Poisoned Legacy

By Jenni Debbage <jdse08662@blueyonder.co.uk>

Rated: PG-13

Submitted: November 2002

Summary: When a couple of villains from Lois and Clark's past arrive in Metropolis, it spells disaster for two of the Kent children. Can their family and friends save Joel and Clara? The seventh story in the author's "Kent Family" series.

Well, readers, here is my long-awaited sequel to 'Red Sky'. I thank everyone for being patient and hope that this story does not disappoint. I'll try to tie up the few loose ends that were left in 'Red Sky', but I can't promise there won't be a few left over at the end of this story… after all, it is the continuing adventures of Lois and Clark and their family.

I've resurrected a few old enemies of our famous couple, and I've also used a plot device that has possibly been tackled before, but I hope that I can give it some originality that will keep you, the readers, interested. Also, there seems to be some difference between one of the villain's names in the script to what appeared in the episode — I've chosen to go with the name from the TV as that will probably be the one that most readers will recognise.

I'd also like to thank a few people for their help with this story. To Carol, Yvonne, LaurieD and Meredith, who've not only been great beta readers but cheerleaders too, thank you for all your suggestions and encouragement with this story. To Sarah my very trustworthy editor, and to Nan who has helped with some very valuable medical advice. Oh, and there's a particular little scene near the end which I have to attribute to LaurieD. She saw a 'picture' of Lois and Clark in her mind and thought it might fit well in the story, and I had to agree. I just hope she's happy with the result.

As always, the usual disclaimers apply and I hope that you'll be good enough to let me know what you think of the story — feedback is manna from heaven for a writer.


Chapter One: Boy, What a Hangover!

Lois Lane precariously balanced the brown paper sacks as she backed through the door of her brownstone, tossing her car keys in the general direction of the coat-stand behind the door and growling impatiently as they teetered on the edge and fell to the floor. Argh! That was just typical of her day, when nothing had seemed to work according to plan. There were slow news days and there were days like this… Over the last few weeks, Metropolis had been suffering from a crime-wave — nothing major, just small, petty crimes such as bag-snatching, hold-ups of family-run general or liquor stores and break-ins to houses, none of which belonged to the more affluent citizens and so did not warrant the close attention of the police department.

But it had come to the notice of Lane and Kent, still the hottest reporting team in town, and of Metropolis's resident superhero. Neither Lois and Clark nor Superman cared that the crimes fell into the 'petty' category or that those affected were less than influential. The people of this city were under a concerted attack by an organised band of criminals, even if the police force refused to acknowledge the fact, and the two reporters, with a little super-powered aid, were determined to discover the cause.

Of course, Lois had a theory, and one which Clark didn't find too far out, that Bill Church Jr was behind the mobilisation of the criminal fraternity. Ever since he and his lawyers had sweet-talked the parole board into setting him free, Lois and Clark had expected some such action to take place. Linking him to the rash of criminal activity, however, was proving far from easy. The slippery, duplicitous gang boss had retired upstate and was living the exemplary lifestyle of the rich and famous… holding parties, hunting and fishing, and taking no obvious interest in the city he'd once made his playground, apart from an occasional visit to attend the opera or ballet. And Lois and Clark believed it not one bit. Someday, the man was bound to slip up, and they would be waiting to expose him for the rat he was and return him to prison for the rest of his natural life. For now, though, they were very far from connecting him to his erstwhile occupation as the head of Intergang.

Today had been another frustrating day. Bobby Bigmouth had pointed them in the direction of a low-life named Willy Barnes who'd turned out to be the most close-mouthed petty thief that Lois had ever had the privilege to meet. Lane and Kent had cajoled, attempted to bribe and even threatened him… well, Lois had, but to no avail. The idiot just smiled smugly, ignoring their blandishments and informing them that his career had never been so good. Later in the day, when Superman had caught the weasel breaking into an old lady's apartment, the stupid blockhead had still refused to cooperate, announcing it was a 'fair cop'. Willy had then waltzed off to jail happy in the knowledge that he'd be taken care of.

You had to give Church his due; dispensing with the heavy- handed treatment of his workforce and looking after them like some benign Union boss was evidently paying dividends. It seemed that no one was prepared to squeal on him, or the more likely scenario was that none of the foot soldiers actually knew who was running the show. Bill Church had covered his tracks well and another day had gone by without Lane and Kent finding any proof of their old enemy's perfidy.

Eventually, Lois and Clark had finished off their inconclusive reports on the current criminal activities, cleared their desks and headed for home, stopping off to do some grocery shopping along the way. But even then, fate wasn't playing fair and Superman had been called away to a fire at a highrise down at Hobbs Bay, leaving Lois to cope on her own.

She hated household shopping — at least, she hated doing it alone. Clark, being the chief cook, was so much better at it than she. Mind you, over the years she had learnt a thing or two about culinary skills, but she would never have his expertise, and her insecurities spilled over into shopping for the ingredients. The usual stuff was easy… she'd been picking up all the kids' favourites, and a few of Clark's and her own, for years now and could possibly sleep walk around the store. Only this shopping was for a special occasion — Mia and her family, the refugees from the Ile de Papillon, had been given permission to remain in the US and a celebratory dinner was to take place the following night at Lois and Clark's home, with Clark preparing a feast that would remind their guests of their old home.

So what did Lois Lane, career woman extraordinaire, know of South Pacific cuisine? Okay, she had her list, which she'd found hadn't been at all specific. Well, she'd done her best and Clark would just have to put up with the consequences — serve him right for running out on her at the wrong moment!

Lois buried that harsh, selfish thought as she struggled through the living room with her ungainly packages. It wasn't that Clark had chosen that moment to fly off to help, and the residents of that apartment block really did need his assistance. Obviously, danger to life and limb was more important than shopping for groceries, but just sometimes Lois wished that her husband was an ordinary man.

The deafening noise from the upstairs regions of the house penetrated Lois' consciousness. Squeals and shouts were drifting down the stairs into the living room, sounds which had their source in anger and not excitement. Oh boy! The kids were at it again! Just what had got into Joel and Clara lately? From being two regular kids with, admittedly, all the normal hangups, they had evolved into the kids from hell. Well, perhaps that was a slight exaggeration — there were times when they were perfectly reasonable. It was the other times that she and Clark found most worrying and most baffling.

A horrendous crash from the attic region where the boys had their bedrooms galvanised Lois into action and, dropping her burdens on the sofa, she ran upstairs. On the way she met her mother hurrying in the opposite direction. Ellen Lane had gladly taken on the role of childminder while Martha and Jonathan were still in Smallville, never imagining that she wouldn't be up to the task.

"Oh, Lois, am I glad to see you!" Ellen was clearly suffering from some distress. "I don't know what's happened to your children but they're definitely out of control… and they used to be such well behaved little dears. It was always a pleasure to babysit, but now it's like taking on the opposing armies of World War 3. I just can't do it any more. You know how bad my nerves are, Lois."

Sending a frowning glance ceiling-wards, Lois took a minute to console and steady her mother. With their busy careers and Clark's second job, they really couldn't afford to lose any of their childminders, and Ellen and Sam had proved to be very willing and competent sitters for the Kent brood.

"Mother, I know exactly how you feel. I've wondered the same thing about Joel and Clara myself over the past few weeks… but it isn't like they're vandals the whole time. And I know how upset all the kids would be if you stopped coming around." Lois was calmly patting her mother's arm while her insides were churning. "Why don't you go downstairs and make us a fresh cup of coffee? I'll just take a minute to sort this out and then I'll join you and we can have a little chat."

"Yes, I'll do that," Ellen offered with a sad smile. "And I don't want you to think, Lois, that I don't love my grandchildren… because you know that isn't so. It's just that they've become a bit troublesome lately…"

Troublesome — now there was an understatement! "I know, Mother. Now go and make that coffee and if Clark shows up, send him upstairs. I could do with the backup."

Ellen hadn't a clue what was affecting her two grandchildren, and as she climbed the stairs, Lois was hoping that she didn't know either. Since her kids had been born — and even before that — Lois had feared that the combination of her fiery, headstrong genes with the 'super' genes of Clark would make for a volatile mix. Was that what was going on? Were her children's personalities a result of breeding between two differing species?

Lois prayed that this wasn't the case, and, if she was honest, there was something about that reasoning that didn't gel. Wouldn't the kids' natures have changed more slowly? Or perhaps the change was taking place because the powers were beginning to manifest themselves in her two older, biological children. But that didn't ring true either. Joel had been developing a few superpowers for over a year, but the change in his disposition had only occurred since summer. And Clara had hardly any powers… just a tiny enhancement of her senses… yet she'd changed at exactly the same time as her brother. There was something very strange happening here and Lois was determined to get to the bottom of it, but first she had to sort out her kids. Resolutely she pushed open the bedroom door from behind which the fracas continued to emerge.

"Okay, just what is going on here?"

Four pairs of eyes turned to the unusually stern woman standing in the doorway, her feet planted firmly and arms akimbo, reminiscent of Superman's 'I will brook no nonsense' pose.

"Hi, Mommy," cried the littlest Kent as he scrambled down from the bed to throw himself at his mother's legs, leaving behind his stash of precious marbles.

"Hello, sweetheart." Scooping him up, Lois pressed a noisy kiss on his cheek. Thank goodness at least one of her children was acting normally, which only enhanced her growing suspicion that her baby was more human than extra- terrestrial. Nathan loved his marbles and was frequently checking them out, especially the two that he'd found on Papillon, and Lois too thought they were very pretty — all golden-amber and smooth as silk. Hoisting Nathan round to her hip, she addressed her other offspring. "Speak up! What's been happening here?"

As always, Julian stepped into the breach to offer an explanation, while the other two sullenly inspected their toes. "We had a little argument about which channel we should watch. We wanted sports and Clara wanted that soppy kids' soap opera… She has a thing for the hero!"

"I do not!" Clara objected strongly.

"Yes, you do!" retorted Joel.

Tension was rising again and something else was in danger of being hurled into next week… well, into the next room. Clark clearly had to teach Joel how to moderate his strength when the boy lost his temper. Lois snatched her attention back from the hole in the wall. "Will you both stop that now!" And when the two subsided into sullen silence, Lois set Nathan back on the ground and approached the newest room feature, trying to hide the smile that quirked the edges of her lips as she noticed that Julian had placed himself between the two protagonists. She peered inside, curious to know what object had been used as a missile, then turned to confront her errant children. "I don't much care if Clara has a crush on a TV star or not, but I do care about the fact that between you, Joel and Clara, you've managed to trash this room." Various other toys were strewn about, evidence that the remote control which now lay in the adjoining attic cupboard had not been the first thing to be thrown. "This type of behaviour will not be tolerated by me or by your father. Clara, you have a television in your own room. From now on, you can watch that and leave your brothers' alone."

The slight shoulders shrugged as Clara turned huffily to go. "Okay."

"Wait one moment, young lady!" Lois' peremptory command stopped her. "Don't think you're getting off so easily. This place needs straightening out, then you can go to your room, but TV is banned for the moment. If neither of you can decide what to watch in a civilised manner, then there will be no TV watching."

"Mom!" The protest came from Joel. "There's a big game tonight and Dad said we could all watch it together."

"Then you should've thought of that before sending the remote into orbit! Now I want this room put back into shape. Put all the toys away, and that includes the marbles, Nathan." As her toddler's face fell dejectedly, Lois added quickly, "You can play with them after dinner. Your dad will be home soon and I don't want to see any angry or sulky faces at the table. Goodness knows what he's going to say when I tell him about all this! He's going to be so disappointed with you."

"Do you have to tell him?" Joel wheedled in what had recently been a totally out-of- character manner.

"And how do you suggest we explain the hole in the wall, which your father will have to mend? Besides, there are no secrets in this family."

"Ha!" Clara exploded. "We've got the biggest secret ever!"

Lois stared at her daughter as if she'd grown two heads. Ever since Clara had discovered Clark's secret, when she was no older than Nathan, she'd understood instinctively the need to hide her father's dual identity from the rest of the world. Never before had she shown any reluctance to keeping the secret.

"Clara, I can't believe you said that." Julian's disapproving statement got in before Lois'.

Counting to ten before committing herself to speech, Lois crossed to the bed and pulled Clara down beside her. "Does that bother you, Clara? Because I've never had the impression that it did before. I thought you understood… I thought all you kids understood about Daddy…" Lois' voice died away forlornly. What could they do if the children were being hurt by Clark's role as Superman?

Joel deposited himself next to his mother, while Nathan, having put his glassy hoard back into their tin, climbed onto Lois' knee. "Mom, we do understand," Joel reassured. "It means a lot to Dad to go on helping people and we don't mind, really we don't. Do we, Clara?"

Evidently, Joel was willing to put his differences with his sister aside for the sake of his mother's peace of mind. Lois searched the brown eyes that always reminded her so much of Clark and was relieved to find that the Joel of old had returned. And it seemed that he wasn't the only one feeling guilty, because Lois felt Clara burrow closer to her side.

"Oh, Mom, I never would tell anyone about Dad. I think having Superman for a dad is real cool!" A grin transformed Clara's face.

"Yes, real cool!" crowed Nathan, feeling this was a very grown-up statement and giving the thumbs-up sign which his Grampa Sam had taught him.

Lois and the kids laughed, happy to forget for a few moments the earlier argument, but she wasn't about to let things go so easily. "Right, you guys, get tidied up here, then come downstairs for dinner… and no more fighting," Lois admonished as she pushed herself off the bed and, carrying Nathan in her arms, left her elder children to their task. "Come on, sunshine, let's go and get you bathed before dinnertime."


Ellen Lane sat at the breakfast bar, nursing a cup of strong black coffee. She had made herself useful by stowing the groceries away in cupboards, but now she sat contemplating nothing in particular while her hand played dejectedly with the pendant that hung round her neck. It had been one of the few mementoes which Lois and her family had managed to bring back from their doomed vacation. The old island matriarch had presented it to Lois as a token of her great regard and Lois had, in turn, passed it on to her mother. The exceedingly fine piece of jewellery was shaped like a molten amber teardrop and Ellen had been honoured to receive it; and it went so well with the new beige sweater.

However, at this time, she was totally oblivious to the necklace, merely using it as a sort of comforter. Ellen had been so pleased when her grandchildren had come along and even more happy to be invited by Lois and Clark to be part of their lives. They'd been such lovely, obedient children and had been a delight to supervise. Even when Lois and Clark had decided to take a little orphan boy into their home, Ellen had been so mellow with her role of grandmother that she had barely remonstrated. Besides, she would be the first to admit that Julian was a dear boy… In fact, he was the one remaining sane member of the younger generation of the family, excluding Nathan, of course, who was really too small to be affected by his elder siblings' outbursts.

Was Ellen the one who was at fault? She'd never been the overly maternal type, so perhaps she was a bad influence on the children. She certainly found it difficult to cope with the tantrums and usually would escape from the confrontation, leaving the kids to fight it out. Even she was aware that this was not the best possible reaction. What was needed was a firm hand, and Ellen wasn't sure she was up to the task. Perhaps she should tell Lois and Clark that she couldn't babysit the children on her own any longer, but she hated giving into her weaknesses like that.

Returning home from his rescue mission, Clark strolled into the kitchen and spotted his mother-in-law seated at the table. The house had returned to a state of peaceful tranquillity, since Lois had taken charge of the situation upstairs. And so, completely oblivious to recent events, he greeted Ellen cheerfully. "Hi there!"

Thankfully, Superman's presence at the emergency had prevented the whole apartment block from burning down and he'd managed to evacuate the tenants safely, although there had been two fatalities, which had occurred before his arrival. Clark used to obsess over what he once would have regarded as failures, but through the years he'd come round to Lois' and his Mom's belief that what he could do was enough. Of course, he'd never take anyone's death lightly and he'd always try to do more than his best, but he couldn't allow his dark moods to affect his family life. Superman now had responsibilities as a father, and dwelling on the bad aspects of his job as superhero would hardly give his children the incentive to follow in his footsteps.

In the past, Clark had been inclined to assume that Joel would one day don the suit, and that Clara might re-create Ultrawoman, yet their bizarre behaviour lately had given him some doubt. Honesty compelled him to admit that his own disposition had been less than stable over these past weeks, and he couldn't help but wonder if this was due to some sort of hangover from the time spent on Papillon, where they'd been exposed to red and green kryptonite.

"How are things, Ellen?" Clark asked as he took in the disconsolate bearing of the elderly woman. It didn't take a huge leap in logic to deduce the cause of her woes. "The kids been giving you problems again?"

"I suppose that wasn't a difficult guess." Ellen looked at her kindly son-in-law with troubled eyes. "I just don't seem to be able to keep them under control any more — well, Joel and Clara — the other two hardly ever give me any bother… Perhaps it's my fault. I'm too soft with them…"

Clark slipped into the chair next to Ellen and his hand covered hers comfortingly. "No, it's not, Ellen. We're having a hard time too… and there doesn't seem to be any reason for the change…"

Clark's voice tailed off as he became increasingly aware of the small, feminine hand under his grasp. It was a slim hand with long tapering fingers, one which didn't show much of the ravages of time. But then, that was hardly surprising; his mother-in-law looked fairly nice for a women of her age… and she always took such good care of her hair and figure. Clark's eyes strayed appreciatively over Ellen's form, admiring the sweep of still-thick hair that lay on her straight shoulders… the other hand that toyed with the pendant that lay on her chest…

Oh boy! What was he thinking? Had he been stricken with insanity? Always in the past, he'd recognised that his mother-in-law was a fairly attractive woman for her age — she'd just never been attractive to him… until…

Clark dropped the hand as though it were kryptonite. He jumped up from the chair, backing away across the room. Yes, he was insane! It was the only plausible explanation!

"Clark, is something wrong?" Ellen regarded him with puzzled interest.

"Wrong?" His voice escalated into higher regions. He sounded like a scalded tomcat. Tomcat? Why would he make that association? Clearing his throat, he tried again. "Wrong? No! Why should anything be wrong?" But his eyes refused to focus above Ellen's neck. He spun around and attempted to distract his treacherous thoughts by pouring himself a cup of coffee.

Behind him, Ellen was watching closely with mounting dread. Clark was acting very strangely… even more strangely than normal. Plus, Clark's startled deer appearance usually presaged a quick exit, but this time he made no move to leave. Had she been imagining things or had her son-in-law really looked at her as if she was about to eat him? And even more shocking… had he fleetingly leered at her? Oh dear, perhaps she was growing senile— senility was the only logical explanation and it could account for her grandchildren taking no notice of her. It would also explain why she'd momentarily regarded Clark as a womaniser.

Ellen made a mental note to apologise to her daughter. There might be a few unanswered questions about Clark's behaviour, but even Ellen knew that he loved Lois with all of his heart. He had never given a single glance at any other woman, she thought, blissfully unaware of the recent events on Papillon.

On the other side of the kitchen, the coffee seemed to be doing Clark some good. He certainly had himself under control. The brief allure of his mother-in-law had faded into oblivion, leaving him doubting its very existence. After all, no way did he fancy any other women. There was only one woman who held his attention, and she was upstairs with his children.

That wasn't exactly true, the sneaky voice of his conscience reminded. There was Hazel Chen! He couldn't deny he'd been tempted by the beautiful siren, though there was absolutely no way he would have acted on these feelings. Thankfully, Lois had believed him, and they'd rationalised that his uncharacteristic conduct had been due to the kryptonite that had polluted the island. Well, they were far from Papillon now, so that excuse flew out the window. Fly away! Maybe that was what he should do — it certainly beat staying here feeling like some weird Casanova.

Yet putting some distance between himself and Ellen had clearly helped, because he was settling down into the old familiar interaction he'd developed with his mother-in-law through the years.

"Nice coffee, Ellen." He saluted her with his cup. "I always know when you've made the coffee, as opposed to Lois. She's too addicted to the newsroom java. I don't dare tell her, but it's too strong for my tastes."

Ellen smiled warmly, very relieved. Now, that was good. The sexual predator of Hyperion Avenue seemed to have disappeared for the moment. Ellen's earlier assumption that she'd very likely imagined Clark's mutation took root in her mind. "Thank you, Clark. I'm glad to get something right."

Immediately, Clark was all concern again. He had to rid Ellen once and for all of the notion that she was somehow to blame for Joel and Clara's bad behaviour. "Ellen, you do lots of things right." Forgetting the reason for his sudden retreat, Clark started towards Ellen. "The kids are our responsibility, but to be honest, we couldn't manage without you and Sam or my parents, and Joel and Clara are giving us all a hard time. It really has nothing to do with you."

Ellen wanted to believe him and her intense blue gaze centred on Clark's face. He'd never noticed before but she had lovely eyes… Geesh! Mr Hyde was back! Swallowing hard, he backed away again, and yes, Dr Jeckyll gained control. This was so weird. Surely if he was morphing into a serial seducer, a few feet wouldn't make much difference?

As ever, when Clark was in trouble, he sought the advice and support of his soulmate. "Excuse me, Ellen, I think I can hear Lois calling for me." To reinforce his words he pointed towards the ceiling while smiling sheepishly at an extremely bewildered Ellen. "She probably needs my help with the kids… We all know how difficult they've been lately."

Like a hunted hart, he was escaping from the disturbing atmosphere of his kitchen. Yet the thought of his imminent discussion with his wife hardly filled him with pleasure. After all, how did he tell Lois that he had formed a fancy for her mother? She would kill him! He ought to have brought back a piece of that kryptonite from Papillon and saved her the effort.


Chapter Two: Revenge is a dish…

Far from the autumnal shades of Metropolis, a long- forgotten foe sat contemplating intentions of revenge. The room was shielded by dilapidated wooden blinds from the low rays of the evening sun, while an ancient ceiling fan tried unsuccessfully to dispel the hot, sticky atmosphere. It was unusually warm for the time of year and the woman seated at the dressing table mopped at the rivulets of sweat that trickled between her ample breasts with a tiny scrap of tissue, screwing it into a ball when it became too soggy to do its job, and tossing it in the direction of the tin trash can. She picked up the box with more hope than intention and rummaged inside, looking for one last remaining paper tissue. She'd really have to speak to the manager, but doubted that would yield any favourable outcome. Many times she'd complained since moving into this broken-down joint which passed by the name of The Sunrise Motel, and no amount of seductive cajoling or angry threats had made the slightest improvement to her accommodation.

Sunrise Motel! Now there was a misnomer, if she ever heard one — the sun had set on this dump many years ago, as it had on its fat, greasy proprietor. She hated dealing with the creep. He would listen to her complaints with a barely disguised leer, then offer words of commiseration and a promise to see to the problem, which he'd quickly forget just as soon as she turned away. Well, he would pay — just as soon as she was reinstated in her rightful position, she'd make him leer on the other side of his pudgy face.

Tossing the box in the same direction as she had the paper- napkin, she leaned in closer to the dresser mirror. Even discounting the distortions and blotches from the old mirror, she was not happy with what she saw. Her once-too- often-dyed hair had lost a lot of its bounce and most of its sheen, and her skin was dry and flaky from too much exposure to the blistering sun. Mind you, her recourse to the booze to lighten her unhappy load hadn't done much to help her retain her youth and beauty, but Mindy was far too self-centred to admit to that. She'd much rather lay the blame for her now sad existence firmly at the feet of that meddlesome pair Lane and Kent — with, it might be said, more than a little help from her husband's son and associates.

Not that she could say much against Bill Sr, of course, as he'd died many years ago, still incarcerated in the New Troy State Prison, and he had left her fairly well provided for. In fact, it was his legacy that had enabled her to move to Miami and live comfortably for quite a number of years. Unfortunately, Mindy Church had expensive tastes and saw no reason to curtail her spending on her luxurious lifestyle, believing that the men now controlling Intergang would take care of her financially. After all, she had agreed to leave Metropolis at the end of the Diana Stride/Gretchen Kelly fiasco, admitting that it was probably best that she hightail it out of Metropolis and lie low for awhile.

How was she to know that, even from prison, Bill Jr would manage to ingratiate himself with his father's former minions and partners and resume charge of Intergang? A couple of years back his team of lawyers had managed to persuade the parole board that Mr Church Jr was a changed man — a born-again Christian and philanthropist — and, as such, was fit to be released from the State Pen. Didn't these wimpy do-gooders see the similarities to his father's reformation? Then again, Bill Sr's reclamation had been a genuine attempt to make up for past crimes. Regrettably, depending on which view you took, Mindy had managed to manipulate the old man's actions and usurp his position as crime boss, sending both Bills to prison for a very long time.

Since his release, her erstwhile stepson had wasted no time in paying her back in spades for his incarceration. Her funds had dried up and her lines of credit at local casinos, hotels and designer stores had been removed. Mindy had contacted every one of her sources in Intergang and her associates back in Metropolis to reverse the situation, but nothing had worked. Mrs Church had become persona non grata and no one would help her… hell, they would hardly talk to her!

So now she existed on what little of her fortune remained, sold her possessions and jewellery, which was now down to one last piece, and spent her time existing in dives like these. She made a buck or two out of various small stings and even sold her body on occasion, but that was becoming a harder option. Face it, girl — who'd give money to spend time with a raddled, drunken whore like you? At times like these, Mindy tended to sink into a deep pit of boozy melancholy.

Pulling open her bottom drawer, she brought out her last bottle of scotch and held it up to the light. There was about a couple of fingers of the amber liquid still swilling around in the bottom of the dirty bottle, promising a little relief from her daily grind. Nah! There was hardly enough in there to anaesthetise a fly. Besides, she'd reached a decision last night after a chance meeting with an old acquaintance — the time for maudlin recriminations was over. It was time to pull herself together, because now she had a chance to get back at those who were responsible for her downfall.

And first on the list would be that nosy reporting team of Lane and Kent. They'd probably forgotten the existence of Mindy Church. Well, now was time for their wake-up call. Mindy screwed the cap back on the bottle determinedly, and lifted the month-old newspaper to peruse again the front- page story that told of the Kent family's latest exploits in saving the population of an obscure island in the south Pacific.

It seemed that Lois and Clark hadn't lost any of their crusading zeal… well, what would you expect from Mr and Mrs Superman.

Many times in the intervening years since the Diana Stride fiasco, Mindy had swung between believing that the 'Huntress' — as Diana liked to term herself — had been a complete kook, to considering that there might have been an element of truth in Diana's theory. After all, the incident had occurred many years ago and not once had Superman and Clark Kent been seen together again. Which was a pretty strange circumstance if you accepted that the two men were close friends.

Mindy had been paying very close attention and it seemed that both Superman and the Kents occasionally attended the same charity functions in Metropolis, though the appearance of the superhero at this sort of 'do' had become more rare over the years — almost as if he had too many other duties to attend to. But that was digressing; what struck her as really strange was the fact that no other meetings had ever been recorded for posterity on still or video camera footage.

The connection between hero and family, however, was still strong. Lane still got her fair share of Superman exclusives and the odd rescue from the bad guys, though this too had become less frequent with time, but from what Mindy could glean, this seemed more to do with Lane's drawing back from dangerous situations and not with any lack of interest on Superman's part. And the Man of Steel definitely did keep watch over the Kent children.

No, Mindy was fairly ready to believe that although the relationship was kept out of the eye of the media, the friendship was still strong… if that was the 'connection'. She might not have seen the two men in the same photograph, but she had studied various pictures very closely and there was an uncanny resemblance. Take away Kent's glasses and slick back his hair and the two might have been twins.

Yet Superman had never made that claim. On that day so long ago, when he'd arrived on the Kent stoop in front of the press corps, he'd claimed to be only Clark Kent's friend. What were the chances of two men being so physically alike if they didn't share the same genes? And if they were biologically connected then why should only one have superpowers? Kent had never done anything remotely superhuman, unless he did so under a different guise.

Which brought her to another anomaly of that day. Lois Lane had clearly stated that only print journalists should attend the press conference in Hyperion Avenue and Inspector William Henderson had surprisingly seen to it that the rule was enforced. The woman had also made a request that no photographs should be taken outside the house, giving the flimsy excuse that the couple didn't want to advertise the whereabouts of their home to every criminal who held a grudge against them.

At the time, Mindy had found it strange but given the stipulation no further thought — not so now! On reflection, she'd arrived at the conclusion that if the Superman the Kents were expecting was a hallucination then they wouldn't have wanted that showing up, or not showing up, as the case might be, on camera.

Of course, that led on to the even bigger mystery of who was the Superman who did put in an appearance? Diana had tended to go along with that other madman who had claimed 'Clark Kent was Superman' — Tempus someone or other, who'd been carted off to the insane asylum but who'd disappeared from the public view some time in the intervening years. Mindy had tried to discover his whereabouts but had been quite unsuccessful. That crazy man had suggested something about alternate universes, and Diana, being a little psychotic herself, had gone along with his assumption. She, on the other hand, had never been sure.

But now, for the first time, Mindy had the chance to prove her hunches correct and, perhaps, to get back some of her standing in Intergang. If she could get rid of that interfering superhero, then her former associates would be falling all over themselves to welcome her back into the fold, and Bill Church Jr had better watch out. He'd be the very next victim on her hit list!

Of course, she still had to persuade her old colleague to join her in her endeavour, but somehow she didn't think that would be too difficult. From their earlier conversation, he too had fallen on hard times and laid the blame firmly at the feet of the red-booted hero. She just hoped that he'd managed to store away the tools of his old trade and that he hadn't lost any of his skills.

Mindy was quietly confident that for Joey Bermuda the revenge she had in mind would be very sweet. Picking up her make-up, a happier Mindy put on her revitalised face and went to plan her retribution.


The bar at which they'd arranged to meet was hardly for the up-market crowd but would have to do for now, and Mindy flicked her blond hair aside with a hint of her old assurance and walked directly to a booth in the back, issuing her regular order to the barman as she passed. The man in the booth sat staring into the cheap liquor in his glass and hardly seemed to acknowledge her presence. Not a ploy to endear him to his 'date' for the evening — Mindy hated rejection, but he supposed it didn't really matter. Joey had pretty much figured out that the purpose of this meeting was business and not pleasure.

The corners of Joey Bermuda's mouth lifted in a wry grimace. Long ago he'd turned down the sexual advances of this woman, firmly believing in his marriage vows and the sanctity of his family life. Now, all that had changed. His marriage was over and his wife — ex-wife — had taken his kids and run off with some chocolate salesman, and god only knew where they were. As his eyes scanned over Mindy's tantalising curves to reach the painted face, he smiled ironically at the fact that now he might welcome the chance of a sexual encounter with this faded broad. Yes, things had definitely changed for both of them… and not for the better.

Not that Joey was unaware that this same broad had set him up to be her 'patsy', and the knowledge still rankled, but that was a long time ago. Joey Bermuda was a member of the criminal fraternity and he understood that there was little honour among thieves. You took the bad breaks that life dealt and you didn't squeal, and you didn't hold grudges if you wanted to stay healthy. In Mindy's position he'd have done the same thing to stay out of prison.

No, it was that guy Superman who had a lot to answer for — him and that couple of nosy reporters, Lane and Kent. If he'd never taken on the super-hero and his friends, he might still have a lucrative 'assassin for hire' business and certainly not have spent the last few years incarcerated courtesy of the State of New Troy. Now, according to what Mindy had hinted last night, she might just have found a way to pay back the threesome for all they'd made him suffer… and for that Joey was prepared to consider a possible re-association with Mindy Church.

"Hi, Joey," she cooed in her baby voice as she slid into the opposite side of the booth, perching on the edge of the seat so that her legs brushed against his shin. "Nice to see you again. Are you ready for our little talk now?"

She leaned across the table and her low-cut dress gaped open a little, displaying her ample assets. Whether it was the thought of getting even or whether it was his long abstinence, a fling with Mindy was looking better and better with each passing second. Or course, it might just be the beers he'd been drinking steadily since he'd arrived an hour earlier. His thoughts were interrupted by the barman clumsily sliding a large shot of scotch in front of Mindy so that a little splashed on the table top. Joey watched in fascination as the liquid trickled slowly towards her lap.

Pouting in disgust, Mindy swiped at the spill and lifted the glass, cradling it in her hands, but she didn't drink. "I won't order another just yet… you look as if you've had enough and we need clear heads for what we're about to discuss." She captured his slightly unfocused gaze with her own and her tongue traced her lips wetly. "Depending on what you have to tell me, we just might have something to celebrate later…" Allowing her voice to trail off suggestively, Mindy watched as Joey swallowed hard, his eyes riveted on the tip of her tongue.

Clearly, he wouldn't be so ready to turn her down this time… she just hadn't decided whether this relationship should be strictly impersonal or not. Mindy had never been averse to using her sexuality to cement business relationships and Joey was not unattractive… but this undertaking was the most important project she'd had in years, and it was her one way back to the big time. Perhaps, she shouldn't complicate things by playing her little games. But, in that one sense, Mindy was a child of nature. She decided that she would just go with the flow and see what developed.

"Mrs Church…"

"Mindy," she reminded him with a sultry smile.

Joey grinned appreciatively. "Mindy, just what is it you want to talk about?"

Mindy leaned in closer and as her knee brushed up the inside of one of Joey's thighs, he gulped in a startled breath. She chuckled throatily… very soon now she'd have him eating out of the palm of her hand and that was just how Mindy liked her 'partnerships'. "Well, when we talked yesterday, I figured that we were both a little down on our luck… purely temporary, of course, and that we share the same nemesis."

"We do?" Joey was having difficulty keeping his voice even as her leg continued to stroke his own.

"Yes, we do, Joey," Mindy stated with wide-eyed innocence, which was very strange since Mindy and innocence had parted company when she'd barely reached her teens. "You know! The Big Boy Scout… the Man in Blue! It's his fault you went to jail…" But Mindy couldn't ignore the dagger- edged look she got from Joey at those words. "I know, Joey, that I let you down; that I led the police straight to you, and it was so wrong of me." Mindy's eyelids batted in overtime as the childlike voice purred. "I felt so bad about that, but what was I to do with Superman breathing down my neck like that? We hurt him, Joey, more than anyone has ever done, and he was determined to put us away." Her hand crept across the table and entwined with his fingers. "You took the fall for me and I'm so very grateful." The words remained unspoken but her intent was clear; she'd willingly show him how grateful, if he played his cards right.

"Hmph!" Joey muttered, refusing to give up his grievance so readily. "I lost a lot more than my freedom by going to prison for you!"

"I know! Your wife left you! I don't know how she could do that when you were so much in love with her. I tried to persuade her not to, you know."

The glib lie slid off Mindy's tongue as she monitored how Joey reacted to her words. She'd always made a point of keeping tabs on the people she'd worked with or doubled crossed — knowledge was power and who knew when the odd piece of information would come in handy. For instance, she knew that Joey's wife had never realised the nature of the employment that kept her in her very comfortable life style, and she'd been shocked and affronted to have her husband found guilty of trying to rid the world of its superhero, not to mention silencing the reporting team of Lane and Kent.

Mrs Bermuda had visited her husband once or twice at the state penitentiary, but it was evident that she saw her husband's fall from grace as an end to their marriage. It was only a matter of time before she cleared their joint bank accounts and took herself and her children off with the first available man who offered.

"You talked to my wife?"

The question startled Mindy for a moment but she quickly fitted back into the role of sympathiser. "Well, of course I did! After all, I did feel responsible for your predicament, so I thought I'd see to it that she and your children had everything they needed. But she didn't want my help… threw me out, as I recall. Said she didn't want anything to do with people who broke the law, which I thought was a bit mean, since she'd been living off your earnings for years. So it was no big surprise when I found out she'd started divorce proceedings or that she was seeing someone else. I knew it was probably pointless, but I felt I had to try for your sake, so I phoned her and asked her to reconsider, but she would have none of it. Next thing I was told was she'd packed up and left for parts unknown. I did think of searching for her, but then I thought that maybe you'd be better off without someone who'd abandon you so callously." Once more, the limpid gaze was turned on Joey. "I'm sorry, did I do wrong? I'm sure once we get back in with Intergang that we'd be able to trace her…"

"Naw! Wouldn't do much good anyway — it's all old news and you're probably right. She left me without so much as a word, so why should I care what happens to her! Wouldn't mind seeing my kids though… I did love them." Joey's tone was dejected as he contemplated his role as an absentee father.

"You were a good parent, Joey. I'm sure they knew that and I'm sure we could find them… if we were in a position where we had enough money to look!" The hook was baited and the poor fish rose to the lure.

"I'd like that! My kids are the only ones who're important to me now! And you say you have a plan that will get us back in with Intergang?"

"Not only that, Joey, but one which will get Superman out of our hair and will pay him back for all that he's made us suffer!"

Joey sat back against the backrest of the booth; Mindy was just too much of a distraction and he needed a sharp brain for what he was about to hear. He just wished he hadn't drunk so many beers. Still, the surge of adrenalin that Mindy's words had triggered seemed to be washing away the lethargy.

"Okay, Mindy, you've got my interest. Just what do you have in mind?"

A self-satisfied grin suffused her face, almost making it seem young again. "Tell me, Joey, do you still have access to some of your old toys?"

"My toys?!"

"Yes, one in particular. One which we concocted between us and one that Superman wasn't very pleased to come in contact with."

"The virus! You want the virus!"

Mindy almost chased Joey across the table, so eager was she to discover his answer. "Do you still have it?"

This time it was Joey Bermuda's turn to grin. What a good idea it had been to keep a little insurance in reserve. But a perverse twinge of pleasure held him silent for a moment. Let her squirm for a bit. He was prepared to join forces with the witch — only this time he'd make sure that if someone got burned, it wouldn't be him. "As a matter of fact, Mindy, I do believe I could get my hands on a little!"

And the two conspirators started laughing uncontrollably. The promise of revenge was so sweet!


Chapter Three: All that glistens…

Nathan, dressed in his cuddly bunny-suit pyjamas, burst from the bathroom into his mom and dad's bedroom and threw himself in the direction of their big bed, hotly pursued by his growling mother. Lois had left her older children to the task of clearing up and brought Nathan down here to be bathed. The little boy always enjoyed being allowed to use his parents' bath — there was so much room to play with his boats and ducks and have his Superman doll swoop to the rescue when they were attacked by the very bad shark.

How he squealed as he rolled across the bed, attempting to escape from his mom's tickling fingers. The two rolled around, giggling and messing the bedcover and tangling their legs in the quilt, until Nathan spotted someone standing in the door.

"Daddy!" he screamed, and pulling away from Mommy, the small boy launched himself at his dad, trusting implicitly that he would be secure in Clark's hands.

Yet for the first time, Clark was almost not fast enough as he scrambled to catch the leaping Nathan seconds before he hit the floor. Normally, that last-minute action would be planned and Clark would raise his son above his head and plunge again to the carpet in a swooping motion; Nathan loved to 'fly'.

Only today, he'd been too preoccupied by what had happened in the kitchen. There was something he didn't understand controlling his actions and the moods of his two elder biological children. It had to be the only explanation, and he didn't feel at all comfortable about being out of control.

Absentmindedly, Clark placed a kiss on his son's cheek. "Hi there, squirt! You smell nice." He breathed deeply in the scent of the newly-washed toddler. This was normal: coming home, cooking for his family while he listened to his wife and kids chat about what had happened to them during the day; helping with the children's homework and playing with them before they went to bed; then sitting with his wife in the comfort of their home until they too decided to go to bed.

It was what grounded Clark; gave him the courage and the inspiration to go out and be the superhero that everyone expected him to be. When life got really tough for the Man of Steel, without Lois and the children behind him he doubted that he'd have the resilience to continue in his role. He knew that the world was, in some ways, a better place than when he'd first donned the suit, but there was still a long way to go before it became the Utopia that H G Wells had talked about. And just sometimes he was a little frustrated that the world took up so much of the time which ought to belong to his wife and kids.

But not right at this moment. He was enjoying being hugged by his youngest son, though the garbled tale of flying remote controls and Lois decreeing that his plans for the evening were out of bounds hardly penetrated his already troubled thoughts. How did you explain to your wife that you were sort of lusting after her mother?

Clark was tempted to put off the dread moment by surrendering to Nathan's pleas to come read to him before supper, but that was the coward's way out. Clark's natural response was often to ignore what he didn't comprehend or couldn't handle, but life with Lois had taught him that the sooner he faced up to what was bothering him, the quicker she could help him put things in perspective.

"You know, squirt, I think your Grandma could do with your expert help in setting the table for supper. So why don't you go on down and give her a hand."

Nathan nodded his head sagely. "Poor Gramma! Joel and Clara were fightin' again and Gramma cried 'cos they wouldn't listen to her… so she runned away."

"Yes, I know. She's in the kitchen and she could really do with some cheering up and I know just the little boy who could do that for her."

"I could give her a hug," the little boy suggested with such a serious expression that his parents had to stifle a grin. "Do yoo think that 'ould help Gramma, Daddy?"

"That's a really good idea, Nathan. I think that would help a whole lot."

"I thinks so too!" A big smile spread over his newly- scrubbed face and, pausing only to flip a cheesy grin to his mom, he bounced out of the room, shouting for Gramma at the top of his voice.

"Nathan, don't run! Be careful on the stairs!" But his son was intent on his mission, and Clark contented himself with watching the toddler's progress with his x-ray vision, holding himself in readiness in case of a fall.

Meanwhile, on the bed Lois gave her ears a shake. "Do any of our children realise that there is any volume of talking other than loud? I came home to find that war had been declared upstairs."

"So I was told… Something about a fight over TV programmes?"

"Well, I believe that's what started it, but it quickly escalated into a throwing match between Joel and Clara." Lois stood up and began distractedly straightening out the bedcovers. "It doesn't really matter what starts it though… they're at each other's throats at the least provocation. What's gone wrong, Clark? I can't believe the change in those two… and it's all started since our vacation in 'Dante's Inferno'."

"It doesn't happen all the time, sweetheart." Clark moved in to help her, smoothing the cover on his side of the bed. "Sometimes they can be quite reasonable."

"Mostly when they're under supervision!" Lois huffed. "But the moment the kids are on their own, they just can't behave! We're raising little vandals, Clark… And the most worrying thing is… is that they're potentially super vandals! That doesn't make me feel too secure!"

Clark leaned over and caught hold of one of Lois' hands and pulled her down onto the bed, mussing up their careful work. "It isn't that bad, honey!"

"Isn't it? What other kids do you know who can throw things through walls?"

"Through walls?" This was clearly worse than he thought.

"Yes! And our walls aren't so thin. I remember when you made the alterations up there… Not that you had any difficulty, of course, but you had to go help out at an earthquake and your parents and I kept going while you were away… and, trust me, those walls are solid! " Lois watched Clark worry his lip and knew he wasn't taking the problem lightly. "Mind you, I think it's only Joel who has that sort of strength, but Clara's not far behind him. In a few years we could have two very strong, maladjusted teenagers and I just don't know if I can cope with that! Maybe it's my fault. I'm too tied up with my work and I don't give the kids enough of my time!"

"Lois, that's nonsense! If anyone's to blame it's me! I'm the one who's always flying off to save the world… And I'm certainly to blame for their genetics!"

"So, our kids don't have any of my genes? I'm the one with the temper! You might have provided the super genes… but the hot-headedness is all mine!"

The two glared at each other across the bed until both had the grace to blush. "Look at us, Clark! We're arguing like the kids! Just don't go picking up bed-tables and throwing them at the moon or something!" Lois swatted her husband's chest, but she let her touch soften and linger.

"And it's not really important whose fault it is. The most important thing is how we deal with this." Clark caught the trailing fingers in his steady grasp and raised them to his lips where he kissed each tip in apology for his abnormal surge of surliness. Now was probably not the best time for confessions, but there just might be a connection between his children's and his own strange behaviour. "And Joel and Clara might not be our only problem."

Being attuned to all of her husband's tones and expressions, Lois immediately recognised that something had Clark in a tail-spin. Well great, that was all they needed, some other outside complication. Lois steeled her resolve. "Okay, what else has happened? Did something happen at that rescue? Was it arson… a trap? Has some other villain arrived in Metropolis and found a way to hurt you?"

It was clear that Lois was letting her imagination get away from her, and Clark quickly reeled her in. "No, honey! The rescue was just routine. At least, as routine as these disasters get, and as far as the firefighters can tell it wasn't arson… just due to carelessness on the part of one of the tenants and the dilapidated state of the old building." Clark looked down at their linked hands and realised that he was clinging desperately to Lois' small fingers. He might even be hurting her, but she'd given no sign. Releasing his grip a little, he continued quietly. "That wasn't the sort of problem I was meaning. I just haven't been quite myself."

Lois studied Clark's face, but for the first time she was having difficulty reading his expression and his gaze refused to meet her own. "Clark, what is it? Was it kryptonite? Do you feel ill?"

"No, Lois! Not ill… exactly…"

"Then what?" This time it was Lois who grabbed at his hands and was shaking them in exasperation. "What exactly? Come on, Clark, you're scaring me!"

"Well, I don't think it's anything to be afraid of…"

Lois jumped off the bed and strode around the room to stand before her husband. "Clark, would you please just tell me what's going on because I'm completely in the dark here, and I don't like it. I thought we'd got over the point where we played guessing games with each other."

"We have, Lois!" This time Clark's eyes did lock with hers and she was taken aback once again by the depth of love she found there. This man still had the ability to make her weaken at the knees with just a glance, but there was something else there too… Obviously, Clark was worried about her reaction to whatever it was he was about to reveal. "And I will explain… just promise me you'll hear me out before you go ballistic."

Sitting alongside Clark, she appropriated his nearer hand. She couldn't, however, keep the edginess out of her voice. "Just tell me, Clark!"

"It was in the kitchen." One blank statement then he stopped.

This was worse than drawing teeth. "Our kitchen?" And when he nodded in the affirmative, she interrogated further. "What was in the kitchen?"

"Where I wasn't myself!" Another silence!

She loved this man, she really did, but just sometimes she felt like shaking him. If only he weren't invulnerable! "Do you know who you were?"

"Yes…" Only that came out in a mouse-like squeak. "I wish I didn't!"

"Clark, you're talking in riddles here." Lois' temper was rapidly fraying. It hadn't been an easy day and she'd just had an uncomfortable altercation with her children. The last thing she needed was for her husband to start acting like another big kid. "Something happened in the kitchen that upset you… so just spit it out!"

Suddenly a glimmer of enlightenment started to dawn. Her mother was in the kitchen and none knew better than Lois just how annoying Ellen Lane could be at times… and Clark didn't really like bad-mouthing anybody, especially family. "Was it mother? Did she upset you?"

Clark turned all shades of red. "Yes… and no!"

"What does that mean?" This was really starting to get on Lois' nerves. Again she bounded from the bed and started pacing round the room. "What has my mother done this time?"

A sense of fair play speedily prompted Clark to clear his mother-in-law's name. "Ellen didn't do anything really… except be there!"

That stopped Lois in mid-stride. "Clark, you can't tell me that you dislike my mother so much that you can't stand her very presence, because that's just not you… But, wait a minute, you said that you weren't yourself! You've been so very busy lately at both your jobs — and then there's all the trouble with the kids. Is that what you mean? Have your nerves gotten so bad that you can't tolerate my mother? Are you having some sort of nervous breakdown here?"

Lois felt appalled. She'd been so wrapped up in her own stresses and complaints that she hadn't noticed how her husband had been affected. For his part, Clark was tempted for a moment to allow this excuse to run, but his sense of honesty and morality kicked in. Besides, Mad Dog Lane would soon expose the truth and he'd be in even more trouble. Far better to come clean now and rely on Lois' quality of mercy… did she have one? His mind returned to the hot days of summer and their island paradise. She'd promised to leave him forever if he betrayed her again.

"It's nothing your mother did, Lois. The fault's all mine!"

That bare statement and the desolate way in which it was delivered cut through Lois' escalating suppositions. Something was seriously wrong with her husband, and, if it wasn't kryptonite, and he wasn't obsessing about a rescue that had failed, then she had no idea what it might be. Stilling the chill that was beginning to freeze her insides, Lois prompted as gently as she could.

"Clark, tell me what happened in the kitchen… start from the beginning and go from there."

He didn't answer at first, but she could see that he was trying to straighten his muddled thoughts, so she buried her irritation and kept silent. At last he began, slowly at first, but his words growing in pace as the familiarity of sharing his thoughts with Lois took over.

"Ellen was in there… and she was crying. I guessed it was the kids. It usually is these days. Only she was blaming herself. She thought that maybe the way she supervised them was making them act up. But I couldn't let her believe that, so I went to her." Clark glanced up at Lois, to find her eyes glued to his face — he flushed. "I took hold of her hand and that was when it happened." For a moment of time Clark looked like he desperately wanted to escape, and Lois waited for a patented Superman excuse to leave, but he swallowed down his cowardly impulse and picked up his story. "I felt her hand and it was a really nice hand… in fact your mother has a really nice body!" The last came out in a rush and his haunted gaze fixated on his wife.

Lois wasn't sure how to answer, but as Clark stared at her in silence she felt she needed to fill the gap… only she didn't understand where he was going with this. "Yes, Clark. Mother is a very attractive woman for her age… which, when you think of it, is a really good thing for me… as they say, these things are genetic."

"No, Lois!" Clark halted Lois' train of thought. "I just didn't find Ellen attractive for a woman her age… just attractive…"

The last hit Lois like a bolt from the blue. So much so, that she couldn't make any sense of it. "In what way… attractive?"

"You know…"

"No, Clark, I don't know! I need you to explain!"

"In a guy sort of way!"

Lois couldn't suppress a sharp burst of laughter, yet it was edged with a slight tinge of hysteria. "My mother?! Ellen Lane!" she added incredulously.


"As in you're a man and my mother is a woman? That sort of way?" Clark looked like he'd been pole-axed. "You fancied my mother?"

"Yes!" Clark had to try twice before his answer could be heard above a pin-drop.

"How much?"

He didn't know what he expected but that reaction wasn't it. "Excuse me?"

"How much? Was it a little or a lot?" Lois truthfully didn't know why this should matter, but it did.

"A little… maybe a little more than a little."

"Uh-huh!" Lois marched around the room, picking up things but, refusing to throw them, she slammed them back in place. She wheeled on the object of her wrath. "And how did you fancy her?"

That flummoxed him… or maybe it scared him. Lois was getting dangerously close to something he didn't want to admit to. "I'm sorry, I don't know what you mean," he prevaricated.

"Well, you're a man… you should know about these things! Was it all in the mind… or was it…" And an irate Lois couldn't keep her eyes from drifting down past her husband's belt. The dull red flush on Clark's face which turned quickly to pasty white, gave her the answer, while his eyes followed the path of her gaze, and he nodded in total dejection. "Clark, that's perverted! My mother is old!"

"Lois, I know! And you couldn't be more shocked and humiliated than I feel! I dropped her hand like a hot potato and almost ran across the kitchen. In fact, I wanted to fly right out of the house, but your mom might have thought that pretty weird… and it was clear that she was already puzzled by what was going on. Besides, whenever I put some distance between us, it went away."

"What did?"

"The feelings…" His head bobbed in the general direction of the bottom half of his body. "It was like I'd imagined the whole thing. And Lois, you have to know that I've never felt like that about any other woman but you in my entire life!"

"Not true, Clark!" And as her husband's brow drew down in a furrowed question, Lois hurried on. "What about Hazel Chen?"

"Oh, her!" The tormented look increased and Lois was sure that Clark was wishing Superman would be needed somewhere else. "Okay, I admit she had a strange… enticement for me, but I never acted on it, Lois. Even when I had the chance — I just couldn't be unfaithful to you." Lois relaxed a little as she acknowledge the truth of that statement.

"Lois, we talked about this and I thought we decided that it was all due to the island and the… kryptonite."

"You might not have noticed, but we're not on the island now, Clark, and you're still experiencing these strange… enticements! Though I must admit, I can understand you fancying Hazel Chen more than my mother!"

"You can say that again!" And an expressive snort accompanied his words.



Yet a tiny glimmer of light was hovering around Lois' consciousness. "Though everything seems to stem from the time we spent on Papillon… both with you and the kids. Perhaps we brought part of the island back with us."

"Much as though I'd like to use that as an excuse, honey, we left most of our possessions back on the island and I know we didn't bring any of the kryptonite with us… red or green. Unless that bit that was sticking in my back. The last I saw of it was in the Swallow's sickbay."

"No! Julian and I got rid of that. Believe me, it's at the bottom of the Pacific."

The angry tension had eased out of both of them and the familiar comfort of working together to solve a problem was slowly taking over. "Do you really believe that the exposure on the island is still affecting the kids and me after all this time? Because kryptonite doesn't usually work that way."

"I'm not sure, but I think I prefer that explanation to the alternative…"

"Which is?"

"That my children are delinquents and my husband is a perverted lech!"

"In that case… I'm all for the kryptonite theory!" Clark even managed a self-conscious grin before plunging back into reviewing his memories of the island.

"Clark, when did you first become aware of your feelings for Hazel?" Lois' blunt question interrupted his thoughts and he felt himself squirm anew.

"Lo-is, do we really have to go over this again?"

"Yes, we do. And I'm sorry, Clark, I'm really not doing this to make you feel awkward. Please, just go with me on this." Actually, Lois wasn't at all sure that she knew where she was going here, but some sort of gut instinct was leading her.

An audible sigh warned her that Clark wasn't happy with this line of questioning but out of a mixture of love, trust and just plain habit, he followed her lead. "Let's see, I think it was the day we were on the beach. She came out of the water and Nathan thought she was a mermaid!" Both laughed as they remembered their small son's awed shout. "Yes, that was definitely it!"

"But you'd seen her before! When we met Jimmy on the dock. Roy and Hazel were on the ship."

"Yes they were. But I never really noticed her then. Or, at least, no more than the fact that she was a beautiful woman."

"You noticed that she was a beautiful woman?" Lois asked indignantly.

"Lois, I'm not blind." Clark hurried to Lois' side. "I notice a lot of beautiful women, but none of them can hold a candle to my wife… at least, not to me! You're everything I'll ever need, Lois." He reinforced his statement by taking her face into his hands and giving her one of his reassuring kisses that quickly deepened into passion.

Lois let Clark's lips linger on hers for a few moments, then pulled back a little. "Nice save, Clark! So, you didn't pay much attention to Hazel Chen that day?"

"Only in passing."

"Why do you think that was, Clark?"

Lines wrinkled his brow as he gave her question some thought. "Well, the day she arrived on our beach her costume was pretty revealing…"

"But she was dressed pretty similarly the day before. I remember envying her terrific figure…"

"Lois, you have no reason to be envious…"

"But she had an hour-glass figure, Clark!" A note of wistfulness had leaked into her voice. "A tiny waist and a… flat stomach!"

Clark's hand lightly caressed the practically non-existent mound of his wife's stomach. "Lois, you've had three children and as far as I know, Hazel hasn't had any. Besides, I happen to like a more curvy woman. Wait till Ms Chen's given birth a few times and she's matured some… she could be fat and frumpy!"

Lois pushed against his hands that were busily trying to distract her, but she was secretly pleased. She was well aware that Clark still found her very desirable. He proved it every possible moment they were alone… it was just a pity that lately they hadn't had so many opportunities. "Clark, behave! I'm trying to work something out here and I can't do it if you keep distracting me!"

"Okay!" Plumping himself down on the bed, he sat with his hands neatly folded and regarded her with a pseudo-serious gaze.

"Be good!" But she joined him on the bed, leaving a few inches of space between them for the sake of her equilibrium. "Let's get back to the when we met the Chens. Hazel was wearing an even skimpier bikini top and a sarong."

"So not much change there!"

"But your reaction was different. So maybe there was some outside source."

"Like the kryptonite! But, honey, you and Julian cleared the beach and there hadn't been any further eruptions from Solvan… and we already established that Hazel couldn't be hiding any of the stuff in that suit… and, as she wasn't wearing makeup, she wasn't doing a 'Diana Stride'." Clark leaned his elbows back on the bed somewhat disconsolately. "And I felt okay that morning, so I have no excuse!"

Lois lay back and closed her eyes to conjure up a mental picture of that day… much as she hated to relive the moment when Hazel had enthralled her husband. It only took a moment for the connection to be made and then she whirled towards Clark.

"But she was wearing something else," she announced in triumph. "Clark, she had a bracelet! I remember admiring it! It was a fine gold chain with an amber droplet."

Slowly, Clark raised himself off his elbows as the import of Lois' words sank in. "Sweetheart, your mother is wearing the amber pendant that we brought back. I noticed because she was threading it through her fingers nervously…"

"And Joel and Clara are mostly out of control when they're playing upstairs…"

"When Nathan's probably fooling around with his marbles from Papillon!"

"Hmph! When has Nathan not got these things around him?"

"But that would mean they're some new strain of kryptonite!" Clark grimaced at that suggestion.

"I know that's not the best news, but it does make sense," Lois reasoned.

Clark turned the uncomfortable thought over in his mind before replying. "You're probably right. So what do we do now?"

For a few seconds Lois joined him in his wallowing, then standing up with firm resolve she held out her hand. "Now we go check on our kids and then we all have dinner."

The offered hand was taken but Clark made no move to get up from the bed. "Lois, your mother's staying to dinner — I can't go in the kitchen. If that thing is really what we think it is I shouldn't be anywhere near her. And Joel and Clara will probably start fighting again…"

"Nothing is going to happen because Superman is going to cause a little accident." A bright but slightly naughty grin lit up Lois' face.

"Lo-is! Superman doesn't cause accidents."

"Not even a teeny-weeny one? And one which is in a very good cause?" she teased, but seeing that Clark was too distracted to appreciate her attempt at levity, she quickly relented. "Couldn't you use a tiny one of those laser-rays to break the chain on Mother's pendant? Then she'd have to take it off and I'd offer to get it mended and put it away safely."

A smile at last brightened Clark's features. "Did I ever tell you how brilliant you are, Mrs Kent?" He stood and pulled her in for a kiss.

"Not today!" Reluctantly, Lois broke the kiss. Even after a decade of marriage, she still enjoyed fooling around with her husband. "But you can show me how much you appreciate me later… tonight, after you've taken the drop and the marbles to Bernie."

"Honey, I'm going to have to steal those marbles after Nathan is asleep. You know how attached he is to them; he's not going to be happy with me for taking them away." Clearly, disappointing his youngest son troubled Clark a whole lot.

"No, he isn't… but when we explain that they might be hurting you and Joel and Clara, I'm sure he'll get over it. There might be a few tears in the beginning but Nathan's a good little boy. And maybe Superman could hunt around for some real amber marbles to replace the ones he's lost…"

""That's a good idea, Lois." Clark's arm snaked around his wife's shoulder as the two headed downstairs. "Of course, all this is assuming that these things really are kryptonite…"


From the number of voices drifting from the kitchen it was clear to Clark, as he walked through the living room with his wife, that his older children had finished the task of clearing up and had joined Ellen and Nathan. The sounds were raucous but friendly, seeming to reinforce Lois' view that Joel and Clara were only good-naturedly boisterous when not in the vicinity of those marbles. However, they were in the vicinity of that damned pendant and seemed to be suffering no ill-effects, so maybe the amber was exactly what it appeared to be and he was just having a mental breakdown!

Clark dawdled, reluctant to return to the scene of his previous transgressions, while Lois strode ahead into the kitchen, passing Ellen in mid-swing of the kitchen door. Lois adopted an airy manner, hoping to keep her mother from suspecting that something was not quite right.

"Hi, Mother! You're looking a little less stressed than earlier."

The reason for Lois' diagnosis might not have been immediately obvious as Ellen struggled to balance place- mats, napkins and cutlery precariously in her arms, but her mood certainly seemed brighter as she exchanged greetings with her daughter on her route to the table. The door swung shut behind Lois, but not before a smaller form had slipped adroitly through. Joel hurried closely on his Grandmother's heels, carrying a tall glass bud-vase with two red, blowsy roses drooping from its rim, while his face sported an amazingly goofy grin.

On the other hand, Clark reconsidered his conjecture, perhaps Lois wasn't wrong! Where had Joel got these? The uneasy suspicion that his son had raided the late blooming flowers from next door's rose arbour distracted him from his purpose for a moment.

With a flourish that would have done justice to a royal page, Joel set the fluted vase on the table. "I'll just put this here, Grandma; just by your place, so you can smell the roses." The smile he bestowed on her was one of Clark's 'hundred mega-watt' variety, and Ellen couldn't refrain from wondering about how many female hearts were going to flutter in the future over that easy charm. "Can I fold the napkins for you, Grandma?"

Ellen melted visibly and handed over the bundle as requested — sometimes Joel could be such a sweet boy. In the doorway Clark cringed uneasily. Oh, boy! Joel was never that well-behaved. That pendant had to go, and the perfect opportunity seemed to be presenting itself to Clark as Ellen moved to the foot of the table. Clark now had a clear view of Ellen's back and he nudged his glasses down his nose and concentrated. The fine chain lay along the neckline of Ellen's cashmere top, skimming close to her bobbed hair. This could prove to be a tricky operation and it needed a very delicate touch. Clark focussed, and a narrow low-powered beam of laser light arrowed through the air towards the golden fastening.

"Oh, there you are, Clark! Whatever are you doing hovering in the doorway?" Having the uncomfortable notion that she was being watched, Ellen swung round. "And why are you glaring at me like that? Really, Clark, I might get the impression you didn't like me or something!" Her son-in- law frequently acted weirdly, and today he'd been even stranger than normal. However, she chose to ignore her misgivings and moved towards him — there was something important she wanted to say.

Clark almost jumped through the ceiling at Ellen's unexpected movement — his stomach was definitely up there. As quickly as his surprise would allow, he shut his laser vision down, but it was already too late. A tiny, but perfectly round hole had appeared in the shoulder of Ellen's new sweater while a wispy tendril of smoke drifted upwards past her ear. Damn! It was still smouldering. Clark risked directing a blast of cold air at the spot as Ellen came nearer and was relieved to see the edges of the hole darken to a dull black.

"Clark, come in and shut that door; you're causing a draught!" Ellen shivered slightly in the rush of chilly air but, thankfully, she remained totally unaware of what had really occurred. Clark immediately complied with her instructions while she leaned closer to whisper conspiratorially, "And please ignore what I said earlier. It must have been the stress talking. Joel and Clara aren't so very bad and I really don't want to give up on babysitting my grandchildren."

Steeling himself against the traitorous, but now familiar draw at her nearness — or more precisely, the nearness of that amber drop — Clark offered Ellen a friendly smile. "I never thought you did, Ellen, and I'm glad. Lois and I would be lost without your help."

Then again, sometimes Clark could say just the right thing and his smile was just as disarming as his son's. His actions might frequently leave Ellen completely mystified, and she did wonder on occasion why Lois put up with his many disappearances, but there was no denying his heart was in the right place. "Thank you, Clark." Ellen laid her hand on his arm, returning his affectionate gesture, and was completely unaware that she'd reduced Clark's insides to a pile of melted slush.

In the background, Joel watched with his eyes wide. Wow! Mom had been angry at him for throwing the remote through the wall. What would she say to Dad when she found out he'd burned Grandma's new sweater!

Lois, meanwhile, was taking advantage of Ellen's absence to explain her ideas about the Papillon amber to Julian and Clara. She would have preferred if Joel had been present to hear this, as he was particularly affected, but he was helping his grandmother and she could see no way of calling him back without alerting Ellen to the fact that something was up. Experience had taught her that Ellen Lane was especially sensitive when it came to others discussing things which she was not party to. Oh well, she'd have to take Joel aside to talk whenever the chance presented itself.

It was also clear to Lois, swiftly side-stepping to avoid a fleeing furry bundle, that Nathan was not paying attention to her words as he played a game of tag with next door's cat. The large tabby frequently stopped by to see what delicious tidbits were served for dinner in the Kent household and, since it was a particularly friendly animal, none of the family had the heart to send it home. This night, though, Lois was very doubtful that it would stay around long enough to eat, not deriving quite as much fun from the game as was Nathan.

But perhaps it was best that Nathan didn't listen too closely. He might just associate Gramma's jewellery with his own pieces of amber, and Lois wanted time and privacy to explain very carefully to her toddler why he had to give up the marbles. Having to deal with Nathan's tears at this moment, along with everything else, would just be too chaotic. And the others seemed to be taking it all on board fairly sharply. In fact, when she reached the part in her narration about the pendant's effect on Clark — glossing over the precise details, of course — Julian jumped right in.

"So that's why Joel's been playing goody-two-shoes with Grandma! I thought he was just trying to get back into her good books."

A vague picture of passing Joel in the doorway floated into Lois' mind. "Was he carrying roses?" she enquired incredulously.

"Yes!" Clara's tone showed what she thought of silly, soppy boys.

Clearly Clara hadn't fallen under this peculiar effect of the amber pendant as had her male Kryptonian relatives. Lois viewed her daughter thoughtfully. Perhaps she was too young to be influenced in this way? But then, back on the island, Clara had developed a large crush on Paul Valliere, which had continued in a slightly less intense way on their return to Metropolis. Yet that bout of puppy-love could be perfectly natural, as Paul was a very good-looking boy. So, perhaps Clara wasn't reacting because there was no suitable male available. Mind you, the question of suitability hadn't seemed to hinder Clark.

"He pinched them off Mrs Janik's climbing bush." Clara didn't really enjoy telling tales, but if her brother was going to act like a dope, then he deserved everything he got.

"Oh, joy! I just hope Mrs Janik didn't spot him!" Mrs Janik was a keen gardener who was very proud of her prize blooms.

