori didn't let that stop her from doing what was right for her. I'm only sorry that I wasn't there to see the two of you married, but I understand why you did it this way."
"As for that," Clark said, "there's going to be a formal ceremony in October, for the sake of both our families. You and Lori's mother will be receiving an invitation. I hope you can be there."
Robert Lyons smiled. "I'm sure I will be," he said. "We'll talk more tomorrow. I have a few things to say that I don't want to go into over the phone. Good night, now."
"Good night, Rob," Clark said.
"Good night, Dad."
The screen went off. Clark raised an eyebrow at Lori. "That was interesting. I'm glad your father is happy for us, anyway."
"I thought he would be," Lori said. "Dad doesn't say much, but he's always wanted me to be happy. He was the one who stood up for me when I wanted to go to NTSU to get my journalism degree. Mother didn't want me to. She wanted me to go to the local university, but NTSU has one of the best journalism programs in the country."
"That doesn't surprise me," Clark said. "I never thought your dad was intimidated by your mom. I'll be interested in what he has to say."
"You won't tell him about what happened today, will you?"
"No." Clark shook his head. "That's our business. No one else needs to know about it."
"Good." Lori picked up her cup of tea and sipped it. "We need to find out where this stuff is coming from, Clark. Did I hear Ronnie say this happened to me just because I *touched* it?"
He nodded. "According to Dr. Frazier at STAR Labs, the dream dust has been chemically altered so it can pass directly through the skin. It takes a little longer, but that means it can affect people without their even knowing they've come into contact with it."
"Well, I figured I'd probably come in contact with it, but I didn't realize it would hurt me or I wouldn't have touched it."
"Of course not," Clark said. "There's more, though. This stuff is stronger than the standard dream dust and something about the chemical alteration makes more people tend to react badly to it, like you did. Ronnie thinks you didn't get the full effect of the drug because we went to Mamacita's right afterwards. You washed it off your hand before you had time to absorb the full dose, or you would have been a lot sicker."
Lori sipped her tea, thinking that over. "Clark, this can't be just your standard drug dealer."
"You're probably right," Clark said. "But there's the rumor Meriel reported that there's a 'Professor' kids can go to if they're having trouble passing exams." He picked up the afghan that lay folded on the back of the couch and spread it over her lap. "How's that? Are you comfortable?"
Lori nodded. "That's fine. You know, it might not be connected," she said, returning to the previous subject with her usual tenacity. "Or, maybe the guy manufactures the regular stuff, too, and sells it. It would be a nice little sideline, if he needs money to finance his project—whatever the project really is."
"But why would he give his special stuff out to students to sell? That seems like an unnecessary chance to take."
Lori shook her head. Her mind felt a little numb, maybe a lingering effect of the dream dust, she thought. "Maybe he didn't," she said.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, if some of the students know this guy manufactures dream dust, could someone have stolen some of it to sell on his own?"
"And maybe got some of the altered dust by accident," Clark said. "That's possible. If it's true, it means that student is in danger, too. If he touches it, he could react as violently as you did."
"Like Pete or Mel," Lori said. "Maybe that's what happened to Pete."
"It could be exactly what happened to him," Clark said. "And Mel has the dust you found in his room."
"Clark, if we're right, there's no time to lose," Lori said. "If Mel knows about it and sells it to other kids, some of them are going to die."
"I think I better have a talk with Velma Chow," Clark said. "Maybe Superman can convince the cops there's something more serious here than just another dream dealer selling dust to college kids."
"Do you think they'll do anything?"
"Maybe." Clark hesitated. "I probably should do it right now, but I don't want to leave you alone."
"Clark, tomorrow is the last day of exams. If he's going to sell any dust, it's going to be tonight." Lori set down her teacup. "You better go. I'll stay right here until you get back."
Clark got to his feet. "All right, I will, but if you start feeling sick, I want you to call me."
"I will. Hurry up. I don't want anyone else to die because we weren't fast enough."
When Clark had left by way of the skylight, Lori poured herself another cup of the herbal tea and settled back against the cushions. The apartment was quiet, but somehow comfortable and welcoming. She found herself looking around at the place that had so suddenly become her home, and smiling.
Clark's apartment wasn't luxurious, even though it was in a high security building, and the furnishings in it were his, gathered over more than a century of living. He'd told her most of his things were either in storage or in the attics of homes belonging to his four children. Maybe when they decided to buy a house of their own in a few years he would bring some of them out to use.
Beyond the French windows, she could see the skyline of Metropolis and the moving lights of the aircars in the Bayview Skystream out over the harbor. This was the night of the new moon but despite that, the sky of Metropolis wasn't dark. A haze of reflected illumination hid even the brightest stars. The city was alive with multicolored lights, and it never failed to fascinate her with the thoughts of the millions of people, each living their own life in the vast city below her.
Clark's antique clock chimed nine o'clock as she watched the parade of lights and she automatically glanced at her wrist, only to recall the tragic fate of her wrist talker. It had been sweet of him to tell the repairman to fix it for her, in spite of the fact that it could have been replaced at half the cost. Clark seemed to understand instinctively that some things were worth much more than their monetary value might indicate.
The vidphone began to sound in the background, and she glanced at the identification on the screen. Her eyebrows went up. The call was coming from Marcy's apartment in New York.
Well, it was probably from Marcy, since Mariann and Lori's sister rarely spoke anything but superficial pleasantries to each other.
"Yes?" Lori said.
The screen lit up. Her blond, beautiful sister's face smiled at her. "Hi, Sis," she said.
"Hi," Lori said.
"I hear you got married," Marcy said, sounding surprisingly pleased. "Nice move, kid. Mom's having a fit."
"Where did you hear that?" Lori asked.
"From Mom," Marcy said. "She didn't have anybody else to complain to, so she called me. You married Clark, huh?"
"Yes. We were married in Las Vegas, night before last."
"Great," Marcy said. "Mom says you sneaked off because you were afraid of what she'd say."
"We did," Lori said. "I didn't want to have to put up with her nagging me to break my engagement."
"No kidding," Marcy said. "I don't blame you a bit. Are you happy?"
Lori nodded. "Yes. Clark is the best thing that ever happened to me."
"That was a dumb question, wasn't it?" Marcy said. "Where is he, anyway?"
"We're in the middle of an investigation," Lori explained, glibly. "I came down with some kind of 24-hour bug, and we were supposed to meet an informant tonight, so Clark went by himself."
"You didn't even have a honeymoon?" Marcy asked.
"Not yet. We're going to have a big wedding in October so our families can attend, then Clark and I are going to spend two weeks in Hawaii." Lori could feel the flush rising in her cheeks. "Clark wants a cabin on our own private beach and…"
"I get it," Marcy said. "You don't have to draw me a diagram." She winked. "All by yourself with a gorgeous guy like that…"
Lori knew she was scarlet but she couldn't help smiling. "He is, isn't he?"
"Oh, yes. Anybody could see you were already crazy about him when we met him at your graduation. That's why Mom didn't like him."
"Sure," Marcy said. She hesitated, and Lori could have sworn she was blushing. "I wanted to tell you, Lori, I've met a really wonderful guy."
"Again?" Lori couldn't help saying.
Surprisingly, her sister didn't take offense. "Yeah. Only this time, I think it's the real thing."
"Really?" Lori couldn't help a slight skepticism, but she hoped it didn't show. "Who is he?"
"His name's Ryan Kent."
"Kent?" Lori said.
"Yeah. He's some kind of relative of Clark's. I met him back in June, when you and Clark were investigating those crazy cultists. Clark asked him to bodyguard me, I guess, and you know how much I hate good-looking guys hanging around me."
"Oh, yes," Lori said, dryly. "You can barely stand them."
Marcy laughed. "Anyway, we liked each other a lot and we've been going out. Yesterday, he told me he loves me." Her voice dropped. "Lori, he wants to marry me—for life. No guy…no guy has ever wanted that before with me. They always wanted a six month contract—just for the fun of it." For the first time in Lori's life, Marcy seemed genuinely vulnerable. "I was really jealous of you for awhile, you know. When we were in Houston, Clark was just so crazy about you, and I tried to flirt with him, but it wasn't the same. I think that was when I realized I was falling in love with Ryan. It's never been like this with any of the others. I feel this incredible connection to him—like we were always meant to be together. It kind of scares me, but…I never wanted anything more in my life."
Lori had to consciously close her mouth. "That's great, Marcy. What did you tell him?"
"I told him I wanted to think about it for a little while—just to be sure—that I didn't have the best track record when it came to guys. He understood. He said I was right because there were things about him I should know, too."
Lori didn't let her mouth drop open again, but it was a struggle. Marcy's relationships usually took about a week before she and the new guy in her life took out a six-month marriage contract. This was definitely not the Marcy she knew. And Ryan was a relative of Clark's? Was it possible that he was one of the supermen? She had to talk to Clark about this. "I think you're being smart, Marcy. What does he do? And when do I get to meet him?"
"He's a private detective," Marcy said. "He works for Brandon and Wallace Detective Agency here in New York. I don't know exactly when we can make it down to see you, but it will be soon. Okay?"
"Sure," Lori said. "Just give me a little warning so we'll be sure to be here. Clark and I have a pretty busy schedule."
"Yeah, I know." Marcy grinned, but without a trace of the superiority that had always accompanied her dealings with Lori in the past. "Kent and Lyons of the Daily Planet. I don't know what Mom's complaining about. It looks to me like you've got a pretty good start at your career."
Lori shrugged. "You know Mom. If there's a guy involved, then it's automatically bad. Marcy, do you have any clue why she didn't want either one of us to get married? She didn't mind when Brad did."
"No." Marcy shook her head. "I just know that she tried to keep me away from guys. You know, if she hadn't tried so hard, I wouldn't have gotten married just to get away from home. I'm glad I did, though, or I might not have met Ryan, and that would have been awful." She glanced at her wrist. "He'll be here in a few minutes. We're going out to dinner."
"You mean he's not—um…"
"No, he's not living with me. He did stay here while he was guarding me, but that was all, and it wasn't for lack of trying! He said that while he was on duty, he couldn't let himself get more personally involved. Now, he says he wants to wait until we're officially engaged! Men!" Marcy said in exasperation.
"It sounds to me like he's pretty serious about you," Lori said. "Besides, waiting until it's official isn't so bad."
"You *are* kidding aren't you?" Marcy said. "You haven't *seen* him! He's gorgeous! It's not that it's all physical—it isn't. Ryan is just such a great guy to be around—but I *want* to get physical with him, and he knows it!"
Lori was at a loss over that. Fortunately, Marcy's door chime sounded in the background at that moment, putting an end to that particular subject. Marcy called, "Come in! I'm on the phone!"
Somewhere behind her, there was the sound of a door opening and closing. Marcy said, "Come over here, Ryan. I want you to meet my baby sister."
A tall, well-built man who appeared to be about Clark's age, moved into the screen's pickup. He looked a lot like Clark, Lori noted. His eyes had the same shape as her husband's and his face the same structure, but he had a rakish air unlike Clark's GQ style. His dark, waving hair was a little longer than Clark's, and there was a trace of five o'clock shadow on his upper lip and jaw. He wore a black pullover shirt and black slacks, and managed to look both dangerous and extremely attractive at the same time. Lori felt her eyebrows climb.
"Lori, this is Ryan," Marcy said. "Ryan, this is Lori, my little sister."
He flashed Clark's smile at her. "Hi, Lori," he said. "I'm glad to finally meet you."
"Hi," Lori said. "It's nice to meet you, too, but I'm afraid I'm not really dressed for any introductions right now."
"Got a cold?" Ryan asked. "Don't worry about it on my account. You look fine." He turned to Marcy. "Are you ready, honey? Our reservations at the club are for ten."
"Yes. Let me grab my coat." Marcy turned back to Lori. "Good night, Sis. I'll talk to you later."
"Good night," Lori said. "Enjoy your dinner."
"I hope you feel better," Ryan said. "Say hi to Clark for me. Good night." The screen went dark on the word.
Lori was left staring at the screen for a long minute before she gave a soft laugh. She'd be willing to bet that Clark hadn't expected this when he'd asked Ryan to bodyguard Marcy, but if it turned out that the same thing had happened to Ryan Kent and Marcy as had happened to Clark and her, then maybe it wasn't such a bad thing. Of course, there would have to be a lot of explaining to do before they were done…
When Clark returned over an hour later, he found his wife sound asleep on the couch, the afghan pulled up around her shoulders. He debated for a moment over whether to simply pick her up and carry her to bed or to wake her, but before he made up his mind, she opened her eyes and yawned slightly. "Back already? How did it go?"
He sat down next to her. "Good and bad," he said, a little grimly. "Velma believed me, but there wasn't any probable cause to search Mel's room. At least there wasn't until we checked on his whereabouts."
"Where is he?"
Clark clenched his fists, trying to tell himself, as he had been for the past hour, that it hadn't been his fault for not realizing the implications sooner. It didn't help. "In the morgue, now. He was dead in his room. He'd been dead for several hours at least."
"Yeah." Clark shook his head. "I'm supposed to call tomorrow to find out more, but it looked like his death was the result of dream dust poisoning."
"From the new stuff?"
"Probably. We found the plastic bag. It was empty, but there was enough residue that Velma thinks they'll be able to do an analysis with no trouble."
Lori shivered. "How about the people he sold it to?"
"We don't know. Velma's people called the college administration and are trying to get the names of all the students who have exams tomorrow. Two have turned up in the emergency room, but the only report we have so far is that they're in critical condition."
Lori put her arms around him. "Oh, Clark…"
He wrapped his arms around her. "I should have done something, Lori. We knew how dangerous the stuff is."
"You knew *after* Dr. Frazier's friend analyzed it, Clark. It might already have been too late for Mel by then, anyway. And besides, you had something else on your mind, too. It's not your fault you didn't think of everything." She pulled back and fixed her eyes on his face. "You are *not* to blame yourself, do you hear me? Mel was selling that stuff. He had to know it could hurt people. He wasn't exactly innocent, even though I didn't want him to die. Clark, this isn't over. Someone created the new dream dust. He must have had a reason. We have to find him before more people end up dead."
Clark continued to hold her, letting what she had said penetrate. Somehow, when she said it he was far more willing to accept it as the truth, although he had been telling himself essentially the same thing since they had found Mel's body. She was right. He might be Superman, but he was neither omnipotent nor omniscient. The only thing they could do now was to find the "Professor", or, if he wasn't the source, locate the real one. That was much more important and far more productive than assigning blame.
"Thanks," he said, his voice muffled in her hair. "You're right."
"Of course I am," she said, quietly. "You can't take on the responsibility for the whole human race, Clark. You can only do the best you can."
"I love you, Lori," he said. "You make sense, when nothing else does."
"So do you," she said. "I had no idea what life could be like until I met you." She sniffled unexpectedly. "Please don't feel guilty about this. It wasn't your fault."
"Hey." He tilted her face up to his. "Don't cry, honey."
"I just don't like to see you upset," she said. "You're such a…a good man, Clark. Nobody could try harder to help. You can't be everywhere and do everything. No one can." She scrubbed at her face with the heel of her hand. "I'm sorry. I'm a little emotional tonight."
"You have some reason," he said. He stroked her hair. "How did I get along for so long without you?"
"I don't know." She looked up at him. "We don't have anything else to do tonight, do we?"
"Well, there's the dishes…"
"Forget the dishes," she said, sounding suddenly determined. "I want to…you know what I want to do."
He felt his eyes widen. "Are you *sure* Lori? You were so sick today, and I'm not sure we should—"
"I feel much better," she said, "and I just need you to, tonight. Do you really mind?"
He had to struggle not to laugh. "Of course not. I just don't want to overtire you."
"You won't," she said. "It's been such an awful day. At least we can make it end right."
"How are you feeling, Lori?" Andrea Waltham looked up as Lori and Clark passed her desk on the way to the editor's office the next morning. Fred glanced sullenly at the two reporters as they paused by the gossip columnist's desk.
"I'm all right," Lori said. "It turned out to be a touch of food poisoning, probably from that sandwich I had for a snack yesterday morning."
"That must have been one stale sandwich," Andrea said. "I'll be sure to stay away from the sandwich machine from now on. I'm glad you're feeling better, though."
"Thanks," Lori said. "Is Mr. Olsen in his office?"
"Yeah. He got in about six-thirty this morning."
"Thanks, Andrea," Clark said.
Lori glanced over at Fred, who was sc owling at her. She'd had just about enough of his dirty tricks and nastiness. Fred was going to find out how it felt to have the situation reversed in the very near future, just as soon as she had a chance to concentrate on it.
They went on to the editor's office and Clark knocked lightly.
"Come in," John's voice called. Their editor looked up as Clark opened the door and let Lori enter ahead of him. "How are you doing, Lori?"
"I'm all right," Lori said. "How's Meriel?"
"She's fine," John said. "Why shouldn't she be?"
Clark pulled forward a chair. "Sit down, Lori. John, you got the story we sent in last night?"
"We wanted to tell you what really happened." He made sure the door was locked and took a second chair. "In case you hadn't guessed, there was more to it." Quickly, he sketched the events of the day before.
John listened in silence until Clark had finished. "My God." He turned to examine Lori's face. "Are you *sure* you're all right, Lori?"
"Ronnie came by this morning. She gave me a clean bill of health," Lori assured him. "Where's Meriel?"
"She and Marilyn went over to the hospital to visit Rena," John said. "She's out of her coma, thank God, and the doctors don't think there's any brain damage."
"That's one mark in the positive column," Clark said. "John, this isn't over. Whoever is manufacturing the stuff is still loose. I know the police will be investigating, but I'd feel better if we can keep on it, too."
"Do you have any leads?" John asked.
"A few. We need to talk to Rena first," Clark said. "We have to find out who sold her the dream dust."
"I thought it was Mel," John said.
"Not necessarily," Lori interjected. "It could have been Pete Bremerton, the roommate Meriel said was taken out by the paramedics on Monday night. Mel may simply have been an opportunist after Pete got sick. If it was, we may be able to find out from him where he got it—assuming he's still alive and his mind is still intact."
"There's always that," John said. "What if he can't help you?"
"We'll deal with that when we come to it," Clark said. "This 'Professor' may have been selling ordinary dream dust to other students as well. If he's our man, we might be able to locate him through some of the other victims—the ones who got their dust from him rather than Mel or Pete. Anyway, it's a shot." He paused. "Any more word on the Kryptonite ring, by the way?"
