A Kent Family Christmas Fairy Tale

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

Rated: PG-13

Submitted: May 2003

Summary: Having survived Joel and Clara's serious illness, the Kent family is looking forward to a peaceful and happy holiday season. But old foes, a troubled child and a case of puppy love make things more eventful than the family had planned. The eighth story in the Debbage, Jenni's "Kent Family" series.

This is a new project for me, writing a holiday story. To tell the truth, I didn't intend to continue with my Kent Family series quite so soon… I had other things in mind. However, your assumption that there would be a sequel to Poisoned Legacy soon gave me this idea — so you've only yourselves to blame if this goes a little off the rails.

I'm going to attempt to keep this story shorter and lighter than normal. I know that most of you probably feel that my Kent family are always beset by crazy villains and disasters, so I'd like to give them some ordinary time together and maybe a chance to enjoy themselves. At least, that's the intention, but whether the Kents will co- operate, I have no idea. I also couldn't write a story which didn't involve an A-plot, so there is one in there somewhere. Oh, and my apologies to any supporters of a certain football team… these are Clark's opinions, not mine!

As always, these characters do not belong to me, except for those who are my own creations, and I intend only to have a little fun with them all. Please let me know if you enjoy the story. I love writing, but feedback is icing on the cake… and I have a very sweet tooth. <g>


Chapter One

Cinderella Kent

Clark Kent strode down the lightly snow-covered street, hardly noticing the chill in the air or the ice-laden fog which warred with the street lighting several feet high in the air. A thick black overcoat wrapped his athletic form, but was purely for appearance's sake. He reached his destination and bounded spritely up the stairs to his home, unlocked the outside door and breezed through the vestibule into his living room.

If he'd given it much thought, he'd be extremely pleased with his burgeoning energy, as it hadn't been so very many weeks ago when he'd endured a bout of prolonged exhaustion and weakness. Getting back to 'normal' for him had been a great relief. There was something to be said for being invulnerable and immune to the various infections which plagued Earthling humans. Now, having suffered something of their experience, he had a greater respect for how they managed to surmount these common ailments and carry on with their work and lives with such fortitude and verve.

Superman had returned to active duty in mid-November, after spending a quiet period with his wife and children. To all the family's relief, apart from one more fire in the Hobbs Bay district, which had actually happened while Superman was still struggling to cope, fate had relented, and there had been no major emergencies during the hero's downtime. Perhaps the fickle lady had believed that the family had undergone enough trauma during the month of October. And if the public had noticed at all that their resident 'guardian angel' appeared to be cutting back on his more routine duties, they were happy to know that in a life-and- death situation, Superman would always do his best to be there for them. What he could do was more than enough. After all, he was neither a magician nor a god, and sometimes he couldn't be everywhere at once or work miracles. But what amazed Clark the most was that he'd finally come to terms with this realisation, and the fact that Superman shouldn't feel guilty about putting his family and himself first now and then.

"Hi, kids… Lois, is anybody home?" he shouted to the empty downstair rooms of the brownstone.

There was a patter of tiny but determined feet from the stairwell above him and a pair of dancing eyes beneath a tousle of chestnut brown hair appeared round the corner of the landing. "Hi, Daddy, we's here in the attics. Paul's bringed Joel and Julian a new compooter game… it's fant… it's sooper!" The small messenger giggled. "You have to come see!"

Clark hung his coat on the stand by the door, and ran up the steps to his boys' bedrooms, scooping up his youngest son as he passed him by, and giving rise to a hilarious scream from Nathan. "Look, Daddy, I's flying," the toddler shouted delightedly, sticking out one hand in a youthful imitation of the Man of Steel.

The two were soon entering the boys' room, where the rest of the children, plus Lois, were huddled round their visitor, who, in turn, was sitting in front of a large game console. The one adult, however, seemed to be the only member of the group who'd detected the presence of a newcomer.

"Hallo, honey, would you come and have a look at this. Paul brought it over… seems it's the latest game to hit the stores for Christmas… They think it's going to be number one. Would you believe, it's called 'Superman meets Armageddon'." Lois gave a somewhat sickly smile as she held up the glossy colourful packaging for Clark to see.

Clark walked closer. Paul was clearly intent on the game he was playing, but there was no sense in giving him any extra clues as to the fact that he was actually in the presence of the real-life person whose animated figure he was deftly manoeuvring about the screen. Taking the box in one hand, he peered down at the image of a stern-looking Superman hovering above the menacing red jaws of an erupting volcano. Geesh, whoever had done the art work on this thing must have been hanging on his shoulder as he's stared into the maw of Solvan — the artist had certainly captured the reality of the moment. After a few seconds of deja-vu though, he dismissed the notion that the creators of this latest masterpiece of computer wizardry had any inside knowledge.

"Relax, sweetheart," he said quietly, yet confidently. "I'm sure it's just a coincidence."

Lois grimaced and displayed the brand name on the side of the slim cover. "'Chen Software'," she whispered back.

"Roy Chen?!" Clark blew a silent whistle. "I didn't even know he did that sort of thing."

"He does, Dad," Julian confirmed, his voice also low as he stepped back from the cluster about the machine. "He's one of the top players in the games market. But he can't know anything!"

Clark did a quick review of their time spent on the island, and decided Julian must be correct, because apart from that one appearance in the suit, when he'd been spotted by Mia Valliere, Superman hadn't shown up at the disaster on Papillon. And, Clark would stake his life that the old lady knew how to keep a secret. There was no way that anyone else who'd been involved with the eruption could have known that Superman had been there, if in his other persona. Besides, Roy and Hazel had been witnesses to Clark's injuries — they were hardly going to associate him with the Man of Steel.

"Lois, Julian's right." Clark placed Nathan on the floor and the boy lost interest in the adults' boring talk, squirming his way, instead, to the front of the little band to watch Paul deal with the fast-moving on-screen catastrophe. With one eye glued to the evolving scene, Clark bent closer to his wife. "This is just a coincidence. Roy's used his own experience and turned it into a pretty realistic game… and Superman is the obvious hero to save the situation."

"And it gets more fantastic further on, Mom and Dad. There are earthquakes, floods, tornadoes and just about every other natural disaster you can think of." Julian related what he'd managed to glean from Paul's quick run-through earlier. "The idea of the game is that the world is out of control because of global warming and things and Superman is the only person who can save the world before it blows up."

"Armageddon!" Lois huffed. "Does it remind you of anything, Clark?"

"Lois, keep your voice down!" His eyes strayed pointedly to the teenager at the games machine as he took her arm and led her a couple of steps back from the group. "It's only a game! And, let's face it, Roy Chen can't know anything about Superman's origins… nobody outside the family does!"

"More than I'd like!" Lois was still a bit upset that Bobby Bigmouth had worked out the dual identity. Yet even she had to admit, albeit reluctantly, that Bobby could be very closemouthed when the occasion demanded, and she doubted that Clark had given Bobby the reader's digest version of his history. "But I expect you're both right. Superman and world destruction sells games — Roy Chen just jumped on the bandwagon."

"You gotta admit that the graphics are awesome! Better than all the competition!" That statement came from Joel, proving that while he'd seemed to be engrossed in the game, he'd been keeping one ear trained on his parents' and Julian's conversation. He closed the gap to his mom and dad. "I managed to speed through most of the game when Paul went to the bathroom and it's pure fantasy… nothing to tie Superman to anything that really happened. Don't be worried, Mom."

"If you'd like, Lois, I could ask Jimmy to sound out Roy. They still keep in touch with each other."

"Thanks, honey, but I don't think that's such a good idea; there's no point in alerting Roy if he doesn't already suspect anything. I'm probably just being a bit paranoid!" Lois reached out to touch her husband and her sons.

Deciding that a little diversion was required here, Clark, raised his voice. "Hey, guys, don't you say hi to your dad anymore when he comes home from a hard day at the office?" His tone was complaining but his eyes twinkled. "I don't suppose that you boys would be interested in what I just managed to get my hands on today." That piece of tantalizing information got everyone's attention and they swung away from the console. Clark pulled an envelope from his inside pocket. "Stu Steinbecker came through for me." The man in question was the new sports writer at the Planet. "I'm glad you're here, Paul — it saves me making a phone call." The envelope was opened with teasing slowness and finally five pieces of treasured paper were waving in the air. "Five tickets for Sunday's game — The Metropolis Tigers versus the Dallas Cowboys!"

"Awesome!" repeated Joel, that being his 'phrase of the month'.

"You mean me too, Mr Kent?" enquired a fairly stunned teenager, gazing up at this man whom he'd come to rely on as a parental figure, his own father having been killed when he was very young. His grandmother was a wonderful lady, but in this new environment Paul felt the need for a male mentor, and one who was nearer the age of what his father would have been. Mr Kent seemed to fill the role admirably, and what was more, he seemed eager to take on the job.

"Of course, I meant for you to come, Paul. And remember, I asked you to call me Clark. If you're going to play school football then you should see it played properly, though I can hardly say that the Cowboys are good examples of the sport!" He snorted the last outrageously.

"Dad, you're prejudiced!" Julian denounced laughingly. Having only been resident in the US for little more than a year, Julian still preferred the UK game of soccer, so he didn't have any strong allegiances to any particular team. "Actually he prefers the Kansas City Chiefs, but since they've been knocked out of playoff contention, he's supporting the Tigers."

A lighthearted discussion of the merits of the teams left in the contest ensued, until Clara interrupted with a petulant cry. "What about me? Is one of these tickets for me?"

Clark halted in mid-argument and turned to face his incensed Kitten. "Oh, honey, I'm sorry. I didn't think you'd be interested. I just got tickets for Paul, Julian, Joel, Nathan and me."

"Nathan!" she complained. "He's just a baby. What does he know about football?"

"Clara, don't be mean," warned her father. "Nathan will enjoy the show, even if he doesn't understand the game."

"Yes, honey, and you've never shown any interest in football before today!" Lois was quick to remind her daughter, understanding only too well what the real attraction was to Clara attending Sunday's game.

"But I'll be left here on my own!" Clara verbally stamped her foot.

Her father's eyebrows rose expressively. "I doubt that, Clara; your mother is hardly nobody." This last statement was uttered with a little more inflexibility than he usually employed on his daughter.He bridled when Lois was slighted by anyone, and he wasn't about to allow any one of his children to be disrespectful. "And I'm sorry, but I thought this would be a boy's day out." As he said the words, his eyes strayed to his wife, expecting to see a frown of disapproval… Lois didn't go for segregated outings. Instead, he was surprised to see Lois trying to send him an unspoken message behind her daughter's head.

"Maybe I could have a word with Stu and see if he can pick up another ticket," Clark suggested experimentally, shooting a glance at Lois to see if he'd picked up on her silent communique, but evidently his radar was off. Lois' frown had deepened and her lips mouthed an adamant no, while her eyes passed back and forth eloquently between his daughter and Paul. Oh boy, this was this 'crush' thing at work again — Clark hadn't expected to deal with that until Clara hit her teenage years. Maybe it would be best to backpedal here. "But I'm pretty sure that would be a real long shot. These tickets are like gold-dust."

"I wouldn't bother, Clark," Lois cut in. "The chances of you getting a ticket in the same place as you and the boys would be almost nil. I'll tell you what, Clara, you and I will have a girl's outing. It'll be fun! We'll go shopping… or catch a movie. The latest 'Star Legend' is supposed to be the best yet, and isn't the guy who plays the lead one of your favourites?"