"Don't worry, Mom. He used super-speed!" Julian comforted, totally oblivious that his words had the opposite effect to what he'd intended.

"Great! Joel isn't fast enough to fool the human eye completely and Mrs Janik is always peering from behind her curtains. If she spots something unusual she'll be like a bloodhound on the scent of a trail — and don't we have enough to worry about at the moment? I've warned Joel, again and again, about using his powers in public! I'm going to have to speak to his father! Let Superman deal with this!" Lois threw a nervous glance towards the swing doors at end of her indiscreet rant. She'd forgotten that Ellen was in the dining room. It was so awkward having to tread warily in her own home and with her own mother. But there was no thunderstruck Ellen standing in the entrance way.

Much relieved, Lois returned her attention back to the kids and noticed the smiles on Julian's and Clara's faces. Superman might scare thugs and criminals halfway to death, but his kids were another story, besides Joel's use of the powers and her mother's lack of knowledge about the family secret weren't the immediate problems here. The issue was how to remove Ellen's pendant without her suspecting that it was a deliberate act of sabotage. Both Julian and Clara were quick to offer their support.

"Thanks, guys, but I doubt you'll have to do anything. Your dad has probably got the situation well under control. After all, it only needs a quick blast of laser to break the chain. Should be a piece of cake!"

But as Ellen returned to the kitchen it was clear to the watchers that the cake had been overcooked… burnt even… while the offending object still gleamed like smooth toffee on Ellen's chest. Plan A had evidently failed, which meant they moved onto plan B! Lois hated when that happened, particularly in this case, since she had no idea what plan B was!

Well, it wouldn't be the first time the family had to wing it, and this was such an inconsequential operation. One thing was obvious, though; until that pendant was removed and put in a safe place, Joel had to be warned about its influence.

"Mother, the casserole is heating in the microwave." Lois had absentmindedly been seeing to dinner as she chatted to her children. "Could you look after it, please? I've something important to say to Joel…"

Ellen's eyebrows rose as she watched Lois disappear abruptly through the swinging doors, while she discovered that she was the object of Julian's and Clara's close inspection. Was it her imagination, or were things just a little bit more odd than usual around here tonight? She had the aggrieved feeling that something was going on which she, as usual, knew nothing about. "Don't mind me, Lois! I'll just get the microwave!"

Right on time the contraption started beeping stridently and she hurried over to extract the casserole, just as a large orange tabby charged from under the kitchen counter, chased by a gleeful pyjama-clad toddler. The cat tangled between Ellen's legs, letting out an indignant yowl, while the normally well-bred lady flailed her arms in the air in an unsuccessful attempt to stay erect. With an ungraceful bump, she sat down solidly on the floor. Had she really been so foolish as to tell Clark that she wanted to continue to visit?

"Nathan," she hollered, "get that cat out of here!"


Dinner was the strangest of affairs. Ellen had been understandably huffy about the cause of her accident, but had allowed herself to be mollified by the fuss everyone had made at her undignified fall. She had been picked gently up from the floor and smoothed down by a solicitous Clark while the others gathered around her. Everyone had been very relieved to find that, apart from some bruised susceptibilities, Ellen was unhurt. Clark had been worried enough to check with his x-ray vision and had been able to confirm that Ellen's somewhat sheepish insistence that she was fine was actually correct. And if Lois was a tad annoyed that Clark had not thought to avail himself of the chance to break the gold chain, she accepted that he'd been too distressed at Ellen's accident to think about sabotage. He was such a boy scout!

Nevertheless, it was a fairly subdued Ellen who accompanied the family into the dining room. On the pretext that her mother needed a more comfortable chair, Lois had moved Ellen to the foot of the table, the furthest possible distance away from Clark and Joel. However, though that might have removed the two from close contact with the amber, it did make it more difficult for Clark to use his laser-vision surreptitiously… and Joel too. Lois had no doubt that her son would make some attempt to get rid of the extremely annoying object, even though she'd instructed him to leave it to his father.

As dinner progressed the Kents kept up a lively stream of small talk, involving Ellen in all their conversations. Clara had just asked her grandmother's advice on whether she should take ballet or gymnastic lessons. Lois almost choked! Her daughter had never contemplated studying ballet in all her short life — now, sports were different! But evidently Ellen was not aware of this fact and was now waxing lyrical on one of her favourite subjects — the virtues of the world of dance. She'd always hoped that her own daughters would share her enthusiasm, but neither had. It would be wonderful if Clara was developing an interest.

Lois felt an unexpected surge of sympathy for her mother as she noticed the flare of joy in Ellen's eyes. As a teenager she'd felt totally let down by her mother's dysfunctional behaviour, yet it had never occurred to her, until now, that perhaps she'd been a disappointment to her mother. As the daughter of an alcoholic, she'd felt that she and Lucy had been the injured parties and, even as an adult, she'd never looked beyond the drunken facade to the unhappiness that had undoubtedly prompted the damaging habit. Reflecting on the deep joy and love that she shared with Clark and her children, regret and pity welled up in her heart for the woman who'd never known that same comfort. Ellen Lane deserved better than that and Lois resolved to stop complaining at her mother's efforts to control. Perhaps if she could make Ellen feel more secure in her role in this family, then she'd ease up on her sometimes manipulative ways.

Meanwhile, judging that Ellen was sufficiently distracted by her conversation with Clara not to notice his actions, Clark attempted to snap the chain. He would have managed it too, if his assistant superboy had not chosen the same moment for his covert attack on the pendant. Two beams of light darted across the table converging on the same target — Joel's practice sessions were certainly improving his aim. There was an almost imperceptible fizzling glow as they collided, and, joining forces, they bounced off in a totally different direction.

A loud crash interrupted Lois' contemplation of her relationship with her mother. "What was that?!" Lois whirled in her chair and spotted her favourite painting — the one of the Kents' farmhouse — lying upended on the floor, a corner of its frame broken away.

"Oh my, oh my!" Ellen jumped and her hand settled on her breast where her agitated fingers played with her own particular worry bead. "What a scare! How did that happen?"

"Ghosts!" Clark suggested helpfully, and for his trouble he received a dagger-drawn look from his wife. Given their past history in this house, that probably wasn't the cleverest thing to say.

"Dad! That was all your fault!" Julian declared accusingly, causing his parents and siblings to turn shocked gazes on him. "You know Mom's been telling you about that faulty picture-hook for weeks now and you haven't done anything about it. It was bound to fall someday." Was it possible for all these pairs of eyes to widen at just the same instant, only this time in admiration? Julian's quick thinking was worthy of a Lois Lane-inspired save.

Only Ellen and Nathan seemed unmoved. Nathan was looking intently between the fallen picture and his father and brother, his tiny brow drawn down in concentration as he tried to deduce what had happened. However, Ellen, amazingly, was quickly reassured by Julian's explanation.

"Now why doesn't that surprise me? You know Clark, if you spent more time doing jobs around the house instead of running off to return library books, or videos… or any other of these silly excuses you come out with, then your family wouldn't be frightened half to death when pictures mysteriously fall off the wall."

That her pronouncement would cause them all to lower their eyes and hide amused smiles was beyond Ellen's comprehension and once again she wondered about the sanity of her daughter's family. She dropped her eyes to her plate and her pendant dropped with a plop into the thick gravy. "What is going on here?"

"Mother?!" Lois hadn't noticed Clark use another laser bolt, which this time had, unerringly, found its mark and she was slightly bemused to watch her mother dip her hand into her food and trawl around for a few seconds before drawing out the amber jewel. The tear-shaped droplet, now coated with thick beef stew, was held aloft for everyone's inspection. "Oh, Mother, I'm sorry. Has the catch broken… or something?"

Lois felt uncomfortably fraudulent. She was finding it increasingly difficult to lie to her parents, and she made a decision to talk to Clark about telling them the truth about his other identity.

"Why Daddy break Gramma's necliss?" Nathan's little voice echoed into complete silence.

This time the Kent family froze in unison and the stillness stretched for endless seconds until it was broken by Ellen. "Oh, Nathan, it was an accident! Your Daddy was nowhere near my necklace. He couldn't have broken my necklace, not unless he's Superman." And her laughter trilled out at this impossible notion.

Lois blushed in acute discomfort… this foolery couldn't go on, and yet it wasn't her secret. Her head snapped up as she heard a chair scrape back and she watched Clark stand very deliberately.

"As a matter of fact, Ellen, I am… Superman!"


Lois cradled Nathan a little closer to her chest. It had been a very traumatic and extremely astonishing night, in many ways. And not the least amazing had been Clark's confession.

'I am Superman.'

She ought to have been angry that he hadn't consulted her before acting, but then his disclosure hadn't been premeditated. He'd simply arrived, as she had, at the point where he believed it was wrong to continue pretending to Ellen. The strange thing had been that her mother had actually accepted the revelation with uncharacteristic calm. She was exceedingly relieved to have Clark's eccentricities, as she considered them, explained away, while the account of the amber pendant and its effect on male Kryptonians' libido rendered her quite euphoric. The thought that her son-in-law might be having improper thoughts about her had scared her silly… thank goodness it was all due to the impact of that nasty kryptonite and not the fact that Clark was developing unusual sexual proclivities.

The conversation that followed had touched on other aspects of the relationship between the Lanes and the Kents, and when Ellen had finally taken her leave, Lois had felt closer to her mother than at any time before. Confession was certainly good for the soul, and she would always be grateful to Clark for being the catalyst which had brought this about.

But if her mother's reaction had been easier to deal with than expected, the chat that she and Clark had had with Nathan hadn't gone quite so smoothly. It had begun when the little boy had been informed by his parents that perhaps he'd played with his 'special' toys too many times today. The toddler's tiny mouth had trembled and tears had threatened to flow. After all, he'd been promised that the amber baubles were his alone and he could have them whenever he wanted, and it wasn't as if he'd been bad like his big brother and sister… he just played quietly with his treasures.

Both Lois and Clark were quick to realise that Nathan hadn't connected his amber with the bad things his Gramma's pendant did, and to be honest, they were totally different in colour. Watching the disappointment on Nathan's face, it was very tempting to forgo the explanation and just take the marbles when he was sleeping.

Now, as the soft-skinned eyelids fluttered slowly closed and, with a few tearful whimpers, Nathan drifted off to sleep, Lois was glad that they hadn't chosen that option. Neither Lois nor Clark had, in the end, found themselves able to lie to their little boy, and so they'd continued to explain, as gently as they could, that Superman needed his precious toys for a little experiment that Uncle Bernie wanted to do. Nathan wasn't totally happy with this state of affairs, but he did allow his dad to take his toys away for the time being — after all, Uncle Bernie wouldn't find out anything bad about his pretty marbles… would he?

When Lois was fully convinced that her youngest son had settled down for the night, she laid him carefully in his bed and drew the covers up around his shoulders. Gently she dropped a kiss on his brow and couldn't resist smoothing back his downy chestnut hair — Nathan's colouring was the closest to her own. Lois stood for a few moments to be sure that he wouldn't stir, then leaving the nightlight glowing low, she hurried downstairs, making a beeline for the phone.

But here she unexpectedly halted. Clark had left some time ago, forgoing super-powered travel for conventional means, since he'd offered to drive her mother home before heading over to Star Labs and Bernie Klein's laboratory. While Ellen Lane might be perfectly sanguine that her son-in-law moonlighted in tights, she was not yet prepared for a night flight through the city skies, cradled in those spandex- clad arms.

Although anxious to know just what was going on, Lois realised that there probably hadn't been enough time for Bernie to study the amber pieces and come to any conclusions. Nevertheless, she could talk to Clark while he waited for the verdict. He was pretty stressed out about the whole thing and he would very likely appreciate her support… even if it was by phone.

Her hand hovered over the handset. Then again, perhaps her call would just increase the pressure. She should wait a little longer. No! Who was she kidding? She was just as worried about the results and she couldn't restrain her eager curiosity any longer.

"Mom, why don't you just pick up the phone and dial? You know you want to!" Joel's voice interrupted her indecision and she turned to find her three eldest children sitting in a row on the couch, regarding her with serious but apologetic gazes.

"If it makes you feel better, we'd like a few answers too!" Julian added. "It'd be really good to know that these two aren't acting like a couple of goons for nothing."

"Hey, quit calling me a goon!" Clara elbowed her brother in the ribs and he answered with an exaggerated 'ouch!', but Julian was only funning — the nudge hadn't hurt. Without the influence of the amber, Clara and Joel were behaving like 'normal' unruly children.

Lois surveyed her kids with a mixture of disapproval and friendly conspiracy. "You know, you lot ought to be heading for bed. You've got school tomorrow, and you'll all complain if you have to get up feeling sleepy-headed. That's something your dad and I could do without."

"Mom, it isn't that late! And you can't expect us to go to sleep when we still don't know if we've been poisoned by kryptonite!" Clara said dramatically and Lois tried to suppress a smile. Her daughter could be a real little drama queen when the need arose.

"Clara, I wouldn't call it poisoning, exactly! It hasn't made you physically sick, and we don't know if it's kryptonite yet."

"But it has made us act weird, Mom," Joel reminded persuasively. "And, we know you're worried about Dad too."

"Okay! I'll phone! But I doubt Uncle Bernie will have anything concrete for us yet." Lois started to dial Klein's personal number at the Lab. "But if this is going to take a while, you're not waiting up."


The three kids voiced their dismay in chorus but soon fell silent. This was Mom they were dealing with and they all realised that once their mother had made up her mind, she just wasn't for changing… now with Dad they might have stood a chance… Dad could be a pushover at times. Unless you really made him mad, then, with just one of his looks, he reminded you that Dad was also Superman — the guy who destroyed asteroids, dealt with earthquakes and volcanoes and, on a regular basis, faced up to the worst the criminal fraternity had to offer. That's when you realised that Dad really wasn't a pussycat.

Deciding that they'd better not push their luck, the siblings lapsed into silence and waited expectantly for someone to answer Mom's call.


Chapter Four: To Be K… Or not to Be

Clark paced around the room of Dr Klein's office, every so often throwing worried glances through the glass at his doctor and friend. Bernie and he had been through a lot together, and, if it weren't for this man, Clark might not be alive today. And, when you took into account how Beth Klein had so readily and competently become his children's pediatrician, saving Clara's life even before she was born, Lois and he had a lot to thank the Kleins for.

Now he was back with yet another problem. It seemed to Clark that life never tired of throwing trouble in their way — and all he'd ever wanted was a normal life; to have a wife he loved and a few kids to raise. Well, he had these things… he just wished sometimes that he had the peace and quiet to enjoy them.

Bernie looked up as he took the samples from the containment chamber. He caught Clark's eye and smiled. "Just checking you were safe behind the protective glass before I exposed these things." The offending objects were held aloft and the laboratory lights caught their glow, sending amber darts of light glinting through the air. "They sure are pretty! It's hard to believe that they could have a detrimental effect. Speaking of which, you told me they made Clara and Joel argumentative and hyper, but you never mentioned what it did to you. It couldn't have been anything similar, because I don't remember any posts about an out-of-control Superman and that, I'm pretty certain, would have been a front page story…" Bernie stroked his chin as he tried to recall the newscasts of the last few days.

"Bernie, did anyone ever tell you that you babble almost as much as my wife?"

The tall scientist looked somewhat hurt. "Lois and I don't babble! We just surmise vocally, and it's not our fault if other, lesser mortals can't follow our thought processes!"

"Did Lois and you get together to come up with that one?"

The two men exchanged comfortable grins, but Bernie wasn't about to be put off. He sensed a bit of intrigue and he was hot on the trail. "But don't think you can change the subject… Just what did these rocks do to you that has you looking like an embarrassed teenager?"

"Trust me, Bernie, you don't want to know. Let me just say that it's a good job that Beth wasn't here or you might have had a front row seat at me making a total ass of myself."

The shrill ringing of the phone interrupted Clark's mortified explanation. He snatched at the handset, his preoccupation making him sound more curt than was normal. "Dr Klein's office! He's in the lab at the moment. Can I take a message?"

"Hi, honey! It's me. The kids and I were just wondering how things were going."

"Oh, hi, sweetheart! We don't have anything definitive yet. Bernie's still working on the samples."

"If that's Lois, tell her it'll take about another half hour!" Bernie raised his voice to call through the glass.

"It'll be about another half hour, honey!"

"Yes, so I heard. And that's without the use of superpowers — who needs them when Bernie's around?"

"True, Lois! And I'm just in the next office. My ears are still ringing."

"How are you holding up?"

Lois sensed that this latest exposure to the remnants of his home planet had hit him hard. Clark was essentially a very private and conservatively moral man. It was true that he'd travelled the world and experienced life in many cultures; he had a wife with whom he enjoyed a very full and satisfying sex life and he had four kids to guide and protect through the stormy seas of growing up. He was not naive! Yet, for all that, Clark, in many ways, was still the ingenuous farmboy.

Clark never indulged in the 'nudge and wink' behaviour at some sexy, shapely female as he drooled over what he'd like to do in private with such a tantalising body. So to suddenly find himself acting in this totally unexpected and abhorrent manner must have shocked him to the core. Men such as Ralph, their colleague at the Planet, would no doubt laugh at Clark's discomfiture, but Lois found it admirable… and sweet.

"Okay, I guess!" His voice, however, let her know that he was anything but okay. "Lois, do you seriously think that these… stones or whatever they are could have made me act like a sex-starved… mongrel. Maybe I'm just going through a mid-life crisis or something."

"Clark, think about it! If you'd suddenly changed into Lothario, don't you believe you'd have gone for someone who fit the profile of a 'bit on the side' more appropriately than my mother? I mean, there's any number of young, pretty women at the office who are always making doe-eyes at you…"

"Lois, there are not!"

"Don't argue with me, Clark, because yes, there are, and the very fact that you don't even notice them proves my point. The only difference between them and my mother is the fact that they aren't wearing amber pendants… Well, actually, there are lots of other differences, specifically years… many years, but that only reinforces my theory."

"I suppose you could be right," Clark admitted reluctantly.

"Clark, the more I think about it, the more sure I am, and Bernie's test will confirm it."

"So what do we do then?"

"Then we get rid of the stuff, of course. Put it in a lead box and fly it into the sun."

"I expect your mother will be quite happy to get a replacement."

"While we're on the subject of my mother — that brings up another point! You gave me quite a surprise, Clark, with the 'I am Superman' bit!"

"A bit of a shock, huh? I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to warn you, but it just seemed the right time to tell her," Clark admitted, feeling slightly abashed. "But I should have discussed it with you first. It's as much your secret as mine, and I know how much you hate not be consulted." There was a few seconds of silence. "How mad are you?"

"Surprisingly, not an awful lot!" Lois smiled into the phone. "I must be getting soft in my 'middle-age'." Clark could sense her grin widening at that remark. "To be honest, I'd already come to the conclusion that I hated hiding the secret from her. But don't take this benign attitude as a sign you can leave me out of the decision making in the future," she added with a touch of her old assertiveness.

"I wouldn't dare, honey," Clark said feelingly with an almost audible sigh of relief. He'd pushed his luck already with Lois tonight, and he couldn't believe she was willing to forgive him another transgression so easily. Perhaps she was just tired.

"And as for a replacement pendant — Clark, you might not have noticed, but Mother was so happy to be told the truth that she won't care about that, and Nathan will come to accept that his marbles had to go. If we tell him they were definitely hurting you, he'll soon find something else to take their place. Mind you, that still leaves Hazel Chen's piece and, no doubt, Tulla Valliere has sold other amber jewellery to tourists… Maybe we could…"

"Lois, no! Before you suggest it, we are not becoming international jewel thieves! That would really look good in headlines if it ever got out — 'Superman turns kleptomaniac!'"

The voice from the other end of the phone sounded reasonable but aggrieved. "Clark, I was only going to suggest that we keep our eyes open and that we stay alert for any changes in your and the children's behaviour patterns."

Clark, on the other hand, wasn't fooled. "Uh-huh! I know you, Lois! The next time we spot any amber you'll be itching to get your hands on it so we can get rid of it."

"That's silly, Clark! The chances of our running into any more of the kryptonian type of amber are really very rare. Especially, since there won't be any new pieces on the market. There isn't very much left of Papillon that isn't just volcanic rock."

"Okay, honey! Just as long as you don't intend cornering the market in amber jewellery…"

The door between lab and office opened and Bernie strolled through. "You know, Clark, these things are really very interesting…"

Clark tensed, shooting up from the desk he'd come to rest on as he concentrated on his conversation with Lois.

Bernie's eyebrows lifted in surprise. "Come on, Clark! I stopped forgetting about accidentally exposing you to kryptonite years ago!" And he waved the small lead chest in the air to illustrate his point.

"Sorry!" Clark said with a sheepish grin. "Then these little baubles are kryptonite?"

"Oh yes!" Bernie sat down behind the desk and powered up his computer to type in his latest report. "But they're not a new sort." He concentrated for a moment on putting in his various passwords once the machine had booted up. He frequently updated his encryption codes, as these files were highly sensitive and could do untold harm to this man, who stood anxiously before him, and his family, should the information ever become public knowledge. Fortunately, Star Labs' security systems, both physical and virtual, were extremely effective, but it did no harm to add a little of his own expertise.

Meanwhile, Clark waited for the doctor to elaborate on his last statement, but as Bernie seemed engrossed in his task, he ploughed on a little sulkily. "Believe me, Bernard, I've never seen amber kryptonite before… and I think I'd remember it if I had!"

"Oh, I'm sure I agree!" A slightly quizzical look was directed at Clark, which cleared as soon as Bernie realised he'd once again been distracted from his initial task of explaining the origins of this latest manifestation of the toxic rock. "Back to the point! They aren't amber! They're a meld of red and green kryptonite!"


"You probably noticed that the stones aren't exactly the same colour," and, at Clark's nod of affirmation, Bernie continued, "That's caused by the differing amounts of the two types. The marbles, which are a yellowy amber, have more green than red in them and the deeper amber pendant is mostly red with just a small proportion of green."

"Well, that would certainly explain why I was injured when we climbed Solvan. I was carrying Nathan and he had the marbles in his pockets. I can remember them sticking into my back. No wonder I went down in the rock fall!"

"Sounds to me you were lucky not to have been killed." The computer pinged as a new window opened, recalling Bernie's attention to the updating of his files. He commented with vague concern, "That island just isn't a good place for you or the kids to be. Take my advice and don't go back!"

"Bernie, I don't intend to, but I couldn't anyway. Papillon isn't much more than a heap of cooling lava."

"Sorry!" Bernie was mortified — he often became so involved in his work that other matters slipped his mind. "I'd forgotten for a moment! It's a great pity for the islanders, but it's probably a good thing for us… since it has to be a source of kryptonite."

"Clark!" A disembodied, slightly frustrated voice came down the phone line, reminding Clark that he was still cradling the handset of the phone beneath his chin.

"Honey, did you hear that?"

"If you mean that the amber is really a mix of red and green kryptonite, then the answer is yes. Could you please ask Bernard how that could have happened!" Trust Lois to cut straight to the chase. He was still getting over the shock, while Lois had moved onto the why and wherefore.

Hearing Lois' voice, Bernie's head snapped up and his first reaction was to look towards the door, expecting to see the other half of the team, until he noticed Clark pointing towards the phone in his hand.

"Oh, yes. Hi, Lois!" The scientist leaned up in his chair and raised his voice in an attempt to be heard in the Hyperion townhouse. "I heard you! I'll just switch the phone to conference mode. Then we can all hear comfortably."

At the other end of the phone, Lois grimaced — Bernie really didn't need conference mode. "Thanks, Bernie!" With her hearing still recovering, Lois wasn't sure that comfortable was the correct description, but she was willing to forgo the argument in favour of the more urgent topic. "I thought that kryptonite was pretty indestructible."

Of course, there was the first piece they'd ever encountered when they'd met Jason Trask, and it had certainly disintegrated when it came in contact with the rock in the middle of the Kents' farm pond, but none of the other specimens had been so obliging. Bernard had since assumed that the original crystal had already been unstable, though not being able to examine it, he couldn't really say if that was so or give a reason for its strange end. Most of the others that they'd managed to gather up were still locked securely in the vaults in Star Labs.

"You're right, Lois. But I believe that the fusion took place inside the volcano."

"Bernie, I saw the bits of kryptonite that came out of the volcano — I even flew some of them back here for analysis — and they looked like cinders."

"Yes, the burnt pieces were most likely blown out of the maw of Solvan during the eruptions. But these others have spent a long time inside the belly of the mountain, melting and melding together. Over the years they've been spewed up and, once outside, they've cooled down and formed into the smooth glassy globules that look exactly like amber crystals. It was a very easy mistake to make — I mean, who would suspect kryptonite, unless you were a member of this family?"

"And it all depends on how much of each colour is in the pieces as to their effect." Clark was looking decidedly upset. "So much for the theory that the one cancels out the other."

"Clark, I think we disproved that hypothesis a long time ago when Diana Stride managed to transfuse you with kryptonite. It works to a certain extent, but believe me, kryptonite exposure of any kind is not good for your health!"

"You're preaching to the converted, Doc. Just make sure that these latest acquisitions are kept locked up."

"They'll go straight in the vault along with the others," Bernie was quick to reassure him, as he started to shut down his computer again. "I'll do that right now, before I go off home. But will you look at the time! I have a wife who's waiting for me, and I'm sure you and Lois have a lot to talk about. I can update my files from home. Wait till Beth hears this… she's never going to believe it… an amalgam of kryptonite. Who would have thought it. You do know that she's going to want the kids over for a medical examination, just to make sure they haven't been hurt in any way."

"I hear you, Bernie, and I'll phone Beth tomorrow to make appointments for Joel and Clara," Lois announced to a duet of disapproving groans. "Speaking of which, shouldn't Clark also have a checkup?"


The latest growl was more adult; Clark hated medicals. He was Superman: he was supposed to be invulnerable. So why did he spend a lot more time than he wanted to being poked and prodded by Bernie Klein? His long-dead planet had a lot to answer for!

Bernie offered him a commiserating grin; he had long since come to understand Clark's abhorrence of anything remotely surgical. It had something to do with an old phobia of frogs, laboratories and dissection.

The two old friends switched off the lights and locked up the lab. They stopped off at the basement vaults on the way out and safely deposited the latest specimens, then, strolling out to the carpark, they said their goodbyes and went to join their respective wives.


When Clark unlocked the door and let himself into his home, he was met by a still slightly concerned Lois. She'd relayed the results of the tests to her children, then packed them off to bed with the assurance that these specimens would be kept secure in Uncle Bernie's vaults and well away from Joel and Clara. Lois had also made it clear that she thought it highly likely the two would now return to their normal personalities, and woe betide them if they continued to upset the household with undue temper tantrums. It had been a somewhat subdued and tired brood that ascended the stairs to bed.

Lois stepped into her husband's arms and hugged him consolingly. "By the way, I phoned Mia to ask if there had been many pieces of amber jewellery sold to the public, and thankfully it seems the amber was very rare. Tula was really surprised when Nathan found those marbles. She told Mia she'd rarely seen such perfect specimens — nor ones of quite that pale yellow colour."

"Well, that's a relief — they're the most dangerous ones. Because they have such a high content of green, they were able to weaken me physically. Yet, due to the combination, it was never enough to alert me to the fact that they actually were kryptonite."

Lois nodded her head in sage agreement. "You know, they might be the reason why you've been finding your Superman duties more taxing lately."

"Lois, I haven't!" But Superman couldn't be economical with the truth, especially with his wife. At her penetrating stare, he admitted grudgingly, "Okay, you might have a point. I have been feeling a few degrees off… But I've been pretty busy in both my jobs over the past weeks," he added in his defence.

"Honey, I'm not complaining. You've every right to get as stressed as the next guy when life is so hectic, and if you've been unwittingly exposed to kryptonite all this time, I'm not surprised you've been feeling low. Thank goodness it's locked away now!" She tightened her grip around her husband's waist and laid her head against his shoulder, her breath tantalising Clark's skin through the open collar of his shirt as she continued to speak. "And, as there have only been a few pendants and bracelets made over the years, it's highly unlikely that you'll come into contact with the redder variety again, either. Didn't I tell you it was all the fault of these horrid rocks? I just knew you couldn't be a reincarnation of Casanova."

Grateful for his wife's reassurances and teased past endurance by her soft breath, Clark proceeded to challenge Lois' theory by demonstrating just how adept a lover he was. Placing a gentle hand beneath her chin, he raised her face to his and kissed her sweetly and very thoroughly.

Long moments later, Lois rose for air. "On the other hand, you do kiss remarkably well, Clark Kent. And they say that 'practice makes perfect'."

"I'm glad you think so, Lois Lane, and I'm all for practising."

Clark began to lead Lois quickly round the room, switching off lights as he went, until he returned them to the foot of the stairs, where he lifted her effortlessly into his arms. "How about an intensive workout session now?" And he planted another exploratory kiss on her smiling mouth.

When he finally released her lips, she found they'd arrived at the door to their bedroom. She hadn't even realised they'd been floating. Clark blew the door open with a small puff of super-breath, and Lois soon found herself reclining in the centre of their bed, as the door quietly closed behind them.

"You know, Clark, there's always one final test we could make," she purred suggestively. "Perhaps, I should wear the pendant… see what sort of effect that would have."

Clark moaned huskily and his eyes drifted shut at the thought of Lois wearing just that pendant. A dreamy smile lifted the corners of his lips and he opened his eyes to look down at the sultry temptress who occupied his bed. "Lois, somehow I don't think I could handle you and the amber kryptonite…" Clark stretched out alongside Lois on the bed. "I doubt I'd ever survive. Don't you know, honey, that you have a much stronger effect than kryptonite?"

A sexy laugh was his only answer as she dragged his head down to hers once more, but their practice session was destined never to happen as, within seconds, Clark's head twisted. He was listening to something far outside Lois' hearing. She collapsed back onto the bed in resignation.

"What's happening now? What do you hear?" Lois couldn't keep the frustration from sounding in her voice. This seemed to be happening so often these days.

"I'm sorry, honey!" Clark's tone was no less edgy than his wife's, proving that he too was torn. Minutes passed as he listened to the urgent report. "It's a gas explosion… a pretty big one too. Ordinarily I'd leave it to the emergency services, but gas leaks are pretty volatile; there'll be fires, even a risk of more explosions. And it's in a nursing home — the residents are old and sick; they're going to need help to evacuate. I can't not go, Lois!"

Tomorrow's banner headlines drifted before Lois' eyes. 'Old folks left to die by Superhero'. The citizens of Metropolis would not be happy with their guardian angel. But that wasn't Lois' biggest concern. She knew exactly how upset Clark would be if people died or were injured just because he was otherwise occupied. He'd never forgive himself for turning his back when he knew he was needed.

It had taken a long time and intensive persuasion to convince Clark that he couldn't save everyone, couldn't be everywhere at once. He was only a man, an extraordinary man, perhaps, but sometimes he was just too late. Sometimes he failed. And, though it was hard, he had to accept that he could only do his best and not over obsess about what he couldn't achieve.

When Lois and Clark had first been married, they'd quickly realised that once Clark was overtaken by passion, his hearing became attuned totally to Lois and he didn't hear cries for help or emergency calls. It had caused a slight hiccup in their happy sexual explorations, when, for the first time, Clark had missed a request by the emergency services for his aid. Because of his non-appearance, people had died. Not surprisingly, the dejected superhero had taken these tragic deaths to his heart.

For a considerable period of time, their love life had been sporadic, and not exactly enthusiastic when it did occur. Lois had tried to reason with her troubled and increasingly frustrated husband, stating that even Superman deserved some quality time to indulge himself, and that all work and no play led to a dull, disheartened and unfocused superhero. Yet, it wasn't until he'd misjudged one of his rescues that he'd been prepared to accept Lois' stricture. Fortunately, it hadn't been a life threatening situation and he'd been able to learn an important life lesson before someone, and therefore himself, was seriously hurt.

Slowly, Clark came to accept that he'd chosen to be married and that his wife deserved all the attention he could give her. If his super senses shut down while he was making love with his wife, then that was the way things were, and his compulsive worrying neither changed nor improved the situation.

Then, most unexpectedly, his children had come along, and these innocent little persons needed all the love and care he had in his heart to give… and Clark Kent had so much love to give. Almost, without conscious thought, he reduced his Superman activities, leaving the more mundane emergencies to be dealt with by the respective services. And, for most of the intervening years, that had, more or less, been the status quo.

But Superman would always respond to a life-or-death situation; that would never change, and he'd heard this particular call just before he'd lost his senses in Lois' embrace. With an abject apology, he spun into his suit and, tugging it in an effort to make it more comfortable in one particular place, flew out of the window.

Watching the curtains hover in the resulting breeze, Lois sighed then, with difficulty, stifled a louder groan of vexation. If Clark wasn't totally concentrated on the coming rescue by now, there was a small chance that he might overhear the evidence of her irritation. She always tried to be positive about her husband's extra-curricular activities, but lately, it seemed his other job was frequently creating havoc with their sex life. They hadn't made love for over a couple of weeks and in Lois' opinion, that was far too long.

Well, at least one problem had been solved tonight — no, make that two. Her mother now knew that Clark masqueraded in tights, and had taken the revelation remarkably well, considering Ellen's usual paranoia. Even when Lois had phoned her later to enquire how she was coping with the information, Ellen had seemed unexpectedly calm about the whole thing, though she had informed her daughter that she herself would tell Sam Lane the secret, and that she would decide when that should be. Now that was more like her mother.

Lois had the distinct impression that Ellen was enjoying being in on a confidence that her husband, who'd often kept his own counsel, wasn't aware of. It would do Ellen Lane good to feel, for once, that she had control over her somewhat controlling husband, and Lois was more or less agreeable to going along with her mother in this instance — as long as Ellen remembered to be careful how and where she chose to make the revelation. Yet, when she'd mentioned this particular concern, Ellen had been very aggrieved that Lois even considered her foolish enough to talk in public about a matter that concerned the lives of her family. Satisfied that she'd made her point, Lois had readily let the matter drop, and they'd talked for a few minutes more before saying goodnight on remarkably friendly terms. She'd have to remember to tell Clark about her mother's stipulation, though.

Best of all, the explanation for her children's and her husband's errant behaviour had been discovered. Lois was extremely relieved to learn that all had been caused by an outside source. It had worried her that her two normally good-natured children had started acting like juvenile delinquents, and Clark's mild promiscuity, especially over Hazel Chen, had hurt and annoyed her more than she was willing to admit.

In a strange way, it had been a bit of a relief when he'd revealed he was having similar feelings for her mother… it was just too absurd to be true. And it had led her to consider that something else was at fault. Now, hopefully, the chapter of the amber kryptonite and its influence on the Kryptonian Kents could be closed. With that thought in mind, Lois tried to ignore the unsatisfied yearnings of her body and composed herself for sleep in her unpleasantly empty bed.


Dawn had broken over the uneven skyline of Metropolis when Clark lifted the covers and slid in between the cool, crisp sheets, trying not to awaken his sleeping wife. His attempts, however, were unsuccessful and, if the truth were told, he was not unhappy to see Lois open her drowsy eyes. For long moments she regarded him in silence, her hand stealing upwards to push his damp hair back from his forehead.

"You've had a shower." It was more of a statement than a question as she leant nearer to smell the smooth clean skin of his chest.

"I needed one!"

"I think you need more than a shower. I think you need a hug!" And Lois quickly demonstrated how eagerly she enjoyed ministering to his needs, pulling an unresisting Clark closer as he snuggled his face against her hair. "Was it very bad?" she asked after some quiet time.

"The explosion happened in the kitchen of the home. There were a couple of bedrooms on the floor above. The patients didn't stand a chance — they must have been killed outright…"

"So there was nothing you could have done for them," she reminded with compassion.

Clark shrugged. "Nothing anyone could have done for them! Except given them a better place to live!" That was said in clipped accents, and Lois recognised that there was something else on his mind, which Clark wasn't prepared to discuss for now.

"Were there any more fatalities?" she asked kindly, willing to go along with him for the present. She could probe deeper at a later date.

"A few!" Again there was silence. Clark composed himself and continued, knowing that it helped to get it all out. "I tamped down the fires with my super-breath, but the home was heated by these gas tanks and the gas kept escaping and igniting other fires… and threatening to explode again. I had to deal with that! Make it safe for the fire crews and the other residents. I got to the trapped patients as quickly as I could, but a couple had died from smoke inhalation. The paramedics are expecting that more of them won't make it… They're too old, you see."

"Oh, sweetheart!" Lois made no other comment, but just wrapped her arms around him more tightly and stroked his hair, rubbing up and down his back with gentle strokes.

Finally, Clark spoke again, only there was a building anger in his voice. "I'm not sure, but I think it might have been arson!"

Lois' hands grew very still. She was aware that they were broaching the heart of what troubled Clark, and her reporter's instincts sprang alert. "What makes you say that, honey?"

"I can't say for certain, there was so much damage, but I found the remains of what might have been an incendiary device amongst the rubble of the gas tank that was the first to explode. I handed it over to the fire chief for investigation… We have to check on that later today."

"Later! Much later!" she agreed, her hands resuming their comforting movements on his skin. "The investigation team probably won't have anything for us for a while anyway, and you need to get some sleep." Lois raised a finger to his lips to still his protest. "Even Superman needs to rest for a couple of hours. I'll tell Perry you were out covering the fire, and you can write it up after you've had some sleep."

"Already done, honey." Clark sent her a sheepish smile, as he kissed the tip of the finger that lingered on his mouth. "It helps, you know… writing about it. Let's me get things straight in my mind." Lois understood very well where Clark was coming from — she'd used her writing as therapy once or twice over the years — but Clark was talking again. "Maybe you could tighten it up a bit… add any updates, you know, then LAN it through to Perry…"

Lois' mouth gently traced the path her finger had taken. "Don't worry about it," she whispered. "Trust me, I'm a reporter! And I'm also your wife… so do as your very intelligent and understanding wife says, and go to sleep."

Smiling against Lois' cheek, Clark replied, "Yes, Ma'am!" He really did feel tired, and Lois' soft stroking had relaxed his tense muscles. Some rescues took a lot out of him these days, and they were especially upsetting when he suspected that they'd been caused deliberately. He forced his heavy eyelids open. "Honey, what about the arson investigation?"

"I'll get onto it just as soon as I get into work! And, besides, you've only got the morning off. I expect my partner to show around lunch time, when I might have some information on the residential home."

"Okay, honey. I remember… you're the senior partner. I know how you like to be on top!" Clark burrowed deeper into the comfortable mattress, the action reminding him of what had been about to happen in the bed before he'd heard the call for help. "Oh and, Lois, I'm sorry about earlier. It really hurt me too, to leave you like that."

Lois squeezed her body even closer to Clark until they were touching, skin to warm skin, down the length of their bodies. She caught his gaze with her own. "Sweetheart, I want you to listen to me… really listen. Saving lives isn't just something you do… it's who you are. I learnt that a long time ago and I never, ever want to change that. I love you, just as you are. Have you got that?"

"Definitely! And I love you too… I always will!"

The sleepy smile on Clark's face as he drifted off, told Lois that she'd chased the demons of the night away. Superman's task was done for the present, and it was up to the reporting team of Lane and Kent to discover who was responsible for the terrible tragedy and bring them to book for their crimes.

She'd meant every word she'd told him about his being Superman. She'd just never foreseen how difficult it would be, sometimes, to let him be Superman.


Chapter Five: Mindy's Machinations and Jimmy's Disappointments

While Clark Kent caught up on much needed sleep, an old flatbed truck drew up in front of The Willow Hotel in the suburbs of Metropolis and two weary travellers climbed out. Mindy Church and Joey Bermuda had pooled their meagre resources and flown by a low-cost airline into one of Metropolis' less popular airports, spending a seemingly endless night in an uncomfortably cramped plane, which looked liked it had spent more air-miles flying than the authorities decreed.

In the early morning sunshine, they'd gone straight to a seedy car lot, which belonged to the brother-in-law of the Sunrise Motel's owner, and purchased their latest form of transport. Not that Mindy had appreciated doing business with anyone who was acquainted with that greasy rat, but neither she nor Joey wanted to approach any of their past contacts. Besides, the price had been right! Beggars could not be choosers!

The two conspirators had agreed that their return to the city should go unnoticed. The last thing they wanted to do, for the time being, was to draw the attention of the Big Blue Boy Scout or Lane and Kent — not to mention their old associates in Intergang. Anonymity would be their best approach in this operation.

It was one of the reasons they were signing into yet another ramshackle motel. None of their former criminal colleagues, nor crime-fighting adversaries, would think to look for the luxury-loving Mindy Church in such a dive. The second reason was simply the depressing need to budget their dwindling finances. Thankfully, after tomorrow, according to what Joey had implied, things might be looking up.

Tomorrow morning, Joey and she would be paying a visit to an old warehouse, which had been rented in the name of Mrs Hannah Bell, Joey's twice widowed and very loyal mother. The fact that Joey had insisted on keeping his family well out of his criminal activities meant that the police had only superficially investigated these connections. Besides, as they'd already found many of his plans and deadly gadgets, they hadn't thought to look further — certainly not in the direction of a seemingly sweet, clearly shocked, and frail old lady. And, if one or two of the officers concerned did consider that the discovery of these diabolical killing machines was almost too easy, none cavilled over much — no one was prepared to look a gift- horse in the mouth.

During the years of her son's incarceration, the grey- haired lady had closely followed Joey's instructions and faithfully kept an eye on the building and its contents. She regularly paid the rent and utility bills for the storage space, visiting it every month or so to make sure that the locking system was secure, and that her son's effects had not been tampered with. But no one had noticed her unobtrusive comings and goings, or suspected that, locked within the tiny dilapidated building, located in a back alley just a stone's throw from the Daily Planet, was a villain's treasure trove. There was a safe holding the last of Joey's ill-gotten gains. Obviously, Joey had had some inkling that his wife wasn't to be trusted totally, and had held back a small stash of cash for his own self- preservation. But, more importantly, for their impending plans was the tiny freezer unit which held, in deadly suspension, a virus that could bring down Metropolis' favourite superhero.

Mindy sincerely hoped that she could make use of the poisoned legacy which was stored inside the old building to gain her revenge on Superman, and so, could begin her campaign to retake her rightful place as supremo of Intergang. Now, looking around with distaste at the room she was sharing with her partner in crime, she found herself having to restrain her eagerness. The tantalising taste of future success was tempting, compelling her to rush off to pick up the insidious substance and begin their assault.

However, Joey was insistent on spending the day with his mother and, knowing how strongly he viewed family ties, Mindy had agreed to go along with his plans. She didn't really have much choice, not knowing the exact location of the warehouse nor the combination which would unlock it. Joey Bermuda might have thrown in his lot with her, but she was aware that he viewed her with a great deal of distrust. The blond master criminal didn't hold that against him… well, not much. After all she herself trusted no one, and she had betrayed him in the past… and would do so again, if the need arose. Their partnership was one of convenience, and Mindy had no illusions that they would ever mean anything more to each other. So, for the present, she chose to placate him. Moreover, the outcome of her revenge was well worth the wait of one short day.


Clark, as promised, arrived at the Planet in time to accompany his wife to lunch. The two were headed toward the elevator, Lois deep into her explanation of her morning's research, which hadn't exactly been too forthcoming. She'd contacted the fire department's investigation department, but they weren't prepared to share their findings for the moment, or, perhaps she was being paranoid, and their forensic reports weren't yet available. It was probably the second reason, yet nevertheless, it paid to be on the safe side.

"Clark, I think that Superman should deal with the fire department." Lois lowered her voice and laid her hand conspiratorially on Clark's arm — any excuse to touch her husband. She really was pathetic, and she really should've suggested that she'd join him at home for a private lunch, instead of the two of them heading for Callard's. "They're more likely to divulge sensitive information to him than to two reporters…"

"Honey, that's hardly ethical!" Superman had a very good relationship with all the emergency services, and it upset him to jeopardise that.

"But much more successful! Besides, you know we've a much better chance of getting to the bottom of the arson attack than the fire service… or the police for that matter. We'll be helping them out!"

Lois was nothing if she wasn't confident of their abilities. "That's true, Lois, but if you don't mind, I'm going to ask them to cooperate with Lane and Kent, and that should take care of any further liaisons. What else did you find out?"

"I asked Stefan to research the residential home's background. You know, all the usual details… find out who owns it, how it's financed, and if they're in financial difficulties. Because we can't rule out an insurance scam by the owners…"

That last assumption wasn't a pleasant one given the fatalities, and Lois had been watching Clark during the conversation to find out how he was dealing with the previous night's trauma. So she was immediately aware when he became distracted by some external source, his body tensing and his weight starting to shift from one foot to the other. At first, she automatically assumed that he'd heard something, and she silently cursed in the deepest recesses of her mind. Couldn't they share just one lunch time together? However, a quick check of his face informed her that it wasn't a call for Superman that had him hot and bothered.

Quickly she scanned the newsroom and saw Jimmy exit from their editor's office. James Olsen had just recently returned to work for the Daily Planet, giving up his nomadic life as a freelance photographic journalist. He'd spent some long, pain-filled weeks recuperating from the serious injuries he'd received when helping Lois and the boys escape from Solvan's final devastating eruption. So, not yet feeling fit enough for his former globe-trotting habits, he'd been easily persuaded by Perry to accept the Daily Planet's offer of a home-based job.

During the time spent on the island, Lois had chosen to tell their longtime friend and colleague that the superhero he so much admired was really his best friend Clark Kent. It shouldn't have been Lois' decision to make but, at the time, she'd been asking him to risk his life to procure the plants that might benefit Superman and his family, and Lois was uncomfortable about making such a dangerous request without being completely honest about the reason.

Since then, the relationship between the two men had been somewhat rocky. Clark had felt responsible that Jimmy had been so seriously hurt in Superman's cause, but he'd also been extremely guilty and embarrassed that he'd kept Jimmy in the dark for so long. And, evidently, Jimmy had been a little upset about this fact too.

James had no difficulty in admitting that, for many years, he'd acted like an immature kid in Superman's presence, and out of it, for that matter. It wouldn't have been appropriate, back then, for Clark to reveal his true identity. But Jimmy had grown up a few years back. Surely, his best friend had been aware that he could be trusted not to disclose this massive secret. He loved CK like a brother, and Lois and the kids were his family. No way would he let anything hurt them, even though the revelation would have made a Pulitzer Prize-winning story.

The truth was that Jimmy felt let down by Clark's less than truthful behaviour, and the relationship had suffered. If only Clark would have the long talk with him that had been promised in the sick bay of the 'Swallow', then perhaps things could get back to normal.

While he watched the couple by the elevator, Jimmy was reminded it was lunch hour by the distinct grumbling of his stomach, and he quickly decided to join Lois and Clark if they were heading out to eat. After all, he'd just gotten a new assignment from Perry. Nothing too stressful for the moment, as that was doctor's orders, but he was looking forward to getting back to work, and the photo-shoot of the opening of the new library and leisure centre down in Hobbs Bay might just tie in with the fire story that Lois and Clark were working on. Now might be the ideal time to mend some fences. He lifted his hand and waved towards the couple to attract their attention, but was disappointed as the lift door's opened and Lois and Clark walked inside. Was it just his imagination, or had Clark propelled Lois into the elevator a little too quickly?

Lois, too, felt Clark's hand on her back was a little forceful. "Still avoiding Jimmy, I see," she accused, catching a glance of the man in question striding towards the ramp which led to the upper level of the newsroom.

"No!" replied Clark, almost too quickly, fingering his tie, though not this time signifying a spin into Superman. Truthfully, Clark felt less 'super-heroish' now than at anytime previously that he could remember. At a pointed look from Lois, he admitted, "Yes! Lois, I don't know what to say. Jimmy's angry with me for keeping him in the dark for so long…"

"He's not angry — he's hurt!"

"Hurt! That's worse!" Clark moaned glumly. "And he has every right to be! He's going to ask why, and I don't have any solid reasons…"

It was difficult for Clark to put his finger on why he felt so discomfited about this impending discussion with Jimmy. He was aware that he had a lot of explaining to do, and a fair amount of grovelling, before Jimmy was ready to forgive him his sins of omission.

Clark had never been comfortable revealing his true identity to anyone — he just never seemed to find the appropriate moment, and procrastination was often far too easy. But it was more than that. The two had reached an easy camaraderie over the years, especially since the younger man had started to mature, and Clark was afraid that their rapport would subtly change, given Jimmy's new perspective of him. While Jimmy no longer regarded Superman with the same awe as he had a few years ago, he still held the superhero in high esteem. Clark wanted things to stay the way they'd always been between them, but he doubted if that were possible. Who was he kidding! Since the truth came out, Jimmy probably thought of him as a hero who had clay all the way up to his neck.

Watching these ambivalent emotions chase their way across her husband's face, Lois understood she couldn't force Clark to talk to Jimmy, but a hint every now and then in the right direction didn't do any harm. "You do know that the longer you put if off the harder it gets?" At his woeful nod of affirmation, she decided to relent. "Talk to him, sweetheart, before this little rift escalates into something the size of the Grand Canyon."

"But I'm not avoiding him totally," Clark spoke up in his defence. "He's coming to dinner tonight."

"Yes, with Tula and the other Vallieres, and the Whites and my parents. I'm on to your tactics Clark Kent… safety in numbers. Jimmy's hardly going to confront you in public, though if you don't do something soon, he might just take drastic action!"

And with that final warning, Lois exited the elevator car and the Daily Planet and walked briskly into the autumn sunshine. It was a lovely day, and their lives were settling back into some sort of normalcy. They'd discovered the reason for Clark's and the children's odd behaviour, and, more importantly, locked it away where it could do no further harm; their new friends were coming to dinner tonight; and they'd begun an investigation of a story which Lois' tingling instincts told her might produce another Kerth award. Plus, it seemed that they might be able to eat lunch together.

All in all, things were looking pretty good. Lois shivered. The past had taught her that this was often the moment when fate decided to play some dirty tricks on them.


Just as Lois had surmised, Jimmy hadn't forced the situation at the Vallieres' celebratory party. But he had stayed very much in the background, allowing Tula and her family to take centre stage. It was clear, by the appreciative glances he bestowed on the young island woman, that Jimmy's heart was well on the way to recovery from his first, disastrous marriage. Only this time, Lois was certain, Jimmy would prefer to take things slowly. Besides, this was a strange country and a different life style for Tula, and his newfound consideration for her feelings meant that he wasn't about to rush her into making any further life changes.

James Olsen had indeed come a long way from the callow cub- reporter who fell in love with any pretty girl, or the adventurous foreign-correspondent who'd married an almost stranger — a marriage which had ended in tragedy for all concerned. If only Clark would stop his silly prevaricating and talk to Jimmy, then the two could resume being best friends again and everything would be right with Lois' world. She didn't enjoy watching them skirt around each other warily.

That problem aside — and she doubted that anyone else was aware that there was a problem — the evening was a total success. Lois' gaze strayed to her other guests. Mia Valliere, the gray-haired and dignified lady, who had led and advised the displaced island community as it settled into the various countries which had offered them refuge, was looking a little tired but obviously serene. Fortunately, they weren't a large group, and most had found homes with relatives who had already left the island to seek out a living, allowing Mia to concentrate on providing for her own and her grandchildren's future.

The Vallieres were not as impoverished as one would suppose. Since there were no financial services on the island, besides those provided unofficially by the Blancs' General store, most inhabitants had listened to that wise and wily gentleman, Phillip Blanc, and chosen to bank, via the Internet, with overseas establishments. Many of the wealthier islanders still had funds available to them, and even some of the poorer natives had been encouraged by Mia and Monsieur Blanc to place their savings into a co- operative, so none of the refugees were totally destitute.

The Valliere family had moved into a nice home just a few streets over from Martha and Jonathan Kent, preferring the quieter suburbs to the busy humdrum of downtown Metropolis. Inner city living was just a little too far removed from the peace of their old home. Paul had started in the local high school and was beginning to settle in nicely, while Tula had enrolled in a small but reputable art and design college, whose principal had been only too eager to find a student with such obvious natural talent.

No one was surprised that the younger members of the family should have little difficulty adapting to their new environment, but Mia had amazed everyone with the gusto with which she had embraced her life in Metropolis. Lois and Clark had wasted little time in introducing both Mia and her homeopathic plants to the doctors Klein, and the twosome, who had for years worked to offer whatever medical help they could to the Kents, soon evolved into a slightly eccentric trinity.

Using the plants she'd brought from the island, the intelligent old lady had thrown herself into the project of providing a vaccination to prevent Superman and his children from the ravages of kryptonite, with a single- mindedness that had rivalled Bernard's. And as for that gentleman, for the first time since his quest had begun, Bernie was cautiously optimistic that his experiments might actually be successful. Though both Mia and Bernie had to admit that up to the present, their trials had been disastrous failures.

There was no doubt that the balm that had been brought from the island had a beneficial effect on Kryptonian cells, yet their attempts to recreate the lotion from the transplanted fauna had foundered miserably. It seemed the trouble lay in recreating the correct growing medium for the plants. The intrepid gardeners of Papillon had brought along a fair amount of soil, but certainly not sufficient to grow the plants in abundance. So, using the red and green kryptonite from the vaults of Star Labs, the scientists had sought to synthesize the 'rainbow ground', as the natives had christened the sparkling earth, but to no avail… thus far. One thing was certain — no one was thinking of giving up.

Thank goodness, Lois reflected with an audible sigh, that Beth Klein had long since convinced Bernie to test his new serums and potions on tissue samples supplied by Clark, before they moved on to life trials. At least it meant she wasn't occasionally confronted with a nauseous husband bereft of super-powers as she had been in the early days of her marriage. She gave a grateful laugh as she headed to the couch which held the Kleins and the latest member of the research team. They were busily chatting, no doubt about yet another idea for the ongoing experiments. Lois balanced a large pot of coffee in one hand with a jug of cream in the other, as she crossed the room.

"Can I top up your coffee cups?"

Somewhat startled, the three broke apart — they really were each as obsessed with the task as the other, but it was Beth who collected her wits to answer first.

"Thank you, Lois, but no! Will you look at the time! It's well after eleven and Bernie and I have promised Mia and her family a lift home, so we really should be going."

For the first time that evening, Jimmy pushed himself forward. "Beth, you really don't have to do that. I'm driving Tula home. Mia and Paul can come with us."

Obviously, Jimmy and Tula had decided to come clean about them being a couple, which surprised no one, and everyone in the room smiled benignly. James Olsen had made quite an impression on the Valliere family by his selfless and heroic exploits during Solvan's final eruption. Truthfully, Mia was grateful to see her grand-daughter settled in a relationship with a trustworthy young man. There were definitely a great deal more of the other variety of male here in Metropolis, who would regard the innocent-seeming newcomer as fair game.

"Well, if you're sure, Jimmy?" Beth's rhetorical question was accompanied by a knowing grin. "But it is getting late and Bernie and I should be going."

Both the Whites and the Lanes quickly concurred and Clark went to fetch their coats and wraps from the upstairs closet, leaving only one party member more than a little disappointed.

"You're not all going home now? It's still early! I'm not tired at all!"

Lois turned a stern look on her daughter. The three elder children had been allowed to stay up late because it was Saturday tomorrow and they didn't have school, but even this hour was a little later than Lois had anticipated. And for all Clara might pretend she was full of life, her mother was quite aware of her weary eyes and the whiteness round her pouting mouth. Lois was also not oblivious to the reason behind her daughter's mutiny. The amber kryptonite might have gone, which meant that Clara's crush on Paul Valliere was completely natural… and completely understandable. Paul was an extremely good-looking youth, albeit a little too old for the eight-year old Clara.

Lois was just deciding which ploy to use to persuade her obstinate daughter to accept that the party was over, when Beth Klein cut in.

"Well, you might not be tired, young lady, but we older folks are. And don't forget, you and I have an early appointment at the surgery tomorrow morning, and I won't be able to concentrate if I'm half-asleep… and neither will you!"

"I'd forgotten about that," moaned Joel, not very happy to be reminded of his imminent medical examination. Like his father, he didn't particularly like being poked and prodded, even when it was nice old Aunt Beth doing the dirty work.

"Then you should go if you're sleepy, Aunt Beth," said Clara sanguinely, "and all the older ones too. Maybe you could take Mrs Valliere home, then Jimmy can bring Tula and Paul later."

"Clara!" called a grim voice from the stairwell. "I think you should apologise to our guests. It isn't nice to refer to people as 'older ones'." Sometimes Clark wished his 'kitten' were not quite so outspoken. What did Clara need with amber kryptonite? She'd no doubt get into enough trouble quite naturally.

"It's no more than the truth, Clark, so don't be angry."

That statement came surprisingly from Ellen, who'd proved to be remarkably attentive to her son-in-law for the whole night — even going so far as to corner him in the kitchen to inform him that if he was called to 'duty' elsewhere, that he only had to 'tip her the wink' and she'd cover for him. He held out Ellen's coat to allow her to slip her arms inside and was unnerved to receive a meaningful wink from the lady.

"See, Daddy, even Grandma Ellen agrees with me. Not everyone has to go!"

"That wasn't exactly what I meant, Clara!" The disapproving grandmother resurfaced.

"I don't know about anyone else, but I'm definitely ready to go home!" Paul stood up and crossed to disentangle his jacket from the pile Clark was holding. "I have football practise tomorrow morning, and I'm never going to get on even the 'B' team if I turn up dragging my feet and with bags under my eyes."

"I didn't know you were interested in football, Paul," Clark answered, as the teenager found the coat he was looking for. "I played a bit in college, so if you ever want any private coaching, I'd be happy to help."

Paul's face brightened; on the sports field he had a lot to catch up on to reach the stage of his schoolmates. "Gee, Mr Kent, that's really great of you, and I might take you up on your offer."

"No problem! Just give me a call and we'll arrange something!"

In the background, Lois smiled wryly. That was just like Clark — always offering to help, when he had hardly enough hours in the day, or days in the week to fit in all his other duties. Then her gaze lighted on Clara's crestfallen face and Lois' smile grew more sardonic. It seemed that she wasn't the only one to feel that Clara was too young for her idol. In fact, it would be pretty safe to say that Paul didn't even notice Clara was a girl, at least in the 'boy meets girl' sense.

Poor Clara, life was often full of disappointments like that, and Lois just hoped with all her heart that fate would be kinder to her daughter than it had once been to herself when it came to romance. She'd long since acknowledged, however, that her insecurities and self- doubts had led her to make bad choices in the men she'd dated. Hopefully, things would be different for her daughter.

One thing was for certain, Lois would ensure that Clara would always have her mother to turn to when the going got rough. But even more importantly, Clara had the one thing of which Lois had been deprived for most of her life, the loving support of her father… Clark would always be there for his beloved daughter.

Her maudlin thoughts sent a ripple of unease down her spine, and Lois dismissed her musings to wish her guests goodnight and shepherd her children upstairs to bed. All things considered it had been a good night, and Clark had only had to excuse himself once and for only a very brief time.

Lois smiled as she snuggled into bed next to her husband, but this time her smile was sexy and just a trifle naughty… Time to make up for all their past frustrations.


The smile that was pasted onto the face of Mindy Church on Saturday morning as she minced behind Joey Bermuda into the deserted alley was expectant and totally malignant. She'd waited a long time for this day when she would begin her quest for revenge.

Very soon they reached a set of double metal doors at the back of the narrow lane and, once the heavy locks were opened and the electronic alarm system disarmed, the two almost crept almost reverently into the dim interior. There were a few contraptions, which had never got past the inventor's planning stage, lying around the dingy room, covered with greying sheets, and looking like the ghosts of Joey's past life.

But neither paid any attention to the strange shapes, their concentration focussed totally on the locked freezer at the end of the room. This was the moment of truth. Would the remaining samples of the virus have survived in frozen suspension?

"Come on, Joey, there's only one way to find out. Open it up!" Mindy's voice was terse, proving that she wasn't quite so confident as she pretended.

She received a resentful glare for her less than friendly encouragement, but Joey morosely did as commanded. Slowly, quietly, the dingy white door swung back and he stuck his head inside. Long seconds stretched into eternity while Joey studied the contents. The silence of the room was deafening and her partner's stillness abraded Mindy's already stretched nerves.

"What is it? What do you see?" But Mindy was not possessed of even a small amount of patience, and she'd been patient far too long. "Get out of my way!"

A small hand which was deceptively firm pushed into Joey's ribs as he was propelled aside and Mindy, at last, acquired a view of the bright interior of the freezer.

"Is that it?" Her exasperated annoyance almost choked her words. "Those two little blobs in those dish things?"

Joey nodded, not trusting himself to speak, barely able to suppress his laughter. Clearly, his partner wasn't of a scientific bent — those two little blobs would be quite sufficient, once he'd introduced the electro-chemical exciter and initiated their growth.

"That's it then!" Mindy was pacing about unsteadily on her stiletto heels, her anger robbing her of her usual poise. "It's over! There'll be no revenge! All these plans I've made for nothing!"

"Calm down, Ms Church!" Joey decided that in her present state, the more formal name was called for. "What we have here will be more than enough for our purposes." Removing the two sealed petri-dishes, he carried them over to a metal bench, clearing away the layers of dust with his handkerchief. "'Course, it's going to take a bit of work, but we started off with less than this last time, and still almost killed Superman! I just need to recreate the same conditions and we'll have enough virus to kill off a thousand Kryptonians!"

That argument arrested Mindy's rant. Her mind drifted back to that time long ago when she'd looked inside a fridge and seen the thin green tendrils threatening to choke the tiny space. She mightn't trust Joey not to shaft her, but he did know his profession. "You know, you're right! And I don't care about a thousand Kryptonians, just get me enough to kill off Superman's brats, Joel and Clara Kent!"

The dark-haired man before her had been rummaging through various drawers and mentally listing what he needed to buy for the necessary process, but at her last words he threw her another questioning stare. "Are you sure about that, Mindy?" He ventured the use of her name once more. "About those Kent kids belonging to Superman. I mean, I know there were rumours about Lane and Superman a few times when I was in prison — first that they were having a steamy affair, and then that Kent was actually Superman. Hell, it went round the jail like wildfire — everyone talking about how they could make Superman dance to their tune if they got their hands on his wife and kid. But didn't they prove it was a load of horse… manure." He amended his words, being in the presence of a lady… well, a sort of lady!

"I know what happened, Joey!" Her hands fisted on the table. "Remember, the second time I had a ringside seat. I saw with my own two eyes that Clark Kent got sick when we fed kryptonite into his veins…"

The dark-haired man had the grace to grimace. "Not sure that would be beneficial to most people's health…"

"That may be so, Joey, but I'm sure that Clark Kent is Superman and that means his kids are probably susceptible to this virus, and we both know that humans aren't. You're going to have to take my word for it here, and if things don't work out with the children, then we can go after Superman himself."

There was another silence in the room as Joey Bermuda thought the issue through.

"Going for the kids is probably the practical way to go… easier too. Children are more prone to infection, and we wouldn't need to use so much of the stuff. Besides, if you're right, then let's give the Boy Scout a taste of losing his nearest and dearest. See how he likes having his kids taken from him without a by-your-leave," Joey ground out bitterly. His sense of moral values and family- loyalties were very restricted, and certainly never extended beyond his own needs.

Mindy mellowed, smiling seductively at her partner, while her arm snaked around his neck. "See, Joey, you just listen to Mindy and everything will go according to plan." She planted a firm kiss against his cheek, but declined to go further, not having forgotten the rebuff she received many years ago… Mindy had a long memory, and she never really forgave. Besides, there was work to do. "Now, where's that money, because you'll no doubt need some new equipment. Some of this stuff looks like it came out of the ark." She took a turn impatiently about the room. "Just how long is it going to take till this virus is ready?"

Joey hid a snide grin. She was like a tiger, circling him, weighing him up, and seeing just how far she could push him. Well, Ms Church, this time he wasn't going to be the proverbial lamb for the slaughter.

"This time you're just going to have to rely on me, Mindy. But you better get that work van organised, because this virus will be ready for exposure by Tuesday."


The Lord of Misrule, or whichever of the fates lighted the path of the evil-minded, certainly smiled on the efforts of Joey and Mindy. As happened years ago, the virus responded rapidly to Joey's chemical stimuli, and Ms Church proved, once again, that her blond bimbo act was purely a mask for a competent and totally ruthless mind.

Requisitioning some of Bermuda's emergency funds, Mindy, with equal measures of sexual innuendo and thinly veiled threats, coerced their newly acquainted, seedy secondhand car salesman to supply them with a transit van of reasonable condition for a very unreasonably low price. Under two days, employing a flair for design which she'd only suspected, she'd customised the white vehicle into the transport of 'M&J's Handy, Handymen' — boasting the logo of 'all gardening or odd jobs tackled; no job too large or small; but the price just right!' In between her labours, she did the rounds of the Home Improvements and pharmaceutical stores, acquiring all the tools and chemicals which Joey had listed; most of them honestly, but a few from 'beneath the counter'.

And as the day dawned bright and cheerful on Tuesday, the two schemers clad in worker's coveralls and caps, drove down the street where the Kent children's temporary school was situated, the original building not yet ready for reopening. A number of years ago, the buxom and highly coiffured Mindy would have found it difficult to assume such a lowly disguise. But those days were past, and the more careworn woman no longer looked out of place in the well-worn overalls.