"Just what I told Lori, yesterday," John said. "A geology teacher, one Gerald Smitt from Metro City College, bought it about six months ago, but he's moved since and changed jobs. Apparently there was some sort of scandal in his personal life, according to the guy our man talked to, and he quit voluntarily rather than have it brought up for public scrutiny. As soon as we have more, I'll let you know."
"All right. So, I take it you want us to keep on this?" Clark said.
John nodded. "It looks as if you've still got some avenues to pursue," he said, "and we still haven't figured out who it was that attacked Meriel. I want to be sure she's safe. By the way, did you find anything from that search program you were running yesterday, Lori?"
"I haven't had a chance to check," Lori said. "I'd only just gotten back here when I started feeling sick. I'll take a look at it in a few minutes."
"All right, get going," John said. "You've got work to do."
When they emerged from John's office, Lori headed for her desk. Since she had become Clark's permanent partner, her small desk had been exchanged for a larger one located close to his. Fred was standing next to it as she approached, and he looked up guiltily before scurrying away. Lori gazed after him, frowning. What was the little weasel up to this time?
"Computer on," she said. "Results of search program 3."
The computer hummed softly into life, but after several seconds, the screen flashed an error message.
Lori frowned and tried again. Again, the same message resulted.
"What's the matter?" Clark asked.
"My program's been erased," Lori said. "All the data is gone."
"That's odd," Clark said. "Can you set it up again?"
"Yeah, I think so, but I'll have to start all over." Lori went to work, recreating yesterday's efforts. When she finally had it running, she sat back, thinking. That shouldn't have happened, she knew. Everything should have been saved automatically the way she'd directed it to do, until and unless someone deliberately deleted it.
Slowly, she raised her eyes to Fred, disappearing into the storeroom. He wouldn't have been that foolish, would he? She'd left the computer running and unattended. He could have done it without much effort. It wouldn't take a computer expert to accomplish the feat, although if he'd gotten caught it would result in a severe reprimand if not outright termination. Was his dislike of her so great that he would stoop to trying to sabotage her work in such a stupid way?
There was no way she could prove it, she knew. Not this time. But there was an elementary trap that she could set up. Nora, her best friend during her high school years, had shown her a trick when someone had broken into the personal student computer files in her history class and stolen her work for her history term paper one semester. She'd caught the little creep when he'd come back for more. The whole incident had given her a completely undeserved reputation—at least, undeserved at the time—for being a computer whiz. She'd learned a lot in the intervening years. This one was going to be a masterpiece.
Carefully and quickly, she began to work.
New Troy State Medical Center was a cluster of buildings set on spreading, landscaped grounds. It had been there for nearly a hundred years as a major teaching hospital for medical personnel of all sorts, and had a worldwide reputation. The saying was that if you had an ordinary disease you shouldn't go there because no one would pay you any attention, but if you had something strange and exotic there was no better hospital for you.
Meriel Olsen glanced uncertainly at Clark and Lori, as they hurried down the wide, antiseptic-scented corridor and squared her shoulders, determinedly. This wasn't something she really wanted to do, but it was important. Her best friend had nearly died of a near-fatal dose of dream dust. Finding the source of this deadly new form was of paramount importance. Rena was likely to be upset, but Meriel knew it had to be done.
She paused outside Rena's private room, took a deep breath and knocked firmly. "Re, may we come in?"
"Meri?" Rena's voice answered, and Meriel winced at the sound. It was hoarse and tired, not the voice she expected from her childhood friend.
"Yes. I've got some friends with me. May we come in and talk to you?"
"Sure." Rena's voice seemed almost drained of life. Meriel entered, and her companions followed.
The girl in the bed was lying back against a pair of hospital pillows and turned her face listlessly toward the door as Meriel entered, followed by Lori and Clark. Rena's thin face and huge, tired eyes made Meriel wince, and reaffirmed her determination never to touch illegal drugs. The price her best friend had paid all because she had wanted to pass a chemistry test was much too high. "Hi," she said, softly.
"Hi," Rena croaked. "I figured you'd be back after your mom went to work. You don't have to say 'I told you so'."
"I wouldn't say that!" Meriel said.
"Well, you could." Rena closed her eyes. "I was stupid. You were right. Who are these people? Cops?"
"No, these are my Uncle Clark and his wife, Lori. You know—Kent and Lyons from the Daily Planet?"
"Oh." Rena opened her eyes again to survey Clark and Lori with dull curiosity. "I remember. You were talking about them. What do you want? An interview about how to be a moron?" A tear rolled down her cheek. "I can tell you first hand. If the judge doesn't put me in mandated counseling, maybe I'll be lucky and get to take the whole course over again."
"No," Clark said. "I don't think you're a moron, Rena. I think you made a mistake and nearly paid for it with your life. You don't need me to tell you that."
Rena closed her eyes and nodded. "That's for sure."
"Re, I doubt anyone's told you," Meriel said. "There's a new kind of dust. It's stronger and more dangerous. That's probably the kind you got. We're trying to find out where it came from, and who's making it. It's killed two people in a week and more may still die, or never be normal again. We need you to tell us where you got it."
Rena hesitated. "If people find out I—"
"If you don't tell us and people die, how are you going to feel?" Lori said, bluntly. "This stuff can kill you just by touching it, if you happen to react the wrong way to it. Mel Hanson is dead. Was he the one who sold it to you?"
Rena stared at her, obviously shocked. After a second, she swallowed. "No," she whispered. "No, it was Pete. Pete sold it to me on Monday."
Meriel looked at Lori, almost angry at her tactic, but Lori didn't flinch. "Thank you, Rena. You probably saved some people's lives today."
"Yeah." Rena said. Another tear leaked down her cheek. "I'm sorry, Meri. I've been such an idiot."
Meriel looked helplessly at Clark. What was she supposed to say, especially when she'd been thinking the same thing for nearly two days? But she couldn't say that to Rena, especially when she was feeling like this. Besides, Rena was her friend, a friend who had made a nearly fatal mistake.
"It'll be all right," she said. "We're going to find out who's making this stuff, and we're going to stop him, Re. You've helped us a lot."
Rena closed her eyes. "That is if Pete isn't dead, too," she said. "I should have realized, but I wasn't thinking. I should have figured… It was just this one time. I just wanted to pass the test." She began to cry softly.
Meriel put a hand on top of hers. "Re, when you take the class again, I'll help you study for the tests, I promise. Just please, don't take any more dust. I don't want you to die."
"So Pete Bremerton was the one selling the stuff before Monday night," Clark said, a short time later. He opened the door of Meriel's little car for Lori, let her squeeze into the rear, then folded his muscular frame into the only marginally more roomy passenger seat. "It sounds like Mel just took over where Pete left off."
"That doesn't make it any better," Lori said. "Now we need to find out where Pete wound up. If he was dead, you'd think it would have been reported somewhere. I 'm going to run a search for him when we get back to the Planet. If he's still alive, maybe we can track him down and get some answers. Assuming he can answer questions."
"That's the big 'if'," Clark said. "There's still that unidentified guy who went after Meriel, too." He glanced at his great granddaughter as she got into the driver's seat. "Somehow, I doubt Mel sent him after her. Maybe our 'Professor' was trying to get some answers. If he knows his super dream dust was stolen, he may be trying to find out who took it. Meriel might have looked like a lead if he was getting desperate."
"Yeah," Lori said. "I hope you're being careful, Meri."
"Meri doesn't make the same mistake twice," Clark said. "I never had to rescue her from any tree, rooftop or cliff more than one time. Of course, if I hadn't known she liked to fly with me, I'd have wondered about her obsession with heights."
Meriel looked at him with a half-smile. "I always wondered how long it was going to be before you figured it out," she said.
Clark chuckled. "I think the time I pulled you off your Uncle Aaron's garage roof when you were three was when I put two and two together," he said.
"You mean you knew all along?"
"Sure." Clark glanced back at Lori and winked. "I'm not galactically stupid, you know."
The phrase was familiar, although Lori was sure she'd never heard it before. The sensation of deja vu, which had been all too common in recent weeks, was back with a vengeance. Now why should such simple words trigger the almost otherworldly feeling that somewhere, in some other time and place that was of great importance, she had heard them before?
"Lori?" Clark's voice sounded worried. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah…sure. You know that deja vu thing? It's back."
"What deja vu thing?" Meriel asked.
"Just something we were discussing the other day," Clark said. He was frowning slightly. "What brought it on?"
"When you said 'galactically stupid'. I've never even heard it phrased that way before, but it's like it means something important to me. Weird, huh?"
"Yeah," Clark said. "Really weird." He was looking hard into her eyes, his own intense and concerned, but he said nothing more. Meriel pulled the little groundcar out into traffic, and a moment later they were headed back toward the Daily Planet.
She was turning into the parking lot under the Daily Planet building when Clark's wrist talker beeped.
"Clark Kent," he said.
"Clark, this is Arnold Frazier," the voice from the little speaker said. "Superman told me to contact you if I need to get hold of him. I have some information for him about the altered dream dust that he brought to me yesterday."
"Yes, Doctor?" Clark said.
"Tell him that I need to see him right away. I believe we have the answer as to why the chemical changes were made."
"I'll tell him right away, Doctor. Thank you." Clark shut off the wrist talker. "Better let me out here, Meri."
Meriel pulled into a parking spot and cut the engine. A second later, Clark was out the door and had disappeared.
Lori and Meriel looked at each other. "Life with a super-hero is never dull," Lori said, at last. "Maybe we'll finally get a few answers."
"I hope so," Meriel said. "I've been wracking my brain trying to figure out what's behind it, and every idea I come up with is more crazy than the last. Terrorists, mad scientists with mind control schemes, blackmail—but it all seems like a lot of effort to go to when something more simple will do."
"Yeah, I know," Lori said. "So have I. Thank heavens for Dr. Frazier."
"It's nice to have friends in high places," Meriel said. She opened her door. "I promised Dad I'd stay within sight for another day at least. At least I brought something to do."
"Well, I've got that search running, if someone hasn't erased it again," Lori said. "I want to see if it's turned anything up yet."
"Erased it? What happened?"
Lori scrambled out after Meriel. "I came in this morning and found out someone had wiped out the records of the search I was running to try to identify that guy who tried to kidnap you, yesterday."
Meriel wrinkled her nose, looking puzzled. "Why would anyone do a thing like that? Couldn't it have been an accident?"
"It would have had to be a really strange one," Lori said. "I think the reason is a lot more likely to be human. Our office gofer has had it in for me ever since Clark and I messed up the plans Gaia's Children had to blow up the Mayflower."
"You mean that guy you told me about yesterday?"
"What a little jerk!"
"Well, yes, my opinion exactly," Lori said. "If I can catch him at one of his little tricks with the evidence to prove it was deliberate, I think I can fry his bacon for him, but it all depends on if he comes back."
"You said yesterday he's already been warned a couple of times. He'll be back," Meriel said. "If he hasn't straightened up yet, then he's not going to. Give him time to hang himself. He will, sooner or later."
"I hope I can help him along a little," Lori said. "I set a trap with my computer. If he comes back and tries again, it's all over."
"What did you do?" Meriel asked, curiously.
"Well, it's a variation on a trap that I used once in high school to catch a guy that liked to steal other students' work and present it as his own…"
When the elevator opened on the newsroom floor, Meriel was laughing. "I'll bet that was a shock!" she was saying.
"Oh, yes. The thing was, I had him dead to rights, with pictures and a record of every move he'd made," Lori finished. "And he'd done it all to himself. Of course, I couldn't have managed it without Nora to help. She taught me an awful lot about computers. See the blond guy carrying the doughnut box? That's Fred."
Meriel glanced casually in the direction she had indicated. "Not a bad-looking guy if he'd smile," was her verdict.
"I guess." Lori hadn't considered Fred's looks since she had come to know his character. "Let's go check the computer."
The computer had finished its search. Lori retrieved the information and displayed it. "Is this the guy, Meri?"
Meriel examined the picture presented. "It sure looks like him," she said. "Who is he?"
"Well, according to this, he's a TA in the geology department at NTSU. His name is Lester Norton."
"A geology TA tried to kidnap me?" Meriel said, sounding slightly aggrieved. "What a let-down! I thought villains' sidekicks were supposed to be sinister characters with a hunchback, one eye and a telltale limp whose masters cook up plans to rule the world in their dank, dark lair."
"You've been watching too many vid dramas. Besides, the brains behind the operation may yet turn out to be a mad scientist," Lori said, getting into the spirit of the thing. "I'd like to bring down a mad scientist."
"Me, too," Meriel agreed, enthusiastically. "Maybe he's the sinister, limping, one-eyed hunchback."
"Yeah, maybe. Seriously, though, you've never seen this Norton guy around campus, before?"
Meriel shook her head. "You know how big the campus is."
"Yeah." Lori examined the face of their suspect. "Well, I guess looks can be deceiving. He sure doesn't look like an evil sidekick." She glanced at Meriel. "It's funny, I have the feeling I'm missing something, but I don't know what it is. We'll have to check Mr. Norton out. First, though, I want to run a search for any mention of Pete's death."
"Yeah," Meriel said, dropping the joke, "I wish this really was a vid drama."
"You and me both. Maybe Clark will be able to shed some light on the whole thing when he gets back," Lori said. "In the meantime let's see if we can find any mention of Pete Bremerton."
The search program had so far turned up no mention of Peter Bremerton when Clark walked into the newsroom twenty minutes later. Lori was still at her desk and Meriel was sitting beside her in a borrowed chair. The two of them were immersed in a computer game while the machine continued to mine the net for any mention of their quarry.
"Well," he said, quietly, "I see you're both hard at work."
Lori grinned. "Sorry, we got bored. What did Dr. Frazier have to say?"
"A lot of things," Clark said, "most of which went over my head. But his colleague has completed a thorough analysis of the dust, and they think they know what the purpose was for making the chemical changes."
"Well, what was it?" Meriel asked, impatiently.
"Apparently," Clark said, "someone is trying to make a dream dust that's addictive. They haven't succeeded yet, but the chemical changes suggest that that was the purpose."
"You mean he's trying to *addict* people to this stuff?" Meriel was horrified.
"Yeah. And the chances are that he's going to keep trying until he succeeds," Clark said. "I already told Velma Chow. They're trying to find Pete Bremerton, too, by the way, but it looks as if he's disappeared off the face of the earth."
"Great. Has anyone contacted his parents?"
"Velma Chow contacted them. They're residents of New Jersey, and they claim they haven't seen him."
"They're not worried about him?" Lori asked. "I'd expect them to be frantic!"
"Dr. Bremerton spoke to Lieutenant Chow. He said they haven't heard from Pete for two weeks. He declined to answer any further questions. Lieutenant Chow is trying to find out more through the local cops, but it's slow going."
"I can see that," Lori said. "It sounds to me like they know exactly where he is."
"I'm going to get hold of Lisa," Clark said. "Maybe she can find out what we need to know."
"Who's Lisa?" Lori asked. "Another member of the family?"
"Yeah," Clark said. "Lisa Brent O'Brien—one of Ronnie's daughters. She's married to her partner, Matt O'Brien—they're plastic surgeons, and live in Newark. They'll be at the barbecue on Sunday, so you'll get to meet them."
"I'll be there too," Meriel said. "Henry promised to give me a ride. Don't be nervous, Lori. There's going to be an awful lot of us there, but there'll be people who know you, too and everybody wants to meet you. It was supposed to be your engagement party, but now I guess it'll be sort of a wedding party. It's a big deal for the whole family, you know."
"I guess I didn't really think about it," Lori said. "I suppose it will be."
"Don't forget me," Clark said. "I'll be there, too—just for moral support, you know. And I hear that Ryan's coming with his fiancee."
"You're kidding!" Meriel said. "You mean he finally decided to stop playing the field and settle down?"
"He says he's finally found the right woman," Clark said. "He called me this morning with the news. I've never seen him so happy. He was literally walking on air."
With anyone else, that would be hyperbole, Lori thought, but with Clark's family it might be physically true.
"It took him long enough," Meriel said. "Who is she?"
"He didn't say," Clark said, "but he says he told her about himself last night, and he wants us all to meet her."
Lori opened her mouth and then closed it. The middle of the newsroom wasn't the spot to discuss private family matters. Instead, she said, "We identified the guy who attacked Meri, yesterday, Clark. He's a geology TA named Lester Norton."
Clark frowned. "Geology? That's interesting."
"Yeah," Lori said. "It's probably only a coincidence, but didn't John say the guy who bought the ring was a geology teacher?"
"He did. He said Gerald Smitt was a geology teacher over at Metro City College before he resigned," Clark said. "Can you dig up a picture of him?"
"I'll see what I can do. Maybe the DataNet would have him." Lori turned to the computer.
"That's a scary thought," Meriel said. "If the guy with the ring is also the guy making the dream dust…"
"I'd say the odds against it are fairly high," Clark said. "Besides, if he's at NTSU, I'd think our people would have found him by now."
"Unless he's there under another name," Meriel said.
"Well, maybe," Clark said. "Anything, Lori?"
"It's looking." As she finished speaking, the screen lit up with a picture of the man in question. Gerald Smitt was a short, rotund man of about 40, with a round, ruddy face and short, red hair. "Let's see…he's a graduate of MSU, with a Ph.D. in geology, married once and divorced. Employed until six months ago by Metro City College. Apparently he hasn't gotten a job since, or it would be in here."
"Well, he could have just taken a sabbatical," Clark said.
"That's possible. He's apparently well-traveled. He's spent time in several foreign countries, including the Antarctic as well as Mars and the moon, studying geologic formations."
"Can you check his picture against the roster of instructors at NTSU, and see if he's there under another name?" Meriel asked.
"Sure. This shouldn't take as long. There aren't nearly as many instructors as students," Lori said.
"Meanwhile," Clark said, "I think we need to check up on this Lester Norton. If he's involved in this business—and I can't see why else he'd have gone after Meri—maybe he can lead us to his boss."
"You don't think he's the bad guy?" Meriel asked.
Clark shrugged. "It's possible, but it's equally possible he's working for our bad guy." He glanced at his wrist talker. "It's nearly two. As soon as you're finished there, Lori, we'll go over to the campus and see if we can find Lester Norton."