This last offer surprised Clark tono end. He knew just how much Lois despised these 'scifi-fantasy' movies, especially since this was around the eleventh in the series… they'd started to get pretty repetitive around episode nine. Usually, she allowed him to do kid-duty and take the family to see such blockbusters, so she was making quite a sacrifice for Clara. Only Clara wasn't exactly seeing things that way.

"I suppose that would be okay," she sighed with a marked lack of enthusiasm. "Though I still don't think you were very fair, Daddy, leaving me out like that."

"Sorry, Kitten, but you'll enjoy yourself much more with Mom!"

Clara's sorrowful face and dejected slump as she wandered out of the room informed her parents that this was certainly not the case… life just wasn't fair for young girls in love. Her parents exchanged perplexed glances but were unsure how to deal with the dilemma, while the object of Clara's misery remained completely oblivious to the situation, as he and the boys returned to playing with their latest game. This time Joel took over at the keyboard, and again one of the Kent siblings was causing his parents a little apprehension. Lois and Clark could only hope that Joel wouldn't forget his control in the heat of the moment and use a little of the superspeed he was developing.

Yet one other pair of eyes followed Clara as she left. Julian always paid close heed of his sister's moods, and on this occasion a small smile turned up the corners of his mouth — he had an idea!


Chapter Two

The Wicked Stepmother

The hospital was draped in its Christmas garlands in preparation for the coming holiday as the spinsterish, rather frumpy nurses' assistant stepped off the elevator and marched heavy-footed down the long corridor towards a particularly luxurious private suite. How the hell did ordinary women manage with these clumsy, lace-up shoes, she mused frustratedly.

This was the top floor of Metro General Hospital and here was housed the private suites that were available to the prominent and affluent citizens of this cosmopolitan city. The area was designed like a five-star hotel, to ensure that the guests were as comfortable and happy as could be expected while they suffered and, hopefully, recuperated from their illnesses, and paying, no doubt, exorbitant prices for the privilege. Clearly, no expense had been spared, and the woman smirked as she continued her journey, appreciating the change in style from the floors below… even the decorations were up-market.

She halted by a room halfway down the passageway, checking the number on the door to make sure she'd reached the correct destination. Yet before she entered, in a somewhat incongruous gesture, she smoothed her uniform over her lumpy girth and finished her primping with a pat to her mousy brown hair, making sure no strands had escaped the tight bun she'd adopted. Satisfied that everything was in place, she knocked on the door and sidled inside.

The patient, an attractive man of middle-years wearing a cashmere robe, sat in a large chair by the wide window, a phone held to his ear as he chatted with one of his many society well-wishers.

"Thank you, Mrs Baker-Young. I am feeling much better, and I got your pretty bouquet." His eyes trawled round the room, trying to recall just which one she had sent. "Christmas roses? Oh yes, the white ones in the cut-glass vase… Oh, it's crystal!Of course, I knew that… lovely…And yes, I do believe that I shall be discharged this week… in plenty of time to attend your charity ball on Christmas Eve." There was a pause while the man listened to his caller and pulled on the large cigar which was stuck between his lips. "Mrs Baker-Young, I'm charmed to be considered your 'star guest', and I wouldn't dream of letting you down. But I'm also surprised by your request; don't you usually ask Superman to fulfil that role?" Another few seconds passed. "No kidding! Superman has made it known that he is declining to attend any social functions in the near future? Though I don't know why I'm surprised — he's hardly the affable type — polite, but hardly the life and soul of the party… and he only stays for a short time. You'll be much better off with me!" That was said with barely concealed pomposity.

By the door, the woman couldn't hide a short snort of derision, and the man's attention was caught. He gave the unprepossessing figure a long stare. Scratch that last description, he decided — the woman was downright dowdy with her ill-fitting uniform and untidy hair!Dismissing her from his thoughts as a complete nonentity, he turned back to the phone-caller. "Excuse me, Mrs Baker-Young… what? Yes, of course… Eleanor! Special guest and hostess should be on first name terms, and you must call be William. But I really have to go. One of the nursing staff is here to see to my medical needs… Yes, it's very annoying, but I still have to take medication. However, considering I'm lucky to be alive, I mustn't complain. Goodbye for the present… Eleanor." The man allowed his voice to linger over the name, employing the age-old ploy of seduction, when truthfully he felt like gagging. Mrs Hyphenated-Hoity- Toity was as dried up as an old prune. His eyes strayed back to the nurse hovering inside the door and his mind rebelled. Where were all the sexy young nurses? Was he destined to be plagued by ugly, elderly crones?!

The ugly crone by the door had stood frozen to the spot at the patient's perfunctory scrutiny. There was always the chance that he would recognise her, since they had been quite intimate a number of years ago, but thankfully only for a couple of days. She doubted that her fortitude would have held up for much longer. That had been a major triumph in her career, sending both male members of the Church family to prison in one fell swoop. Pity her moment of glory hadn't lasted, and she promised herself that she would one day have her revenge on those who'd brought her down.

Meanwhile, she had another bone to pick… and this particular carcass was clearly wondering what she was doing in his room; yet, to her relief, he seemed to be experiencing only a mild curiosity. Her disguise had proved effective, which wasn't surprising since she hardly knew herself in this unattractive, mousy-haired, plump woman. It made even the sacrifice of dying her blonde tresses mud-brown worthwhile.

Reminding herself that she needed to concentrate on one job at a time, she fixed what she believed was a charming smile on her face and minced… as much as these 'flatties' would allow… further into the room.

"No medication this time, Mr Church. I'm only a nurse's aide; I'm not qualified to dispense drugs, but I have brought your mail… and such a lot of it, " she grinned, even more cheesily, as if she was a little 'star-struck' by the suave gentleman. "You have so many well-wishers and look at all these flowers." Her hand gestured to the many bunches and baskets of flowers which adorned the room. Crossing to the bedside locker, she placed the bundle carefully on the top, letting her fingers caress the petals of some white roses. "I love flowers," she sighed wistfully, adopting a subservient manner, and praying she wouldn't throw-up, "but unfortunately I can't afford to buy such lovely ones as these."

Bill Church instantly decided on an unlikely show of generosity for this little 'miss nobody' who would probably never be able to do him a favour. Perhaps he'd caught the Christmas spirit… or more likely it was the fact that having a beholden contact inside a large hospital might just come in useful someday… you never really knew what the future held and it was best to cultivate these small insignificant contacts. "Ms…?" he stared at her questioningly.

"Ms Kendall," she informed him in her prim gruff voice, so unlike her usual 'Lolita' tones. She'd filched her new name from the hick town she'd ended up in, after her fourth change of routes on her precipitous flight from Metropolis. When she'd found herself so completely out of energy that she couldn't go on, she'd left the bus at the one-stop terminal and searched the town for somewhere to stay.

Quickly discounting the only hotel which graced the main street, she'd eventually found her way to a tiny cottage where an ancient old biddy held life and home together by charging extortionate prices, whenever she could, for the let of a cubicle-like room out the back of her property. It had been private and off the beaten track, but the main attraction had been that the eccentric woman kept to herself and had an extraordinary aversion for any form of authority, including the local police. It had been the perfect place for 'Ms Kendall' to lie low.

"Well, Ms Kendall, I'll be leaving here in a couple of days and I was going to donate these flowers to the rest of the hospital, as a show of appreciation for their saving my life. I was critically ill, you know."

Church was evidently dramatically proud of the fact that he'd faced and conquered death, yet his listener didn't rate his achievement. She'd been ill too, and she'd survived by dosing herself up with aspirin and cough medicine, which she'd bribed her greedy landlady into buying for her. It hadn't been a great time, but she'd come through it with even greater determination to bring her enemies down. Nevertheless, as her charge continued with his confidences, she hid her peeved thoughts behind a carefully feigned concern.

"I'm sure the poorer patients will appreciate my generous gesture, don't you think? But I doubt if they'll miss one bunch. Why don't you take the roses? Think of them as my early Christmas present to you for serving me so well. And the vase is crystal, by the way."

She would have loved to cram his pretentious words down his silken-cravat-clad throat and the crystal vase where the sun didn't shine, but instead she had to smile gratefully. "Thank you, Mr Church. I and the rest of the ma… hospital staff and patients thank you for your gift."

The sardonic words 'downtrodden masses and secondhand presents' fought to escape her lips, yet she beat them back into submission. There was no way she could afford to alert him to her true identity, and if her ideas came to fruition, he'd be laughing on the other side of his pompous face very soon now… or he wouldn't be doing anything at all. But for her plan to work, he had to become used to her presence as a featureless but valuable attendant. Only then could she have free range to his inner sanctum and thus find the proof she needed to send him back where he belonged. While she, Mindy Church, the undisputed stepmother and head of Intergang, would retake her rightful place.


Chapter Three

Cinderella, Mark Two

Lois Lane entered the newsroom of the Daily Planet alone, her purse swinging lazily from her hand, though she had left a couple of hours earlier with her partner to attend a boring press-conference given by the new mayor, Herbert Golding. He wasn't a bad person, as far as politicians went, and his proposals for running the city seemed fair and honest, but he was so long-winded. Lois had been glad when his speech had ended because she'd been very much in danger of falling asleep, and Perry would have loved that!

Thankfully, it had been a slow news week, which meant she'd been able to forge ahead with her preparations for Christmas. Lois mused, as she strolled down the ramp, that it was very strange how people's perceptions changed. Years back, she would have been totally frustrated with such a long drought of good stories, and she certainly wouldn't have been looking forward to the Christmas festivities.

Of course, there was always the coverage of the messy pile- up on the freeway leading north out of the city, which Clark had flown off to deal with. He'd heard the emergency call as they'd been walking down the steps of City Hall, and he had shown some reluctance to go. The couple had made a pact some weeks previously, while two of their children had been critically ill, that Superman would restrict most of his attendances to life-and-death situations. This multi-automobile accident, though fairly problematic for the rescue services, didn't appear to qualify, but for all that, Lois had sent him off without protest. Clark would be sure to finish his super duties in time to pick up his kids from school.

Since Joel and Clara had returned to Braeview School at the beginning of the month, either or both parents had met them at the end of their school-day, much to the children's irritation; they were far too grown-up to need baby-sitting on their way home. However, the two kids had been persuaded by their Grandma Martha to indulge their mom and dad for a bit, as Lois and Clark were still feeling very raw from the trauma of almost losing them. A compromise had been reached between parents and family and the status- quo would be resumed after the Christmas break.

Lois just hoped that Clara would be polite to her father, at least. The previous evening Clara had discovered she'd been left out of Clark's plans to take the boys to the big football game on Sunday, and, from that moment on, relations between Clara and her dad had been decidedly frosty. Still, it was Christmas… what else could you expect from this season of the year?!

Down girl! Lois firmly sent her 'Scrooge-like' attitude back into the depths of her closet where it definitely deserved to be — Kent family Christmases had given her back her belief in magic, if you discounted last year, of course. And that had been New Year which had brought the world crashing around their ears.

Now, if she could be sure to make her Sunday out with Clara be the best ever, then Lois was pretty certain that her daughter would soon forget her bruised feelings and forgive Clark his transgressions. Daughter and father did argue occasionally; Clara was such a strong-minded little soul, but they were always quick to let bygones be bygones, and neither could resist the depth of love they felt for each other. Quite simply, Clara was Clark's dearest kitten and Clark was Clara's own special hero.