Whilst a few passers-by on the street might have considered it strange that these couple of handymen were spraying the trees and foliage for fruitfly infestation in fall, most conceded that it had been fairly mild weather for the time of year, and perhaps the aphids had thrived in the unseasonable warmth — could be the city was just getting a jump on the little 'bugs' before next spring. And certainly no one gave a second thought to the fact that the pair concentrated their efforts around the entrance to the school, or the bushes which lined its perimeter wall; after all, the old building had quite an overgrown border. Not even the children paid much attention as they passed through the gates to school, eager and laughing to meet up and play with their friends in the yard, before they were summoned into the classrooms for their day's study.

The three Kent children were among the happy band, and could even be said to be at its centre, being well liked by the majority of pupils. The school monitors kept a close watch on the schoolyard hijinks, but the bright sunshine and their wards' enjoyment gave them no clue to the poison that insidiously wafted from the green leaves which were just beginning to assume the golds and rusts of fall.

Mindy was all for packing up and leaving the minute they'd completed the spraying of the school's bushes, but Joey quickly vetoed that idea. They couldn't be sure that the children would be infected by one exposure — even though Superman had sickened very quickly, but in his case, the virus had been pumped directly into his face. This time they might have to repeat the process, and so it would be wise to give no hint of suspicion that they were not on bona-fide council work. Joey had forged requisitions for the work and Mindy had obtained phony utility passes, but neither would hold up to scrutiny from any particular busy- body neighbour. No, for the sake of their success, they had to give the appearance of legitimate workers carrying out instructions.

But to that end, Joey saw no reason why they shouldn't retire to their van for a read of the morning papers and a cup of coffee from their thermos flasks, while they watched the children's playtime brought to an end by the strident ringing of a bell calling the pupils to order. Reluctantly the kids abandoned their play and filing in a boisterous, though fairly orderly manner, entered the old building, accompanied by their teachers.

Mindy's cold stare followed the line of children. "Do you think it will work?"

Her partner shrugged without commitment. "I saw them around these bushes, so maybe yes! But there's still the rest of the day. The virus in the suspension should still be on the leaves for a while, so let's hope the weather stays fine and the kids keep playing in the yard."

"But you think we might have to come back tomorrow?"

"Not tomorrow! We give it a couple of days — just like we would if we were really spraying for bugs, then we come back — if we have to."

"I hate to say it, but you're probably right! So let's get on with it and spray the rest of the street. We have to make this look good!" Mindy hefted her spray gun and tank and, pushing her protective mask up over her face, she ground out fuzzily. "And I hate manual labour!"

Joey followed her actions and climbed out his side of the van. "Too bad you don't have menials to do your dirty work anymore, Ms Church."

Mindy's eyes sparkled evilly. "If this goes according to plan, Joey, then I'll have Intergang falling over itself to do my bidding."

The two wandered steadily down the street, covering the foliage with their deadly mixture. This was the direction the Kent children had come from, so maybe making sure they caught another dose on their way home would be no bad thing.

"Only if Superman catches the disease and dies!" Joey still wasn't convinced that there was a connection between the hero and the Kent kids.

"You assured me, Joey Bermuda, that this was a very virulent virus." Above the mask Mindy's faded blue eyes blazed at her partner. "You said that any Kryptonian who came in contact with it would die. And Superman will come in contact with his own kids… so he'll die! No problem!"

The diminutive woman — she really was tiny when she got rid of these high-heels — stomped off down the sidewalk, intent on her task, while Joey decided it was probably best for the sake of his health not to voice any more of his doubts about her plans. Only he still had a big problem with believing that Superman was really Clark Kent. Mind you, it probably wouldn't matter. There was still plenty of the virus back in the warehouse, and he could always find a way of infecting the Man of Steel directly. And if he managed to get rid of Superman by his own devices, then he would be the one who the criminal bosses would be looking to talk to. It made him feel good to consider cutting Mindy Church out of the loop!


Chapter Six: Worst Nightmare

The rain that had been falling in a steady downpour in the hills in upstate New Troy since morning, didn't reach Metropolis until evening, allowing the Kent kids to walk home via the leafy avenue, where the invisible toxin still emanated from the trees and filtered into their noses and lungs. Unbeknown to the youngsters, the kryptonian virus immediately began to seed its invasive tendrils into flesh and tissue that had never known what it was like to have a cold or sniffles.

Reaching home, Clara, Joel and Julian found their Lane grandparents and Nathan had decided that the weather was still warm enough to have a last barbeque of the season for supper, and had earlier put in a call to their parents at the Daily Planet, who'd promised to be home in good time to attend.

There was really no worthwhile reason why Lane and Kent should hang around late at the office, as they had found their current investigation of the nursing home fire was bogged down by a morass of red tape and the fact that Stefan was finding it difficult to obtain information from the insurance company which covered the home. 'Equitable Assurance' was one of the largest firms in the country and had recently updated its computer security system, which was creating trouble for the young researcher. Lois had finally reached the owners, but even they had proved exceedingly cagey, insisting they could divulge nothing while the investigation was in progress, and none of Lois' various tactics could break them down.

Clark had also been stonewalled, once again, by the Fire Chief. He'd phoned him the previous Friday afternoon, but hadn't been too surprised, then, to find that the inquest was still underway. Nevertheless, Clark was currently astonished by the man's gruff manner, when he informed 'Kent' that a press conference would be held the next day to reveal the forensic findings of the investigation, and as Lane and Kent were senior reporters for the Daily Planet, no doubt they would be present to ask any questions they wished.

Normally, Clark had found this particular officer fairly amicable, though it must be said that most of his dealings with the man had been as Superman. So, he found himself taking his wife's advice, and paying the Chief a visit in his own blue and red uniform. The meeting hadn't been terribly successful, though the Fire Chief had unbent a little and told Superman that an incendiary device had been the cause of the fire, and one which was highly sophisticated and not easily obtainable. He'd certainly never seen anything like it before, but here the fireman's confidences had ended. Either he was keeping things very close to his chest or he knew nothing further.

This small piece of information, however, had only sharpened Lane and Kent's suspicions that there was a very big story behind the fire… only, at the moment, they'd reached a dead end. Without more ado, both closed down their computers and headed for Hyperion Avenue. Sometimes it helped to take a step back from a stalled investigation and return with a fresh perspective the next day. Besides, they'd an impromptu date with their kids, which promised to be a lot more fun than sitting around an office staring at a computer screen, searching for probably non-existent clues. Now that made Lois grin. Times had definitely changed!

Fall being an unpredictable season, by the time Lois and Clark joined the family, the heavy rain had arrived with a vengeance and their assistance was only required to rescue the partially prepared food and carry it inside to be finished off in the kitchen. Ellen, after dispatching Sam into the living room to get the kids dried off, suggested with one of her expansive, knowing winks, which Clark was now beginning to dread, that he should have little trouble finishing up cooking the steaks and hamburgers. She stood by expectantly while her son-in-law concentrated on applying his heat vision, grilling the food to everyone's preferences.

Clark cringed slightly at each one of Ellen's accompanying oohs and aahs, and wondered why that should be so. Hadn't Lois reacted with pretty much the same amazement when she'd first watched him display the super-powers, and use them for such mundane matters as preparing food or cleaning up? For so long now, no one had taken much notice of the 'powers' when employed around the house; they'd all become a little blase about them, and it was hard to be viewed again with a certain amount of reverence and awe… especially when in his 'civvies'. He suspected that this was exactly what he dreaded most when confronting Jimmy.

A sympathetic yet amused glance from his wife was sent in his direction, reminding him of their discussion of a few nights previously, where they both had reached the conclusion that, with any luck, Ellen would in time become accustomed to the knowledge that her son-in-law was Superman and desist from acting like some star-struck, secret conspirator. But just how much time would it take? And whose nerve was likely to give way first? Somehow, Clark suspected that Ellen's persistence might outdo even super-patience.

Fortunately, the rest of supper had passed without any major hitches, and Sam and Ellen had taken their leave of the family as soon as the clearing away was done. Sam was going on a fact-finding tour and also giving a lecture at one of the leading trauma clinics in Cologne, Germany and the couple had an early flight the next day. All of which meant that, as Martha and Jonathan were not returning from Smallville till the next evening, Nathan would have to spend the day at the Planet's daycare centre, and Alice White had kindly offered her services to babysit the other kids after school got out. Not that Alice minded — her own grandchild, Gerry's daughter, was miles away on the other side of the country, so she was grateful for her time spent with the Kent children — they were her extended family.

As the teeming rain continued to drench the state of New Troy, and the normally narrow rivers that swept down through the rocky gorges became raging torrents of white water, threatening the suburbs of Metropolis which had spread into the foothills, Superman left his home and family and went to help. The banks of the rivers broke, and flash floods cascaded down quiet avenues, sweeping away cars, mobile homes, fences and garden furniture, and just about anything that wasn't tied down.

The shocked and panicky residents of the area found their homes under a few feet of water and dirty, stony silt, and a few even found themselves in danger of being carried away by the swirling tide. They clung on desperately to any available anchor until they were rescued by Metropolis' emergency services, who struggled bravely to cope with the unexpected deluge, whilst those in the most immediate danger found themselves lifted to safety by their very own protector, Superman. Even though he wasn't quite so conspicuous in the skies above Metropolis as he had once been, he could always be relied upon to show up in times of need.

It had been a long night, but thankfully the rain had finally stopped and the raging water had passed on its way towards the sea. Due to the stalwart work of the rescue services and Superman, no lives had been lost, but, as the early morning sun rose, almost tauntingly, through a haze of misty cloud, the sorry inhabitants took stock of their devastated communities. Life promised to be difficult as they sought to clear up the mess left behind by the swollen rivers, but the citizens of Metropolis were not afraid of hard work, and they had Superman's promise that he would return to help them cope with the worst of the damage.

Clark flew home slowly through the eerie fog of early dawn. As always, he was grateful that no one had died and that there had only been a few people injured, with just one of these giving cause for concern. Yet his heart was heavy for his fellow citizens whose houses had lain in the path of the floods and who now found their homes and belongings drenched in a thick, smelly sludge of mud, vegetation and rock. Clark had assisted at many disastrous floods, but he'd never personally experienced seeing his home in such a sodden state. As a kid, though, he'd grown up on a farm which had occasionally been hit by tornados and he did understand how soul destroying it was to see all your worldly goods destroyed, so his compassionate heart had quickly assured his fellow Metropolitans that he would return to help them put their lives back in order. After all, under ordinary circumstances it would take weeks or maybe months to put things back to normal, while he could probably accomplish the job in a few days. It was just one more small task for a superhero… on top of all the other jobs that needed doing. He had the uncomfortable feeling that Lois wasn't going to be pleased.

Superman checked the area and landed in a thick stand of trees in the park at the end of Hyperion Avenue. Spinning quickly into his casual clothes, he walked the remaining distance to his home. If any early-rising neighbours spotted him, they'd no doubt think that he'd been out reporting on the local disaster. He let himself into his house, and checking his watch he debated whether it was worthwhile to try to get a little over an hour's sleep, or if he should just write up the story and get a jump on the family's breakfast. His bed would be warm and inviting, and Lois' arms would no doubt pull him in for a cuddle. He was too weary to look for anything else, but a comforting cozy was more than he could resist. His steps led him to the stairway and he began to climb, his thoughts already settling into his warm bed and Lois' welcoming heat.

Cough! Cough! It wasn't a loud noise, but it did sound irritating and unpleasant. Oh boy, one of the kids was taking a cold, and he wasn't at all surprised when he rounded the corner into his room to see the quilt pushed back and the bed empty. He began to make his way upstairs — it had to be Julian or Nathan — when he noticed that the door of the end bedroom was slightly ajar. The sound was coming from there, and it was accompanied by Lois' soothing mumbles.

That was strange. The boys slept upstairs, yet surely it couldn't be Clara. Maybe Lois had moved whomever of the boys was sick down to this room, so as not to disturb the others. He quickened his pace to find out what was going on. Funnily, it never occurred to him to use his x-ray vision.

But Clara it indeed was. His daughter was sitting up in bed with the covers pulled up around her shoulders to keep out draughts. Her delicate little nose was red and shiny and her colour was high, and she opened her mouth as her mother poured a spoonful of pink medicine down her throat.

Clark walked quietly into the room. "Hey, what's going on here?" He tried to keep his voice even as he sat down behind Lois, taking care not to spill the spoonful of medicine that now disappeared into Clara's mouth.

"Clara's been coughing for a couple of hours now, and she's a little warm!" Clearly Lois was taken aback by her usually healthy daughter's seeming sickness.

Clark stretched out a gentle hand to clarify Lois' statement, but the girl's temperature appeared to be just a few degrees above normal. Clara pushed his hand away, but not roughly.

"Mom, Dad, don't fuss! It's only a cough. I really don't feel too bad!" she announced with only a little false brightness. But her parents weren't so easily convinced. After all, they weren't used to seeing their daughter with all the symptoms of the common cold.

"Are you sure, Clara?" her dad asked worriedly. "You don't look so good."

"Gee thanks, Dad. That's just what I needed to hear! I've had my medicine, and I could do with getting back to sleep for a while before I get up for school." Clara slid down lower in her bed and pulled the covers up to her neck. "Now, get out of here!" But she offered them an impish grin.

"Clara!" Lois' voice was doubtful. "I really don't think you should be talking about school today. Perhaps a day in bed is required…"

"Mom! No one stays home just 'cos they've caught a cold! That's wimpy!" Clearly that notion horrified her daughter more than being ill.

Clark reached over and pushed Clara's hair back from her face. "Kitten, you know, maybe your mom's right. We should call Aunt Beth and have her come take a look at you."

There was something very wrong about his daughter's condition. It's true that she wasn't totally invulnerable, and wouldn't be for quite some time… but neither she nor Joel had ever had any childhood ailments, though Joel had broken his wrist once…

Clara's brow drew down at the suggestion that she needed a doctor, and Lois could see a tantrum looming on the horizon, which would not be good for her daughter if a fever was threatening.

"Clark, let's leave things for now." Lois' hand slipped into his tense clasp and squeezed in warning. "Clara's had some medicine — we should give it a chance to work. We'll let her sleep and see how she is when it's time to go to school. If she's not any worse, then it's really not necessary for her to stay home."

"But, Lois…" Clark's gaze was still rivetted on the top of Clara's head; the only part of her that was now visible above the covers.

Lois touched her fingertips to his lips, shushing him, while she pulled him from the room and closed the door slowly… quietly. "Sleep is the best medicine…"

"But, Lois, she's sick… and she's never sick."

"Clark, she's had many cuts and bruises before today, so she's not super… not yet, anyway. She might never be!"

The two found their way back to the master bedroom and Clark sat down heavily on the edge of the bed. "I know that, honey. But she's almost eight! Don't you think it strange that she's never contracted any other colds before this?" Evidently Clark's tension wouldn't be appeased easily.

"Yes, that's a bit strange," Lois conceded, acknowledging her own concerns. "But we shouldn't go jumping to conclusions. Beth gave both the kids a clean bill of health the other day… Well, she said they appeared to be a bit rundown but that there was no lasting damage and that they'd be back to normal in a few days. Actually, I read in a medical journal, while I was waiting for Joel and Clara at Beth's, that they're expecting a pretty virulent strain of flu to hit the US this winter. Seemingly from somewhere in Asia, and it works on some sort of cycle…"

"Lois, I really am not in the mood for a chemistry lesson…"

"I appreciate that, sweetheart," she spoke comfortingly, coming to sit on his lap. "You're worried because you've never had to face up to your 'little kitten' being sick before. But tell me, would you be so concerned if it were Nathan… or Julian?"

"Honey, Julian is Earth human, and it doesn't look like Nathan has inherited the super genes… but it doesn't seem too serious…"

"Exactly! So you admit that Clara's only a little sick?" Clark's expression conceded that she had a point, so she pressed her advantage. "I only mentioned the 'super flu' to illustrate that maybe Clara, being not her usual self, has caught a weakened-down version. You know, she would be a lot worse if it wasn't for those magic genes of yours."

"I guess…" Lois stopped his obsessing effectively by kissing him thoroughly. When she finally drew back, she asked, "Should we go back to bed, or do you want to make me a coffee? Come on, let's go downstairs and you can tell me all about the flooding. Was it bad?"

"Well, it could have been a lot worse. No one was killed, though one old guy was in a serious condition. We even managed to save most of the local pets, but the houses and infrastructure are in a pretty bad way. It's going to be awhile before these people's lives are back in order."

"Oh, I'm sure it won't be so very long. After all, I'm pretty certain that the local superhero has offered his services." It was said light-heartedly, but Lois couldn't suppress a frisson of frustration. Sometimes Clark just agreed to do too much; and her banter didn't fool him.

"Lois, what else was I supposed to do? You should have seen the mess of some of the houses, and these people had been almost drowned… some of them were right on the edge. Wouldn't it make you feel a little better if you thought you had some help coming? I thought you appreciated that I'd always try to help where I could."

They'd reached the kitchen, and Clark was filling the coffee machine afresh. The tension in his neck and shoulders was giving lie to the fact that he always managed to take his constant super duties in his stride, especially when his daughter might be sickening for something. And he certainly didn't deserve a nagging wife adding to his problems. Lois stepped up behind him and laid her head on his shoulder, while her arms slipped around his waist.

"Don't mind me, honey. Of course I know that Superman needs to help out. I'm just a little tired and cranky, having been wakened up too early. Unlike you, I need my sleep!"

But Lois knew this to be a lie. It was more than just the lack of sleep… but she wouldn't go there! Besides, her second statement was also not quite the truth. She'd discovered over the years, that even Kryptonians could get soul-weary, and that eventually the great strength did become depleted. Clark wasn't quite at that stage, but given all that had happened since their time on Papillon, he was in need of rest and recuperation. Without anyone realising, he'd been frequently exposed to that mixture of red and green kryptonite for weeks, and that had to have had a detrimental effect on his health. Well, she couldn't be sure of the time-out part, but she could see to it that he got some tender, loving care… But Clark was turning quickly in her arms, having focussed on one particular part of her speech.

"Just how long have you been awake with Clara?"

Oh boy, he was back to fretting about Clara again. "Not long," she assured quickly. "But dawn is not my usual rising time. And Clark, before you start worrying again, do you hear any more coughing?"

Clark trained his super-hearing and x-ray vision in the direction of his daughter's room, and thankfully Lois saw his face relax. "No," he answered somewhat sheepishly. "She's sleeping peacefully."

"See, the medicine did work!" Lois found herself crossing her fingers. "Which only goes to prove that she has some of my Earthling genes…"

"Lois, she has a lot of your Earthling genes, and they are a lot tougher than mine!"

"Good! I'm glad you still realise that I'm top banana." It was an old joke and they laughed as they remembered. What made their marriage so successful was the fact that they were equal partners, in every sense. When one faltered or was hurt, the other was there to offer their support, and their roles frequently changed. Neither one was greater than the other — they were stronger together than each alone. "Now hurry up with my coffee, or you'll have your wife in a state of collapse! You're just an old fuss-pot!"

"So sue me! I just happen to love my family and want them to be safe." Clark bent to capture Lois' mouth in a tender kiss, and the two stood locked in each others' arms, content to share a peaceful moment. Their lives would never be easy, but they could face any hardship, triumph over any obstacles while they had each other.


Mindy and Joey were once again parked in the street leading to the school, only this time they were further up the road, but in the old flatbed truck and not the conspicuous workman's vehicle. Joey's eyes were glued to binoculars which he'd trained through a gap in the trees and into the schoolyard. It wasn't an ideal spying position, but he could see the kids showing up now and again amongst the thicket. From the squeals and laughter, accompanied by loud splashing noises which punctuated the air, the youngsters were evidently having a ball stomping around in the large pool of water that had literally changed the bottom of the yard into a pond. Joey's mind drifted back to happier days spent with his own daughters. What was it about kids and water? Of course, his girls would be too old for such things these days. Boy, how he missed them!

Well, Mr and Mrs Kent were just about to find out what it meant to lose a child. For a brief moment, he baulked at the notion of a child's death. Joey could no longer ignore the fact — that was exactly what the outcome would be to his and Mindy's plotting. In just a few days, one or two of these kids might be dead. Did that make him happy? Not in particular, he had to admit. But had Lane and Kent ever given him and his family a second thought? He doubted that very much. So he shouldn't feel remorse either… after all, they'd been the ones to start it!

The fact that they'd only been bringing a criminal to book hardly entered his head. Joey Bermuda was inventive and gifted, which meant he'd been very well thought of by his clients, who'd paid well for his expertise. So what if he was also an assassin? He'd simply used his skills to make a good living for his wife and children. Superman and these reporters had ended all that, so now it was pay back time. Joey hardened his heart…

"It's not working! These kids look healthy enough to me! You told me they'd succumb to the virus by now!" Mindy's voice began the moaning litany that had been ringing in his ears since they'd arrived and spotted all three Kent children in the yard.

Shrugging off the hand that was pulling at his arm, Joey replied once more, though his voice betrayed his waning patience. "Mindy, I didn't say that! I said that it might take a little longer for the infection to take hold because we couldn't spray the stuff directly into their faces. But take a look," he reasoned, as he proffered the binoculars in her direction. "They're all splashing about in the huge puddle…"

"And that should make me happy? Seems to me they must be feeling pretty good if they've that much energy!"

"Think, Mindy! Where do you think that water came from?" he asked pointedly. How did this woman ever get to be a crime boss? She just didn't use her head.

"From yesterday's rain, you cretin!" Mindy didn't relish being treated like a fool, and her pout was proof that her temper was beginning to rise.

"Yes! And the rain landed on the trees and the bushes, and what was on these leaves?"

There was no answer for a second or two, and Joey could almost see the wheels inside his partner's brain turning. The pout relented just a little. "The poison?"

"Exactly! And now it's been washed into the puddles in the yard…"

"Which the kids are playing about in." The pursed lips relaxed into a satisfied grin, as Mindy took the binoculars and scanned the schoolyard. The chorus of youngsters' screams continued. "And kicking it into each other's faces."

Once again the shrill bell brought early morning playtime to a halt, and the teachers' voices could be heard remonstrating with the children on their unruly and extremely soggy games. Soon the hubbub quietened in front of the school entrance as the last of the children disappeared inside.

"What now?" Mindy enquired, her tone still edged with annoyance. "Do we spray again tomorrow?"

Joey started up the motor and pulled out into the road, driving slowly past the school. "If we have to… but I've a funny feeling that it won't be necessary. This morning's exposure will probably do the trick!"

"I wish I had your confidence." Mindy stared disgustedly out the window at the empty playground. "Neither Joel nor Clara Kent looked sick to me. They looked like they were having far too much fun!"

In Mindy's estimation, kids shouldn't be allowed to have fun… she really wasn't a 'children' person. They should be locked away somewhere until they were grown. And these two in particular should have been strangled at birth. One Superman interfering with her affairs was bad enough, without the prospect of his two kids aiding him in his crusade against crime in future years. Did the criminal fraternity of Metropolis realise she was just about to do them one huge favour?

Sadly, Mindy Church's assessment of the children's state of health was quite wrong. Clara wasn't about to let her fellow pupils know that she was feeling unwell, but even she had to admit that she hadn't been able to join in the water spraying with quite the same enthusiasm as she would under normal circumstances. As the morning progressed, her head began to ache some more and her throat felt like it had a burr stuck in it, but she wasn't about to give in to the symptoms of a stupid cold and ask the teacher to take her to see the nurse. Most kids put up with things like this all the time. Even her little brother Nathan had caught a cold before. Then last New Year's, Julian had been hurt bad in that explosion, and neither of them had complained much, so she wasn't about to start crying like a baby… though she could really do with a hug from her dad.

Yet, when Julian asked her at lunchtime why she was so quiet, she put on a brave face and laughingly told him not to be silly, she was okay. Still, she didn't feel quite so sure of that by the time the school bell signalled the end of the last period, and she was even more frightened when she saw her brother Joel's face. He was pasty white, with two rosy pink spots on his cheeks. Clara was fairly certain that she looked pretty similar, and she was so relieved to see Aunt Alice's car waiting outside the gates — she hadn't been looking forward to the walk home, and she'd had this weird wish to call 'Help Superman'.


Lois Lane sat at her desk, concentrating on the official statement offered at the press conference given that morning by the Fire Department's Chief Investigator. It was a very brief statement and was more interesting by what it left out rather than what it contained. The fire at the residential home last week was clearly a case of arson, but due to the ongoing investigations no other information could be revealed to the media.

It had been another very frustrating day, and had it not been for the fact that Superman had persuaded the Fire Chief to pass the remains of the incendiary device on to Bernard Klein at Star Labs, they would have been no further forward than yesterday. Thankfully, due to Bernie's contacts and his reputation, they'd been able to discover that the high-tech fire-bomb had originated from the Government's military testing facility in upstate New Troy. Now that had been very surprising as security at the base was supposed to be tighter than any drum.

How had such a classified device found its way into an old people's home… and why? Surely, that was a very advanced tool to crack a seemingly mundane nut? Was it a statement of intent — a warning to competitors that the person who initiated the destruction of the home was both influential and rich? It was the sort of flamboyant gesture often employed by Intergang, when one or other of the Churchs had been in control. And the residential home did border on part of the land that had once been the Church Group's intention to reclaim and develop for the good of the city. Add to that the fact that Church Jr was known to be residing in upstate New Troy and that was one too many coincidences for Lois. Besides, she just didn't believe in coincidence where Intergang was concerned — Church was making a play for power!

The phone on Lois' desk started shrilling, breaking her train of thought and she reached quickly to pick it up. She and Clark had put out word to all their snitches and hopefully this was one of them getting back with information.

"Lois Lane!" Her voice was hard-edged with eagerness — they really needed something to break on this story. They needed something concrete!

"Mrs Kent?" The woman's voice on the other end of the line sounded tentative.

Strike out any big break in the story! If whoever was on the phone was calling her Mrs Kent, then it must have something to do with the children. Besides, she had a notion that she recognised the voice. Her worries from this morning surfaced once more.

"Ms Patterson?" she enquired, a little more quietly. Ms Patterson was principal of the children's school.

"Yes, Mrs Kent, and I'm sorry to trouble you, but we're a little concerned about Clara and we felt you should be made aware of the problem."

"Problem!" Lois almost squeaked. Visions of an out-of- control Clara and Joel invaded her mind, yet surely that particular predicament had been sorted. "Has Clara been misbehaving in some way?"

"Oh, no! Indeed not!" the principal hastened to reassure. "It's just that her teacher noticed that she hasn't been her bright, effervescent self today, but I'm afraid that when asked if anything was wrong, Clara wouldn't admit to feeling unwell. You know Clara, quite the little tomboy!" There was a smile in the woman's voice as she talked.

"Yes, that's Clara… normally," Lois replied. "She wasn't feeling too well during the night, but by this morning she seemed to have recovered some. I thought she'd just caught a cold or something — nothing that would warrant keeping her at home." Lois was starting to sound defensive. She didn't want her children's principal thinking that she didn't have time to stay home with her children if they needed her.

"I'd say her cold has gotten a little worse, and when Joel's teacher mentioned that he too had grown very lethargic this afternoon, we felt we…"

"Joel! Joel is sick too! What about Julian?"

"No, he seems fine. But if it is some sort of flu — and we have been getting all these warnings recently — then he'll probably be next to succumb. I'm sure it's nothing too serious, but I did notice that you didn't avail yourself of the school's preventative inoculation programme against the current strain of influenza…"

"Ms Patterson, my children have their own pediatrician for such things." This, of course, was only the partial reason, though both Nathan and Julian had had their shots, but she could hardly tell the woman that neither Clara's nor Joel's skin could be penetrated by an ordinary needle, or that Earth medicine would hardly be effective anyway.

"Well, of course, that is your choice, and these things don't always take," Ms Patterson acceded quickly. "I'm afraid you're going to have a very busy time of it, Mrs Kent. Sick children can be quite a handful, especially with three so close together in ages. Do let us know what happens, and, if there's anything we can do to help, don't hesitate to call. I'll let you go now as you're probably anxious to get home and see to Clara and Joel. We look forward to having the children back at school just as soon as they've recovered."

Ms Patterson's tone was kindly, but the implication was clear — she didn't want the children back until they were cured, in case of infection. Lois had to admit that she did have a point; such a virus could spread through the school like wildfire. But Clara and Joel didn't catch viruses!

Midway through Lois' phone call, Clark's telephone began ringing. He'd just stepped out of Perry's office, having brought the chief up to speed on their ongoing investigation, and he hurried to answer. There was every chance that it might be Jack Olsen with news about how security at the military testing station was breached. After discovering that the government base was involved, Clark had taken a chance and tried to contact the former field-operative at NIA headquarters, but Jack had been at a meeting. His assistant, however, had promised that Mr Kent's message would be passed along. Hopefully this was Jack returning his call.

"This is Clark Kent!"

"Clark, thank goodness. I tried Lois but her line was busy!"

Clark looked towards his wife and saw her in an animated conversation with a caller; probably something to do with their story. He hoped it was information they could use. "Yes, Alice, she's on another call. Maybe I can help?"

"Oh, I'm sure you can! I've just picked the children up from school, and something's not right with Joel and Clara!"

"What about Joel and Clara?"

"They're both complaining of sore throats and headache… and I'm fairly certain they've got a fever. I'm taking them home and putting them to bed, but I think that either you or Lois… or even both of you… should be here."

"You're right, Alice. We'll be with you as soon as possible… and thanks!"

Fear clutched again at Clark's heart as he replaced the receiver. Was Lois right? Was he obsessing? After all, most parents faced their kids having colds and flu on a regular basis, and Nathan wasn't immune. So why did this bother him so much? His dad's words of long ago came back to haunt him, 'Normal for you is being super'. Now, while Joel and Clara might not be super, they weren't quite normal either… and they didn't catch viruses!



"That was Alice!"

"That was the school!"

Their words tumbled over each other in their frantic attempt to explain.

"Alice phoned about the kids?" When Clark nodded, Lois hurried on. "Ms Patterson thinks Joel and Clara have caught the flu virus."

"So does Alice. She's taking them home and I said we'd be right there."

"Clark, phone Beth and let her know the situation, then clear up here and I'll tell Perry we're leaving.." Lois began striding towards their editor's office.

"Lois, wait!" Clark put a hand out to halt his wife. "Won't Perry think we're over-reacting if we both rush off home? I mean, it's only the flu… other parents deal with this all the time." Clark was clearly reluctant to put forward this scenario, but it was a fact… and if he had to stay behind for appearances' sake, then he'd do it.

Lois' hand covered her husband's and she stepped up closer to whisper. "I don't think we need worry. Perry will understand…"

Trying to read his wife's unspoken thoughts, Clark's eyebrows raised. "You think Perry knows?"

"I can't be sure, exactly. He's never really said, but then he didn't get to be editor because he can yodel." Lois quoted one of their chief's favourite sayings to prove her point. "Besides, Joel and Clara are his family — he'll be just as worried as you!"

And that evidently was the case. By the time Clark had phoned Beth Klein and tidied up their desks, Lois was back with their coats and ready to leave. However, as Clark hurriedly stabbed at the parking garage button of the elevator, Lois couldn't suppress a tiny laugh.

"Sweetheart, haven't you forgotten someone? We brought Nathan to daycare this morning."

Clark's lips compressed with horror at the fact that he could have forgotten his small son. "I'm sorry, Lois, I just seem to be in a tailspin about Joel and Clara… I mean, honey, it's just not normal for them to get sick."

"Well, I'll grant you that it is unusual, but we're in uncharted territory here and we really don't know much about what diseases they could be susceptible to… They do have Earth genes too!"

"I know," Clark sighed, then he froze. "Maybe Nathan's caught the virus as well!"

"I doubt it, Clark!" Lois was quick to douse that concern. "The staff would have called if anything were wrong. Like the school, they can't afford to have sick children around."

The moment they walked into the daycare centre it was found that Clark's worry was definitely unfounded as Nathan spotted his parents and bounced across the room to their side, launching himself into his daddy's arms.

"Hi there, squirt," Clark spoke above Nathan's happy squeals as he scooped up the toddler and gave him a thankful squeeze, reassured to feel the little boy squirm energetically in his hug.

Very quickly they were ready to go home. Home, where two ailing children awaited them. Children whose health had, under normal circumstances, never given them cause for concern, and the unspoken spectre that haunted both Lois and Clark's memories was that of a Christmas long ago, when Superman had been almost killed by a mysterious virus.


Although they'd been warned by Alice and the school principal that their children were unwell, Lois and Clark were still shocked by the sight of Joel and Clara. The children's almost tanned colouring had turned pallid and the unhealthy redness of their cheeks stood out in sharp contrast, while a fine sheen of sweat clung to their skin. Lois was reminded anew of the picture from years ago, when she and Clark had just become engaged, of Superman lying prone on his bed as he jerked and shivered while his fever burned. Thankfully, Clark had been in no condition to remember much about that time and therefore could make no comparison. His anxiety levels were high enough as it was.

The nervous parents stood fretting in the background as Beth and Bernie examined the patients. It was a measure of the exceptional state of affairs and the Kleins' concerns over their favourite children that had brought both doctors post-haste in answer to Clark's summons. They worked quickly and gently, soothing the semi-delirious sister and brother as they checked the children's temperature, pulse and heart-rate, and respiration.

Clark held tightly to Lois' hand, needing an anchor as he waited for the Kleins to finish. He didn't require superpowers to know that none of Joel's and Clara's vital signs were normal, yet nonetheless, he checked them frequently, attuning all his senses to his sick children.

Neither Lois nor Clark were surprised by the Kleins' diagnosis when the doctors stepped back and motioned their friends into the hallway outside the bedroom door. Beth chose to speak. Bernard's bedside manner had improved over the years, but his wife was much more empathetic.

"I'm sorry, Lois and Clark, but the children have somehow been infected by a virus which is threatening to run out of control. Apart from all the usual symptoms of a viral infection, it's affecting their lower respiratory tract, which could lead to pneumonia…"

A sharp gasp from both parents interrupted Beth. Lois was the first to find her voice.

"What do we do?"

"They're going to have to be hospitalised," Beth answered, then paused for a moment to let that sink in. "We don't have the facilities to treat them here. They need to be isolated from any possible bacterial infection."

Now it was Lois' turn to hang onto her husband's grasp for support. Her beautiful little super-heroes were ill… dangerously so. "There are no drugs to treat viruses?" It was almost more of a statement than a question.

"Very few," Beth acquiesced, "And they're not always effective — so we usually prefer to keep them as a last resort."

"Doesn't matter; Earth drugs don't work on me or the kids… not Joel and Clara, anyway," Clark reminded them all in a voice ridden with guilt.

"Clark, that's hardly your fault!" Beth Klein was quick to halt the anxious father's descent into self-reproach. She'd known the Kents for as long as these children had been alive, and she was well aware of Clark's tendency to take responsibility for anything that might remotely involve his genetics, especially if it was something he couldn't fix. "And self-recrimination isn't going to get us anywhere! We have to arrange for an ambulance to take Joel and Clara to hospital… and, before you suggest it, no Superman! Flying the kids in their condition is not an option." Beth saw that Clark was ready to argue and she relented a little. "Trust me, Clark, their illness is not that critical that they can't wait for an ambulance."

"I think it would be better for appearances too, Clark," Bernie backed up his wife. "You really don't want to advertise the association between Superman and Joel and Clara."

"Definitely not!" Lois agreed emphatically, yet she did have a concern of her own. "Which brings up another question — isn't it going to be pretty difficult to keep the hospital staff from realising that there's something strange about the kids?"

"Shouldn't be a great problem." The doctor's bald head shook back and forth above his bow-tie. "Neither Joel nor Clara has even the hint of powers at the moment, and Beth and I will make sure that we do all the blood-work and testing. Routine nursing duties and examinations shouldn't unearth anything unusual."

"I agree with Bernie, and the minute they start to recover we'll discharge them. Everyone knows how close we are to your family, so they'll just assume that we'll oversee their convalescence at home."

"If they recover!" Just occasionally Clark allowed his Kryptonian moroseness to surface.

"Don't, Clark! Don't do this!" Lois warned. "Of course, they're going to get better. I won't contemplate anything else!"

Clark had the grace to blush. "Sorry, sweetheart!" He released her hand and slipped his arm round her waist comfortingly, pulling her tight against his side while he dropped a kiss on top of her head. Upsetting Lois further was the last thing he wanted to do; besides, the outlook might not be so bleak… he had information which might just help. "Bernard, I had something like this years ago and I recovered. Lois' dad used kryptonite on me… He brought my system so low that it couldn't support the virus and the virus died…"

"Mmm, I remember releasing the kryptonite. I'm sorry, Clark, but I couldn't recommend that treatment for the children." Bernie's speedy interruption halted Clark's eager recollection.

"I'm afraid I'd have to second Bernie's opinion," the female member of the Kleins offered apologetically. "You were a grown man… a very strong man with amazing recuperative powers, but even so, if I've read your medical files right, you and Lois both agree that it was the bond between you that gave you the will to fight." Beth could sense the truth of her assumption by the look on the couple's faces. "It would be far too risky to put the children through that with no guarantee that they'd have the strength to recover."

"So what can we do?" Lois' small voice was completely out of character.

"We'll treat the symptoms, make Joel and Clara feel more comfortable, and hope that their bodies will fight off the infection." Beth spoke gently, appreciating that her friends were both suffering from shock.

Clark was back to worrying his bottom lip with his teeth. "But we've already established that drugs don't work on the kids…" His voice tailed off in despair.

"There are other treatments, Clark," Beth reiterated. "We'll get an IV into them to keep them hydrated and we can keep their temperatures down."

"Mommy, Daddy!" A tiny voice could be heard coming from the room, but the words were quickly cut off by a racking cough. Both Lois and Clark rushed inside to answer the plaintive call.

"Joel, sweetie, we're here," Lois whispered soothingly. "Mommy and Daddy are both here."

She sat gingerly on the edge of the bed and stretched out a hand to stroke her son's sweat-soaked hair from off his forehead. Clark hovered in between the two beds. Alice had put Joel and Clara into the boys' twin-bedded room in the attic and sent Julian downstairs with Nathan where she'd joined them when Lois and Clark arrived home. It was possible that the two other children had already caught the flu — these viruses were normally pretty infectious — but Alice felt that it didn't hurt to take precautions.

"Mommy, I hurt," Joel said a little more strongly.

"Where, baby, where does it hurt?"

"All over!" Clara had become aware of her parents' presence and she struggled to answer against the weariness that invaded her body. Even though she was ill, she wasn't about to let her brother hog Mom and Dad's attention. Before today, she'd scraped her knees a few times and picked up some bruises, but she'd never felt this bad… and her voice sounded funny.

Clark tenderly answered his daughter's thready cry. "I'm sorry, Kitten." He knelt by her bed and took her tiny hands into his own, repressing a shudder when he found them hot and clammy. "You and Joel have caught this nasty virus and it's making you feel bad."

"Is it kryptonite, Mommy?" Again Joel's words were followed by a harsh cough.

"No, Joel! We don't know what it is right now." Lois continued to smooth his dark, damp hair. "Aunt Beth wants you and Clara to go to the hospital, but you mustn't worry because she's going to make you better."

"Hospital! I don't want to go to the hospital!" Clara cried on a note of panic and petulance.

Joel turned his head slowly towards his sister in the next bed. Oh boy, it hurt to move. "Don't be a baby, Clara! Hospital isn't so bad." Joel had spent some time in an English hospital the previous year and he'd been extremely pleased by the attention the staff had paid him.

"It's also the best place for you when you're sick!" Lois would trot out all the old cliches to persuade her stubborn-minded daughter not to make a fuss. Fortunately, though, Joel had said the one thing guaranteed to ensure Clara's co-operation — she was not a baby. "And we're going to be right there with you both… Mommy and Daddy… your grandparents…"

Clara tried to resist the pull of her heavily weighted eyelids but they refused to obey, and she could feel the darkness coming to claim her. "Will we see Gramma Martha and Grandpa Jon soon?" But she was asleep before she could overhear Lois' whisper.

"Clark, your parents arrive home tonight! Weren't you supposed to pick them up at the airport?"

"Lois, I can't leave now! I'll leave a message for them at the information desk. Tell them to meet us at the hospital."

This plan of action didn't particularly satisfy Lois, but she completely understood Clark's need to stay with the children. Perhaps she could ask Perry or Jimmy to meet Martha and Jonathan instead. It would be a lot more acceptable than the elder Kents being met by an impersonal message telling them to go to Metrogeneral Hospital where their grandchildren had just been admitted. However, it seemed that Clark was already having second thoughts about his decision.

"Actually, Lois, I might phone Jimmy and ask him to meet my parents. It's bound to be a shock for them to find out that Joel and Clara are ill."

"Yeah, you could say that!" Lois offered him a commiserating smile. "Why don't you do that now from our room."

Clark nodded but he stayed kneeling by the bed, looking longingly down on his 'kitten' — uncertain whether he should leave.

"Clara's asleep. She won't even know you've gone."

Pushing himself erect with a huge sigh, Clark reluctantly left the room. It was a measure of his distraction that he scarcely noticed Beth and Bernie still hovering in the hall outside the doorway, and the couple's intense conversation made no impact whatsoever on his attention.


Immediately after Lois and Clark had disappeared inside the children's room, Beth Klein turned an eagle-eyed stare on her husband. She'd sensed, from his somewhat shifty manner, that he'd been hiding something from the Kents and she was anxious to discover just what it was.

"Out with it, Bernard! Do you know something about the children's condition that you're not telling us?"

"No, of course not, Beth!" His hang-dog countenance radiated hurt. "I wouldn't do that. This illness is as much a surprise to me as everyone else and, until I can study this virus under laboratory conditions, there isn't anything I can tell you."

"I'm sorry, my dear. It's hard to see Joel and Clara in such a bad way. I suppose I was clutching at straws — hoping that you had some good news for us."

"Well, I wouldn't exactly say it was good news… and I didn't want to give false hope to Lois and Clark, but Mia and I think we might have made a breakthrough." Bernard stumbled back as he was caught in an ample hug by his wife. "Beth, it's only a might… definitely not conclusive…"

"Tell me, Bernie!"

"Okay, okay! But keep your voice down. I don't want to let Lois and Clark know about this, yet… and remember Clark's 'super-hearing'." The last words were mouthed as Bernie touched his earlobe.

"I don't think we need worry about that. Clark is much too agitated to pay us much heed." However, she did allow herself to be led a short way from the open door and she kept her voice quiet. "Now what sort of breakthrough?"

"You know we've been trying to create the same growing medium for the plants as they had on Papillon." At her nod of affirmation, Bernie continued quickly. "We managed to reproduce the correct chemical balance but it just wasn't right. It was obvious that something was missing, so when Clark turned up with Nathan's amber marbles, Mia suggested that we grind one down and add that to the soil."

"Poor Nathan!"

"Beth! Nathan had already lost the marbles… It would have been impossible for him to keep them under the circumstances." His wife shrugged sympathetically but didn't comment. "But back to our experiments…" Bernard was finally becoming more focussed. "We placed cuttings of the plants in the re-mixed soil into the accelerated-growth chamber a few days ago and we've been amazed at the results. Not only is the rate of growth phenomenal, but the tiny amount of extract we've managed to combine with Earth medication has had some very encouraging results on damaged Kryptonian cell structure."

"Bernard, that's wonderful!" She grabbed hold of her husband's hands and began to shake them excitedly. "This could very well mean that we can use normal drugs to lower their fever…"

"Now, Beth, don't get too excited… this is very much in the experimental stage. It needs careful testing before we can be sure of the desired results."

"There's no more time for laboratory work. I'm afraid that we're going to have to risk going straight to patient testing. Bernard, are you willing to risk these children's lives by allowing them to fight this virus — which we know nothing about — alone, when they might benefit from Mia's plant extract?"

The mournful face of Metropolis' most brilliant scientist showed clearly that he was still very doubtful about using such a direct course of action, but his wife was correct. "No, I hate to admit it, but poor Joel and Clara are going to need all the help that we can give them."

It was at this moment that Clark stomped past them and both stepped back guiltily, hoping that he hadn't overheard their conversation, but he totally ignored them and marched into his own bedroom where they heard him pick up the phone.

"Bernard, you get back to Mia at Star Labs and make sure you have enough of that essence to infuse with the drugs I'll have sent over to you, and I'll make arrangements to admit the children."

"Hmph! I just hope that I can get the measurements correct in such a short time… It's a very delicate operation, and you know I hate being rushed!"

Despite his complaining, Beth had every faith in her husband's genius. "I'm sure you'll do an expert job, Bernie. You do your best work when you're under pressure!"

With a quick kiss on his cheek Beth went back to the room, leaving Bernie no choice but to comply with her instructions. It seemed, too, that Beth understood him better than he did himself, because he was already reviewing numbers and equations in his mind as he left Hyperion Avenue.


Chapter Seven: Misconceptions and Misery

In the white-walled antiseptic outer-room Lois and Clark stripped off the sterile gowns and deposited them in the receptacle provided marked bio-hazardous waste. Neither spoke, though their eyes took in the trolley with the stack of unused, sealed robes lined up against the wall, waiting to be donned by anyone entering the segregated room. They exchanged apprehensive glances. Pictures of Joel's and Clara's small bodies with various patches and wires attached to banks of monitors invaded their minds. Had their children become so vulnerable? Still without a word, they stepped up to the automatic doors and to the accompanying hiss and swish as the doors opened, they walked through. For some moments it seemed they were at a loss to know what to do, then, taking the lead, Lois headed for the family waiting room, which thankfully was empty at this late hour.

They'd been allowed to sit with Joel and Clara since the children had been brought up to the isolation ward in the pediatric wing of Metrogeneral. However, they'd been asked to leave when the staff doctor, a young man whom Beth had introduced earlier as Dr Hugh Campbell, returned to check on his patients.

Ignoring the comfortable couches and chairs, Lois strode over to the window to gaze unseeing into the murky shade of night. Her hands came up to press against the cold glass, to still their nervous trembling.

"He seems nice!"

Clark stood alone in the centre of the room, his wife's voice barely registering on his consciousness. "Who?"

Lois glanced back at Clark. "That doctor… Campbell, I think Beth said his name was.She said he was a good doctor too. He had a nice way with the children."

"Yeah! That's good…" Clark's voice died away, and when he made no further comment, Lois turned back to her contemplation of the cloudy, starless sky.

The silence was growing awkward and Lois felt an unexpected need to fill it. "I hate that! The coughing, I mean! It sounds so dry and painful. I just wish I could do something to help them."

Again there was a period of tense quietude, until Clark pronounced brokenly, "It's because of me!"

Lois wasn't really in the correct frame of mind to deal with her husband's self-deprecating wallow, yet she swallowed down a swift surge of irritation to soothe his troubled thoughts. She swung round slowly to face him and leaned her shoulders back against the cool window-pane. "Why should you think that, Clark?"

His shadowed, pain-filled gaze rose to meet hers, and her breath caught in her throat at the depth of his suffering.

"Because of their genetics, none of the drugs available can help them. I know they have oxygen, humidifiers and IV's… and fans to keep them cool, but it's not the same. Joel and Clara are, basically, having to fight this virus alone." Clark walked over to a chair and dropped heavily into it, while his hands came up to cover his face, muffling his words. "It never occurred to me that having my alien genes could harm their health."

Hurrying over to the entrance, Lois checked the corridor. Clearly, Clark's distress had made him less careful than normal — but the long passageway was empty. The only signs of life were at the nurses' station some distance away. Lois took a few steps back into the room towards Clark, and when she spoke she kept her voice low… there was no point in tempting fate.

"That's not exactly surprising, Clark. Apart from your occasional encounters with kryptonite, you've hardly ever had health problems. So, naturally, you assumed that Joel and Clara would be the same… I did too."

"But it's that very similarity that's causing complications now!" Clark looked up at his wife, his face etched with anxious guilt. "Lois, I accepted long ago that they'd be in danger if anyone ever discovered that Superman was their father. But I was also fairly certain that I… that together, we'd be able to protect them. This…" Clark's hands began gesturing wildly. "This is something I can do nothing about!"

Lois could certainly understand Clark's feeling of total inadequacy — she was feeling pretty much the same way, and she wasn't Superman — the world's Mr Fix-it. Yet, Clark was talking again… baring his soul and she went to sit beside him, trapping his twisting hands inside her own.

Clark gave her a tiny sideways glance of appreciation at her gesture, but his voice was remorseful. "When we discovered you were pregnant with Joel, it was one of the happiest days of my entire life. I know that I'd told you that being a family of two was enough for me, and that wasn't exactly a lie — I love you, Lois. Nothing will ever change that. And I meant it when I said that I'd be happy to adopt; I think you know that Julian means as much to me as the others. But I wanted a child of my own, and I didn't realise how much until it happened. More than anything, one small part of me wanted to feel connected by flesh and blood to someone else on this planet. I'd never had that before, except, I suppose, when the New Kryptonians arrived, and we all know how that turned out. I was as much an alien to them as I was to the people of Earth…"

"Clark, you are not an alien!"

"I'm pretty much aware of that, sweetheart. It's been a long time since I've thought of myself that way, and that's because of you and the children. You bind me to this world. Somewhere in this lunkheaded brain of mine, I sort of figured it out that if we created such wonderful babies together, then we couldn't be so very different." For the first time since they'd rushed back home from work, Clark managed a small smile. "But, you have to admit, it's a less than altruistic reason to want children… just to have your genes passed on to the next generation."

"It's a very natural reason, Clark. All species have the inherent desire to procreate. Thank goodness, too, or the world would soon become a very empty place. But don't be so hard on yourself. I know that's not the only reason you wanted our children. You have so much love to give, Clark, and just the same right as anyone else on this world to give it to your own flesh and blood."

"Honey, you're right… as usual. I guess I'm a little paranoid because, even with all my powers, I'm pretty useless here."

"That's not so! Superman is, but Clark Kent isn't! Joel and Clara need their father now. Just be there for them."

Clark sent a long, searching look into Lois' slightly enigmatic gaze. "Are you suggesting that I put my promise to help the flood victims on hold?"

"Would that be so very bad, Clark?"

His hand came up to cup Lois' cheek. "Superman checked on them this lunchtime while you were visiting Nathan — even managed to pump the water and sludge from the worst affected houses. There's still a lot to be done, but I suspect the rescue services and insurance companies can cope."

It was clear from his slumped shoulders, that the chronic- do-gooder in Clark wasn't entirely satisfied with this plan of campaign, but he also acknowledged, without a shred of doubt, that his children had the stronger claim on his time. Besides, Joel and Clara's needs were definitely more critical, at this moment.

"I'm sure they could, sweetheart." Lois wasn't totally convinced that Superman wouldn't pay the odd, very swift visit to keep an eye on the reclamation work, but she was content that Clark knew exactly what his priorities were. She turned her head to press a kiss onto his palm. "And it'll only be for a few days."

"I wish I had your optimism."

This was so unlike Clark and Lois refused to humour him any further. "Clark, I warned you before to snap out of the doom and gloom attitude! We are not about to give up on our kids. Joel and Clara are going to get through this and we're going to be right here to help them."

Clark never got the chance to agree with his wife, as a very concerned Martha and Jonathan hurried into the room followed by a rather taciturn James Olsen. Since Clark's worried and fairly garbled request that he pick up the elder Kents from the airport, Jimmy had been puzzling over just what could be wrong with Joel and Clara that would require them to be hospitalised.

He knew for certain that Joel had a few, albeit very watered-down, super-powers — he'd witnessed them himself back on that doomed island. Joel had been able to do things that an normal kid of his age never should. Hell, Joel had done things that he could never aspire to doing, and Lois had mentioned that they were pretty certain that Clara was developing some invulnerability and a sharpening of some of her senses, though she wasn't yet as strong as her brother. If all that was so, then neither child should be sick enough to be taken to the hospital. Could they have been exposed to kryptonite?

For hours Jimmy had stood in that airport terminal, mulling the whole thing over in his mind while waiting for the Kents' plane to arrive. It seemed that the whole of Kansas had been subject to huge electrical storms, and nothing was flying out of the state. The plane had been a good three hours late in arriving. Three hours was a very long time to wait, Jimmy discovered, when you were fretting about the health of little kids whom you thought of as family.

He'd considered calling the hospital, but was fairly certain they wouldn't pass on any details as, strictly speaking, he wasn't a relation. Instead, he'd tried to contact Perry for an update, and had finally tracked him down to Hyperion Avenue where he and Alice were babysitting the two other children. Perry had confirmed the fact that the kids had caught a mysterious virus, but had little other information to pass on — apart from the word he'd managed to get from Beth Klein directly after the children were admitted that Joel and Clara were as comfortable as could be expected, and everything was being done for them that could possibly be done.

Hmph! Just the usual line that medical staff used to placate anxious relatives; somehow Jimmy had expected more from Beth Klein. After all, the kids were as much her family as his! Heck, Clara was her god-daughter! Of course, it might be that Beth didn't really have any more information to give. Joel and Clara's illness had to have taken her by surprise as much as everyone else. Those hybrid Kryptonian kids and their father just didn't catch diseases, though Jimmy had been around long enough to know that Superman had been injured a number of times…

He just hadn't realised, at the time, that it had been Clark who'd been almost killed. Somehow that made him feel a whole lot worse. If anything happened to Superman, the world would mourn its hero. Jimmy would grieve for a friend.

He just wished that CK would stop running away from him. Okay, Jimmy admitted he felt aggrieved that he'd been kept in the dark about the secret identity for so many years, and he'd every intention of voicing those bruised sensibilities, but he was willing to forgive and forget. He just didn't understand what CK's problem was. One thing was for sure, the whole situation had to be put right — this awkwardness was killing him. And this thing with the kids had proved that life might be too short, even for super-powered beings, to hold onto a grievance.

Now, as Jimmy stood in the doorway of the bland family room, watching the Kents' emotional reunion, he made up his mind to have the long-awaited chat with Clark, aka Superman, as soon as he could arrange it, whether his quarry appreciated it or not. The problem was, just how did you corner a man who could, quite literarily, 'fly away'?

Martha rushed straight into her son's arms. "Clark, what's happened? Whatever's wrong with our grandchildren?"

Clark's hug tightened around Martha's smaller form and he dropped his head to rest on hers. "We don't know, Mom." His voice was muffled as he pressed his face into her hair, seeking the comfort he'd always found from his mother's closeness. Yet, somehow, this time it didn't quite work — though he was exceedingly pleased to see his parents.

Lois walked forward and placed her left hand on her mother- in-law's shoulder, while her right rubbed lightly up and down Clark's back. "From the symptoms, it seems that Joel and Clara have been infected by some sort of virus. Beth and Bernie are trying to find out more about it, but there doesn't seem to be much they can do…" Her voice caught on a sob. "You know that viruses can't be treated with drugs."

Jonathan Kent joined the little trio and stretched his arms around them, completing the circle. They stood like that, quietly trying to draw strength from each other. Finally, the older man found his voice. "But how did this happen? Joel and Clara have hardly ever been sick."

Clark sighed heavily — he seemed to be doing a lot of that recently. "No one knows that either. Some way or another the kids came in contact with this bug that got through their invulnerability. We never thought that was possible, but it's happened."

"It happened once to you, son…"

"It did?" Jimmy came further into the room, and when Clark nodded, he added, "I didn't know that."

"There's a lot you don't know about me, Jimmy."

"Yeah!" And the awkwardness was back again full force.

"We never made it public, Jimmy," Lois was quick to explain. "We didn't think it would be good for Superman if it was common knowledge he could get sick. Too many criminals were already wise about kryptonite without handing them any additional ammunition."

A long, hard look was directed at Lois. "Strange… I never thought I'd be linked with criminals!"

"Jimmy! That's not what I meant, and you know it!" Anger flared in Lois' eyes at her old friend's deliberate misinterpretation. Sometimes, Jimmy could be as obstinate as Clark, who was refusing point blank to take any further part in this discussion.

Jonathan, however, was not so reticent. "Would you all stop it! I've a fair idea what this is about, and I'd be the first to agree that it needs straightening out, but Joel and Clara are our most important concern. So, for now, just leave it alone!"

The fire quickly died out of Lois' eyes and Jimmy sheepishly searched the ground at his feet. "Sorry!" he offered.

"I'm sorry too," Lois hurried to make amends. "I seem to be jumping down people's throats a lot right now."

"That's pretty understandable, Lois. You're under a lot of strain right now — I shouldn't have taken offence. But I am interested, CK. What made you sick — was it kryptonite again?"

Clark barely restrained another sigh. He just didn't feel like indulging Jimmy's curiosity, yet, as Jimmy returned his irritated stare with one of steadfastness, he found himself replying. "No! I really did catch a virus. Turned out that Joey Bermuda had managed to get hold of a Kryptonian virus and expose me to it — very nearly worked too."

"I remember," Martha's head bobbed up and down with her words, while her eyes darkened with almost forgotten pain. "Oh, sweetie, we almost lost you that time."

"I remember The Handyman," Jimmy announced, with a flash of inspiration. "You and Lois sent him to prison… something about a lethal microwave oven that made your brain explode?"

"He tampered with the micro-oven in my apartment. The microwaves were altered to create a brain haemorrhage, Jimmy!"

"Okay, Lois, so my memory isn't so accurate. I certainly don't recall anything about Kryptonian viruses, though."

"The DA's office had enough to convict him, so they decided to suppress that part of the evidence as a favour to Superman, and the police were happy to agree." Lois allowed her fingers to trail down Clark's arm, taking hold of his hand as she spoke. "Besides, other than Bermuda's rough plans, there was no evidence that Superman had ever been ill. We thought it best to leave it that way." Her mother and father had also been a party to Clark's illness, but Jimmy didn't need to know that right now.

Clark narrowed his eyes at Jimmy. "What are you thinking?" But both Lois and Clark had deduced where Jimmy's investigative training was leading him.

"That maybe this is something the same. Is Bermuda still in prison?"

"We have no idea, Jimmy, and we've been a bit too preoccupied to take the time to find out!" Lois fired up again.

"Well, of course you have other things on your mind. But maybe I could look into it for you… I'd really like to help."

"Thanks! We'd appreciate it, James." Clark stuck out his one free hand and Jimmy took it readily, but their shake was interrupted by the entrance of one of the medical staff.

"Mr and Mrs Kent," the newcomer addressed them, his tone kindly and he smiled… a little.

"Dr Campbell, isn't it?" Lois returned the smile tentatively. Surely, if the news was bad he wouldn't be smiling. "How are Joel and Clara doing?"

"They both seem stable… for the moment. But I won't lie to you. It's very worrying that the drugs we've administered don't seem to be helping."

The tall, slightly-built young physician noticed a perplexed glance pass between the occupants of the room, though he couldn't understand its meaning. In order to allay suspicions, Beth had prescribed all the normal medications, just as she would to any of her ordinary patients. Of course, she and the people present were very aware that they wouldn't do one iota of good, but Dr Hugh Campbell wasn't party to the secret.

"Will my grandchildren be all right?" Martha found the courage to ask the scary question.

"We don't know, Mrs?" Campbell's pleasant voice lifted in speculation.

"Kent! I'm sorry — my manners seem to have gone begging!" Lois slipped her hand from Clark's grasp and stepped forward. "These are my in-laws, Martha and Jonathan Kent, the children's grandparents. They've been out of town."

"I'm sorry, Mr and Mrs Kent," the doctor said, offering his hand to the older couple. "This is hardly a good situation to welcome you home, and I'm afraid I don't have anything to tell you to make things better. At the moment, the children are just holding their own against the virus." Hugh Campbell loved his job as a pediatrician. Making sick kids better was a very rewarding job, but this was the one part he could well do without. He hated to see hope dim in the eyes of the parents and family of his little patients.

A sob broke from Lois' tightly pressed lips, and, immediately, Clark was by her side, his arm slipping round her waist to support her, while Martha, Jonathan and Jimmy moved in closer. Dr Campbell regarded the group in front of them — this was clearly a close-knit family and he found himself wanting to give them some hope.

"Mrs Kent… Lois…" He tried out her name tentatively. When they'd been introduced, Hugh had been asked to call the parents by their first names, Beth decreeing that a more relaxed atmosphere between medical staff and relatives was more conducive to everyone's well-being. "Forgive me if I was too blunt, but I believe in being honest with my patients' families. Though I have to say that your children seem to be very spirited, and I'm sure they're going to fight this infection with everything they've got. I was told to tell you that you… and your husband are expected back inside to say goodnight." Hugh Campbell couldn't help but grin at the memory of the small, wan- faced girl in the bed issuing orders.

"Goodnight!" Lois exclaimed, that piece of information not seeming to have a calming influence. "But Beth said we could stay with Joel and Clara!"

"Yes! But the children must rest, and so must you. I'm sure all this must have hit you very hard. You need to save your strength too… The children might need that strength in the next few days. I wish I had something more encouraging to tell you…" The doctor's clear blue eyes fell away from Lois' wounded stare. Hugh had the uncomfortable feeling that he'd said too much — this beautiful, vulnerable woman was affecting him more than she ought. Swallowing back the lump that had formed in his throat, he hurried on in a different vein. "A room next door to the children has been prepared for you and Clark. I'm sorry it's pretty basic and cramped…"

"That's okay, Dr Campbell, I'm sure we'll make do under the circumstances," Clark cut in brusquely. He couldn't be sure, but he had a strange feeling of deja-vu. What was it about doctors and Lois? Then again, he was feeling over- stressed and he might well be imagining things. Probably this man was just feeling very sympathetic towards a mother whose children were seriously ill. And Lois was a very lovely woman. Even after all these years, he still found her totally entrancing — he could hardly blame any other red-blooded male for recognising her attraction. Especially when she was looking so defenceless and forlorn; it brought out the protective trait in him, and maybe this Dr Campbell was no more immune to that than he. Clark decided that discretion was the better part of valour. "Thank you for arranging that for us, Doctor. Come on, honey, let's go say goodnight to Joel and Clara, then go try to get some sleep ourselves. You were up most of last night, so you must be exhausted."

Lois' first reaction was to deny her fatigue, but she quickly set that aside. She was weary, and, though she doubted her body's ability to sleep, lying down, tucked in the cradle of Clark's arms, did sound very appealing.

"If there is any change in either Joel's or Clara's condition, we will call you both immediately," Dr Campbell added. "You'd be the first to know."

In truth, that aspect didn't bother Lois. She was pretty certain that all Clark's attention would be centred on his children tonight — he would probably be the first to know if Joel or Clara were in distress. "Okay, I give in," and she smiled to show she did so with good grace. A quick kiss night, night to the kids and then we'll turn in… promise!" She began pulling Clark towards the corridor when she suddenly halted. "I forgot! We have to call home. Alice and Perry must be wondering what's happening here."

Martha closed the distance to Lois' side. "Don't worry, sweetie! Jonathan and I will wait to see how the children are doing and then we'll go home to Hyperion — maybe, James here would be kind enough to give us a lift. We'll pass on the news to the Whites and let them get off home. It's very late and Perry still has a paper to run." Placing a hand on each of Lois and Clark's shoulders she gave them a collective hug. "You two just concentrate on taking care of Joel and Clara and let your family take care of the rest."

"And your friends!" Jimmy was quick to join in.

For the first time in a while, Clark looked his friend straight in the eye with no barely masked nuances. "Thanks, Jimmy! And for picking up Mom and Dad at the airport. It's appreciated."

"No sweat, CK! That's what friends are for!"

With a final glance of gratitude at the group in the waiting room, Lois started towards the little isolation room, to where her heart already was. Clark followed quickly behind. It was impossible to know what might lie ahead for them, but one thing Lois was sure of… she and Clark had the best family and friends in the world to support them.


Lois rose from her chair and stretched. She moved her head up and down and from side to side a couple of times, loosening the kinks in her neck and shoulders. It seemed like she'd been sitting in that chair for an eternity, keeping watch over her children, challenging the fates to come and steal them from her.

Thankfully, it had been a fairly quiet night — no panicky starts from Clark — no alarm bells sounding, warning that Joel and Clara were fighting for their lives. She'd even managed to sleep in fits and starts, but she didn't feel rested. She doubted that she'd feel that way again, until her children were back to normal.

First thing this morning, Beth had looked in on her patients and told the anxious parents that she was quite satisfied with Joel and Clara's progress. She'd again reiterated that the invalids were completely secure under the care of her assistant, Hugh Campbell. Then she'd taken herself off, like someone on a mission, with a promise to Lois and Clark that she'd be back as soon as possible, and that they were to try to stay hopeful. That wouldn't be difficult — hope was all they had, and Lois found herself clinging to it like someone drowning.

Clark, on the other hand, had seemed to go 'under' a couple of times. He was finding it increasingly hard to endure the sight of his children's suffering. Consequently, after a particularly difficult moment, when Clara had tried weepingly to resist one of the nurse's periodic checks, Lois had sent him off to the Planet, making the excuse that as long as the children were stable, one of them should put in an appearance at work, at least.

Progress! Well, actually, Joel and Clara hadn't made any progress, but their condition hadn't worsened, so that was something to be glad about, Lois reminded herself, tearfully. After a long morning spent plumping up pillows to make Joel and Clara more comfortable, bathing their fevered brows, and encouraging them to take sips of water to soothe their sore throats and parched mouths — water which they had difficulty swallowing — Lois was feeling very fragile. In fact, she was ready to concede that she'd been wrong to send Clark away. Particularly, since Clara was fretting over his absence. He'd promised to return at lunchtime and Lois decided she'd insist that he stay. Clark was just going to have to grow a thicker skin. At that thought, Lois snorted ironically. Hmph! She was talking about the Man of Steel here!