"And," Meriel said, "find out if he's had an accident involving his nose in the last day or so." She looked wistful. "I'd like to go, too."
"If he sees you, he'll know something's wrong," Clark said.
"I know," Meriel said, "But it's boring sitting here. I know Dad's worried about my safety, but I was going to the beach with Rena for my vacation. That's all shot, now."
Lori glanced at the computer as it gave a soft "ding". "It's finished. No matches. If Gerald Smitt works there, his picture hasn't been recorded."
"I guess that's a dead end," Clark said. "Shall we go, Lori?"
"Sure." She got to her feet. "Go ahead and play whatever games you like, Meri," she said. "We'll be back in a while."
"Sure." Meriel moved into Lori's chair. "This isn't how I planned on spending my vacation."
"I think," Lori said, as they stepped into the elevator, "that we should plan on getting a groundcar at the very least before too long. Relying on Superman Express gets inconvenient sometimes."
"Yeah, I was thinking the same thing," Clark said. "There are times when you need to get places quickly and I'm not around. One thing, though, we need a bigger one than Meriel's. I could barely squeeze into it. Maybe we can visit the dealer's tomorrow. You have your license, don't you?"
"Sure. I renewed it last summer when I went home for vacation. I'll have to change it for New Troy, but that won't be a problem. Besides, I want to put my new name on it."
Clark grinned. "I kind of like that, myself," he said. He put his arms around her as the elevator rose toward the roof. "Do you like necking in elevators?"
Lori giggled. "We're being watched," she said, nodding at the camera lens.
"I'm on my honeymoon. Let them eat their hearts out," Clark said, and kissed her.
The Geology Department was housed in Bell Hall. It was an older building made of discolored brick, and one outer wall was completely covered with ivy vines. As they entered via the front doors, Clark could hear the faint murmur of voices and other sounds of human occupancy. A quick glance around with his x-ray vision showed him three classrooms occupied by students taking their finals. A directory near the entrance informed them that the office of the department head was at the far end of the main hall. Together, they headed toward it, the soles of their shoes echoing loudly on the bare floor.
The door was closed, but a quick peek with his x-ray vision told him that the room was occupied. Clark knocked firmly, and a tenor voice called, "Come in."
The inhabitant of the room was a short, balding man, definitely neither Lester Norton, nor Gerald Smitt. He looked up from his computer screen as they entered. "Can I help you?"
"I hope so," Clark said. " This is Ms. Lyons and I'm Clark Kent. We're from the Daily Planet."
The man's eyebrows climbed almost to where his hairline would have been. "I'm Dr. Parsons, head of the Geology Department. Why would the Daily Planet be interested in us?"
"We're trying to locate one of your teaching assistants for an interview—a Lester Norton," Clark explained. "We're doing a series of educational articles on the job of teaching assistant: how they get the job, what they're expected to do and a few anecdotes to fill out and personalize the interview. His name was given to us as a possible candidate."
"Oh, I see." Parsons rose to his feet. "I'm sorry, Mr. Norton isn't here today. He suffered an accident yesterday and called in ill this morning."
"Oh," Clark said. "I hope his accident wasn't serious?"
"Oh, no. Apparently he fell and bruised himself severely, yesterday. It was just one of those unfortunate incidents. I'd offer you a substitute, but all my other teaching assistants are proctoring final exams at the moment and can't be spared. It you'd care to wait…?"
"No," Clark said. "We'll try some of the others who were recommended. I hope Mr. Norton feels better soon."
"Very well. I'm sorry your trip was for nothing."
"That's all right," Clark said. "We have other—" The feeling that overcame him at that instant was completely unexpected and yet as completely familiar. A wave of dizziness washed over him followed at once by the burning ache of Kryptonite exposure. His surroundings seemed to blur, and he felt himself stagger.
"Clark!" Lori's voice came faintly from the background and her arms closed around him. He was vaguely aware of an exclamation from Parsons, and of hands supporting him, then of being lowered into a chair. For an instant, the room almost dimmed out.
Then he was sitting in a straight-backed chair, his head shoved into his lap, and Lori was kneeling beside him, her dark eyes wide with fright and comprehension. Parsons had gone to the water cooler and returned now with a paper cup full of cold water.
"Mr. Kent?" His voice sounded concerned. "Are you all right?"
Clark pushed himself rather dizzily upright. "Yeah. Yeah, I think so."
"Here, drink some of this." Parsons offered the cup. Lori took it and put it carefully into his hand.
"Take a couple of sips, Clark," she urged. "And take some deep breaths."
Clark did as he was told. The feeling had disappeared, leaving the usual joint pains in its aftermath. After another moment, he straightened slowly. "Sorry," he said.
"Are you all right, Mr. Kent?" Parsons was clearly concerned. "Would you like me to call the paramedics?"
"No," Lori said. "He gets low blood sugar sometimes. I told you that you shouldn't have skipped lunch, Clark. Here." She reached in her bag and produced a chocolate bar. "You're lucky I had this one with me. You better eat it."
Clark took the bar and peeled the paper with hands that were still shaking. "Sorry," he said again.
"You better get Mr. Kent something else to eat besides that," Parsons said. He still looked a little worried.
"I will. We'll stop at McFeegle's Burger Palace on the way out and get him a cheeseburger," Lori said. She was clearly waiting for him to eat the chocolate, which he had no desire to do. His stomach was still feeling slightly queasy, but it was a necessary deception if Lori's excuse was to be believed. He choked down the bar and followed it with another sip of water. After a few minutes, he let Lori help him to his feet. The weakness had vanished completely now, and the joint pains were fading.
"Sorry about that," he apologized. "You don't have to say 'I told you so', Lori. You were right, as usual."
"Of course I was," she said. "Let's get you back to the car and find a place to eat. We're sorry about this, Dr. Parsons."
"No trouble at all," Parsons said. "Do you need any help getting back to the car?"
"No, I'm all right, now," Clark assured the man. "Thanks for your help."
"It was Kryptonite," Clark was saying, some minutes later. "I couldn't mistake it."
"Then Smitt *was* somewhere around!" Lori said. "Clark, we've got to get you out of here. I don't want you anywhere near that stuff!"
"It was somewhere nearby, but it wasn't in the room," Clark said. "Someone must have passed by in the hall outside."
"We'll tell John," Lori said. "Are you *sure* you're okay?"
"Yes, positive." He dropped a kiss on top of her head. "Really, I've been exposed to the stuff before and survived, as you can see. Remember, the ring doesn't have anywhere near the amount of Kryptonite that was in the bracelet. I'm fine, really."
"Well, I still want to get you out of here," Lori said, stubbornly. "Norton's home sick, and someone around here is carrying a Kryptonite ring. This is no place for Superman! We'll have to track Norton down some other way!"
"Okay, okay!" Clark gave in. If he were to admit the truth, the event had scared him somewhat. They now had unarguable proof that the poisonous ring was still in Metropolis, and not far away. Someone in the geology building had it—Gerald Smitt, or someone else? Whoever it was, he couldn't afford to get too close. They would have to find some other way of locating it.
"Clark, are you sure you feel okay?" Lori hesitated before letting him scoop her into his arms. "I remember what happened the last time."
"I'm fine, honey. This wasn't anywhere near the exposure I got from the bracelet." He picked her up without hesitation. "We have to go back by way of the twentieth floor. That's the way we left."
"Details, details. Okay, but if you feel the least bit sick—"
Clark grinned. "Really, I'm okay. Honest! Trust me."
Lori put her arms around his neck and they lifted off. Within a few minutes, they landed gently on the roof of the Planet and ducked into the stairwell, to emerge a few seconds later on the twentieth floor.
John wasn't in his office when they arrived in the newsroom, but Meriel was still at Lori's computer, immersed in some sort of empire-building game. She glanced around as they crossed the room toward her. "Hi. Any luck?"
"Yeah, both good and bad," Lori said. "Is your dad around?"
"He'll be back in a few minutes," Meriel said. "What happened?"
"Norton was home 'sick'," Lori said, "but we found something else. The ring is there, somewhere."
Meriel's eyes widened. "You mean *the* ring?"
"Uh huh," Lori said.
She turned to Clark. "Did you *see* it?"
"No," Clark said. "I just felt it."
"Are you okay?"
"I'm fine. If Smitt is there, though, we didn't see him. It's possible someone else has it, I suppose."
"We'll find out," Lori said. "We need to get rid of that thing. I don't want anything out there that can hurt you."
Clark smiled. His young wife seemed to be as protective of him as the proverbial mother hen. It was amusing in a way. She was far more easily hurt than he was, yet like Lois before her Lori had apparently taken it on as her responsibility. "Don't worry, honey. It'll be all right."
"I'll relax when the ring is under control and not before," Lori said. "I saw what the bracelet did to you." She glanced up at the sound of the elevator arriving. "There's John. I want to know exactly why Smitt left Metro City College. John said it was because of some personal scandal. I want to know what it was."
John listened without comment to the whole story, leaning back in his desk chair far enough that he seemed to Clark to be in danger of tipping over. When Lori had finished, he said, "I don't have the information, but I'll have our people find out. In the meantime, Clark, you stay away from NTSU, at least until we have some idea where the ring ended up."
"John," Clark pointed out, "we don't know that you and Meriel are safe, either. Ronnie could feel the bracelet's effects, even though it was some distance away. You two don't have the super powers, but you're descended from me. It's possible the stuff could affect you, as well."
"I know. We'll handle it, Clark. Meriel, you heard what I told Clark. It applies to you, too. I can't order you to stay away, but please don't go near the place until we have a few more facts."
Meriel nodded. "Don't worry, Dad, I'm not stupid."
John smiled wryly. "No, but I know your habit of attracting trouble. Sometimes, I think it's hereditary. For the sake of your poor old dad's grey hairs, though, stay away from NTSU for the time being."
"You don't have any grey hairs," Meriel said.
"A lot you know. Between you and your brothers, I think I've aged an extra ten years since you hit your teens. Promise?"
"Yeah, I promise. I just hope you guys have this straightened out by the time the fall semester starts."
"In the meantime," Clark said, "Lori and I will keep going on the dream dust angle. There may not be any connection between the two."
John raised an eyebrow. "Yeah, right. They both have the geology department in common. That's a coincidence?"
"It could be. There's no reason there should be any connection that I can see."
"You know how I distrust coincidences."
"Well, yes," Clark admitted, "so do I. But I can't see how the two could be connected. Unless it turns out Gerald Smitt was dealing dust at Metro City College."
"Anything's possible," John said. "Just do me one favor. Until we know for sure, be extra careful, okay? Lori, I'm counting on you to keep your husband out of trouble."
Lori nodded seriously. "I'm way ahead of you on that, boss."
John smiled. "I imagine you are. The trouble is, you're something of a trouble magnet yourself. Be careful, both of you." He glanced at his computer screen, which was out of sight of the two reporters and Meriel. "In the meantime, the Chief of Police just announced a press conference at City Hall in about forty-five minutes. I need somebody to cover it, and you two seem to be available. Get on over there."
It was six o'clock when Clark and Lori made their way into the quiet of their apartment. The antique mantle clock sitting on one of the shelves of his bookcase was just chiming as Clark opened the door.
"Why do I think that press conference assignment was just an excuse to keep us out of trouble for a while?" Clark muttered, closing the door behind them.
Lori dropped into the big armchair without a word and let her bag slide to the floor. "Yeah, probably," she said, "but I don't really care right now. We'll figure it out tomorrow. Right now, I just want to take a hot shower and then get some dinner. My dad will be here in a couple of hours."
"Go ahead," Clark said. "I'll get dinner going. Do you want to call your dad and see if he'd like to eat here?"
"He's probably having dinner with a client," Lori said. "He said he'd be here on business today, but I guess it wouldn't be a bad idea to leave him a message, just in case."
"Okay. I'll do that while you shower." Clark said.
"Thanks," Lori said.
Clark dropped a kiss on her hair. "Then maybe I could join you."
Lori found herself turning pink. The image that suggestion conveyed attracted her strongly, but she regretfully shook her head. "If we get involved in that we might forget about the time," she said. "But how about a raincheck?"
"I think that could be arranged," he said. "Go on, honey, get your shower and I'll fix dinner."
By the time she emerged from the shower, Lori could smell the aromas of cooking food beginning to circulate around the apartment. She dressed quickly in a pair of slacks and a shirt and went into the kitchen. Clark was whistling softly as he dealt almost simultaneously with teriyaki chicken breasts, some kind of Japanese vegetable dish and a cucumber and crab salad. A bottle of wine, the outer surface coated with moisture, sat open on the kitchen table beside a pair of chilled glasses. He had found time to change out of his suit into more casual clothing as well, she noted and stood in the doorway for several seconds regarding her new husband with admiration.
"You look good," she said finally, moving forward to the table. "Do you want me to pour some wine for both of us?"
He turned around, a smile quirking the corners of his mouth. "I could say the same of you. Sure, it's probably ready. Dinner'll be ready in a few minutes. You like chicken teriyaki, don't you?"
"I love it," Lori assured him. "Did you get hold of Dad?"
"Yeah. He's having dinner with a client at the Lexor."
"I figured it was something like that." She glanced at her wrist for about the twentieth time that day, only to recall again that her wrist talker was in the shop. "I think I need to get a substitute until my regular wrist talker is fixed," she said, in exasperation.
"It wouldn't hurt," Clark said. "You can probably get one at Green's."
Lori poured the wine and handed him a glass. "I think I'll do that." She took a swallow of the wine. "Mm, nice."
"I picked it up at a little winery I know the last time I was in Germany," Clark said. "They advertise that Superman buys his wine there."
"Sure. The owner always makes sure my favorites are available. He's done it ever since I put out a fire at his place and saved the business a little over a year ago. I didn't have the heart to tell him he shouldn't, since he seems to enjoy it so much. And he gets the free advertising, of course."
"Of course," Lori said. "What's the time?"
Clark glanced at his own wrist. "Quarter to seven." He picked up the pan bare-handed and transferred the chicken breasts deftly to the two plates. "There we go. Now for the veggies, and if you'll just serve the salad, I think we can eat."
The door chime sounded only a minute before eight. Lori glanced at Clark, who rose quickly from the sofa. "It's your dad."
Lori swallowed, but said nothing as Clark went to answer the door. Robert Lyons stood there, a small wrapped parcel in his hands.
"Hello, Rob," Clark said. "Come in."
"Thank you." He entered and smiled at Lori where she stood in the middle of the living room. "Hello, Lori."
Her father glanced around the apartment. "You have a nice place here. Very homey."
"Thank you," Clark said. He indicated the armchair. "Won't you sit down?"
"Thank you." Rob glanced at the package. "I thought I should bring you a wedding gift. Here, Lori."
"Oh, Dad, you didn't need to."
"It isn't much. My mother wanted you to have this on your wedding day." He took his seat and folded his hands in his lap. Lori sank down onto the sofa, and Clark sat beside her.
"Why don't you open it, honey?"
Lori smiled and pulled at the ribbon. It came loose easily, and she carefully detached the tape holding the paper in place. She was beginning to suspect what it might be, and when the little white box came into view, she knew she was right. "Oh, Dad!" she breathed, opening the lid. Inside lay her Grandmother Lyons' delicate locket with the white cameo on the cover, that she had seen her grandmother wear from the time she was a little girl. "Grandma's locket! Oh, thank you!"
"I thought you'd like to have it," her father said.
"Oh, I do!" With trembling fingers, she put it around her neck. Her fingers shook so much that she couldn't fasten the tiny catch, and Clark took it, clipping it together for her.
Robert Lyons smiled. "Your grandmother wanted you to have it," he said. "She remembered how much you always liked it."
"I did," she said. "I wish she could have lived to see me married."
"She would have been pleased to see you as happy as you are," Rob said. He looked down at his hands and then back up at Lori and Clark. "I'm sorry," he said, abruptly. "Mariann isn't being very pleasant right now, and I'd understand if you didn't want to see either one of us. You deserve an explanation."
"Well, I admit, I don't really understand her attitude at all," Clark said, "but it isn't your fault. I'm glad to have the chance to get better acquainted with you and Lori wouldn't like it much if she couldn't see you."
Robert Lyons nodded soberly. "I'm happy for both of you," he said. "I could see the first time I met you at her graduation that she thought the world of you, Clark. And, of course, I don't agree with my wife's prediction that it will ruin her career. I don't think Mariann really believes it herself, underneath—at least not anymore."
"Then why does she say the things she does?" Lori asked. "If I were in your place I'd be angry, the way she always blames you for ruining her career. We all know you never made her quit her job."
He nodded. "I know, Lori, but there's more behind it than you realize. Of course, I didn't make her quit her career—I would never make her do anything she didn't want to do. It's always been a convenient excuse for her, and I didn't mind, because I knew it was mostly a defense mechanism. It's less painful for her to blame me than to blame herself—especially after everything she went through to get the education she did. If it makes her happier to believe it…" He broke off. "I only wanted her to be happy, Lori. Your mother had a lot to overcome, and I loved her. I still do, but I can't support her in this. You have the right to lead your own life; she has no right to try to make you lead the one she wants you to. Clark, you know our family is Traditionalist, don't you?"
"Yes," Clark said. "I'm something of a traditionalist, myself."
Rob nodded. "Have you ever heard of the High Traditionalists?"
"They were one of a number of splinter groups that broke away from the Traditionalists during the Decade of Unrest," Clark said. "Their leader, Nolan Vega, was a very charismatic man, with strict ideas about a woman's proper place." He saw the surprised look on Robert Lyons' face and added, "I'm a student of history. Things like that interest me."
"I see. That's pretty accurate. Then you probably know that their group retreated from society for some time to avoid the riots and gang wars and all the rest of the civil disturbances of the time, and went back to the land. After things quieted down, they didn't change very much. They still have a large settlement in the Midwest, and the outside world is kept pretty much at bay. The law, of course, mandates that children must be educated through high school, but their women are still taught to be obedient handmaidens to their fathers, brothers, and later their husbands—who are chosen for them by their parents. Mariann's family was High Traditionalist, and that's the environment where Mariann grew up."
"I see," Clark said. "Her attitude is beginning to make a little more sense, now, but I still don't understand why she's so determined that Lori stay single for the sake of her career."