And if only Clara would outgrow her crush on the teenage Paul Valliere…

The phone on Lois' desk started ringing, and she increased her pace to reach it before the caller gave up. After all, this might be a hot tip — she hadn't totally given up on her thirst for a juicy investigation. Maybe a snitch had discovered some dirt on Metropolis' incorruptible Mr Golding. Lois was pretty certain that someone in a senior position in city hall was definitely a spy for Intergang. Unfortunately though, she hadn't been able to find out who.

"Hi," she gasped, sliding into her seat and letting her purse drop into her bottom drawer. "Lois Lane here."

"Hi, Lois! Long time no hear," laughed the voice on the other end of the line. "Can you guess who this is?"

A frown drew down Lois' brow for a few seconds — the voice was familiar. "Paula?!" Lois asked hesitantly. "Paula Raine!" The second statement was made with more certainty. She hadn't heard from the beautiful model-cum-spy since Paula had left town for NIA headquarters in Washington DC soon after Kiaya Olsen's funeral, and that was almost a year ago. Why would the NIA agent be calling her now? Perhaps there was a story here; another terrorist attack — Lois prayed not; a threat to national security.

"I should have known I couldn't fool Metropolis' sharpest investigative journalist." The soft voice still held a smile, and Lois was beginning to think, with a tiny touch of disappointment, that this might just be a social call. "How are things with you and your gorgeous husband… and those great kids?"

"Fine, we're fine… at least, now we are. But, unless you have a spare hour or two, I won't regale you with the happenings of the past year."

"Lois, you don't have to," Paula chuckled. "I do read the newspapers. Your family has had a really busy year. Imagine getting caught up in a volcanic eruption… scary stuff!"

"You could say that! And that was only half of it; worse things can happen, believe me. But enough about me — what have you been up to?" Lois really didn't want to get into a list of the various disasters that had beset the Kents during these last months, so she quickly changed the subject. Besides, she'd developed quite an affinity with Paula when they'd worked together to bring down the terrorist gang who had blown up her children's school. She was genuinely interested in catching up with Paula.

"Not a lot, compared to your adventures… and I'm the one who's supposed to be a government agent. I went to work with Jack Olsen when he got back from Metropolis. By the way, I was glad to know that Jimmy is back in Metropolis and that he's getting his life back on track. That whole 'Hand of Retribution' business hit him really hard. Jack was truly worried about him for a time — it was good to see my boss acting like a concerned father."

The elevator doors had opened with a ding while Paula was talking, and a large grin spread across Lois' face as she watched James Olsen kiss his girlfriend, Tula, goodbye. Evidently the pair had spent lunch together and, judging by the rapt attention they were paying each other, it had been a very pleasant lunch.

"Yes, I think it's safe to say that Jimmy has got his life back together. He definitely seems to be enjoying himself," Lois commented happily, swinging her chair around to give the couple some privacy, though kissing in the newsroom was hardly the place not to attract notice. Mind you, Lois reminisced, it didn't really matter where you were when you were kissing the one you loved completely during that first bloom of new emotion. Somehow the rest of the world just faded away. She and Clark had been there a number of times themselves, and not just when they were youngsters. They could still give their colleagues a show, on occasion! "So, Paula, is this just a social call or do you have some information for me… anyone plotting world domination these days?"

"If there was, I wouldn't know. I've been moved to a different department — Jack got me a new assignment in the Protection Squad. I didn't like sitting behind a computer in the research department. I wanted something more pro- active, and this latest posting suits me just fine — I've been assigned to Ms Caroline Whitbread's entourage…"

"Wow! The newly appointed US representative to the United Nations. You're moving in important circles these days."

"Well, Lois, it is only in the protection detail… but, it so happens that she and I hit it off and she asked for me to be transferred to her staff for her term of office. The NIA were pretty pleased to have an agent so close to the action, so they okayed the transfer. I'm now her personal assistant and bodyguard — which brings me to the reason for this call."

"You want me to print that you're working for her?"

"No! No way… and that wouldn't be much of a story. I'm hardly newsworthy these days!"

Lois could almost hear Paula giggle into the phone. There was a time when this lady's photographs had fronted every glossy magazine there was, and her much publicised relationship with one of the world's richest and most eligible bachelors had been splashed over every society column. Nevertheless, after the man had been arrested for terrorism and his subsequent suicide while in custody, Paula had somehow managed to fade into the background. Lois and Clark had assumed that the powerful 'behind the scene' hand of the NIA had orchestrated her retirement from the public eye. It had appeared as if the super-model had dropped off the face of the planet, and the lovely — they could never change that — yet less stunning officer had returned to Washington DC to lose herself in the myriad paper pushers who worked for the agency.

"Do you miss the limelight, Paula?" Lois asked diffidently, not wanting to open old wounds. Lois herself didn't like to relive the experiences of the pervious Christmas period.

"What's to miss?!Wearing designer clothes and having to look immaculate all the time; cameras flashing in my face, practically everywhere I went, and having most of the male population wonder if I was as good in bed as my appearance suggested. Not to mention, making more money than I'd ever dreamed of doing. I hated it!" By now both women were laughing heartily and a few seconds went by before either was able to speak again.

"So, what is it you want to tell me?" Lois was the first to return to business.

"Nothing Earth shattering I'm afraid," Paula informed her apologetically. "However, I did remember our very first conversation where we discussed the fact that we were exasperated with the 'Man of the Year' award…"

"Are you telling me…" Lois was quick to understand where this was going, and she pulled herself closer to her desk to search for a pencil and notepad.

"Lois, this is strictly off the record for now!" Paula warned. "It's supposed to be a big, big secret, and I'd be out on my ear if it were discovered I'd leaked this information, but I thought it might give you a jump on your competitors if you had the story drafted beforehand."

"Paula, I promise… not a word will be printed until the announcement." Actually, Lois could see the sense in that. The NIA wasn't the only one who'd be happy to have a contact in the UN, no matter how tentative it was. Then she heaved a huge sigh of satisfaction. "So the city fathers have decided to allow the female of the species a look in this year. Maybe this administration isn't as much of a dinosaur as I'd thought!"

"I expect they thought that as Caroline Whitbread is a Metropolitan, and as she's been carving out quite a name for herself in the UN Security Council, she was worth the accolade."

"I'm not about to argue with that! Thanks, Paula, for the heads up; Clark and I can get down to writing a profile right away, but I meant what I said. We'll hold the story over till the Planet's morning edition after the ceremony. Even then we'll be the first with the news… most dailies go to print before the time of the announcement. They might manage a segment, but the Planet will be the only one with the news in detail. And don't worry about being our source, most of our rivals will just think Clark and I have done the research better than the rest… again!"

"So, can I expect to see you at the awards dinner? I'll be there as a member of Ms Whitbread's staff."

"Not this year, Paula," Lois said with just a hint of a complaint. To tell the truth, she hadn't been particularly bothered about missing this year's ceremony — until the present moment that was. Only, now that she knew who was to be the recipient of the award, she wouldn't have minded being present to watch the reaction. She was sure that it would ruffle more than a few male plumages, and she would have enjoyed watching them hide their shock and disappointment, while trying to offer enthusiastic congratulations to the winner.

Then again, it would have been a bit of a blast to support the first woman to storm this previously male-dominated roll-of-honour. Lois most certainly hadn't discarded her subscription to the feminist movement.

"That's a pity, Lois. I thought the Planet always had a contingent present, and I was looking forward to catching up with you and Clark."

"They do, Paula, but it's mostly restricted to board members and senior staff. We were invited last year to accept Perry's award for him. But you will see Clark there; he'll be covering it for the Planet."

"Isn't that a job for the society columnist?"

"Oh, she'll be there, but Perry always likes to send a 'serious' reporter, in case of the unexpected… a bit like this year, in fact. And Clark does human interest so well; he was the obvious choice."

"Couldn't Perry swing another ticket for you?" Paula quizzed, wondering if she could talk Caroline into procuring an additional invitation.

"Paula, do you know how much tickets to these celebrity bashes cost? Even Perry isn't going this year, though that was his own choice. Seems he has an anniversary party of the 'Elvis Impersonators Association' to go to, and that for Perry beats awards dinners every time! Besides, it wouldn't matter even if he could have persuaded the board to come up with another entry fee. I'm working!"

"Another big story?" Paula jumped to the wrong, though obvious conclusion, but why Lois should be working on her own without her husband, Paula couldn't quite imagine.

"No such luck! Standing in for the Night Editor!" Now that it was beginning to sink in that her husband was about to attend a glittering ball without her, while she presided over a dark and pretty lonely newsroom, Lois was becoming even more dejected. "Our regular night editor had a coronary a few days ago, and, because it's so near Christmas, the board decided that it would be too much trouble to hire a temp at this time, which means the senior newsroom staff are all having to work double shifts. I'm on duty the night of the ball, and as I've already asked for a swap to go to the kids' school Christmas show the night before, I can't impose again. They're putting on their version of 'Grease', and Julian's gotten one of the main roles, so they'd be disappointed if their dad and I didn't turn up. Besides, I'm just back from a leave of absence, so I doubt my credit rating is so high with the suits upstairs for me to go looking for favours again. Better to leave things as they stand." As always, when Lois was upset, she tended to babble, but fortunately her listener followed her rushed conversation.

"Wouldn't Clark cover for you if you wanted to go?"

"Yes, he would. But that wouldn't be fair." Lois had quickly made up her mind that she couldn't ask Clark. They'd decided, after some deliberation, that he would accept the organisers' proposal for Superman to hand over the prestigious award, since he'd be present at the ceremony anyway. Though Lois and Clark had wanted to distance the superhero from such social gatherings, they hadn't wanted to give the impression that he'd become totally standoffish. Of course, Paula didn't know that. "The roster is up, and a lot of the staff around here already think that we get privileged treatment, so it would be better to leave things as they are."

"So what will Prince Charming do at the ball while his Cinderella is working her butt off?"

"I don't know! Mingle… meet up with some friends, and maybe pick up any interesting tidbits of news." Lois could hardly expect Clark to lean up against a pillar all night looking miserable. They might prefer to spend their leisure hours together, but they didn't live in each other's pocket, and Clark had long since given up on his lovelorn phase… He was a very friendly guy! "Dance with the 'ugly sisters'!" Lois muttered hopefully.

"I'll be sure to dance with him, Lois! And keep my eye on him." Paula quipped, not being able to stop herself from teasing a little.

Somehow, Paula Raine didn't quite meet Lois' criteria of an 'ugly sister'. "Thanks, Paula, I think. But Clark is a big boy now, and he can look after himself, and we happen to trust each other completely."

A sultry giggle floated down the line to Lois. "I know that, Lois. I've never met a couple who seem so compatible as you and Clark. Oh, and there was another reason I thought you might want to attend the party, Caroline has a relative, a second-cousin, twice removed or some such thing, who's an anchor on a New York TV news network." Oh no! Lois had a pretty good idea where this was going, but evidently Paula was completely in the dark. "I think she used to be a college friend of yours… a Linda King. She's going to be there, covering the ceremony for her station, and I thought you would enjoy the chance to meet up again." Another voice could be heard talking in the background to Paula, and she quickly came back to her friend with an apology. "Lois, I'm sorry, I have to go. There's a big meeting at the UN this afternoon and I'm on duty. We working girls never get a break! I'll try to look you up when I'm in Metropolis, if I get a chance, but I have to say it's a quick stopover visit. Bye for now, Lois, take care of yourself and the kids, and I'll be sure to chat to Clark at the ceremony. I might even be able to get him an interview with the 'Lady of the Year'!"