A frighteningly loud beeping noise interrupted her meandering thoughts. Lois swung round, her eyes darting between the banks of consoles that stood on either side of her children's beds. Clara's emitted a slow, yet steady beat, but red lights were flashing on Joel's. Lois rushed over to his side and lifted his hand into her own — taking care not to dislodge the IV cannula. The heat emanating from his small fist almost made her drop it, but she pushed her shock aside and hung on tightly, willing her firstborn to stay with her.

Immediately the doors swished open and Dr Campbell came into the room, tying up his gown as he half-ran towards Joel's bed. Two nurses, similarly occupied, hurried on his heels. Campbell's keen gaze took in the displays on the monitoring screen, while his hands began a swift examination of the boy.

"Lois, please, can you stand back? We need room to work." He spoke succinctly but apologetically, hardly casting a glance in her direction as she obeyed. For the present, his sole concern was with the boy. "His temperature is climbing alarmingly!" The doctor's head gave an abrupt shake of exasperation. "I don't understand why the acetaminophen isn't working."

"Acetaminophen?" Lois had backed up until she'd felt the other bed connect with her behind.

"A drug we use to reduce temperature!" Again Dr Campbell explained without stopping his examination of Joel. "It doesn't always have an effect — sometimes it happens that way. I'd just prefer that this wasn't one of those times. We have to get his fever down!" This time he looked directly at the nurses. "I don't want him fitting! Give him a sponge-bath… and get a bed with an ice mattress in here immediately, and get more fans directed on him!"

"An ice mattress?" Lois squeaked in the background.

At last, Hugh Campbell turned to face her, while the nurses rushed to do his bidding. He sent her a disarming grin. "Don't worry, Lois! It isn't such an instrument of torture as it sounds. It's an inflatable mattress with ice water flowing through it… not the most comfortable thing, I agree, but we'll wrap up his hands and feet so he won't feel cold."

"And that makes a difference?"

"The body's temperature sensors are in the hands and feet… keep them warm and you feel warm!"

"Amazing!" Lois ventured closer to her son again, but stayed alert, ready to step back when the nurses appeared. "And all that should help Joel?"

"I'll do everything in my power to see that it does. We're going to be pretty busy in here for the next half-hour or so, setting up the mattress and giving Joel a sponge bath… You look so stressed out — maybe you should go get yourself a cup of coffee and something to eat. Trust me with him, Lois!" His clear, honest gaze held Lois' for a number of seconds, and she found herself comforted by his competency and his… empathy.

"I doubt if I could eat anything, but coffee sounds good," she said, folding her arms together to keep her hands from trembling.

"Try to eat something, Lois, and that's doctor's orders. It's a difficult time for you and you need to keep yourself well." A frown creased Hugh's smooth brow as a sudden thought took him. "Isn't Clark here? I thought you had some support."

"He was… I sent him away, but he should be back soon." Lois found herself making excuses.

But Hugh Campbell had turned his attention back to stabilising Joel… The doors parted to let in the children's nurses and a porter who wheeled in a narrow bed with hoses protruding from the bottom of the mattress and connecting up to a fairly bulky machine — clearly something to do with the production of ice water. It's a pity Superman hadn't arrived, he could have cooled Joel down. Of course, he'd have to regulate his breath to just the correct temperature, but Dr Campbell would keep him right…

"Excuse me, Mrs Kent," the nurse called Amy spoke up as she pushed forward with a trolley of damp, tepid towels. "We need to sponge Joel down…" The woman's voice trailed away — evidently she wasn't comfortable with asking the mother to leave, but that was just as clearly her intention.

"I know, I'm in the way." She offered Nurse Amy an apologetic shrug and started backing towards the door. "I'll just go get myself some coffee… I'll be outside if you need me…"

Unfortunately, no-one was paying her any mind; they were all much too busy with saving Joel's life. Which was just as it should be, but she was his mother! She ought to be able to do something… anything to help her boy. Overcome with worry and dejection, Lois dumped her paper robe in the bin and shuffled out to the corridor.

"Lois!" A familiar voice called out to her, yet she barely heard. It wasn't till Clark was standing by her side and turning her towards him, that his presence breached her traumatised trance. "Lois!" Her demeanour panicked him, and he found himself shaking her to bring her back to consciousness, though he was careful not to hurt or bruise her. "What's happening? Why are you standing here looking like you've lost…?" The continuation of that question refused to be uttered. "Is it Clara or Joel?"

Her husband's blanched face swum into focus and the meaning of his words quickly registered. She took his unsteady hands into her grasp. "No! They're both still with us! I didn't mean to make you think… I guess I look a mess, don't I? I'm sorry, I was just feeling a little shocked by everything… Oh, Clark!"

Lois stepped closer to Clark and almost collapsed against his body, her head coming to rest on his broad chest. Immediately, Clark's arms tightened round her, and he spoke into her silky hair. "You looked s… sad, Lois, and tired. I got scared." He drew back a fraction to study her face. "Something has happened, though?"

"Joel got sicker!" This fact seemed to be all that Lois could get out.

His wife's large, stricken eyes gazed up at him, and Clark didn't wait for her to explain. Instead, he pulled his glasses down a fraction and looked through the wall of his children's room. What he saw didn't console him much. The curtains had been pulled round Clara's bed in the hope that she would be shielded a little from the increased activity in the room, and, though her face was pale beneath the oxygen mask, she slept restlessly.

All the immediate attention was directed at his son. Dr Campbell and his team had surrounded Joel's bed, which seemed to be a little different from the original. That object, Clark noted distractedly, was exiting the room pushed by an orderly. His small son was being made comfortable on this new bulkier bed, as one of the nurses began to lift damp towels and methodically sponge down Joel's body. The doctor and the other nurse were connecting up some sort of contraption which was positioned halfway under the bed.

Aware of what Clark was doing, Lois managed to restrain her impatience for a few moments, but her anxious fears wouldn't be put off for long. She reclaimed his hands and tugged on them. "Clark! What's going on in there?"

Never moving his eyes from the particular spot on the wall, Clark's brow crinkled as he picked up the hum of yet another machine and the steady surge of water. "I'm not sure, Lois. Maybe I should be asking you." At last he turned to his wife.

"Joel's temperature went up much too high. They need to bring it down, but drugs won't work, so they're doing what they can — sponge baths, but the water has to be tepid, not cold — I didn't know that. And an ice mattress — it's inflatable and they pump ice water through it…"

"So that's what that is… Isn't that pretty drastic?"

"They have to be drastic, Clark! If they can't get Joel's temperature down it could be dangerous."

"I know, honey. They're obviously doing their best. I just wish Beth were here!"

"Clark, Hugh is doing his best," Lois defended her latest champion. "I know he's going to take good care of Joel… I have to believe that."

At those last desperate, almost whispered words, Clark pulled Lois back into his arms, feeling guilty at his quick surge of jealousy — just when had Lois started referring to Dr Campbell as Hugh? He knew that Beth had advocated the use of first names, and it was an acceptable practise, but Clark just didn't feel comfortable addressing this man so personally. Lois, on the other hand, had no such difficulty. But she was talking again, and he pushed aside his unhealthy notion. Lois was struggling to cope with their children's illness and she needed all the support he could give.

"I know the ice bed sounds pretty painful, but they trick the body into not realising just how cold it is by keeping the hands and feet warm, 'cos all the body's temperature sensors are in the hands and feet…" Lois stopped speaking as she caught Clark trying to hide a sudden, yet hesitant grin. "But you knew that, didn't you?" she accused.

"I think I might have picked that up when Superman took a few first aid courses."

"Why does that not surprise me… You know everything!"

"Now that's a really, really big exaggeration. And, Lois, that proves just how stressed out you are. Mostly, you think the exact opposite. Lunkhead is a term that springs to mind!"

A reluctant smile was turning up the corners of Lois' lips, and she gave her tormentor a playful wallop. "Clark, I don't want to be cheered up. Our children are seriously sick!" she wailed. "It's not a laughing matter."

"I know, sweetheart, but Clara is sleeping and Joel seems to be responding to treatment… for now." To be sure, Clark checked through the wall once more. The staff were still busily working, but their actions did appear a bit less frantic and though they spoke little, the expressions on their faces showed some relief — Joel was holding his own. "Come on, honey, let's go get you some coffee."

Lois nodded in agreement. "Sounds good — I think I need the caffeine. And Hugh thinks I should eat something…"

Hmph! Hugh again! However, in all fairness, in this instance the guy only had Lois' welfare at heart, and he was probably right. "You know, I think that's a good idea. I noticed some vending machines round the corner from the family room. Let's go see if we can get you a drink and a sandwich."

Clark wrapped his arm round Lois' shoulder and started walking her down the passageway, throwing one backward glance into the sick room. Everything seemed to be in order, and he could have them back here in a second or so if the emergency deepened. Of course, no one realised this better than Lois. After a moment's hesitation, she allowed herself to be led away.


"You know, Clark, for hospital food, these aren't half bad," Lois mouthed round her last piece of sandwich. "Normally, I would have expected the chicken to be dry as leather, the salad limp and the bread stale… but I quite enjoyed these."

"Maybe it has something to do with you being hungrier than you supposed." Finishing off his own lunch, Clark collected the plastic wrapping and deposited them in the nearest trashcan, while Lois started on her second cup of coffee.

"Am I a heartless mother? Eating while her son is struggling to survive!"

"Lois, don't exaggerate! Joel's condition might have given you a scare, but I keep checking on him and things seem to be calming down." Clark returned to sit by his wife. "You didn't eat breakfast this morning, and that was after missing out on dinner last night… It's no wonder you're hungry, honey. Keeping up your energy levels is only being sensible, and I doubt if anyone is going to measure your mothering skills by how much you can eat."

Lois considered this for a couple of moments, then decided he was probably right. It suddenly struck her that Clark was thinking more clearly. "You look a lot calmer than this morning." She bumped into his shoulder, reminding him teasingly of his intense attitude when she'd sent him away.

"You can thank Perry for that, sweetheart." Clark gave a self-disparaging grin. "When I got to the Planet I was a mess. Perry assigned me to liaise with Jimmy on the arson attack — you know he's doing a piece on the Hobbs Bay redevelopment, and there could be a link there. But I couldn't settle… couldn't think. My mind was too full of Joel and Clara! I'm sure Jimmy was getting ready to throw me out."

"Now who's exaggerating?"

"No, honey! I really wasn't being much use to anybody… you included! Then Perry hauled me off for one of his famous lectures… and no, before you ask, he didn't mention 'The King' once." Clark watched as a quick grin brightened Lois' expression. "But he did make me see that letting my anxiety control me wasn't helping — not at work nor here. Seeing Joel and Clara so sick hurts more than I ever thought it could, but I'm not the victim here. I've got to put my own pain aside for their sake… and yours. I'll just have to grow a thicker skin, which shouldn't be difficult for 'you know who'."

Lois' smile widened as Clark echoed her sentiments of earlier. "Well, I've always considered the invulnerable tag vastly overrated." Her voice dropped to a husky whisper, and she nudged his shoulder again. "Superman is the biggest softie of them all!"

Sliding his arm around his wife, his other hand tipped her face towards him. "Lois Lane, do you never get tired of being right?" he chided, yet the quick brush of his lips against hers robbed his words of any reproof.

Lois allowed Clark's mouth to linger and his arms to pull her into a close embrace. After the scares and hard work of this morning, she really needed the reassurance of his physical presence.

"Excuse me!" Another voice came from the doorway and Lois and Clark sprung apart a little sheepishly, feeling like a couple of frustrated teenagers caught behind the Dairy Freeze. The fair-haired staff doctor walked rather gingerly into the room. "I'm sorry! I didn't know you were back, Clark. I though Lois was here alone."

I bet you hoped she was — Clark thought silently, as his green-eyed monster stirred nebulously in the recesses of his mind. Aloud, he tried to keep his voice steady. "Dr Campbell!" Clark refused to be embarrassed at kissing his wife, so he left his arm draped round her shoulder possessively. "How's Joel?"

"He's doing okay. His temperature's still higher than I'd like, but at least it isn't climbing, and I'm sure he'll respond to the treatment soon." Hugh dug his hands into his pockets, feeling absurdly uncomfortable under this man's scrutiny. He couldn't understand Kent's antipathy. Didn't the guy realise that he was just doing his job? But that's not all you're doing, honesty compelled the younger man to admit. You're attracted to Lois, and somehow her husband senses it.

Lois was taken aback by Clark's suddenly peremptory hold on her shoulder, and she wasn't about to condone it. Standing, so that his arm dropped away, she asked the question that had been worrying her for some time. "Hugh, in the room, you mentioned something about Joel having a fit… what did you mean?"

Determined to ignore the unfriendly vibes emanating from Kent, Hugh concentrated on putting Lois' mind at rest. "I'm sorry… you weren't supposed to hear that! It was just me being over anxious. Sometimes, when children's temperatures are too high, they can have convulsions… they're called febrile convulsions, and they're more distressing than life-threatening. But the children at risk are usually under the age of five… So you see, they don't apply to Joel."

"Then why did you worry my wife by suggesting he could have a fit?" Clark burst out angrily, his temper frayed by fear and suspicion.

"That was wrong of me, and I can only apologise. To tell the truth, I was just thinking aloud. Realistically, I knew that the prospect was minimal…" Hugh struggled to express his concerns, forgetting, for the moment, the resentment with which this man regarded him. "Yet, there are a few unusual aspects to your children's illness, so it didn't seem impossible that another could occur."

"Unusual?" Clark's brow drew down and his lips compressed, giving a fair imitation of Superman.

"Neither Joel nor Clara respond to drugs. And Beth is very insistent that all their blood work and other tests be handled by her husband."

Lois was dismayed to find Clark subconsciously crossing his arms into his superhero pose, and she gave him a surreptitious kick as she came to stand in front of him, deliberately placing herself closer to Hugh. "I know that might seem a trifle odd, but the Kleins are very close friends of ours — why Beth is even Clara's godmother. She just wants the children to have the best of care. And you must admit that Bernard Klein is one of the most respected research chemists in Metropolis. Beth thinks that the children might have fallen victim to a new strain of virus and Bernard would be the best man to help treat them, don't you think?" Lois allowed a particularly fragile and appealing note to colour her words. She had to distract this man from this especially disconcerting train of thought.

Hugh was mesmerized by Lois' translucent stare. Were there tears pooling in the depths of her eyes? The last thing Hugh intended was to add another worry to her load; besides, what she suggested was logical. "Beth's probably right about this being a new virus — they keep mutating, and just as soon as we have one under control, another pops up. Fortunately, this one doesn't seem to be too contagious. I mean, we haven't had any other cases reported, and no one else in your family seems to have caught it…" Right on cue, Clark coughed loudly, and Hugh's attention swung back to the man. "Unless… are you okay?"

Placing a hand in front of his mouth, Clark cleared his throat, managing to pronounce gravelly. "Yes, just got a frog in my throat!" And he coughed a couple of more times for emphasis. "It's been a couple of very hard days!" he said more gently, deciding to drop his animosity towards the doctor, at least for the present. It wouldn't do to make Campbell more suspicious than he already was.

Hugh accepted the olive-branch willingly. "Yes! It must be terrible for you… both of you. I don't have kids… I'm not even married or dating or anything. But I realise how hard it must be to watch your children suffer…"

Lois reached out her hand and touched Hugh's arm, wanting to ease the tension that had quickly developed at the young man's probing thoughts. "Well, thanks to you, their suffering isn't getting any worse… and I don't think you find it easy either to see them in pain. You're a very sensitive and caring doctor."

Clark's groan was almost audible. Geesh! Did Lois know just how her compliments to the doctor were irritating him? Not to mention what they were doing to the man in question. Hugh Campbell was almost glowing with appreciation under his embarrassed smile. Yet, Clark's discomfitted moan might not have been so imperceptible as he thought, as the doctor shot a quick glance at him over Lois' shoulder. Campbell moved back so that Lois was no longer touching him and addressed her overly-possessive husband.

"I'm sorry, Clark, if I inadvertently caused Lois any pain. Believe me, that was the last thing on my mind. It's been a long shift for me too. In fact, it's about time for me to go." At the misgiving that flared in Lois' gaze, Hugh was quick to reassure. "Don't worry, I'm not leaving the hospital. I'll just be in the doctors' rest-room, having a late lunch and trying to catch a nap. They'll page me if there's an emergency. And Beth mentioned that she'd be back later this afternoon. Don't worry, we won't let Joel or Clara down."

"I'm sure you won't, Hugh." Lois' smile was sympathetic. "You should go get some rest. We parents tend to forget that you doctors have other patients who need your attention — pretty selfish, isn't it?"

"I doubt you could ever be selfish!" Another cough from Kent broke into Hugh's contemplation of Lois' eyes, and he wisely tore himself away from his fanciful daydreams, returning to the business at hand. "Why don't you go and see for yourselves how Joel is. Though I have to warn you that he's feeling pretty miserable, poor kid. I'd hate to have to sleep on a mattress filled with ice water, myself! He could really do with some fussing over, but don't be surprised if he's pretty weepy." Hugh allowed himself to back out of the room with just one last look at Lois. "And don't forget, I'll be here if you need me!"

"Terrific!" Clark mumbled, not finding that an uplifting prospect.

The couple accompanied the doctor into the corridor where their paths parted company by the elevator. Lois smiled goodbye to Hugh as the doors slid shut. "I'm so pleased that the kids have such an attentive doctor."

"Beth is their pediatrician, Lois!" Clark pointed out grouchily.

"I know that, Clark!" Lois' voice was edged with equal testiness. "But Hugh is on Beth's team, so technically he is their doctor." She halted in her tracks and turned to confront her fractious husband. "What have you got against him? Come on, Clark, spit it out! As far as I can see, Hugh is an admirable physician!"

"Well, he certainly admires you!"

"What! You can't be serious!" An astounded Lois stared up into Clark's stony face. "This petty dislike is all down to you thinking that Hugh has a… crush on me?"

Clark refused to meet her glare. Somehow the idea didn't sound so plausible in the cold light of day. But no! Clark was sure he wasn't imagining things… "I think so!"

"Then you're wrong!" His eyebrows raised and his lips narrowed. He was giving her that look that said he didn't believe her, and Lois' temper flared. "The kids are seriously ill here and I don't have the time nor energy to waste on your juvenile suspicions. Now I'm going to forget we had this conversation and I'm going to sit with our children. Are you coming with me, or are you staying in the corridor to sulk?"

At the reminder of his sick children, all Clark's indignation vanished. "Of course I'm coming with you. I'm anxious to see Joel and Clara too. Lois, I wasn't accusing you of anything."

"You'd better not, buster! You may remember — you're not exactly squeaky clean in that department yourself!"

"Lois," he moaned in mortification, "I thought we'd agreed to put that nonsense behind us?"

That abashed, soulful gaze was turned full force on her and Lois relented. "Okay, Clark." She slid her hand through his arm and propelled him down the passage to the kids' private room. "But I don't want to hear anymore about your fantasy that Hugh is interested in me that way, because that's just crazy. He's just a very considerate man. Mind you, Clark, you were right about one thing — sometimes you are a lunkhead!" But her gentle smile proved she'd forgiven him.

And so, for the present, harmony between the couple was restored, but Clark wasn't convinced. Lois might be oblivious to Campbell's motives, but he had a very good idea of where the guy was coming from, and he wasn't about to stand by and watch 'Dr Dieter mach 2' make a move on his wife.


Yet Clark's presentiments about unwanted suitors paled into insignificance when he was confronted close up by the sight of his son. The room had returned to its usual quiet state with just the humming of machinery to break the stillness, while the two nurses efficiently finished tending to Joel. Soggy towels were piled forgotten on a trolley, their job already done, and both nurses were intent on gently wrapping the little boy's hands and feet in thermal covers. Nurse Amy spoke soothingly to the child as she worked, but the boy's tears wouldn't be so easily assuaged.

"Look, Joel," the nurse kindly pointed out, hoping to distract her sorrowful patient. "You have visitors! Your mommy and daddy have come to see you."

It hurt for Joel to turn his head, but he craned his neck in the direction of the nurse's wave. His sobs still didn't abate, but they were accompanied by a tearful smile.

"If you give us a few moments we'll be all straightened out in here, Mr and Mrs Kent," the other nurse informed them, "and then we'll get out of your way."

Very quickly, the pair pulled Joel's covers over him and straightened his pillows, checking that the various tubes and lines hadn't come adrift during the various procedures. The pulse oximeter, which had been attached to Joel's finger, was now being moved to his ear since his hands were bundled in blankets. Clearly, Joel wasn't happy with the move and he jerked his head away as quickly as his aching muscles would allow. Again Amy soothed.

"I know, sweetie! We're doing some awful things to you and it's making you uncomfortable. But the doctors have to know how you're doing, and connecting you up to the machines is the only way we can tell."

Joel, however, would not be convinced, burying his ear as best he could in the pillow while he eyed his tormentor accusingly. Lois, having been subjected to that hurt puppy dog stare many times before, and not only from her son, decided it was time to intervene.

"Joel, honey, the nurse is just trying to do her job." Lois leaned over the bed to catch her son's attention, while she stroked his hair in just the way he liked. "It doesn't really hurt that much, does it?"

"No, Mom!" As Joel turned in the direction of his mother's voice, Amy deftly attached the wire. But, though Joel had been distracted from one grievance, he hadn't finished complaining. "I hurt all over, Mom! And why does the bed keep moving? My stomach feels funny… like I'm gonna be seasick!"

The adults couldn't restrain a tiny grin — seasickness was probably spot on. "That's probably because you're lying on a waterbed, son." Clark crossed the room to join in the conversation. "I'm told they're pretty comfortable," he added hopefully.

Evidently, you didn't always get what you hoped for, because Joel didn't share that opinion. "This one isn't!" A harsh fit of coughing broke his diatribe, but he wasn't about to be put off. "It's… it's got rocks in it… and it sounds like it does when you have a shell at your ear… only louder." His voice was croaky but annoyance gave him the incentive to continue… "Oh, and I feel s… sick!"

Amy had a disposable bowl beneath his chin in something akin to superspeed, while Clark slipped his arms round Joel's slim shoulders, lifting him into a better position. The hacking cough continued and the nurse encouraged Clark to rub Joel's back until the boy spat up, giving him some relief. Lois and Clark exchanged tortured glances. They couldn't help but feel every echoing stab of their boy's distress.

Afterwards Joel lay back exhausted onto his dad's supporting arm. The nurse plumped up the pillows again, making sure that Joel would not be laid flat, and waited while Clark gently positioned him back on the bed. Then she carefully cleaned his mouth and placed the oxygen mask over his face. Joel squirmed but hadn't the strength to resist. Besides his mom's voice was back again, telling him to relax and try to sleep… and he did feel washed out.

Satisfied that Joel was no longer in any imminent danger, the nurses left the family alone, with the instruction to press the alarm at the first hint of an emergency. Lois and Clark stood side-by-side looking down on Joel and feeling more helpless than they ever had in their entire lives. This had to be their worst nightmare.

Even when Lois had been pregnant with Clara and there was all the worry about the baby's health because of the antibodies caused by Lois and Clark's differing blood- types, things hadn't seemed so bleak. When Beth Peters, as she was then, had discovered the problem and been informed of the amazing reason, she'd been optimistic that they could find a solution. After all, the syndrome wasn't dissimilar to an Earthen one which had been treatable for a number of years. Of course, Lois and Clark's case had been slightly more complicated, but the basics were the same. Beth had been introduced to Bernard Klein and between them they'd looked after the yet unborn Clara and found the cure… which, it had to be said, did involve Clark being exposed to kryptonite… which was not something that Lois… nor Clark, for that matter, were happy about. However, all the trials and tribulations had proved to be very worthwhile when the couple held their beautiful new… and extremely healthy daughter in their arms.

If only they could be sure now of such a happy prognosis. But Beth had disappeared, and they'd seen neither hide nor hair of Bernard since he'd left Hyperion Avenue the night the kids had been admitted to hospital. Was that only last night? Lois sank gratefully into the large comfortable chair which Clark had placed by Joel's bed.

"Lois, you're worn out. Why don't you try to get some rest too?" Clark stood over her with a blanket in his hands, which he proceeded to tuck around her. "Joel seems to have fallen asleep. You had a busy morning taking care of them both and now it's my turn."

His long fingers tenderly traced the line of her hair where it fell against her cheek and Lois' hand rose to cover it, while she turned her face and placed a light kiss on his palm. "That sounds like a great idea." Lois wasn't totally convinced that her highly-strung nerves would allow her to sleep, but as Clark passed round to the back of her chair and his hands, accompanied by a warming burst of his vision gizmo, began to massage her taut muscles she decided to close her eyes and give it a try. Surprisingly, within minutes she found her eyelids growing heavier and her mind drifting drowsily away.

Clark continued his dual ministrations with hand and vision until he heard Lois' heartbeat relax into sleep. These last couple of days — no, make that weeks — had taken a huge toll on his wife's energy levels and he worried about her so. After all, he had super strength to rely on and he was feeling the strain: how much worse must it be for Lois? But once again she amazed him with her resilience, her ability to give so much of herself for those she loved. It had been an attribute that the Lois he'd first met had tried quite successfully to hide. And yet he'd never really been fooled. Had the love which he'd felt for her from the moment she'd swept stormily into his life enabled him to see past the barriers? Or had Lois, subconsciously, let him inside even then?

A slow smile spread across his face while he remembered the conversation in the hangar where Antoinette Baines had chained them to a pillar — Lois had bared her soul, a very un-Lois-like trait, and it had been in stark contrast to the advice she'd given him earlier not to fall for her as she hadn't time for relationships. A piece of advice which had already been redundant.

It had taken them a long time and many tribulations to arrive at the point where they'd chosen to spend the rest of their lives together, and if they'd ever expected a quieter life once they'd settled down, they'd totally misjudged their future. Clark couldn't sincerely put his hand on his heart and say that he wouldn't change a thing that had happened in these intervening years — the present situation being a case in point. But he could, in all honesty, admit that life with Lois and the kids was everything and more that a young Clark had ever dreamed of. It wasn't always easy, but it was always… amazing.

"Daddy!" His daughter's voice was weak but insistent. "Daddy!"

Content that Lois was resting, Clark hurried over to Clara's bed. "Hi there, Kitten," he whispered as he sank into a seat by the far side of her bed. His 'kitten' was only a shadow of the bright, irrepressible little daughter who frequently challenged him, occasionally infuriated him and always entranced him. Her skin now looked paper-thin and pallid with great shadows carved beneath lack-lustre eyes. It almost broke his heart.

"You came back, Daddy?"

"I always come back, sweetheart."

Clara eyed her dad accusingly. "You weren't here when I wanted you before!"

The knife turned in Clark's chest. "I'm sorry, kitten, I didn't know you were looking for me." His hand enclosed her smaller one, and he longed to pick her up and cuddle her close, but the various tubes and wires made that impossible. But he could show his love for her with his words. "I had to go to work, Clara. I didn't want to leave you, but Uncle Perry and Jimmy needed my help with something." That wasn't strictly true, but no way was Clark going to hurt Clara by admitting that he was too much of a coward to stay with her while she was ill. Besides, it was no longer true. "But I'm here now, kitten, and I'm not going anywhere."

Clara's fever-cracked lips turned up in a faint smile, but as with her brother before, a wracking cough shuddered through her body. Clark squeezed his eyelids tightly shut to hold back the threatening tears, as he steeled himself to help his daughter through her pain. He hurriedly fetched another bowl from the trolley against the wall and did exactly as the nurse had instructed him with Joel, but thankfully, after a few moments, Clara settled down once more, the sick-bowl remaining unused.

Clark replaced the oxygen mask over his daughter's face, but it seemed to agitate Clara and she raised her free hand to pull it away. "It hurts to breathe, Daddy!"

Another grimace overtook Clark, but he spoke softly. "I know, kitten, but that's why you have to use the mask. It's not very nice, but it will help." Running his hand gently up and down Clara's arm, he wished he could do more to alleviate her pain, but he was just too wary to use any of his super abilities. Who could say whether his children could withstand the use of heat vision or cooling breath in their present condition? "Try to relax, kitten," he almost crooned. "Close your eyes and go to sleep. Now if I could only hold a tune, I'd be able to sing you to sleep like your momma."

Memories from years past came gently to his mind — of returning from a busy night of Superman rescues to his quiet house and finding Lois singing lullabies to baby Joel or Clara, while they drifted off to sleep, peacefully in her arms. It was sad, but they never seemed to have time for lullabies anymore.

Then from behind him, Lois' muted voice drifted on the air, joining the background purring of the machines as she hummed the lilting tune of an old country lullaby which had been one of his and his children's favourites. Moments later, her hands slid down over his shoulders, and he twisted in his seat to pull her onto his lap, resting his arm warmly around her waist. Companionably they sat as the old familiar magic of Lois' singing worked its charm on the fretful child and Clara fell back asleep.

But that didn't account for Lois! "Hey, honey," Clark accused tenderly, "you were supposed to be taking a nap too!"

"I did too!"

"Yeah, must have been for all of ten minutes or so!"

"Clark, it's hardly my fault if I can't sleep!" She laid her head wearily alongside her husband's. "There's just too much to think about."

"I can't disagree with you there." He stroked a gentle hand up and down Lois' arm in a comforting way, while he wondered whether he should broach a very sensitive subject. "Lois, honey, about Hugh Campbell…"

Not surprisingly, Lois stiffened in his arms and, if it hadn't been for the fact that he'd tightened his grip on her waist, she'd have stomped off across the room. "Clark!" She spoke as indignantly as she could while trying to keep her voice low, so not to wake the children. "I thought we'd already concluded that this conversation was finished with!"

"No, Lois, that's not what I was meaning!" The flare of irritation dimmed a little in her eyes, enough to encourage him to continue. "I just wanted to ask if you think he 'knows' something?" His voiced had dropped to an almost whisper on the last words.

Lois didn't pretend to misunderstand. "Yeah, that sort of occurred to me too… given that he's noticed some irregularities. He's an intelligent and thoughtful man, and I suppose it's only natural that he'd wonder since he's treating Joel and Clara… But no, I doubt he's anywhere near linking them with 'you know who'." The customary checking of the room by both participants took place in their respective methods. "I mean, why should he? And if a certain person stays away, then there shouldn't ever be any reason for him to put things together."

"Honey, that might be so, but if this goes on for much longer, the public is going to wonder where Superman is!" The word was mouthed.

"He's been missing before!" Lois announced edgily. She didn't like where this was going, but past unfortunate incidents proved Clark had a point.

"And it's never long before the media starts asking awkward questions!"

"Hmph!" She might be a 'newspaper' woman, but just occasionally she wished she could consign the whole business to a black hole.

"It's not as if I want to go, honey," Clark reasoned. "In fact, I promised Clara that I'd stay right here… and I'd prefer to keep that promise. Let's just keep our options open."

"I suppose that would be best… and if you only stayed away for a short time, we could make some excuse to the kids…"

Pressing a grateful kiss on Lois' cheek, Clark conceded. "We don't have to make any decisions yet — we can wait and see what happens."

"By the way, that was a good save…"

"Pardon?" Clark's eyebrows did their questioning lift towards his hairline.

"The coughing! That was quick thinking, partner!"

"Actually, Lois, I'd like to take credit for a flash of inspiration, but I can't. The coughing was natural."

Immediately Lois pulled back in shock and stared apprehensively into his face, searching for signs that he too was getting sick. "Oh no, don't tell me you're catching this thing too! Clark, do you feel ill?!" She placed the back of her hand on his forehead and was relieved to find it still cool.

"No, honey. I've just got a bit of a dry throat… nothing to worry about!"

"Nothing to worry about! How can you say that! That's exactly the way it started with Clara and Joel…"

Clark caught at Lois' hands, which were showing a tendency to wave in his face. "Lois, I've had this cough since early this morning and I've sneezed a couple of times as well." Clark decided that honesty was the best policy here as he didn't know when these very natural expressions … well natural for normal people, would occur again. "But I don't have a temperature or aching muscles or any of the other symptoms. And remember, Lois, I've had this before, so maybe my body has developed some immunity to this bug. I think I just feel the way you do when you've caught a cold."

Allowing herself to be soothed, Lois relaxed back into his embrace. "I suppose that makes some kind of sense. But you would tell me if you suddenly started to feel worse?"

Enjoying the feel of Lois burrowing into his chest, Clark smiled into her silky hair. "I promise, sweetheart, you'll be the first to know!"

Satisfied that her husband wasn't about to join her children in a hospital bed, Lois seized on another point which had been causing her some consternation. "What about work?"

Lois' quick change of subject rattled Clark. "What about it? Honey, Perry threw me out! I doubt he's expecting me back at the Planet until the kids are doing better… and that goes for you too!"

"Thank goodness for Perry! But that wasn't what I was talking about." Lois' voice returned to hushed tones again. "Jimmy was checking into Joey Bermuda's whereabouts."

Clark gave a negative shake of his head. "He was still waiting on information about that when I left. But he had heard from his father." Lois leaned in eagerly, causing Clark to grin slightly. Even with all the worry over her children, she couldn't quite divorce herself from her job. "Seems they've taken into custody an armoury-sergeant who was stationed in the testing division for the theft of the fire-bombs. Jack was able to find out that he's been co- operating with the authorities, but unfortunately he hasn't been able to give them very much — other than that all contact was made through an intermediary whom he can't identify; his payment was always made in cash; oh, and one time he did hear the name of the 'bishop'."

"Bishop! I take it Jimmy's checking out any criminals with that name!"

"He was running a search, but, Lois, the man talked about the 'bishop'! Kinda like the 'boss' — Lex Luthor's gangland pseudonym!"

Lois stayed deep in thought for a long moment her face growing even more pale. "You don't think!"

"No, honey, Luthor's dead! They eventually dug up his body, remember… And unless some mad scientist has found some way to regenerate ash, I'm sure we've seen the last of him."

When Luthor's remains had been brought up from the tomb of the collapsed underground tunnel, the authorities had made the decision that cremation was the safest option to be certain of getting rid of the megalomaniac crimelord once and for all.

Many years might have passed since that time, but just the memory of Luthor managed to elicit a shudder of revulsion from Lois, and she felt Clark's arm tighten encouragingly around her. She wasn't about to let a ghost from the past throw her though. "The 'bishop'! Have we heard that alias before?"

"Nope… though Bobby did say a few weeks back that he'd heard a vague rumour about a priest. I told him to keep me informed if anything panned out, but he never mentioned it again."

The intense look on his wife's face told Clark that Lois had embarked on another of her intuitive mind journeys and he waited patiently for results. "Clark, what do priests and bishops have in common?"

"They're both in religious orders?"

"They both have something to do with the church!"

But Lois' thought was never completed due to the opening of the doors heralding the somewhat stormy arrival of Beth Klein, tailed closely by Bernard and Mia. Each one wore a jubilant smile of varying degrees.

"Lois, Clark, we think we've found a way of saving the children!" Bernard's enthusiasm overtook his professionalism and the words tumbled out of his mouth while his feet simultaneously tripped over the trolley by the door. His female companions pulled him back to an upright position and he finished with a triumphant flourish. "We finally got Mia's plants to work!"

The stunned parents regarded the newcomers with a mixture of stark horror and dawning relief. The words 'saving the children' brought home a truth that neither had found the courage to face. Whilst they'd both nursed private fears, they'd refused to accept that their children's status was indeed so dire. Yet, thanks to these wonderful people, it appeared that such a dreadful eventuality need not be faced.

"You've found a cure?" Lois asked breathlessly, while thoughts of religion and reverends faded completely out of her head.

The more prosaic, female Dr Klein chose to answer that one. "No, not a cure exactly. I'm afraid we're still working on that one. But we've infused normal drugs with Mia's concoction and, according to the tests we've done on the blood and tissue samples we have in the lab, we're sure they'll have a positive effect on Kryptonian physiology…"

Bernard, however, wasn't about to let his wife be the sole harbinger of good tidings. "Which means we can alleviate Joel and Clara's symptoms…"

"…Giving their bodies more resilience to destroy the virus." Beth understood Bernard's tendency to ramble and Lois and Clark deserved to hear the undiluted facts. "These are tried and tested drugs so they certainly won't make matters worse."

Meanwhile Beth's busy hands were setting down the metal box which she'd carried in with her on the top shelf of the trolley. Unlocking it deftly, she withdrew a number of vials, carefully perusing them, while her sometimes-gawky husband proved he could equal his wife's adroitness, when the occasion demanded, by finding and preparing a number of syringes. Lois, Clark and Mia watched quietly as the two doctors swiftly checked Joel and Clara's vital signs and after satisfying themselves that their patients were as stable as could be expected, Beth and Bernie injected a series of drugs into the IV lines attached to the children's arms.

"Now we wait, and pray that Joel and Clara respond," Beth said quietly as she stepped closer to her husband. This whole episode had unsettled her more than she could ever have realised. These children were like her surrogate grandchildren and she knew that in his own absentminded way, Bernard felt exactly the same. How could either she or Bernie have faced Lois and Clark if they'd been unable to save their children's lives? Of course, the kids weren't out of the woods yet, but thanks to Mia, her plants and her rainbow soil, Joel and Clara now stood a chance.

"Is that what you've been doing all this time, Bernie, working on this solution?" Once again, Clark was feeling very grateful that they had this brilliant man fighting in their corner.

"Well yes," Bernard admitted extremely abashed. "But it wasn't just me, Clark. Mia here has been the real trooper. She was the one who immediately realised that the amber kryptonite was the missing ingredient, and she's worked practically without rest to get the solution balanced just right."

Lois scrutinised the older woman closely and wasn't surprised to see that her tanned skin was etched with deeper lines and that her normally clear eyes were jaded. Once again, Lois' family had cause to feel exceedingly grateful that Mia Valliere had come into their lives. She crossed quickly to Mia and gave her an emotional hug. Lois wasn't always comfortable with expressing herself physically with those outside her relatives and close friends, but after their adventures together on Papillon she had long since ceased to think of this wonderful elderly lady as other than family.

"Thank you, Mia," Lois simply whispered and Mia's answering smile told her that the depth of her feelings were understood.

"I just wish we could have done more." Mia's weary arms returned Lois' squeeze.

"You've done enough," Clark admitted swallowing back unexpected tears.

"No, Clark, not yet, " Bernard informed the parents gently. "These drugs aren't going to kill the virus and, going by the kids' latest blood tests, the infection is still invading their systems. We've tried infusing the extract with ribavirin in various strengths but so far none of the solutions have had any impact on the virus. It's very probable that this particular anti-viral drug just doesn't work on this strain." At the look of utter dejection that settled on Lois and Clark's faces, Bernie added swiftly. "But we're not about to give up yet! We're going straight back to the lab to work…"

"Bernie!" The worried father set his own considerable concerns aside for a moment. "I'd say the three of you should head straight for bed! You all look fit to drop…"

"And, if you don't mind my saying so," Lois added somewhat acerbically, anxiety and fear for her children sharping her tone, "Joel and Clara aren't going to be helped if you're all worn out!"

Mia's arm rose to surround Lois' shoulder once more. "Don't you worry about us, my dear — we've already got that covered. We're going to sleep in turns! Bernard instructed his assistant to have one of the research wards made up into a sleeping-chamber. It's hardly the 'Ritz' but it will certainly do. Right at the moment I know that I could sleep in a stable!"

"And I've already managed to snatch forty winks while Mia and Beth were perfecting the compounds for administration, so I'm perfectly refreshed." Bernie straightened his customary bow-tie with flair and smiled brightly on his friends. "I'm ready to take the next shift, and I have one or two irons in the fire. An old colleague of mine works in the San Diego Research Lab for Infectious Diseases and they're always testing out new anti-viral drugs… The problem is that as soon as they come up with one that seems to have a positive result, the virus mutates… It's very frustrating, but they have made a few breakthroughs with some types…"

"Bernard!" his wife cut in crisply. "I'm quite sure that neither Lois nor Clark are ready for a lecture in medical research. But yes, we're hoping that Bernie's contact might allow us the use of one or two of the less experimental medicaments to mix with our own solution. It is a long shot, though, and you have to realise this." Beth hated to disappoint the younger couple so soon after giving them some optimism, but she refused to pretend that the situation was better than it was, and there was one thing they needed from Clark. She moved closer to him and spoke urgently. "If Bernard's friend comes through with this, we're going to need the drugs transported to Metropolis very quickly; is Superman's transport available?"

Clark looked over to Lois for confirmation but he was already nodding his head. "Just let me know when you need me."

"Good! Now we three have to get back to work." The careworn lady doctor locked her emotions into the back of her mind — Lois was correct — neither tiredness nor sentimentality were going to save Joel and Clara. Nonetheless, there was one concern that she needed to settle before she left. "How are you getting along with Hugh Campbell? He's only been on my staff for a couple of months, but he came here with excellent recommendations and I've found that his glowing reputation is well deserved. I've rarely come across a young doctor with such dedication and skill. I considered myself very lucky to acquire him — I did have quite a lot of competition."

"Oh, Hugh's been very good with the children," Lois was quick to praise. "And when Joel's temperature went up, he dealt with it wonderfully well. But it's more than just his ability; Hugh seems to really care."

"That's what impressed me too, Lois. I find that just as important in a doctor as medical expertise… of course, it's nice when you have both in the same package. As to Joel, I was so sorry I wasn't here when he needed me, but Hugh did exactly as I would, given the circumstances. Mind you, if the drugs we've given Joel take effect, then maybe we can get the poor boy off that dreadful ice mattress; I can feel the chill from here!" And Beth shivered sympathetically. "I'll leave instructions at the desk for Hugh."

For the first time since she'd started discussing her assistant, Beth allowed her glance to stray to Clark and she was very surprised to see a faint shadow of distaste colour his expression. That was very strange — Clark was normally the most affable of men. Perhaps the worry and tension of the situation were getting to him; after all, that would be completely understandable. Or perhaps the tiredness and the tension were getting to her and she was starting to imagine things. Yes, that was the more plausible explanation. Beth gave herself a salutary shake. "You know, Lois and Clark, you'd do well to take the advice you gave us and try to get some sleep. I'm pretty sure that Joel and Clara should be more comfortable for a time and the hospital usually quietens down a little for the evening, so you should take advantage of the peace." This advice was given kindly, then she returned to her normally no-nonsense attitude. "Come on, Bernie, Mia, let's get back to Star Labs — we've a lot of work still to do."

The three began to file out of the room, but not before Mia had dropped swift kisses on the children's sweaty brows, and stopping by Lois and Clark she laid a hand on each of theirs. "Try not to be too frightened for them. We'll beat this thing together… you'll see!" And with a misty smile she glided out of the door after the Kleins.


Chapter Eight: Going, Going, Gone!

Thankfully, Beth's hopes for the children's improvement certainly seemed to prevail for the earlier part of the night. Their sleep patterns settled down into a more restful rhythm, and it appeared easier for them to breath. The machine under Joel's bed was switched off, but it was felt that it would be premature to remove the mattress just yet. Joel would still not be happy with his shifting waterbed, but at least the freezing cold was gone and there were no more lumpy bits!

A short time before supper, Martha and Jonathan arrived with the other Kent youngsters. The normally redoubtable grandparents were stunned by the scene that greeted them, and to be told that this was an improvement was hard to accept. As parents they'd seldom been troubled by Clark's state of health, and it was only when he became Superman that they'd had cause to worry about his medical welfare. Seeing their much-loved grandchildren so very ill was like a dagger wound in their hearts. Yet they didn't flinch or break down — there would be time for them to cry later. Now it was their job to support their son and his wife, and in their warm and practical fashion they offered to sit with the invalids, while Lois and Clark lavished some much- needed attention on Julian and Nathan.

Both children seemed a little overcome at first, Julian because he was allowed in to see Joel and Clara for a few minutes and was quite upset to see how sick they looked. And, even though they'd wakened, they hadn't felt up to talking to him. Very quietly he'd told them how much he missed them, then stood in silence by his father's side as he watched them fall back asleep, his hand clinging to Clark's own for comfort.

Nathan, on the other hand, was disappointed that he'd been forbidden entrance into the 'special room' to see his brother and sister, but it was felt that the small boy might have been frightened by his siblings' condition and all the paraphernalia needed to keep Joel and Clara safe.

While Clark escorted Julian on his visit, Lois, had taken Nathan into the small parental-room and tried to distract him, a task which proved to be quite difficult, Nathan having become a little fussy lately, still mourning, when he remembered, the loss of his precious marbles. And he'd been lonely without his Mommy. It had only been a day and he'd had his Gramma and Granpa, but a day can sometimes be long for an unhappy little soul. Huge tears sparkled in his round eyes and clung to his thick lashes while he sobbed out all his woes.

"I missed yoo, Mommy! More than my marbles!" Nathan felt that his mother should know this important fact.

Lois found it hard not to grin. "I'm very glad to hear that," she said seriously, sitting by him on the bed, where she'd lifted him. After all, those marbles had been Nathan's pride and joy.

But it now seemed his feelings had suffered a reversal. "Yoo and Daddy was right! Mine toys were bad… very bad. They maked Joel and Clara sick! I shooldn't bringed them back."

"Oh, sweetie," she hugged him tightly, "that's not true! You're not to blame. The marbles weren't good but it wasn't their fault that Joel and Clara fell ill. That's something else entirely."

His big eyes regarded her earnestly. "What make 'em ill, Mommy?"

"We don't know, squirt." Lois pulled Nathan closer, taking comfort from his healthy sturdiness. "Aunt Beth and Uncle Bernard are trying to find out."

"An' when they doo, will they make Joel and Clara all better?"

"I hope so, sweetheart, I hope so!"

"Granpa Lane gived Nathan medicine when I got sick. I got better!" Nathan beamed at his flash of inspiration.

Lois smiled against his hair. Her father had looked after Nathan when he'd taken the cold last Christmas and as with any other normal toddler, the illness had run its course and Nathan had recovered no worse for wear. She just wished that things were so simple this time round. But, oh no! Her parents — they were at that conference abroad, and she'd forgotten to let them know about the kids! How could she have been so remiss? Sweeping Nathan up into her arms she bolted out the door and down the corridor where she almost collided with Clark, Jonathan and Julian, who were coming out of the sickroom.

"Lois, honey, slow down!" Clark declared, wrapping his arm round his wife and son to steady them. "Where's the fire?!"

"Clark, don't even joke about it," she warned, only too aware that he'd be tempted to run off if a serious emergency did occur. "It's my parents. I should've tried to get in touch with them!"

Jonathan replied to her mild hysteria in his low, reasonable tone. "Don't worry, Lois. Martha's taken care of that… Well, at least, she's trying to. She phoned their hotel and the clinic, but it seems they're off visiting some sanitarium in Switzerland. The hospital secretary that Martha spoke to was very helpful, though, and she offered to get a message through to Sam that he should phone home immediately. So far we haven't heard, but it'll be in the middle of the night over there, so she might not have tracked them down yet. But I'm sure they'll be getting in touch pretty soon."

"Thanks, Jonathan," Lois murmured, once again very grateful to her in-laws. "Maybe by the time they phone we'll have some better news for them."

"And it's going to take a while for them to arrange to fly home… unless you want me to?" With a look of speculation, Clark made the customary sign for Superman airways.

"No!" That was said in a rush. "I need you here. And it's not like you can fly supersonic when you have passengers. Plus you'd have to find them first, which would mean you'd be away too long."

"Not that long, honey!"

"No, Clark. My parents are going to have to find their own way home, if it's necessary! Unless…" But Lois' worried brain wouldn't allow her to contemplate the unless…

"I think Lois is right, son. Your place is here with the children. And, Lois, just you stop thinking about what ifs; it doesn't do anyone any good!" Jonathan scolded mildly. He could tell that Lois was living on a knife edge and was prepared to do all he could to help. A little normality was what was needed here. "Now, since Joel and Clara don't seem to be doing so badly, why don't you take these two down to the cafeteria and buy them some supper." He indicated the other two boys as he spoke. "And I'm pretty certain that you should both eat something too."

Lois protested quickly. "Clark and I had sandwiches for lunch!" Why was it that everyone was always trying to get her to eat? Didn't they understand that food was the last thing on her mind?

"Lois, that was a while ago, and, besides, it's not a suggestion it's an order," the older man replied in mock seriousness. "I told Julian and Nathan that they'd be eating with their mom and dad tonight, and you don't want to make a liar out of me." While his words were said teasingly, his inference was clear. Lois and Clark's two other children were scared and they desperately needed the reassurance of their parents' presence.

Capitulating with a gentle smile, Lois answered. "Now, you know I'd never do a thing like that. Are you guys hungry?" She turned her attention to Julian and Nathan. The toddler showed his enthusiasm at spending some time with his mom and dad by bouncing up and down in her arms. Julian's reaction was more subdued but even his face lit up at the thought. "You know, I think I could do with a little something to eat." And funnily enough, Lois realised, that pronouncement wasn't totally untrue.

"Okay, sounds like a plan to me. Let's go, kids!" Clark took Nathan from Lois' arms and set him on the ground, taking his hand to lead him to the elevator. "See you, Dad!"

Nathan waved bye-bye as he trotted off beside his father, while Lois mouthed a huge thank you to Jonathan. Somehow her in-laws always seemed to know what was best for her and her little family. "We won't be long," she called over her shoulder as she was pulled along by Julian.

"Take your time! Martha and I'll hold the fort down here!"


In a far more lugubrious part of the city, someone else was anticipating her night out — if her date ever arrived, that was. Mindy tapped her long, painted nails impatiently on the dusty window sill, as she once again checked the street outside. Where was Joey? They'd arranged to go out for supper tonight. She was fed up skulking in dreary motel rooms, eating cheap takeouts. Besides, she'd commandeered some of Joey's booty and, this afternoon, had taken herself off to a beauty salon where she'd treated herself to the 'full works'. Of course, it hadn't been one of the uptown salons she used to frequent; they were now way out of her league. Still, if she didn't say so herself, they hadn't done a bad job on her.

She let the moth-eared drapes fall back into place and wandered over to the full-length mirror on the closet door and renewed one of her favourite pastimes — studying her face and form. For a long time, the image that had come back to her had made her depressed and she'd dropped the habit, but today was different! She twisted and turned before the full-length mirror, touching her revitalised shiny hair and her toned-up face — that latest skin-peel treatment worked wonders. Then she slid her hands over her bountiful curves. They might be a little more generous than a couple of years ago, but that wasn't anything to be displeased about.

Not a bad job at all, she finally decided, finishing the inventory of her physical assets. See, the basic material was there for the beauticians to work on… she had good genes. Over these last years, she just hadn't been able to look after herself in the manner she deserved, but that was soon to change. And tonight would be the start of her new beginning.

A disgruntled grimace drew down her brows as Mindy acknowledged that they couldn't have dinner at one of her old haunts either — their funds weren't bottomless. And that probably wouldn't be a wise choice anyway. Now that she was looking more like her old self, it would be foolish to visit a restaurant where she might be recognised. Word might get back to Intergang and, if the rumours she'd heard were correct, then the man in charge would be ecstatic to hear that his former stepmother had walked back onto his patch. Bill Church Jr would like nothing better than to take his revenge on her for all the years he'd spent incarcerated in New Troy State Penitentiary. She was fairly sure that she wouldn't be able to placate him like she had that sap Joey!

Smoothing down her new dress, she frowned once more. Clothes didn't used to wrinkle over her stomach and hips that way. It must be the cut. That's what you got when you were forced into buying cheap imitations! She gave up her appreciation of her reflection and stomped back to the window. Where was that sap?

Thankfully for her unsuspecting partner-in-crime, she spotted him shuffling over the car park. Oh boy, the stupid fool better not have gone drinking while she was waiting for him. Joey's wife might have put up with that sort of behaviour but he would have to learn that she was no door-mat. She heard his key turn in the lock and with tired tread he shambled into the room, squinting his eyes to adjust to the dim interior.

"Where the hell have you been?" she demanded, pouting.

"What?" His eyes slowly focussed on the source of the angry voice. "Oh, Mindy, it's you!"

"Who did you expect? Minnie Mouse!"

Obviously that question didn't deserve an answer. He'd been working hard today, slaving over a hot test-tube, and his brain felt kinda fuzzy. There was no way he was gonna play this huffy dame's games. Sitting heavily on the bed, he gave her a hard stare, only then did he remember their plans for tonight. His eyebrows rose at the view, partly in appreciation and partly in indignation.

"New dress?" he enquired, his words tinged with sarcasm.

Mindy, however, was aware only of the admiration. Twirling on the spot, she asked coquettishly, "You like it?"

Someone should tell the brainless broad that she was much too long in the tooth to play the coquette. "Had your hair done too? Spending my money!"

The blonde hair was tossed sexily. "Just a little." Mindy chose not to mention the facial and the full body wrap. Draping herself beside him on the bed, she soothed her hand across his bent shoulders while she leaned closer to give him a full view of her cleavage. "Don't be a meanie, Joey. I only went to one of the local hairdressers, so it didn't cost much. I was just so sick of looking like something the cat dragged in! Anyway, when we get rid of Superman we'll be able to write our own ticket…" She gave him her most seductive smile. "I promise to pay you back every penny. And you were going to take me to dinner tonight. Surely you don't blame a girl for wanting to look her best when her beau is taking her out on the town." Beau seemed to Joey to be a slight misnomer. Patsy would be more apt — but that was the old Joey. This time round he wasn't about to let himself be double-crossed. If only he had more energy to put up a fight.

"You know, Mindy, I'm really kinda tired. Messing about with chemical reactions and things is a tricky job. How about we take a rain check?" Joey's words ended on a ticklish cough.

Pushing herself off the bed, she glared petulantly at her partner. "I don't like rejection, Joey!" she reminded him, with scarcely veiled menace.

Reluctantly, Joey chose to heed her warning. Maybe right now wasn't a good time to antagonise his vindictive partner. "Okay, Mindy. We had a date, and never let it be said that I'm the kind of guy to break my word. A night out with a lovely lady could be just what I need to pep me up." Joey almost choked on his false flattery. "Just give me a few minutes to shower and change my clothes. And I hope that this time there's hot water! I don't think my aching bones could take a dowsing in freezing water!"

Mindy watched as he wandered through the bathroom door. Thank goodness he intended cleaning himself up. When she'd cuddled close to him on the bed, he had smelt sorta sweaty… not the kind of thing she expected from her escorts. Was this night out a mistake? She just needed a little fun, and a lady couldn't go out alone in this part of Metropolis, not unless she wanted to attract the wrong kind of attention. Mindy might have been reduced to that life in Florida, but she was done with the gutter! Back in her city, she was aiming to be at the top again, and that meant not picking up strange men in lowdown bars. Having Joey in attendance would at least prevent any unwanted come-ons. He certainly didn't appear to be good for anything better at the minute. And if she did meet anyone who did take her fancy, Bermuda wouldn't be difficult to drop for an hour or two.

From behind the closed door, she heard the shower turn on. She also heard him start to cough again, and was that a sneeze? Oh god! Just what she needed — a date with a cough and a runny nose!


The short break in the cafeteria did Lois and Clark a world of good. It was hard to retain their depression in the company of a boisterous toddler, and even Julian's reserved empathy was soothing. Both adults and children had found they were hungrier than they'd believed and, if Lois' appetite had been quickly satisfied, she'd taken a great deal of comfort in the familiar habit of seeing that Julian and Nathan were properly fed. But all that was a couple of hours ago and Martha and Jonathan had long since taken their charges off home.

Now, surprise, surprise, Lois was once more alone in the sickroom, watching her precious invalids sleep. A short time ago, one of the nurses had delivered the message that Clark should get in touch with Dr Bernard Klein at Star Labs immediately. Clark had used the pay-phone in the corridor and discovered that Bernie's contact had come through for them and that the research chemist was prepared to release a drug, which had been tested pretty extensively on a number of pernicious viruses, for field trials under the supervision of his eminent friend. It wasn't made clear whether this arrangement had gone through the 'proper procedures' but no one was prepared to turn down such a donation. The fact that Superman was given rather covert instructions for the pick-up suggested that the transaction wasn't wholly above board, but, this time, the superhero didn't question the ethics of the situation. He headed off without a second thought.

Lois looked down at her watch one more time. Surely Clark should be back soon? Of course, she had to take into account the fact that he might take longer on the return journey, as he would want to make sure that his cargo arrived at Bernie's lab intact. There wouldn't be a second chance of getting more of this stuff. And then, he might hang around at the lab to get an update on the doctors' progress… but even allowing for all that, he should be here. Could Superman possibly have stopped by to check on those flood repairs? Lois could feel her irritation rise.

She could always try to contact him using Bernard's warning system — her tiny transmitter was next door in her purse. They'd mutually agreed that this was probably the most suitable method to remain in contact while he flew to the other side of the country and he'd taken his with him. But they'd also agreed it was to be used in emergencies only, and Lois wasn't sure that her nervous indignation qualified.

The sliding doors parted and she turned eagerly to confront Clark, only to be met with the mildly questioning glance of Hugh Campbell.

"Oh, it's you!"

"I'm sorry, Lois. I didn't mean to startle you," Hugh stated contritely, then allowed his eyes to stray around the room. His eyebrows rose expressively. "I see you're alone again!"

"Yes, Clark's not here… as you see." Lois felt a degree of vexation, but whether at the doctor's observation or because she was back to thinking up excuses for Clark's absence, she wasn't at all sure. "He… he's at home with our other children. You do know we have two other children? One's just a baby — well, a three-year-old. His grandparents are babysitting but we felt that one of us should be there to put him to bed because he was getting a bit finicky. Clark should be back any minute now."

"I'm sure that's very commendable," Hugh remarked, his expression not quite matching his words. "It must be very hard dividing your time between your kids — particularly when two of them are so sick."

Lois didn't want to have a discussion on parenting, especially since the topic had arisen due to a fabrication, so she took the opportunity to change the subject. "I was hoping that Joel and Clara were doing a little better."

"That's what I'm here to find out," he replied amicably and without further ado he proceeded to examine the patients. Lois' teeth nipped at her bottom lip as she watched. She was becoming quite familiar with the process. To her untrained eye both children had seemed to grow more restless in the last twenty minutes or so, and it didn't surprise her at all when Hugh remarked discouragingly, "Their temperatures are beginning to rise again and I don't like their colour." So Lois hadn't imagined the blue tinge around Joel and Clara's lips?

The doors slid open again, raising Lois' hopes. She really could use some of her husband's support right now. But it was only a nurse, wheeling a small drugs cabinet into the room.

"I'm sorry, Lois. My thoughtless talk has worried you once again." The masculine voice by the bed drew Lois' attention back to Hugh and he sent her a disarming smile. "I'd best be more careful or I'll have Clark after me for my indiscretions. And it's probably all due to the fact that Joel and Clara are due another dose of these wonder- drugs. You'll see, their condition will soon stabilise after the drugs have had a chance to work."

What Hugh didn't inform Lois was that he'd hoped for more of an improvement in the children's basic condition. While it was true these drugs wouldn't destroy the infection, he'd expected that in alleviating Joel and Clara's symptoms, their bodies' immune system would fight the virus. Evidently that wasn't happening. Yet it was early days and perhaps in the next few hours they would see some progress. He didn't like to consider the alternative — the children growing ever weaker until the virus overwhelmed them totally and their vital organs started to shut down. He was determined to do everything in his power to ensure that this lovely, courageous woman didn't have to face that reality.

Between them, the doctor and the charge nurse efficiently administered the drugs directly into the IV systems, then unobtrusively started to withdraw. Hugh, however, couldn't restrain himself from reaching out to touch Lois' shoulder in a supportive squeeze as he passed her by. "Try not to worry overmuch. This is only the second time we've given them the medication. It's much too early to expect results."

Lois smiled back in gratitude and it was this little tableau that first met Clark's eyes as he negotiated his way past the nurse and trolley into the room. He wasn't particularly pleased by the view, but not wanting to renew Lois' displeasure and, knowing how well his wife could read him, he swallowed a rankled retort and stuck to the safer topic of the kids' health. "But you do expect some betterment soon, Doctor?"

"Clark, you're back?" That much was obvious! But Hugh needed the time to compose himself. What did he think he was doing, forgetting his professionalism like that with a married woman? He concentrated on answering Kent's question. "Well, there are no guarantees, but usually the human body manages to cope with viral infections. I don't see why this infection should be any different, even though it is especially… unusual." Hugh had been about to say virulent but decided at the last moment that that might be too shocking. "As long as we can prevent any bacterial infections from piggy-backing in along with the virus, and we're doing everything we can to deal with that, then there's no reason why Joel and Clara can't beat this thing." Hugh began edging towards the door. "By the way, Clark, I hope you managed to placate your other little boy and get him off to sleep."

From behind Hugh's back, Clark could see Lois making hand signs and attempting to mouth some obscure message. Oho! Were they back to making excuses for his disappearing? And did symbiosis really work, because he knew exactly what Lois was trying to tell him?

Clark inclined his head evasively. "Thanks for your concern! Children of Nathan's age can be a bit difficult when their routine is broken." He flushed, feeling distinctly uncomfortable with yet another misdirection… but Nathan was upset by his parents' stay at the hospital…

"I'm sure that's true! And I'm glad you managed to sort things out. But now I have to make my rounds. I'll look in later and, once again, if you're worried by anything at all, just ring for the nursing staff."

The moment the doors of the anteroom closed on Hugh and they were alone, Lois confronted Clark. "Where have you been?"

"I'm sorry, honey, that took longer than I expected. I think, maybe, Bernie's friend had a little difficulty getting the drug out, because he was late coming to the meeting place. I can tell you, it didn't feel very comfortable being Superman and skulking around on that beach, even though it was supposed to be secluded. It's kinda difficult keeping a low profile when I'm in the suit!"

"Couldn't you have hidden in the clouds or something?" Lois suggested helpfully.

"Sweetheart, this is the West Coast we're talking about; there weren't any clouds! And the guy said he'd be keeping a lookout for Superman. I didn't want to risk missing him."

"Did anyone else spot you?"

"Only a bunch of surfers! I even got asked for my autograph."

That brought a grin to Lois' face. "Did they want to know what you were doing?"

"Yes, they did, and I had to break one of Superman's cardinal rules… I told them I was there on a conservation issue. Thank goodness they were packing up and had left before my contact showed up."

"But you didn't totally lie, sweetheart. You were there to help conserve our children's health. What could be more important than that?" Lois leaned up and kissed his cheek. Clearly, it hadn't been Superman's fault that he'd been late getting back and now she felt more than a little guilty for her less than charitable thoughts.

"Nothing, honey. Nothing at all." Clark twisted his face and touched his lips to Lois', letting the kiss linger for a second or two before drawing back. "I dropped off the medication at Star Labs and Bernie was already working on it when I left. He's determined to find a cure."

Lois wanted to make amends for her earlier and unwarranted annoyance. "You look tired, Clark. Why don't you sit down and I'll fetch you a coffee."

"Thanks, honey! Coffee would be nice."


Around midnight, the dreaded witching hour, a lonely silence descended over the pediatrics department of Metro General. The staff went about their routine checks calmly and unhurriedly, which Clark decided was not a bad thing. It meant, in general, there were no medical emergencies in progress and, in particular, that Joel and Clara were sleeping peacefully… or as peacefully as the infection that raged through their veins would allow.

The little room was darkened, with its blinds drawn — the only sources of light were the dimmed strip lights above the two beds, shedding an anaemic glow on the faces of Joel and Clara. In the stillness, the muted beeping of the monitoring machines droned on. They fretted on Clark's nerves but he could put up with the annoyance when he considered what the alternative would mean. Once more he rose and wandered randomly about the room, his hands automatically pushing anxiously through his hair.

Joel and Clara had settled down again when the latest dose of the medicines had taken effect on their systems, which had to mean that Mia and the Kleins' concoctions were working. So, didn't it follow that the drug he'd brought back, mixed with the plant extract, would kill this virus?

When Joel and Clara recovered, Clark promised himself, he would never again complain of music played over loudly — an especial annoyance to his sensitive ears — arguments over which pop star or sports team was the best, which fast-food chain should be visited, or any of the other myriad things over which his children frequently squabbled. A tired grin crossed his face fleetingly as he realised he'd give anything for a repeat performance of a remote control bursting through a bedroom wall. Was it only a few days ago that Lois and he considered amber kryptonite to be the worst of their problems?

On the edge of the darkness, Lois stirred in her large chair. The blanket had been pushed off and was now bunched around her legs, giving testament to her own troubled sleep. Clark hurried to her to straighten out the covers and tuck them round her. The night air in the room had chilled.

"What time is it?" Lois' whispered question startled him from his task.

"Just past midnight, honey. You know you're not going to get much sleep in that chair. Why don't you go next door to bed; you're exhausted."

"No, Clark. I'm fine and this recliner is really quite comfortable. I'd rather be here with them in case they wake up."

"Well, I don't think that either of them are going to do that anytime soon. They're sleeping soundly."

Lois pulled herself up using her husband as a crutch and went to stand between the two beds, her eyes straying from one child to the other. "I just wish they didn't look so spent."

"Joel and Clara are having to put up a tremendous fight, sweetheart, but, you'll see, it's one they're going to win." Clark had come to join her by the beds and his arm snaked around her waist, pulling her against his solid body… sharing his physical strength, as he tried to cheer her with his words.

"You've changed your tune!"