"Their community is like a little island that somehow never got out of the Nineteenth Century," Robert Lyons said. "Only worse. Mariann's father was extremely strict even among the rest of his group. When she told him she wanted more of an education and a career, he beat her to within an inch of her life. She still has the scars from his attempts to make her into a 'decent' woman. She hated him. She ran away at sixteen."
"I can see why," Clark said.
"Why didn't she tell Marcy and me this?" Lori asked. "We would have understood."
"She didn't want you to know," Robert Lyons said. "I think she was ashamed of it. She even told you that her parents were dead, remember? For all I know, they could still be very much alive, but she's never had any contact with them since she left home. Anyway, she finished high school and put herself through business school by working, taking care of other people's children, cleaning homes, and qualifying for scholarships. She's amazingly intelligent, you know. That was where I met her. After she graduated, she went to work for the firm that had hired me and worked there for several years. She and I were friends—at least from her side. I was crazy about her from the start. The problem was that after all that, she found out she wasn't happy in her career. She wanted a husband and children—but she couldn't admit how she felt. To her, it would have been a tacit admission that her father had been right after all. I knew she didn't love me, but I didn't care. I loved her, and I asked her to marry me. She liked me well enough, and it was her way out." He sighed. "She quit her job by choice—it wasn't something I wanted her to do, but I don't think she's ever forgiven herself for what she saw as a failure on her part. She had to pretend it was the marriage that made her quit her job. Anything else would have been too painful."
"She didn't fail!" Lori burst out.
"You know that, and so do I," Robert Lyons said, "but your mother doesn't. As the years have gone by she's gotten more like her father in some ways—he was very controlling, and so is she, now. It's gotten to be almost an obsession with her. She wanted you and Marcy to do what she didn't. I understand that, but I can't agree with her. You have the right to your own lives—just as she did."
"I don't want to fight with her," Lori said, "but I'm not going to divorce Clark to make her happy."
"I don't expect you to," Robert Lyons said. "Mariann has a lot of conflicts and problems. I've talked to her about counseling. She isn't ready to agree yet, but I think she will, eventually. She's miserable the way she is, right now. I just wanted to explain to you what's really going on with her, and to ask you to be patient. Do you think you can?"
Clark reached out to take his wife's hand. "I'll do whatever you decide, honey," he said. "It's up to you."
She met her father's pleading expression and nodded. "Yeah," she said. "I guess we can."
Robert Lyons smiled. "Thanks, Lori," he said. "I think things will get better, but it's going to take a while. Your mother has a lot to work through. I don't want you to feel guilty in the meantime. You had every right to do as you did, and I'm glad that you married a man who loves you as much as Clark does. I hope Marcy finds as much happiness as you have, someday."
Lori gulped. "I think she will, Dad," she said. "She called me last night. She's met a guy she says she really loves. He's asked her to marry him for life—none of those six-month play-marriage things. She said she needed to think it over to be sure, but it really was what she wanted to do."
"I hope so," Rob said. "I worried about her more than I did you, Lori. You were always the thinker. Marcy was the rebel, like your mom. She jumped into marriage just to get away from home. I don't think any of her six-month contracts made her very happy. She wanted the real thing, but she's had a hard time finding it."
"Maybe she has, now," Lori said. "I'm glad you explained about Mom, Dad. At least now I understand why she acts like she does, even if it isn't very pleasant. I feel kind of sorry for her."
"Just try to be patient," Rob said. "Your mother is going to have to realize that she has no right to try to control anyone's life but her own. She isn't even doing very well at that right now. I think she'll accept the idea of getting counseling eventually. We've talked about it and I hope she'll begin to see that her obsession is ruining her life."
Lori hesitated. "You still love her," she said, "even if she doesn't love you?"
Rob nodded. "I always will, Lori. She's always been my best friend. I can live with that, if I have to."
"I can understand that," Clark said. He regarded the other man with respect. Robert Lyons had loyalty and the courage to deal with the situation in which he found himself. Clark didn't envy him, though. Rob had a difficult time ahead of him, but at least he knew what he was up against. He thought Mariann Lyons was a lot more fortunate than she knew.
Lori's father stayed for another hour talking about more pleasant subjects. When he left, he kissed Lori and turned to Clark. "I'm glad my daughter found you, Clark. I knew when I saw you again in Houston that I'd be hearing about your marriage before long."
"I'm lucky to have found *her*," Clark said. "She's an amazing person." He put an arm around his wife. "I'm glad you came by, Rob. Lori didn't want you to be angry with her because of this."
"I'm not," Rob said. "Your mom's problems aren't your fault, Lori. I think you've chosen the best way to deal with her. She's going to have to realize that if she doesn't take a look at her own behavior, she's going to alienate her whole family. I think she'll see it after while. And," he added, with a smile, "I'll be at your big wedding in October, even if she isn't."
When Robert Lyons had gone, Lori turned to Clark and put her arms around him, resting her head on his chest. Clark automatically put his around her. "Is everything all right, honey?"
Lori nodded, not releasing her grip on him. "I think so. I feel bad for Mother, though—and for Dad. I never knew all that stuff about her before. Maybe I should have been more understanding."
"Lori," Clark said, "don't start feeling guilty. She didn't want you to know. It's all right to feel sorry for her, but it isn't all right to let her control your life because of it. Would you have wanted to stay single to make her happy?"
Lori shook her head. "No."
"That's good, because, take it from me, that wouldn't have worked either. It would simply have made you unhappy along with her. It's up to your mom—with your dad's encouragement—to get help. You can't fix it. It was never in your power, or your sister's, to fix it, so blaming yourself is not only useless, it's misdirected. Your mother is a grown woman; maybe it's time she took a little responsibility for herself."
Lori nodded against his chest. "You're right, but if I ever start acting like my mother, tell me. I want to stop it before it starts."
Clark chuckled. "I don't think you're the kind of person to hide from problems, honey. You're more the kind who charges in and takes them on no matter what the cost, like you did with the security problem at NTSU when we first met. That's one of the things I love about you."
She looked up at him. "Really?"
"Well, yes—and just by coincidence, you have a great body too."
Lori giggled, suddenly feeling much better. "That's what I like about you. You have this instinctive grasp of the important things in life."
"Mmm—let's hear it for instinct," Clark said and lowered his face to hers. Lori closed her eyes and kissed him back enthusiastically. After all, they might not have gone anywhere exotic after their wedding, but they were technically honeymooners, weren't they? The floating sensation she experienced then wasn't entirely because of the kiss, she discovered a few seconds later. They were drifting across the floor about four inches above the rug, rotating slowly. At her breathless giggle, Clark looked down and laughed.
"See what you do to my concentration?" he said.
"I guess even Superman can be distracted," Lori observed.
"Given the right distraction, you bet," Clark replied, quite cheerfully.
"Am I that much of a distraction?"
"Much more," Clark asserted. "You're the worst kind of distraction because I don't even want to fight it." They drifted toward the bedroom, still several inches above the rug, Lori giggling helplessly. Her laughter was contagious and Clark joined in.
As happened often, Lori was aware on some level that she was dreaming. She shifted in bed, snuggling against her husband's side and sank more deeply into the dream images that swirled around her and resolved themselves into Centennial Park at night. She wasn't alone, and she wasn't Lori. She was someone else who was also her, and in the dream it didn't disturb her at all. Beside her, his face partially illuminated by the old fashioned lights that still adorned the park was Clark, but not the Clark of today. As in the picture at the Daily Planet, he wore a pair of glasses and the clothing of the period. He was speaking, but his words were muffled, as if she were hearing them through layers of cotton.
They had stopped beside a fountain, and he was still speaking. He pushed her gently onto the seat at the base of the fountain and started to speak again.
Lightning flashed and as abruptly, rain began to pour over both of them. Clark looked up in exasperation. "Come on! Give me a break!" The muffled sensation that had surrounded her was suddenly gone and his words were sharp and clear.
Lori heard herself laugh. "Do you want to go back?"
"If the earth opened up at my feet, I wouldn't move until I'd said this," Clark said. He knelt. "Lois," he began, and produced a small box wherein nestled a gold ring with a glittering diamond, "will you marry me?"
Lori's eyes flew open and she sat straight up in bed, inhaling air in a great gasp. Clark shot into a sitting position almost at the same time. "Lori? What's wrong?"
She took another deep breath and blew it out. Clark took her by the shoulders. "Lori? Are you all right?"
Numbly, she nodded. The dream had been vivid, disturbingly so. She could still see the images and feel the emotions it had evoked in her. In that dream, she had been Lois Lane, Clark's first wife. Slowly, she turned and examined Clark's face, barely visible in the dimness. Her racing heartbeat was slowing, but the tingle of adrenaline still raced along her nerves.
"Lori?" Clark said. "What's the matter?"
Slowly, she shook her head. "Nothing."
"It didn't seem like nothing. Did you have a bad dream?"
"Not exactly." She took a last deep breath. "It was a dream, but…"
"Well, it must have been a heck of a dream."
"I dreamed I was Lois. We were in Centennial Park by the fountain, and you were proposing to me in the rain." She laughed nervously. "What does that say about me, dreaming something like that?"
He was staring at her. "In the *rain*?"
"Yeah. Crazy, huh?"
He was slow to answer. "Well…it's certainly different. Are you sure you're okay?"
"I think so. It just…startled me." It had more than startled her; it had shocked her, because it felt so real. She had never had such a vivid dream.
"Do you want to tell me about it?"
"No…no. It was silly."
"Not if it shook you up this much. Your pulse is still fast. What happened?"
Lori shivered. The chronometer said it was two in the morning and the apartment was chilly, even if it was summer. Clark noticed.
"Here, get under the covers. I'll be right back." In a gust of air, he was gone. Before she could count to twenty, he was back, handing her a mug of what turned out to be hot chocolate. "Drink this. It'll help you warm up and relax."
Lori leaned back against the headboard and obediently sipped the chocolate. Clark had slipped into the bed again so smoothly that he hadn't even jostled the mattress. Only when she felt the springs creak slightly as he too leaned back against the headboard, did she realize he had been floating to avoid shaking the bed.
As he had predicted, the drink warmed her, and she felt herself relaxing. Clark was watching her closely. "Feeling better?"
She nodded. "Thanks, Clark."
"Don't mention it. Now, about that dream…"
She laughed a little nervously. "It wasn't that big a deal, really. We were in Centennial Park. It was night, and we were walking together. You were wearing glasses, like the ones in that picture at the Planet. You were talking to me, but I couldn't hear what you were saying. Then you made me sit down on that bench by the fountain, and all of a sudden, it began to rain. And you said…'Come on! Give me a break…'" She stopped.
"And?" Clark's voice seemed slightly unnatural.
"You said you were going to say something no matter what: 'If the earth opened up at my feet,'" she quoted. "And you got down on one knee and took out a ring and asked me to marry you. That's all I remember. Weird, huh?"
Clark didn't answer at first. Then he shook his head. "Yeah, really strange."
"Maybe it was the chicken teriyaki," Lori said. "Or maybe it was because Dad came to visit tonight."
"Yeah, maybe." Clark took the now empty cup and set it on the table by his side of the bed. "Lie back down now and try to go back to sleep, if you think you can."
Lori turned her head to examine his face. "Are you upset, Clark?"
"No, of course not. Come on, now, lie down." Suiting his actions to the words, he slid under the covers and held out his arm. Lori scooted down next to him. He put his arms around her and she felt the remaining tension drain from her within seconds. Somehow, being held by Clark was more reassuring than all the hot chocolate in the world.
"Feel better?" he asked, softly.
"Mm hmm." She found herself yawning. "Thanks, Clark."
"You're welcome. Go to sleep, now."
After Lori had dozed off, Clark lay staring at the ceiling for some time, running the incident over and over in his mind. Lori had described almost exactly what had happened the evening he had proposed to Lois. That couldn't be a coincidence, he knew. As he had halfway suspected, although Lori certainly wasn't Lois, somewhere under the surface were traces of Lois's memories. Everyone had deja vu occasionally; it had happened to him every now and then too, but this clearly was something out of the ordinary. Lois had never had these flashes, anymore than anyone else did, but Lois had never been immersed in reminders of her previous incarnation, whatever it had been, every day of her life. Not only that, it was doubtful if in any other life she had met or married her soulmate of the previous one. It appeared that there was a certain amount of carryover; it must simply be that this situation had rarely if ever arisen before.
The question was, how far would it go? How far *could* it go? Would Lori turn into Lois? He doubted it, but to his amazement, he found that he wasn't entirely happy at the prospect. As much as he loved and would always love Lois, he loved Lori as well. He didn't want to lose her.
The worries and conjectures floated around in his mind for some time. Lori shifted a little against him and murmured in her sleep, and he found that he had tightened his grip on her. He consciously relaxed it. Holding onto her physically couldn't stop what was happening. He would just have to hope that the situation would stabilize at some point. Perhaps he could talk to Rhonda on Sunday. His granddaughter was a remarkably practical person and he tended to go to her for advice or when he needed to talk over a difficult situation. The decision made, he was able to relax somewhat and shelve the problem for the present. Even Superman needed sleep occasionally, and Friday had been a day of more than the usual stresses.
Gently, he pressed a light kiss on the top of Lori's head and closed his eyes. "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof…" Who had said that, he wondered drowsily, but he was too tired to follow the thought further.
The soft chiming of the vidphone awakened him the next morning. A glance at the wall chronometer informed him it was nearly eight o'clock. This was Saturday, and he and Lori didn't need to be in to work until noon, but Clark had plans for the morning. Lori still slept beside him, her dark hair tousled against the pillow, and he levitated gently out of the bed to avoid disturbing her, grabbing for the robe lying across the nearest chair.
Closing the bedroom door, he glanced at the machine. The I.D. on the screen informed him that the call originated from the office of the Planet's editor. "Yes?"
John's face appeared. His eyebrows flew up as he took in Clark's appearance. "Oh, to be a newlywed. Looks like I woke you up."
"You did, but I wanted to get up early, anyway." Clark tightened the sash of his robe. "What's so urgent, anyhow?"
"Lori asked for some information, yesterday, after the two of you got back from NTSU. I just got a call from one of our investigators. The scandal at Metro City College involved a…'relationship' between Gerald Smitt and one of his TAs, a graduate student by the name of Deborah Tisdale. Apparently, she left at the same time Smitt did and returned home to Cleveland. If we can't locate Smitt by Monday, we'll try to find her and see if she can shed any light on the situation, but it seems like a long shot."
"Any further word on Smitt?"
"Not yet." John said. "We haven't given up yet, though. We're checking around NTSU for hiring records over the last few months. I'll keep you informed. When will we be seeing you, today?"
"We'll probably be in around noon," Clark said. "There are a few things I want to check out this morning."
"Are you one hundred percent today? After yesterday, I don't want you anywhere around the college campus."
"It'll be all right, John," Clark assured him. "I've dealt with Kryptonite before in the hands of much more formidable persons than a college professor. Remind me to tell you about Jason Trask sometime." He glanced at the bedroom door as it opened. Lori, wearing the satin and lace dressing gown that went with the Paris creation she had worn, however briefly, on their wedding night, emerged. He saw John grin and added hastily, "I'll talk to you later."
"No problem. See you around noon." The screen went off.
"What did John want?" Lori asked.
He repeated the information for her benefit. "This morning I wanted to see if we can track down Lester Norton. He may or may not still be home 'sick' but we might be able to find out something about his associates. There's still the dream dust problem to deal with."
"As soon as I can get dressed I'll see if I can find his address," Lori said. "Why don't you go get your shower?"
"I seem to remember a raincheck," Clark said, teasingly, and watched with amusement as her cheeks turned a delicate pink. "I think we can put that off until tonight, though. I wanted to get a jumpstart on this thing today. We don't know if Norton will be back at NTSU when the fall semester begins, and today is the last day before they close down for the summer. Would you like the bathroom first?"
"No, you go ahead. You're faster than I am." Lori hesitated. "Um…I wanted to mention something, by the way."
"Yeah. Ever since you told us about Ryan yesterday, I meant to tell you but things kept happening. Marcy called me after you left, night before last. Remember, you said Ryan told you he's found the right woman?"
"Well, I know who it is."
Clark paused for a long moment, then, with a sense of inevitability said, "Marcy."
Lori nodded. "I'm sorry. I should have said something, but—"
Clark smiled wryly. "Why? Ryan didn't."
"Well, I kept intending to, but one thing after another happened, and I just forgot. Are you upset?"
"No, of course not."
Lori looked worried. "Are you sure? I mean, I know Marcy doesn't have the best record when it comes to men in general, and marriage in particular, and…"
"Honey." Clark walked over to her and put his arms around her. "Ryan doesn't have much of a record in that area, either. Marriage, I mean. He's been waiting for the right woman. If he thinks Marcy is the right woman, it's none of my business. Just because I'm his grandfather doesn't give me a say. I have to trust his judgement."
Lori looked relieved. "I thought there might be some kind of rule about who you could marry, or something."
Clark shook his head. "Of course not. We have to be sure, but if Ryan trusts Marcy, then that's all I need to know." He grinned suddenly. "It's going to be interesting when she finds out that you're her step-grandmother-in-law, though."
Lori looked stunned for an instant, then began to laugh. "I hadn't thought of that! Clark, we're going to have a very strange family tree!"
"We have a very strange family," Clark said, seriously. "It just keeps life interesting." He added, "And if we stand here like this for much longer I'm going to forget all of my sterling resolutions about the raincheck. I better go get that shower. I think I'll make it a cold one."
When they stepped outside the apartment some forty minutes later, the sky was shrouded with heavy black clouds and a light rain was falling. Little puddles of muddy water dotted the pavement
Lori pulled her raincoat tightly about her. "It sure would be nice to have a groundcar right now," she remarked.
Clark spotted a taxi and whistled sharply. "Why don't we visit a dealer after we check on Mr. Norton, if there's time?"
"That sounds good to me." She stepped back from the curb to avoid the water splashed about by the wheels of passing traffic.
The ground taxi screeched to a stop in front of them, spraying water in all directions. Clark reflected that the taxi drivers of Metropolis hadn't changed much in a hundred years. They still drove like maniacs. He opened the door for Lori and clambered in after her, then surreptitiously fanned low-level heat vision over her, drying her exposed clothing.
"Where to?" the driver inquired.