Then she was gone, and Lois was left holding the phone, giving a very good impression of the lovelorn! At least, one of the ugly sisters was sure to be vying for Clark's attention.

"Hey, Lois," Jimmy had finished his goodbyes to Tula and sauntered in Lois' direction when he realised she'd finished her call. "You'll never guess who I bumped into at lunchtime."

"Don't tell me," Lois growled. "One of the ugly sisters?!"

"Hey, Lois, don't shoot the messenger!"

"Sorry, Jimmy, I didn't mean to bark at you. It's hardly your fault that Linda King is covering the 'Man of the Year' dinner." Lois was very careful to give nothing of whom the winner might be away even to Jimmy.

"She is?! Now there's a coincidence, because I just bumped into Cat Grant. She's in town for the same thing. Her celebrity TV show wants her to cover it. I wonder what's got everybody so interested this year?"

The second ugly sister had just arrived! Lois wasn't at first aware of the implications of Jimmy's question, as she was so engrossed in bemoaning the fact that both these predatory women would be homing in on Clark, and she wouldn't be there to protect him. Logically, Lois had told Paula that Clark was perfectly capable of taking care of himself, but logic tended to fly straight out of Lois' window at the mere mention of the names Linda King and Cat Grant.

After all these years, the situation should have mellowed between these two women and Lois, but Lois only gave up her grudges with those she felt were deserving of forgiveness, and neither Linda nor Cat qualified.

At one time, Ms King had entered into a much publicised 'high society' marriage, which had, unsurprisingly in Lois' view, lasted only a meagre eighteen months. Probably the poor man had become exasperated with his wife's calculating and manipulative ways. The divorce had made as many headlines as the wedding, and it appeared that Linda King believed in the old adage 'once bitten, twice shy'. Besides, she'd done so very well for herself financially out of the whole process that she didn't need a husband now.

Cat had remained Cat! She'd been a young, insatiable man- hunter and now she was a middle-aged one. She was certainly remarkably well preserved for her age, judging by her appearance on TV, and causing Lois to suggest that the woman must have an extremely competent plastic surgeon — a remark which usually earned Lois a frown from Clark. He still looked for the good in everybody, and Lois was prepared to admit, that of the two women, she preferred Cat. At least with Cat what you saw was what you got, and she did have a heart somewhere under all her makeup and bizarre clothes.

Jimmy had wandered off, but his words still lingered and it wasn't long before Lois' professionalism asserted itself. If both news programmes had sent their top anchor women to Metropolis, it must mean that word had spread that something unusual was going to happen this year. Perhaps Paula wasn't the only 'leak' around. Hopefully, the rest of the media didn't know exactly what that was, though there had to be a good chance that Caroline Whitbread had told her second cousin, twice removed, of her impending accolade.

But just why did that relative have to be Linda King? Of course, there was always the possibility that Ms Whitbread didn't care much for her distant kin. After all, Lois had always considered the UN Representative to be a fair, intelligent woman and one who wasn't easily fooled. Surely, she was bound to have seen through Linda King's 'charming' facade to the sneaky, conniving woman beneath.

One thing was certain, both Linda and Cat, once they learned that Clark was on his own, would be bound to assume that he was their territory for the night, on the grounds of their respective 'old' friendships. Suddenly, Cinderella did want to go to the ball. Only it was completely out of the question.


Chapter Four

Letters For Santa-Superman

The afternoon had been as tedious as Lois had imagined it would be. She'd churned out as interesting a report as could be expected on the press conference, but her heart hadn't really been in it. Thankfully, Perry had accepted her copy with only a gruff comment that she hadn't had a lot to work with in the first place and that mediocre politicians didn't sell papers. He'd marched back to his office grumbling that there was something wrong with the world when there were no tantalising scandals pending or big-time criminals planning to take over the city. When it had eventually been time to go home, she'd quickly cleared her desk, switched off her computer and headed out before anything else could distract her.

A fairly demonic drive through the Christmas traffic did nothing to soothe her frustrations, and Lois entered her townhouse feeling tired, yet exceedingly grateful to be home. She hung her coat on the rack and went to find her family, but came to an abrupt halt as she walked into the dining room. Or perhaps that should have been, negotiated her way round the obstacle course which her living room had become.

Stacks of mail bags littered the floor and made a haphazard trail — like the breadcrumbs in 'Hanzel and Gretel', though these were considerably larger — towards the dining room. She watched the busy scene for a few moments as her husband and children sat around the table, each with a mound of letters in front of them, which they were opening, reading and placing in separate bundles in the centre of the table. Nathan, of course, was simply going through the motions, copying his dad and his siblings, while Superman, surreptitiously, checked over everything he did.

"Hi, honey!" Clark smiled in her direction, his hands stilling on a large envelope which he quickly discarded after a cursory glance… Even after all this time, he occasionally received a 'certain' type of mail from sad, lonely and pretty sick people. Lois just hoped that Clark had super-scanned the mail before allowing his children to help. Somehow the idea of her kids finding sexy underwear inside a letter sent to their father did not amuse her, though, when she thought about it, it would probably make her kids die laughing. "Sorry about all the mess. I got a frantic phone call from the Post Office asking if I could get in touch with Superman and get him to come pick up his mail. They apologised for insisting, but the Christmas rush of letters and parcels has meant they're quickly running out of space. With everything that's happened over the last few months, Superman kinda forgot to drop by, so there's a whole lot more than normal, and the kids offered to help."

"Don't we get any dinner?" Lois asked, her stomach starting to protest. She'd only managed to pick up a sandwich on her way back to the office from city hall, and she'd eaten that at her desk. A nice 'Clark-cooked' meal would have gone down very well.

"I ordered pizza, Lois, so I didn't have to cook. I thought the sooner we got started with all this," he said, indicating the clutter of mail sacks, "the sooner it would be done and we could get our house back to normal, but an extra hand would be appreciated." He added one of his irresistible smiles to his latter suggestion.

"Yeah, Mom, it's fun. Pull up a chair and give us a hand," Joel recommended with a huge grin, while a letter shook, uncontrollably, in his hand. Clearly the contents were a hoot. "Dad, are you available for Christmas Eve? This man's desperate. His wife is threatening to throw him out if he can't get Superman for her stocking this Christmas!"

And just as Lois surmised, Joel burst into a fit of red- faced childish giggles followed by his siblings, though Lois did notice that Clara was more subdued than usual. Oh dear! It seemed Clara hadn't given up on her huff completely. Still, she was joining in with the family's activities and that was progress.

"Give me that!" Lois snatched at the offending missive and, crumpling it up into a ball, threw it in the direction of a large cardboard box which was already filled with similar rubbish. However, she did sit, while her eyes pierced Clark with an accusing stare. "I thought you might have censored this lot first, before allowing the kids free reign with it."

"I did, Lois," Clark protested, "but it's hard to catch all the freaky mail. I was really looking for… for particular items."

"What, par…tic… ooler 'tems?" Nathan asked, with all the curiosity of a bright three-year-old. Santa presents?" he added with a touch of inspiration.

"No, baby! Though I'm sure we'll find some of those in all this. Why don't you come and sit with me, and we'll open some letters together." Lois patted her lap as she spoke, and the toddler jumped down from his seat, causing his mother a moment's trepidation, and scampered round the table to end up sitting on her knee. Lois settled him comfortably and turned back to Clark. "Okay, give me a pile then."

Ever helpful, Clark hurried into the living room and, picking up a bulging sack, returned it to Lois' side. "There you go, honey! We're opening the letters first and the parcels second. Superman should have plenty of time to distribute most of the presents to hospitals and orphanages before Christmas. But I know what a fast worker you are, and I'm sure we'll get finished a lot more quickly now you're helping out!"

His only reply was a derisive snort from Lois, though she did busily start checking mail, asking what the stacks in front of her signified before consigning letters to their correct bundle. Nathan would occasionally halt her progress at the sight of any colourfully drawn messages, which mostly came from children. On the whole, however, the family worked well together, chatting about the contents of the more interesting letters. Thankfully, there seemed to be no more repeats of the 'Superman in a Christmas stocking' type of request.

Julian chose a padded packet and perused the envelope for a few minutes. The 'sender's' address told him it was from Metropolis General Hospital and these items were getting preferential treatment. He opened it quickly and drew out a small audio-tape, along with a single-page note. Scanning the written message, he quickly spoke up.

"Dad, you might want to take a look at this one. It's from a nurse who works in the Burns Unit at Metrogen. She's sent you a taped message from one of her patients." He held up the micro-cassette.

Clark looked up from his own reading to see his son with a piece of white notepaper in one hand and a tiny plastic object in the other. "Do we know when it was sent, Julian?"

Julian checked the letter again. "The beginning of November, Dad!"

"That long ago! I suppose the patient could be out of hospital by now," Clark surmised.

"Not necessarily, Clark! Burn injuries usually take a long time to heal… especially if the patient needs skin- grafts," Lois countered, deliberately not voicing her second thought in front of her children, which was that the patient might not have survived.

"I suppose there's one way to find out." Clark held out his hand to receive the missive and tape and Julian passed them over then left the table to hurry into the living room.

"The letter's from Nurse Kominski and she says that this teenage boy was very anxious to pass this message onto Superman. The boy's burns are critical and she hopes that Superman will get the tape soon and come to visit him in the hospital."

"We should listen to the tape! Julian, I think the recorder's in the top drawer of the desk, could you bring it?" Lois called, but her request was preempted by Julian, who was already placing the desired object in front of his dad. "Thanks, Julian," she said with a smile.

Meanwhile, Clark fitted the tiny tape into the machine, his untroubled actions making it fairly apparent to Lois that Clark hadn't shared her fear that the boy's story might not have a happy ending. Her husband was always the optimist!

"Clark!" Her expressive glance at the children coupled with a distinct nod of her head towards the stairs, conveyed her worry that perhaps they ought not to be listening.


Clark didn't quite agree with what Lois was inferring. It would do the children good to hear from a youngster who was ill and in hospital; make them realise that there were children in this world for whom Christmas wouldn't be the best of times. Besides, Clark had already depressed the start key and within a second those around the table sat in silence while the disembodied voice of an adolescent boy drifted threadlike into the room.

'Superman, my name is Ben and first I'd like to say thank you for saving my life…'

There was a collective gasp at that statement and Clark was tempted, momentarily, to switch off the machine, but decided to let the message play itself out and ask the where and when questions later. And he had saved Ben's life, so that was good. Maybe he'd suggest that the kids pool their allowances to buy this boy a present and visit him… after Superman, that was.

'I was one of the kids you pulled out of the 'Gateway'. You know, the refuge for runaways.'

Here the tape fell silent for some seconds and the listeners feared that this was all there was, but evidently the boy, Ben, had just needed a few moments to gather his strength. Nevertheless, his voice, when he started speaking again, seemed even more fragile than before.

'I'd hidden in a cupboard to escape the flames… but they told me you'd found me and carried me out…'

"I remember," Clark whispered, reliving the horrifying moment of seeing the blackened body, huddled into a ball. It was a miracle the kid had survived. Clark was beginning to get the uncomfortable notion that perhaps Lois might have had a valid point about the children, but the voice was continuing and Clark returned all his attention back to what was being said to the superhero.