"Thanks to you!" Clark pressed a kiss to Lois' brow. "You were the one who wouldn't listen to my pessimism. And you were right! We have to stay hopeful for Joel and Clara's sake." Unfortunately, for Clark's attempt at raising his wife's spirits, a sharp cough stopped his words.

Lois leaned back against his encircling arm to search her husband's face. "Clark, you're coughing again! Have you got a fever?" She immediately placed the back of her hand on his brow.

"Honey, I told you before that I've been coughing and sneezing, but apart from that I feel fine." Her hand was caught and held by Clark.


"Yes, really! Definitely no fever!" Clark resorted to the old tactic of crossing his fingers behind Lois' back. Actually, he didn't feel warm. If anything he found the room a bit cool. He suppressed a shiver. Thank goodness he could control his body instinctively. Lois had enough worries with Joel and Clara, and he didn't really feel ill… just cold.

Lois wrapped her arms tightly round him. "It's probably because it's getting a little cooler in here. I think the hospital staff needs to turn up the heating. Mind you, they might not want the kids to get overheated." She wiggled her body closer to him. "You know, maybe we could keep each other warm in that chair… and get some sleep too."

Clark regarded the chair appraisingly. "It is a very big chair, and being married does mean we should share everything."

Lois smiled to show she agreed totally. With a lightening of mood, Clark picked up his very compliant wife and started towards their bed for the night. It wouldn't be the most comfortable resting place, but Clark could sleep on air and Lois was so tired she was ready to nap standing up.

But the best-laid plans go awry even for superheroes. Or should that be 'frequently' for those who take on the task of caring for the world? Clark's eyes took on that faraway look which meant he was hearing something no ordinary mortal could. Of course, it was noticed immediately by the woman in his arms.

"What?!" The troubled shade that clouded Clark's eyes and creased his brow informed Lois that this was a serious emergency. And that would be a dreadful pity. She was not a heartless woman, but if there was an earthquake or a flood in some distant part of the world tonight, then, sadly, the victims were going to have to rely on the emergency services. Clark had given his word that he'd stay right here.

"It's another one of those explosions down at Hobbs Bay!" he whispered in her ear as he set her feet on the floor. "The Gateway! It's a hostel for runaway kids. They're calling in fire-crews from other precincts. The fire's rapidly getting out of control and there are children trapped. They've put a call out for ambulances and an on- site ER unit." Clark dictated the messages he was picking up from both police and emergency services, his voice toneless. His instincts prompted him to go, but he'd promised to stay.

"Clark, the fire service will deal with it!"

"But, Lois, you don't understand. These new incendiary devices mean that the fire burns hotter, so it spreads more quickly. And that building is over a hundred years old. It was built as an orphanage back in the late 1800s and it's like a rabbit-warren… long passages, narrow stairs. It hasn't been renovated in decades, so the electrical system is probably flawed…"

"You seem to know a lot about it."

"Superman takes an interest, you know — drops in now and again. The kids are underprivileged and quite a few have been in trouble with the law to some degree. They've run away from their homes for god knows what terrible reasons. Some of them are barely into their teens and they've seen things… put up with things that would horrify us. They have nothing — no families to take care of them. 'The Gateway' is their refuge and now it's become a death trap…"

Lois searched Clark's drawn face for what seemed like an eternity. She hated seeing the most compassionate man in the world torn in this way. These were extremely troubled kids whom he cared about and, right now, they needed him — but they were strangers. His own children needed him too — but were Joel and Clara in such immediate danger? Her eyes strayed to the beds where they were sleeping. They looked pale and weak but not in any crucial distress. Lois made the only decision she could.

"Go!" Lois uttered baldly.

Clark's gaze came back to her from his contemplation of the floor. "Go? You want me to go?"

"No, I don't want you to go… but I don't want you not to either. It's obvious you can make a difference, and Joel and Clara aren't in any difficulty right now. Besides, you're right in what you said before — if Superman doesn't show up, people are going to start asking questions. And we can't afford that! So, go and be Superman! If you hurry, Joel and Clara will probably never know that you've been gone."

"Thank you, Lois." Clark's hand caressed her cheek in the so familiar gesture. "You really are the best. I don't know what I'd do without you!" He reached down and kissed her fleetingly before turning to go… but Lois dragged at his arm.

"You have your pager?"

"Safely tucked away in the cape," Clark reassured tenderly, his voice hushed. Then he was off, anxious to find somewhere private where he could change into his alter-ego, his mind already overtaken by the formidable task in front of him.

Watching the space where she'd last seen her husband, Lois bemoaned the fact that she and her children were now relegated to the back of Superman's concentration. Not forgotten — never forgotten! But compartmentalised, and it couldn't be any other way. People's lives depended on Superman doing his job quickly and efficiently and he couldn't do that if he was forever thinking and worrying about what he'd left behind. Still, she couldn't stop the hurt that was threatening to overcome her. With heavy steps she retraced her way to the chair and sank into its depths, pulling the blanket around her. She felt cold, but whether it came from within or the lowering temperature of the room, she couldn't be sure.

Clara coughed and she hurried to her daughter's side, but the child hadn't wakened. Lois gently stroked her daughter's hair when abruptly her hand stilled. Clark had been coughing too. Oh my god! He'd left, on what could be a very dangerous rescue, and he could be getting sick.


Chapter Nine: A Superhero's Farewell?

The skyline along Hobbs Bay was bathed in a pulsing vermilion glow, reminding Superman of his stay on Papillon. This might not be a volcanic eruption, but, if his experience with the home for the elderly was anything to judge by, then the fire he was fast approaching was an extremely hazardous situation.

As he drifted in the heated air over the burning building, urgently considering his best options for tackling the blaze, another loud explosion shattered the air and informed him there was no time for contemplation. He watched in dismay as a firefighting team was thrown to the ground while above them the gable wall buckled and bowed, threatening to crush them in its fall. The superhero swooped down, plucking up the firemen who seemed to be in most danger, and carried them to a position of safety. It had only taken a moment or two, but by the time he'd returned to the others, the old red bricks were raining heavily, singly and in larger sections, upon their victims. Superman threw himself forward, casting his cloak over the remaining crew, protecting them with his body. He waited for long seconds while the bombard seemed to settle, then, picking up the remaining firemen, he flew them carefully to the waiting paramedics. Thankfully, his speedy x-ray scan had shown that most of his passengers seemed to be suffering only from cuts and bruises, but before he'd had time to verify this, terrified screams pierced the night.

Glancing upwards, he could see a number of frightened young faces leaning over the parapet of the ancient building. Some of the youngsters had sought safety on the roof of the three-storey building and they were shouting and waving to attract the attention of their rescuers. But now, hungry flames were leaping from the open windows below, ribbons of fire seeking out fresh fuel and driving the survivors backwards towards the already smoking slates.

"Damn! Whoever set this must have meant business. There must've been at least three of these firebombs planted in there." The fire chief had come to stand by the uniformed hero. "Thank goodness you showed up, Superman, or these kids would be in a lot more trouble than they already are. We're having difficulty getting the ladders in close enough to reach the roof. And the heat of those flames is diabolical. It's going to take some time before I can order my men inside. Can you bring them down?"

Superman took only a second to assure the fire boss, then he hurried to his mission of rescuing those in danger. For thirty minutes or so, Superman didn't have time to talk or hardly even to breathe. The teenagers on the roof were only a small number of the residents who were trapped. In narrow cell-like bedrooms and larger dormitories, wreathed in searing smoke and toxic fumes, he found little groups of frightened boarders whom he carried to safety. But fast as he was, for some it wasn't enough. Many were suffering from burns and smoke inhalation, and nearly all were thoroughly traumatised.

In his last sweep of the virtually burnt out structure, Superman was surprised to see a huddled human form in a tiny cupboard under the stairwell. It was amazing that the little cubicle was still intact, since the steps above it had been burnt through and the plaster walls were but a skeleton of their former selves. He couldn't tell if the person who'd taken refuge was a boy or girl, nor whether he or she was alive or dead. With a heavy heart, Superman picked his way through the rubble, shifting aside the charred remnants of the timber wall struts and fallen roof beams until he reached his goal. He placed his hand on the old brass door knob and didn't feel its heat. Fearfully, he pulled the door open and was surprised when it came away in his hand. The sweltering air rushed out, threatening to create a back-draught and Superman immediately cooled it with his breath.

Inside a blackened, sooty body was curled up on itself, but from the slight quivers which swept convulsively through it, Superman knew that whoever this was had survived… barely. The superhero divested himself of his cape and, with the greatest of caution, wrapped it around the fragile figure. Effortlessly, he lifted the body into his arms and began floating above the piles of destruction to deliver his stricken burden to the medical emergency unit.

So intent was he on the safety of his charge, he didn't notice the trailing edge of his cape catch in the ruins of the doorway, or Superman's emergency pager fall from the folds to drop amongst the crumbled masonry, burying itself in the layers of scalding ash. Instead, his attention was solely focussed on the thready pulse of the boy, willing it to continue. At least, by the time he'd handed his charge over to the doctors, he'd ascertained the sex of the survivor, but whether the word survivor was applicable was definitely in question.

But the boy's plight had reminded him of his own offspring and, after a final check that the building was now cleared of people and that the firefighters could cope with making what remained of the hostel safe, he moved to the shadows of the nearest alleyway to take his leave.

"Superman, wait!" came a familiar voice from the back edge of the curious crowd.

"Jimmy?" The figure in blue halted a few feet above the ground and drifted towards the direction of the voice. "I'm sorry, I didn't know you were here!"

"I'm not surprised, you were a bit too busy to spot anyone." The Daily Planet reporter moved away from the groups of onlookers who'd turned up to watch the tragedy. "I was at the Planet when the news came in so I thought I'd cover the fire. There's a pretty good chance that it'll tie in with our investigations. Mind you, I didn't expect to see you here!"

Superman shrugged and looked over at the stark remains of the old orphanage. "There were lives at risk here… how could I stay away? And Lois agreed." Painful tears threatened to obscure his vision. He'd discovered that a number of the kids had already succumbed to their injuries. Later on, it would help to know that many more had lived because of his efforts, but not yet. "Jimmy, I was told that there were probably three incendiary devices in that building, so I'm sure you're right. We'll talk later, but now I have to go."

"CK… Superman, wait! I found out some things about Joey Bermuda! That's what I wanted to talk about. It won't take long!"

Again Superman delayed his take-off, weighing his options. Jimmy's information could be important to his children's recovery… and the kids were probably still okay because his pager hadn't picked up any emergency calls from Lois. Mind you, now that he was back in the city she could always resort to the tried and tested method of screaming 'Help Superman!'. But, if they wanted to keep the Man of Steel's involvement with the children to a minimum, then sticking to the pagers seemed to be the best alternative. And since he'd heard neither, maybe he could take some time out to listen to Jimmy.

In the background, the attendant press corps was growing restless, waiting to glean whatever information they could about this second suspicious fire in the area. A particularly diligent reporter from the Star, aware of the Planet's long association with the superhero and believing this was a surefire way of getting the story, had latched onto James Olsen in a manner resembling a leech. The pushy newsman watched eagerly as his quarry had seemed to wander aimlessly away from the source of the story. Now, on the periphery of the action, he spied the blue-uniformed hero in close discussion with the Planet reporter. Bingo! He knew it! And he wasn't about to let Olsen scoop him or any of his colleagues. Alerting the others with a resounding shout, he ran towards the two men, the press pack converging on his heels.

The decision more or less taken out of his hands, Superman turned back to his friend. "Okay, but not here! Hang on tight, Jimmy," he warned as he scooped up the younger man and soared into the night sky, the still-smouldering embers of the tragic scene dropping away beneath them.

James Olsen had in the past few years travelled all over the world in search of stories, but he wasn't, as yet, a frequent-flyer with Superman airways. Much as he wanted to give CK the impression that he was taking it all in his stride, he did cling harder than was probably required and for the life of him he couldn't find his voice. He'd most likely left it lying on the ground alongside his stomach!

"Pretty fantastic, isn't it?" Superman's voice sounded amused.

"You bet!" a dumbstruck Jimmy ground out.

"Even now I still get a kick out of flying. Lois loves it too. It's a pity, but with our jobs and the kids and all, we don't get the chance to go flying for fun very often these days."

"No more trips to Paris for candle-light dinners or moonlight strolls on deserted beaches, huh?" Jimmy commiserated.

"How did you guess?"

Jimmy was starting to relax. "Hey, it's what any red- blooded male would do to impress his best girl… if he could, that is!"

"You think so?" Superman grinned. Then reality intruded, reminding him that he and Lois had difficulty coping with life in general, never mind having time to have 'fun' with each other. "Well, we don't get much of a chance for that ever since the kids came along," he admitted, grimacing at his private double-entendre. "Of course, both our parents are happy to babysit, but only Mom and Dad are in on the secret and the Lanes like to have a contact number, so we can't stray too far from home." Mind you, that situation had altered lately, and he surmised that Ellen would probably be quite happy to let her daughter and unique son- in-law fly whereever they wished. She'd no doubt be thrilled to have the world's future superheroes in her charge. Oh boy! He wasn't very sure whether that would bode well for the world! Though, to be honest, Ellen's heart was in the right place, it was just her nerves that were a bit… out there!

If only Ellen and Sam's first marriage had worked out as successfully as their second, then Ellen would probably be a better adjusted woman. And it was highly likely that his own wife wouldn't have suffered from so many of the hangups which had plagued her when they'd first met. That, nonetheless, mightn't be such a good thing. He was reminded of the frequent warnings from H G Wells which stated that changing the past often led to anomalies in the future. With a happier childhood behind her, Lois could well have been less career minded and already married with kids by the time he'd made it to Metropolis and the Daily Planet. Now there was a terrifying thought!

"I can see where you're coming from." The voice close to Superman's ear interrupted his contemplation. "Having kids must certainly keep your feet on the ground!" The friends shared a laugh, both individually astonished at how naturally they were joking about the unnatural subject of flying. "Where are we heading to anyway?"

Now completely at ease, Jimmy searched the landscape beneath him. The lights from houses were more scattered and the road lighting more sparse than before, meaning they were probably leaving the city behind. Far below, he watched a solitary shaft of light from a car's headlights snake along a winding road. Inconsequentially, he noted that the beam could do with realigning — that driver must be birdwatching amongst the trees.

"There's a gorge up in the Catskills that's pretty unreachable unless you're an experienced climber or can fly, so I doubt we'll be disturbed. It has a great view, only you won't be able to appreciate it in the dark." Clark's smile of apology flashed white in the velvet night. "Also it's close enough to Metropolis for me to still be in range of Lois' signaller." Regrettably, the superhero had been so upset with the condition of the boy he'd rescued, he hadn't thought to check the hidden pocket of his cape when it had been returned to him by the emergency medics, and so was unaware that his lifeline to his family was now a mass of melted circuitry lying amongst the ruins of 'The Gateway'. "If I'm paged it won't take me too long to get back to the hospital, though I guess it'll be a bumpy ride for you."

"But you won't vaporise me or anything?" Jimmy quipped, beginning to enjoy the trip.

"James, I haven't lost a passenger… yet!" Superman teased back.

The two alighted in a sparse stand of trees on the edge of a high platform of rock over which spilled a narrow, fast- flowing waterfall. Far below them and away to the east was the bright glow of Metropolis.

"You're right, Superman. I bet this is a spectacular sight at sunrise!"

"I'll bring you back for that someday when things are back to normal."

"I'd like that!" Jimmy shouted above the steady fall of water as it boomed its way to the river bed in the gorge beneath. "It's a bit noisy here though!"

"There's a fallen tree back here through the scrub that makes a good bench and the bushes mute the sound. We should sit down if we're going to talk."

Clark had spent over twenty-four hours sick with fear for his children, and in the last hour or so Superman had worked tirelessly to put out a conflagration which had threatened to claim the lives of many more kids and the firemen who battled to save them. He was weary to the bone and his suggestion was just as much for himself as for his friend.

Jimmy let CK lead him safely through the copse in the blackness, though his eyesight was clearly growing used to the lack of artificial light. In the fitful moonlight, he could now make out shapes of individual trees and the red and blue of Superman's uniform was vaguely coming into focus. He saw CK sit on the flat top of the fallen log and quickly joined him, the two sitting in amicable silence for a few infinitesimal moments, gazing out over the silvery shadowed landscape.

But Clark, aware that his time was precious, returned immediately to the reason for them being here. "What did you find out?"

"Joey Bermuda's no longer in prison…"

"What? Did he escape? How come we weren't informed?" Clark's words tumbled one over the other in his shock at the news.

"No," Jimmy said edgily, wishing he wasn't the bearer of these bad tidings. "He was let out — his conviction was quashed."

If Bermuda was on the loose, then there was a pretty good chance that he was responsible for Joel and Clara's predicament. Superman brought his fist down on the wooden surface, barely managing to control his ire. Yet, even tempering his strength, Jimmy felt the trunk beneath him tremble. "But how could that happen?" Clark demanded, his face stern and frozen.

Clearing his throat, Jimmy explained as concisely as possible. "The main witness against Bermuda — the Intergang employee who turned state's evidence — got cancer; the kind they can't do anything about. Anyway, the guy decided he wanted to clear his conscience before he went to meet his maker, so he started confessing to numerous crimes. One of them being committing perjury against Joey Bermuda. He admitted that Joey had told the truth at the trial — namely that he'd been framed by the boss of Intergang."

"That's rubbish! Those lethal toys had the Handyman's modus operandi written all over them. And I don't suppose that this villain's conscience extended to revealing the identity of the particular boss?"

"You got it, CK! But regardless of what we feel, it seems the appeal court believed there was enough truth in the guy's statement to make the conviction unsafe and Bermuda walked free."

A quick inhalation of super breath caused the withering golden leaves to shake and even some to fall. "I still don't understand how Lois and I couldn't know about this!" He was up on his feet and striding back and forth in front of Jimmy.

"It happened just over a year ago, around the time you and the family went over to the UK. According to Perry, Beth and Bernard Klein had been kidnapped and you and Lois were pretty preoccupied searching for them and trying to get them away from some mad English lord who wanted to steal some of Superman's DNA. You know, just the usual summer vacation stuff for you and Lois." Jimmy could see that this attempt to lighten CK's mood had fallen on deaf ears and he admitted to himself that it had been a pretty foolish notion. He continued in a more sombre, yet sympathetic, tone. "I doubt you were paying much attention to anything that was happening back home.

"Exactly, Jimmy!" Clark was quick to seize on his friend's insight into Superman's often turbulent life style. "And for months afterwards there was all the business of adopting Julian and arranging for his inheritance to be put into a trust fund. It was all worth it in the end, of course, but the red tape we had to go through to get there… Believe me, sometimes dealing with bureaucracy is just as bad as dealing with criminals and much more frustrating!" He was continuing with his pacing and a small trench was starting to appear in the thin soil that coated the rock formation. "Then there was the terrorist bomb and Dad's heart attack… not to mention what happened on Papillon! Sometimes, Jimmy, I think Lois and I are never going to get a break."

At the mention of the assault on the school, Jimmy flinched, but the superhero was so immersed in his own long tale of woe that, uncharacteristically, he didn't notice his friend's blanched face. "And now you tell me that the Handyman is back on the streets and infecting my kids with his deadly virus."

Jimmy swallowed hard and pushed his memories of Kiaya to the back of his mind. "It kinda looks that way, CK. Not that I could find out anything from the authorities. Seems Joey's suing them for wrongful imprisonment and they're being pretty tight-lipped about the whole thing. But I did some of my own digging around and I came up with a few things."

This caught Superman's attention and he returned to stand over the younger man. "Go on, James, spit it out! I don't have time for guessing games!"

"Okay! But sit down, will you?" James indicated a place by his side, amazed at his own temerity. He'd never have ordered Superman around like that, but hey… this was CK. "You don't know how intimidating you appear, standing and frowning over a guy like that!"

"Sorry," Superman answered a little sheepishly. "Forgot I was in the suit." Both men smiled faintly at that admission, and gratefully Clark relaxed his body and did as Jimmy instructed. "You'll have to forgive me if I'm a bit upset. It's just that it makes me so angry when criminals use the kids to get at me."

"Hey, CK, no sweat! It makes me pretty mad too… and determined to find out who's doing this." Jimmy's hand landed on the blue-clad shoulder next to his in a gesture that was both natural and comforting. "Joel and Clara are going to get through this, Clark." His friend nodded and Jimmy let his hand fall away, the moment of bonding over for now. When Jimmy continued it was in a more businesslike vein. "I recalled that Bermuda was a big family man, so I felt that if I couldn't trace him, I would maybe have some luck with his family."

"Good thinking, Jimmy! Did it work?"

"Not with the wife — she left him about a couple of years into his sentence. Took off with some other man to parts unknown." Seeing CK's dejection, Jimmy hurried on. "But Joey has a mother!"

Clark cast his mind back over the years. "Yeah, I vaguely remember an elderly lady at the trial. So what's Mrs Bermuda been up to?"

"Actually, she's a Mrs Bell. She remarried when Joey was a teenager, and big surprise, Joey didn't get along with his new step-dad, who, even more surprisingly, met with a tragic accident within a couple of years of his marriage…"

"Jimmy, are you suggesting…?" Clark's eyebrows rose questioningly.

"You have to admit it's not too far out there, CK. Maybe the Handyman started work at an early age. But it was a long time ago and that's not the problem. I decided that I'd do some research into Mrs Bell and I found out that this old lady has been renting a warehouse in an tiny alleyway not much more than a stone's throw from the back of the Daily Planet."

"Why would a senior citizen need warehouse space?"

"That's the big question. And the funny thing is she's been paying the rent ever since Joey was locked up."

"You think that some of Bermuda's inventions could be stored away there?"

"I did some checking up into the transcripts of the trial too, and though they found all the blueprints for Joey's gadgets, they never did find the actual weapons. It's a fair assumption that they've been stashed somewhere for years. And get this, when I looked up Mrs Bell…"

"You went to see her?" Clark asked, caught between disappointment and disapproval. "If you've alerted her to the fact we're onto her and her son that warehouse is probably just an empty shell now!"

"Hey, CK, calm down! I'm not that green! I learned my trade from the very best, remember." That brought another fond grin. "I just meant I went round to Mrs Bell's apartment block. Nice place, nothing very luxurious, but tidy and clean — the janitor does good work. He's also a very observant guy and real chatty with it too, if the price is right. He told me that Mrs Bell had a visitor a few days ago. He remembered because she doesn't often get callers."


"That he didn't know, but the man did fit the description. I should've taken over a photograph, but it was all done in a bit of a hurry. I could send Stefan over tomorrow and we'd have a positive ID."

"I wouldn't bother, Jimmy." Clark pulled his cloak closer around him; it was pretty chilly up here. "Joey hasn't broken any laws visiting his mother. I'm more interested in that warehouse."

"Me too, and I plan on checking that out later today."

"I'd offer to go with you, but I'm kinda tied up at the hospital. Lois has borne the brunt of taking care of Joel and Clara and she could do with a break."

"No problem, CK!"

"So you be careful — don't go taking any silly risks and shout if you need help."

"Hey, I'm not a cub reporter anymore, big guy! I've been taking care of myself in quite a few tricky situations these past few years," Jimmy assertively reminded the man who had once been his mentor, then decided to relent. "But I will call on 'you know who' in an emergency."

"Good! I'll keep my ears open!"

"And I'll swing round by the hospital if I have anything positive to report."

"Sounds like a plan." Clark was nodding his head in agreement, but his feet were beginning to tap in agitation. Clearly, he thought this conversation was winding down and he was anxious to return to his family.

But the second mention of the past had raised a question in Jimmy's mind. One which he needed an answer to. "CK, there's something I'd really like to know before we go back."

A flash of irritation crossed Clark's face, but he quickly repressed it as he noticed the desperation and hesitation in his friend's eyes. This was no trivial subject Jimmy was about to raise. And all seemed to be quiet in Metro General. Probably the kids were getting some much needed sleep and allowing Lois to get some too. A dreamy smile turned up the corners of his mouth as he imagined the scene of Lois snuggled in the big recliner while her children, helped by the new drugs, finally slept peacefully.

"Please, CK. I wouldn't hold you up unless it was important." Staring up at the figure wrapped in the red cape, he almost lost his nerve, yet he pushed back his misgivings and went on. "This has been bothering me for a while… ever since I found out you were Superman. I promise it won't take long."

"Okay. There's been no emergency calls from the hospital, so I can spare a few minutes more. What's the problem?"

"When Kiaya went missing from our hotel room, just how hard did Superman try to find her?" There he'd said it — no frills, no hesitation, just the cold, hard question.

If Clark had been puzzled by what had been troubling Jimmy, he certainly hadn't suspected that. "What?"

"You know, you're Superman. You have special powers and I know you use them to find people. You looked for Kiaya when she ran off after the bombing, but you didn't find her until it was too late."

Superman sat down heavily on the log. He was pretty sure that his legs wouldn't hold him anymore. This topic came right out of left field and it hit him like a sledge hammer. "What are you accusing me of, Jimmy?"

This time it was Jimmy who jumped up and began pacing in front of the makeshift bench. "I don't know! I didn't really think I was accusing you of anything."

"Well, you'll forgive me, but it certainly sounds like it!"

"Superman, that's not what I meant." Judging by the thunderous look on the hero's face, Jimmy thought it was prudent to give him his full title. "Superman, I know you well enough to know you wouldn't deliberately let anyone die. That's not the way you work! But maybe you didn't realise that Kiaya's life was in danger." Marching up and down and pushing his hands through his hair, Jimmy was giving a fair imitation of Clark when he was most harassed. "I mean, you couldn't know for certain that Umar ibn Said was out to kill her… she was one of his compatriots, for goodness' sake. And this never occurred to me until I found out who you really were… I mean, why should Superman take a personal involvement in my life, yet my best friend might. So maybe Clark assumed that I'd be better off if my terrorist wife just disappeared out of my life…"

"… and I didn't search too diligently?" Could Jimmy really think he'd do that? He dropped his elbows to his knees and sitting forward covered his face with his hands. "You don't have much faith in me." The muffled, defeated statement carried to Jimmy on the tiny breeze.

"I had faith in Superman and even more in CK. But I'm not sure who you are anymore."

That brought the hunched figure's head up. "I'm still Clark Kent, Jimmy. I always have been — I always will be. Sure, Superman is part of the package. I might have been born on Krypton but I grew up in Kansas. The suit is just a disguise to help me do what I have to. Maybe I have my powers because I'm Kryptonian, but is being Kryptonian why I want to use them?"

A chimera of a grin flicked briefly across the other man's face. "Having met your Kryptonians, I'd say the reason was all Kansas. Look, CK, this is just something that's going to take me a while to get my head around. It just takes time to get used to the idea, you know?"

"And I didn't help matters by ignoring you. Sorry, Jimmy! Lois says I have an avoidance complex. You should have seen the mess I made of it with her. You'd think I'd have learnt something through the years!" Clark felt himself start to shiver. "Is it getting cold up here?" Clark asked abstractedly, weary to the bone.

Lifting his head, Jimmy felt the breeze but he didn't find it chilly. "Feels okay to me." The fitful moonlight shifted across the superhero's drawn face. He looked utterly exhausted. "Look, Clark, I'm sorry…really sorry. I kinda side-swiped you there, and I shouldn't have brought up the subject right at this moment. You've enough to worry about…"

"No! If you think I'm responsible for your wife's death, then you should get it out in the open!" This time he wouldn't back away.

Jimmy strode to Clark's side and placed both hands on the seated man's shoulders. "CK, that's not what I'm saying. Please, you have to listen to me… and listen good. It was all a mess back then after the school blew up, and it was pretty hard to take, discovering I'd inadvertently aided the killers. It was even harder to realise that someone I loved could be a part of something like that. Christ, CK! In retrospect, even I wondered whether I'd have been better off if Kiaya had never been found. No messy investigations and grand juries; no media attention! And you and Lois already knew Kiaya was in it up to her pretty little neck. At the time, you probably thought you were doing me a favour…"

"No! It didn't matter what I thought, Jimmy. This was your life! It was up to you how you chose to live it. I would never make decisions like that for anyone else. That was one lesson Lois taught me a long time ago. Besides, we did believe that Kiaya was in deadly danger. We just underestimated ibn Said. So you're partially correct… if I had found her more quickly, I might have saved her life, and I'll always be sorry for that. But, Jimmy, you have to understand, superpowers are not omnipotent. Metropolis is a huge city, and, even with my abilities, searching for one person is like looking for a needle in a haystack — especially if I don't have any markers to latch on to."


"Yes! Heartbeats, scent… that sort of thing."

"You hear people's heartbeats?"

"Well, yes! But I only recognise a certain few," Clark admitted abashed. "Lois and the kids, of course, and my parents, even the Lanes… Perry… you…"


"Jimmy, I've known you for years and you're my friend…"

"No! Make that best friend." For the first time since they'd broached the topic of Kiaya, a genuine smile lit Jimmy's face and he stretched his hand out to the man before him.

Clark took the proffered hand with great relief. "Best friend!"

"CK, you're freezing!" Jimmy now noticed the slight tremors that were coursing through Clark's body, and was aware that this wasn't normal behaviour for the superhero. Putting two and two together very quickly, he demanded of his friend. "Have you caught this virus too?"

Superman had to admit this was a strong possibility but was determined to play it down, and he really didn't feel so very bad. "Jimmy don't fuss! I've probably caught a mild version from the kids… but it just feels like the sniffles. Nothing to worry about!"

The observant photo-journalist wasn't fooled — he made a large part of his living out of people-watching. However, he realised that arguing with Clark on just how sick he was would be counter-productive. "Let's get you back to Metro Gen where they can check you out."

But Clark resisted Jimmy's attempt to pull him up. "Please, Jimmy, I'd rather Lois didn't know how I was feeling. She has enough to worry about with Joel and Clara. And before you protest, I promise to go see Bernie first thing in the morning. Superman doesn't lie," he reminded entreatingly.

In point of fact, he was on safe ground here because he'd already arranged to check in with the doctor to see how the research was doing. If he didn't feel any better, then he'd mention it to Bernard privately, and maybe the doc could give him something to keep him going. The last thing he wanted to do was make Lois more anxious.

"Okay," Jimmy gave in grudgingly. "But I'll be checking up on you. So make sure you keep that promise." He shook his head in amusement. "You superheroes need looking after!"

"Oh boy! Why do I get the feeling that you and Lois will be forming an alliance in the near future," Clark groaned in mock dismay, and Jimmy relaxed slightly. If CK was feeling well enough to joke, then he couldn't be that sick. Which brought up another very pertinent point. "Hey, I hope you're well enough to fly us out of here, because other than calling up a helicopter, I can't see us getting down."

"Don't worry, Jimbo!" Clark tried out the old nickname and was pleased when it rolled easily off his tongue, and his friend seemed to accept it without notice. Jimmy was too busy picking his way forward through the dusk to peer warily over the edge of the precipice. "My powers are all intact." Clark did a quick inventory as he spoke and was happy with the result. "And, if it makes you feel better, that probably means that I'm can't be very ill."

"All right! I give in." Jimmy held his arms out and felt Superman lift him a few feet of the ground. "Let's go. You need to get back to Lois before she misses you."

The journey back to Metropolis seemed speedier than the outward one and it was accomplished in silence, but it was comfortable quietude. Both men had made their peace with the other and had begun to re-establish the warm relationship that had been built up through the years. There had been much left unsaid and Jimmy would probably have a number of questions he'd bring up in time, but their friendship was solid.

As the hospital building loomed larger on the skyline, Jimmy spoke up. "CK, I've been thinking, does Bermuda know about the secret identity?"

That made Clark search his memory for some seconds. "No, I don't think so. In fact, I'm sure he didn't. He used the Kryptonian virus to hurt Superman."

"Then how come he knew to go for the kids?"

"You have a point, Jimmy. Maybe he heard the rumours about Lois and Superman and just got lucky?"

"I suppose that's a possibility, but you squashed those rumours years ago during the 'Huntress' thing. By the way, you'll have to tell me how you did that!"

"When I have time, Jimmy, I'll tell you all you want to know… within reason." Clark slowed his speed down — the roof of Metro General seemed like an ideal landing place. Surely no one would be up here at this late hour, and, as the moon had been playing hide-and-seek behind the clouds for most of the night, it would be difficult for anyone on the ground to spot the two men. Superman touched down a little more heavily than normal and set Jimmy on his feet, not removing his arm until his passenger had regained his equilibrium. "As for Joey, I don't believe in that much luck. He has to have found the information from someone."

"I agree! Got any ideas who?"

The large shoulders shrugged. "Lex Luthor and his son are dead. So are Diana Stride and Gretchen Kelly, and I'm pretty certain they're the only criminals who ever found out. Though, I always felt that there was someone else in that basement where I was held, but I was just too sick to be sure."

"You suspected someone, though?"

Clark was uncomfortable, incriminating someone only on the smallest hunch. "Mindy Church!"

"Boy, she hasn't been seen around in years."

"Exactly! She left town pretty soon after they found Diana and Gretchen's bodies — even before I had a chance to recover."

"She didn't want Superman coming after her!"

"It didn't matter who went after her, there wasn't any proof that she was involved. But she could have been tied in with Bermuda earlier. Lois always thought she was more than an innocent dupe when the Churchs ran Intergang. In fact, Lois was doing a story on Mindy round about the time Superman got sick with that virus." Clark dug back into his past once again. "No, that can't be it… if I recall, the Handyman tried to assassinate Mrs Church. Luckily for her, she was with Lois at the time and I muffled the bomb. But I always wondered how Joey managed to get close enough to infect me with the virus… and I did stop Mindy from throwing herself of that roof…"

"Huh, Mindy commit suicide! Sorry, CK, but she just doesn't seem the type."

"And it was right after that I started getting sick. I suppose, if it suited her, she could have teamed up with Joey."

"She could have made it worth his while to change sides; didn't Joey always work for the biggest payer? And if she was behind the attempt to kill Superman, he'd be one of the few villains to have the sort of expertise she needed."

"When we caught up with Joey he insisted he was framed, but he never mentioned any names. Though, before he clammed up completely he let slip that his alleged accomplice was female."

"He'd have been a dead guy for sure if he'd fingered the boss of Intergang. But I think you're onto something with Mindy Church. I'll get Stefan to check on her whereabouts while I pay a visit to the warehouse."

"Remember, Jimmy, be careful. If Mindy is in this with Joey, they're both ruthless killers."

"Yeah, yeah! CK, you know, Lois is right, sometimes you fuss too much!"

The two made their way to the roof door and the stairwell where they said their goodbyes. Clark watched Jimmy walk inside the top floor to the elevators before starting down the steps. He activated his superhearing to check what was happening on his children's floor, but all seemed peaceful. With a renewed lightness of heart, he spun back into his Clark clothes and supersped downwards.


Lois couldn't believe the last couple of hours she'd just endured. And where was her caring, compassionate husband when she most needed him? Why wasn't he here when Clara, his dearest kitten, had wakened in the night, looking for the daddy who had promised not to leave her?

She had patiently tried to explain, while stroking the child's flushed cheeks, that Daddy had had to leave for a short time and that Mommy was here for her. Of course, it was useless! Clara would always be her daddy's girl and, sick and in pain, it was he whom she wanted. Her slow tears gave way to desperate pleas for Daddy to come and hold her.

Many nights during Lois' own childhood, when she'd been troubled or had bad dreams, she'd wished for her father to be there. Yet she'd soon learned that such wishes were like the wind, impossible to catch. As the years passed and the sins of omission escalated, Lois had hardened her heart against a parent who couldn't find time for her and against her own need for love. It had taken Clark years to break down her barriers and to teach her that not all families abandoned each other.

So it was doubly hard now to accept that Clark was repeating the scenario with his child, to listen while her own little daughter broke her heart because her dear daddy was too busy with his job to be here to comfort her. Of course, Clark's other job was important and he was out saving lives. But no doubt Sam Lane had felt just as committed to his profession, and doctors also dealt with life-and-death situations. Unfortunately, back then, that fact hadn't stopped her pain, and no amount of reassuring Clara that her father would be back just as quickly as he could make it could dry Clara's tears either.

Then too, Lois had to be careful in what she said to Clara — they had an audience. Whenever the nursing staff had become aware of their patient's unsettled state, which happened fairly swiftly given the ever-increasing volume of Clara's sobs, they'd come to see if they could help, and when it became apparent that nothing could be done to console the child, they'd paged the doctor. Hugh Campbell had come quickly, and assessing the situation had decided to administer a sedative. It wouldn't be good if the girl's already unstable condition was aggravated by psychological distress. Thankfully, Beth had left a synthesized sedative for just such an occurrence.

It had taken some time before the drug had taken effect and Clara had at last fallen back into a troubled unconsciousness. Even in sleep, the little girl's hands searched longingly for the one clasp that would soothe her, and every now and again she'd heave a shaky sigh. Lois' heart broke on each of Clara's sorrowful moans. She was very near the edge.

A gulping sob broke from Lois' lips and her hand came up desperately to smother the noise. The last thing she needed right now was to awaken Clara again. With dragging steps Lois moved out of the room, leaving her daughter to the medical staff's diligent care.

Like a robot she found her way into the tiny room she shared with Clark, only half hoping that she would find him there. Such were her contradictory feelings towards him at this moment she wasn't sure whether she would hug him in relief or murder him in anger. Her choking cries had diminished, yet tears flowed like a babbling brook down her cheeks while she struggled with the overwhelming need to sniff. How was it that in movies the heroine always managed to look lovely and delicately wan during a crying fit? Real life wasn't like that, and Lois was fairly sure that her eyes were puffy and red… and her nose was acting like a drippy tap! An exasperated shrug lifted her shoulders; now she was babbling inside her head. She dug into the pockets of her pants for a tissue and found only her useless pager! Dragging it from her pocket she stared at it accusingly.

"Why don't you answer me?" she demanded of the inanimate object, pressing the emergency call-button once more, which elicited a no more successful response than previously. Disgustedly, Lois threw the object on the bed and wiped her nose with the only material available, the sleeve of her blouse, while she sniffled loudly into the air.

After all, why should she be so very upset? This wasn't really even an emergency. It wasn't as if Clara had been critically ill — she was just a young girl who was sick, lonely and uncomfortable and seeking a hug from the person she loved most. Not exactly a great trauma when compared to the 'life and death' crisis Superman usually attended! So why was Lois feeling so uncontrollably uncharitable towards the superhero?

An attentive hand held a white handkerchief before her face as someone came to stand close behind her, offering her the comfort of his presence. "What's wrong? Clark not answering his pager?" The male voice was soft with just a touch of censure. "To tell the truth, I hadn't realised that he'd gone again and left you holding the fort!"

The proffered handkerchief was accepted gratefully and Lois blew her nose into the crisp linen, then wiped determinedly at her wet cheeks. The action gave her a few moments to compose herself as she wasn't exactly sure she felt up to facing the concern of Hugh Campbell or of his mild disapproval of her husband. The thing was, she found herself agreeing with his sentiments regarding Clark, and that felt slightly disloyal. Once more she found herself trotting out the old excuses.

"He got a call… from work. It's an emergency! A huge fire, with explosions and everything. So he felt he had to go!" All of which was true, of course.

"I know what dedicated reporters both you and Clark are, but I assumed… with things the way they are with the children, that the paper might have asked someone else to cover it."

"It's Clark's job — it sort of goes with the territory. He feels he has to do his duty, regardless." Even though Lois was, in truth, talking about Clark's second job, that still sounded very inadequate under the circumstances and Lois found tears pooling in her eyes again. This was dreadful! She was in danger of turning into leaky bucket. She dabbed Hugh's now sodden handkerchief determinedly at her eyes. "You must think I'm a very foolish and emotional mother…"

"I think you're a wonderful mother," Hugh interrupted sympathetically, "who's very concerned for her children and who's also been pushed to the limit of exhaustion." He also wanted to add that she was a parent who wasn't getting the support she needed from her partner, but somehow he sensed that Lois wasn't quite ready to hear that. "Lois, you need to get some rest. How about I ask one of the nurses to sit with the children and you try to get some much-needed sleep."

While he'd been talking, Hugh had led Lois to one of the narrow cots. It wasn't perhaps the most comfortable bed the hospital had to offer, but the family room had been made up in an emergency…

Lois felt herself pushed down onto the bed gently but firmly. Hugh was correct — it was probably tiredness that was causing her to be so uncharacteristically sentimental and she found herself giving way to his concerns. These might not be the familiar hands that she truly needed, but it was nice to have the decision making taken away from her while she was so completely worn out. Her eyes were already beginning to close…

"What's going on here?" Clark's shocked voice sounded from the open doorway. This was the second time he'd caught the doctor touching his wife in a way that he definitely did not like. His short burst of enthusiasm ebbed away leaving him feeling jaded and unsteady.

Hugh's hands dropped from where they'd been pressing Lois to sit on the bed and he took a step backwards. Surely this man couldn't believe that anything untoward was about to take place here? He was a respected doctor and this woman was the mother of two of his patients. Ethics aside, Hugh was far too honourable a man to ever take advantage of Lois' traumatised state. Yet, judging by the inflexible look on Kent's face, that idea had obviously crossed his mind. Which was ironic, given the circumstances — Kent was the one who should've been here for her.

"I'm afraid we've had a bit of a crisis…"

"Crisis?! What sort of crisis?"

Clark's expression changed to one of fear and, though Hugh was tempted, he couldn't allow the man's worries to escalate. "It wasn't a critical situation exactly. Clara grew very fretful and was asking for you. I'm afraid that Lois couldn't pacify her and in the end the poor child was so upset we had to sedate her. Clara's resting now and I was just suggesting that Lois should do the same, otherwise we'll have Lois getting sick too."

As Hugh explained, Clark felt his face flush with embarrassment and he found himself offering a stumbling apology which was speedily accepted.

"Forget it, Clark; I'm just glad you're back here and I'm sure Lois would prefer your comfort to that of a stranger." The words were said stiffly, very much in contrast to the way he'd addressed Lois earlier and without a backward glance — he didn't dare look at Lois to see how she was taking this — Hugh left the couple alone.

"Lois, what happened?"

"Clark, where have you been?"

Their tense voices collided in the stifling air of the small room. Pushing herself up from the bed, Lois allowed her rekindled anger to banish her lassitude. She turned a furious, yet ashen, face towards Clark. "I'm waiting for an explanation, Clark, and it better be good!"

"Why didn't you page me?" Clark pursued his own line of investigation. "I know Dr Campbell said it wasn't a critical emergency, but you must have known I'd have come back immediately to help you with Clara."

"I did page you, Clark… repeatedly! And you didn't show up! Poor Clara was breaking her little heart because her daddy wouldn't come when she called. I tried to explain that you were off saving the lives of other children, but she was too ill and upset to understand." Lois was now pacing back and forth across the tiny floor of the cubicle. "You promised Clara you'd be there for her. You told me you wouldn't be long — that you'd just put out the fire and get back here!"

"And I meant what I said…"

"Then what happened? Did you get so involved with your 'Superman duties' that you forgot all about us?" Somewhere in the depths of her heart, Lois was horrified by the accusation she'd just levelled at her husband, but her frustrations had been building for a time now and she was just too bone weary to be the supportive wife, and, just maybe, she wanted Clark to hurt just as much as she did.

She was rewarded by the sight of Clark's face freezing with shock. "Lois, that's not the way it was."

"Then how was it, Superman? Tell me and make me understand that your family doesn't come way down your busy list of priorities."

"You didn't page me, Lois!"

"That's rubbish! I must have pressed that button enough times to burn it out."

An inkling of what might have happened hovered on the edges of Clark's consciousness… the burnt and ruined building… wrapping that poor boy in his cape and then having it returned to him by the paramedics. How could he have been so stupid not to check his cape? He was sure that Lois wouldn't appreciate him checking the secret pocket right now, but he was pretty certain what he would find.. or not, in this case. At the time, there had been no need to look — he'd intended to return immediately, but then he'd been sidetracked by Jimmy.

"I think I might have lost the pager at the fire. Things were pretty chaotic there, Lois. Kids died!" The shades of these lost children would haunt Clark for a long time. "I never even noticed it was gone. Why didn't you shout for help when I didn't answer the page?"

"Because I was too damned busy trying to soothe your daughter! And was I supposed to open the window and scream 'Help Superman!' in front of the nurses and Hugh? I'm sure that would have gone down really well."

At the mention of Hugh, the picture of him standing over Lois by the bedside returned to taunt Clark. Totally spent and sicker than he wanted to admit, old jealousies coalesced with new and edged his tongue with sarcasm. "And we can't have that, can we — your precious Hugh thinking that there is something going on between you and Superman?!"

"And what's that supposed to mean?"

"Come on, Lois! You must realise, by now, that the good doctor is carrying a torch for you."

"That's the second time you've inferred that and it's as much nonsense now as it was the first time. Hugh is just concerned for me. And I won't let you sidetrack me with your foolish accusations. Where were you?" Lois' outrage gave her strength and she stood tall to confront him.

"At the fire… which, if I remember correctly you agreed I should go to!" Clark stated just as inflexibly.

"Yes! But you assured me that you'd get back just as soon as you were satisfied that everyone who could be, was saved. But you didn't do that, did you?"

Clark bit at his lip. "No! But Jimmy was there, and even you said we should talk."

"Okay, I'll give you that! So why didn't you bring him back here?"

"Because, you were right, I waited too long and I felt he deserved some privacy… away from any possible distractions." Lois' blanched face warned him he'd just made another huge mistake, and his words tripped over themselves in his attempt to retract. "No! I don't mean that you and the kids are distractions. I meant calls for Superman, and I really believed I could be back here in minutes if you needed me…"

Lois, however, wasn't in the mood to listen. "Clark, you promised me and you promised Clara…"

"I lost the pager, Lois. I didn't know about Clara!" A note of despairing entreaty touched Clark's words, but Lois was too driven by righteous anger to notice.

"That's no excuse! Clark, I might be able to accept that I'm not number one in your life, but Clara is your baby! She's just a very sick and tired little girl who needed her daddy… and you weren't there." Lois' choler was fading and she found herself almost drained of all emotion. Turning her back on Clark, she sat heavily down on the bed. Memories of all the times her loved ones had been put at risk due to their association with the superhero swamped her, making her dizzy. She closed her eyes to shut out the disturbing images. "I'm tired of Superman interfering in our family and I'm not sure how much more of this I can take." She didn't see the look of panicked horror settle on Clark's face.

"What are you trying to say, Lois?" A cold fist seemed to have taken hold of Clark's heart as he watched his wife, dreading her answer.

On the bed, Lois slumped dejectedly. "I'm not sure!" She raised her head slowly but didn't quite look at Clark — unwilling to witness the hurt she was about to cause him. "When we got married I was so certain I was strong enough to be Superman's wife… and I was proud, too. I thought that together we could conquer anything or anyone, and for a long time I believed that." Lois' hands twisted nervously in the bedlinen. "But then the children came along, and so many things have happened over the years and it's harder now because they are involved. I'm not sure that I can stand by and watch our children suffer because they're linked to Superman."

The sound of a muffled groan caught her attention and, refusing to be ruled by fear, Lois turned at last to confront her husband. The depth of pain in his tortured eyes shocked her. Instinctively she moved towards him, trying to explain her feelings.

"Clark, I'm sorry. I know how much this must hurt you, but I'm their mother. I have to protect them." Her hand stretched out to rest on his chest and he covered it with one of his own.

"I want to protect them too, Lois, more than anything. It's what I thought Superman did best… but that doesn't seem to be so. Maybe you're right! So often, because of me, they've been in danger. God! Joel was only a few days old when he was kidnapped simply because of his genetics, and it's just gone on since then. But what can I do?"

Clark's other hand tangled through his hair as his mind searched for an alternative solution to the one he was sure she was about to deliver. What would he do without Lois and the children in his life? And yet how could he stay if Lois decided she couldn't live her life with him anymore?

He saw his own anguish echoed in Lois' eyes as she sought of a way to ameliorate the pain she knew she was about to inflict. Yet, at the little tilt of her head and the firming of her jaw, he recognised when she'd found the nerve to do what had to be done, even when that action would bring such boundless distress. Lois always had more courage than he.

"Clark…" she began, but even his brave little tornado faltered this time, and, as always, when Lois was in trouble, Clark stepped in to take away the hurt. His hand gently covered her lips, stilling the words she was trying to get out.

"Lois, please, you don't have to say it. I understand." Gone were the foolish suspicions and anger of earlier, swept away by a torrent of abject sorrow. "And in one way… even though it hurts so much… I agree with you. Superman is causing you and the children grief, so he should go…" A large lump had formed in Clark's throat, choking off any further speech.

Bright tears formed again on the ends of Lois' silky lashes, but in a strange way they were tears of relief. She hadn't expected Clark to catch on so quickly or to agree so readily. After all, retiring Superman was such a drastic step, but, already at the end of her tether, Lois couldn't see any alternative. "Clark, I know this won't be easy… but it is for the best." Her eyes never left his face as she searched for the signs which would alert her to how badly he was taking this. "Are you sure you can do this, Clark?"

"No!" He got out that one strangled denial then, taking a deep breath, he found the strength to go on. "This is the hardest thing I've ever had to do. It's killing me! But for you and the kids I'd give up anything… You must know that, Lois?" He groaned again — prophetically he knew he'd be doing a lot of that in the near future — and gazed round the tiny room like some trapped animal, feeling suddenly claustrophobic. "Look, I've got to get out of here. I'm sorry, you probably think I'm running out on you again, but I don't suppose that matters anyway…" Clark tore himself away from her and started towards the door. "I'll just say goodbye to the kids and then be on my way. Superman won't bother you again."


Lois watched him beat a hasty, nervous retreat and was reminded of the days before she'd known his true identity. Hurrying to the doorway, she saw him disappear inside Joel and Clara's room. What she'd asked would be so hard on him… Superman was such an integral part of who he was. But she also knew that he'd spoken the truth — there was nothing he wouldn't do to protect his family. Besides, it might not be forever; just time enough for the kids to grow and be more able to take care of themselves, or for power- crazed criminals to forget that one way to control or gain revenge on the Man of Steel was through the Kent family.

Long minutes later he reappeared and carried on down the hall, but the overhead lighting reflected the glimmer of hopeless tears on his face. Oh, my god! Had something happened to Joel or Clara while they'd been talking? But that couldn't be right. There was a nurse in the room, and if there had been an emergency there would be alarms sounding and medical staff rushing in and out — the whole floor was as quiet as a tomb.

Her anxious stare followed Clark as he walked past the nurses' station and the elevator towards the stairwell door, his wide shoulders slumped and his hands buried deep in his pockets. She was reminded of a man walking towards his own funeral…


Then she was out and running down the corridor. What had she done? Her flight was cut short my a man's tall body coming to stand in her path while he caught both her arms in his hands.

"Don't, Lois! Let him go!"

From the level of his chest, Lois' eyes slid up to the worried face of Hugh Campbell. "What did you say?" Her eyebrows drew down into a frown as she tried to focus on this unwanted interruption. "Why?"

"Face it, Lois, he doesn't want to be here. Your children have only been in the hospital for a couple of days and already he's left you to cope on your own a number of times." Hugh was trying to make his voice sound as conciliatory as possible but he couldn't quite keep a note of criticism from showing through. "I've seen this sort of thing before… some men just don't deal with illness well. They can't handle it and so they run away."

Lois stepped back, suddenly feeling crowded by this man. "And you think that's why Clark is leaving?"

"What other reason could there be for abandoning his kids when they're so ill and leaving you to handle things on your own?" An opportunity was opening up in front of him and Hugh, in a moment of pure madness, seized his chance. "Now I understand that maybe Clark can't help himself, but you deserve better than that, Lois."

For the first time, Lois glimpsed the man behind the attentive physician and saw a little of what Clark had been hinting at. "You mean someone better than that?" The flare of hope in his clear blue eyes couldn't be ignored. "Someone like you, for instance?"

Suddenly, Hugh was aware that he might have misjudged the situation. The stark look he was uncomfortably receiving from Lois could hardly be considered one of pleasure. He'd never allowed himself to become emotionally involved with any of his patients or their families, knowing how much of a minefield it could be for his career. Yet, somehow this lovely woman had wormed her way under his defences. And, worse yet, he'd fooled himself into believing that she returned his regard… relied on him for that extra bit of comfort. Furiously he tried to redress his mistake. "Lois, no! I wouldn't presume! Surely, you can't think… you must know that I would never do anything so unprincipled? Have I ever acted in a way that was less than circumspect? Because, please believe me, I never meant to!"

If Lois hadn't been so worried she might find Hugh's urgent attempts to placate her funny. Clearly, he'd had some fanciful expectations, but he was much too straight-laced and uptight to ever act on them, at least, not in the context where it might damage his career prospects. "Don't worry, Hugh. Your bedside manner has always been that of a perfect doctor and gentleman." Lois couldn't refrain, however, from stressing the words 'bedside manner' in a way that left him in little doubt that she was well aware of his feelings for her. "But my relationship with my husband is nobody's business but mine. So if you'll excuse me, I have an important phone call to make."

Lois swung round abruptly and marched back to her room — the only feeling she had left for the lovesick doctor was of annoyance that he'd prevented her from catching Clark. Superman was no doubt long gone, having used the roof as a launching pad, and she could only hope that he'd sought the comfort of his home and his parents. Lois picked up her cell phone and speed-dialled her home number. Moments later, a female voice answered… one that trembled slightly.

"Kent residence!"

"Martha, is Clark there?"

"Lois, is that you? Thank goodness! What in the world has happened?"

"Then he is there?"

"Yes, sweetie! But I've never seen him look so devastated… I was so scared it might be Joel or Clara, but Clark tells me that they're fine…"

Of course, that would be her mother-in-law's first reaction and she hurried to add her assurances to that of Clark's. "Joel and Clara are doing okay, Martha. This is something else… something big."

"I think I'd worked that out for myself, Lois, and now Clark's upstairs packing! He seems to have this silly notion in his head that you want him to leave home."

"Well, of course he does!" A heartfelt sigh escaped from Lois. Superman was Clark… and Clark was Superman. For years she'd argued with him that he shouldn't divorce the two. Why should she be so surprised now that he hadn't done so? "Martha, it's all my fault!" Her voice was little more than a whisper and her mother-in-law had to strain to hear. "I should have realised he'd misunderstood — in fact, at the end I did, but he left before I could explain."

"That's my son!" Relief flooded through Martha as she realised that this was just a silly misunderstanding. "When Superman believes he's on a mission, there's no stopping him."

"I do hope that's not true this time. But I do have to speak to him. Can I ask a favour of you? I know it's the middle of the night, but would you come over here and sit with Joel and Clara while I come home to talk to Clark?"

"Oh, sweetie, what time it is doesn't matter! I'll be at the hospital as soon as I can, but don't wait for me — catch a cab and get home. I'm sure the children will manage on their own for a little till I get there."

"But will Clark still be there?" Lois allowed her fears to surface. If Superman chose to stay away, how would she ever find him? Hire a sky-writing plane with a message saying 'ET phone home'?

Martha heard a hysterical giggle emanate from the handset and she bit her lip in worry. "Jonathan is talking to him right now, trying to knock some sense into that super skull of his. Before I leave, I'll tell him he's to stay put and that he'd better not disobey his mother if he knows what's good for him." Both women shared a frantic laugh. They both knew that such a threat was no longer valid. Clark was a grown man with children of his own and, though he'd always value his mother's sound advice, in the end he'd make his own decision.

"Tell him I won't be long, Martha," Lois almost shouted into the phone and cut the connection, grabbing her purse and running for the elevator. She didn't have much time. Oh boy, Superman was never around when you needed to get somewhere in a hurry!


When the cab drew up in front of the brownstone on Hyperion Avenue, Lois could see that the downstairs lights were ablaze. She hoped that meant that Clark was still at home but, after paying off the driver and letting herself hurriedly into the house, she was disappointed to be confronted only by Jonathan. Her shoulders drooped as she dared to ask her question.

"Is he still here?"

"Upstairs, finishing off his packing! Lois, what went wrong with you two? I've tried talking to him… but all he'll say is that this is something you both decided was for the best." Clearly, Jonathan was confused by what was happening and there were tears of worry hiding behind his tired eyes. "That can't be, Lois! I've never seen a couple who were so right together as you and Clark."

"Neither have I, Jonathan, and if Clark will just take a minute to listen to what I have to say, he'll see that too!"

"I wouldn't count on that. When Clark takes it into his head that he's doing something for someone's own good, he takes a lot of shifting."

If it were possible, Lois looked even more dejected but she needed to put any negative feelings out of her mind — she'd need all her wits about her to persuade Clark he should stay. "I know! He did something like this years ago when we were dating… broke up with me for 'my own good'."

That brought a tiny frown to Jonathan's face. "I remember! Took both of you quite a while to work things out… you don't have that luxury this time around. Lois, you and Clark aren't alone anymore. You have responsibilities."

"I know that too! And believe me, Clark isn't going anywhere… not if I can help it! Now, I'd better get up there and start with 'I'm sorry'." Lois shifted uncomfortably. "This is mostly my fault, Jonathan," she admitted guiltily.

Jonathan's warm heart was touched and he crossed the floor to take her into a reassuring hug. "I'm not sure what's been going on but don't be too hard on yourself, Lois. You've been through a lot these past few days. People often say things they don't mean when they're tired and stressed."

Pressing a grateful kiss on her father-in-law's cheek, Lois felt this quiet man's compassionate understanding give her strength. "Thanks, Jonathan," she smiled tearfully. "Now I better get up there and 'beard the lion' in his den."

Jonathan nodded his approval and let her step out of his arms, but his voice followed her as she lightly ran up the steps. "By the way, Julian's with him!"

She wasn't sure if that last piece of information pleased her or not. Clark and she had a lot to talk about… maybe even fight about, and she wasn't sure if it would be good for her son to witness his parents arguing. Oh well, if things got really heated, she could always ask Julian to leave.

The bedroom door loomed in front of her and with a resolve that was partly forced she entered the room she shared with Clark. The scene before her brought her up short. Cupboard doors stood ajar and drawers were left open, while every suitcase they probably owned stood piled on the floor.

Julian was sitting on the bed beside yet another open carryall, his pale face downcast. "Mom!" he called, his relief at seeing her shining in his eyes as he ran to her side and threw his arms around her "Am I glad to see you!"

Lois stood hugging Julian, while she stared at the untidiness around her. This was so unlike Clark. A movement at the bathroom door attracted her attention and she lifted her eyes in time to witness a look of surprise suffuse Clark's face. Obviously, he hadn't been expecting her.

"Mom mentioned you were coming but I thought she might have misunderstood something you said. I'll be out of your way pretty soon now." His voice was bleak and, once the flash of shock receded, his eyes looked flat.

"Clark, what are you doing?"

"What does it look like?" He couldn't keep his hurt from colouring his tone of voice. "I'm packing!"

"Yes, but I expected an overnight bag or something. This looks like you're clearing everything out… like you don't intend ever coming back."

Marching over to the bed, he dumped the armful of toiletries he'd picked up from the bathroom into the open bag. "I thought that would be best… to make a clean break."

"Best for whom?" she demanded, her arm still resting round her boy's shoulder, drawing comfort from his familiar presence.

"Lois, we've already been through this! You think my being here is putting you and the kids at risk and I agreed. I didn't like it, but I could see where you were coming from. So I'm doing what you suggested… leaving to let you get on with your lives."

"No! I didn't suggest that!" Lois walked further into the room, bringing Julian along with her. "I said Superman was causing problems… not Clark!"

That puzzled him and he sent her a questioning stare. "But, Lois, I am Superman!"

"Clark Kent, you've spent the best part of your life thinking about yourself as two separate identities, so don't dare pretend that you can't disconnect the two now!"

Clark sank gradually to the bed, his gaze never leaving Lois. It had never occurred to him earlier… "Are you saying…" Clark threaded his hand through his hair. He'd managed to ignore his aching head for quite some time, completely focussed as he was on his disagreement with Lois, but now the pain was back with a vengeance. His thoughts came sluggishly and he shook his head, trying to clear away the cobwebs. This was no time to be ill. He needed to concentrate. "Do you mean… Lois?"

"Clark's not the problem, Clark!" she reiterated, waiting apprehensively for the penny to drop!

"Lois, let me get this straight, you're suggesting I should give up being Superman?"

Not trusting herself to speak, Lois nodded — her face white.

"Lois, I'm not sure if I can do that… or even if I have the right to do that!"

She stared in vexation round the room once more before returning her accusing gaze to her husband. "So you're not prepared to give up your alter-ego, but you are prepared to abandon your home! Superman can't be sacrificed but your wife and children can!"

Clark felt pole-axed. "You don't pull your punches, Lois!"

"I never developed the habit," she threw at him. "Especially when I'm fighting for the most important thing in my life — my family! The trouble is, I was sure you felt the same way."

"I do, Lois! But you were the one who implied that associating with me was putting the children at risk," he reminded with a touch of desperation.

"Superman! Not Clark Kent!" That was almost shouted, and Lois took a few seconds to calm herself. "And how do you explain this, Clark?" She waved her hand at the assembled pile of luggage. "What reason are you going to give for your leaving? You can't tell the truth because that would mean giving away your precious secret. Oh, I know! You're going to suggest that we're incompatible… How do they put it? The couple had irrevocable differences? Well, newsflash, Clark — no one is going to believe that." Lois watched Clark squirm uncomfortably and a sneaking suspicion overtook her. "Or are you going to suggest that I found someone else…?"

Clark shrugged noncommittally. "Maybe…"

"A certain Doctor Campbell, perhaps? You were right about him, by the way, but be serious here, Clark. Everyone knows we're perfect for each other, and I'm not about to help you carry out your misguided plan by playing the part of the adulterous wife."

"Glad to know I got something right!" Clark muttered. "But you're perfectly aware, Lois, that I would never suggest you did anything like that."

"I guess not," Lois conceded grudgingly. "Oh, but there's another scenario I haven't mentioned yet — Clark Kent meets with a tragic accident where, unfortunately, his body is never recovered." Lois had only been tossing ideas around, hoping to prove to Clark just how idiotic his thinking was, yet, at the painful start from the figure on the bed, she realised she'd hit on the truth. "That's it, isn't it?! Clark, how could you? That is so final — there's no way back from there. The kids and I would never see you again."

"Superman could drop by every now and then to check on how you were doing." Clark sounded so forlorn and Lois' heart went out to him but she wasn't about to give up the attack.

"But doesn't that defeat the object of the whole proposal? Wasn't the idea to distance the Man of Steel from the Kent family so that villains would stop attacking them?"

Another huge sigh broke from Clark. "I suppose," he said wretchedly. "I just hoped that I could visit in secret a few times…"

"I don't see why Superman should be granted privileges which would be denied to Clark."

A stare of total perplexity was turned on Lois. "But, Lois, I am Clark!"

"No! Clark Kent will be dead; lost at sea, perhaps, or, I know, eaten by a bear on some mountain track," Lois babbled distraughtly, "Though why you would be on a mountain track at this moment beats me! Of course, you might have another death scene in mind…"

"I hadn't quite thought that out yet," he mumbled miserably.

"What does it matter, you'll be gone — killed off by Superman, and I'm sorry but I don't believe I'd like to associate with someone who murdered my husband."

"Lois, I don't understand. Are you deliberately trying to hurt me?"

"I'm deliberately trying to keep you from doing something totally senseless that can't be put right!" Lois' irritation abated somewhat at Clark's expression of confusion. After all, she had been the one to bring this up. She stepped closer to the bed. "Clark, do you remember how bad you felt when Clyde Barrow shot you…"

"Who's Clyde Barrow… and did he have kryptonite or something?" Julian interrupted, intrigued despite his dismay at the way his parents were acting.

"No, Julian," Lois offered a quick explanation. "They couldn't actually kill your father but they shot him at point-blank range in public and then they dragged his body out of the club, so everyone assumed Clark Kent was dead… including me. And your father decided to play along to protect his secret."

"I didn't have any other option, Lois," Clark defended himself.

"I know that! And do you recall how devastated you were to lose your identity? You know that having to be Superman all the time isn't what you want. Even Dr Friskin pointed out that a superhero needs downtime to relax in, and yet you're making plans to destroy the most important part of you, Clark!"

"It seems like the only thing to do! The world needs Superman," Clark finished quietly, feeling totally despondent.

But Lois could see that his determination was cracking and pursued her advantage. "And your family needs Clark Kent." She took the final steps that took him to his side and lifted his face till she was looking directly into his eyes. "Clark, you chose to have a wife and children. Now that we're here, you can't abandon us when the going gets tough. Have you forgotten the Bob Fences thing when you gave me up for my own good? You realised later that the best protection you could give me was to stay around and be there for me — that applies now more than ever…"

"Lois, you were the one who told me to go!"

"But she didn't mean it!" Julian piped up again. "Mom's just cranky 'cos she's so tired and worried about Joel and Clara. And face it, Dad, you really couldn't leave us! You need us too! How long do you think you'd last without us, living in a cave or on an iceberg somewhere?" Julian had been told the story of Superman's frequent trips to the Arctic to vent in the days before he and Lois had become a couple. "So why don't you both stop acting like dorks and make up. Kiss each other or something!" From the barely disguised grimace that echoed Julian's words, clearly he didn't approve of the kissing part, but he was willing to put up with it for the sake of his parents.