Clark gave him Lester Norton's address and the taxi peeled away from the curb with a jerk and a squeal of tires, barely missing a tour bus and peppering pedestrians behind them with mud and water. The driver took the corner on two wheels, throwing Lori against him. He could feel the car's stabilizer fighting to keep them upright and wrapped an arm around his wife, gritting his teeth as the tail end of the groundcar skidded sideways frantically. The driver fought his vehicle back under control and shot under the nose of a fuel truck to beat the traffic signal. That did it. As soon as they had time this morning, they were going to get Lori a car. This was the last time she was going to risk her life in one of these things, if he had any say about it. It was apparent to him that the driver of the taxi had a death wish.
Twenty minutes later, the driver, undaunted, pulled his taxi to a sliding stop against the curb of a quiet, tree-lined street not far from the university. Clark paid him and got out, followed by Lori. The taxi driver took off with the shriek of tortured rubber and Clark pulled Lori out of the way of the shower of mud he left in his wake.
"Wow," Lori said. "Who needs a roller coaster after that?"
"Roller coasters are safer," Clark said. "And cheaper. Let's go see if Mr. Norton is home."
Lester Norton lived in a small, shabby room in a boarding house not far from the NTSU campus, but the only individual present was an elderly housekeeper. Mr. Norton, she told them, had left for the college half an hour before. Clark took the opportunity to x-ray the man's room but nothing obviously suspicious was visible. The room had very little to identify the occupant, much less anything to indicate possible associates. As they returned down the walk, Lori said, "What now?"
"Well, I can't go near the geology building until we find out where the ring is," Clark said, "but there's nothing to stop me from flying over it and taking a look."
"Let's go," Lori said. "I'd rather fly in the rain with you than risk my life in another taxi, anyway."
Clark grinned. "We'll fly above the rain, okay?"
"Okay." They headed for the nearest secluded area and a moment later Superman and his passenger were in the air and headed for the university grounds at cloud level. They avoided a police aircar that passed by not far away and Lori covered her face until it was out of sight.
"I don't think that's really necessary," Clark observed. "Even if we were close enough, I don't think the Metro police are going to take any pictures. If it was a tabloid photographer, now, it would be another story."
"I prefer not to take chances," Lori said. "Police are people, too." She wrinkled her nose, an expression that was purely Lori. Lois had never done that, he thought. "I remember a tabloid photo of Blue Lightning carrying a woman, a couple of years ago. She was covering her face, too. There was this big hue and cry, with the press trying to track down the mystery woman."
Clark remembered that. "That was his wife, Michelle. You might remember what happened, though. They asked him about it."
Lori giggled. "Yeah, I do. He told them it was none of their business. There was a lot of screaming about the public's right to know and a couple of women tried to claim they were his mystery woman, but they were discredited." She snorted. "Bottom feeders!"
Clark smiled. His pretty wife had the same opinion of the tabloids that every responsible journalist had. Not that he wanted any so-called "responsible" journalists to find out about her, either. "They're always trying to link us with celebrities and scandals," he remarked, matter-of-factly. "We ignore it, but it sells." He ceased his forward motion, hovering just within the bottom layers of cloud. "Here we are. Are you cold?"
"No, not really. You're pretty warm. Do you see anything?"
Clark was scanning the geology building below them. "Nope. There are three people inside—Parsons, some guy I've never seen before and the janitor."
"I take it there's no sign of the ring, either," Lori said.
"Not that I can see."
"No sign of Norton?"
"Great. Where do you suppose he is?"
"Not here," Clark said. "His stuff was in his room, though, so he'll be back there, eventually."
"What do we do? Stake out his room all day?"
Clark shook his head. "John can assign someone to do that. Maybe the new intern."
Lori sighed happily. "It feels awfully good not to be at the bottom of the food chain anymore."
Clark smiled, scanning the geology building again. "Whoever has the ring, he's not here today, either."
"Do you suppose Gerald Smitt could be teaching here under another name?" Lori speculated. "Or maybe someone else has the ring. Maybe it's a student, or a TA or something. Metro City College is affiliated with New Troy State. Students transfer here from MCC all the time. One of them could have it."
"Maybe," Clark said. "Right now, I'm going to call John, and then we're going to visit a groundcar dealer. Do you have any preferences?"
Just before noon, the brand new silver Jeep Predator pulled into a parking space on the second level of the Daily Planet's tall parking structure. Lori cut the engine and looked admiringly at their new car.
"You like it, huh?" Clark said, smiling at her obvious enjoyment.
"I can't get over it," Lori said. "I always figured my first car would be a little subcompact like Meri's. This one is really something."
"There is no way on the face of the Earth that I'm ever going to try fitting into something that size again," Clark said firmly. "I'm slightly claustrophobic, anyway. I hate confined spaces and sitting with my chin on my knees is not my idea of comfort." He opened the door. "Let's go. At least we get to stay out of the rain."
The newsroom was its usual busy self when they stepped out of the elevator. Lori went straight to her computer and accessed the university computers. As insurance against the Clarion staff changing the password on the paper's computer, she'd set up her own method of access two days before. Now she began to dig into Lester Norton's background as documented in NTSU's records. Maybe something here would tell them what they needed to know.
The third level of the hospital parking lot was dim and quiet, Meriel thought as she pulled her car into one of the available spaces. It was just past lunch hour and not yet time for the shift change, so the traffic through the parking structure was at a minimum. She was actually a little early, but Rena was due to be released from the hospital this afternoon, and Meriel had volunteered to pick her up. Her friend was in some trouble with the law because of her indiscretion, and was due before a judge on the following day. The family lawyer had reassured them that since this was her first offence the penalty was likely to be slight, but Meriel know that just that fact was enough to worry Rena, who had never had so much as a parking ticket until now. Her parents were quite upset with her as well, and the next few weeks of her life were probably going to be fairly unpleasant. Meriel wanted to let her know that at least one person wasn't blaming her for anything more than—well, a stupid mistake. She rather thought that Rena had learned a very hard lesson and wasn't about to rub it in any more than circumstances already had. She was pretty sure Rena could use a friend right now. Meriel and her mother had planned to take her out to lunch this afternoon, just to assure her of their support.
Somewhere, she heard the echoes of another car engine and then the sound cut off. She headed briskly toward the elevator, which would deliver her safely into the hospital lobby without the necessity of stepping out into the rain.
There were footsteps behind her, and a glance over her shoulder showed her two dim figures approaching, half-concealed in the shadows of the lot. The lighting was too dim in here, she thought. A light prickle of nervousness ran over her scalp and she banished it impatiently. Nothing was going to happen here.
She paused in front of the elevator, waiting for the doors to open. The footsteps behind her came closer, and suddenly Meriel was dizzy. Weakness swept over her in a wave, followed by an aching sensation in all her joints and the fiery cramping of muscles all over her body. She stumbled and put out a hand to brace herself against one of the big synthastone pillars, but everything was blurring before her eyes and her hand missed its target. Meriel stumbled, thrown off balance, and fell. Her head struck the pillar with a burst of stars. The dim lights went black.
Lori looked up from her computer screen in time to see Clark rise from his desk and head for John Olsen's office. Something about his expression made her pause and then stand up and follow him.
John's face was grim as they entered his office. "Clark, Marilyn just called me," he began without preliminary. "I think there may be a problem."
Lori saw her husband's face go pale. "Meriel?" he asked.
John nodded. "She was supposed to meet Marilyn for a late lunch. The two of them were going to take Rena Harcourt out and try to cheer her up when she was discharged from the hospital, but Rena said she never showed up. She doesn't answer her car phone or her wrist talker. More importantly, she didn't answer when *I* called her." He tapped his forehead.
Clark closed his eyes, his face rigid with concentration. After a long moment, he shook his head. "She's not answering. Do you have any idea where else she was going today?"
"Marilyn said Meriel was going to go over to the hospital to pick Rena up, but she apparently never arrived," John said. "Other than that, I don't know."
"Okay," Clark said. "I'll head over to the hospital and look around for her car. Lori, you keep working. See if you can find the slightest shred of information that might tell us something about Lester Norton, who his friends are; anything to tell us where he might be. And John, get hold of Aaron and Henry. I'll call Lara and CJ. If all five of us are looking for her, we might have a better chance of finding her."
Lori nodded. "Be careful, Clark."
"I will." He gave her a quick kiss and was gone out the window.
Meriel Olsen came slowly awake. Every muscle in her body throbbed and cramped like a sore tooth. Her joints ached, and her head swam nauseatingly. A voice said, somewhere in the background, "She's coming around."
Someone flipped water in her face. A woman's voice said, "Come on, wake up."
Meriel gagged and moaned faintly.
"Come on," the woman's voice said, sounding impatient. "I don't have the time or patience for this. Wake up!"
Meriel moaned again. A hand grabbed her by the hair and pulled her face up. "Wake up!"
The movement sent pain shooting through her head and the room spun sickeningly. The muscle cramps increased to almost unbearable levels. She began to sob dryly.
"Take it easy!" The voice was male and sounded strained. "You're not going to get anything out of her like that!"
"I intend to get an answer! Who sold Harcourt the dust, girl?"
Meriel couldn't help it. She hiccupped, coughed and then lost the remainder of her stomach's contents. The woman's voice gave an exclamation of disgust and the hand released her hair. Meriel dropped back to the floor, retching. "Grandpa Clark," she mumbled. "Help me…" A hand striking her face sent her reeling back into the darkness from which she had so painfully climbed.
Clark, sailing through the air toward the hospital, found himself shifting direction slightly. Something tugged at him almost below the level of consciousness, pulling him in the direction of New Troy State University. It was as if he could feel Meriel's fear and pain. His great great-granddaughter was somewhere in this direction and in dire need of help if his instincts were any judge.
Someone was pulling his hair—no, Meriel's hair. It was somewhere around here…
And then he heard it. *Grandpa Clark…Help me." There was the feeling of a hand striking his face, and then the tenuous mental touch was gone.
Alarm sent him plunging in the direction of the call. He had it pinpointed now. She was in an older, two-story house not far from the university. Meriel lay on the floor of the kitchen, and two people, one of them Lester Norton, argued back and forth over her. The other, a slender, blond woman who might have been attractive except for the angry scowl that distorted her face, reached out, seized Meriel by the hair, and drew back her hand to strike. Clark shot forward and burst through the kitchen door, slamming it back against the wall. In a split instant, he seized her wrist, restraining her.
Too late, he felt the telltale ache of Kryptonite radiation. Dropping her hand, he staggered back. The woman's face reflected shock, then a grim satisfaction. A malicious smile split her face.
"Surprised, Superman?" she asked. With one hand, she reached up, tugged at a chain that hung around her throat, and from the neckline of her blouse, withdrew a small, gold ring with a glittering, green stone, half the size of his thumbnail. "No one else ever realized what this was," she said. "But I did. I believe in insurance. Now, Les!"
From the corner of his eye, Clark caught movement; then something hard struck the back of his head with stunning force. That was the last he remembered.
Lori made a fourth trip to the coffee machine, loaded the brew with cream and sugar and returned to her computer. Uneasiness rippled along her nerves. An hour had passed since Clark had left and he had not yet returned. If Lester Norton had gotten hold of Meriel, they needed to find him and it was beginning to look as if they wouldn't manage it in time to help her. She hoped fervently that Clark would be careful, too. She wasn't as convinced as he was that the connection of the geology department with both the new dream dust and the Kryptonite ring was only a coincidence and the possibilities that opened up scared her.
She had rarely felt as helpless. Her boss paced about the Pit, coming to peer over her shoulder every few minutes, which didn't help her concentration. She couldn't blame him, however. It was his daughter who had disappeared. With five superheroes and the police as well, scouring the city no one had turned up anything but Meriel's car parked on the third level of the hospital-parking tier.
Lori stared at the screen. Lester Norton was a graduate student, a teaching assistant to Don Wilcox, one of the geology professors. His address was given, and the make, model, license and university parking permit number of his car as well as the fact that he'd spent his first two undergraduate years at Metropolis City College. His grades were consistently good, although they had slipped recently. What was it that she was missing?
She covered her eyes, trying to force her brain to think creatively. She wasn't getting anywhere from this direction; maybe she needed to look at it another way.
Okay, she'd suspected all along that the geology department connection wasn't a coincidence. If it wasn't, then the Kryptonite was somehow connected to the new dream dust and therefore probably to Lester Norton. So what did she know about the Kryptonite ring?
Well, she knew Gerald Smitt had originally bought it, but Gerald Smitt had left Metropolis City College because of a probable affair with his TA. But the TAs who worked at Metro City College hadn't gotten their degrees there, it was a two-year college. The TAs came from NTSU, because of its affiliation with the city college. Gerald Smitt hadn't been seen since, and his TA had returned to Cleveland…
Her mind screeched to a halt. That had been six months ago. Who was to say that the TA had *stayed* in Cleveland? Maybe she had come back the next semester. Maybe Smitt actually didn't have anything to do with this. Suppose he'd given the ring to his girlfriend? What had her name been? Deborah something—Deborah Tisdale, that was it.
Quickly, she directed her computer to find any and all information on Deborah Tisdale and within a few minutes, a possible answer was staring her in the face.
Deborah Tisdale was a TA in the geology department this semester at NTSU. She had her bachelor's degree in geology, but had a minor in chemistry, and was taking her master's in the subject. Lori caught her breath. If John's investigators had even considered the girlfriend, no one had checked on her yet. If she had the ring and if she was the one manufacturing the dream dust, and if she was the one who had Meriel…
But none of this was proof. All of it was based on "what-ifs", and Lori knew just how wild anyone but Clark would think her idea. How many times had Mariann told her that she let her imagination run away with her? Lori got to her feet. She couldn't do much more good here, and she might be able to check this idea out herself without pulling the police or any of the supermen off their own search. Besides, the last thing she wanted to do was to bring any of the super-heroes into this if there actually was Kryptonite on the premises.
She grabbed her raincoat off the coat rack on her way to the elevator, and a moment later was in the conveyance and on her way to the Daily Planet's parking tier. At least the Predator could get her to Deborah Tisdale's address a lot faster than the slidewalk. Three minutes later, she was in the Jeep and on her way.
When she pulled the Jeep out onto the street, she thanked Clark's foresight in insisting that they purchase a groundcar today. The rain was coming down by the bucketful. Lori steered through flooded streets that an hour ago had been merely wet. Ground traffic was almost as heavy as before but even more unpredictable. What was it, she wondered abstractedly, that made otherwise moderately sane drivers lose their common sense when it began to rain? People did things with their cars when it was raining that they wouldn't dream of doing on a bright sunny day. Lori gritted her teeth and inched her way through water that came almost to the axles of her new car, trusting that her anti-collision system would keep her from any serious, unanticipated meetings with other vehicles.
It almost didn't. At one stop, only the fact that she was cautious about starting up prevented her being hit as a truck slid sideways into the intersection and tilted slowly and majestically onto its side. She maneuvered carefully around the accident, watching the spreading ripples from the motion of her Jeep's wheels as they met the ripples spreading outward from the capsized truck. The vehicle's driver clambered awkwardly out a window, looking shaken.
That was only one of the sights she saw as she made her cautious way toward the university. Accidents, usually of a minor nature, abounded, an inevitable consequence of millions of people living in close proximity to each other, all of them trying to get somewhere in bad weather. The radio announced that a power station had been struck by lightning, knocking out the power to a large section of the city and that two of the superheroes had arrived to try to put out the resulting fire and to help the emergency services cope with injured employees. Lori made a face. It was just as well that she hadn't called for the super-heroes to help. It looked as if there were a few other things taking up their attention at the moment.
Once she got away from the business district, her progress was faster. Traffic was sparser and less frantic, but the rain and accompanying wind seemed to intensify, buffeting the Predator mercilessly. Once, a branch torn from a tree smacked across the windshield and she almost drove off the road but at last, she pulled onto the street some six blocks from NTSU, where Deborah Tisdale lived.
The house, according to the records, was actually the address of Audrey Tisdale, age 72, listed as Deborah's aunt and nearest local relative, so the woman was apparently living with her. It was an older model she saw, as she drove slowly past, and in the driveway sat Lester Norton's car, an ancient, green Ford Cruiser. Someone was probably here, then.
Lori continued down the street well past the house and parked nearly at the next corner. She cut the engine, looking around unenthusiastically at the tossing branches of trees and bushes and the waterfall euphemistically described as a thunderstorm, wrapped herself tightly in her raincoat and got out, locking the door behind her.
A sharp, very wet gust of wind nearly took her off her feet and rain slashed almost horizontally into her face, but she turned her back to the gale and let it bear her in the direction of Deborah Tisdale's residence.
It almost took her on by, but she fought her way across the sopping lawn to the house and paused at last in the shelter given her by the corner of the building to take stock. Should she just march up to the door and pretend to be a stranded motorist? Maybe, but even if Meriel was here, what good would it do? If her presence were known, she'd never be given a chance to find out.
There was a light dimly visible through the curtained window, some distance back in the house. Lori moved along the outer wall toward the rear of the building, not particularly worried about noise. Nobody but one of the supermen could possibly have heard anything but the loudest of sounds over the constant pounding of the rain and the rumbles of thunder.
A six-foot fence barred her way, but barriers of that sort had never stopped her before. She made it over the fence at the expense of a skinned knee, a splinter in one hand and a small tear in her raincoat and found herself in a weedy back yard. A dog house that had apparently not had an occupant for some time judging by its condition and a neglected and obviously uninhabited fishpond, were the only features that she could immediately discern in the pounding rain. A trellis, supporting a scraggly climbing rose, ran up one side of the house, and the canes blew about wildly. One had partially broken and lay sideways across the back steps, its leaves whipping about in the wind. The sky above was black as pitch and lightning flickered constantly. Light streamed from a back window; she could see two persons moving about inside, but here the noise of the storm worked against her. Their voices were inaudible to her.
Lori paused, irresolute. How was she going to find out if Meriel was there without getting inside? She moved closer to the house, sheltering under the overhang with water cascading from the roof an inch from her nose while she thought over her options. A gust of wind blew cold water into her face and the back screen door banged open violently. Lori froze, flattening herself against the building, praying that if anyone opened the door the falling rain and the trellis would shield her from discovery.
The back door opened. A man, whom she recognized from the picture as Lester Norton looked out, grimacing at the downpour. "Wind blew the door open," he said over his shoulder as he groped for the handle. "It's nothing."
"That lock's broken," a woman's voice said. "Just pull it shut and hook it. We can lock the inside door. This antique place of my aunt's is falling apart, but the price is right."