'I'm alive, thanks to you… and I shouldn't be.' There was a noise that sounded distinctly like a gulping sob, then another pause before Ben had the courage to go on. 'Other kids died! Because of me…'

"Poor boy, he's clearly delirious," Lois empathised, but she shushed when Clark put a finger to his lips.

'I did it! I set the firebombs!'

"What?" Lois almost shouted, while she was joined in chorus by various comments of amazement from her kids.

"Quiet!" That particular tone of voice came from Superman, and for long moments there was complete stillness as everyone sat frozen, waiting for more.

"Is that it?" Joel eventually ventured.

He was answered only by a sharp shake of his dad's head, and Clark's raised hand warned them all to remain silent. Tiny wrenching sobs echoed round the room, but whether they were caused by the boy's physical pain or his mental trauma, no one could quite know… Perhaps it was a mixture of both. Finally, the voice began again, so low that everyone leaned over the table top to hear it.

'It was me who started the fire. I did it for money! I was fed up being kicked around; being hungry and lonely. I thought having money would make me someone! It made me a murderer. I didn't mean for those kids to die…'

"What did he think would happen in a broken-down rabbit warren like that centre?" Lois asked, her anger bubbling nearer to the surface. Only she wasn't quite sure who she was mad at… the boy, or the system that had abandoned him.

Clark pressed the off button. "Lois, I know this is hard to take, but could we listen to the whole tape before we go making judgments."

He glanced round at the blanched, wide-eyed faces of his children and wondered if he should send them upstairs before switching back on. This was very upsetting stuff for young kids to hear. Lois had been right, and if he'd thought that the taped message was anything other than a teenage boy thanking his superhero for giving him back his life, he would have sent them away earlier. Now that they'd heard the first, shocking part, it seemed a pointless exercise, and, given what they'd been through in the past, his children were less shockable than most others of their age. Nathan was his only real worry, yet he doubted that the toddler really understood much of what had been revealed. Besides, Lois was cuddling him in close, and rocked in his mom's comfortable embrace, the little boy seemed to be drifting off to sleep.

"Come on, Dad, play the rest of the tape," Joel coaxed. "You can't expect us not to hear the rest of it!"

Clark's lips curled up at the edges in a tiny smile; it seemed his children knew him only too well. "Okay!" he conceded and started the recorder once more.

'Maybe I'll die too… the docs don't know… They don't say nothin', but I can see it in their eyes.' Ben's breath had become more laboured, but it was clear to his listeners that his determination to finish his message had grown stronger 'Nurse Kominski will be in here soon, taking this recorder away. I have to tell you Superman, 'cause you tried to save me, I know who's behind this thing."

There was another sudden intake of breath from Lois. Could this at last be the break in their stalled investigation into Intergang that they were needing?!

'The guy never told me his name, but I recognised him… I've been on these streets since I was twelve years old…' Coughing sounds interrupted his confession.

Ben was, obviously, very ill, and Lois wondered if the boy would have the stamina to continue. She exchanged a distressed, questioning glance with her husband. How could a kid so young slip so completely through the Child- Services net this way? Yet, Clark had mentioned that many homeless youngsters frequented that shelter. Superman had even tried to help, but most of these kids, for one reason or an other, mistrusted authority… even superheros.

As Lois pondered why Ben and so many others had run away from their families to seek refuge on the lonely, tough streets of Metropolis, Clara too was thinking hard. Her mom and dad might not always let her do what she wanted to, but she couldn't imagine living her life without them. They did what they did because they loved her and cared about what happened to her. Clara couldn't imagine anything that would want to make her leave the safety of her home. She was a whole lot luckier than this Ben, and she decided there and then to cut her dad some slack. A silly football game wasn't worth fighting with Dad over.

But both Lois' and Clara's introspection was broken off when Ben's voice issued from the recorder again, and they put their own considerations behind them to hear what he had to say.

'I'd seen the guy around before he came to me about this job. He works for 'the bishop'. I know he does!'

Oh no, Clark groaned internally, were they about to come up against that brick wall again?

'He's an older guy… an 'explosives man'; the best in Metropolis, I've heard them say. I remember his name too… Joe the Blow they call him. His real name's Arlo, I think… came from Atlanta before working here…' There was another painful groan, then a small pause. 'You catch him, Superman… You make sure he pays… for all these kids who died… and for me.'

The tiny hissing sound of the tape-recorder continued for a few more seconds until the machine clicked off. Ben's message was complete, and he'd given them another link in the chain, and one that just might lead them to Bill Church.

Yet no one here felt like crowing. There was just a feeling of overwhelming regret and hopelessness for the boy who had finally tried to right the wrongs he'd committed and, perhaps, at such cost to himself.

Minutes later, Clark shook himself out of his sorrowful trance. "I think Superman needs to pay a visit to Ben. See if I can get him to talk to the police. At least, he's given us Joseph Arlo."

The ringing of the doorbell cut off Lois' answer and she changed tack. "Clark, that'll be the pizza delivery. The kids and I can see to that. You get out of here and go see Ben. Be gentle, honey, I think that poor kid has paid a high price for his crimes." She smiled gently at her last words, realising all too well that Clark or Superman would never be anything other than compassionate, especially with a child who was hurt and suffering.

"Okay! Lois, kids, I'll be back as soon as I talk to Ben and straighten this out. Be good for your mom!" Their was a mini-hurricane as Superman appeared, then sped round the room giving each of his children and his wife a hug and kiss. Somehow, he needed the physical contact with those he loved.


Chapter Five

An Unexpected Good Fairy

On the way over to Metro General, Superman decided that, as he didn't know Ben's surname, his best course of action would be to enquire for Nurse Kominski in the burns unit. Even if she was no longer working in that department, surely the staff would be able to point him in the right direction. She in turn, he hoped, would be able to take him to see the boy.

He alighted on the roof of the large high-rise, reflecting despondently that he'd become far too familiar with this area while Joel and Clara had been hospitalised. Thank goodness they'd recovered, and he prayed that the same could be said of Ben. It was true that the adolescent had been responsible for the fire, yet Superman contended that Ben's bitterness and despair at his miserable way of life had been exploited by the true criminals. Superman also strongly believed in second chances, and this youth already appeared contrite.Hopefully, Ben would get the chance to make amends for his crimes.

At least the youth had gained some protection from the flames by hiding in that dark cubby-hole, and Superman had reached him in time. Yet, from what Clark had been able to determine at the scene of the fire, the state of the boy's injuries were such that his survival would have been a case of touch and go.

He was certainly about to find out the truth of his conjecture as a quick scan of the building told him that the 'Burns Unit' was on level two. With a short burst of speed, he was soon hurrying through the stairwell door towards the reception area. The two nurses behind the high desk looked up at his approach and a welcoming smile lit up the face of the older one.

"Superman, it's so good to see you," she announced, her voice matching the brightness of her smile.

Zooming in on her name-tag, Superman returned her smile, remembering to keep it pleasant but not over-friendly — after all, he was here in the suit and he had a persona to maintain. Yet for all that, he was extremely happy that his search had proved to be unnecessary.

"Nurse Kominski, this is a coincidence. I was hoping to find you."

"And I'm so glad you did, if your visit is about Ben Kershaw. I've been hoping you got my letter and Ben's tape." Nurse Kominski had walked round the station counter and come to stand in front of the superhero. The woman barely came up to the famous S-symbol on his chest and she tilted her head to look directly into his face. "The poor boy's been asking almost daily if I've heard anything from you."

A wave of relief swept over Clark. "Then he is still alive?"

"Yes, he is! We had our doubts at one point — he has third-degree burns over more than 60% of his body and he was in our intensive care unit for quite sometime, but that young man is a fighter. As soon as he was conscious and aware, he kept insisting that he had something to do, which is where you come in." The nurse touched Superman's arm and indicated a pair of doors a little way down a corridor, which she started walking toward. "I'm his 'assigned nurse' and he kept on and on at me to fetch him one of these tiny tape-recorders. Ben got himself in such an agitated state about it that I borrowed my daughter's; she had one when she was a student, but now she's working she's updated to a new even tinier machine… I just can't keep up with all this new technology. But back to Ben; he told me had something very important to tell Superman, but he was very mysterious, and, to this day, he hasn't told me what the message is about. At first, I thought it was just a big thank you for getting him out of that building…"

"Only now you're not so sure?"

"Well, he does ask constantly if I've seen you, and since he's been getting stronger, he's even suggested that I go up to the roof and scream 'Help Superman'!" Nurse Kominski's broad face, spread wider in an abashed grin. "And do you know, if you hadn't turned up, I was seriously considering it, Ben's been so persistent."

"You're right in thinking that Ben's message is more important, but I'd rather not say anymore about that until I've spoken to him. I am sorry I've kept him and you waiting so long, though. Your packet was held at the Post Office along with my other mail…"

"I can imagine you get quite a lot of that," she said with some amusement.

This lady seemed to be very nice — perceptive too, and, from the way she was discussing Ben, a very kind-hearted soul, willing to go further than her duty demanded to see to a patient's welfare. Superman thought that the boy had been very fortunate to end up under her care.

"Yes, you could say that," Superman agreed with feeling. "And, regrettably, I get so caught up with my other duties and emergencies that I can't pick up my mail as regularly as I'd like. I'm sorry, but I only read your message today, and I came immediately."

Clark felt uncomfortable as he felt the woman's astute gaze on him. Was she wondering which duties he was referring to? Lately, Superman had actually cut back on many of his patrols and mundane tasks, and that must have been apparent from his less frequent appearances on the TV news reports. He just hoped that the public didn't start asking questions. But it seemed that his suspicions about this particular member of the public were unfounded.

"Please, Superman, don't think that I'm complaining," she soothed, laying a friendly hand on his arm. "You do a wonderful job, keeping us all safe from harm, and the world is such a big place. I'm sure you have a life of your own, too. We're just grateful for what you can do, and I'm very grateful that you made time to come and visit Ben. He'll be thrilled."

Geesh, this lady thought that Superman was even entitled to a private life. Maybe, he'd been overanxious about the community's view on this matter, but he put his own feelings behind him as the nurse punched out some numbers on a keypad and the double doors they'd been heading for slid open with just the smallest of sighs. It was the same system that had been used on his children's isolation ward.

"We keep the doors locked because burn injuries are susceptible to infections and we don't like unauthorised personnel passing in and out all the time. Happily, Ben is no longer in the intensive care unit, but he is in a ward where he's highly monitored. He's improving, but he still has a long way to go. He could need more skingrafts. Actually, the new grafting techniques are probably responsible for the survival of more badly burned patients like Ben. Just a short time ago, someone with Ben's injuries would have stood very little chance of pulling through. But patients still need a lot of care for a considerable time. Our young friend isn't in the clear yet."

The mention of Ben needing a lot of care brought up another question is Superman's head. "Nurse Koninski, can I ask who's paying for Ben's care?"

"Well, technically, Ben is only fifteen, which makes him a minor, so the 'Child Protection Services' are responsible for his welfare, but they would pay out only for the basics. However, since it was reported in the media that a number of children were saved from that ramshackle home by Superman, we've been contacted by the Superman Foundation who've promised to provide a substantial contribution towards those children's medical expenses. It's something they do for those who've been rescued by Superman, if no one else can provide the funds… but why I'm telling you that, I have no idea, because you must know that already."