"What makes you think Mom doesn't mean it?" Clark asked sceptically, though a glimmer of hope was dawning in his eyes. Julian was completely right. He doubted he'd do little more than exist without the company of his family to sustain him. And life without Lois would be a desert. So if there was the slightest chance…

"'Cos she loves you, Dad! The whole package — not just one part of you. She's proud of the things Superman does, and she's the one who picks you up when you come home feeling really down after some rescue goes bad — she wouldn't do that if she didn't want you to keep going."

Lois had sunk down onto the bed by her husband and both parents stared in awe at the slim blond boy who had so unexpectedly come into their lives only a little over a year ago, and yet had become so much an essential part of the family. "Out of the mouths of babes!" she uttered softly.

Emboldened by the fact that he had his mother and father's rapt attention, Julian decided to get it all out. "And, Mom, even if Superman did fly off to New Krypton or disappeared somewhere, we wouldn't stop getting into trouble. Things happen to us just as much because we're Lane and Kent's kids. It's the jobs you two do! You're whistleblowers! And you keep telling us, Mom, that you were getting yourself into danger years before Superman came along. If you ask me, it's just as well he did too, or I doubt you'd still be around to be our mom." Julian squared his stance and placed his fists on his narrow hips in a good imitation of Lois Lane ready to do battle. "So why don't you just stop quarrelling about something that's never going to happen… and shouldn't happen either!"

Lois and Clark's gaping mouths closed and slightly sheepish grins were beginning to turn up the corners of their lips, acknowledging the fact they'd both been put firmly in their places by their small, wise son. It had taken a child's clear thinking to see through all their circumstantial, self-absorbed posturing to the obvious truth. Lois, Clark and Superman were a package… incomplete without each other's strengths.

Jonathan came into the room, beaming quietly like the proud grandfather he was. "Good for you, Julian! I couldn't have put it better myself." His hand came to rest on the boy's shoulder as he turned his attention to the two on the bed. "Now, are you kids going to see sense or are you going to carry on acting like blockheads?"

Raising his hands palms outward, Clark declared with relieved laughter bubbling up in his voice, "Okay! Okay, we surrender!"

"Lois?" Jonathan's brow creased in question at his daughter-in-law.

"Oh, yes!" she chuckled nervily, "We'll behave!"

Julian folded his arms. "Well, we're still waiting!"

His fair head moved pointedly between his mother and father, making his intention clear, and Lois and Clark saw no reason not to obey the unspoken instructions. They turned to each other and kissed, tentatively, at first, but as they yielded to the warm familiar feelings, they instinctively moved into each other. Their arms tightened and the kiss deepened, reaffirming physically the power of their bond.

The sound of someone impatiently clearing his throat interrupted the embrace. "Hey, I said kiss and make up… not eat each other!" Julian announced loudly in mock reproach, but when his parents turned their attention back to him, his voice suddenly grew hushed. "Mom, Dad…" he started diffidently, his bottom lip trembling as he broached the question which had been scaring him since his visit to the hospital where he had seen for himself how ill his brother and sister really were. "Joel and Clara will get better, won't they?"

Both parents reached out a hand to pull Julian closer to them, but it was Lois who chose to answer. "Oh, sweetie, yes!" she reassured, giving him a comforting squeeze. "Aunt Beth's new medicine is helping and Uncle Bernie and Mia are working on a cure. Joel and Clara are going to be just fine."

Lois, perhaps, was being a little more optimistic than circumstances decreed, yet she didn't think it so very wrong to try to alleviate Julian's pain, and, thankfully, he trusted her much-needed encouragement.

"Good!" he nodded, brightening again. "And isn't it a good job that you two have made up. Just think how bad Joel and Clara would feel if they'd wakened up and found that their mom and dad had split up because of them!"

Out of the mouths of babes, indeed!. Of course, Joel and Clara would think that what happened to them had caused the breakup and blame themselves. Just what kind of parents were they, allowing their own fears and insecurities to affect their children? Lois and Clark looked suitably chastised.

"They'd have hurt really badly, Julian. So it's just as well that we had you to keep us in line!" Clark leaned into his wife and son, enfolding them in a heartfelt embrace. The fact that he'd been on the verge of giving all this up forever shocked him silly.

Standing almost frozen in the background, Jonathan watched the loving exchange with more relief than he'd felt in a very long time. He hadn't wanted to face the fact, but tonight he had been fearful for the state of Lois and Clark's marriage — a marriage he'd always considered to be as steady as a rock. Which only proved that you can never be too complacent, and maybe it was a good thing that his son and daughter-in-law should be made aware of this fact too. Whether they liked it or not, what had happened tonight had just been 'the straw that broke the camel's back'. Now, maybe, Lois and Clark would take the chance to talk and not sweep all these little aggravations under the carpet.

With that thought in mind, Jonathan stepped up behind the trio and gently withdrew Julian from his parents' grasp. "Come on, Julian, let's get you to bed. I think you've done your bit here for the night. I'm real proud of you, son, but you must be tuckered out now. We'll leave Mom and Dad to sort things out here." The last statement was directed at Lois and Clark, and both nodded slightly to show they realised he was referring to more than the physical state of the room.

Kisses and goodnights were exchanged, then a much happier Julian was content to be led off to bed by his grandfather. Lois and Clark watched the bedroom door close behind the precious pair. Silence settled on the room and, for a moment in time, they were both content to be still — but only briefly. Needing the assurance of physical touch, they flung their arms about each other, not kissing… that would come later… but just content to hold each other as closely as they could.

But Jonathan's veiled suggestion couldn't be ignored for long and Clark pulled back, letting his grip on his wife slacken, though his arms still held her. His horrified glance took in the cluttered room, permitting it to register for the first time this night. "Honey, I'm sorry — for everything. Would you like Superman to unpack?"

"Please! I think we'd be here all night otherwise." His double-entendre wasn't lost on Lois and she wasn't above adding one of her own. "You did mess up here quite a bit."

"I don't think I was seeing things too clearly, sweetheart." A sense of guilt overtook Clark and his head dropped.

"Me neither!" Lois quickly admitted.

"But you did have a point!" Clark was now prepared to acknowledge certain facts. "Only, honey, I doubt that I could ever give up being Superman…"

Lois placed her finger tips on Clark's lips. "And I should never have asked you to…"

Clark vehemently shook his head. "Maybe not! But my first priority should be to you and the kids. They're growing up now, and that's going to be a difficult time for them. It's up to us… both of us… to see them through that. I can't believe that I ever considered leaving that responsibility solely up to you."

"I think you intended that Superman should drop by every now and then to fulfil your parental duties."

"God!" Clark ground out. "How much good would that be? An absentee father, who's much too busy off saving the world, showing up occasionally to see if his kids are behaving themselves? They'd end up hating me, and I wouldn't blame them."

"I doubt that! You'd have let them know that you wanted to be with them but couldn't because your being around put them in danger!"

"And they'd have accepted that as happily as you did, when I broke up with you for your own good!"

Lois couldn't help but tease. "Well, you have to agree, sweetheart, that it is pretty silly reasoning."

"Yeah! Even young Julian could see that! What sort of father am I that I need my son to point out my deluded thinking?

"Clark, don't beat yourself up," Lois hurriedly soothed. "You're a good father! If that wasn't so, we wouldn't have been so destroyed when you started packing."

"But I could do better!" Clark indicated the room with a wave of his hands. "Every time something bad happens to the family, I promise myself to cut back on the 'super duties'. You know, just deal with the critical emergencies, but as soon as things settle down, I let the patrols and rescues mount up again. I forget that Joel needs for his dad to be at his Little League game, or that Julian has a right to show off his latest science project to his father and that Clara definitely deserves for me to sit with her when she's ill for the first time in her life."

"Clark, the fire was a critical emergency." Now it was Lois' turn to make excuses.

"Yes! But I let myself get distracted…" Clark held up his hand to stop Lois' attempt to interrupt. "And, yes, I know there were extenuating circumstances, but I should've come right back like I promised."

"Then make me another promise, Clark, — one that you'll keep. Swear to me that you'll never leave me — never frighten me like that again."

Clark's heart clenched at the painful entreaty in his wife's voice. How could he have hurt her so much tonight, when she was already aching so over Joel and Clara's health? Especially, when he'd made her suffer needlessly. "Sweetheart, I promise. I will never leave you. In fact, I have a confession…" He gazed apologetically into Lois' eyes. "Julian was more right than he knew. I couldn't live with out you… or the children. Even when I was blindly packing my stuff, I was pretty certain I'd never be able to walk out the door. I just kept thinking up ways to make you change your mind about Superman…"

"Clark, that was so wrong of me! I had no right to demand that Superman should leave. He has as much right to be part of this family as any of us. And I promise that, no matter how frantic things get in the future, I'll never again demand the impossible of you." Tears were brimming in Lois' eyes and her teeth bit at her bottom lip. "Besides, I have a confession of my own. Julian was right about me too. I didn't really want to say goodbye to Superman… You might not realise this, but I've sort of got a soft spot for the big guy." Lois laughed self- consciously, then sobered abruptly. "The truth is, I think I wanted a little revenge…"

"For Clara? And the rest?"


"Honey, do you think I don't know how much Superman has left you so frustrated and hurt lately?" Clark placed a finger under Lois' chin and raised her face to his. "And I'm not talking sex here… though there is that too. Since we got back from our vacation, which turned out to be a trip to hell and not the relaxing break we were expecting, it's just been one thing after another. And I'll admit that having been exposed to kryptonite all this time has slowed me down and made me a lot crankier and more thoughtless than I have any right to be. Considering what you've been going through these past few days with Joel and Clara being sick, I think you've every right to extract a little revenge."

"But neither of us have the right when it affects the rest of the family. Clark, we hurt a lot of people tonight."

"I know, they sort of got caught in the fallout. Mom and Dad are used to it — though that's no real excuse — but we should never have let poor Julian get involved."

"Clark! Thank goodness Julian was involved. I'm not saying we wouldn't have arrived at the same place we're at now, but at least he made it happen a whole lot sooner."

A wry smile touched Clark's face. "He's a good kid and we're lucky to have him. We're lucky to have them all."

"We're lucky to have each other." Lois brought her lips to Clark's and sealed that affirmation with a kiss, but she resisted the pull of passion which she felt so strongly. "Clark, we will still have them all, won't we?"

"I'm sure we will, sweetheart. I have a lot of faith in Joel and Clara — they'll never give up, they're too much like their mother." Clark dropped a kiss on Lois' brow. "Now sit here while I clear away this mess and then we can get back to the hospital where we ought to be. And honey, I intend to stay there this time until Joel and Clara are well again."

"You don't have to do that, you know!"

"Do what?"

"Make promises you might not be able to keep!"


"Clark! It's not necessary. I'm fine now…"

"You can say what you like, Lois, but I'm not leaving…"

"Clark, you have things to do…" But her words were drowned out by the wooshing sound of a light wind as the cases disappeared and drawers and cupboards were refilled at superspeed. Lois, for one of the few times in her life, did as she was told and sat on the bed and waited.


Chapter Ten: Joey's Ills and Clark's Chills

From her position in the far corner of the room, Mindy watched with equal amounts of fear and revulsion as her partner staggered from the bathroom and collapsed on the nearest bed, which, unfortunately, happened to be hers. She gritted her teeth in exasperation — now the idiot had managed to contaminate both beds with whatever germs were making him sick. He was still clad in his pants and sleeveless t-shirt, not having had the strength to undress himself completely the night before, but she could see that his puny body was shivering continually. Mindy's desire to put as much space between herself and this sad excuse for a man increased dramatically.

She squirmed anxiously on the edge of one of the two hard chairs the room possessed while, once more, Joey raspingly coughed into the sheets. This wasn't supposed to happen! The Kryptonian virus wasn't supposed to affect humans, but she could hardly deny the fact that Bermuda was seriously ill.

When they'd arrived back at the motel from their disaster of a date, Joey had thrown himself on his bed, dragging off his jacket and shirt and kicking his shoes haphazardly across the floor before lapsing into a fitful sleep. The rest of the night, much to Mindy's annoyance, he'd spent hacking and spitting up into his brightly coloured handkerchief, which now lay dirty and sodden between the beds. The disgusting article offended Mindy's sensibilities but she didn't dare go near it to get rid of it.

A number of times during the long night, he'd asked for her help. Once she'd relented and emptied the plastic bowl of its equally plastic fruit and thrust it in his direction, but for the most part, she'd pulled the covers over her head and tried determinedly to ignore his existence. Not exactly an easy task as his struggle to breathe had deepened as dawn approached. Now a slimy sheen of sweat coated his skin while his breathing was laboured and harsh.

Standing slowly, she crept gingerly towards the dresser by the side of the bed. Getting close to the sick man was the last thing she wanted to do, but the few possessions she had were in these drawers and she wasn't about to abandon them. Mindy kept her eyes glued to Joey's face, remaining alert to his every movement. She could see that his eyes were open, but they were glazed and unfocused, staring at some spot on the ceiling.

She decided it was a pretty safe bet that he wasn't even aware of her presence and allowed herself to relax slightly as she reached her goal, opening drawers and pulling out her clothes, carefully handling her new purchases. They were the nicest things she'd been able to buy in years… the only things she'd been able to buy in years, and even if it was her so-called partner's money which had allowed her to indulge her passion for shopping, Mindy didn't feel any obligation to hang around to take care of him — she was no damn nurse! Well, she had been once upon a time, but she'd hated all these sick people and she'd seized her opportunity to escape when it had come along in the shape of Bill Church Sr. There was no way she was going to go back to that back-breaking, menial job.

And what if Bermuda could pass on the nasty virus to her? Mindy had a healthy regard for her own preservation, which brought her to the other reason why she should get out of town pretty damn quick.

Her great night out had started on a high note, though Joey had definitely been a party-pooper. Still, she'd ignored his morose presence and his constant sniffling and posted notice that she was available and out for a good time, sending sultry come-hither glances to every passably attractive male. And, judging by the number of men who'd taken up her invitation, she hadn't lost her touch or her appeal. Mindy had been in her element, never considering that her generosity in buying her admirers' drinks might have contributed to her reborn popularity. There had been a tiny dance floor where she'd spent a lot of the evening gyrating sexily to the music. It had been such a long time since she'd let her hair down, so it wasn't totally surprising that she'd felt like she'd been doused by a bucket of cold water when she'd spotted a particular lowlife from her past.

She'd scurried back to the booth beside Joey and slouched down as low as she could. Maybe he hadn't noticed her… or, if he had, he hadn't recognised her. After all, she had changed some. She'd peered through the gloomy interior, studying the man sitting at the bar. He was good-looking in a dangerous sort of way, and she'd watched as he lit a cigarette; behind the blue haze his eyes squinted round the dimly lit room while a shark-like grin bared his white teeth. Was that smile a hint she'd been spotted? Yet his gaze had passed over her without any other sign of recognition.

Benetto Almeira was a highly skilled hit man who had worked exclusively for Intergang. She'd used his services a few times herself in the dim and distant past, but what was more scary was the fact that he was also a close friend to Bill Church Jr. Hmph! One of a tiny few — that moron didn't have friends. But if Benny had identified her, he would no doubt regale Billy Boy about her return to Metropolis and it was a pretty sure bet that she wouldn't be welcomed back into the bosom of the family. There could be a contract out on her already.

Mindy had quickly dragged Joey out of the bar. Fortunately, no one seemed to pay much attention to the small blond female struggling with the legless drunk. The regulars probably saw that sort of thing every night! Thankfully, the two had reached the safety of the motel without incident. Huh, safety! She was beginning to doubt there was anywhere safe for her in the whole state of New Troy.

She'd tried to be careful and make sure they hadn't been tailed back to their trashy bolt hole, but Benny was a professional and, if he had been suspicious, he would have had someone follow them. Mind you, the very fact that she'd been left alone all night probably meant that her fears of discovery were groundless. Or it could mean that Benny and Church were just biding their time, taunting her, or trying to find out what she was up to.

A hand grabbed at her arm as she stealthily closed the bottom dresser drawer, and her eyes flew to the face of the man in the bed. Joey's stare was rivetted on her and the grasp around her wrist was stronger than any sick man's had a right to be.

"Help me!" His voice was croaky and barely discernable. "Doctor, I need a doctor!"

Her consternation hit a new high as Joey's words ended on a gurgling cough, spraying her hand and arm with a lethal dose of saliva and mucus. Mindy struggled to break the hold, but Joey held firm. Oh, God! She had to get out of here.

"Okay, Joey, okay. I'll help you." She watched in relief as his gaze dimmed and slid away from her. "But you have to let me go. If I'm going to help you, I have to go find a doctor. Maybe I can go to the local drugstore and get you some medicine that would make you feel better." Joey's grip started to ease. "That's right, Joey. That's what I'll do. You stay right here and I'll go fetch some pills… and get a doctor to come see you."

"Thanks, Mindy," he whispered as he set her free and his eyes closed.

A horrified Mindy swiped her spattered arm on the material of her skirt. For a few seconds, she was too frightened to step away, then holding her things close to her chest with her free arm, she scuttled back to the other side of the room. Some of her new underwear — the really sexy ones — had fallen to the floor when she'd been manhandled, but she didn't dare return to pick them up. Fetching her battered suitcase, she started to stuff her clothes inside, no longer taking the time to be careful. When she'd finished, she picked up her purse and emptied out her wallet. Oh boy! Her enjoyment of last night had been a lot more expensive than she'd allowed for — she had the princely sum of three dollars, forty cents left. Hardly enough to buy her a subway ticket!

She searched frantically round the room for Joey's jacket, hoping desperately that his billfold was in there and not in the pants he was still wearing. She very much doubted she'd have the courage to rummage through his clothes while he was wearing them — not while he was in this condition anyway.

Thankfully she found the coat dropped on the floor by the now empty bed and crawling forward quietly, taking care to avoid that revolting handkerchief, she prayed that Joey wouldn't revive from his comatose state and lunge at her again. The less contact she had with him the better it would be for her. But it seemed his last action had done him in and he was deeply unconscious.

Mindy was soon digging through the pockets and she sighed audibly when her fingers pulled out the leather wallet, but she was due for another disappointment… Joey had even less money than she did. Where the hell could she go without money or plastic? She needed cash if she was going to get out of here, and she knew just where to find it. Bermuda still had a pile of $50 notes hidden in the back of his safe in the warehouse. He thought he'd kept it hidden from her, but Mindy had radar where dough was concerned. Besides, she'd never trusted her partner one inch and she'd kept a close watch on him, just in case he'd thought of double-crossing her. The very fact that she was doing exactly the same thing to him bothered her not one bit. Cash was what she needed and Joey was going to provide it.

She dug her fingers into his coat pockets again and retrieved his set of keys. Mindy glanced backward at the supine figure of her partner and was happy to see him still unconscious. He wouldn't even know she was gone. She'd go fetch her paycheck, come back and collect her things, then find somewhere out of town to lie low while she waited for her revenge on Superman to take effect. After all, if Joey had been stricken so badly by the virus, then those kids and the superhero didn't stand a chance.


The muted sounds of a busy pediatrics department wakening up reached through the closed door and finally permeated Lois' jaded brain, while the morning light seeped round the edges of the blind and fell across her face. Her eyes slowly opened and she lay for some minutes as her mind assimilated the happenings of the night.

When Clark and she had returned to the hospital, he'd insisted that she try to catch some sleep while he took his long overdue shift of sitting with the children. Lois had been inclined to persuade him to join her for a couple of hours — he'd looked as exhausted as she felt — but he'd refused to leave Clara and Joel without one member of the family with them. Even when Martha had suggested that she stay, he'd, uncharacteristically, demanded that his mom take a taxi home. After all, Martha had the added responsibility of taking care of Julian and Nathan, and neither she nor Jonathan were getting any younger. Clark had repeated his old justification that he needed less sleep than the rest of them. At this point, though, Lois wasn't totally convinced of that fact. She had the sneaking suspicion that Clark wasn't quite as well as he was trying to make out, a fact he'd denied the minute she'd brought it up, but being fit almost to drop, Lois hadn't felt inclined to argue.

Her few hours' rest had certainly revitalised her some and she quickly made her way into the tiny washroom, where she showered and dressed in some clean clothes, which Martha had thoughtfully brought from home when they'd visited with the children. It was amazing how a shower and a change of clothing could refresh you! Within minutes she was hurrying into the isolation ward to discover how her family was doing this new day, stopping only to don the necessary coveralls.

The now-familiar face of Amy greeted her when she came through the door. The charge nurse quietly and efficiently checked the children's vital stats without disturbing either of her patients or the man resting in the large chair by his daughter's bed.

"How are they this morning?" Lois whispered as she came forward.

"Holding their own!" the nurse answered brightly, returning the instruments to her trolley. "I heard you all had a busy night. The poor little souls are tired out, so it's best to let them sleep."

That was no doubt good advice, but Lois couldn't help but notice the look of worry that fleetingly creased Amy's brow or the sympathetic way she patted her arm as she passed by on her way out. Joel and Clara might be 'holding their own', but Lois doubted that they were getting any better.

Nevertheless, the scene in front of her brought a gentle smile to her face. Clark had dragged the chair up close to Clara's bed and he held fast to his daughter's tiny hand. Sometime during the night he too had fallen asleep, his dark head resting on the coverlet beside his kitten. Lois disliked having to wake him, but he was lying awkwardly and even super muscles were inclined to stiffen up, especially when Clark had over-exerted himself.

"Clark, sweetheart, it's morning. Time to wake up!"

He didn't stir at her calling him and she crossed to his side to give him a gentle shake. His face was turned towards her and, close up, she couldn't deny that Clark was looking a little flushed or that his cheek was warm to her touch.

Clark's eyes opened suddenly and he blinked a few times in the early morning sunshine. He sat upright and stretched. "Hi, honey!" The smile he gave her was tired and his voice cracked on the words, reminding Lois of the cough he'd had the day before.

"Clark! You are coming down with this virus!" Her voice sharpened in panic.

"No, Lois! Well, not really," he said with as much confidence as he could muster, while he continued to warily ease his shoulders to iron out the kinks in his sore muscles. "My throat feels raw and I seem to ache a bit, but I guess that's not too surprising, considering the way I fell asleep. I suppose I feel like you do when you've caught the flu, and maybe I should ask Bernie to 'alter' some aspirin for me." He sent her another heartening grin, but Lois wasn't about to be mollified.

"Why didn't you tell me, Clark?" she demanded, giving into her first instinct to accuse. "This is so like you… you keep things from me!"

Clark's head and shoulders drooped. He had hoped to avoid another confrontation with his wife. "I'm sorry, Lois. You might remember that we'd other more important matters on our minds last night. Besides, I did mention it. Sometime yesterday… I think…" His brow wrinkled in concentration. He was sure he'd told Lois about the coughing and things, but it seemed like such a long time ago.

The sound of Clark's woeful tone broke through Lois' flash of frustration and she looked at him searchingly. If it were possible, he looked even more weary than he had last night. How could she rip up at him so when he was only trying valiantly to save her any more distress? Surely last night should have taught her to talk first and not revert to her long-ago method of 'attack is the best line of defence'. And it was clear he wasn't holding back the truth; he really wasn't suffering like Clara and Joel.

"I'm sorry, Clark. You did tell me about your cold. I'm just so on edge right now that I seem to jump at every turn." He'd lifted his face to her again and she lightly pushed at the lock of hair which had fallen across his forehead, covertly rechecking his temperature — she had to be sure. "But being stressed is no reason for me to act like a harridan. I'm the one who should be sorry."

"Lois, maybe we should both stop apologising and just accept that we aren't acting like our usual selves — we're hardly in a position to!" Clark pulled Lois down onto his lap and she came willingly…needing to make amends for her quick resort to anger. "We've never really had to face up to the fact that we could lose Joel or Clara, so it's been a double shock…"

"… and losing one child is bad enough, but it might be both!"

Lois found herself buried in Clark's embrace and, for the first time since the kids had fallen ill, they wept together.


James Olsen's lock-picking skills certainly hadn't grown rusty over the years. After all, in his line of work they often came in very useful, as in the case of Joey Bermuda's warehouse. The two locks and heavy padlock had taken some time to crack but hadn't been able to deny him access. There had also been a complicated alarm system which hadn't given him any trouble since, strangely, it wasn't switched on. He'd left the padlock in place but hadn't snapped it shut, so that the casual passerby would be unaware that any breaking and entering had taken place — not that there would be many of those down this deserted back alley.

The morning sunshine filtered through the dusty windows, giving him just enough natural light to find his way around. Strange sheeted objects filled the room, but Jimmy was interested only in a couple of things. All his attention was directed at the long bench which held an array of chemistry equipment, some already in use, and the little dilapidated freezer sitting behind it on the back wall, highlighted by a fuzzy ray of sunshine that had penetrated the dust and grime of the window on the opposite wall.

Jimmy stopped to make sure he was really alone — the last thing he wanted was a run in with Joey and that witch Mindy. Satisfied of his solitary state, he hurried across the room until he stood in front of the freezer. He stretched out a hand, which he surprisingly found was less than steady, to test the lock and found it too had been left undone. Somehow his reporter's instincts were on red alert, warning him that he wasn't going to like what he found inside. The small door resisted for a fraction of a second then opened with a slight sucking sensation. His eyes rounded in shock at the strange sight.

The large petri dish on the centre shelf had held the sickly green virus, yet the growing string-like tendrils had long since escaped the confines of the clear plastic holder and were now clinging to the sides and wire shelves of the freezer like the fronds of some slimy creeping plant. The thing even looked deadly.

Bernard Klein would most certainly give his eyeteeth to get his hands on the stuff as it was probably the scientist's best chance to devise a cure for what ailed Joel and Clara… and possibly Clark. With that thought firmly in his mind, Jimmy crossed to the bench to find some sort of receptacle for the virus. He didn't know much about bio- chemistry or science, though he was fairly certain that he would need to take only a sample of the virus, but he did have a good idea that it should be transported in something that could isolate the toxic germ.

He rummaged around on the crowded surface, prudently avoiding the beakers and test tubes which already held fibres of the virus floating in solutions of differing colours. Finally, in a drawer under the bench he found a number of unused stoppered vials and he quickly returned with a couple to the freezer. It would be wise to take a little extra, just to be sure, and there was no way he wanted to come back here. Besides, after he called the police, this would probably be cordoned off as a crime scene.

Swinging the door open again, Jimmy proceeded on his self- appointed task. Holding the vials in his handkerchief, with infinite caution he used the tweezers, which had also been purloined from the table, to stuff some strands into the glass tubes. He was careful to keep his face well away from the sickly green tendrils and to make sure they didn't touch his skin. This virus was only supposed to be harmful to Kryptonians, but hey, the thing looked so lethal that he decided to take no chances.

He worked as speedily as he dared and soon had the two small vials filled and stoppered. He wrapped one in his handkerchief and the other in wads of paper tissue, pulled from a dispenser attached to the back wall. For extra security he then rolled both vials in a hand towel, which he'd found by a small sink, then secured the whole thing with some duct tape that his search had also uncovered. Joey's lair held more hardware than a general store… even down to the kitchen sink.

He viewed the little, but bulky, package with distaste. It wasn't the safest way to transport a toxic substance but it was the best he could do under the circumstances. With one last look at the dimly lit interior, Jimmy made his way to the door. But before he reached his goal, his alert senses heard the faint tap-tap of staccato footsteps approaching the warehouse. They stopped directly in front of the door and a sultry yet annoyed female voice could be heard to utter a profanity that made even Jimmy blush. Speedily James Olsen melted into the shadows of the room behind one of the larger covered objects. The wide door creaked slowly.

With a caution that equalled the reporter's entrance earlier, Mindy Church tiptoed, as best she could in her high-heeled shoes, inside. Stretched in front of her she held a tiny, yet just as deadly, hand gun. She let her gaze slide over the inside of the warehouse, searching the dark corners for anything unusual and finishing up her inspection on the work bench and freezer.

In his hiding place, Jimmy's breath caught silently in his throat. For a few brief seconds, he considered taking Clark's advice and calling for the superhero, but he quickly concluded that bringing Superman to this place, which was probably contaminated with the virus, was hardly an option. No, this time he was definitely on his own, but he had no illusions that Mindy wouldn't use that weapon, if she found him. Thank goodness he'd taken the precaution of leaving things as undisturbed as possible. Hopefully, to any cursory investigation his interference with the objects on the table would remain undetected. Yet, in preparation for flight or fight, he tensed and settled his shoulder on the mysterious item in front of him — ready to heave it onto her, if she came near.

However, after a few agonising minutes, it appeared that Mindy's suspicions had been allayed and she slipped the gun back into her purse. It was also clear that she had no intention of opening the freezer and she seemed to take a wide berth around the bench with its bizarre tableware. Mindy was interested in an entirely different goal, and, as she made a beeline for the safe, Jimmy could hear her muttering angrily to herself.

"You stupid son-of-a-bitch, Joey, leaving the door unlocked like that! And the alarm off!" Once she'd satisfied herself that no one was inside, Mindy found it quite easy to lay the blame at her partner's door. Considering the state he was in last night, she didn't find it too difficult to believe he'd forgotten to lock up behind him. "Anyone could have walked in here during the night, you dimwitted moron! Mind you, you've made things a little easier for me." Mindy laughed sneeringly into the gloom as she centred in on the object of her desire. "Now let's see if I can still get this right."

She bent over from the waist until her eye was level with the dial on the safe, giving Jimmy an unexpected and unwanted view of her rounded backside. Jimmy rolled his eyes; Mindy had certainly expanded over the years… and in all the wrong directions.

Meanwhile, Mindy concentrated on her task. She'd learned the ability to covertly read the combinations of safes while working as an agency nurse. She'd only been in her early twenties but already she'd been looking for the fast track to riches. Mindy had found hospital nursing much too hard and confining, and she'd quickly signed up with an agency which home-nursed the old and infirm. Thankfully, the agency had been very exclusive and only catered for richer clientele. Mindy had soon learned that many of these 'old dears' had hidden safes and very often she was trusted with access, in order to shop for her charges. Feathering her own nest at the expense of these poor souls had never bothered her conscience. The world was an unfair place, and it had certainly been unfair to Mindy when she'd been born into a poor family with a drudge for a mother and a drunk for a father. But she'd been a bright, pretty girl and she'd done the best she could, availing herself of a social programme which had taken her into nursing. But Mindy had quickly discovered that hard work alone wouldn't get her the good life which she envied, so she'd decided that her rich old charges would supply it for her… whether they agreed or not. Even in the case of her meaner patients, she'd quickly taught herself the skill of watching the turns and twists of the dial to open the safe and soon found herself able to copy the combinations.

Almost instinctively, Mindy now employed that skill and within minutes she had what she'd come for — Joey's final stash of clean crisp notes. Mindy stuffed the bundle into her purse with a satisfied grin and, leaving the safe ajar, she almost ran from the warehouse. She wanted to put as much distance between herself and her failed undertaking with her useless partner. She had no idea that she'd picked up a tail.

It was a difficult decision for Jimmy to make. He really should deliver the virus to Star Labs, but perhaps he could take a short time out to find out where Mindy was holed up… and maybe Joey Bermuda. He'd definitely overheard Mindy's reference to Joey as she'd stood in front of the safe and it was just too much of a coincidence that the said 'Joey' was not the Handyman. There was a chance to 'kill two birds with one stone'.

Back on the busy block, Jimmy watched Mindy call for a cab and climb inside when one screeched to a halt in front of her. Crossing the road to his car, he slipped behind the wheel and deftly manoeuvred his vehicle into the line of traffic, keeping careful track of his quarry. He followed the cab through the teeming streets until it left the city centre and headed along the river for Dockers' Quay, an area adjacent to Hobbs Bay and just as squalid. A few times he'd thought he'd lost the cab but, as the busy traffic thinned, he found it easier to keep it in sight. Finally, it pulled into a car park, and Jimmy, not wanting to alert Mindy, drove past and parked a little way ahead. She'd arrived at her destination, a rundown motel.

Mindy paid off the cab-driver then hurriedly teetered across the forecourt. When she reached the shelter of the building she pressed herself up against the crumbling brick wall, gazing around her before moving towards her room. Even from his vantage point a hundred yards down the road, Jimmy could recognise fear when he saw it. What had got Mindy in such a state? She wasn't exactly a shrinking violet, and there had been no dread of her partner in the way she'd referred to him in the warehouse.

The intrepid reporter, decided it was time to investigate. Of course, he could call in the police now, but what would he tell them? Neither Mindy Church nor Joey Bermuda were wanted criminals, at least, not yet, and he still didn't know if Bermuda was inside. His eyes dropped to the towelling-wrapped parcel which he'd slung on the passenger seat in his hurry to keep up with Mindy Church. He really didn't like the idea of leaving it behind. Even locking it in the trunk wouldn't necessarily guarantee its safety. In this derelict area, he'd be lucky if his car still had all four wheels when he returned. No, he'd gone to a lot of trouble to obtain this unique cargo and he wasn't about to leave it unattended. He picked it up and stuffed it inside his zipped-up leather jacket, repressing a shudder as he did so. This is a Kryptonian virus, he reminded himself, not harmful to humans. Scarily, his perception was very soon to change. Jimmy exited his vehicle, locked up and walked quickly back to the motel.


Two very agitated senior citizens entered Metropolis General Hospital and strode towards the reception desk, the female member of the pair struggling to keep up with her companion's longer stride. It was mid-morning and the reception area was full of white-coated medical staff, cleaning orderlies and members of the general public, a number of whom were just as anxious as the tall, slightly disgruntled gentleman and the well-dressed lady by his side.

Long, nerve-wracking minutes passed as they waited, less than contentedly, for their turn in the queue at the desk. Suddenly, the grey-headed man leaned down and whispered… no, almost snarled into his wife's ear.

"I still can't believe that you've kept me in the dark all this time, Ellen!"

"Sam, we've already been through all this!" Ellen answered as her head bobbed in exasperation. "Besides, I told you yesterday, the minute Jonathan contacted us about the children. I don't understand why you feel so aggrieved. It's not like you've never kept things from me… and for much longer! I've only known myself since last week."

Again Sam bent low and though he kept his voice down, his frustration was obvious. "You're accusing me of things that happened years ago! We agreed to start afresh… remember, and I haven't lied to you or kept secrets from you since. And I never did keep a secret of that magnitude from you."

"Oh! You… you!" Ellen bridled. "Sam Lane, you think that the subject of your cheating on me is of less importance than your son-in-law's id…"

Sam's hand gripped his wife's arm hard. "Ellen!" Mad as he was at her concealment and at her subsequent revival of his infidelities, he was not about to let her blurt out Clark's secret in this very public place. Even now they were attracting some curious looks. He lowered his voice again, but retained its urgency. "Ellen, be careful! People are listening. Just because we're mad at each other doesn't mean we should jeopardise Clark and Lois' lives… not to mention the children."

Ellen at once saw the truth of Sam's statement and she took a couple of deep breaths before she replied. "You're right! I think we should both calm down. After all, we're here because our grandchildren are seriously ill." The elderly lady's voice caught in her throat. "I think our arguing is extremely petty under the circumstances."

The hand on Ellen's arm changed its motion to one of gentle patting. "I couldn't agree with you more. I'm sorry, Ellen; it's the stress of not knowing what's happening that's making me act like a grizzly old bear." Sam was relieved when his wife covered his hand with her own. He sent her a commiserating smile, then his head raised to survey the queue ahead of them. It hadn't moved forward since they'd arrived, and the two women behind the reception desk seemed to be busy with other tasks. Ellen and he had much more important things to do than to stand around waiting on the receptionists' pleasure. "How long do you think this is going to take?"

At her husband's troubled words, Ellen's anxiety at last overcame her good manners and she pushed her way forward. "Excuse me, Ms," she announced in her most imperious tones, "Ms Morgan," Ellen added as the woman turned her attention to her, revealing her name-tag. "You might not have noticed but you have quite a number of people waiting here who would certainly appreciate your attention."

The people in line, who'd been verbalising their displeasure, in various levels of volume and annoyance, at the pushy woman who'd had the nerve to jump the queue, were a little mollified at her taking up the cudgels on all their parts, and they opted to quieten down to see what the outcome would be.

The administrator behind the desk regarded the outraged lady and tried a conciliatory approach. "I'm sorry, madame, but this is a very busy hospital and my colleague and I have a lot to do." A phone started ringing in the background to verify her statement and Ms Morgan stretched out a hand to lift the receiver.

"Before you answer that, Ms Morgan, perhaps, if your colleague and you are too busy to cope with these people here, then you could call your supervisor and let us discuss our business with her."

Score one for the elderly lady. Ms Morgan decided to admit defeat and left the phone to ring. "Perhaps, if you told me what you wanted I could help."

"Well, I'm sure you could," Ellen smiled in triumph. "After all, isn't that what a receptionist is employed for?" The crowd in line were now rooting for one of their own. "My husband and I have been overseas and we got a message saying that our grandchildren had been admitted to this hospital. Their names are Joel and Clara Kent, and we've been travelling ever since we heard they were sick. We would appreciate seeing them just as soon as possible. So if you could look up your computer and tell us where to find them…"

There was no need for Ms Morgan to look up the admittance files. The Kent children were the two with the weird virus everyone was talking about and they were in Dr Klein's pediatric unit, only it did seem that the virus might not be so strange after all. Just this morning another couple of students from the Braeview School had been admitted, though word was that neither of the patients were suffering such chronic symptoms and had merely been brought in as a precaution. But that didn't negate the fact that Joel and Clara were seriously ill and Ms Morgan could well understand the grandparents' anxiety. With a great deal more sympathy than she'd shown previously, she directed the Lanes to the correct ward.

Sam and Ellen hurried away, leaving a very irate group by the desk. Now they'd watched their fellow visitor gaining attention by standing up to the women behind the desk, they were no longer content to wait in silence and the noise in the foyer rose accordingly. The Lanes, however, didn't notice the furor they'd left behind — the last leg of their journey was finally in sight.


Having noted the room that Mindy had disappeared inside, Jimmy skirted quickly round the motel and was approaching from the far side. He'd thought that the unit might have had a window in back which he could have climbed through without being discovered, but was disappointed to find that all the ground floor windows there were barred. Now he sidled up to the room, hoping to peek in the front window to get the lay of the land before he decided on his next move.

His forward movement was halted abruptly as the door swung open and a white-faced Mindy burst from the room, hauling a bulging carryall. James turned his face away and squashed his body into the wall, wishing the bricks would swallow him up, but his antics were completely unnecessary, the lady looked neither to the right nor left. Slamming the door behind her, she almost sprinted across the car park as if the fiends of hell were after her. When she reached a rusty old flatbed truck she heaved her bag in the back and was, momentarily, pulling out into the road at nigh on super-speed. Within seconds she was gone.

A shocked James Olsen could only stand and watch. By the time he ran back to his car and turned it around, Mrs Church would have disappeared, swallowed up in the labyrinth of unused industrial blocks and broken-down apartments. And on the other hand, Jimmy was really interested to find out just what was in the room that had spooked the normally hardhearted harpy. Well, perhaps 'really interested' was too strong a term, but his curiosity was tweaked. There was no way he wouldn't go inside, but he couldn't ignore the feeling that what lay behind that door would not be pleasant.

Steeling himself, Jimmy walked up to the door and turned the knob. Surprisingly, the door opened silently — Jimmy had expected a dramatic creak. The dirty drapes on the window shaded the interior and he stood in the doorway to allow his sight to adjust to the gloom. Slowly he made out the figure lying spreadeagled on one of the beds. For some seconds, he had difficulty in recognising the man — after all, it had been a number of years since he'd seen the guy, and he'd never really had much to do with the story of the arrest and trial — but that was definitely Joey Bermuda. Or it had been. Even from across the room, he could tell that Bermuda was dead, and by the looks of things his death had not been easy.

As if drawn by a magnet, Jimmy approached the body, his reporter's mind unconsciously noting the disturbing details. Bermuda's hands were fisted into the sheets, as if by holding on to something so mundane, he could hold on to life. His mouth was frozen in a grimace, suggesting that he'd been in a considerable amount of pain, while a frothy yellow-green scum coated his lips. His unseeing eyes still stared directly at the ceiling and a single tear had tracked its way down one cheek. Joey had died a lonely, terrible death.

With a determined shrug, Jimmy pushed aside imaginary horrors and studied the body more analytically. The guy had clearly been dead for some time, and, judging by Mindy Church's stunned demeanour, he doubted that she'd expected to find her partner deceased. He didn't believe that Mindy was the killer — not this time. Besides, there didn't seem to be any visible signs of a wound on the body… no bloody gunshot holes, no marks of blunt trauma, nor stab wounds. As far as Jimmy's admittedly limited medical knowhow went, he'd say this guy died naturally, if dying agonizingly from some unknown virus could be described as normal. And was it possible that the virus that had begun by only infecting Kryptonians had somehow mutated? Jimmy just didn't know enough to answer that one, but it did seem to be the most likely scenario.

It was time to let the police deal with this. Assuming there was a deadly virus out there that was now affecting humans, then the local office of the Centres for Disease Control had to be involved here. Anxious to put as much distance as possible between himself and the infected corpse, Jimmy started backing towards the door, while he fished out his cellphone from his inside pocket. He could just as easily make the call from outside. He'd almost made it too, when the door was pushed forcefully open behind him, exposing two dark-suited men standing inquiringly in the doorway.

"Well, well, what have we here?" Benny Almeira asked as he moved into the room, gun in hand and his colleague close on his heels. "We were told that a broad rented this room — someone we thought was an old friend. So who the hell are you?"

Warily eyeing up the newcomers and the gun which was trained on his chest, James Olsen spoke up, praying that his voice would remain steady. "If you're looking for Mrs Church, she just left. You might catch up with her, if you hurry." He gestured towards the door, careful to keep his hands in full sight so that this goon wouldn't feel threatened and have any excuse to use the weapon.

"Nah, we can catch her later," Almeira suggested conversationally, before his voice took on a more belligerent tone. "But you still haven't answered my question. I don't like surprises."

Regardless of the fact that the glint in the stranger's eye was chilling, Jimmy couldn't resist a show of bravado. "Do you always look in on your friends with a gun in your hand?"

"Don't get smart!" The villain advised, while he swept the revolver menacingly over Jimmy's body. "You're not in any position to get smart, buddy!"

Noticing the tightening of the gunman's trigger-finger, Jimmy decided that a little prudence was required. Besides, the disturbing notion that the guy's face was somehow familiar was beginning to assault his mind. Then again, he didn't believe that the whole truth here would do him much good either — a little prevarication might be in order. "The name's Jim and I'm an old friend of Mindy's too."

"Now that's a pity for you, because I can't say that any friend of Mindy's is a friend of mine. The question is — what do we do about it?" Expansively, the dark-skinned gunman rubbed his chin in pretended contemplation. "But if you're such a good friend, maybe you can tell us where to find the dame."

Jimmy never got a chance to answer as the other man, who'd edged round the room until he stood between the beds, interrupted. "Talking of surprises, Boss, this guy here's a stiff."

"No kidding!" Benny leaned a little to the side to glance around Jimmy's body, not allowing the gun to waver even by an inch. Jimmy concluded it was best to remain still, which was a good call as Almeira quickly returned his attention to his victim. "You do this? Or was it the work of the double-dealing Mrs Church?"

"I didn't kill Bermuda! And I doubt that Mindy Church did either!"

"Bermuda? Joey Bermuda? That's Joey Bermuda?" Almeira sounded curious for a few moments as he reminisced. "I remember him from when I was just starting out in the job. He was kinda a role-model of mine. Always wondered what happened to him after he went to prison. So tell me, how did he end up in this grungy motel… dead… and just what are you doing here?"

Jimmy didn't need a crystal ball to know that he was in big trouble but co-operation would probably be the best line of defence for the present. "The guy got sick and then he died. I'd stand well back if I were you," he addressed the second piece of muscle who was leaning curiously over the corpse. "I think the disease might be catching."

The man jumped back as if he'd been burned. "Boss, this stooge might be onto something. Whatever killed this dead guy wasn't nice!"

"Aldo, don't be such a wimp," Benny recommended dismissively as his assistant inched backwards from the bed.

"I ain't no yellow-belly, Benny," Aldo declared huffily. "But, hey, ain't none of us can fight germs."

"You should listen to him." Jim put in his two-cents worth. "If I'm right, Bermuda's death was caused by a new virus. We could all be in danger! I was just about to call the Centres for Disease Control." He thought it wise not to mention that his first port of call had been the MPD.

As if aware that it was being discussed, the phone, held forgotten in Jimmy's grip, began to shrill. Without a thought, he answered. "Olsen here!" But that was all he got out.

"I'll take that!" Almeira snapped, wrenching the phone from Jimmy with his free hand while with the other he pistol- whipped his quarry.

Bright lights exploded behind Jimmy's eyes and he found himself falling forward. For a very short span of time, a searing pain engulfed the side of his face, then the lights went out entirely.

"Hallo, Jimmy! Is that you?" The disembodied voice of Perry White could be heard emanating from the phone before it was abruptly silenced by the simple expedient of being ground vigorously under Almeira's heel.

Aldo surveyed the fallen man, adding a kick to his spine just for the heck of it. "What do we do now, Boss?"

"I think we take this Jim guy's advice and get out of here." Almeira didn't really believe the virus thing… that was just a ploy of this mug to get him out of a jam. Nevertheless, he did think that it was time to leave. Maybe, Jimmy boy had already managed to contact someone before they'd arrived.

"What about him?"

"We take him with us," Benny pronounced. "I've got a feeling he knows a lot more about this thing and Mrs Church than he's willing to tell. The Bishop might be interested in this bozo's information."

A pleasant grin lit up the heavier goon's face. "You think this guy might need a little persuading, Boss?" That prospect filled Aldo with a great deal of glee — he liked supplying some 'friendly' persuasion, especially the hands- on variety.

"You keep an eye on things, Aldo, while I get the car. We'll take this guy somewhere where our little conversation with him won't be disturbed."


The small hospital room was gloomily hushed; only the uneasy sounds that always seemed to accompany the trappings of the seriously ill invaded the silence. Lois and Clark waited with unaccustomed dread as Beth Klein finished off her examinations of their children. The doctor remained by the side of her goddaughter, absentmindedly stroking the soft curls, while she searched her mind frantically for some infinitesimal piece of information which would give some hope to the couple standing close by.

But warned by the worry lines which deeply creased Beth's brow, Lois remarked sorrowfully. "The news isn't good, is it?"

She didn't really need a doctor's opinion to confirm her suspicions. For some time now, she and Clark had watched as Joel and Clara had slipped from a deep natural sleep into something more akin to coma. The future, without Joel and Clara to brighten it, threatened to overwhelm her. She wasn't ready to face such a terrifying prospect, and so Lois' heart still clutched at every straw.

Beth's mournful gaze turned to the couple she'd come to regard as part of her very special family. "I wish I could tell you differently." Her fingers still traced the silky tresses beneath her hand. "We've treated their symptoms and hoped that would give them the strength to fight off the virus but, lamentably, that's not happened." Her sigh echoed up from the very depths of her heart. "The virus is overwhelming their systems and they're growing weaker by the hour. If we can't destroy the virus…" The doctor bit down on her bottom lip; she hated to admit defeat but, in this case, it was staring them, relentlessly, in the face. And why did it have to be these children whom she'd learned to love so dearly?

"They're going to die!" It was a statement of pure grief choked out on a sob, and Lois had thought never to utter such a negative notion. She felt Clark's arm tighten round her shoulders.

"Lois, no! Don't say it!" He pressed a poignant kiss to her temple, soothingly… hearteningly. A black hole was opening up in the centre of Clark's universe, but he wouldn't give in to despair. Now it was his turn to be the strong one, to keep Lois from breaking. "Beth, what about the drug I brought in yesterday? Won't that work?"

Unhappily, the results of the tests with that particular drug, even after infusion with the plantlife, hadn't been encouraging. However, after much discussion, the Kleins and Mia had adjudged that it was best to administer it to the children anyway, in the unlikely event that the trials would be proved wrong. Bernie had been quick to point out that this had definitely occurred once before… but that was years ago. Nevertheless, giving it to the children certainly couldn't make the situation worse. If only it wasn't such a last ditch attempt.

Yet, studying the expectant faces of her friends, Beth couldn't bring herself to shatter the one tiny fragment of hope that was left to them. "Bernie and Mia worked on that for most of the night. They haven't really had much time to analyse the findings and we felt it best to just go for field trials. It was that drug I injected Joel and Clara with when I first arrived… Now we have to wait and see what happens."

Lois and Clark were so preoccupied sharing a moment of pure unadulterated wishful thinking, they didn't notice the shadow of guilt which crossed Beth's face; were unaware that her eyes closed, as she secretly made reparation to her friends and the fates for her deception, praying that these precious children would not be held accountable for her transgressions.

And yet this wasn't the time for her to lose track of her professionalism — she'd been warned of something just as disturbing back at Star Labs. "Clark, Bernard tells me that you phoned earlier to tell him you might be coming down with this thing. Why don't you and I go next door and I can take a look at you?"

"Beth, there's really no need," Clark objected. "I just asked Bernie if he could treat some aspirin and send it over. I'm fine… really!"

"Well, I think I should be the judge of that, don't you? And I'm sure Lois would like a professional opinion. So don't be shy. I promise to be gentle."

Lois was quick to second Beth's suggestion and, within minutes, Clark found himself shepherded into his and Lois' room, leaving Lois alone with her children, in a strange ambivalent trance of daring hope and fearful grief.

It was thus that Ellen and Sam found their daughter as they were shown into the isolation ward.

"Oh, my dear Lois!" Ellen exclaimed, her voice husky with emotion. "We came as quickly as we could!"

Lois turned towards the familiar voice from where she was perched precariously on Joel's bed, and for the first time since she was a very small girl, she rushed, unheedingly, into the outstretched, unified arms of her parents.

The Lane family clung close, deriving some small comfort from each other and, for a few seconds, it was enough. Slowly, however, they parted, while Sam's fingers came up to trace the glistening tears on his daughter's face.

"Oh, Princess, we are so sorry!"

"I know, Daddy! I know!"

Yet, Sam only allowed himself a moment to wallow before resorting to the ever questing physician… the esoteric researcher. It was always his way, but this time he had a very large personal stake in the outcome. "What's been done for them?" he enquired as he led Lois back to his grandchildren's beds.

Lois swallowed back her childish inclination to continue to weep in her parents' arms. She realised that her father's question wasn't idle curiosity. "They're working hard, Daddy. Bernard and Mia finally got the plant thing to work. They mixed it with some normal drugs and that helped the kids feel better… at first."

The explanation, which Lois volunteered in a listless monotone, proved that she'd completely forgotten that her father might still be unaware of his grandchildren's unique parentage, and thus would be baffled by their treatment. Sam, however, never raised an eyebrow. Once Ellen had decided to come clean, she'd filled him in on all the relevant details, from the strange influences of the amber kryptonite, to the expectations of Papillon's rainbow soil. It had been that last hope that had sustained them throughout their long journey home. Only it had turned out to be a forlorn hope — obviously Joel and Clara were still chronically ill.

"So they haven't found a cure!" Sam stated, his tone sharp with frustration.

"No! They've been infusing some anti-viral drugs with the plants, but none of them have worked so far. Bernie even managed to procure some new experimental drug… we're waiting to see if that will have any beneficial result…" Lois' voice tailed off, but thankfully she was watching her children and didn't notice the look of scepticism that settled on her father's features.

But Ellen did, and she drew nearer to her husband, force of habit causing her to seek the comfort of his more forceful personality. Lois needed her now and she wasn't about to give in to the paranoia that frequently hovered on the edges of her consciousness. In this arena, she wasn't the one who mattered. Ellen gratefully took hold of Sam's outstretched hand and, unexpectedly, found an inner strength, which had eluded her for most of her adult life. She offered Sam a thankful smile, but only accepted a short squeeze of his hand, then went to stand by her daughter. Ellen appreciated her husband's support, but she didn't need it.

Sam gazed sadly at the women before him — his eldest daughter and his wife. Life had been good to him and given him a second chance to redeem their love. Now, in this antiseptic room were four of the people he loved most in all the world, and he wasn't about to let any of them go. He contemplated the sparse information which Lois had given him regarding the children's treatment — he could be wrong in his supposition, but he felt that something crucial was missing. When he spoke there was a new resolve to his tone.

"Lois, where's Clark?"

So intense was Lois' concentration on Joel and Clara that she jumped at the sudden question. "Clark?"

"Yes, is he here?" Sam repeated. "It's important, Princess! Is he ill too? He's had this thing before!"

Lois stared blankly at her father, prompting Ellen to whisper in her ear. "He knows, dear, about Clark. I told him." Here Ellen used the customary drawing of the 'S' sign on her chest while she mouthed the name. "I didn't think it was fair to keep Sam in the dark any longer, and besides, he had to know about the unusual aspects of Joel and Clara's illness. Your father isn't very pleased with me." Ellen couldn't refrain from adding; old habits die hard.

Commendably, Sam didn't rise to the bait. "That's neither here nor there anymore! But it is important that I see Clark!" He'd taken hold of Lois' shoulders and turned her to face him attempting to convey a sense of urgency. Sam didn't know how much longer the kids had, and there was, very likely, a lot of work to do.

"He's next door, Daddy… with Beth. She's checking him out."

"Then he is sick?!"

"Yes, I suppose," Lois spoke almost abstractly. "But not like the children. At least, not yet!" A note of barely repressed hysteria invaded Lois' tone. "Oh, Daddy, please tell me he won't get worse. I couldn't stand to lose him too!"

Sam's hands tightened on Lois' shoulders and he shook her gently. Amazingly a note of optimism coloured his words. "Princess, believe me, you're not going to lose any of them. Trust me, sweetheart, I can't tell you anything yet, because I'm not sure… I have to talk to Beth and Clark first." He pulled Lois into another tender embrace, before consigning her to her mother's care. "Look after her, Ellen, look after all of them."

Enveloping Lois in the circle of her arms, Ellen nodded silently as she watched Sam stride away. She knew him well enough to understand he'd experienced one of his rare flashes of intuitive genius. Through the years her husband might have caused her a great deal of traumatic heartbreak, but as a physician she never doubted him. A tiny flame of hope ignited in her heart.

"Trust your father, Lois. I'm sure that everything is going to turn out fine," she affirmed, dotingly stroking her daughter's bent head. And Ellen firmly believed that this would be so.


Sam walked a little way down the corridor and tapped softly on a door in the opposite wall. He didn't hear an answer from within but, being pretty sure this was the correct destination — this room was the last before the passageway ended in a window — Sam pulled the door back and stuck his head inside.

The room was exceptionally tiny and was taken up by two hospital beds pushed close together. On the nearest of these beds sat a shirtless Clark while Beth Klein stood behind him with a stethoscope stuck in her ears, listening to his heart and lungs.

"Breath in, Clark… now out." she instructed as her patient obeyed. "Again!"

Clark was too busy doing as he was told to speak, but he did raise his hand in greeting to his father-in-law..

"Give me a minute to finish up here, Sam, then we can talk," Beth suggested with just a touch of apprehension. The prospect of telling this doctor she admired of his grandkids' prognosis was not something she was looking forward to.

"Sure thing, Beth." Sam folded his arms, leaning up against the door frame, and settled in to wait — the only sign of his impatience being the pronounced frown between his brows.

Finally, Beth removed the stethoscope from Clark's back and came to stand before him. As a shiver swept through his body, she replaced the discarded shirt over his bare shoulders.

"What's the verdict, Doc?" Clark enquired, trying to keep his voice light and steady.

"Your throat's inflamed; pulse, heart rate and blood pressure are fairly normal… for you, though your temperature is up a few degrees, and your lungs sound a little congested, but nothing too worrying." Beth had been putting away her equipment as she spoke. "In other words, you've got the flu!"

"Then that's not too bad, Beth!" Clark began trying to push his arms into the sleeves of his shirt. He was feeling a little chilly, and Sam crossed the tiny space, hurrying to help.

"Actually, I'd say that was good!"

"Good, Sam?! I'd hardly call it that!" Beth finished repacking the instruments and turned to confront Sam. "Clark might not be so ill as the children but his condition could easily deteriorate at any moment." She turned her attention back to her newest patient, transfixing him with a stern stare, letting him know she wasn't about to brook any disobedience. "I'm going to prescribe plenty of rest and we'll monitor your progress every couple of hours. Oh, and take two of these every four hours." Fishing a bottle of pills out of her white coat pocket, she thrust them at Clark.

"What are they?" Clark studied the little brown bottle, reading the label. This was a whole new experience, taking medication.

"They're the treated aspirin you asked for. They should take your temperature down, help with the headache and the muscle aches and pains."

Sam stood quietly watching the exchange. He didn't have any objections to Beth's treatment, but he did disagree with her projection about Clark's illness. Yet there were things he still needed to know. "Clark, how long have you been feeling like this?"

Clark shrugged his shoulders, while he proceeded to button up his shirt. "I'm not sure. I suppose I noticed I wasn't my usual self early yesterday. At first, I thought I was just worried about the kids, but then I started coughing and sneezing. I'd say I've been like this for over twenty- four hours."

"And do you think you're getting any worse?"

Again Clark considered this carefully before giving his answer. "A little! I mean, in the beginning it was just sniffles. Then my throat got sore and the headaches started… and I feel kinda tired, but we've been going through a lot these past few days, so I guess that's not too surprising." Clark didn't mention the super rescues. At the minute he wasn't sure just how much his father-in- law knew. "But on the whole, I couldn't really say I was feeling too much worse."

"And I don't think you will."

"You can't be sure of that, Sam," Beth disputed.

"I think we can!" Sam reiterated with some force, then quickly modified his tone. "Look, I take it we're dealing with the Kryptonian virus here… the same one that Clark was exposed to back in the nineties?"

Beth looked aghast. She was under the impression that the Lanes weren't aware of their son-in-law's alter-ego. Yet Sam's statement also nebulously stirred a well-documented medical fact in the recesses of her mind.

"You know?" Clark asked, regarding Sam closely to see how he was dealing with the information.

"Yes, Ellen told me. She felt that given the situation, it was best."

"I don't have a problem with that, Sam. In fact, I was ready to tell you right after I'd spoken to Ellen. She was the one who asked Lois and me to hold off. I didn't feel too comfortable with that, but you know Ellen."

Sam patted the younger man's shoulder, showing that he understood completely. "Forget it, Clark. It's all water under the bridge… And we have a much bigger problem to deal with now."

Nodding his head slightly in agreement — he didn't want to aggravate the remnants of his headache — Clark gave Sam a potted version of all he knew. "We're not certain that it's the same virus, but we're assuming that it is. There's some circumstantial evidence that Bermuda might be back in town, but we don't have any of the virus to make comparisons. James Olsen was going to be looking into that this morning but so far we haven't heard from him."

"Okay! Nevertheless, I think we should go along with the supposition that the two infections are the same and that the reason your body is coping with the virus…"

"Is that Clark has developed some immunity to the virus," Beth concluded, her eyes wide with shock. "Oh my goodness, I can't believe we missed that! Bernard will be ready to kill himself! How could we be so stupid?"

"Don't be too hard on yourselves, Beth," Clark said gently. It was hard to accept that his children might not be so ill if this possibility had been realised from the beginning. And yet, he couldn't hold these people responsible — they'd been working themselves into the ground trying to find a way to cure Joel and Clara. "Neither you nor Mia were around when I was ill all these years ago, and even Bernard wasn't involved much. I asked him to supply the kryptonite, but he never knew what it was for. Besides, it's partly my fault," Clark admitted feelingly. Lois had always told him that his propensity to cover up his own hurts would return to haunt him someday. How right she was! "I never mentioned the fact that I was feeling ill to you or Bernie until this morning."

"I don't think this is the time for apportioning blame," Sam reminded the two guilt-ridden people. "And sometimes, Beth, when you're too close to a problem it's hard to see the forest for the trees. Why don't we just concentrate on making the children well for now and hold the hearing till later?"

"Thanks, Sam," Beth whispered.

"Clark?" The elderly man look pointedly at his son-in-law.

Completely aware of his tendency to obsess, Clark knew just as well that it wasn't going to help in this case. "Yes, Sam," he gave in submissively.

"Fine! Now let's get back to business! Clark, how are the super-powers?"

Clark's hand see-sawed back and forwards. "I'd hardly say they were functioning at a hundred percent, but they are still all there."

"Now that's not so good. I'm going to need to take some blood from you and I was hoping not to expose you to kryptonite in your state of health."

"I could give you a tissue sample, Sam," Clark indicated, hope springing eternally.

"That wouldn't do," Beth put in quickly. "If I read Sam correctly, he's hoping to make an anti-viral serum from the antibodies in your bloodstream, and for that we're going to have to take a fair amount of blood…"

"So kryptonite is the only option," Sam finished the statement. "I'm sorry, Clark, I know it's not the best course of action, but it's the only way. We'll keep the exposure to the barest minimum."

"Sam, that's okay! It's for Joel and Clara and you know I'd do anything to help them."

Clark was only a little surprised when his father-in-law wrapped an arm round his shoulders and hugged him. "I know, son." The older man blushed at his show of emotion and quickly returned to business. "Now let's get you over to Star Labs and start this ball rolling."

But here Clark resisted. "If you don't mind, Sam, with the way things are with the children, I'd rather not leave the hospital."

Again it was Beth who came up with the solution. "That's not a problem. I'll get in touch with Bernard and get him to bring some of the kryptonite over here." She dropped her voice at the mention of the 'k' word. "In fact, I can commandeer one of the labs in the hospital for work on the anti-virus. I'm sure that you and Bernard will find all you need here to culture the serum, and Bernard can bring anything extra from Star Labs with him."

The elderly doctor was bobbing his head as she spoke. "It would certainly save precious time. Beth, you go call Bernie and let him know what we plan. Oh, and you might want to have Mia Valliere bring those plants with her. By the sounds of things it wouldn't do any harm to incorporate them into the mix."

"Good! Let's get to it!" Beth headed towards the door with renewed fortitude, her quick mind busily listing the information she had to pass on to her husband, and her spirits rose accordingly at the prospect of the new avenue of attack. It was such a relief not to have to stand helplessly by and watch as Joel and Clara faded from their lives.

Meanwhile, Clark pushed himself stiffly from the bed, only to be halted by Sam's hand planted firmly in the centre of his chest. "Where do you think you're going, young man?"

Clark decided that the term 'young man' was relative. "To sit with the children and to tell Lois about this development."

"No, you're going to stay right here. Beth prescribed rest, and that's exactly what you're going to do. You have a difficult few hours ahead of you and I don't want you making things worse by getting over tired. I can let Lois know about our plan of action, so you lie there and try to get some rest." Sam drew himself to his full height to issue his decree. "And those are doctor's orders, so don't disobey." The fact that his son-in-law was the most powerful man on the planet left him completely undaunted. All Sam saw was a very anxious and stressed man, who was the closest person he'd ever had to a son of his own, and he was prepared to use every trick up his sleeve to get him to relax. "Oh, and take two of these aspirins," he added, picking the bottle up off the bed where it had lain forgotten, and thrust it into Clark's hand once more.

"Can I at least get myself some water?" Clark had never tried swallowing little pills before and he wasn't sure if he could do it. When he was a boy, his mom had never liked taking pills. So his problem, if he had one, was probably psychosomatic. After all, he'd swallowed bombs a couple of times. Of course, he hadn't been bothered by a sore throat at the time…

Clark's hysterical mind trip was abruptly stopped by Beth's authoritative reply from the doorway. "I'll get the nurse to bring you in a pitcher of iced water and a glass. I know it won't be easy, Clark, but do try to get some sleep. We'll be back as soon as we can."

"Okay, okay! I'll do as I'm told and stay put." After all, the children were across the way and Lois was with them. And, of course, he had his superhearing, only he wasn't sure how reliable that was right now. "But I want to be told immediately if anything happens!"

"Clark, you'll be the first to know!" Beth let her stern physician's mask slip as her tone gentled. "Though I don't expect any changes for the moment."

Both doctors waited as Clark shifted to lie back on the bed and then they went quickly out the door, exchanging rueful smiles as they heard their patient mutter grumpily behind them.

"You'd think they'd let me sit with the kids. I could always fall asleep in that big chair." Yet there was method in both doctors' insistence. They were in uncharted territory here, and while Clark's body was holding up fairly well against the virus, even Sam believed it would be an unnecessary risk to keep him in close contact with the children who could very well still be infectious.

Besides, much as Clark objected, he wasn't totally averse to complying with their instructions. He'd spoken the simple truth when he'd told Sam that he'd do anything to help save the lives of his children, but he was not looking forward to the next couple of hours — exposure to kryptonite, even under clinical conditions, could never be anything other than painful. Yet that dismal prospect could not dim the renewed optimism that was blossoming in his soul… this time there would be no disappointments… this time he was sure they would find a cure for Joel and Clara.


Chapter Eleven: A Silver Lining… Or Perhaps It's Green

Mindy Church tapped an impatient toe on the paved forecourt of Metropolis Central Bus Terminal. This was the second time she'd waited in line since arriving here, and she was not amused. Her first experience had been particularly annoying and had left her with a deep desire to personally shove the irritating ticket clerk's time-table where the sun didn't shine, causing him severe discomfort, if he didn't get off his lazy ass and do his job… which was, clearly, to help his clientele, of whom she was one!