"We've got to get rid of them before she gets home," Lester said. He grasped the handle and pulled the screen shut, but the wind jerked the slippery metal out of his hand and the door flew wide again. He swore luridly and reached for it a second time.
"Hurry up!" the woman's voice said. "Close the door! Do you want to advertise it to all the neighbors?"
"Nobody could hear anything over this." He grabbed the door handle and pulled it shut. An instant later the solid door slammed.
Lori closed her eyes for an instant. That had been close, but what Lester had said chilled her to the bone. "Them"? Meriel could be one, but if there was someone else here…
It wasn't logical, but she had a bad feeling who it might be. She had to call for help.
She lifted her wrist and remembered, for the umpteenth time, that her wrist talker was at the shop. She couldn't call the police. Yelling for one of the superheroes might or might not produce results, especially now, but it could as easily alert these two to her presence, and fighting her way back to the car might well take more time than Meriel—and Clark, if he was in there—had.
Lori considered the situation for about half a second and made her decision. She had to get in there somehow. If she found them alive, then she could decide what else to do.
The kitchen light went out as she stood mulling over her choices. The two were leaving the room, which gave her a little more safety in moving about. A glance at the rickety trellis and its thorny rose canes decided her against that option unless she couldn't find any other way in. She looked around, hoping for inspiration.
The garage was attached to the house, and there was a small door in the rear of it, she noted for the first time, held shut with a rusty padlock. That was a stroke of good luck. Most likely, that kind of lock wouldn't be tied to any alarms. Lori examined it for a moment, then looked around for something hard and heavy. Decorative stones were scattered around the fishpond, but all of them were too small for her purpose. In the bottom of the depression, however, sitting in an overflowing mixture of rainwater and small, floating globs of evil-looking green slime, was a large, decorative chunk of white quartz. Lori picked it up without a second thought and returned to the padlock. She grasped the padlock in one hand and struck it twice with the chunk. The lock broke. She removed it expeditiously and tossed it to the grass, then cautiously pushed the door open. The hinges creaked loudly, but that was the least of her worries. She slipped inside and closed it after her.
As she entered the garage, the overhead light flickered as the sensors detected her presence, glinting off the slick, gleaming surface of a big, black aircar. "Lights off!" she commanded as loudly as she dared. The flickering died, and she drew a deep breath to settle her nerves. Now, if she didn't have to open any regular door locks without a key, the house's intruder alert system shouldn't sound since there were already occupants inside.
There was a door to her right, which appeared to lead into the house proper. She turned the knob, praying silently that it wouldn't be locked. Luck was with her, for the knob turned under her hand and she pushed the wooden panel open a crack.
Beyond was the dimness of an unlighted room. She edged it open a fraction of an inch at a time, watching for the telltale flicker of light and paused at the first hint of activity, with the door open about five inches. There was no sound audible over the muted rumble of thunder that penetrated from outside. Lori risked it again. "Lights off!"
The flicker died. Tensely, she listened for any indication that she had been detected, but there was nothing. Slowly and carefully, she eased the door open until she could slide through.
Her raincoat caught on the knob and she stopped. That would have been bright. All she needed to do was to drip water all over the floor and let them know she had been here! Quickly, she shed the rain gear and dropped it through the door into the garage. Her shoes were wet, too, and they followed the coat. Gently, she closed the door behind her with a soft click that sounded like a minor explosion to her tightly drawn nerves, and turned back to survey her location.
She was in the kitchen. Through the door and down a short hall, she could see the glow of light leaking under a door, and as she listened, she could hear a muffled male voice speaking, cracking with what she judged to be anger and fear.
"…Can't kill Superman! Every one of the other ones will be after our scalps, and they'll never rest until they find us! I say we cut our losses. Right now they don't have any real proof, but it's getting too risky!"
"Don't wimp out on me, Les." The second voice was higher and carried more clearly to Lori's straining ears. "If we dump them in the river with no identification, no one will ever know. We've got to find out who sold the Harcourt girl the dust. If we don't, he can tell them where he got it, and there's been four deaths now, counting the two yesterday. We'll be lucky if we get thirty years at hard labor in the lunar mines!"
"That's your problem, not mine!"
"If I go down, you go with me," the woman—Deborah?—said, flatly. "I'll make sure of that. Look, Les, I've got the addictive formula worked out. There's a fortune waiting for us, but we can't let them pin this on us. We have to find out who stole the dust and get rid of him, and if I have to wring it out of the Olsen girl, I will. No one's going to hear anything. The basement is as close to soundproof as you can get, especially with this storm going on. Now, are you going to help me or not?"
"I don't know. The way she cracked her head, I'm not sure she's gonna be able to tell you anything, anyway."
"If she can't, we'll have to get hold of Harcourt, but she's being watched pretty closely. I'd rather do it this way…"
Lori retreated backwards into the kitchen. She'd heard enough. Clark and Meriel were in the basement. Now, all she had to do was find the way down to it. She looked around hopefully. Weren't doors leading to the basement frequently in the kitchen?
Not this time, apparently. Nothing resembling a door that might lead to a basement presented itself. Then where would it be?
There was a small, closed-in porch giving onto the door into the back yard. Without much hope she checked it, and found herself looking at a wooden door opening opposite the outer one. The door was held closed with a simple mechanical lock, and the key was in the lock. Thanking her lucky stars and the arrogance of the two kidnappers, she cautiously turned the key. It squeaked slightly, setting her teeth on edge, but the lock turned. Leaving the key in the lock, she opened the door and entered.
A flight of wooden steps descended into blackness, but at once the sensors detected her presence and the lights flickered on. Lori closed the door quietly, debated a second and left them on as she descended. Now wasn't the time to take a headfirst dive down the stairs.
From her vantage point, as she descended, she could see that the basement had apparently been used for storage for many years. Shelves lined the walls, loaded with ancient and very dusty books and magazines, and anything else small enough to stack on them. Children's board games were piled helter-skelter next to them, and with them, sports equipment of various kinds. A tennis racquet with half its strings missing leaned against the wall together with a baseball bat and a set of golf clubs that had seen better days. A bowling ball sat next to a deflated football and two football trophies, all equally covered with dust. Against the far wall, sagging under a pile of debris, was a ping pong table, and lying next to it on the floor, so still that she couldn't see them breathing…
Meriel and Clark.
For all her rush to get to them, Lori was careful to avoid noise. The wooden stairs creaked slightly as she descended, but her bare feet made no other sound. Clark and Meriel were lying on their backs as if they had been carelessly dumped there with no regard for their comfort—which didn't surprise her. If Deborah Tisdale wasn't a sociopath, Lori didn't know the meaning of the word. From everything she had seen demonstrated so far, the woman was a conscienceless monster.
They were breathing, much to her relief. Meriel had an ugly, swollen bruised spot on her forehead that made Lori wince in sympathy. Clark had no apparent injuries, and she knew that only one thing could have brought down Superman. It had to be here somewhere, but how was she supposed to find it in this jackdaw's nest?
An idea hit her then. "Lights off!" she commanded.
The lights went out and the room was plunged into absolute darkness. Lori stood perfectly still, letting her vision adjust. Multicolored sparks seemed to dance before her eyes, although she knew they had to be her imagination, but one colored light didn't dance. It was right in front of her, a steady, greenish spot in the blackness.
Lori closed her eyes. "Lights on!" She had the spot pinpointed in her mind, and when she slowly opened her eyes, letting them readjust to the light, she knew exactly where to look.
The ring was sitting on the ping pong table between an ancient bucket of long-dried paint and a climbing boot. She snatched it up. She had to get this thing away from Clark as fast as she could, but how far was far enough? Lori retreated to the farthest side of the basement, glancing about for inspiration. Surely, with all the junk in this place there would be something suitable. If she could get it inside a lead container, that would do the trick but nothing seemed to fill the bill. Desperately, she looked around, searching for anything she could use.
Pipes of some sort extended from the wall. Some ancient appliance, she thought, might have been hooked up to them at some time or other. One of the pipes protruded from the floor and was encrusted with mineral stains, as if water had run into it at some time in the past; perhaps it had been a drainage pipe for one of the old washing machines that had become obsolete thirty-some years ago. Lori tried to see down into it, but blackness met her gaze.
Wait a minute. She had the miniature hand light she'd taken to carrying after her near mugging at the university months ago, when she had first met Clark. Quickly, she dug around in the pocket of her slacks for the little key ring that held the electronic key to the Predator. The hand light needed a new power cell, she thought as she directed the pale beam into the pipe, but it was sufficient to tell her that the thing extended deep enough into the ground for her purposes. She was about to drop the deadly piece of jewelry into the pipe when another thought struck her. In its current condition, if by some unlikely chance anyone ever found it, they would undoubtedly pick it up. Lori didn't want this stuff to ever menace Clark or one of his family—and maybe someday descendents of hers, too—again. She had to destroy it, permanently.
Leaving the ring on the floor, she crossed the room to the spot where the golf clubs leaned forlornly against the wall and selected one. A lone aluminum plate that looked like part of a camping kit lay among the other miscellaneous junk on the ping pong table. She appropriated it as well and returned to the ring. With single-minded determination, she placed the ring on the metal plate and used the golf club to grind the green stone into tiny bits of broken, green crystal, and the gold circlet of the ring into a shapeless mass of twisted metal. It was easier than she had expected. The brittle crystal shattered easily, and Lori took great satisfaction in turning the poisonous, green stuff into powder. When she was sure that no one would ever be able to recognize it again, she carefully poured the green dust down the pipe.
The whole process had taken only a few minutes, but time was precious. Footsteps overhead reminded her of the danger they still faced. Clark and Meriel couldn't defend themselves from the people who had already demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that they were ruthless killers. It was up to her to protect her husband and her new friend until she could call for help, or until Clark revived enough to help her. But what could she use to defend herself against a stunner, or other, more solid weapons that the two could bring to bear?
Her eyes fell on the golf club that still lay on the floor by the metal piping. That might work, but she needed another sort of advantage. A golf club was certainly no match for a stunner. She looked frantically around, and necessity produced an answer. Children's board games littered the wall shelves, and one of them in particular might have what she needed. Quickly, she hurried to the shelf, opened the one she sought and breathed a sigh of relief. The game was mostly complete. Lori gathered the necessary equipment and set to work, aware that the door above the stairs could open at any second. A minute later she stood back, surveying her set-up with the eye of an artist. It would have to do.
Meriel moaned softly, beginning to stir, and the moan was followed by one from Clark. Lori suppressed a surge of hope. They were still a long way from being able to help her. She moved to a position beside the steps, beyond the line of sight of anyone who might open the door to the stairs, and gripped the golf club with both hands. "Lights off!" she commanded in a whisper.
The lights went out. Lori stayed where she was, pressed against the old, rough concrete that made up the wall of the basement. This house had been built before the invention of synthastone. It was pitch black as only an enclosed room can be. Even on the darkest night, some small amount of light is available to the eye but inside the basement there was none. Lori shivered in the darkness, knowing that if Clark and Meriel didn't recover in time, she was going to have to fight a pair of killers by herself. And to defend the man she loved, she would fight; there was no doubt at all in her mind about that. A year ago they hadn't met; now she knew she couldn't live without him. She waited, trying to breathe quietly and hoping against hope that Clark would recover before it came to that.
Footsteps crossed the kitchen floor above her and she stiffened, a tingle of adrenaline beginning to pump through her blood. Her heart began to beat harder as her body readied itself for action and she took a tighter grip on the golf club.
Without warning, the door at the head of the stairs opened noisily and light filtered through the opening. Lori squinted her eyes against it, knowing full well what was coming next.
The basement lights came on, flooding the room with hard brilliance. Lori shaded her eyes, letting them adjust as the sound of two sets of footsteps came down the wooden steps.
Clark moaned, stirring feebly, and Meriel raised a hand to her forehead, gingerly feeling the bruise. Lori prayed that the attention of the two would be on their victims and not on where they were putting their feet.
She could see them, now. Lester Norton came first, hurrying, with Deborah Tisdale a step or two behind him and holding a stunner. Lori crouched, unmoving, planning her actions as she watched them. Lester reached the bottom of the stairs. He stepped onto the basement floor and his foot went out from under him. With a yell, he fell backward into Deborah's knees, knocking her off balance.
Lori was already moving. Deborah grabbed for the wooden railing with her free hand, the other, gripping the stunner, flew outward for balance. Lori struck for her stunner hand with the golf club, with every ounce of her desperate strength behind it.
Deborah screamed. The stunner flew across the room and disappeared somewhere among the countless piles of junk. Lori didn't pause to savor her victory. Lester was scrambling upright and Lori struck again. The golf club caught him a glancing blow on the side of the head, sending him crashing face first to the floor, moaning.
The element of surprise was gone, now. Deborah came down the remaining stairs in a rush. Tears were streaming from her eyes, and her right wrist was twisted at an odd angle, but her face was distorted with fury. Her foot hit the floor, but in her anger she had forgotten, or had not realized, the significance of Lester's stumble. Her foot went out from under her as well and she crashed to a sitting position on the steps, the breath whooshing out of her in an agonized grunt. Lori didn't pause. She struck a third and last time at Deborah's good hand and heard the sickening crunch of bone. Deborah screamed again, clutching her injured arms to her chest and rolling into a ball on the floor.
Suddenly there was quiet. Lester started to push himself up and Lori jabbed the golf club into his back. "If you move," she said, amazed at how calm and menacing she sounded, "I'll hit you again. Lie down and spread your arms and legs as wide as you can. *Now*!"
She must have sounded convincing, for the man froze and then slowly obeyed. Lori bent over Deborah where she lay curled on the floor and seized one of the broken wrists. "Don't move and this won't hurt," she said. Her voice started to shake as the adrenaline rush began to subside, but she had evidently convinced the other woman that she meant business, for Deborah didn't protest. Lori removed the little wrist talker and stood back, keeping a close eye on her two prisoners. Golf club in one hand, she used the thumb of the hand holding the device to slowly punch in the number of the Editor's Office of the Daily Planet.
"Olsen," a voice said, after a moment.
"John, this is Lori," she said, trying to sound cool and businesslike. "I've found her, and I'm going to need some help…"
"If I hadn't seen it myself, I wouldn't have believed it," John Olsen said. He was sitting in the editor's chair behind the desk in his office at the Daily Planet, leaning back so far that he appeared to be in imminent danger of tipping over backwards. Also in the office were Meriel, Lori and Clark. Meriel's forehead was still spectacular from a brilliant and highly picturesque bruise, and she lay on the big, comfortable couch that sat against one wall of the office. "Lara and I got there, and there was that Norton guy spread-eagled on the floor and Tisdale lying there with two broken wrists—and there's Lori standing over them with a golf club in her hands, and both of them scared to death of her." He gave an incredulous grin. "I didn't know you were so ferocious, Lori."
"I'm not," Lori said, "but I couldn't let them hurt Clark or Meri, either. I'm just glad it turned out the way it did." She still looked a little shaken, Clark thought. Lori hadn't liked what she had been forced to do, but she had done it without hesitation because it was necessary. He reached out and took her hand lightly in his own. The last few hours had been hectic, but it was finally over and the bad guys were in custody. All he wanted to do at his moment was to take his wife home.
"So, what happened to them?" Meriel asked. She had spent most of the time in the emergency room being observed for a possible concussion.
"They're in jail," John said. "The police found enough evidence to incriminate Deborah five times over, and both of them were spilling their guts, trying to implicate the other when the police let me leave. The only thing I want to know," he added, speaking to Lori, "is where you got the marbles."
"Marbles?" Meriel said.
"The ones she used to trip up that precious pair and get the jump on them when they came down the stairs," John said.
"There was a game of Chinese Checkers on one of the shelves," Lori said. "It was all I could think of."
"Chinese Checkers!" Meriel looked at Lori in awe.
"Yeah," Lori said.
John gave a short laugh. "Well, we all owe you something. This is a front-page story, and I don't care if the suits upstairs don't like it, you're getting a raise. NTSU should thank you, too, although they probably won't."
"At this point," Lori said, "I don't really care. I just want to go home and get a hot shower."
"Well, you can go any time," John said. "Just let me say thank you once, Lori. You saved my daughter's life, and it's not really possible to thank someone for something like that. Our family is lucky that you're part of it."
Lori turned pink and stared at her shoes.
"Oh, there is one last thing," John added, as Lori and Clark stood up to leave.
"Yeah?" Clark asked. "What is it?"
"About half an hour after I noticed you were gone, Lori, something happened. I was wondering if you could explain."
"I will if I can," she said. Clark noticed how tightly she was holding onto his hand, but said nothing. "What happened?"
"Well, I was pacing around in there, when your computer suddenly gave out this piercing screech, guaranteed to raise the dead and then started screaming 'Rape!' at the top of its…speakers. Poor Fred was standing in front of it, and he nearly jumped through the roof. I don't suppose you'd care to explain, would you?"
"Oh. That was my Fred-trap," Lori said. She gave a tiny smile.
"Yeah," Lori said. "When I was doing the search for a picture that matched that drawing of Clark's—I got sick, if you remember. When I got back the next day, someone had erased all my search data. I decided to trap the saboteur. Just a minute." She let go of Clark's hand and left the room. Clark looked at John, who raised his eyebrows, but said nothing. A moment later Lori was back with a microdisk. "This should document it."
"What's that?" Clark asked.
"The evidence," Lori said. She handed it to John. "If you play that, it should explain everything."
John took the disk, giving her a quizzical look. "Okay, but this better be good."
The screen lit up with a picture, obviously taken by a computer's vid camera. It showed Fred working on a computer, and below the picture a readout appeared, tracking the gofer's efforts meticulously. It was painfully obvious that the man was attempting to erase the files of Lori's latest search. When the computer screamed and began to shout, John stopped the playback. He gave Lori a look that Clark interpreted as a combination of annoyance with Fred and amusement at Lori's unquestionably original trap.
"Go home, both of you," he said. "I'll take care of this. I'll see you at the barbecue tomorrow, and not before. Comprende?"
Clark nodded and put an arm around Lori. "Si, senor. I guess we'll see you tomorrow."
"Oh, yes," John said, mildly. "Send Fred in here on your way out, would you?"
After Clark and Lori had left, John replayed the microdisk again. Meriel was watching him curiously, and as he shut it off, asked, "What are you going to do, Dad?"