A bemused Superman watched his escort turn down a short passageway and stop by another door. To tell the truth, Superman was only generally aware that some sort of financial arrangement was in place, but he was extremely glad to hear it. Such things came under the jurisdiction of the 'Superman Foundation' and he very rarely interfered in its running.

That had been one of Superman's better ideas, many years ago, when he had hired Murray Brown as his representative and merchandiser, though it had felt like a pretty risky venture at the time, considering Murray's smarmy, money- grabbing image. Yet, the arrangement had proved to be a good one, after Superman had thrashed out a contract with the man and made it clear that all proceeds had to go to charity, excepting his agent's commission, of course. Underneath Murray's brash exterior had lurked a shrewd businessman, and one who was a lot less greedy and kinder than he appeared.

Over time, the small organisation had evolved into the 'Superman Foundation' and new, younger and more academically qualified staff had been recruited, though Murray still liked to keep an eye on the proceedings, having learned through his long association with the superhero just which projects were acceptable and which should be discarded. To everyone's surprise Murray had become the conservative chairman of a respected charitable organisation and even his loud sportscoats had disappeared, not to mention his gaudy ties which had rivalled Clark's own, though Clark liked to think that his were more tasteful.

"Superman?!" Nurse Kominski had stopped by the door and was waiting patiently for her companion to catch up. Clark pushed his thoughts aside and joined her. "I expect you know that burn victims don't look so good. In Ben's case most of his burns are to his back, legs and hands. Which isn't unusual because most people instinctively try to protect their faces, if they can. He's still housed in one of our specialised anti-bacterial units — it's just a bed with a protective plastic curtain which allows us to control the air, humidity and temperature around the patient. They look a bit frightening, but they're very beneficial for the patient."

"Thanks for the warning, Nurse Kominski, but do you think we can go in now?" Superman requested with another friendly grin. This chatty woman could rival Lois' babble genes.

"Yes, of course. Ben is so anxious to speak to you, and I'm sure you're a very busy man."

The door was opened and Superman ushered inside. As he stepped very quietly into the room, barely touching the floor, he couldn't help but be reminded of the time when Joel and Clara had lain in a couple of these hospital beds, but there the similarity ended. This room was larger and there were a few patients in this room, all within the protective shield of their plastic cocoons.

He followed the nurse to the unit in the far corner by the window and at her beckoning came closer to the bed. He heard her pull the screens around the area to give them some privacy, while his eyes swept over the boy behind the plastic. Fair stumpy hair sparsely covered Ben's head; the last time Superman had seen it, it had been blackened and charred.Ben was sleeping and in repose his face was fresh- complexioned with a fair sprinkling of freckles, yet Superman could discern the lines of pain which were etched unnaturally into his skin. Pressure bandages covered a vast expanse of his body, and the hero's sensitive heart was touched.

"Nurse, he's sleeping! Maybe we shouldn't wake him… I can come back later."

"And have Ben throw a fit when he finds out you were here and I didn't wake him. He'll be much better if you talk to him, Superman," the kind woman sought to reassure the Man of Steel. Clearly, that was a misnomer, Nurse Kominski thought, as she caught the stricken look on the hero's face. "Believe me, Ben can sleep later."

Nodding his head, Superman waited while the nurse bent down to the curtain, slipping her hand through a plastic tube to touch a small patch of healthy skin on the boy's arm with infinite gentleness. "Ben! Ben, my dear." Her voice rose a little higher. "You have a visitor!" The youngster stirred a little. "It's who you've been badgering me about for ages. Don't you want to say hallo?"

As her information penetrated Ben's sleep-fogged mind, his eyes opened wide, and Clark noticed they were a startling blue. "Superman came?" he asked, his voice tense as he tried to raise his head from his pillows to look around him.

Clark stepped even nearer to the bed. "I'm right here, Ben."

The boy's head turned towards the blue-clad figure by his side, his intense gaze sweeping up the large frame until it reached Superman's face. For a long drawn out moment the two held each other's stare. "You must hate me," Ben whispered at last.

Clark's breath almost caught in his throat at the depth of self-loathing in the low voice, but he composed himself to reassure this tragic young man, and to discover if Ben would be willing to repeat his information to the police. "I don't hate anyone, Ben." Actually, that wasn't strictly true; there had been a few evil adversaries in the past who had managed to incite that emotion in Clark, but Ben certainly wasn't one of them. "Superman doesn't work that way. Besides, from listening to the tape, I believe you're already sorry for what you did."

Nurse Kominski quietly watching the exchange between superhero and boy, realised that her hunch had been correct. Whatever these two had to say to each other, it was more significant than a simple thank you. "Would you like me to leave?" she interrupted. "You both might want to talk privately."

"No!" Ben sounded quite distressed at her suggestion. Through all his pain and suffering, this kind nurse had been close by his side, comforting him and encouraging him to keep fighting when all he'd wanted to do was to give into the nothingness that was calling to him. She reminded him of how it had been with his mother, once upon a time. It was strange that he'd finally found someone to care for him just when he'd done something that put him well beyond the boundaries of deserving her friendship and trust."I need you here. You've been good to me, you have a right to know what I've done… who you've been helping…"

"I think what Ben is trying to say is that he needs a friend to help him through this," Superman added sympathetically with another smile… much warmer this time.

"Then I'm not going anywhere," she announced and pulling up a chair, she verified her words by sitting down determinedly on its hard surface. "I'll stay as long as you want me, Ben."

"That's the problem," Ben tried to choke back a groan but with only partial success. "You won't want to stay with me when you hear what I've done."

Ben's voice tailed away, and again Nurse Kominski instinctively touched his arm through the protective curtain to offer him her support. "Ben, I've already told you that I'm your friend, and friends don't run at the first hint of trouble."

This competent and compassionate nurse remembered the training and advice she'd been given when she'd started out on her long career, stating that medical staff should never become personally involved with their patients, but somehow she'd never quite managed to adhere to that unwritten rule. And especially not with this poor boy; she'd recognised that his was a troubled soul and her heart had been touched. She'd do whatever she could to restore Ben's health and his belief in himself and the human race. Perhaps with the help of this man standing on the other side of the bed, who was so well known for his love of humanity, they just might pull it off.

Superman folded his arms across his chest but relaxed his stance. "Ben, I haven't come here to judge you, but you have information that could put some very bad men in prison — men who cruelly used you and then abandoned you. Now you have a chance to set the record straight. Will you do that?"

"But if I do, I'll be sent to prison too." Now that the issue of his living wasn't quite so questionable, Ben's instinct for self-preservation was reasserting itself. "I know I deserve it, but I'm not sure I'd be able to get through a jail stretch."

"Ben, you're a minor, and they don't send children to adult prisons," Superman countered steadily, his tone more reminiscent of Clark's when he was remonstrating with his own kids. "And if you help the police catch these men, then I'm sure some arrangement can be made with the authorities. I know that I intend to stand by you…"

"And me, Ben!" Nurse Kominski said with feeling.

Ben's gaze strayed from one to the other and he was reassured by what he saw because slowly, yet determinedly, he began to repeat the message from the tape. When he confessed to placing the firebombs, a startled 'oh' could be heard from Nurse Kominski, but she didn't flinch. Instead she increased her gentle pressure on Ben's arm, telling him that she was no 'fair weather friend'. The youth smiled in gratitude and continued with his tale.

When Superman was sure that Ben was finished, he leaned closer to ask the very important question. "And you're sure the man who gave you the instructions and the incendiary devices was Joseph Arlo?"

"Yes!" Ben nodded. "But there's something else I know."

"Can you tell us, Ben?"

"The night after Arlo contacted me, I saw him meet up with another guy… don't know who, mind you. I only caught a glimpse of him, but he was a well-dressed dude. It was late and I'd gone uptown to see if I could beg some dough off the rich crowd; they're always more generous after a fancy meal and a few drinks. Anyway, I saw Joe Arlo hanging about on this street corner and this big limo comes up and stops right in front of him. The door opens… this guy leans out, they talk for a minute and then Joe slips into the motor and it drives off."

"Would you recognise this man again, Ben?" Superman almost held his breath in anticipation of a further revelation.

"I think so!"

"And if I brought a friend of mine here, who happens to be a policeman, you'd be willing to tell him all this too?"

There was a tiny pause. "Yes!" again Ben stated emphatically.

"Good boy!" Nurse Kominski was smiling, as proud of Ben as she was of her own children. Though they'd both grown up now and had busy lives of their own — they didn't need her they way Ben did. "I knew you'd do the right thing."

Superman uncrossed his arms and stepped back. Now that he'd heard the teenager's story he was beginning to be afraid for Ben's safety. In fact, he was surprised that Church and Arlo hadn't tried to take out this material witness before now. Of course, it would be difficult getting to Ben with all the specialised security in this department of the hospital, but not impossible for two ruthless killers.

Could it have been an oversight? Bill Church had certainly been otherwise engaged. He'd been exposed to the virus at its most virulent stage, though no one had ever been able to find out how that had happened and Church himself had never been forthcoming. However, he had been seriously ill for some period, so perhaps he'd forgotten the kid's existence, or, more likely, assumed that Ben had died.

Still, that didn't account for Arlo's lack of action. It could be that he was out there somewhere just waiting to see what happened to Ben. And one thing was definite, both men would try to silence Ben the minute they realised he was a threat to their continuing freedom.

"Ben, I'm going to leave now, but I'll be back soon. I'm going to bring Chief Inspector Henderson here to talk to you." Superman hesitated momentarily. He wished he didn't have to frighten Ben, but this kid was streetwise and he knew the score. It was better to get this out in the open. "You do know that the minute it becomes known that you've spoken to the police that you're going to be a target, but both the police and I are going to make sure that no harm comes to you… and you have my word on that."

"I believe you, Superman!" Ben smiled at the hero with something approaching trust, a sentiment which he thought he'd lost long ago. Now he had two people, Nurse Kominski and Superman, who had his best interests at heart. The knowledge was new and intoxicating.

Nurse Kominski stood up, drawing attention to herself. "Superman, I think you'd better go and do what you have to do. I'll hold the fort here until you can get back with the cavalry. I have a couple of friends in security here at the hospital and I'll get them to patrol the floor until the police take over. Don't you worry, Mr Arlo isn't going to get past me!"

Clark was tempted to smile at the small bristling woman, but he didn't dare. He believed her. Nurse Kominski was just as formidable as Lois!

"Thanks, Nurse Komiski! You two hold on. This won't take long."


On leaving the hospital, Superman had flown home to pick up the tape and to give Lois a hasty update on Ben's confession. She was satisfied to hear that the boy was willing to testify against Arlo and positively ecstatic to learn about Arlo's meeting with the rich dude in the large limo, whom Ben could possibly identify. Had it been Bill Church, and did that mean that they were closer to getting him than they had ever been?

Still, she did appreciate that the teenager's life was in extreme jeopardy now that he'd spoken to Superman. Without delay, she sent Clark off to speak to Bill Henderson, who could be guaranteed to organise a reliable operation to protect the boy. The Chief Inspector was one of the few policeman in the city in whom Lois had a lot of faith, though she wasn't about to tell him that. And if things went well, then Lois was hoping for an extra, unexpected Christmas present: William Church Jr finally being convicted of the crimes he'd committed.