So what if she didn't know where she was going to! She just wanted to get on the first bus out of Metropolis, and she didn't see why that should cause him any problems. But the officious little nobody had insisted on her stating a destination, otherwise how would he know what to charge her. In the end she'd settled for one of these monthly rover tickets which would enable her to move about if she needed to, but the cost had been more than she'd cared to spend. After all, her resources would not last forever and she'd need a place to hide away while she waited for the virus to kill off Superman. Only then could she return to Metropolis and take her rightful place in the criminal fraternity as the woman who had rid the underworld of its biggest and most detested adversary.

For the moment, she was booked on a bus heading west to some unheard-of little town in the Catskills. Somewhere, she hoped, which was so obscure that no one would think of looking for her there. Mindy checked her watch and her toe speeded up its beat. Trust the bus service to be late just when she couldn't afford to hang around!

If what she'd spotted was correct, then Benny Almeira was hot on her trail. She was fairly certain that he'd been a passenger in a black limo which had passed her going in the opposite direction, shortly after she'd left the motel. The very fact that she'd been driving a beat-up truck and not a flashy Cadillac, which had been her preferred mode of transport, had most likely saved her life. The two men hadn't given the old vehicle or its driver a second glance. Mindy had shrunk behind the wheel and resisted the urge to push her foot to the floor and roar off into the distance; the last thing she needed was to attract any untoward attention to herself. Besides, in a car chase this old rust-bucket would fail miserably. But it seemed her caution had paid off, as the sleek vehicle had carried on its way, its occupants totally unaware that their quarry had just escaped them.

Nevertheless, her nerves had been almost shot when she'd reached the bus terminal. In double quick time she'd abandoned her transport in the car park and hurried inside the glass-fronted structure, seeking anonymity in the crowded hall. She'd spent the last hour continually glancing over her shoulder and scanning the area for anyone who looked remotely like they worked for Intergang. Thankfully, she prided herself on knowing the type, and she was fairly certain she could spot them a mile off — bulky, mindless men in dark suits with a telling bulge under one arm.

Mindy slid her newly purchased black-rimmed glasses more comfortably onto the bridge of her nose as she squinted into the bright sunshine. Under these circumstances, she'd decided that sunglasses and a head-scarf might be considered as prudent additions to her wardrobe and, thankfully, there had been a row of rundown stores on the edge of the terminal. She'd been a little sorry to hide her revitalised glowing blonde tresses under a mousey scarf. Truth to tell, she probably would have left them dull and listless, if she'd known that she was about to become the prey of Bill Church's search parties. Instead she'd reintroduced the old Mindy Church and, frankly, she was a woman who was much too recognisable for comfort.

Turning her collar up around her neck, the nervous woman shivered inside her short jacket. These fake furs might look the job, and they were more in her price range, but they just weren't so well insulating as the real thing. Now that fall was well underway, there was little heat in the sun and she found the air chilly. She probably should have bought a coat which was more functional and warmer than this natty little number. Then again, she hadn't foreseen this setback or that she would once more be on the run. That's what she got when she relied on unreliable partners like Bermuda! How he dare he up and die on her and leave her to cope on her own!

A sleek silver bus with a green flash down its side drew up at the stop and the folks in the queue in front of her started picking up their baggage as the door automatically slid open. In an almost leisurely stroll, which sent Mindy's frustration levels soaring, they filed onto the bus, having to load their own baggage, due to the driver remaining firmly in his seat. Mindy promised herself that if… no, that was when… she returned to a position of prominence in Metropolis she'd buy up this bus company and sack every one of the staff.

At last it was her turn and she manhandled her bag before her up the couple of narrow steps. The guy in the driver's seat gave her ticket a cursory glance and pointed his thumb in the general direction of the bus' interior.

"Take your pick of seats, lady." the man slurred around a mouthful of gum. "The bus ain't full!"

Throwing him a black look over her shoulder, Mindy manoeuvred her way towards the back of the bus, choosing a seat next to the window which had no other passengers close by. A chatty conversation with some nosey old biddy, who loved to discover the life history of her fellow travellers, was the last thing she required.

She was surprisingly grateful to settle into her seat, and even more so when the bus began pulling out of the terminal building. Again she'd eluded those who sought to destroy her and the sense of relief was causing her eyes to tear. Funny how nerves could play silly tricks on you and make you feel exhausted and shaky.


The sneeze caught her completely unawares, followed by a second and then a third. Now just where had that come from? Mindy dragged a handful of tissues from the depths of her purse, blowing her nose forcefully in an effort to rid herself of the horrible stuffed-up feeling which she'd been largely trying to ignore. Truthfully, though, she didn't have to ask the question… She knew exactly what had made her sneeze — it was that damned virus! And damn Joey Bermuda for getting her into this mess! He should have warned her that they both could be infected!

No, that couldn't be right! She wouldn't even go there! It was a Kryptonian virus and she was human. She was fine! Her head wasn't really beginning to pound, nor was her throat about to close up on her. It was all in her imagination. She'd just been afraid that Almeira and his henchman were about to catch up to her… nothing at all to do with the virus.

Yet Mindy Church couldn't dismiss the fact that being from Earth hadn't saved Joey, nor could she ignore the evidence of her own eyes. As she slowly took the tissues down from her face she was frighteningly reminded of Bermuda's stained handkerchief abandoned on a motel room floor. A rasping coughing fit erupted from her mouth, and she automatically pressed the tissues against her lips. When the coughing stopped, she viewed the bundle of soggy white paper with growing dread, and there were the telltale smudges of yellow-green froth. Her symptoms were echoing her ex-partner's!

"Oh, my god!" Mindy whispered in terror to the blank rear of the seat in front of her. "Joey Bermuda is dead!"

But no one heard her and the bus drove on, out of the city — the driver and the other passengers completely unconcerned and unaware that they carried one traveller who was terrified she might be embarking on her final journey.


Clark tried very hard to stay in his warm dark cocoon. The prospect of waking up to remembered pain and nausea was too much for his exhausted body to take. Yet he was Superman, and so many people relied on him to help. There could be emergencies in progress which direly required his unique assistance. He couldn't ignore them and stay in this safe place… But it wasn't fair! Why was he always the one they depended upon? Didn't they know that he could hurt… feel pain too? There were just too many demands, and he had been through too much. Dreamless, comfortable sleep opened its arms to welcome him back and for a moment he was tempted to surrender.

But that wasn't an option! He wasn't just Superman, he was Clark Kent, and Lois and the children were counting on him. He could never turn his back on his family… if only he could remember what was required of him. There was something he had to do to help… something some people in white coats were wanting to take from him.

But wasn't that already in the past? They had been here in this room, working on him… dissecting him like a frog! No, that was an old fear, nothing to do with the here and now, and the people hadn't seemed threatening. But whatever they had been doing, it had hurt unbearably! They hadn't intended to cause him pain though… He remembered, the people in the white coats had kept apologising and telling him it would soon be over. He thought they'd been very familiar people — Bernard and Beth Klein and he was fairly certain that his father-in-law had been present too.

Clark fought hard against the shadows that clogged his mind and tempted him back into the lethargic darkness. If only his body didn't ache so much… or his throat and mouth feel quite so rough… or his eyelids so heavy. The last thing he had any clear recollection of before his eyes closed was a sickly green light… the glow of kryptonite!

Now realisation rushed back in! He'd been exposed to kryptonite before he'd blacked out, so that Bernard and Sam could take some of his blood to use it to make a serum to cure Joel and Clara. How long had he been unconscious? And what was happening to his children… and how was Lois bearing up without his support? The darkness which beckoned him was no longer wished for and he battled against it. Yet his body didn't seem to want to co- operate. His eyelids twitched as he tried to force them open, while a strangled groan rumbled in his parched throat.

Over by the window, where she'd been watching the evening sun sink behind the tall buildings, the anguished noise alerted Lois to the fact that her husband was stirring. She promptly returned to his side, and loaned him the comfort of her touch to bring him back to her.

"Hi, Rip van Winkle," Lois' voice sounded soft beside his ear while her fingers tenderly caressed his arm. "I was beginning to think you would sleep forever."

For her sake, Clark managed a tiny grin. "How long have I been out of it?" he forced the words between his cracked lips.

"A couple of hours!"

"A couple of hours?" Clark echoed hoarsely, willing his arms to push his body upright. He almost made it — but it was hopeless. In less than a second, he fell back on the pillows as a wave of dizziness engulfed him. Yet his need to know wouldn't allow him to give in. "Lois, what's happening? How are the kids?"

Lois could see that Clark's frustration at his body's total lack of cooperation was causing him deep distress and she increased the pressure of her massaging fingers while she sought to alleviate his worries with the only information she had to give. "There's no change with Joel and Clara. I'm sorry, sweetheart, they're still in a coma, but Beth vows that their condition is not deteriorating. My mother and yours are sitting with them right now."

"I'd like to see them." Clark emphasised his statement by trying once more to sit up in bed, but Lois' hand held him in place. He was Superman, but his wife's gentle force was pinning him down; clearly his exposure had weakened him badly.

"And you will, honey, just as soon as you recover some of your strength."

"Doesn't seem like I have much choice," Clark capitulated with an ease that startled Lois, and asked for a drink of water. The inside of his mouth felt like the Kalahari Dessert.

A few minutes were taken up with Lois pouring and helping Clark to drink from the glass — she needed to steady his shaking hands. Both Bernard and Sam had warned her that Clark's exposure to the dreaded rock might affect him more than normal, given that he was already sick before they'd started. Yet, even knowing what to expect, her heart still ached to see him so tired and fragile. Thank goodness he'd spent most of the last two hours lying in the rays of the afternoon sun, but so far they'd done little good and now the sun was sinking behind the surrounding buildings.

"What about the vaccine?" Clark's slightly clearer voice interrupted Lois' fretful ruminations.

"Daddy, Bernard and Mia are still working on that, but even with the hospital and Star Lab's state-of-the-art equipment, it's going to take a while. Seems you can't make serums instantly!" She offered a glimmer of a smile to lighten the mood.

"I don't suppose you can." Clark's hand rested on his wife's smaller one where it had ended up on his bare chest; the consensus had been not to cover up Clark but to leave most of his skin open to the sunlight. "But they are still hopeful this is going to work? I can remember most of what happened before they opened the lead box, but things start to get a little hazy after that. Did I faint?"

Lois hoisted herself onto the bed at Clark's side. "Yes, you blacked out at around five minutes into the exposure. You were in so much pain that I was almost glad to see you unconscious, but even then it was obvious you were still suffering. And they had to keep it going for another whole five minutes before they could get the needles into your skin. I was so scared!"

"Me too, Lois," Clark admitted sheepishly. "Honey, normal exposure to kryptonite is bad, but having the flu seemed to make it ten times worse."

"Bernie did warn us that might be so… and he also said it might make the recovery time a little longer. That's why he wants you to rest…"

"Now I seem to have heard that before! Honey, I have too many doctors all fussing over me!" Tired and achy, Clark was a little more crotchety than normal.

"Everyone is just concerned for you, Clark, and you can hardly blame them. Besides, they're already worried senseless about Joel and Clara and they don't want to see you getting sicker either."

"I know, and I don't want to sound ungrateful, but I'll be fine. The children are our top priority here."

"I think we all realise that, Clark," Lois pointed out, with just a slight acerbic edge to her voice. Clark had been sleeping when Bernard Klein and Mia had arrived at the hospital with all the necessary equipment in tow. Unlike her, he hadn't witnessed the consultation between Bernie Klein and Sam Lane or seen how terribly upset Star Lab's scientist had grown when he'd learned how obtuse he'd been in his search for a cure for the virus. "Bernard took it really hard, you know, missing the antibody thing. He's convinced that he let us all down, very seriously."

"Yes, Beth was a bit like that too! But that's crazy, because they didn't know I was fighting off the infection, so how would they even consider anything about antibodies in my blood… I was really at fault by trying to hide things… again."

"Oh no, Clark! We're not about to embark on another one of your guilt trips. It took everyone's best efforts to convince Bernard that what was in the past wasn't important and the most urgent task was to concentrate on developing the anti-viral serum. Bernard, sensible man that he is, very quickly saw the truth in that. Now, I've been through the mill, and have too many other things to worry about to console your bruised feelings. Besides, I'm tired of warning you about that compulsive habit of yours."

"I doubt you'll have to warn me again!" Clark caught Lois' hand and raised it to his lips, pressing a kiss into her palm, while his eyes held hers intently. "I think that this time I've learned my lesson."

Lois' solemn gaze began to mist over with tears. "Oh, Clark, let's hope that the price for that isn't too high."

Clark's heart constricted in his chest and he pulled Lois closer, covering her lips with his in a hungry kiss. His need, however, was for a comfort shared, the drawing of strength from the reservoir of their mutual love. Lois gave of herself willingly.

Behind them, the door was pushed open, breaking the spell, and Beth crept into the room. Lois and Clark separated, but their hands remained intertwined. "Sorry, I didn't want to interrupt, but I thought you might like to know that I looked in on the lab and the work on the serum is coming along well. They've started on the initial testing and it looks very promising, though it's going to be a little longer before the anti-virus is ready for use. I just felt you'd like to hear some encouraging news, and I needed to check up on my patient." Beth crossed the floor to the bedside and picked up Clark's free hand to check his pulse. "It's good to see you're awake, Clark. How are you feeling?"

"Better! I'm getting better!"

Beth's and Lois' eyebrows raised sceptically at his bald statement, and Clark realised he'd been about to dodge again, and just after he'd assured Lois he wouldn't. How come bad habits were always so hard to break? "Okay, I'm feeling pretty rough… but I am improving." And that was true; his body ached less and his head no longer felt like it was peopled with little men with large hammers, all intent on knocking holes in his skull.

Discarding Clark's wrist, the doctor was now shining a light into Clark's eyes, then tipping his head back she pulled down on his chin, opening his mouth to examine his throat. Lastly, she rechecked his respiratory system. "I'd say that was probably a fair diagnosis. But you're not used to having the flu, so you might not know that if you overexert yourself, you can have a relapse, especially if you don't have your superpowers… and I'm assuming that you don't."

For a couple of seconds, Clark tried to levitate himself a few inches in the air, but considering he'd hardly been able to sit up under normal human power, he wasn't surprised to find himself grounded to the bed. He concentrated his hearing without success; compared to his usual levels of audible awareness, he was almost deaf. Clark sighed. "No, I can say without a shadow of a doubt, that my powers are totally non-existent."

He found himself being patted by two different female hands… Beth's on his arm and Lois' on his chest. Beth's customary professional tone gentled. "Try not to worry too much about that, Clark. It's exactly as we thought. They'll come back in time." Her glance drifted to the window where the sunlight had waned even more. "It's a pity that dusk's approaching. Ideally, you'd benefit with more time in the sun. We toyed with the idea of setting some sunlamps up in here, but couldn't think of a plausible reason why we should prescribe them for Clark Kent."

"Very true!" Clark agreed feelingly. He certainly didn't want to give the staff any more reasons to think that there was something odd about his and the children's condition. After all, Dr Campbell had already voiced some suspicions.

"However, Sam suggested that you might like to spend some time in our solarium. The hospital has one on the top floor and patients, once they're up and about, are often encouraged to spend time relaxing up there. No one would think it strange."

"Sounds like a good idea!" Lois announced positively.

The thought of Clark's powers being restored more quickly gave her confidence. Over the years, she'd come to take his amazing abilities for granted and it was only when they disappeared that she realised how much a fundamental part of his life they were — as natural as breathing. No one understood better than Lois how incomplete Clark felt without them.

"Fine," Beth concluded. "I'll send a nurse in with a wheelchair and she'll tell you where to find the place. There are physios up there who'll help you…"

"Beth, I think I can manage without the wheelchair," Clark protested.

But Beth gave his objection short shrift. "Maybe yes, maybe no! But in this hospital patients are transported between departments in wheelchairs, and you have been an official patient of Metro General since this afternoon. The information we put out for public consumption was that you'd caught a mild dose of the children's infection. The staff will expect you to look weak and to obey the rules."

Beth's intimation that Clark wasn't looking particularly healthy wasn't lost on him. "Okay, Beth, send in the wheelchair and I'll use it, for now. But you'll come get us if the children need us…"

"Or if the serum is ready for use," Lois added her stipulation.

"We'll contact you, immediately. You have my word on that." Beth felt a bit like a parrot, continually repeating the one sentence in its vocabulary. Yet, she understood the couple's desire for reassurance and she really wasn't averse to offering it just as often as they needed to hear it. "Then that's settled. Lois can take you up to the solarium. Just remember though, you're supposed to be human and too much exposure to UV light is dangerous… Come to think of it, it might be dangerous to you too without your invulnerability… You can have the normal-length session and then spend the rest of the time under the light boxes — they have filters. They're for people who suffer from SAD and they should mimic the benefits of sunlight without burning your skin."

"Beth, I'll be careful!" Clark expected Beth to leave, now she'd satisfied herself that her patient was going to be good, . After all, this was a busy hospital and she was a consultant pediatrician; the Kents weren't her only patients. Obviously, though, there was something else on her mind. "Is there anything else you need to tell us?"

"Actually, yes! There's been another development, and one which tied in pretty favourably with our announcement about your being infected; in a strange sense it works well for us." Beth looked at the couple searchingly — they'd really had about all the shocks they could stand, but this was something they needed to know and it was better coming from her rather than another member of staff. And it didn't appear to be such a dire occurrence, not at this time anyway.

"Beth, what is it?" Lois' impatience got the better of her. "Don't keep us in suspense here." Then Lois' voice rose in panic as her imagination lighted on a possible cause. "Is it Nathan? Is he sick too?"

"No!" Beth cried immediately, swallowing hard. She must be more stressed out than she knew, letting her friends suspect the worst. "No, Nathan is fine and he's at home with his grandfather… and Julian is just as healthy. But there have been a few more cases, all centred round Braeview School — six other pupils, two teachers and one parent, who'd been at the school helping out with a project."

"They've caught the virus?" Clark asked incredulously. "But it's a Kryptonian virus. It doesn't have any affect on Earth humans."

"Not in the past, no! But Bernard and Sam have a theory that exposure to Earth's atmosphere has caused the virus to mutate!"

"Is that possible?"

"They believe so, Clark, and the evidence would seem to confirm it."

"But that's terrible!" Lois' mind began to assimilate a nightmarish scenario, her reporter's instincts already starting to assemble the facts. "That means there could be an epidemic… everyone in contact with the school or in the vicinity would be in jeopardy! And the contagion could spread."

"That might not be so. It seems we got lucky, and the organism has lost its virulence as it dispersed in the air. Not one of the new cases seems to be suffering any worse than Clark here. However, since Joel and Clara are still critically ill, the hospital administration, along with the local CDC, have opened up another isolation ward, and they're admitting everyone for precautionary and observation purposes. It is still viable that the health of some of those with the virus could decline."

"If this virus is just giving people a bad dose of flu, how are they explaining our kids' serious condition?" Clark still couldn't rid himself of the paranoid belief that something odd could be spotted about Joel's and Clara's illness.

"The general opinion among the medical staff and the CDC operatives is that Joel and Clara were unfortunate to have come in contact with the virus while it was still at full strength."

"Have they actually found the source of the virus?" Lois didn't like where this was going any more than her husband. She didn't want scientists, other than her friends, examining this bug.

"Not yet, but at daybreak tomorrow at team from the CDC is moving into the area around Braeview school. But don't look so worried! Neither Bernard nor Sam believe that they'll find anything to link the virus to Superman or Krypton… even if they were looking for such a connection, which, you'll admit, is quite a stretch. The only pure strain of the virus that's left is locked up at Star Labs and in the lab downstairs, where Bernie and Sam are working. They're not about to hand that over to anyone. As soon as they've developed a successful anti-viral drug for Joel and Clara, they'll destroy what's left of the virus. They're also willing to stake their reputations that Earth's atmosphere is already killing off the stuff that escaped."

"Or was deliberately let lose by Bermuda and Church to kill our children!" Lois ground out between her teeth.

"You'd probably know more about that side of things than I would," Beth interjected, but not unsympathetically. "It's my job to make sure that they don't succeed! Now, I really must go. I promised Hugh that I'd look into the ward downstairs. He's been liaising with the doctors there because he's had the experience of the infection in your children."

"And that's a good thing?" Clark couldn't hold back all of his sarcasm and Lois rolled her eyes.

"Could be, because he was the one who first came up with the idea that Joel and Clara were exposed to the full strength virus and therefore their illness is much worse when compared to the others."

"Sounds like a half-baked notion to me!" Clark huffed.

"Don't knock it, Clark. It appears that most people are ready to buy it."

"Yes, honey!" Lois leaned in closer to Clark and added her advice with just a tiny barbed touch. "We shouldn't look a gift-horse in the mouth. If Hugh Campbell can lead the pack off the real scent then I say good luck to him, even though he has acted inadvertently."

"I suppose you're both right," Clark admitted grudgingly. He might have dropped his jealous streak of earlier, but he felt it was going a little too far to feel obligated to the guy.

"Trust us, we are!" Beth smiled as she joined forces with Lois. There was clearly some history between Lois, Clark and Hugh and she was intrigued. She just hoped she hadn't acquired a womaniser on her staff. As far as she could tell, Hugh hadn't seemed that type at all. But then, she was hardly an expert in the field of men; her only experience before Bernard had been a teenage sweetheart and a young doctor with whom she'd fallen in love during her internship. Yet he'd been a member of 'Medicine Without Borders' and been sent overseas, where he'd been killed in a car accident on a mountain road while trying to reach a remote village. But that was so very long ago.

Perhaps, she could find out what had really happened from Lois, when all this was over, of course. Thankfully, it would be over soon, and with a much happier conclusion than she'd feared. "Have to run!" Beth announced, her busy job reclaiming her once more. "Enjoy your time in the solarium, and try not to worry about Joel and Clara, because we're going to have them back to normal very soon now."

Lois and Clark watched her disappear in her customary no- nonsense fashion, then turned their attentions back to each other. For the first time, since the two phone calls from the school principal and Alice had frighteningly changed their lives, they shared an embrace that was pure passion, a yearning to celebrate the joy of life. What might have happened on that narrow hospital bed might have been very inventive, not to mention extremely enjoyable, had they not been interrupted.

Certainly, when the red-faced orderly showed up five minutes later with the wheelchair, he seemed to think the view merited some interest, as he grew a little hot under the collar. Clark would have been too, only he wasn't wearing a collar… or very much else, for that matter.

"Excuse me, Mr Kent," the man stammered. "I was told you would be needing this." And by the way that lady was attacking the sick man on the bed, that was a pretty sure bet. He parked the chair and almost ran out of the room, leaving Lois and Clark rolling in laughter on the bed behind him. It felt so good to laugh.


The large hangar-like building was silent and devoid of operatives, yet, even if the name plaque beside the gate had been missed, it didn't take a brain surgeon to realise that this was part of Metropolis' Municipal Sewage Disposal and Reclamation Plant. A blind man, with the minutest sense of smell, would have a fairly good notion of where he was.

One end of the building was open to a large docking bay where the lorries arrived and deposited their excruciatingly mucky cargoes onto a wide conveyor belt which ran the width of the structure, carrying the odorous refuse to drop into a line of waiting hoppers. From there, the trucks were carried up a narrow-gauge railway, which looked vaguely reminiscent of a roller coaster track, until at their zenith they tipped their decaying loads into the waiting cavernous incinerators.

As a body, the citizens of Metropolis had been persuaded, despite a fair degree of unconcern and lethargy, to finally embrace recycling habits, yet in a large cosmopolitan city much of the rubbish created by the eclectic population could only be described as disposable. Thus the city fathers were justly proud of their modern, automated waste incineration plant, which required only a small work force to maintain its smooth operation.

However, due to a certain arrangement between Intergang and the plant's supervisor, the huge building was completely empty when Benny and Aldo had arrived with an unconscious Jimmy. It had only taken one quick phone call mentioning 'the bishop' and the foreman had redirected his squad to work in another part of the older, sprawling landfill site, leaving the area free and undisturbed for whatever activity 'the bishop' decreed. The municipal manager assuaged his conscience by telling himself he didn't know what went on at these times; they didn't happen very often and the payoff was substantial. So he turned a blind eye and sent his men away, and in a couple of days enjoyed a decent windfall which he would pick up from a left luggage box in Metropolis' Rail Terminal.

The hapless James Olsen, though, had been given a detailed demonstration of just what went on during these covert visits by Intergang personnel to the site. At first, he'd been revived from his comatose condition by the simple expedient of being doused with a bucket of cold water, then subsequently had been beaten again into another state of unconsciousness as he'd refused, or in this case been unable, to give the two gentlemen the information they required from him. How the hell did he know where Mindy Church had gone? He'd never even met the ditsy female!

"That's enough, Aldo," Benny Almeira ordered his cohort, conceding defeat. "This guy don't know nothing that's going to help us get to Mrs Church. Besides, I doubt he's going to be telling anybody anything soon."

Aldo looked crestfallen. He got a real kick out of this physical type of exercise. Sure, the gym and the punchbags were okay, but there was a certain satisfaction that you only got when your fists were sinking into real flesh and muscle.

"Are you sure, boss? Another bucket of cold water would bring this patsy round and I'm sure he could stand another going over." There was a tiny note of grovelling in the beefy goon's voice.

"That could be true, Aldo, but it wouldn't do much good! You could go on hitting this schmuck till the cows came home and we wouldn't get any answers." Benny walked the few yards to his victim's side and pushed at him with his foot, eliciting a painful groan from the almost senseless man. Then he lifted his eyes to the open docking bays. The sky was darkening fast and it was growing colder… and he couldn't abide the smell in here. "I've had enough of this place even if he hasn't. Let's get out of here."

"What you want me to do with him?" Aldo also nudged Jimmy with his foot, albeit with much greater force.

A barely conscious Jimmy recoiled. If only he had enough strength to fight back, but his battered body just wouldn't do what his brain instructed it… and his brain was having difficulty stringing any sensible thoughts together anyway. So maybe it didn't matter much, and he should just give way to the black hole that was pulling him in.

With a direct movement of his head, Almeira indicated the ramp that led to the hoppers. "The usual method of disposal! But before you do, you'd better tie him up and gag him. They don't start burning the rubbish until the late shift comes on and we don't want him waking up and screaming for help in the meantime."

"I could always kill him off now?" Aldo sounded ever hopeful.

Benny smoothed out the creases on the sleeves of his natty navy pin-stripe, as he pondered the question. "Nah! What's the point? The machinery will do the job for us." He never liked to put himself to any more trouble than was necessary. "Oh, but you better check out who he really is before we dump him. The boss will probably want to know."

Aldo stopped his hogtying and started searching his victim's pockets. He found nothing of significance in the pants and continued fishing around in the inner pockets of the leather jacket, his hand coming in contact with a soft package. "Hey, what's this?" He extricated it carefully and laid it on the concrete floor.

"Looks like a towel to me!" Benny stated cleverly. "Or something wrapped in a towel. Maybe it's why this guy was visiting Mindy. Could be drugs or a payoff or something!"

Meanwhile, Aldo's pudgy fingers had found Jimmy's billfold and was rifling, with unexpected speed and dexterity, through it. "This bozzo's name is James Olsen, and he has a lot of plastic, boss." He craned over his shoulder and sent Benny a wishful look. "Maybe we could take a couple?" He fingered the cards longingly.

"Don't be a dolt, Aldo! Haven't you learned the first rule of a hitman? Never take anything that can be traced directly back to your mark!" Almeira spoke as if he were instructing a backward apprentice.

"There's a press card in here! Seems this Olsen is a reporter for the Daily Planet!"

"Oh, hell!" Benny spat out. That was not good news. Mr Church wouldn't be happy. Since his release from prison, he'd been very careful not to attract the attention of the police or press, and now here they were just about to get rid of a prominent member of that core. He and Aldo had to dump this Olsen and get out of here fast!

"Benny, ain't the Planet the paper that's real close buddies with Sooperman? 'Cos I have to tell you, I don't like to go 'offing' any friends of the 'Big Blue Boy'. He gets pretty mad at people who do that sort of thing. Did you hear about the time he dropped one of the 'brothers' from the top of a tall building… Didn't catch him till the guy almost hit the pavement. That sort of thing could scare a person to death!"

"Aldo, stop worrying about Superman! I'm told that these incinerators burn real hot, so once they're finished with Olsen here, even superpowers won't help Superman find out what happened to his friend. Mr Olsen will have vanished in a puff of smoke… if you get my drift." Benny illustrated his words by a flurry of his hands waving in the air at the tall gleaming chimney above the plant, and both men laughed heartily at the prospect.

"Hah-hah! That's real funny, Benny!"

"Now get a move on! Tie and gag him and dump him in the nearest truck." In the falling dusk, Benny had spotted movement. There were beams of car headlights edging their way through the plant gates. It was almost time for a shift change, and no one in the new work force was on Church's payroll. "And make sure you bury him under the rubbish. I doubt they ever check out what's in the hoppers; the stink is too awful, but it's better to be sure."

Hurrying to carry out orders, but believing in a little extra insurance, Aldo passed the first two trucks on the track and heaved the inert Jimmy into the third — the third's a charm! The wallet, its contents fully intact, quickly followed. Then, bravely ignoring the stench and gooey feel of rotting rubbish, Aldo methodically began to cover Olsen, but when his hand hit the furry stiff body of a rat, he jumped back. The two things in life that Aldo feared were Superman and rats, and he'd just come in contact with both! He threw a glance at Benny waiting below, but his boss was watching the comings and goings of the approaching workers. Aldo followed Benny's stare and realised they'd little time left to get out of here without attracting any attention. For the first time in his life he made a judgement without consulting his mentor. Olsen was well enough hidden and Benny had said that no one would look anyway, so he retraced his way back down the ramp.

At the bottom, his foot kicked at something lying in his way, and looking down he spotted the forgotten, now off- white package. "Benny, what about this?" One decision at a time was enough for Aldo's budding corporate career.

Almeira gave it careful consideration for the space of a second. "Bring it! We might have lost the annoying broad, but at least we'll have something to give to the boss!"


The solarium was a quiet and peaceful haven in the otherwise bustling hospital. Gentle lighting, soft background music and comfortable recliners lulled patients into a relaxed frame of mind, allowing their aches and pains to be soothed. Occasionally, too, some of the hospital staff would find their way here to ease their tiredness and stress after a busy shift, before making their way home.

Lois and Clark found themselves drifting in a restful state, which bordered on sleep but left them alert to any emergency calls from Joel's and Clara's room. For a strictly restricted time, Clark's metabolism had greedily soaked up the rays from the tanning bed and he was now obeying Sam's instructions by lying under a bright light box, his eyes closed behind the dark glasses which had been provided by a helpful attendant. Lois had stretched out on the recliner next to him and taken his hand into her own. Both needed this calm time to collect their over-weary thoughts, and though worries for the children's recovery could not yet be dismissed, they found a renewed contentment in each other's company.

So it was that Sam Lane found them sometime later as he entered the long room, a small medicine box held firmly in his hand. His eyes quickly adjusted to the softer lighting and, spotting his daughter and her husband in the far corner, he silently headed in their direction. At this particular moment there were few people in the solarium, and the couple's isolated position, fortunately, afforded them the privacy he felt was needful.

At the faint shadow which fell across her body, Lois' eyes opened and she found herself sitting bolt upright as she recognised the man standing above her. "Daddy! What is it?" Her voice betrayed that her fear for her children was never far from the surface of her mind.

"Relax, Princess! I didn't mean to scare you. Joel and Clara are still holding in there." Sam dropped to the edge of Lois' bed, while his daughter's taut body eased back into the confines of the recliner, reassured by the faint twinkle she spotted in Sam's eyes. "In fact, I've some good news. Clark! You're gonna want to listen to this." The tall man leaned over and touched the younger man's arm, prodding him gently back into awareness.

Clark's eyes blinked a couple of times behind the sunglasses and he shook off the pleasant lassitude which had assailed him. "Hi, Sam! Did I hear you say good news?" Clark moved to stand up, ready to leave their peaceful sanctuary. "Are Joel and Clara awake?" The question was filled with eagerness.

"Not quite! And we don't expect that for a few hours yet," Sam warned, hating to dampen Clark's quick surge of enthusiasm. "But we've perfected the serum from your blood and the few tests we've done strongly indicate that it's effective against the virus. Right now, Beth and Bernie are treating the kids with it and we predict that it's only a matter of time before we see some improvement in the children's health. But," he cautioned both Lois and Clark, "don't look for too much too soon!"

Sam was tired. He'd travelled for almost twenty-four hours to reach his family's side and, since then, he'd been working hard on procuring a cure. Determination had kept him going, but now that the job was almost done, he was beginning to feel every one of his sixty-odd years. Nevertheless, he felt great satisfaction and delight as Lois flung her arms around his neck, while Clark shook his hand expansively up and down.

"Oh, Daddy," Lois gasped. "Thank you, thank you so much!"

"Yes, Sam. No words can tell you how grateful we are…" Clark's voice cracked and he found his eyes filling up again — only this time his tears were prompted by relief. His children, his wonderful children, were going to live!

Blushing graciously, Sam reminded them again. "It is early days yet, Joel and Clara have a way to go. And I didn't do this alone. Bernie, Beth and Mia all worked their butts off to get this to work."

"But you were the one who thought of the serum, Daddy!" Lois beamed at her father; for one of the few times in her life she was completely proud of his often fanciful genius.

A shadow of guilt passed over the face of the white-haired man. "About time I did something to make up for all the wrongs I've committed in the past."

"I'd say you picked a really good time to get things right, Sam!"

Lois hugged her dad again, then smiled into his face. "Oh, Daddy, you've got a lot of things right in these past few years. But giving us back Joel and Clara makes up for all the bad memories."

Sam pulled Lois back into his arms and just enjoyed the moment of closeness. How could he ever have hurt his lovely daughter — never understood her worth? What a foolish, selfish man he must have been in his younger days to turn his back on his family. And the most amazing thing was that they had given him a second chance. Even his irascible Ellen had been willing to forgive, though possibly not to forget… that just wouldn't be Ellen, and he really didn't expect it of her.

Suddenly, an expansive yawn overtook Sam. "Sorry, sweetheart," Sam backed away from Lois to cover his open mouth with his hand.

All three grinned at his embarrassed response. "Don't apologise, Daddy! I'm sure you must be pretty tired now."

"Yes, Sam, why don't you take the advice you gave to me and get some sleep yourself," Clark suggested feelingly. "You've probably been on the go for a long time now, and, if the worst of the crisis is over, then you should take the opportunity to rest."

"Well, there isn't really anything I can do now for Joel and Clara other than wait, and Beth and the hospital staff are perfectly capable of looking after their medical care… and I do feel pretty exhausted."

"You should use our room, Daddy, and get some sleep. You've been under a lot of strain, and I don't want to lose my father any more than I do my children. You know, you're getting older, Dad, and we have to take care of you too." Lois was feeling well enough to tease.

"That's enough of the 'old', young lady!" Sam waved a disapproving finger under her nose. "I've a lot of years left in me yet."

Lois grabbed her father's hands. "Oh, I do hope so! Now get out of here! Clark and I will go sit with Joel and Clara."

But at this suggestion, Sam shook his head. "No! Martha and your mother are still with the kids, though I think Ellen might be dozing; she's had a long journey too, you know. Besides, I'd prefer that Clark stayed under these lights. I'm pretty sure he's not yet back to normal." Sam turned to Clark, his brows rising in question.

"True, though I do feel stronger."

"That's good, and I have something here which might help things along." The box, which Sam had placed carefully on the lounger, was lifted onto his lap and opened carefully, revealing a little vial containing a pinkish coloured liquid. "This is a water-downed version of the serum we've given Joel and Clara — sort of a booster dose to help your own immune system. We weren't sure how much of your invulnerability would have kicked in, so we made it into an oral medicine. It's a single dose, and hopefully you can digest the liquid more quickly than a pill. It should help… and you can keep taking the aspirin, but just don't overdose yourself. I'd also suggest you stay here for another hour or so."

Sam had handed the little bottle to Clark who opened it quickly, and after a quick inspection by sight and smell, he swallowed the lot. "Argh! That's terrible!"

"Sorry, Clark, we didn't have time to make it palatable."

"I wouldn't worry, Daddy! Clark's eaten plastic explosive before today, so I'm sure he'll survive!"

"Not to mention your oatmeal, Lois," Clark laughed through his grimace of distaste.

"Oh, you… you!" Lois couldn't find the words, so she settled for a quick elbow in Clark's ribs.

"Hey! I'm an invalid! Be careful — I bruise easily."

Standing up, Sam smiled at the playful exchange. "I'd say that you two are definitely feeling better."

"Thanks to you and your team, Sam. Knowing Joel and Clara are safe is the best medicine you could have given us."

"I'm just so thankful that we could help." Another yawn split Sam's face, chasing away another moment of gratified embarrassment. "You know, I think I will take your advice and avail myself of your room downstairs. See you later, kids." he threw over his shoulder as he turned to go, leaving Lois and Clark hugging each other close in a spontaneous gesture of relief and expectation.


The door opened somewhat tentatively to reveal a luxurious office on the ground floor of a large country mansion. The owner of the residence sat behind an expansive oak desk while his eyes ran angrily over the report on his latest efforts to procure another section of Metropolis.

Things were not going as well as he had expected. He'd believed, after the fire-bombings, that the last few property owners would readily accept his fairly generous offers and sell up. However, thanks to the knowledge that Superman was on the case, not to mention the reporting team of Lane and Kent, those reluctant proprietors seemed willing to play a waiting game. Something would have to be done about that pretty damn quick. He had no intention of upping his price, and he just as surely was not about to be left with a huge piece of useless real-estate in the Hobbs Bay area. He needed that whole river-front to carry out his extensive redevelopment plans, if he hoped to make the extremely large fortune he had in mind. It seemed like those heel-dragging landlords needed another lesson.

He leaned over and, picking up the phone, punched in the number he'd used frequently in these last weeks.

"The Bishop here," he growled into the mouthpiece. "I need another job done." There was a pause as he listened to the reply. "Yes, the next property on the list. Oh, and make sure that there are no witnesses left to finger you this time. I don't like loose ends left lying about ready to trip us up. You got careless on that last assignment." There was another break. "Yes, I realise that Superman intervened, but you have to expect that in his home town… What? The loose end has been tied up? The poor boy succumbed to his injuries… well that is unfortunate for him, but very fortunate for you."

In the open doorway the listener cringed. On the surface, the Boss might appear a genial, easy-going employer, but he really wasn't happy with people he saw as failures. The final exchange on the telephone proved that.

"Then I can rely on you to do the next part of the job without any mistakes? After all, I am paying you well for your expertise… You say I can have every confidence in you? Just make sure it isn't misplaced. I don't like failure."

The distinct click of a phone being returned to its cradle reached the man behind the door, then seconds later the voice called out with deceptive pleasantness. "Benny, my man, don't be shy. Come on in!" The man behind the desk leaned back in his huge leather chair and beckoned effusively. "I do hope you come bearing gifts!"

That comment almost made Benny retreat out of the office, but this was something that had to be faced — he just wished he had more to offer, or that his timing wasn't quite so bad. Yet, the Boss was his pal; they went back a long way — surely he could expect some allowances to be made. Steeling himself, Benny smoothed his coat and walked, with forced jauntiness, into the room.

"I'm sorry, Boss, me and the boys did the best we could, but the damned dame got away. By the time we found out where she was holed up, she'd run. I got everybody out lookin' for her, though."

The Boss did not look pleased and sighed dramatically in disappointment, causing Benny's heart to skip a beat. "So, my dear stepmother escapes me again! Benny, I was sure that you wouldn't let me down." Benny froze, like a mouse mesmerised by the stare of a cat. "She didn't leave anything behind… any clues that might tell us what she was up to?"

Benny brightened. He at least had some information to impart. "We found a body in her motel room."

Bill Church Jr sat up straighter, intrigued, despite his displeasure at losing his chance of revenge. "Do we know whose body it is?"

"Yeah! You might know him too, Bill." Noticing the brightening of his boss's face, Benny ventured the use of the other man's name. The result was not what he hoped for, but ignoring the dirty look that was thrown his way, he forged ahead, hoping to deflect the disapproval. "A guy who used to be a pretty big name around these parts years ago. Bermuda, it was Joey Bermuda."

"The Handyman? Yeah, I knew him, vaguely. He did the odd job for Dad! Pretty efficient at his work too, if I recall correctly. He didn't make mistakes," Bill Church added the last statement aggressively.

"Neither do I, Boss!" Benny announced with feeling. "Well, not often. And that Mindy Church sure is one slippery broad, but we'll get her yet. She can't have gone very far."

"You'd better be careful, and see you get to her first. I want my pound of flesh. The police will have an APB out on her if she killed Bermuda."

"But she didn't! This other guy says he died of some illness."

"Other guy?! What other guy?" Church's voice had taken on a decided note of menace. He didn't like surprises any better than he did failures.

"The man we found in the room with the body."

"And who is he?"

Benny grimaced. "James Olsen." His voice was hushed, awaiting the explosion, which was slow in coming — maybe Church hadn't heard him. "Olsen, he's a reporter for the Daily Planet."

"Yes, I'm aware of who James Olsen is." There wasn't going to be a blow-out. Bill Church's voice was deadly calm, which was even worse for the nervous underling. "Benny, I think you understand how hard I've worked to cultivate the press; how important it is to make them believe that I'm a reformed character and have them remain in ignorance of my extra-curricular activities. Yet, since this Olsen informed you how Bermuda died, I'm assuming that you had quite an in-depth conversation with him." Church set his hands on the polished surface of his desk and pushed himself erect. "We do not have informal chats with reporters."

"Boss, I thought he might be able to tell us where Mrs Church had gone." Unwittingly reminding Bill Jr that this dame was part of the family might not have been the wisest course of action, as the thunderous look upon the other man's face attested to. Benny rushed on with his explanation. "But he didn't know nothin'. Even with a little help from Aldo, Olsen wouldn't talk. But you don't have to worry, Boss. Olsen's gonna be talking to no one no more. In fact, in just a little while, Olsen's gonna be disappearing in a puff of smoke and nobody's gonna be able to find him."

At last Almeira had said something which seemed to mollify his boss. "He's dead then and you've disposed of the body in the usual way? There's no way to link his disappearance to me?"

"Of course not, Boss! I'm a pro. I know how to do my job." The tiny smirk that was beginning to lurk at the corner of Church's mouth informed Benny that he'd saved his own skin, and he saw no reason to dispel this happier mood. Besides, he and Aldo had left no traces of their presence in the motel room and Olsen was as good as dead when they'd left him.

"I'm sorry, Benny, if I misjudged you. Clearly you stumbled into something totally unexpected. You did your best to tidy up the mess, and I'm sure that you'll soon resolve the matter of Mindy successfully too." Bill relaxed into his chair again and opened up his cigar-box. Now that he was feeling in a brighter frame of mind he was inclined to be generous and he gestured to Benny to help himself. As his lieutenant walked forward eagerly, he became aware that the man was carrying something. "Have you brought something for me, Benny?"

"Oh, this?" In fact, Benny had completely forgotten the small towel wrapped package in his panic at the ominous grilling he'd endured. He held it aloft, examining it once again. "Olsen had it, but I'm pretty sure that it came from Mindy's room. I haven't opened it yet. I thought you should do that."

Again, Bill Jr showed a keen interest. Mindy wouldn't have come back to Metropolis for no reason, so it followed that she must have some scam going, and he just might be on the verge of discovering what it might be. Who knew, maybe Intergang could use her scheme to their own advantage.

"Come on then, Benny, bring it over here. Let's take a look."

The parcel was laid gingerly on the desk between the men and both leaned over curiously as Church peeled away the terry covering. A moment of hush descended on the room as both stared in puzzlement at what was revealed. Two test- tubes lay on the white fabric. One remained stoppered with some wispy strands inside, while the other one had lost its lid, seemingly forced open by a mass of the green fibres. Neither had ever seen anything like it before.

"What is it?" Bill asked, not really expecting an intelligent answer from his minion.

"It's green, so it might be some sort of plant."

Bill Jr had to concede that this might be the most likely answer. "But what's it for? Mindy never stuck me as the horticultural type."

"And I've never seen a plant that looked like that, but I ain't the horticultural type neither. Hey, what if you could make some new sort of drug out of it?"

"That would certainly seem more in Mindy's line." Both men peered closer at the green tendrils, hoping for some inspiration. It was then that Church noticed that some of the clingy threads had attached themselves to his hands. There must have been some of the strange plant on the towel. Somehow its slimy, freakish touch was making his skin crawl and he speedily wiped his hands, yet the green strands stuck hard. This was weird! "Yuk, what is this stuff? It's sticky. I can't get rid of it! Benny, give me your handkerchief."

Obeying the frantic demand, Benny carefully, though not exactly easily, wiped the shoots from his boss's fingers, making sure that he didn't pick up any of the stuff on his skin. Finally the task was complete and Benny dropped the whole grungy mess onto the towel and quickly bundled it up.

"I don't know what that is, but I don't want any part of it." Church took an involuntary step backwards. "Trust Mindy to be involved in something bizarre. Get rid of it, Benny. Burn it or something, but I don't ever want to see that plant thing again." He shuddered as if someone had walked across his grave. Still, he had to pull himself together… he was the head of Intergang, the biggest crime syndicate in the city. What possible danger could be caused by a sticky piece of greenery? Nevertheless, it didn't pay to be incautious, and he was off to the opera tonight. "I'm going to take a shower and then dress for the evening. Aida is playing at the Metropole tonight and I've invited a few friends to share my box. Make sure the limmo is waiting out front in 30 minutes."

"Will do, boss!" Benny watched Church disappear, a relieved grin spreading across his face. Phew! He'd managed to scrape through that interrogation by the skin of his teeth. Then the parcel in his hand caught his attention again. "Wonder what Mindy wanted with this thing? I should have left it with Olsen… saved me the trouble of incinerating it!"


The distant ringing of a phone barely disturbed Lois' submerged consciousness, yet her husband's distinct jerk brought her totally back to awareness. Clark was no longer relaxed but sitting erect, his hands covering his ears. The phone on the desk by the entry hadn't sounded so very loudly, so obviously Clark's superpowers were returning, and, as was usual, it was starting with his hearing. Lois couldn't help feeling a surge of elation, since this had to mean that Clark was recovering.

Meanwhile, Clark's concentration was focussed on the short conversation now taking place between the attendant and the person on the other end of the phone. Lois wondered if it were Beth or Bernie, and if her children could be improving at the same rate as their father.

"It's Perry!" Clark whispered, answering her unspoken thought. "He wants us to contact him, urgently!"

A wave of disappointment swamped Lois' euphoria, and she had to remind herself that the lack of information from the ward downstairs was nothing to worry about. After all, her father had warned her that Joel and Clara's recovery would take some time — they had a great deal further to go than their father — and Sam had just left around thirty minutes ago.

The young man, who had welcomed them into the solarium and shown them how to operate the equipment, appeared in front of them to verify Clark's eavesdropping. "Mr and Mrs Kent, you've just had a call from a Mr Perry White. He'd like you to call him at the Daily Planet just as soon as you can — he said it was very important. You can use the phone at the desk or, if you have a cellphone, you can use that in the conservatory. There's no one else out there, so it'll be quite private, and we've turned the heating on, so it shouldn't be too cold, even at this time in the evening."

Lois' and Clark's gaze followed the assistant's pointing finger and, thanking him, Lois picked up her purse, snagged Clark's arm and hurried into the darkened glass room. A few lights came on as they entered, the switches having been thrown by the helpful attendant.

"Something's wrong, Lois," Clark stated anxiously, as Lois pulled out her cellphone and speed-dialed their editor's private number. "Perry sounded very concerned."

The fact that the call was answered almost immediately seemed to prove that point. "Lois?! Clark?! Is that you?"

"It's me, chief, and Clark's here too! We just got your message. What's wrong?"

"Thank goodness I found you both!" Perry's voice sounded gruffer than normal, a sure sign that whatever was wrong was affecting him personally. "It's Jimmy — he's gone missing!"

"What makes you think that, Perry?" Lois watched Clark to see if he was following the conversation, and he lightly touched his ear and nodded his head, in answer to her unspoken question. Satisfied, Lois returned to her questioning. "When was the last time you saw him?"

"This morning, here in the office. He was rushing off to an important assignment, but he didn't say where… just that there would likely be a big story at the end of it…"

"Joey's lab!" Clark inserted, so low that only Lois could hear.

"No one's seen him since, but I did manage to call him around lunch time."

"What did he have to say?"

"That's just it… he said 'Olsen here' and then nothing. He got cut off before he could say anymore. I've tried calling back a number of times since, only I kept getting his answering service. At first I thought that he might be in a bad area for getting a signal, or his battery was dead. Only, Lieutenant Zimack has paid me a visit …"

"Zimack! What's he got to do with it?" Lois didn't like the direction this was headed, and her husband was looking particularly bleak.

"In the name of Elvis, Lois, if you stop interrupting then I might get round to telling you!"

"Sorry, Chief, you've just scared us a whole lot!"

"Tell me about it! Lois, things don't look good. Zimack was called in to investigate a dead body in a motel down at Docker's Quay…"

"Someone was murdered?" Lois had heard that Zimack had been promoted and now worked the homicide beat. "No! Not Jimmy?!" In a state of panic, Lois had forgotten that Perry had mentioned that Jimmy was missing and not dead.

"Aww no, Lois, honey!" Perry drawled reassuringly. "Things aren't that bad. It took the police a little while to put a name to the body, since they couldn't find any identification and the man, and the woman he'd checked in with, had used false names. It turns out to be Joey Bermuda, though."

"Bermuda's been murdered?!" Lois gasped. "I bet the woman was Mindy Church and she killed him."

"Mindy Church! I didn't even know she was back in town! You could be right about her, though, Lois; the description would fit, but she didn't kill Bermuda. According to Zimack, the police think he died of natural causes — an unidentified virus." Perry's voice had taken on a distinct note of curiosity… "Is this starting to sound familiar, Lois? Is there something you and Clark aren't telling me?"

Lois was beginning to look uncomfortable, causing Clark to appropriate the phone and jump in. "Chief, you're right. We think Bermuda and Church were responsible for infecting Joel and Clara with this virus. They tried the same thing with Superman in the nineties when Intergang was making a big push to control the underworld of Metropolis."

"Clark!" Lois' mouth set in a disapproving line as she sent her husband a warning glare. What did he think he was doing? If he continued with this line of reasoning, Perry was sure to put two and two together! Was this 'revelation' week and no one had told her?

Placing a hand over the phone, Clark shrugged. "Lois, Perry's been around for a long time and he didn't get to be Editor-in-Chief without being able to figure out a few things. We've often speculated about whether Perry knows."

Perry's voice continued, though it seemed to drop in volume and became decidedly guarded. "Yeah, I remember that. Funny how you, Lois and Superman were all fairly conspicuous by your absence at the same time… that bothered me for a while."

"But not any more?" Clark asked, a little wary despite his assurances to Lois. After all, Perry was first and foremost a newspaper man; very likely printer's ink coursed through his veins.

"No, not for a long time, but don't you go worrying yourself about that. Even an old hound dog like me knows when a secret is too important to reveal to the world — never mind that it would be the scoop of the century."

"Thanks, Perry! Lois and I knew we could rely on you."

In the dim conservatory, Lois grinned sheepishly at Clark, while on the other end of the phone, Perry could be heard clearing his throat in an uncharacteristic show of sentimentality. "Aw, there's nothing to thank me for, kids; you know you're like my family." But the intimate moment passed and Perry quickly returned to his role of editor. "So, Bermuda and Church came back to get revenge on you and the kids. Somehow, I've lost my sympathy for the guy…"

"That's not so surprising, Chief. Lois and I aren't too upset either."

Strangely, Clark found that for himself this was true. Under normal circumstances, he loathed when anyone died unnaturally. He considered life to be a precious commodity and it hurt him when it was wasted needlessly. Yet Bermuda had tried to kill his children, end their innocent young lives… and in such a terrible way! Somehow, he couldn't raise many regrets at Joey's demise.

Clark felt Lois' arm tighten round his waist in ready support. Knowing him so well, she'd read the uncertainty in his demeanour, and she pressed a soothing kiss against the pulse that jumped unsteadily in his neck. "Don't feel guilty, Clark; it's completely understandable. I feel exactly the same way," she whispered. Being a little more practical than her sometimes over-sensitive husband, Lois was inclined to believe that Bermuda had suffered just what he deserved. Besides, they had a friend to rescue. "Clark, find out more about Jimmy!"

The hand at his waist shook Clark gently from his momentary fugue. He looked down to see Lois send him a tender smile, but he couldn't ignore the worry-lines between her eyebrows, or the way her teeth caught her lip. Lois was right — this was not the time for introspection. Jimmy's life might depend on what they could discover, and very probably Superman's intervention. Thank goodness his powers were on the way back!

"Perry, what else can you tell us about Jimmy?"

"Just that it looks fairly certain that Jimmy was in that motel room, probably when he answered my call at 1:12 p.m."

"That's pretty accurate, Chief!"

"Zimack found Jimmy's cell phone there, and it was all smashed up, which was why I couldn't reach him again. I checked my phone-log and that was the time I got through. The police also discovered Jimmy's car parked a little way down the street from the motel."

"So he probably didn't leave of his own free-will!"

"That would be my take on the situation. Zimack agrees, as there was some evidence of a struggle in the room. But until forensics are finished checking things out, we're not going to find out if it involved Jimmy."

"Though it's pretty likely!"

Clark had been holding the phone close to Lois so she could listen in. He hated to watch her hurting anew, as she listened to the conversation. She'd been through enough. Just when things seemed to be settling down with their children, another problem rose to threaten them. Whoever said that life wasn't fair was understating the fact. Well, he was going to make sure that this particular episode was going to have a happy ending. Then, if he could arrange it with Perry to have a few extra days' leave, maybe the whole family could go to Smallville next month for Thanksgiving and enjoy a completely trouble-free holiday! But first Superman had to rescue James Olsen.


Chapter Twelve: Heartbeats and Healing

Lois hugged herself tightly, trying to retain what little body-heat she could in the cold air of the stairwell. Involuntarily, she shivered, then smiled as an unexpected, yet welcome glow of warmth swept over her from head to toe. She raised her eyes to smile at her husband, who was mounting the steps a few yards in front of her. His thoughtful action meant that his heat-vision must be back online, at least in some small measure, though his next words confirmed her anxieties.

"Sorry," Clark said quietly, "but that's about all I can manage at the moment."

"Don't worry about me.," Lois admonished just as softly — you never could be sure who might be within range to overhear in this busy hospital. "You shouldn't be wasting your resources on me."

Clark stopped to wait for Lois to catch up, slipping his arm round her shoulders. "Lois, you know I never consider that my use of powers on you is a *waste*." He pressed a kiss to her forehead than pulled back to look into her face. "Honey, are you sure you're okay with this? I did promise no more Superman duties until the kids were better."

"Clark, this isn't just any 'Superman duties'! This is Jimmy you'll be searching for, and Jimmy is family!"

"But Joel and Clara…"

"Joel and Clara are going to be fine," Lois insisted in her best 'Mad Dog Lane' voice. "But right now they're still sleeping and they won't even know you're gone. And even if they did, I'm certain they'd agree that you should rescue their only uncle."

"Well, there is that!" Clark recalled with a slight grin. "Jimmy means a lot to them."

"And us! As long as you're sure you're fit enough for this, then you should go."

Clark had the grace to blush. "I'll admit, Lois, that I'm not completely up to speed, but Superman's probably the best bet that Jimmy has right now. I can't abandon him without trying, honey. I'd never forgive myself if anything happened to him."

"Me neither!" Lois leaned into his side for a moment. "Especially since it's highly likely Jimmy got into trouble trying to help us and the children. All the family are here for Joel and Clara, but Jimmy has no one except the police looking for him, and, in this case, I don't have a lot of confidence in them." Clark's frown proved he shared her take on the situation. Lois indulged her fingers by allowing them to trail over Clark's shirt-covered chest for a few enjoyable seconds, then she gave him a small push, sending him a couple of feet away, while her hands danced a twirl in the air in expectation of Clark's next action "Now do your 'spin thing' and get out of here."

Clark gave the area one more careful check, after which a whirlwind appeared on the landing of the long staircase, yet Lois' teeth worried at her lip as she watched. Over the years, she'd been witness to this phenomenon many times, and, to her practised eye, she judged that Clark was spinning slower than normal. Obviously, he was a lot less up to speed than he'd was willing to admit!

The colourful mini-tornado settled and Clark staggered to a halt, clutching at the concrete wall for support. Oh boy, something was very wrong. The electric blue tights and red briefs were in place, but the leather boots remained wrinkled around his ankles — and that was only the bottom half of his body — his flannel shirt still clung to his wide shoulders!

"Clark!" Lois' hands settled on her hips. "What's happening here?"

"Sorry, honey, I guess I'm not so 'super' as I thought!" And the tornado was off again, increasing in speed till the colours blurred. This time, when Superman stilled, he was fully clad, yet only just. The top of his suit was not zipped up and the cape was askew. Clark sent Lois an apologetic smile. "Honey, could you help me here?"

Lois stepped up behind Superman, her words doubtful. "Clark, I'm not so sure about this," she whispered desperately in his ear. "If you can't even dress yourself properly at superspeed, you're not exactly ready for an all-out search and rescue." Contrary to her words, though, her fingers deftly zipped up the suit and straightened the cape, smoothing out its heavy red folds.

"Honey, even at seventy percent performance, I'm the best chance Jimmy has," he reasoned, turning in her arms, and running his hands soothingly across her tense shoulders. "You know I have to try."

Lois' head bobbed in reluctant acceptance of his statement, then her eyes sparkled with inspiration. Even in her mellower, mature years she could never quite resist the quick surge of adrenalin at the prospect of adventure or flying with Superman. "Maybe I should come with you as backup!"

"But what about Joel and Clara, honey? We agreed that one of us should stay with them."

Long fingers began to slide into Clark's hair at the back of his neck — evidently Lois was on a mission. "We checked on them, Clark. They're both sleeping peacefully, and Martha and Mother are with them — I'm sure they'll keep us informed. I'd be much less worried about you if I knew exactly what was going on."

Catching Lois' hand before it unravelled his hair from its slicked-back style, Clark moved a few inches from his wife. "To tell the truth, sweetheart, I wouldn't mind the backup either, but carrying a passenger wouldn't necessarily be a good idea while I'm not up to full strength."

"You'll most likely have to carry Jimmy!" Lois pointed out.

"Yes! But after I find him, and that might give your father's medicine a little more time to work. And if I'm not up to it, we can always take a taxi back. I just need to conserve my strength to rescue him." Clark placed a finger beneath Lois' chin and lifted her face to his. "Believe me, Lois, I really am sorry."

"Okay!" Lois gave a tiny pout which was quickly replaced by a ghost of a smile. She understood and even had to agree with Clark's logic. "At least you managed to pull up your boots on that last spin. But I want you to take this." Lois fished around in her coat pocket and produced her cellphone — this time she'd come prepared. "And don't lose it!"

"I won't." The tiny phone was transferred to the hidden pocket in the inside of the cape. "And I'll let you know the minute I have Jimmy safe… or if I need you to come rescue me."

"Don't even joke about that, mister." Lois pointed an admonitory finger at the superhero. "Now go, before I change my mind!"

Clark pressed a fleeting kiss on Lois' lips, then a light wind swept past her body and she was left alone in the stairwell. "I love you," she whispered into the emptiness, knowing he would hear. "Be careful!"

Lois retraced her steps, returning to her long vigil beside her precious children. Yet part of her heart soared high above Metropolis with the man she loved above all others. The gentle man who would always risk his life and safety for the sake of humanity.


Superman decided to start his search at the motel which had been Jimmy's last known whereabouts. Whenever he'd taken to the skies, he realised pretty quickly that his powers weren't up to a long, grid search of the whole city, so picking up some clue, which might lead him to his friend, would be a big help.

As he approached, Clark could see that the area was obviously a very busy police scene. Ribbons of yellow tape cordoned off the front of the motel while white-suited experts, with masks covering their faces, combed every inch of ground both inside and out. The police might be satisfied that Bermuda had not been killed by another's hand, but something untoward had happened here and they weren't about to take any chances. Besides, CDC personnel had moved in and had ordered that the area, and everyone within it, were now in quarantine. One man had already died of this 'mysterious' virus and two children were critically ill in hospital. There were also reports of more cases coming in all the time. The city could have a wholesale epidemic on its hands, though it appeared that none of the newer cases were considered serious.

Deciding that it would only hold him back to get caught up in the frantic action going on beneath him, and aware that being quarantined would certainly not be advantageous, Superman scanned the area from the sky, his special vision gliding carefully over the contents of the room. He could see a long blonde hair, no doubt Mindy's, sticking to the plastic curtain of the shower, and there were some scuff marks on the shabby carpet which might have been made by someone's heels dragging across the room. But, apart from a smudged fingerprint on the door knob which could have belonged to his friend, there was little to aid him in his search. Whoever had taken James Olsen were professionals; they'd covered their tracks well.

He turned his attention to the small parking lot in front of the motel, but with only minimal success. There were a number of tyre tracks in the tarmac, only they soon became pretty indistinguishable when he tried to follow them out onto the main road. Clark increased his concentration. With some difficulty, he managed to track one particularly worn out set of tyres, though a couple of times he lost the trail, and it was only because of the distinctive damaged tread that he was able to pick it up again. Finally, he found the old truck they belonged to, left in the parking lot adjacent to Metropolis' Central Bus Station. Quickly dropping to the ground, he examined the old vehicle, and found a few more blonde hairs on the back of the driver's seat, while a scrunched-up tissue smudged with garish pink lipstick was lying on the floor. It seemed a pretty safe bet that Mindy Church had chosen to leave the city once more. Clark decided to report his findings to Zimack just as soon as he'd rescued Jimmy, which, unfortunately, he was no nearer to doing.

A somewhat dejected Superman lifted off the ground once more. He had to think! If brawn was going to run out, then he had to use his brain instead. So, what did he know of Intergang, assuming that it was Intergang that was at work here? Yet, since the latest crimewave hit the city, Lois had been adamant that the old crime syndicate was back in business. Lois' investigative instincts were seldom wrong, and she'd been about to make a connection to 'the church' when they'd been sidetracked by Joel and Clara getting sicker. Could the Churches be back in business?

It seemed reasonable to assume that Mindy Church was in this 'virus attack' up to her slinky little neck, and, with Joey dead, the one other person who could make her take to the hills would be her stepson. After all, thanks to her, he'd spent a number of the past years in prison. It would be just as reasonable to conclude that he'd want revenge. If Jimmy had stumbled upon Bill Church's attempt at retribution, then it was very likely that the gang had kidnapped him.

Okay, he was reaching, Superman admitted with a frown, but he had nothing else to go on, and he was beginning to tire. He had to find Jimmy soon. It was a pity that there was no sunshine, but it was only mid-evening and he didn't have the time to go searching for daylight. What he needed was help from someone who knew the ins and outs of the city's underbelly. What he needed was a consultation with his old confidant Bobby Bigmouth! Of course, Bobby was more used to dealing with Clark Kent, but Clark didn't want to waste his energy by spinning into his civilian clothes then back into Superman. Bobby would just have to talk to the superhero.

Now, where would he find Bobby at this time? Didn't the man help out at his brother-in-law's restaurant down in the bay area most nights? It was one of his ways of indulging in his favourite hobby of eating. Which reminded Clark that he had no food to offer as the usual remuneration. Oh well, Bobby wasn't averse to doing things on account, and he did trust Kent to always pay up, though he was never so sure of Lois. Clark would just have to hope that Bobby's confidence stretched to include Superman. Changing direction, he headed for the bright lights of the city along the bay.

Trying to make himself as inconspicious as possible, which was a pretty hopeless task while in the suit, Clark almost sidled into the front bar of the well-known eatery and asked to talk to Bobby. The harassed waitress, who was busily serving an over-exuberant crowd of after-work party- goers, huffed that he'd have to take his turn without even glancing at him. But the hero's impatient shrug swirled his cape a little and caught the attention of the woman behind the bar. Her eyes opened wide in shock. She'd never seen Superman up close before, and, if it were possible, he was even more of a dreamboat than she'd imagined. An apology tumbled out of her mouth and she hurried off to answer his request, leaving her customers complaining loudly in her wake.

Within minutes, she returned and beckoned him to follow her through the staffroom door and out the back of the building, where he found Bobby sitting on a bench, a large plate of barbecued ribs, dripping with sauce, in his hand. "Hey, Superman," he articulated round a mouthful of food. "I'm not used to you paying me a visit."

"No! But Lane and Kent speak very highly of you, Mr Bigmouth." Clark almost choked on the name; this really was becoming a comedy, but he had to maintain his cover. "I thought that you might be able to help me. I know I don't have any payment with me at the moment, but perhaps you might take a credit note."

Bobby placed the plate on the bench beside him, licking his sticky fingers and looking doubtful. It wasn't that he didn't trust the big guy, but he had his reputation to consider. "Normally, I don't do that sorta thing, Superman. But, since it's you, and I'm pretty well catered for right now," he announced affably, indicating his food, "I'll take a gift voucher for that new Thai place over on Presidential Boulevard — make that a voucher for their 'celebration banquet', mind you."

"You're on, Bo… I mean, Mr Bigmouth!"

"Hey, you're a friend of a friend, so Bobby will do. Now what can I do ya for?" Bobby lifted a bone and started to strip the meat away at an incredible speed.