John glanced at her. "What I've wanted to do for weeks—ever since I found out he'd probably tipped off those thugs who tried to mug Lori on the slidewalk that she was leaving the newsroom."
There was a knock on the door. John called, "Come in!"
Fred opened the door and entered. "You wanted to see me, Mr. Olsen?"
"Yes, Fred." He picked up the microdisk and rose, gesturing to a seldom-used side door in his office. "Come into the conference room, please."
Fred looked surprised, but followed John through the door. John took a seat at the conference table and slipped the incriminating disk into the room's computer. "Fred, I want you to see something." He was silent as the scene began to play, watching Fred's face. Fred looked first merely curious, then uneasy and finally thunderstruck. When the playback concluded, John looked at him for a moment without speaking.
"Well?" he said, at last. "If you've got an explanation for why you tampered with the information on a computer belonging to one of my best investigative reporters, I'd like to hear it."
"I…You can't believe I'd do this," Fred said, at last. "It's obviously a set-up. She's trying to get me fired."
John shook his head. "Try again, Fred. Ms. Lyons has done nothing to you during all the weeks of her employment here, while there are several witnesses who have testified to your continued attempts to harass her. I gave you every chance to correct your behavior, and you've continued with the same pattern in spite of all the warnings. This is the last straw. If I keep you on after this, she has every right to sue the Planet for failing to protect her from harassment. You can clean out your desk and pick up your severance pay on the way out."
"You can't do this!" Fred protested, weakly. "I'll sue!"
"That's your right," John said, quietly. "It's also why the paper has a very large legal department. Let me put it this way. You can go quietly, and still have a career in the journalism business—at some other news organization, of course. Or you can make a big stink about it, air all this dirty laundry in public, and make yourself persona non grata with every other news organization in the world except the International Dirt Digger. It's your choice, Fred. Good bye, and good luck." John stood up, tucked the microdisk into his pocket, and opened the door to his office. "I'll expect to see you out of here in an hour."
He shut the door behind him.
Lori and Clark stepped into the elevator together and Clark directed it to the parking lot. As the elevator car accelerated into motion, Lori moved suddenly to put her arms around him without saying a word. Clark put his around her and rested his head on top of hers. "Honey, I'm sorry."
"Sorry?" Lori said, and her voice was suddenly shaking. "Clark, I almost lost you!"
"I know," he said. "And it was my fault. I should have paid attention to your hunch that there was a connection between the dream dust and the Kryptonite. You were right—as usual."
"I'm not trying to blame you," she said. "I'm just so glad you're all right…"
He tightened his arms around her. "Well, even if you aren't blaming me, I'm blaming myself. You had to put yourself in danger because of me. If you want to be mad at me, I won't try to fight back."
"I don't want to fight with you," Lori said. "I'm not a fighter."
He gave a laugh that was half a groan. "You could have fooled me. If it hadn't been for you, Meri and I would be dead by now. Honey, I'm so sorry…"
"Clark, don't," Lori said. "It's all over. Just promise me you'll be a little more cautious after this. Besides," she added, "nobody's ever going to find the Kryptonite again. I got rid of it permanently."
"I heard you tell John that, but you didn't say how. What did you do with it?"
"I ground it up and dumped it down a drainpipe. It's gone for good, Clark."
He slipped his hands up to her shoulders, holding her a little away from him so he could look her in the eyes. "Have I ever said what an incredible person you are? Brave, brilliant and beautiful. How could any man ever be so lucky?"
She didn't answer, merely pulled him closer. Clark was silent, still kicking himself. He knew he deserved to be scolded, and the fact that she didn't want to threw him off balance a little, although he thought he understood. Lori had grown up with a mother who constantly nagged, complained and tried to make her feel guilty as a control tactic. She disliked the behavior and couldn't bring herself to do the same. Lori fought when her back was to the wall or to defend those she loved and at no other time. He breathed a long sigh and pressed a kiss on her forehead. "I'll do my best to be more careful," he said. "That's a promise, honey. But thank you for riding to the rescue. You were better than the cavalry."
"You're welcome," she whispered. "I couldn't face the thought of losing you, Clark. Not ever."
"You never will," he said. "Not if I have a choice in the matter." Horrified, he saw that she had tears on her cheeks. "Honey, I promise I'll be careful. I'll listen to your hunches from now on. Don't cry!"
"I'm not," she said, resolutely wiping her eyes with the palm of her hand. "I'm just glad it's over."
Relieved, he released her and grasped her hand. "So am I. You're going to have to tell me how you figured it out—maybe over dinner." The doors of the elevator opened and they stepped out. "I'm going to take my favorite girl to dinner and dancing to celebrate the fact that we're both alive and that you took a very dangerous drug dealer out of circulation. I'm more proud of you than I can say."
"Why don't we just order takeout?" she said. "I'd like to eat at home with you—without anyone else around. And we can dance there if you want to."
"Okay," he said. "That's even better." He held her hand tightly as they walked through the parking tier toward the Jeep. The sound of the rain could be heard drumming ceaselessly outside, and he thanked his lucky stars that Lori hadn't let that or anything else stop her. "Besides, I still have that raincheck to collect on, and what better time than a rainy day…"
She laughed a little shakily. "Don't you eve r think of anything else?"
"Where you're concerned, not if I can help it," he said. "Besides, I'm still on my honeymoon." He squeezed her hand. "Seriously, honey, spending the evening alone with you is nicer for me than going to a party with a hundred other people."
Lori shifted in her sleep, aware once more that she dreamed, and that again she was not Lori but Lois. It was beginning to be almost expected in some deep part of her mind. She was one person in a line of other people filing on board a big rocket destined for a space station. She handed her forged boarding pass to the individual collecting them and passed on into the craft, dodging into a small cabin. There was a single seat with safety webbing to one side, and she strapped herself into it. As the countdown continued she looked around and on the bulkhead, she saw it, almost as if she knew it was going to be there.
Somehow, she was out of the restraining straps and looking closely at the little device that was clinging to the wall. " It's a bomb!" she heard herself say. "You bet it is. It's a bomb!"
What she did next seemed to come automatically. Suddenly, in the way of dreams, she was holding a pair of cutters and she was chopping frantically at a mass of wires inside an open panel. Then everything seemed to slow when a colorful figure in red and blue stepped through the door, walked straight to the bomb and opened it.
"Hey! Get away from that!"
The man in blue removed an object about the size of a cracker from inside the casing.
"What kind of lunatic…"
He popped it into his mouth and swallowed, while Lori/Lois stared at him in shock. An instant later, he burped. He looked slightly embarrassed. "Excuse me," he said.
Lori heard her voice even as she swam upward from the depths of sleep. "What the hell are you?" Her eyes opened in the dim room of the apartment that she and Clark shared and she turned her head to look at the man sleeping next to her. This time her awakening hadn't been violent, and the dream hadn't been in the least surprising. It was as if she'd anticipated it. The whole thing had been extraordinarily clear and vivid, and it wasn't like deja vu at all.
It was more like a fragment of a nearly lost memory from a time long past that had somehow made it to the surface.
She studied Clark's face in the dimness, feeling oddly calm, as if something had happened that she had been expecting. Nothing in her belief system allowed for it, but there was something, a connection that she shared with this man that had been there from the night she met him and, if she was honest with herself, from before that as well. She belonged with him; she had always belonged with him and he with her. It was a tie that had existed since before the birth of Lori Lyons and would exist long after she was gone. It wasn't reasonable; it wasn't even rational, but the conviction was there and she couldn't deny it.
Clark's eyes opened slowly, and he smiled.
"Hi." Lori reached out to touch his face.
"What's the matter? Couldn't you sleep?"
"I had a dream," she said, softly. "I dreamed about the first time Lois met Superman."
He pushed himself up on his elbow. "What?"
"It was in the Messenger rocket, and Superman swallowed an explosive that was meant to destroy it." She continued to look him in the face. "It really happened, didn't it?"
"Well…sure. It's in the history books."
"I know. Only this time, I was there. Lois was there. She called you a lunatic. That wasn't in the books."
He was looking at her with a worried expression. "No, it wasn't."
"Clark, did it happen?"
She saw him swallow. "Yes."
"And she asked you 'What the hell are you?' didn't she?"
"Clark, I have to know if I'm losing my mind." She rested her hand on his cheek, feeling the rasp of bristles on her palm. "Do you believe in past lives? I know it sounds insane, but could it be possible? This is the third dream like this, and it's like I've been there each time. Do you?"
He closed his eyes for a moment. "Yes."
"Clark, I know this sounds crazy, but am I Lois Lane?"
He shook his head. "No. You're Lori Lyons."
"*Was* I Lois Lane?"
He slowly pulled himself up in bed and tapped on the table light. Lori kept her eyes fixed on his face. If she looked farther down at his broad shoulders and chest, she knew it would be harder to think, but she had to know. All these weeks she had been experiencing that strange sense of deja vu when she saw things relating to Clark's earlier life. There had been the dreams that seemed more like little glimpses into something that had once been, and now the uncanny sense of calm that was almost knowledge that had come out of this last dream, as if some barrier had been broken…
"*Was* I, Clark?" she asked. "I have to know. Am I going crazy, or is it true?"
"And if you were," he asked, "would it make a difference?"
"Is that why you married me?" she asked, taking his reply for assent.
He shook his head. "No. I married you because I love you," he said. "You're the other half of me, Lori. Without you, I'm incomplete."
"It's the same with me," she said, slowly. "But, Clark…"
He reached up to put his hand over the one she had rested on his face. "Lori, I don't know all the answers. I *do* know that we're connected, somehow, but why it's so, I can't tell you."
"But I was Lois…"
"In a way. Lori, do you believe in time travel?"
"I don't know." She scooted up in the bed until like him she was leaning against the headboard, her shoulder touching his. "Do you?"
"I don't have to 'believe' in it because I know it's real. I met a time traveler nearly a hundred years ago—more than one, actually—and he showed me something. He had an invention from the future, and he'd used it to track me through time. My 'soul' for want of a better word—and while he was doing that he found something incredible."
"He discovered that I wasn't alone. Lois's soul was there with mine, never one without the other. We were soulmates, meant to meet and fall in love in every lifetime. When Lois died, I discovered that the connection was still there, somewhere. It was the only thing that kept me going for the next twenty years. When I met you that night, I knew I'd found my soulmate again." He brushed her face with his forefinger. "You aren't Lois, Lori, and I don't want you to be. I want you to be the person you are now, that I've fallen in love with in *this* lifetime. I didn't marry you because I thought you were Lois come back to me. I married you because I'm in love with *you*—Lori Lyons. Can you believe that?"
It was impossible to disbelieve the sincerity in his voice. "Yes."
He closed his eyes and blew out a breath. "Thank God."
"But, Clark—if you knew this before—if you knew that was why I was having all this deja vu—why didn't you say something?"
He reached out an arm and pulled her closer, so her head rested on his shoulder. "I didn't know what to think at first. It seemed awfully unlikely that you would remember things like that. I wasn't even sure when you had that last dream. And I was afraid you'd think I was crazy, or worse be hurt. I promised myself I'd never hurt you, Lori, if it was within my power to prevent it."
She was silent for a long moment, thinking that over. It was completely believable, and just like Clark to behave that way. "I think I understand," she said, "but would you promise me something, Clark?"
"If you want me to."
"If I have any more of these memories, I want you to talk to me about them. I want you to tell me about Lois and the things you and she did and how my deja vu fits in. Can you do that? I don't want you to pretend it didn't happen. I think it will be a lot less spooky for me if I *know*."
He put his other arm around her, enclosing her in them. It was a secure and loving embrace, and Lori knew at that moment how much he had wanted to protect her against even the possibility of hurt, and how much he had feared that the knowledge might drive her away. "I promise."
"I'll hold you to that, Superman," she said. She brought her free hand up to his face, turning in his arms so she could see his still-worried expression, and stroked his cheek. The bristles of his beard scratched her palm lightly and she slid the hand around the back of his neck. "I love you, you know."
"I love you, too," he said. "Don't ever leave me, Lori."
She lifted her face. "Not a chance, pal. You're stuck with me forever, and you better kiss me now, before you get yourself in big trouble."
"I think I can manage that," he said, and obeyed.
Lori woke to the feeling of someone tickling her forehead. She brushed futilely at it, but encountered nothing. The tickle moved to her nose and cheeks, then a voice said softly in her ear, "Hey, sleepy-head are you going to sleep all day?"
Lori opened her eyes to find Clark sitting on the bed next to her, tickling her forehead with a lock of her own hair. "Good morning, beautiful," he said. "Did you know it's nearly noon?"
Lori yawned and stretched, and noticed as Clark's eyes flicked downward when the sheet pulled away from her shoulders. He grinned and reached down to reclaim her gown from the floor. "Lose something?"
"Mmm, I seem to remember someone pulling it off sometime in the middle of the night," she murmured sleepily.
"Shocking," Clark said. He bent down and kissed her lightly. "Breakfast is ready whenever you are. The barbecue starts in about three hours, so I thought I'd better wake you up in time to get something to eat before we start out."
"Is it really that late?" she asked, rubbing her eyes. "Here, give me that!" She took the garment and dropped it over her head. "I better get a shower. I want to look my best when I meet your family."
Clark chuckled. "I don't think you have to worry. Meri was telling me the other day that she thought you were beautiful. She said you were what she always wanted to look like."
"You're kidding! Meri's a very pretty girl!"
"Of course she is; when did that ever make a difference?" Clark got to his feet. "I'll let you get ready. Coffee's on the table and the rest will be waiting when you're out of the shower."
When Lori emerged from the bathroom half an hour later with her hair done and all her makeup in place, she could hear Clark talking in the living area. He glanced around as she entered the room. "Here she is, now. Lori, this is Ann Kent, my daughter."
Ann Kent was a tall, statuesque beauty who resembled her father more closely than Jon, Lara or even CJ, whom she had spoken with only once by vidphone. Lori's eyes widened in recognition.
"Holy…*you're* Clark's daughter?"
Ann Kent smiled a very famous smile. "Yes, I am. Only you probably know me by my stage name."
Lori nodded, numbly. "I'm…pleased to meet you."
"Likewise. I just called to make sure the two of you weren't going to be late. Welcome to the Kent family, Lori. I'm happy to see you're carrying on the family tradition. I'll see you in person in a while. Bye, Dad."
Again, Lori nodded. Ann Kent smiled and signed off. Lori swallowed and summoned a glare at her husband. "Why didn't you *tell* me who she was?"
Clark shrugged. "I didn't really think about it. Ann's been an actress on and off most of her life. As a matter of fact, she's been three *different* actresses, for three different generations, one after the other although that part's not public information."
"Yeah, but it would have been nice if you'd warned me. I wouldn't have made such an idiot of myself."
"You didn't," Clark said. "Besides, actors are just people, too. Just because she's the star of her own series doesn't mean she's any different from the rest of us."
"How does she moonlight as a superhero when she's so famous?" Lori asked. "Don't people recognize her?"
"No more than they recognize me," Clark said, "although a couple of gossip columnists have mentioned her remarkable resemblance to Shooting Star. Who thinks a vid star would be spending her spare time propping up the Golden Gate Bridge and picking cats out of trees? There's an upcoming holovision feature being made about her, though, and the studio decided Ann's—um—too well developed to play the part, so it's going to Rachelle Winters. Ann thought it was pretty amusing."
Lori giggled. "Hollywood!"
"Well, there's a reason it's called Tinsel Town. Come on in and get something to eat. And be sure you bring along a jacket when we go. Seattle can be a bit cool, even at this time of year."
Two hours later, flying through the summer air in Superman's arms, Lori watched the countryside passing below her.
"There's the Black Hills," Clark said, nodding at the national landmark below them, "and Mount Rushmore. We can come back by here later and get a close up look at the presidents if you like, when the crowds are gone."
Lori found herself laughing. Clark was like a kid, showing off for her amusement. "I'd like it," she assured him. "I like all of this. I especially like my private pilot." She snaked an arm around his neck and stretched up to kiss him.
"Oops, not too much of that," Clark warned her with a laugh. "I don't want to wind up in Japan or something." He accelerated as an aircar came into view. "We better hurry or we're going to be late."
"Does…did that happen often?" Lori asked, broaching last night's subject cautiously.
Clark smiled. "More than I care to admit," he said. "I can't count the times I've wound up in some unintended spot because of that." He bent his head down to kiss her lightly on the nose. "You're more lethal than Kryptonite, honey." His smile faded. "I had more proof of…of what we were talking about than just the time traveler's word, you know, Lori. He was able to actually demonstrate the truth of the whole wild 'past lives' story."
"He took Lois and me back in time to a couple of previous lives and actually showed us…in person, so to speak. There was one…" He chuckled slightly, "in medieval England. I was some sort of Robin Hood prototype, and you were the Lady Loisette. We had a pretty hot romance going, Sherwood Forest style."
"Nope. And there was another in the old west. You were Lulu, the heiress of a piece of valuable land. I was—well, think of some kind of Lone Ranger, only in real life. Apparently, dual identities are part of my persona."
Clark hugged her. "Among other things, one of your traits seems to be your ability to figure things out from a minimum of information. Like yesterday. You're smart, strong, and always manage to keep me in line, no matter how many dumb things I do. And I can be pretty dumb, sometimes." He brought them to a stop in mid-air, holding her tightly. "Without you I'd be lost, whether you're Loisette, Lulu, Lois or Lori. Do you believe me, honey?"
Lori nodded slowly. "Yes, I do, no matter how unlikely it seems."
"I'm glad. Now, we still have a party to get to. There are a lot of people waiting to meet the new first lady of the House of Kent."
Lori gave a realistic shiver. "That's a scary thought. I hope I don't disappoint you."
"Not a chance in the world. Come on; let's get it over with."
Far too soon, they were approaching Seattle and the home of Jonathan Kent II. Jon, Clark's second son, lived some distance from the city near a wooded area, which made approaches from the air by his flying relatives easier to accomplish unobserved. By the time they arrived in the large back yard, a fair number of persons had arrived ahead of them. A crowd of children was playing on a swing set and several more were digging industriously in a children's sand box set under a spreading tree. A boy, somewhere in his mid teens, was seated at one of the picnic tables, playing some kind of hand-held game. Lara and a balding man who appeared to be around sixty or so were arranging food on more wooden picnic tables and waved cheerfully as Clark touched down and set Lori on her feet, then spun back into casual clothing. Clark took his young wife's hand and drew her over to the pair. "Lori, this is Dr. William Klein, Lara's husband," he informed her. "Bill, this is Lori."