Superman's first port of call was MPD headquarters, but when he found no sign of the Chief Inspector's presence, he headed off to the man's home. Evidently Chief Inspectors worked more civilised hours than the lower ranks, and throughout his career Bill Henderson had devoted many long hours attempting to keep Metropolis safe for its ordinary citizens. He was entitled to a more regular existence.

Setting down on a quiet suburban street outside a white- painted wooden house, Superman knocked on his old acquaintance's door. Within minutes the door swung open and a surprised policeman surveyed his visitor.

"Superman! This is unusual, but please come in." Henderson stood aside to let the large form of the hero pass him by. He couldn't recall the Man of Steel ever visiting him at home before now. Whatever brought him here must be urgent. Bill leaned into the family room to address his wife. "I'm sorry, Ethel, I'm going to have to leave you for a couple of minutes. I've got a bit of business to attend to. I'm sure it won't take long."

Superman was directed down a small hallway to the den and offered a seat. "I'm sorry to intrude into your home life, Bill, but something important's come up… something I'm sure you'll be interested in." He spoke gravely, hoping to convey a sense of urgency. "And also, I needed someone with your authority to set up a protective screen as soon as possible."

"You're asking me to take someone into protective custody?" Bill sat down in his favourite comfy chair opposite his guest. "Knowing you, I take it you have good reason. So are you going to tell me who and why?"

"I'd like you to listen to something, Bill. It came to me today with my regular mail." Superman pulled the tape- recorder from his hidden pocket and started the little machine once more, steadily watching the other man's face as Ben's admission unfolded.

Bill Henderson hunched forward in his seat, his eyes fixed to an old stain on his faded carpet as he assimilated just what he was hearing. Ethel wanted to get rid of his old friend the chair and lay a new carpet, but he was content with things the way they were. The tape was clicked off and he asked for it to be replayed. As it ended, he lifted his head to meet the firm gaze of the superhero. "You've talked to this boy?"


"You believe him? And he'd be willing to stand up in court and repeat his testimony?"

"Yes… and he would!"

Henderson stood up abruptly, his voice and demeanour filled with motivation, testament to the amount of trust he'd accrued over the years for this 'alien' who'd come to live amongst them. "Then what are we waiting for? Can you fly me to Metro-General, Superman? I'd like to meet this kid, and I can arrange for a guard detail from the hospital." The policeman strode out into his hall and grabbed his heavy overcoat — flying with Superman would be cold on a night like this. Once again he opened the door to his living room. "Ethel, I'm sorry, but this could take a little longer than I thought. It's real important though. I'll be back as soon as I can."

As Superman scooped Henderson up into his arms and turned in the direction of the hospital, he grinned inwardly. Somehow that last statement sounded very familiar. Beneath them, Ethel Henderson sighed resignedly and switched her attention back to the movie she was watching. She'd always known that her husband couldn't stick to his nine-to-five job. Bill just couldn't keep away from his work when he felt he was needed.


Chapter Six

One Dastardly Villain and A Santa Elf

Thursday morning had seen a sweeping change in Ben's position in both importance and locality — he had lost his anonymous status as just another poor victim of the Gateway fire.

Henderson's first session with the boy might have been brought to a premature halt by Nurse Kominski's insistence that her patient needed to rest and that the interrogation should continue the next day, but the Inspector had heard enough to know that this youngster was a key witness. With that in mind, Henderson had arranged for Ben to be moved to a room of his own and had placed him under a strong police guard.

Actually, the nurse's protective aggressiveness had amused Bill since the interview techniques he'd employed on Ben had been considerably mild. He might be an old hard-bitten officer of the law, but, in view of the boy's injuries, he just hadn't been able to treat the juvenile as a hardened criminal.

At an early hour next morning, Henderson returned to Metro- General to check that the security screen was in place and that his men understood the gravity of the situation. Henderson's instincts told him that this witness could help bring down one of the biggest crime-syndicates ever to control the city… maybe even Intergang itself. He didn't want any of his team getting careless.

There was also his examination of said witness to complete, but he soon discovered that this would have to take second place to the medical one which was being carried out when he arrived. Then he was informed by yet another dedicated medical attendant, Nurse Kominski not yet having come on duty, that Ben would need some time to recover from his treatment before he faced another ordeal.

So it was that Henderson was hanging around, cradling a cup of over-strong coffee, when Lane and Kent appeared on the floor. Their arrival didn't in any way surprise the policeman. To tell the truth, he would have been more amazed if they'd stayed away. The view given to the public would be that the two reporters had been informed of the pending break in the arson investigations by their friend Superman, but Bill Henderson knew differently. He'd realised a couple of years ago that the man walking down the corridor towards him hid quite a secret behind the conservative suit and glasses. Not that Bill ever intended to tell anyone, or Lois and Clark either. He'd decided they had enough to concern them without the additional worry about his letting the cat out of the bag at any time.

Nevertheless, Bill Henderson was willing to play their game, and he pushed himself out of his chair and went to meet the couple. "Hi there! I was wondering when you two would show. The big guy let you in on this?"

Never one to pass up an opportunity for misdirection, Lois said airily, though in this case she wasn't totally sure it was necessary, "Yeah! In fact, I'm surprised he's not here, keeping watch over the boy."

Personally, Bill thought that Clark did enough, what with his two jobs and his young family to look after, without having to spend the night on guard duty. "Nah! He and I talked about it last night, and I assured him that he could leave it to the professionals — after all, that's what we get paid for! Believe me, Lois, there's no way that Arlo is going to get through my men."

"I'm sure Superman has every faith in the MPD, Bill," Clark remarked, joining in with just the merest touch of irony. He too had a pretty good idea that Bill Henderson knew exactly who he was speaking to, and pretty soon he was going to have to sit down and have a little chat with the Chief Inspector. This had definitely been the 'Year of the Revelation'. Only you couldn't really refer to most of them as revelations because it turned out that the majority of these people had known about his 'secret' for years.

"Hopefully we know how to do our jobs, Clark, and I have got my best men on the case."

"Then you've put out an APB on Joseph Arlo?" Clark asked, hoping that the bomber was now in police custody but knowing that realistically things didn't pan out quite so easily. He'd considered spending last night searching the sleazier side of the city, but was aware from experience that without any clues to assist him such an action was futile… unless Superman got lucky, which was hardly ever the case.

"Right after I talked to the kid last night. There's been no results so far though." Henderson took another sip of his now cold coffee — it tasted a whole lot worse than it did when it was hot. Pity he couldn't ask Clark to heat it up for him! The container and its dregs were tossed in a handy trash can. "Come on, guys, I need a refill, and I need to talk to you about Arlo."

The trio wandered in the direction of the drinks dispenser. "What can we do for you, Inspector?" Lois enquired pertly. Over the years of their association, she and Henderson had sparred with each other, though both had mellowed with time.

"You can let me buy you a coffee," Bill replied with just the same amount of sass which Lois had employed.

"Is it drinkable?"

"Just about, Lois, just about." Henderson turned to feed the machine with coins and handed out the cups after they'd filled up with the steaming liquid to his companions. "I could do with your help with Arlo."

Lois sent a covert look in the direction of her husband. Just what was Henderson asking? If he did know Clark's secret, was he requesting Superman to join in the search? Clark's next tentative question told Lois that his thoughts matched her own.

"What sort of help?"

"Well, it occurred to me that the best way to protect Ben is to find 'Joe the Blow' just as fast as we can. Now I have every available man in my force out looking for him, but so far we've had no luck. We need the public in on this… make it that no matter where this man goes someone is going to recognise him, and hopefully contact the police. And that's where you come in."

"You want us to print his picture and the story?" Lois looked thoughtful. "But won't that send him underground."

"There's always that chance. But, first thing this morning, I got in touch with the insurance companies who've had to pay out on the fire damages and they're willing to put up a reward for anyone who can give us information that will lead to Arlo's capture… and you can print that too. Now, you and I know that there's little honour amongst the criminal fraternity. I'm betting that someone will see the opportunity to earn a little extra Christmas bonus. I want to tie this city down so tight that the guy can't move without someone spotting him."

"We couldn't get it out in print till the evening edition, though our online publication could be updated pretty speedily." Lois stared into the dark mud that represented coffee in this place. She bit at her lip, then lifted her eyes to the Inspector. What she was about to suggest was tantamount to sacrilege, but a young boy's life was at stake here. "Maybe you should contact LNN. They could splash his picture all over the news bulletins almost immediately and they'd reach a wider audience than online."

Henderson regarded Lois with something akin to awe. "I never expected the great Lois Lane to suggest that she should be scooped. But thanks, Lois. I've already got it covered, but it means something to know that you approve."

Lois shrugged and ground out with a faint touch of her old belligerence, "So I've turned an emotional corner through the years. Even I'll admit that some things are more important than my career!"

A genuine smile crossed the Chief Inspector's face. "I guess we've all changed some along the way. And, if you don't mind my saying, Lois, with you it's definitely a change for the better. You're a lucky man, Clark."

The three grinned a little sheepishly at each other. Mutual admiration between Lois and Bill was not quite the normal state of affairs. Everyone was relieved when the embarrassing moment was interrupted by Henderson's sergeant announcing that the doctor had given permission for them to visit Ben.

"Come on, let's go talk to the kid! Find out if his story is still the same as last night. If you're going to write this up then you'd better hear what the boy has to say… get your facts straight. Though maybe Superman's filled you in already?"

Clark straightened his tie nervously. Was it just his imagination or was Bill making more than the usual pointed remarks? "As a matter of fact, he played us the tape, but yes… we'd like to find out more. See how Ben's doing."

"Good! That's good," Henderson nodded, then said ambiguously, "The kid got to you too!"


Joseph Arlo stared at his copy of the Daily Planet with eyes which threatened to consume the paper with fire.

*Have You Seen This Man?*

The banner headline screamed at him while the image of his face gazed enigmatically back at him. They hadn't even used a good photo! These police mugshots were horrendous, but it was a good enough likeness for any member of the public to recognise him. And in this neck of the woods you couldn't trust any low-life not to cash in on the reward.

The best thing he could do now was to get out of Metropolis, which was pretty funny because he'd just arrived back in the middle of the night. He'd been glad to disembark from that rusty bucket of a boat, since he'd spent most of the horrific journey being seasick in his bunk and praying that the damned ship didn't sink.

Leaving the docks in darkness, Arlo had found his way to the nearest hotel whose tariff would be within range of his meagre funds and checked in for the night. Tomorrow he would get back to his apartment on the more affluent west side of the city where he'd find some cash. Yet for one night, thankful to be back on dry land, but with his stomach tossing around as if it were still out on the ocean, he'd flung himself into the lumpy bed and slept the sleep of the dead.

He'd wakened late in the afternoon feeling slightly better and, after a shower in lukewarm water which was the best the hotel had to offer, had decided that something to eat might do him some good before he made his way home. Relieved to be on the final leg of his journey, he'd left the dirty little room and found the nearest cafe, picking up the latest newspaper at the corner stand.

Arlo had ordered himself a burger with fries and a large mug of black coffee, then sat back to read his paper and catch up on what had been happening in Metropolis since he'd been gone. The last thing he'd expected was to find himself the focus of the lead story and that the police were looking for him in connection with the arson attacks in Hobbs Bay.