Superman stared. This guy could out-eat him. "Bobby!" Clark conceded, moving closer to the seated man, yet trying to stay in the shadows. He schooled his face into sterner lines. "This is a life-and-death situation, and I would appreciate any information you could give me that would help resolve it."

"I'll do my best, Superman!"

"I need to know about Intergang…"

"Intergang!" Bobby almost choked on his food, and a few seconds were taken up while the superhero pounded the informer's back, until the coughing subsided and Bobby straightened up complaining strongly. "Hey, Superman, be careful there! You don't know your own strength!"

"Sorry!" Clark frowned — he'd thought he'd used normal strength. Could it be that his powers were returning, or was Bobby just the complaining type? He had the distinct suspicion that the second supposition might be true.

Bobby rolled his shoulders to ease his tender muscles. "That's better. I'll say one thing for you Supes! You go right to the top! No info on petty criminals for you!"

"But you can help me here?" Superman crossed his arms, attempting to rein in his impatience. It wouldn't do to spook Bobby.

"Most people who snitch on Intergang end up dead, you know. It's a dangerous job I do, and no one gives me any credit for it," Bobby complained mournfully, pushing his plate aside. The thought of his own precarious position put him off his food. "I got to look after myself."

In all truth, Bobby had a point. It was a wonder that he'd lasted this long. Snitches often had a very short shelf- life. "Bobby, I can assure you that no one will ever know that you helped me out. And if you ever need protecting, you only need to yell for me."

"You'd save me, Superman?"

"I try to save everyone, but most especially my friends." Clark allowed a tiny smile to curl his lips, then the memory of Jimmy's plight came racing back. "It's what I'm trying to do now, and I'm afraid I don't have time to search the whole city."

Bobby seemed most impressed to be considered one of Superman's friends, so much so that he felt his appetite return. "So whad'ya wanna know?"

"Specifically, what Intergang does with the people they want rid of. They have a habit of disappearing without a trace, and even I can't find them."

This particular question seemed to scare the informant even more, causing him to bite down hard on the rib he was holding to his mouth. "Boy, Superman! Now you've made me break my tooth." Bobby's hand went to his mouth, as he worked his jaw around. "You're going to have to throw in a visit to my dentist, not to mention my physiotherapist."

"You have a personal physio?" Clark was distracted from the seriousness of the situation.

"Doesn't everyone?" The smaller man shrugged again, though he couldn't ignore his nagging fear for long, and his eyes strayed warily around the shadowed backyard.

"It's okay, we're alone. I've checked."

Bobby nodded, but lowered his voice regardless. "Where would you dump your rubbish?" he asked pointedly.

Superman looked puzzled for a second, until the penny dropped. His eyebrows raised expressively. "The Municipal Reclamation Plant?"

He was answered by Bobby's head bobbing up and down effusively on his thin neck. After years of eating so much, how did this man stay so slim? He'd heard Bobby blame it on his unusual metabolism once or twice, and that must be true, Clark decided, as he watched the other man tuck into his supper once more.

"Thanks, Bobby. I won't forget this. You could be a life saver." Not wanting to waste another minute, Superman turned to head out into the darker alley, in preparation for flight.

"Don't mention it, Clark! Just remember to deliver the 'celebration voucher'. I'll let you off with the medical bills!"

Shocked to the core, Clark paused in mid take-off, then heavily he retraced his steps to stand before Bobby Bigmouth. "What did you call me?"

"Oops!" the snitch grinned abashed, showing off some of his supper which had stuck between his teeth. "Sorry, Superman!"

"You know?" The words were stilted. How could Bobby have found out? It wasn't as if their paths crossed very often; at least, not when he was in the suit. Jimmy was a close friend, and he'd never guessed, but then he'd been overseas for a lot of the past ten years. Now Perry he could understand; he worked closely with the man, and Perry was no fool. Neither was Bobby Bigmouth, it seemed. He just played the fool.

"Hey, I'm the man that's supposed to know everything, so why shouldn't I know that?" he offered reasonably. "But, big guy, you don't have to worry. I can keep a secret!"

Oh boy! Somehow that reassurance didn't have the desired effect on Clark. He'd thought this was a comedy… make that a farce! Here he was, busily trying to protect his secret identity from the public, and half the population of Metropolis were already aware that he was Clark Kent. Okay, so that was a bit of an exaggeration, and there really wasn't much he could do about it now. Jimmy could be in immediate need of his help. He'd have to talk to Bobby later… and what was Lois going to say! She'd kill him… or maybe she'd kill Bobby and they wouldn't have a problem anymore.

"Superman, I wouldn't hang around here too much longer. They start the incinerators up at night. Your friend could probably use your help right about now," Bobby reminded.

"Yeah! Thanks, Bobby. For everything!"

This time Clark sprung into the sky and turned on the speed. If Bobby was right, then he didn't have time to spare. From behind him came his informant's woeful voice.

"What would you know about dentists and physios, big guy? You've probably never had a cavity in your life, and you've got your own personal masseur. I wouldn't mind having a doll like Lois rubbing down my tired muscles."

Clark couldn't help but smile into the dark night. Lois was going to be overjoyed to learn that!

Turning northward, Superman headed towards Metropolis' vast landfill area where the large recycling and incineration factories stood out starkly on the skyline. The plant's shiny metal chimney reflected the gleam of cold moonlight and from its mouth a faint puff of smoke was emitted into the sharp air of fall.

He desperately hoped that he wasn't too late. But, as he flew nearer, his hearing picked up a faint, yet amazingly welcome sound — his friend's beating heart. At first, the steady thump was remarkably slow and calm, but it suddenly changed to a staccato rhythm, showing tension and fear. Evidently, Jimmy had learnt of his precarious situation.

Superman piled on the power, yet it appeared that time had slowed to a murderous crawl — he had little left in his energy banks — while a picture taunted his mind's eye of Jimmy tumbling into a cauldron of greedy white-hot fire.


In the bowels of the huge hollow refuse plant, James Olsen woke to the humming sounds of a muted giant. In his current dazed state, he wasn't totally sure of where he was. Thankfully, it was somewhere warm — the nights were growing decidedly cooler — though the place did stink a bit. No, make that a lot! His nose twitched complainingly as it became more aware of the revolting odour. Jimmy moved around to try to get away from the sickening smell, but found himself unable to gain any purchase amongst the shifting substance he was floundering in. It was as if he were wading through a pile of decomposing waste.

Garbage! That was exactly what it was! He was in a dumpster. Not only that, he'd been hogtied and gagged and thrown away like a piece of mouldering garbage. The memory of his nasty encounter with the two goons returned with a vengeance, along with a sense of aching muscles and bruised bones.

James started to struggle against his bonds, but was jarred by an abrupt forward movement of his trash bin. Painstakingly he straightened, as much as his fetters and his mushy 'mattress' would allow, until he could just see over the metal rim. He was in some kind of large warehouse with one end open to a dark sky. Clearly, he'd been out cold for quite some time. Twisting his head around, he searched the area for someone — anyone — who could pull him out of this smelly trap. Yet it looked like he was alone. Far in one corner of the hangar-like building a metal hut had been constructed, which might serve as a control unit or office, but no one appeared at its window, and, trussed and muffled as he was, there was no way he could call for help.

In front of him, a miniature railway line climbed steeply to straighten out above something which reminded him of a huge metal boiler and, if he wasn't mistaken, the distinct drumming rumble was emanating from this structure. Again he was conscious of his transport lurching forward, while the first hopper in line reached the top of the track.

Though he wasn't in a position to see exactly what was happening, the sounds of grating metal reached him, as the little dump truck swivelled upside down and spilled its contents into a now gaping maw, before righting itself and swinging away on the circular trail which would return it to the ground. Jimmy watched, mesmerized. He'd been in the perfect place to witness the glow of fire reflected on the metal roof. Panic began to build within him. He had a horrible suspicion he knew exactly what this place was… and exactly what his fate would be if he didn't get out of here pretty damn fast.

A surge of adrenalin lent him speed and strength as he strained to pull at the tape that bound him, and relief practically overcame him when he felt some of the strands around his wrists give way. This gave him a little more freedom of movement, allowing him to squeeze his legs through the hoop of his arms, until his hands were in front of him. Thank goodness he'd been going to the gym to regain his fitness since his injuries acquired on Papillon. For a minuscule moment he allowed his body to rest, but the second car was levelling out and heading for its dropoff point — there was no time to waste.

Not bothering to attempt to free his arms any further, Jimmy grabbed hold of the steel edge of his transporter as best he could. His muscles cramped in protest as, with an effort he hardly believed himself capable of, he dragged himself from his sucking, bog-like coffin which was intent on carrying him to a fiery grave. Letting himself fall heavily to the walkway which ran alongside the rails, he lay exhausted. But he was not yet free and clear — for all he knew, his would-be killers could be back to check that their grisly work was completed.

James decided it was time to call in backup, and he fervently hoped that Clark was sufficiently well to come to his rescue. Reviewing his estimation of his friend's state of health when they'd last talked, he couldn't say he was very hopeful; nevertheless, he pulled off the tape which covered his mouth and hollered into the open doorway of the incineration plant.

"Help, Superman!"

Almost as soon as the words were uttered, the blue-clad hero dropped down beside the prone figure, using the quickest route, which happened to be through the roof.

"Boy, I knew you were fast, but I didn't realise how fast!" Jimmy gazed up wide-eyed at the moon which was winking at him through the building's newest feature. Superman followed his gaze.

"Looks like I'll have to make a few repairs. To tell the truth, Jimmy, I was already directly above you."

"How did you know I was here?"

Clark's arms surrounded Jimmy's shoulders, helping him to sit upright. "I heard your heart beating," Superman stated quietly as he freed the other man's limbs from the remaining restraints.

"You mentioned that before; I just didn't realise how well it worked." Jimmy was obviously touched, but, now that the blood could flow more freely through his veins, he began to ache appallingly, and he found himself resting against Clark's frame.

"It was sending out quite a drum roll there. It was hard to ignore." Clark found himself grinning slightly, thankful that the younger man was safe. "But I can't claim total credit for finding you. Bobby Bigmouth suggested I come here. And you did a pretty good job of saving your own skin."

"We might not be safe yet, Superman." Jimmy had become mindful that there were others now milling about on the floor beneath them. "Those two gangsters could be back."

But Clark had been studying three uniformed men who had left the warmth of their workroom, prompted to investigate the strange noise which had alerted them to the fact that something unusual was happening in the confines of the warehouse. "No! I'd assume these people are workmen, Jimmy. They're wearing coveralls with the logo of Metropolis' Reclamation Plant on the pocket. And they're not acting threateningly, just pretty confused about what's been going on here."

That fact seemed to be borne out by the leader of the three calling up to them. "Superman, what's happened, and is there anything we can do to help?"

Clark stepped up to the barrier. "A man's been hurt here and I'd appreciate it if you could call an ambulance and the police. Ask to be put through to Inspector Zimack and tell them that James Olsen has been found alive and well."

Within seconds, Jimmy had scrambled up and was standing, barely upright, by the superhero's side. "No, wait a minute," he shouted to the man who was hurrying back to the control room. "Scrub the ambulance bit! I'm not that seriously hurt."

"Jimmy, we can't be sure of that," Clark protested feelingly. "You really should be checked out."

"And I will be, if you fly me back to the hospital."

"But I can't be certain if it's safe to move you that way."

"Can't you x-ray me to find out if I have any broken bones or nasty bumps on the head?" Actually, Jimmy was pretty sure he had a concussion, but he also understood that Clark was probably very anxious to get back to Metropolis General to be close to his children.

"James, my powers are a bit erratic right now," Clark mumbled in desperation, "and I don't have enough control left to risk that. I could end up causing you a lot more injuries than you already have."

"Then you did catch the same virus as the kids!" It had been the one thing that had been worrying Jimmy since the night before. Had that highly enlightening talk with Superman taken place less than twenty-four hours ago? "You idiot! What were you thinking about, coming out here and weakening your defences like that!"

"Calm down!" Clark whispered. They were some distance away from the men below, but voices tended to echo around this vast empty place. "It's not that bad. Sam and Bernard have come up with an anti-viral drug that works. I've had one dose, and, though I admit that I haven't totally recovered, I'm not in any danger of dying… and neither are the kids now."

"CK, that's great!" The younger man was so overjoyed to hear that piece of news, he flung his arms around his friend, forgetting that Clark was in his Superman guise, for just a second. "All the more reason why we should get back to the hospital pretty damn quick, to see how they're doing."

From his vantage spot on the ground, the orange-clad supervisor was staring with mouth agape, intrigued and confused at the exchange between this dirty, dishevelled man and Metropolis' Man of Steel. Firstly, it had seemed that the smaller man was arguing very forcefully with Superman, and now he had him locked in a bear-hug. Yet neither of these odd actions appeared to be disconcerting to the usually aloof hero. In fact, though Superman looked a little embarrassed, he was returning the hug… He was clearly patting his… friend on the back! Could the Kryptonian be that way inclined…? He was pretty unique in a lot of ways!

Nah! And even if he was, it wasn't the business of a simple reclamation-plant-attendant how Superman handled his private life. The Man of Steel was here to help the citizens of Metropolis, and without him the city would be a much harder, darker place in which to live. Just a few months previously, Superman had stopped a runaway bus from careering off a bridge… a bus which just happened to be carrying his dear wife of thirty years. As far as he was concerned, Superman could be whatever he chose and Abe Winkerman wouldn't have any objections!

But he did have to find out what was required here. "Superman, I don't like to interrupt your… conversation, but, do I ask for the paramedics to come?"



The two men chorused their reply.


"Jimbo?" Jimmy enquired, sotto-voiced.

"Sorry," Superman whispered in return — his physical strength surely wasn't the only thing that was running low. He had to be more careful. "James!"

"And, really, I'm fine, Superman!" reiterated the one who was evidently called… James. "We're just wasting time here." He turned his attention back to the waiting workman. "Just get the police… in a hurry! I was kidnapped and someone tried to dispose of me in your incinerator, and I doubt if I'm the first!"

White-faced with shock, Abe ran off to obey instructions. If this guy was telling the truth, then a whole Pandora's Box was opening up for the men who worked in the plant. Whoever would have thought there could be such terrible things going on right under his own nose… and just who did know about this, 'cos it was a pretty safe bet that someone had to be in on the organisation? No unauthorised personnel could get inside here otherwise.

Superman and James were invited by the shift foreman into the warmth of the box-like control room to await the arrival of Metropolis' 'finest'. There Jimmy was plied with hot cups of strong sweet tea. Clearly, this man knew a thing or two about old wives' cures.

The hero was extremely happy to see his friend seated. Underneath the cuts and bruises, Jimmy was looking very pale. And, if Jimmy were honest, he too was glad to be off his legs — his limbs having, unfortunately, developed a distinct wobble. He was conscious of Superman's concerned scrutiny, and wasn't sure how long he could hide the fact that he was feeling increasingly dizzy. Hopefully, the hot, over-sweet, tarry liquid, which he was trying to swallow manfully, would restore his spirits, before Clark's over-fussy tendencies kicked in and, once again, he insisted on calling for an ambulance.

But Jimmy was rescued from this dilemma by Superman recalling his earlier promise to his wife; only, he wasn't totally sure how to go about contacting Lois. Should he use her cell-phone, or ask to use the facility's land-line? He really didn't want the public to learn that he carried such a conventional appliance as a mobile-phone. Yet, in this case, he did have a legitimate reason.

"Excuse me, please!" Superman immediately faked around behind his back and under his cape, producing a tiny phone. "I don't usually do this," he explained courteously, but with his habitual detachment, "however, I promised my friends Clark Kent and Lois Lane that I'd let them know whenever I found Mr Olsen here."

"A phone!" The youngest member of the work-squad exclaimed with much disdain. "Thought you'd be telepathic or something!"

"Only with other Kryptonians!" Superman blurted out. God! His tongue was like a runaway train. Appearing as the hero when he was overtired was not a good idea. He caught Jimmy's warning glance and quickly turned his attention back to his phone call, leaving the young man staring goggle-eyed at the blue-uniformed hero. He'd just have to hope that that piece of information would get lost amongst all the other myths and rumours which circulated about the world's resident alien.

Not wishing to drag Lois away from her vigil with the kids, Superman called the nurses' station on the pediatric floor and left a message, explaining that James Olsen had been found; that he was slightly injured and that Superman would be transporting him to the ER unit just as soon as they'd spoken with the police. The kindly charge-nurse assured him that, not only would she pass on the information to Mrs Kent, but she would contact the emergency department and warn them of the two men's imminent arrival.

No sooner had Superman closed down his phone and tucked it safely away, did the sounds of a police-siren reach the little group, the noise growing ever louder as the unit approached its goal. Within minutes, the little room was cleared and Jimmy was giving his abridged statement to two fresh-faced police officers, who appeared slightly spellbound by the presence of the Man of Steel. Uncharacteristically, Superman used this circumstance to his advantage, when he saw his friend wilting appreciably under the strain.

On the pretext that Jimmy was in need of immediate medical care, which wasn't wholly untrue, and, after assuring the officers that both he and Mr Olsen would contact Inspector Zimack the next day to give a more detailed account of the happenings of the night, Superman lifted into the night sky with James held firmly in his arms. And if the oldest and wisest of the five watching men was conscious that the hero was flying a little more slowly than normal, he put it down to the fragility of the cargo. Abe was sure these two men were closer acquaintances than they purported to be, even if they were just good friends, but he wouldn't pry and wouldn't tell — Superman deserved his privacy.

"Wow! He's telepathic!" the now fascinated kid announced, finally finding his voice again.

"He's bigger up close too!" commented one of the cops. "I've never met him before. Hey, partner, we're not Superman rookies any longer!"

In the night sky, the wind felt definitely sharper and colder, and Jimmy was grateful for the shelter of the billowing red cape. "Hey, CK, is it my imagination or are policemen getting younger?" He stared down at the gawking faces that were fading away beneath him. "It's a sign that you're growing older, Jimbo. I've been feeling that way for years now!"

"Are you okay for flying, CK?" The elderly workman wasn't the only one aware of the hero's lack of pace.

"I was going to pretend that I was going slower for your own protection, but that's not quite true." Superman grinned sheepishly. "Actually, my power levels are running pretty low and I don't want to drain them by turning on the speed. Hopefully, Jimmy, we won't be tumbling to earth though."

"Thanks for those words of reassurance, CK. I feel a whole lot better now!"

Superman and his passenger flew onwards in hopeful silence, each concentrating on the down-town area of the city where the hospital was situated. Very slowly the buildings grew larger in view as the two men covered the ground beneath them until they could, at last, make out the various more unique structures.

Suddenly, Jimmy felt Superman tense dramatically, and he held his breath as he prepared himself for a desperate plummet to the streets below. But no such thing happened, and the hero continued with what could only be weirdly depicted as 'a spring in his step'. Could flying be described that way? It was just that Jimmy's traumatised brain could come up with nothing more applicable.

"Clark, what happened there?"

A glowing smile spread across Superman's face. "I can hear the children's hearts beating," Clark explained, almost awe-struck. "The rates are coming back to normal, Jimmy. Joel and Clara are going to be just fine."

He'd known this for a couple of hours or so and he'd wanted so much to believe in it. But now this wonderful, amazing sound was bringing home to him the fact that his children were going to live, and, if he could just find a tiny bit of speed, he could be with them when they woke up. With a power which was born of love, Superman headed on to his goal.


Lois had pulled her chair closer to Joel's bed when she noticed her son first stir. It was only a very small movement, but his hand had moved on the cotton blanket, as if he were searching for something. At once Lois took his hand into hers and her heart soared with joy as she felt his fingers squeeze her own. Her brain had just registered the fact that his palm no longer felt cold and clammy when his eyelids began to flutter, as delicately as a butterfly's wings.

"Joel," she called to him quietly, as she leaned over him, anxiously awaiting his first glance. "Joel, sweetie, can you hear Mommy?"

His eyes blinked once, then twice, as Joel took in the face above him, which swum in and out of his hazy focus. It was his mom. For the past few days he'd been vaguely conscious of her presence, yet he hadn't been able to reach her… even though he'd wanted to so much. It had made him frightened. Would this time be different? Oh, he did hope so.

"Mom?" he croaked experimentally. The lovely, familiar face smiled, encouraging him to try again. "Mom!" This time he could hear his own voice.

"Yes, Joel, I'm with you." Her first instinct had been to hug her son fiercely, yet she feared he wouldn't be up to such a demonstrative action. Instead she pressed his fingers gently once more, adding the comfort of her physical touch to that of her voice. "It's good to see you back, sweetheart."

"Have I been away?" Joel asked in puzzlement. He'd been sure he'd been tied to this bed… a bed that moved, which he positively didn't like. Wriggling tentatively, he was extremely relieved to find that the mattress stayed in one place. "The bed's not moving!" he declared, his words strengthening with surprise.

"No, Joel. They changed the bed when your fever stopped. And yes, you have been away… sort of…" Lois had taken to stroking Joel's dark hair, and so enthralled had she become with the simple, sweet action — an action which she'd feared to lose — she'd forgotten that her inquisitive son was awaiting an answer.

Martha understood and stepped up to the bed. "You've been ill, Joel, and you've been in a coma." Her words were said quietly but steadily, hoping not to scare her grandson.

"Coma? Do I know what that is?" He was sure he'd heard that word before, but his brain wouldn't work the way he wanted it to.

"A coma is something that happens to you when you're very ill… when you're so deeply asleep that no one can reach you." Martha sat carefully on his bed as she explained.

Well, he understood that! If he couldn't reach his mom and dad, then he was pretty certain that they hadn't been able to contact him either. Grandma Martha always made things so easy to follow. His eyes were beginning to close again and he found himself drifting back to sleep, yet he had to remember his manners… "Thanks, Grandma…"

Joel was happy. His body might feel very heavy and his eyes wouldn't stay open, but his bed didn't move, and he was back with his grandma and his mom. But where was Dad? Did he get very ill too? Worry jolted Joel from his stupor.

"Dad? Where's Dad?"

"I'm here, Joel."

His father's voice came from somewhere out of his sight, but within seconds Dad was next to the bed, standing close to Mom.

"You're not sick?" the boy enquired a little fearfully. Right at the minute, Joel didn't really comprehend why he should just be anxious about his father's state of health; he only knew that this was so.

Clark sat on the chair where Lois had created a small space and leaned one arm on the bed, while the other, customarily, snaked around his wife's waist. "I'm fine," he assured Joel. "In fact, I'm feeling great now that you and Clara are going to be well again."

Again fright flared in Joel's eyes. "I remember! Clara was feeling bad too! Is she all right?"

"She's still asleep." Clark backed off to allow Joel a clear view of his sister's bed. "You can see for yourself."

"I'm not asleep! How can I sleep with all this noise going on?" complained a very huskily spoken Clara.

"Kitten! You're awake!" Clark was at his daughter's side in an instant. "Why didn't you say?"

"I was enjoying the floating," she told him dreamily.

Clark immediately checked under his little girl's body but, spotting no obvious space between Clara and the bed, decided it must be an imaginary sensation.

"Honey, Beth looked in earlier and warned us there might be some disorientation when the kids first woke up." Lois had joined her husband, smiling and crying all at the same time as she gazed at her angelic daughter. Oh my, I must be bemused by joy, Lois contemplated. Normally, angelic was not an adjective that was synonymous with Clara. But she wouldn't consider herself a biased parent if she believed, presently, that she had the most beautiful children in the world. And, judging by the besotted look on Clark's face as he looked from one child to the other, he would definitely agree.

"I'm not dis… orien… that big word you said, Mommy, but I would like a hug!"

Lois quickly obeyed Clara's instructions, holding the small body close for a time, needing the physical assurance that Clara was whole and well. Then she stepped back to allow Clark his moment, wiping away the tears that had spilled from her eyes. Silently, two arms came around her, and as she turned, Lois was surprised to see Ellen, offering her, too, the comfort of a mother's embrace.

"Mother," Lois whispered. "I didn't even realise you were awake."

"Oh, Lois, how could I sleep through such a wonderful moment? Our babies are safe!" Ellen declared through happy sniffles.

In fact, as Lois watched her husband and child together, she doubted that there was a dry eye left in the room. Martha was still sitting by Joel, tenderly rubbing his hands and arms, while her gaze was fixed on the little tableau in the bed opposite. This was a moment they had all prayed for, but were almost too afraid to hope for.

"Daddy, I think I smell awful," Clara apologised weepingly from the shelter of her dad's shoulder.

Clark simply tightened his arms around her as he gave her his comfort along with the benefit of his wisdom. "Kitten, that's not surprising. You've had a fever and you've been sweating a lot. I'm sure the nurses will give you a sponge down, if I asked them to, and you'll soon be able to take a bath."

Clara leaned back in the circle of her dad's arms to answer, without getting a mouthful of flannel shirt. "Thanks, Dad, I think I'd like that." She smiled up at him but, within seconds, her nose wrinkled. Warily she moved closer in exploration, sniffing at Clark's neck. She pulled away at something approaching superspeed. "Dad, it isn't me… It's you! Where have you been? And it was bad of you, to let me take the blame!"

Clark looked crestfallen at this last charge. However, now it had been pointed out, he had to admit there was some truth in his daughter's accusation. Clark had been so thrilled by the prospect of being reunited with his children that he'd completely overlooked where he'd come from, and the fact that he'd carried someone who'd been rolling around in a dumpster. He definitely did smell. Blushing furiously he put some distance between himself and the rest of his family, all of whom were beginning to regard him with some distaste.

"Sorry, I forgot! I found Jimmy in the refuse plant." he offered an embarrassed excuse for his condition. "I smell really awful, don't I? I wonder how these guys actually manage to work there."

"Jimmy is okay, though?" Lois asked anxiously, reminded of her friend's fate by Clark's words.

"Yeah! I dropped him off in ER before I came up here. He's suffered a pretty bad beating, but they told me he'd survive, barring complications of course." Clark had started to back towards the exit. "I could go check up on him… maybe after I have a shower or two. Don't you guys go anywhere!"

A somewhat sheepish superhero hurried from the room, the hilarious giggles of his family following in his wake. But Clark didn't care that they were laughing at his expense. His powers might have disappeared for now, he might smell like a skunk… and it didn't trouble him one bit. Joel and Clara were back to teasing him again and that meant everything was alright with his world.


Chapter Thirteen: Loose Ends

Very slowly life began to return to some sense of normality for the Kent family. Joel and Clara continued to improve, albeit gradually. They were no longer in any life threatening jeopardy, but they occasionally suffered from periods of lassitude and would grow tearily querulous, often for no apparent reason. It made the job of keeping them alert and amused, as they spent their days recuperating in hospital, a sometimes precarious one, and Beth refused to discharge them until every trace of the virus had disappeared.

The task fell mostly to Lois and the grandparents, with a little help from their extended family, while Clark resumed both his jobs as reporter and superhero. No one thought to complain, though, and the 'working' dad was even envious of the time the baby-sitters spent with his two recovering children.

Besides, Superman wasn't wholly immune to the peculiar exhaustion suffered by Joel and Clara. For instance, he'd spent some of the night attending a train collision and derailment just south of Chicago, and this present morning, as he sat in the newsroom of the Daily Planet, he was feeling more than a little achy and tetchy… and a trifle neglected. Lois was still spending her nights at the hospital, but they'd decided that Clark should return home to sleep for the sake of their other two children, after, it had to be said, some heated discussion, where even the infamous Dr Campbell had been mentioned, much to Lois' annoyance and Clark's guilty embarrassment — he'd promised that particular subject would remain taboo.

It wasn't that he distrusted Lois; to be truthful, he never had, but he now saw Dr Hugh Campbell for exactly what he was — a young man who'd been touched and more than a little attracted to a beautiful and anxious mother, whose husband always appeared to be disappearing on her. Which, Clark accepted, wasn't far from the truth. However, from this moment on, that circumstance was something which he intended to remedy. Superman, just as much as Clark Kent and any other man on this Earth, was entitled to a little down time.

If only he didn't feel so out of sorts, and didn't miss the warm presence of his wife, sleeping in his bed at night. One of her soothing back-rubs would be really welcome round about now, Clark thought yearningly, as he stretched the kinks out of his neck and shoulders. But when he'd visited the hospital, before coming to work this morning, she'd been too pre-occupied to oblige a needy husband, trying to encourage two young children, who were just as determined that they weren't really hungry, to eat breakfast. He hadn't had the heart to tell her, either, how he was feeling, or offer her anything more than a few supportive kisses and cuddles. So now, here he was, once again bottling up his thoughts from Lois when they'd made promises to be completely open with each other… perhaps he'd tell her tonight when he took her out to dinner.

That had been his mom and Ellen's idea. The two women had got together and decided that their 'biggest' kids were sorely in need of a little light relief, and come hell or high water, Martha and Ellen were going to make sure they got it. And, he had to admit, he was really looking forward to the date. To have Lois all to himself for a few hours seemed like the promise of heaven. Clark and Superman were taking the night off.

"Mornin', CK," Jimmy said breezily as he swept passed Clark, on the way to his own work-station. Thankfully, he had escaped his encounter with 'Aldo the Terrible' with little more than a few cuts, some bruised ribs and a nasty headache. The hospital had been sufficiently pleased by his state of health to discharge him within twenty-four hours, and he'd returned to work, eager to gain his revenge by tracking down the two goons and having them put away for a very long time. Regrettably, he'd been due for a disappointment as far as that plan was concerned. His eyes fell on the folders that were piled on his present partner's desk — and he'd thought he was the early bird! "You must have been in ahead of time this morning!"

"Oh, hi, Jimmy!" Clark roused himself from his fit of the dismals. "I swung by the hospital first thing, thinking to spend some time with Lois and the kids, but they were a bit busy with breakfast and all… I didn't want to get in the way, so I just came on in."

Jimmy halted in his tracks and returned to sit on the edge of Clark's desk. "Ah! The kids playing up again, are they?"

"You could say that," Clark admitted, ruefully. "I don't understand what's got into them, Jimmy."

"Oh, I think you do, CK!" That won Jimmy a questioning and not exactly sociable glare. "And don't go all remote on me here. Why don't I go grab us some coffee and you take our stuff into the small conference room — no one's using it this morning — and you and I can have a talk before we start in on this 'Church' thing."

There was a pregnant pause until Clark capitulated, gathering up the files and wondering just when James Olsen had grown so perceptive. "Okay!"

Clark had just arranged their workload in some sort of order on the conference room table when Jimmy entered with two mugs of coffee and a couple of iced-doughnuts. "Hey," Clark announced with mock solemnity, "that's a strawberry doughnut — the Chief will be after your tail."

"Not if he doesn't know who pinched it! So, no going all super-heroish on me and doing the 'Superman doesn't lie' bit, because Superman ain't here!"

Settling heavily into a chair, Clark's moment of fun dissolved instantly. "You could say that."

Jimmy took the chair opposite him. Guessing that Clark was fretting anxiously, and since Lois wasn't around to sort things out, he volunteered to step into the breach. "I saw from the morning news reports that you were out for most of the night. You did good work." The disconsolate slump of Clark's shoulders worried Jimmy. "Was it bad, CK? I know it must be hard seeing all that death and destruction…"

"No… Actually, as disasters go, it wasn't so terrible. Just three people died, and they were probably killed instantly… before I even got there, so there wasn't anything else I could do." The brief account was given without inflection or the smallest sign of emotion. "There were casualties… but I suppose the fact that I helped get people out quickly saved more lives…"

"From what I heard on the news, there's no doubt of that, Clark." Jimmy took a sip of his coffee to give Clark a second to allow that information to register. "So, what's wrong then?"

"Why should anything be wrong?" Clark bridled.

"Is this this denial thing that you do? The thing Lois keeps complaining about? Have you looked in the mirror today, 'cos I have to tell you, man, you don't look so good."

"It's that obvious?" A mirthless smile turned up one of the corners of Clark's mouth. "Yeah, I admit it. This is this denial thing and yes, right now I feel lousy. I feel worn out… and I miss sleeping next to Lois. I'm more like a big kid than a superhero!"

"You're more like a human being than you think," Jimmy chided resolutely. "Clark, you've been through the wringer with your kids, you were exposed to kr… to a substance that is toxic to you!" Somehow Jimmy didn't feel it would be beneficial to mention a rock that would emphasize his friend's alien origins. "You've had the flu, and you've just spent the night on a difficult rescue… I'd say you were perfectly entitled to feel lousy! And feeling lousy usually makes you cranky and sorry for yourself. I know! Believe me, I've been there."

"But, Jimmy, it was only a mild flu," Clark bemoaned. "I can understand it with the kids… they almost died. I wasn't even very ill. The last time it happened, I was back to normal almost immediately. I distinctly remember saving Lois and my folks from that booby-trapped microwave, but I don't recall having any health problems afterwards, though we did spend New Year in Smallville, which is usually pretty quiet disasterwise…"

"Which means that you probably had a pretty Superman-free holiday to recover in. And that was over ten years ago, CK. The other night you said we were all getting older…"

"Not that old, James Olsen!" Clark objected, horrified, yet he couldn't quite stifle a grin at his friend's payback for the tease in the garbage plant.

"Okay, I'll give you that. So here's the deal — you pay a visit to Star Labs and have yourself checked over, and I'll read through these files on the arson attacks and the redevelopment project again… see if I can spot anything we've missed. There's got to be something in here that ties all these things together. If the Churchs are back to their old tricks, then there must be some evidence somewhere, and we're gonna find it."

"Jimmy, I could speed read them."

"Are you sure, Clark?"

Clark thought before answering. "Probably not without getting a headache," he smiled. "I should go."



It was around mid-day by the time Clark made it back to the office, bringing with him Jimmy's favourite steak-sandwich and fries from Julie's Deli down the street.

"Hey, Clark, something smells good!"

"Griddled steak and onions with a hot chilli relish. I hope that's right."

"Sure thing, CK." Jimmy took hold of the proffered bag with a smile. "What have you got?"

"Lightly-grilled chicken on a wholegrain bun with a dill pickle… Lois would call that healthy eating."

"You seem a lot brighter than you were earlier this morning. I take it you got the all clear from the doc."

"Make that doctors! Can you believe that Sam was over there with Bernie and Mia peering at Joel's and Clara's latest blood tests? They practically jumped me when I walked through the door, they were so anxious to repeat the tests on me."

"They managed to get blood from you?"

"Yes! It's what's been worrying me. After I exert myself on big rescues, my powers start waning," Clark admitted on a rush. "Lois has been so busy trying to keep the children on an even keel, and Mom's had her hands full looking after Nathan and Julian and seeing that the house runs smoothly, that I just didn't want to add to their problems."

"CK, that's what you have friends for… to pick up the slack when your family are snowed under. You do know that you can talk to me about whatever's on your mind."

This time Clark's grin lit up his whole face. "I think I got the message this morning, Jimbo."

"So what's the verdict? Do you and the kids still have the virus?"

"Yeah, but Joel and Clara are almost clear, and I'm getting there." Clark slipped into his seat and unwrapped his lunch. He was surprisingly hungry. "Jimmy, you're right, this does smell good." It was tempting to take a bite, but the man opposite was clearly waiting for the rest of his explanation. "Because I was never so ill as the kids, and I had a certain amount of built-in-immunity, they didn't think I'd need any more of the wonder drug, but now they've decided to put me on a five-day course. It's their considered opinion that as soon as the virus is destroyed, my powers should come back to normal. Mind you, until then, Superman is on sick leave."

"Won't that create problems? Superman will be missed, especially if there are any big emergencies."

"We're just going to have to keep our fingers crossed that doesn't happen. It shouldn't be for too long, but I've been given strict orders — make sure I finish the pills, and no super tricks as that creates a vicious circle. I never thought the medical profession had so many bullies in its ranks!"

"Maybe I could write up a little cover for Superman, if needed," Jimmy suggested helpfully. "You don't want to be associated with the guy anymore than necessary."

"Thanks, Jimbo! Sounds like a good plan, but let's wait and see what happens." Clark could no longer resist the delicious aromas wafting in his direction and he bit into his meal.

Watching his colleague munch away happily, Jimmy chuckled indulgently. "I must say, CK, for someone who's been told he's not well, you're handling it well!"

Clark moved forward in his chair. "But that's the thing, there is a reason for the way I feel," he pronounced carefully round his mouthful of food and swallowed it down, remembering to chew well — indigestion was something he'd experienced during the few times he'd been 'normal' and it wasn't something he wanted to repeat. "Jimmy, I believed that the virus had been destroyed, and I was scared it had just been one trauma too far for my body to cope with. I really thought I might be losing my powers."

"Trauma? Like growing old?"

Easing back in his chair again, Clark let out a guffaw. "Hardly, Jimbo! I really was just joking about that the other night."

But Jimmy refused to abandon his train of thought. "Or… like giving up years of your life for a friend," he whispered, shock and horror dawning in his voice as he remembered Vera Doodson's chamber of horrors. "Geez, Clark! You gave up part of your life force for me. It was hard enough when I thought it was Superman…"

"Jimmy, no!" Clark interrupted the younger man's spiral into guilty recriminations. "To tell the truth, I should thank you for that. There was Lois, freaking out that she would grow old and I wouldn't… and, believe me, the prospect of living for another hundred years or so after Lois had gone, was making me crazy. You just levelled the playing field, and I'll always be grateful for that."

"That's pretty good of you to say, Clark, but that weird process could have serious repercussions in the future." James Olsen wasn't about to let himself off so lightly.

"Look at me, Jimbo! Do I look like I'm suffering from accelerated decrepitude?" Clark spread his arms wide.

"No!" The answer came grudgingly, but with the hint of a grin as the smaller of the two men regarded the athletic- looking frame and handsome face of his friend. Even since this morning Clark had regained much of his healthy glow. "You always look far better than you've any right to, CK!"

"And, thanks to your little pep-talk this morning, I'm not going begging for trouble. We'll face the future when it comes, okay? Right now, my kids are getting better… even though they're driving their mother insane. Actually, I'm happy that they're still around to do so. In a few days I'm going to be fine… and our lunch is getting cold, so let's eat, then we can get down to nailing the Churches!"

Having thrashed out their respective 'devils', Jimmy and Clark spent the next few minutes demolishing their food, and chatting inconsequently about the chances of the Metro U's in tonight's ballgame, which had led to a healthy and hilarious argument, Clark still remaining loyal to his local boyhood team. He'd just walked over to the coffee- machine in the corner to fix them some coffee when the door opened.

"Hey, honey, have you got one of these for me?"

"Lois! What are you doing here? I wasn't expecting you, was I?"

"Nope!" Lois wandered in, looking a little lost, and perched on the edge of the table. "Mother and Father showed up for lunch with the children, then they whisked them up to the solarium for some light-treatment and later this afternoon, it appears, Jonathan and Julian have challenged them to a big game of checkers… Seems that Mom's in the way."

"I doubt that, Lois," Clark sympathised, placing a steaming mug in front of her — newsroom java, prepared just the way she liked it. He dropped a warm kiss on her forehead. "I'm sure everyone just thinks you were entitled to a much- needed break."

"I know," Lois gave in reluctantly. She had to admit that she was beginning to regard the hospital and the pediatric unit as something fairly reminiscent of a prison, yet now that she'd been set free for a few hours, she was feeling conversely adrift. "But we're already taking a break tonight."

"Maybe they felt you needed the afternoon to prepare." James was always ready to add a little encouragement. Lamentably, his words didn't have the desired effect.

"Are you suggesting I need a whole afternoon to make myself presentable for a date, these days? Thanks, Olsen!"

Jimmy almost choked in the coffee Clark had handed him. "NO!"

Ever the diplomat, Clark reasoned with his touchy wife. "Honey, I think Jimmy meant that you might like some free time to decompress. After all, Joel and Clara haven't been the easiest of patients these past couple of days. It's been tough for you."

Nodding his head aggressively, the embarrassed man managed to grind out. "Exactly!"

"Clark, I'm their mother, being a parent isn't meant to be easy… it's written in the rule book, you know. Besides, I can cope."

"Of course, you can. You're a great mother, but things have been a little more crucial lately." Clark pulled Lois from the desk and down onto his lap. "You deserve time off!"

"So do you," Lois declared softly, drawing a large S over his chest.

She might be feeling somewhat isolated living in her ivory tower, but she wasn't totally cut off from the rest of the world. Not being able to sleep very well in her lonely room, last night she'd watched the live broadcasts of her husband's rescue at the double train crash. And because Lois could read Superman so much better than anyone in this world, she'd realised immediately when he'd run into difficulties, recognised the disguised signs of exhaustion in his stiffer posture and movements. Her heart and mind had gone out to him and she'd determined to stay awake, to be with him in spirit, for as long as the rescue endured.

But her caring actions had backfired on her. When he'd arrived at the hospital this morning, the first thing she'd wanted to do was take him in her arms and ask him what was wrong, only she'd been too weary with lack of sleep and dealing with the children's contrariness, that she'd barely had time to say hallo.

"You know, sweetheart, why don't you go spend the afternoon with Mom and Nathan. I'm sure they'd appreciate it." Clark smiled into her hair, enjoying the scent of her. This might be the office, but he was willing to take any morsel of close contact with Lois that he could get at the moment.

Lois shook her head. "I already thought of that, but your mom is taking advantage of the sunny weather and she and Nathan have gone to the zoo. I tried raising them on her cell-phone, but she seems to have switched it off. Besides, I watched you at the train crash last night…"

"Lo-is, you should have been sleeping!"

"It isn't my fault I don't enjoy sleeping alone these days," Lois' tone was slightly belligerent, but her hand on Clark's shirtfront was gentle. "I decided to spend a couple of hours with my husband, even if it was by way of the TV, and it didn't take me long to realise something was wrong."

"Superman's been grounded, sweetheart," Clark said quietly, not even bothering to deny her assessment of his performance.

"I know! I talked to Daddy when he came in. Are you all right with this, Clark?" She leaned back to gauge his reaction to her question.

"Well, it's probably only for a few days, and it has happened before… so I guess it isn't such a big deal. And it does mean that I can spend time with my wife without fear of interruption." Clark allowed his eyebrows to waggle suggestively at that very pleasing prospect.

"See, every cloud has a silver lining." In an answering sexy gesture, Lois leaned in and brushed Clark's lips with her own, not being able to resist temptation for a few seconds. Her hands slid up to his shoulders, and Clark was just about to deepen the kiss when she pushed herself off his knee. "But sadly, Clark, there's a time and place for everything, and you'll just have to contain your impatience till tonight." Lois waved a pointed finger back and forth under Clark's nose, then turned, business-like, to the files spread out on the table, stifling a grin at her husband's disappointed stare at her sudden change of direction. Poor sweetheart, she'd make it up to him later, and have a wonderful time in the process. "Okay, guys, I have a spare couple of hours, and I just knew how much you would appreciate my expert help with this investigation. So, where are we?"

A hearty laugh was surprised from the watcher of this little interlude. "Looks like Lois Lane is back in business!"

Lois smiled back broadly. "Just wait, Jimmy. I might surprise you pretty soon!"

"Lois, you surprise me frequently!" he declared, continuing to chortle, but his hands were busily shuffling through the files. "While you were gone, CK, I finally managed to track down the company who's been trying to buy up rundown property in Hobbs Bay — Primate Developers!"

"The same company who built the library and who just acquired the bulk of contracts in the second stage of the redevelopment scheme?"

"The same! Word was they'd made such a good job of the original project that there was never any question of them not running away with the main work on the second phase, and they came in with one of lowest tenders. 'Good value for a good price' is one of their slogans."

"They could have someone inside city hall," Lois surmised. "It's not the first time we've uncovered that type of under-dealing, Clark."

"True! And once the second phase is done, it's going to transform that whole area." Clark gripped his pen between his hands. "Someone might be thinking of 'up-market' shopping malls, offices and condos…"

"But most of the Bay is built up…" Jimmy joined right in with the customary back and forth brainstorming which Lane and Kent so often employed.

"Yes, but with old and derelict real-estate."

"Which someone seems pretty desperate to acquire," Lois continued the train of thought.

"So desperate that they're willing to go to any lengths to make uncooperative owners sell up. Even murder!" The over-stressed writing utensil broke. "Sorry!" Clark murmured an apology at a disapproving Lois. It seemed that inadvertent super acts were off limits too — even justifiable ones. Yet there was only sympathetic understanding in her movements, as she removed the broken ends from his hands and disposed of them in the bin.

"Primate Developers!" Jimmy passed the file across the desk to Lois and Clark. "I couldn't get much on them apart from their general PR blurbs. They'd done a good job hiding their tracks in the transactions — used a couple of intermediaries; shell companies and that sort of thing, but I finally traced the paper trail back to them. I talked to one elderly man who'd been persuaded into letting his bakery go, even though it's been in the family for generations, and he gave me a place to start. But, don't expect him to stand up in a court of law; the poor guy was terrified. He told me he was using his money to take him and his lady friend on an extended vacation — seems Metropolis has just got too hot for him."

"I expect three unsolved arson attacks would do that," Lois snorted. "So, what do we know about Primate Developers… and why would anyone call their company after a monkey?!"

"Not a monkey, sweetheart. Primate is also the name given to someone who's the head of a church in a country… like the Archbishop."

"Yes! Then we have another link to the Church!" Lois sensed a distinct twinge of satisfaction.

"And you were the first one to spot it, but, unfortunately, it's all pretty tenuous." Clark's brows drew down in annoyance. "We don't even have enough to take to the police."

"Then we keep digging," Jimmy said with determination.

"Sure, only that's something you two might have to do alone…"

The door opened quietly once again, interrupting Lois, as Perry stuck his head around the door. "Lois, I thought I heard you in here. Shouldn't you be at the hospital?" he asked, strolling in.

"Hi, Perry. I've been made redundant for the afternoon, so I thought I'd swing by here and see how things were going with our stories."

The Editor-in-Chief grinned widely. "Hey, I knew you couldn't keep away for too long. Welcome back, honey, you've been missed!"

Lois' lips pressed together nervously and she moved closer to Clark for moral support. "I'm sorry, Chief, but I think you're going to have to miss me for a little longer." Her hand came to rest on her husband's shoulder. "I know that you all think I'm a workaholic…"

"I wouldn't say that, Lois," Jimmy offered more placatingly than enthusiastically.

"And you have cut back a bit since the children came along," Clark added, wondering where Lois was going with this, though he did have a smidgen of an idea.

"But, Clark, everyone still considers I'm driven!"

"Well, I for one ain't complaining, darlin'. It's what makes you the best damned reporter in this country, present company included, if you don't mind my saying, guys! And it sells my newspaper, so I'm pretty pleased about that."

"Still, The Planet's going to have to get along without me for a few weeks, Perry. I'm not just a newspaper woman, I'm a mother. More importantly, I'm a mother who's just come through the agony of almost losing two of her children, and that was more painful than anything I've ever had to face." Clark's hand came up to cover hers where it lay on his shoulder, causing a ghost of a smile to touch her face. He would always be her buttress, no matter what she chose to do. "Joel and Clara will be getting out of hospital soon, though Beth says it might be a few weeks before they're completely back to normal. So, I'd like to give being a full-time mom a try for a little while… at least until they're ready for school." Lois turned towards Perry, who was standing rather stunned by the door. "I'd like to apply for a leave of absence, Chief. What do you say? Do I get it?" Lois' last question was almost a demand.

The elderly editor came forward towards Lois and pulled her into a hug. "Lois, I've known you for a long time now, and it's been a privilege working with you, even though you've almost given me a coronary on many an occasion. You've come through for the Planet… and for me, time after time. Darlin', I don't care what the board has to say about this, I'll make sure you get what you need. Just you spend some precious time with those kids and enjoy yourself. The Planet will learn to survive without you for a bit."

"Thanks, Perry! Thank you so much," Lois mumbled into the lapel of her boss's coat, tears threatening to start again, prompted by his touching commendation.

"Aw shucks, darlin', there's no need for you to be crying. It's not such a big thing." Perry tapped awkwardly on Lois' back, his eyes tight shut to hold back the moisture that gleamed in his own eyes. The elderly southern gentleman felt a lot of emotion inside, but he was never comfortable with showing it, though he had learned to wear his heart a little more on his sleeve, since Alice had given him a second chance. His eyes opened to find Clark watching them with a pensive smile. He stepped back from Lois, the sentimental moment over. "Oh, son, I'm real sorry, but I can't arrange the same for you. There's just no way that the paper could spare both members of its top reporting team… the suits upstairs would have kittens. Mind you, I'm tempted to agree just to see how they would react." Perry ended laughing broadly.

"No! It's okay, Chief, I understand. The important thing is that Joel and Clara will have Lois to take care of them. They need their mother right now."

"I can promise to cut you some slack when I can, Clark, and maybe you could do some more work from home."

"Sounds good! I'll probably take you up on that." Everyone was resuming their customary roles; after all, this was a place of employment.

"Fine!" Lois pronounced, wiping at her damp face, while she reined in her feelings. "Then, if that's all arranged, I might as well get back to work while I'm here. Are you sitting in on this, Chief?"

"I'd like that, providin' you all don't mind?"

"No way, Chief!"

"Of course, not!"

"You're the chief, Chief," Lois acknowledged, rounding off the trio.

"Okay! Is someone gonna make me one of those?" Perry asked as he pointed to the coffee mugs. This could be a long session and he might as well make himself comfortable. There was nothing quite so exhilarating as watching Lane and Kent at work… and the kid was fitting in nicely too!

"Sure thing!" Jimmy slid from his seat and went to the machine, leaving his seat free for Perry, who quickly assumed a boss's privilege and dropped into the empty place.

"Jimmy, have you had any luck in identifying your two goons?" Lois asked, quickly getting down to business, her eyes roaming over the various bits of paperwork on the table before her.

The younger man deftly prepared a cup of extremely strong black coffee as he spoke over his shoulder. "There's a file there somewhere, Lois! Benetto Almeira and Aldo Reilly! According to the cops they're a couple of known villains, with, and I repeat, with tenuous links to Intergang." Jimmy placed the mug in front of Perry and sat down at the far end of the table, easing back in his chair and linking both hands behind his neck. "Almeira's been suspected of a number of gangland hits, but the police have never been able to pin anything on him — nothing ever sticks. Reilly on the other hand has a rap-sheet… mostly small time crimes, drunk and disorderly and the occasional bar-room brawl, but nothing in the last few years."

"Sounds like someone's taking care of him, since I doubt he's turned over a new leaf," Lois concluded. "Has Zimack managed to question either of them about your abduction?"

"They brought in Almeira, for all the good it did. He had a cast-iron alibi for the day in question. Seems he spent the afternoon in some big-stakes card game, then went dining and clubbing with a lady friend later, and he had the witnesses to back him up. There was no corroborating evidence to put him in that motel room, so it was just my word against his. A case of mistaken identity, his fancy lawyer called it and threatened to sue for harassment."

"Can they do that?" Lois demanded angrily.

"Beats me," Jimmy shrugged. "The thing is he walked. As to Reilly, he hasn't been seen around lately. All Zimack could discover was that he'd gone out of town to visit his sister. And yes, he does have a sister. She passed through juvenile hall back in the eighties, along with her brother, but that's the last anyone's heard of her."

"Probably the last we'll hear of Reilly too! Though Intergang will have to find somewhere else to dispose of their waste in the future." Clark stated, outrage barely hidden beneath his customary calm surface. "At least we've managed to shut down their clearance house operation."

"I'm assuming the police couldn't link that to Intergang either," Perry joined in, not wanting to be left out of the process.

"You assume correctly, Chief. The plant manager…" Clark super-scanned through the files until he remembered that too was not allowed, and decided to go with memory. "A Mark Simpson, seems to be taking the rap for that one. All the MPD could discover was that he allowed the incineration plant to be used by persons unknown for purposes unknown, in return for some pretty large sums of money. They'll check into it, of course, but I doubt they'll find anything, other than some vague reference to someone in religious orders… again."

"So we haven't been able to find a connection between Jimmy and his kidnappers, or the kidnappers and this mystery man, who has some connection with a church?" Perry leaned his elbows on the table bellicosely. "Correct me if I'm wrong, people, but are we suggesting Bill Church Jr here?" The three investigators exchanged troubled glances, understanding exactly how their editor viewed unsubstantiated allegations. "Because I got to tell ya', even though I'd give my entire collection of the King's LPs to see that rat locked away forever, that based on what you've got, you people are blowing smoke."

"I might have a little news," Lois announced, her eyes gleaming brightly with the thrill of the chase. "I might have been on the sidelines, but I like to keep my eye on the ball. Jimmy, you told us that you picked up some of the virus from Bermuda's lab and that you had it with you until you were beaten unconscious. Does anyone know what happened to if after that?"

Jimmy shook his head in the negative. "I didn't even remember it till later."

"And I didn't see it when I went to rescue Jimmy," Clark said regretfully. "Though I suppose I wasn't really looking for anything else. I've tried to go over things since — normally it would be easier, but you-know-who has been a little off colour. Neither the police nor the workforce found anything that suits the description you gave, Jimmy, so it's not unreasonable to assume that it ended up in the garbage carts and was incinerated."

"I don't believe so. I think the kidnappers took it and, somewhere between Almeira's bogus card game and date, he met up with Church Jr and passed it on to him." Lois stood at the head of the table, enjoying her moment of being centre stage. "You'll never guess who I bumped into today at the hospital, as he was wheeled into the isolation ward." Her hands imitated the movement of a passing trolley, while three stares were rivetted on her every move. "Mr Bill Church Jr is Metropolis' latest victim of the mysterious virus. And the poor man appears to be very ill, according to Dr Campbell, who has now been assigned to the fever ward." The latter statement was thrown in for Clark's benefit, but as he showed only the same curiosity which filled her other listeners, she deduced he didn't need the reassurance and went on with her tale. "Mr Church and another victim, who was admitted the previous day, are suffering from a more violent strain of the disease, very similar to that which killed the one fatality of this epidemic so far."

"Let me guess, Benny Almeira!" Jimmy sounded just a little gleeful.

"Huh-huh!" Lois was now grinning like the Cheshire Cat. "Now, unless they can prove that they've been in the vicinity of Braeview school, or have had any contact with the children and teachers, which all the other subsequent patients have, just how did they pick up the disease?"

Clark bit at his lip speculatively. "And just why is it they're suffering so badly, sweetheart?"

"Oh, that's not in any question," Lois positively glowed. "I have it on very good authority…"

"Dr Hugh Campbell's?" Clark asked angelically.

"Precisely! You know I never realised quite how pompous that young man is, but that's beside the point! And his theory is backed up by blood tests, at least on two of the victims…"

"Lois, in the name of Elvis, would you get to the point!" Perry growled.

"The reason why Bermuda died, and Almeira and Church, possibly, are so ill, is that all three came in contact with an undiluted strain of the virus. Daddy also tells me that the contact was probably made at the time it mutated to a human form and that none of the three were exactly prudent when it came to handling the stuff."

"Now wait a doggone moment here! Jimmy came in contact with that virus in that same form. Is he gonna get sick too?" Perry pushed his chair back from the table. Just when he thought he could settle back into routine, he had to start worrying about the kid's health.

"Relax, Perry. I'm fine. I was really careful when I took those samples. I hadn't a clue whether it was harmful or not, but the thing just looked malignant, so I decided not to take chances. I didn't touch it; I didn't breathe it in, and I sealed it away just as quick as I could. Then, when I was in the hospital, Sam and Bernie examined me and inoculated me with their latest drug, just in case. So, you don't have to worry."

"That's the one good thing to come out of all this, Perry. The anti-viral drug, with a few modifications, works just as successfully on humans as Kryptonians."

"That's not necessarily a good thing in every case, Clark! Do you think Daddy and Bernie could be persuaded not to treat Church and Almiera?" Lois speculated longingly.

"Lo-is!" Clark spoke reproachfully, though his heart wasn't totally in it. "But it will be interesting to see what sort of explanations they come up with when they have to answer the CDC's questions."

"They'll just plead ignorance," she pouted grumpily. "Which isn't a big stretch, when you think of it. Daddy Church had the brains, Junior just inherited the slyness along with the organisation and the backing of an international criminal fraternity. And all we're ever able to do is knock a few dents in it." Lois leaned heavily on the table beside Clark, her body slumped against his in dejection.

"Now, I'm jumping in here, kids," declared Perry, forcefully. "Seems to me those dents have been pretty hefty ones over the years, and we're not about to give up — are we?" He subjected the three younger people to the characteristic stare that warned, 'don't you dare challenge your editor'.

"I guess not," Lois admitted, her refusal to be beaten riding to her rescue.

"Good! Now, do we have to be worried about coming slap- bang in contact with this bug again?"

"Very unlikely, Perry!" Clark affirmed, fairly satisfied with the outcome of this particular part of the whole catastrophe. "Sam and Bernie destroyed the stuff they had and cleaned out Bermuda's lab whenever they were told about it. That only leaves the parcel Jimmy had, but even though that's still around, the virus will die if it's exposed to the atmosphere. I think our alien virus has lost its sting."

"Well, that's a relief! However, the way I see it, there is another loose cannon still out there. Mindy Church! Has everyone forgotten her?"

"I only wish I could!" Lois availed herself of the chair which Clark had pulled over for her. "As far as I'm concerned, the best case scenario is that she caught the virus and is now the 'late' Mindy Church."

"Come on, Lois, you don't mean that!" Occasionally, Clark could still be taken aback by his wife's vehemence.

"Yes I do, Clark! Why should I feel any differently? She keeps trying to kill the people I love! You're too soft- hearted for your own good!"

"I'm with you, Lois!" Jimmy agreed wholeheartedly. "I doubt I'd shed any tears if I heard that she and her high- heeled shoes had 'kicked the oxygen habit'."

"And, you'd have to admit, son, if that were the outcome, she would have brought it on herself." Perry offered a more reasoned argument.

"Well, I hate to disappoint you all, but I doubt Mindy did die." Clark informed the three. "I looked in at police headquarters after I went to Star Labs this morning — I thought I'd find out how the APB was coming along. I'd already told Zimack about Superman tracing Mindy's truck to the bus station. They questioned the staff and found the ticket clerk recognised her because she'd created a fuss…"


"Lois!" A very slightly penitent female reporter subsided with a shrug, at a glare from her husband. "She'd bought a ticket…"

"Where'd she go?" Lois exploded again, unable to control her impatience.

"They can't say as it was one of those 'rover' tickets, but a particular driver thinks he remembers her… said one of the other passengers mentioned he had a sick woman on board. However, before you get too excited, it was his last trip just before his shift ended and he changed over three stops down the line. The guy who took over wasn't any help. He can't recall any of his passengers or where they left the bus."

"So, another dead end?" James Olsen was beginning to sound disheartened.

"They know where she's not! Zimack checked with the local sheriffs in the area. There have been no reports of dead bodies or sick females who fit Mindy's profile in any motels, boarding houses or hospitals anywhere along that route."

"Maybe she's lying in a ditch somewhere!" Lois refused to give up the notion that they were rid of the wicked witch for good.

"It's a possibility," Clark allowed, "but Mindy didn't strike me as being the type who'd choose to go strolling through the countryside, especially if she were feeling ill."

"No, I agree!" Lois grudgingly gave in. "She has the instincts of a vixen and more lives than a cat! She'll lie low, nursing her wounds, and when she's ready, she'll be back here seeking her revenge again."

"Four down and five to go!"

"Excuse me, Jimmy?"

"I make it she's already struck out four times! The bomb under the table when she sent her men folk to prison; the Christmas virus; the intravenous kryptonite — Clark told me he suspected Ms Church — and this!"

"Now that you mention it, Jimmy," Lois contemplated with a brightening expression, "her assassination skills are highly incompetent. Right now, she's probably feeling very poorly and really pissed off with us!"

"LO-IS! The third 'Lois' was dropped loudly into the room with shocked censure. Clark wasn't used to hearing this kind of rough language from his wife. Usually, she was far too skilled in wordcraft to resort to this usage. He knew he did it on occasion, but he was a man! Huh! That was no excuse either, Kent, and one you best not verbalise to Lois, if you don't want to be sleeping in the spare room for the next six months. Presently, he was getting enough of sleeping alone to last him a lifetime, and, thanks to his doctors, he now didn't even have Superman to keep him company on these lonely nights.

"So, sue me, Clark! That woman brings out the worst in me. She's attacked my family for the last time, and I'll be waiting for her the next time she shows her baby-doll face in this town." Lois was also giving a very good impression of a vixen… a mother vixen, guarding her cubs.

"Way to go, Lois! Metropolis isn't big enough for Mindy Church and Lois Lane!" Jimmy proclaimed, his hands sketching a headline in the air. "And from what I could see, the 'baby-doll' is in need of a facelift!"

"Don't encourage Lois, Jimmy. She manages to get into enough trouble without you cheering her on," Clark sighed, though his exasperation was fleeting. Lois had excellent reasons to care nothing for what happened to Mindy. Besides, Ms Church's voluptuous looks might not have escaped the ravages of time, but, he had to admit, as he watched Lois gleefully appreciate Jimmy's last tidbit, that his wife was still one very foxy lady.

"Mr Kent, let me remind you that you were the one in trouble this time." Lois stood and tantalisingly bore down on Clark, pushing him back in his chair. "And I was the one who sorted the problem."

"You were?" Clark grinned teasingly up at the face he would never tire of watching. "Seems to me you weren't totally on the ball the whole time."

Lois was standing between his legs, as close to the chair and Clark as the present circumstances would allow. "I'll admit I was distracted from time to time." Her voice dropped to a husky purr.

"We both were," Clark acceded, letting their surroundings fade away. "We're a team, honey, and I wouldn't ever have it any other way."

"Hey, what about me!" The indignant voice came from the other end of the table, though the grin on James' face belied the hurt tone. "Seems to me I had a hand in solving this latest crime!"

Lois swung round, allowing herself to rest against Clark's solid thigh. "Oh, so you think this investigation is over?" She wasn't above returning the joke.

"No! But we did get rid of the bad guys for now… and the virus has been destroyed and the kids are getting better… Doesn't seem like a bad result to me!"

"Doesn't seem like a bad result to me either, Jimmy." Clark pulled his wife closer. Life would never seem so terrible if he had Lois in his arms.

"And Superman has promised to take me flying! You know, CK, I've sort of worked it out, and I reckon the Big Blue should be back in business, just in time for the Hong Kong Derby. You might not be into horse-racing… I know I wasn't, but I went there with Roy Chen, and boy it's something else. It's spectacular! You just gotta see it, CK! Roy would probably let us use his box. Man, you'll love it. Then there's the 2008 Olympics in Beijing…"

A couple of files winged their way from Lois and Clark's hands down the table towards their hapless quarry, catching Olsen on the head and chest. "Lois, I think we've created a monster!" Clark bemoaned.

Sitting amongst the leaves of drifting paper, Jimmy looked baffled. "Hey, what did I say? I just wondered if Superman got any complimentary tickets…"

Two more folders followed the others. At the door, Perry paused to smile. He didn't begrudge his proteges their moment of exuberance. Heck, after these past couple of weeks they deserved a little fun. Besides, this was the last that the newsroom would probably see of Lois for a few weeks. It just wouldn't be the same place without her… but she'd be back; Perry never doubted that for a moment. Whatever else, she was Lois Lane was an investigative reporter at heart, and nothing would change that… not even Clark Kent or Superman.

And that was the thing, Clark never had tried to change Lois. Oh, he'd remind her now and then to be more careful when going after the big stories, but on the whole, he'd been her rock; set her free to explore herself… all of herself, not just the writer's ink within her veins part. And Lois Lane had learned to fly.

They'd all learned a lot from the alien who had come to live amongst them, Perry thought as he watched the little paper fight escalate. Maybe Clark had benefited more than any of them. There had been something pretty solitary about the young man who'd shown up in his office that day so many years ago, but even a hard-bitten old newshound like Perry could see that Clark had been blown over by the whirlwind that had swept into his room known as Lois Lane.

Of course, Lois had spent over a year running in the other direction, but Fate had played her cards and she wasn't about to be cheated, and now there wasn't another couple who were so committed to each other in the whole Eastern seaboard. Perry was also a big softie at heart. But this was his office and he had a newspaper to get out.

"Hey, hey, people! We're running a newsroom here and not a branch of the Tiddlywinks Playschool. Get this place cleaned up, and Clark, Jimmy, I need an update on the story of the dirty business at Metropolis' Sewage Works." Jimmy giggled loudly, but the Editor-in-Chief was back. "You find something funny, Olsen!"

"No… just a play on words!"

"Well, let's see if you can play around with words and fit them into a printable story… you're a reporter, aren't you?"

"I guess," Jimmy huffed, bending to pick up the pages that surrounded him, yet understanding that Perry's bark was always worse than his bite.

"And, Lois, if you're here to work, you might as well do a piece on the latest victim of the epidemic, our reformed and esteemed citizen Mr William Church Jr. You can even speculate about where such a sophisticated man might have picked up the virus… just make sure we don't get a lawsuit slapped on us. Come on, people, move it." Perry snapped his fingers. "We have a job to do, fighting for truth and justice and the American way!"

"Chief, have you got anything for me?" Clark asked stepping forward.

"Yeah, son, as a matter of fact, I do." Perry placed a hand round Clark's shoulder and started leading him through the door. His voice, floating back to the people in the room, was a confidential undertone. "You know, it's always been an ambition of mine to watch the 'Grand National' in person — that big horse race they have in the UK every year, but I've just never had the time…"

Lois and Jimmy exchanged glances then burst out laughing. Oh boy, Superman was going to be busier than ever!