Bill grinned and thrust out a hand. "Welcome to the club, Lori," he said. Lori found herself shaking his hand and smiling.
"You're Ronnie's dad," she said.
"That's right," he said, with a grin. "My daughter has had a lot of good things to say about you."
Lori glanced at Lara, who winked at her. "I like Ronnie. She's awfully nice."
"We think so," Bill said. "She's in the house, helping Jon and Donna coordinate this thing. You better take Lori inside, Clark. They're all waiting to meet her."
"Yikes," Lori said. "I don't suppose there's still time to back out."
Lara grinned, looking suddenly a lot like her father. "I'm afraid not. It's time to face the music, sweetie. Don't worry. Nobody bites. You might tell Ronnie to send out some reinforcements, though, Clark."
"Okay." Clark squeezed Lori's hand. "Come on, honey."
As they headed toward the house, Lori asked, "Clark, if Oliver is about forty-nine or fifty, and Ronnie's his mom, and Bill is her dad…how old is he?"
"Bill is ninety-five, I think," Clark said. "About that, anyway."
"He looks about sixty—and a pretty healthy sixty at that," Lori said.
"That's because he's lived in such close association with Lara all these years," Clark explained. "Her aura slows his aging process. The same thing happens to all our husbands or wives."
"You didn't tell me that," she said.
He looked worried. "I didn't think of it. Should I have?"
"You're darned right!" Lori said. "You mean I'm going to stay young and healthy a lot longer than I would have if I married an ordinary guy?"
Lori blinked at him. "And you didn't think I'd be interested in that? Clark, that's great!"
The worried look disappeared. "Whew! You're not mad, then?"
"Why would I be mad?" She laughed at his expression. "Clark, you have to stop expecting me to jump all over you for silly things." She drew a deep breath and stiffened her backbone. "Come on; let's meet your family. I have the feeling there's a lot I need to learn about you, still."
"I just hope the women don't tell you too many embarrassing things about me," Clark said. He led the way to the house and up the back steps.
A large blue, red and yellow banner had been hung across the length of the house, announcing "Congratulations, Lori and Clark!" As they approached, the door opened.
"Ah! Here they are, now," Rhonda Klein said. "Come on in, guys. Lori…" She gestured around at several persons standing about the kitchen. "This is my husband, Mason. You've met CJ, I think, and Annie and Jon."
Clark's other children were all here, Lori realized, and a man who appeared to be in his early forties smiled and lifted a soda can to her. That must be Ronnie's husband, Mason, she thought. She found herself being regarded in a friendly way by the occupants of the room, and felt herself turning red. Rhonda smiled at her and indicated a petite, smiling redheaded woman of about Bill Klein's age. "This is Donna, Jon's wife, and, of course, you already know John and Meri."
"Quit teasing her, Ronnie," John said, stepping into the room through the opposite door with Meriel beside him. "Come on in, Lori, everyone's wanted to meet you, especially after yesterday."
She felt Clark's arm slip around her waist. "Come on, honey." She saw him grinning proudly at his descendents. "Guys, this is Lori, as you already know. We were married Tuesday night in Las Vegas."
"All right, Dad!" Jon said. "I guess we shouldn't have expected you to waste any time. Lori, you know CJ and Ann, I guess."
"Well, kind of," Lori said. "We've spoken on the vidphone."
CJ—Clark James Kent, *not Jerome* Clark had emphasized—reached out to take her hand. "Hi, Lori. I'm glad to meet you in person at last. You know Ann, I guess." He grinned at his younger sister. "Only her name's really Annie Kent, not Annabelle Reyes. Don't ask me why her agent picked that."
Evidently, this was a long running joke in the Kent family. Ann elbowed her brother in the ribs and smiled widely at Lori. "It's nice to finally meet you, honey. I haven't seen Dad so happy in a long time."
"We're all glad you're here, Lori," Jon said. "Now, guys, if we're going to get this party going, we're going to have to mush! I heard Lara say they need some help out there. CJ, you get the burgers started on the main grill, and Annie, you drag George away from the baseball game and get him out there with the hot dogs on grill number two. There's going to be a lot of people here in the next couple of hours."
"Can I help?" Lori asked, timidly.
"You're the guest of honor," Jon said. "Dad, why don't you take her into the living room and introduce her around. And then come back. We've got another grill that needs to be started up for more burgers. You've been officially drafted."
Rhonda and Meri followed as Clark escorted her into the large living room.
"Hey, look who's here!" a voice announced. Lori had a confused impression of several men and women of varying ages. One of the women was barely older than Lori and holding a baby in her lap; another could have been her grandmother.
"Hi, Clark!" A slender blond woman approached Clark and kissed him on the cheek, then stood back and surveyed Lori. "Is this Lori?"
"Of course," Clark said. "Hi, Carrie. Lori, this is Carrie Olsen, John's little sister."
Lori's head was starting to spin with all the introductions of different people. Meriel laughed. "Clark, go on and cook the hamburgers. We'll take care of Lori. I think she's getting confused with all the new faces."
Clark looked down at his wife. "Is that okay, honey?"
"Sure," Lori said. "I'll be fine." She would, she assured herself firmly. Everyone was being very friendly. There was no reason to be nervous.
Clark dropped a light kiss on her lips, to the obvious amusement of everyone in the room, and departed.
"Now," Rhonda announced, "with Clark gone, we can get down to business. Lori, the word is that you two are planning a big wedding in October."
"We are," Lori said, "but I've never done anything like that. I'm not sure where to start."
"That's okay. Clark said you needed help with it. Well, we're here to help, if you want us."
Clark, attired in a large, chef's apron, was expertly flipping burgers when Lori, accompanied by the crowd in the living room, exited the kitchen door a short time later, carrying plates and bowls of food and all of them laughing and talking at once. Judging by her heartbeat, she had relaxed a good deal since he'd left her to the mercies of his female relatives. He had restrained his urge to eavesdrop on the conversation, although he cringed at the thought of some of the stories they had probably been telling her.
Jon, accompanied by either James or Perry (he could never keep the Kent twins straight) followed the crowd, each of them carrying a large jug of punch or some sort of beverage. The other twin followed, balancing an enormous ice chest lightly on one hand and a large bowl of potato salad in the other. There had been several more arrivals in the last fifteen minutes. He hoped Jon had arranged for enough hamburgers and hot dogs to feed this mob. Everyone had brought something, a covered dish of some specialty from home, drinks or desserts. The Kent clan's parties were always memorable, but there hadn't been one like this in years.
He caught motion out of the corner of his eye and turned to look. A superhero in a pitch-black outfit was approaching at treetop level, carrying someone. Only Ryan wore a completely black costume, so that had to be his grandson, and his passenger was almost certainly Marcy Lyons.
He lifted an arm to wave, and a moment later, Ryan dropped to the ground in front of him and set Lori's sister on her feet. "Hi, Clark. Sorry to be late. I had to stop a mugging at the last minute." His form shimmered for an instant and then he was standing there in black slacks and a black pullover shirt. Clark grinned. Trust Ryan to dress in a way that showed him off to best advantage for his companion. Marcy looked as if she would like to drool, but was being circumspect because of the company.
"That's all right. Nobody's started eating yet. Hello, Marcy."
Marcy was holding a sealed food container of some sort and looking at him, a little wide-eyed. "Ryan, you didn't tell me Clark was one of you, too. I mean, I knew he was your cousin or something, and I wondered, but…"
"I know. I figured you might like to be surprised," Ryan said. "The party's for Clark and Lori. Where's your bride, Clark? I'd like to meet her in person."
"Over there, undoubtedly listening to every embarrassing story they can think of to tell her about me," Clark said.
Ryan grinned. "I can probably look forward to the same," he said. "Fortunately, Marcy knows about most of it already."
"Don't kid yourself," Clark said. "They'll remember every tiny, humiliating, little detail that you thought everyone but you forgot a long time ago."
"Hi, Marcy!" Lori had approached while Clark had been speaking with his grandson. She was smiling broadly, and Clark was glad to note that she had regained her self-confidence in the short time since he'd seen her. "I was wondering if you were going to make it after all. Hello, Ryan."
"Hi, Lori." Ryan looked her over critically and smiled. "I'm glad to meet you in person. I guess you heard, huh? Marcy said yes."
"Clark told me," she said. "Congratulations." She turned to her sister. "For life, huh?"
Marcy blushed. "Yeah," she said. She displayed her left hand with a modest diamond glittering on the third finger. "It feels wonderful." The look she turned on Ryan banished the doubts Clark had been secretly harboring. He'd told himself he had to trust Ryan's judgement, but both Marcy's record and Ryan's had left him a little worried. Still, he'd seen that expression in the eyes of Kent men and women and the mates they had chosen too many times to be mistaken. This time it was real.
"Congratulations from me, too, Ryan," he said, sincerely, "but I think you better fill Marcy in on the exact relationship here…"
"Right," Ryan said. "First, though, I want to drop off this salad, and take her to meet Dad and Mom. Come on, honey."
Clark watched the two of them go for an instant and then turned to his wife. "I guess all's well that ends well, to coin a phrase."
"I guess so." She came to stand beside him by the barbecue grill and put an arm around his waist. "I hope they'll be as happy as we are."
"If they're even half as happy, they'll do all right," Clark said. "I love you, Lori."
"I love you, too, Clark," she said.
Six weeks later:
October in Metropolis definitely had a nip in the air, Lori observed as she stepped out of the silver Jeep Predator. The little church they had chosen was picturesque with its steeple and the big trees on all sides shedding their colorful leaves on the ground. Meriel Olsen emerged from the church door and gestured to her vigorously. "Come on, Lori, we're all ready. Let's get you into your dress and let Donna fix your hair for you. Marcy's already here and people will be arriving any second."
"Where's Clark?" Lori asked. "He's not allowed to see me until the wedding starts. It's supposed to be bad luck."
Meriel laughed. "Considering the circumstances, I don't think you need to worry. He and Ryan are talking to the minister. Come on."
The little room above the chapel was a madhouse, with the maids of honor pulling and tugging at their dresses, and Donna Kent, who had been a hairdresser to the stars in her youth, fussing with Lori's hair. Lori tried to control the butterflies that fluttered in her stomach. This was silly, she told herself. She'd been married to Clark for almost seven weeks. This ceremony was merely for the benefit of family and friends—and Marcy and Ryan, of course. Her sister, already dressed in her wedding gown, twisted the diamond on her finger, put on more lipstick and applied another dusting of powder to her nose. Rhonda, who had played the part of wedding coordinator for her, put the finishing touches on Meriel's outfit and laughed.
"Marcy, sit down. You look fine," she said. "You're a top-rated model, for heaven's sake. You already know you're beautiful!"
"I guess," Marcy said, "but this is different. This is *Ryan*!"
Donna smiled at her. "Marcy, Ryan would marry you if you were wearing a gunny sack. My son waited sixty years for the right woman. Relax. It will be okay."
Marcy sniffled softly. "I just wish I'd waited for him," she said. "I've been married seven times."
Donna laughed. "Do you think he cares? Ryan is completely crazy about you!" She placed a final pin in Lori's hair. "There you go, Lori, you look perfect." She stood up and went to Marcy. "Honey, don't cry. You'll make your mascara run." She put an arm around her future daughter-in-law. "Marcy, no one cares how many times you were married before. You're marrying Ryan, now, and I'm looking forward to having you for my daughter."
Marcy sniffled again and dabbed at her eyes. "Sorry."
"That's okay. Better fix your face a little. It's almost time to get down there," Donna glanced at Rhonda. "What's the situation?"
"There are some last minute arrivals," Rhonda said. "Jon and Mr. Lyons are in place, and Blue Lightning just happened to show up and grab a guy from the Dirt Digger who was trying to sneak up here and get a picture of Marcy. I think we're all set as soon as our brides are ready."
"I hope Mom doesn't make a fuss at the last minute," Marcy said, nervously.
"I don't think she'd dare," Lori said. "Not in front of five hundred people." She smiled comfortingly at her sister, suddenly feeling like the one in charge. "Come on, Marcy. Clark and Ryan are waiting. Let's go get married."
Waiting for the signal to make their entrance, Clark glanced at his grandson, who was fiddling nervously with his cummerbund. "Ryan, you look fine. Relax. This is the easy part."
Ryan swallowed. "I know. It's just that I've waited for this for so long. I hope I'm the husband she expects me to be."
Clark chuckled. "You've been living with her for over a month and you're going to be a father in about eight. That's when the difficult stuff starts. Save your energy for the sleepless nights."
"Yeah." Ryan inhaled deeply. "I figure I'll be asking you for advice a lot—at least as much as I ask Mom and Dad. You've been through it four times and you've taken care of a lot of grandkids."
Clark laughed. "I must have changed your diapers several dozen times at least. If you need help, just ask."
Ryan looked embarrassed for a second, then he laughed. "I guess you must have. I wanted to thank you, Clark."
"For asking me to guard Marcy. If it hadn't been for you, I'd never have met her. I knew the second I saw her that she was the one. I didn't believe it would ever happen to me until then."
Clark regarded his besotted grandson tolerantly. "Well, now's the time to make it legal. I think this is it."
As he spoke, CJ poked his head through the door. "Time, guys. Too late to run."
Clark gestured to Ryan. "After you."
Waiting in the little anteroom, Lori glanced over at her tall and beautiful sister. Marcy had always been the one who appeared to be in control, who never seemed to get flustered when it came to men—but then, none of the other men had been Ryan. She met Lori's eyes and smiled nervously.
Lori smiled back. "Relax, Sis," she said. "It's going to be fine. You're marrying the man you love. Look at it this way, when the minister says 'I now pronounce you', you become my granddaughter—and I'm only twenty-one."
Marcy's laughter had a semi-hysterical edge, but it seemed to help. "That is so ridiculous," she said. "When Ryan told me who Clark really was, I almost fell over."
"I noticed you recovered pretty fast," Lori said. She would never forget the look on Marcy's face when Ryan had imparted the news. It was one of the few times she'd seen her sister literally speechless.
"Well," Marcy said, "I'd already found out that Ryan was almost sixty, and that his dad was eighty-nine, when they both look thirty. Clark was just one step farther down the line. He's really nice, too. I always visualized the original Superman as this stern, unyielding hero, but Clark's a sweetie." She took a deep breath, seeming to relax. "The Kent family sure makes pretty men, doesn't it?"
"That's for sure," Lori agreed. "And you're marrying one. If that bambino of yours turns out to be a boy, you're going to be chasing little girls away with a club."
Both women giggled at the thought. There was a knock at the door and at Lori's invitation, Rhonda peeked inside. "All set?"
"All set," Lori said. Her father was waiting at the door behind Rhonda and Lori took his arm lightly. "Thanks for coming, Dad."
Robert Lyons smiled. "I wasn't going to miss the wedding of both my girls." He glanced at Jon Kent, who held out his arm for Marcy. "Ready, Jon?"
"Ready," Jon said.
The first strains of the Wedding March began to play, and Robert Lyons smiled at Lori as the bridesmaids filed out ahead of them. "Okay, here we go." Her father guided her out into the chapel proper, and Lori began her walk down the aisle.
The wedding, Clark thought later, had been great. Lori's mother, sitting in the first row, had actually smiled tentatively at him when he and Ryan came out to take their places, and a few minutes later the Wedding March began.
Lori came first on her father's arm, and behind them, Marcy, escorted by Jon. The two young women were like night and day, Lori with her striking dark hair and eyes and Marcy, blond and green-eyed, one petite and the other tall and statuesque. He heard Ryan catch his breath at the sight of Marcy, and had to admit that Lori had the same effect on him. Both the brides reached the altar and their escorts surrendered them to the men waiting for them.
The wedding reception was on a grand scale as well; the Kent clan had done itself proud for their patriarch and his bride. He heard later that the whole family had chipped in to make it a memorable occasion. Rhonda, as always, had turned in an exemplary job. For a moment, watching his granddaughter dancing with her husband, he wondered. Whenever he wanted advice and help, ever since Rhonda had been an adult he had instinctively gone to her and her husband. She and Mason had been his confidants and advisors for years, just as Martha and Jonathan had when he had been a child. Was it possible? If Lois's soul had returned, why couldn't others? Most likely he would never be sure, but it was an intriguing thought.
The music struck up for the final dance of the evening, and Clark led Lori onto the dance floor. He held her tightly as other couples joined them and when he looked down, he saw her watching him with a little smile on her face.
"What are you thinking, Clark?" she asked.
"I'm thinking that we've come a long way in eight months," he said.
"We sure have," she said. "All of us have."
"Yeah." He looked over at Ryan and Marcy. His grandson had a silly grin on his face and Marcy's head was on his shoulder as they swayed together in one secluded corner. Clark grinned. "I think it's time we made our exit," he said.
"Go ahead," Rhonda's voice said behind them. "We'll take care of the gifts. Hawaii is beautiful this time of year."
"Hawaii is beautiful *all* times of year," Mason said. "You two should get going."
On the steps of the reception hall Lori paused and tossed her bouquet over her shoulder. Marcy's followed hers, and then Clark was helping her into the Jeep. He ran around to the driver's side and they drove away amid the cheers and good wishes of the guests.
"Did you see who got your bouquet?" Clark asked.
"Meri. John got Marcy's."
Lori broke into laughter. "That figures. Where are we going?"
"Just back to the apartment to park the Jeep and for you to change. After that, Superman Express is headed to Hawaii for our honeymoon."
Lori slipped a hand into his and rested her head against his shoulder. "It's already been like a honeymoon, Clark," she said, "every single day I've been married to you."
Ready for the next story in this series? Read Home 4a: A Valentine Vignette. Need the previous story? Read Home III: Memories.
Stories in Nan Smith's "Home" series, in order: Home, Home II: Beginnings, Home III: Memories, Home IV: Honeymoon, Home 4a: A Valentine Vignette, Home: A Christmas story, Home: On the Fourth Day of Christmas, Home: New Year's Wishes, Home V: Obsession, Home: Circle of Fate, Home: Vendetta, Home: Family Party, Home: An Evening to Remember, and Home: Murder by Earthlight