How the hell had that happened? The only person who could finger Joe the Blow was that damned boy, and his life had been hanging by a very thin thread. When the urgent call had come for Arlo to get back to Atlanta, he'd checked things out at the hospital and with his contact in the police. It had seemed a sure bet that Ben wasn't going to survive. Yet, the only other person who could testify to his involvement in the crimes was Bill Church and he wouldn't point the finger — not without incriminating himself anyway. No! It had to be the kid!

He prided himself that he was a professional and didn't leave loose ends lying about, but it seemed that this time he'd messed up, and now he was in as deep as he'd been in Atlanta. The local cell of Intergang had needed him to take out some opposition but somehow there had been a few crossed wires concerning the location of the meeting place and an innocent bunch of college grads partying in the 'wrong' bar had been killed instead.

The Atlanta gang boss had ordered him out of the city… in fact, out of the country, preferably to some place which didn't have an extradition treaty with the US. He'd headed for Cuba, but Intergang had seen fit to with-hold his payment for the botched job and paid only his travel costs. Within a few weeks he'd run out of dough and not rating the life of a down-and-out in a country where he didn't even speak the language, he'd found his slow way back to Metropolis on that godforsaken tramp steamer. Now he was beginning to wish he hadn't.

Joe the Blow sank lower into his chair and pulled his coat collar up around his neck as a pimply waiter dumped his meal on the table. He buried his head behind the newspaper and only grunted an acknowledgement to the guy. When he was left alone he regarded the greasy food with a sense of dread. Suddenly his nausea had returned and he wasn't hungry anymore. But he couldn't draw undue attention to himself, so he began picking at his meal.

What was he to do? One thing was definite, he couldn't risk returning to his apartment; the police would probably be staking it out. So that meant he couldn't get access to the money he'd left there, which meant he was broke! And that would make getting out of the country problematic.

He thought he'd give South America a try this time… Bolivia, or Columbia! Yeah, Columbia sounded good. Even with the new government clean-ups, the drug barons weren't giving in without a fight. They always had a place for a good hit man, especially one with his expertise in explosives. And if there was nothing doin' in Columbia, he could move on. Yeah, there were a lot old mafia-type families down in South America, not to mention a few corrupt regimes who'd be only too happy to offer him a job. The trouble was, he couldn't get there without money — money to buy him a forged identity and passport because he didn't plan on taking another ocean trip on another leaky bucket!

But there was someone who could help him… someone who had lots of money! After all, he hadn't been paid for the last job he'd done for Church yet and it would be in Church's best interest to help get the one man who could snitch on him far away from Metropolis.

Of course, Bill could always resort to 'killing off' his former employee, but the crime boss was no 'hands on' murderer. Unlike Bill Sr, the son was too squeamish to do his own dirty-work. Junior was the product of an indulged childhood. How he ever managed to run the Metropolis branch of Intergang was a mystery! Still, it probably wouldn't be long before the 'chief of staffs' discovered just what kind of idiot they had in control of their branch here in the city… or what type of double-dealing cheat the younger Bill was.

Joe had no doubt that the fool was most likely skimming off more of the profits than a 'branch organiser' was entitled to and Joe would have no scruples in using that piece of information to persuade Church to help him. But for his own safety, it would be best if he could meet up with Church Jr man to man, without any of his security guards in tow. He just had to plan how to do that, and that nice little secretary out at Church's mansion, whom he'd been so careful to cultivate, would be the right person to arrange that for him.

Now that he had a plan, Arlo found that his appetite was returning and he quickly finished his food, picked up his bag, which now held his only wordly goods available to him, and went to find a pay phone… cell phones were much too easy to trace!


Clark was in the kitchen putting the finishing touches to his icing on the rich-chocolate yule-log cake which he'd baked from a new recipe his mother had found in a UK cookbook. His wife still hadn't lost her excessive love of chocolate, so he'd taken the chance of concocting this special surprise while Lois was working late interviewing Mayor Golding. They'd both been extremely surprised and pleased that she'd secured the first interview with the politician since he'd taken office. Mind you, she'd joked that she'd probably have difficulty staying awake during the interview, but Clark could tell she was over the moon, knowing that she still had the reputation to win out over the competition.

The kitchen door swung open and Julian wandered through. "Hi, Dad, what ya doin'?"

Julian had been in the US for almost eighteen months and in that time he'd picked up most of the Americanisms it was possible for a nine-year-old boy to. It was kinda funny, though, to hear them repeated with the very upper-class English accent which still clung doggedly to Julian's speech, and Clark had to hide a smile as he listened to the boy's question. He was aware that occasionally the other kids at school made fun of his adopted son because of his weird way of talking, a circumstance which would have worried Clark more, had he not known that Julian already had two unshakable champions in Joel and Clara — and they were 'Johnny on the spot'. Joel showed every sign of one day becoming a defender of the those in need… and heaven help any kid who riled his kitten! She had claws as sharp as her mother's when it came to protecting her own. But as he smiled thoughtfully at the small figure in the doorway, he realised the boy was awaiting his answer.

"I'm making a surprise for your mom. So be careful and don't let the cat out of the bag! I thought you were upstairs with the others playing with the 'Superman Saves the World' game."

"I was, but I gave my place up to Nathan… well, actually Clara's helping him. I thought I'd come and hang out with the real thing!"

Clark's eyebrows rose wryly and his grin widened as Julian came closer and pulled himself up onto the high stool by the kitchen counter, studying Clark's creation.

"Chocolate, huh? You spoil Mom, Dad!"

"Yup! I do!" Clark replied with twinkling eyes. "But you know, sometimes it's fun to spoil those we love."

"I think so," the boy agreed with a sage expression on his face that warred with his youthful age. "I thought I'd like to spoil someone I… care about a lot!"

Julian was still at that age when the word 'love' was a little difficult to say, especially when applied to a girl… and with this particular girl, he wasn't quite sure of what feelings he was supposed to have. He only knew that making her happy made him happy.

Sprinkling powdered icing carefully but liberally over the dark chocolate cake to represent a dusting of snow, Clark regarded his son closely from out the corner of his eye. He had a fair notion of who Julian was speaking about, but had no idea what the child was thinking of.

"What's on your mind, Julian?"

"Dad, I really think you're great, you know… and it was a terrific idea…" Julian stared at his father as if trying to infer that he was the luckiest boy in the world to have a dad like Clark.


"But…" Julian stalled for a moment and then rushed on. "I hope you won't mind an awful lot if I give up my ticket for this Sunday's game to Clara. She really wants to go… and it's not as if I'm that keen on American football… though it is growing on me, Dad, a bit. But Clara would enjoy it much more than me!"

"Julian, take a breath!" Clark instructed, as his son had given a very fair impression of his mother in full flight. "That's a very selfless idea, but you know, Clara isn't that much interested in football either," Clark finished up with a slightly puzzled look on his face, wondering how two of his kids could not actually be enthusiastic about the game — though Clara was a girl and probably took after her mother in that department, and Julian hadn't been brought up on the sport like the other boys.

"I know that, Dad." Julian's voice came back very low and Clark had to strain to listen. "She just wants to go to be with Paul Valliere!"

Evidently, Julian was pretty clued in to his sister's crush on the teenager, which prompted Clark to pry a little further. "How do you feel about that, Julian?"

Lois and Clark had talked of their shared suspicions about Julian's feelings for his adopted sister — not that they had any worries for the moment, but these two wouldn't be kids forever and both feared that there might be some heartache waiting around the corner for Julian. To tell the truth, neither were quite sure of the legalities regarding adopted siblings forming romantic relationships and, since the whole problem seemed a long way off in the future, they'd decided to shelve the problem. But one thing they were certain of was that presently, Clara looked on Julian as just another one of her brothers… sometimes a best friend and partner-in-crime, but sometimes a very annoying pain in the butt!

"I feel sorry for Clara, Dad. Paul doesn't see her as anything more than a kid!"

"Which is exactly what she is to Paul, Julian. She's just another member of the family who happens to be the closest friends he has in this city." Clark leaned his elbow on the counter to face his son. "You can't blame Paul for that — he's seven years older than Clara, which is a whole lot when you're a teenager. And he's a good-looking guy… and I'd say that semi-French accent of his is very attractive to the opposite sex. Paul probably has a lot of girls his own age who're vying for the chance to go out with him."

"Which leaves Clara way out in the cold! So what should we do?"

"Just be there for her when she realises that her case is hopeless, and she will! Clara is a bright girl, but she is only a child, and she'll probably have quite a few crushes — just as you will — before she grows up and finds the person she really wants to spend the rest of her life with. You never know, it might be someone she sees as a best friend — your mom and I were best friends long before we got together." Clark felt a little ambivalent at the hope that flared in Julian's eyes at his allusion. Lois would probably consider that wasn't the wisest thing he could have told Julian.

"A crush! Dad, I don't have a crush on any girl…" Julian sounded like the idea came straight out of 'looney tunes'! "Apart from Clara, I can't even talk to them."

Well, that was a relief. One lovelorn child was enough for Clark to handle. "That's okay, Julian. I think I felt pretty much the same way when I was your age, though I didn't like the other boys pulling Lana's pigtails… or making fun of Rachel's freckles."

"You were a hero even then, Dad," Julian chuckled, feeling much more comfortable now that the conversation had wavered from his own confused instincts. "It's the same reason I want to give my ticket to Clara. I don't like to see her miserable… especially at Christmas. And you know, Dad, the more time she spends with Paul, the quicker she might realise that he sees her only as a little kid… There's nothing makes Clara madder than being treated like a baby!"

"Julian, you're smarter than you look!" Clark dusted off his hands and squeezed Julian's shoulder. "But you don't have to make any sacrifices you're not comfortable with."

"To tell the truth, Dad, I'd really like to see the 'Star Legend' movie with Mom… If you think she won't mind taking me instead."

"Okay, if you're sure, and, Julian, I think Mom would be delighted to be squired by a handsome young man like you!" Clark ruffled his son's fair hair.

This made Julian blush and burst out laughing in embarrassment. "Dad, don't be stupid! Now, is this thing finished?" he asked, gesturing at the delicious log-shaped cake before them, his mouth beginning to water at just the sight. He might not have imbibed Dad's love of American football, but he had definitely acquired his mother's love of chocolate.

"Just about!" Clark deftly picked up a couple of sprigs of holly and red berries made from the most delicate sugary icing and placed them on the cake. "There, how does that look?"

"Great! Now where are you going to hide it until Monday?"

"Over at Grandma Martha's. I'll sneak out the minute your mom gets home, if you'll cover for me." Clark winked conspiratorially at the grinning boy.

"I'll say there was a call for Superman… which isn't a lie because you're probably thinking of travelling at superspeed. But you'd better put that cake in a container… it would be a pity if it got vaporised after all your hard work!"

"Good idea, son!" Clark went over to the cupboard to find one of those plastic storage boxes. "You know, Julian, since you'll be missing out on Sunday's game, I could ask Stu Steinbaker to get me a couple of tickets for that soccer game in the New Year. England and the USA are playing a friendly game here in Metropolis — a return game for the one they played in the World Cup this year. What would you say if we made it just for the two of us?"

"Awesome, Dad!" Julian's smile brightened up his whole face. One small boy had just learned the meaning of the saying that giving brought its own rewards!


Stepping away from the trashed public phone booth — he'd had a hard time finding one in the area that actually worked — Joe Arlo contemplated his options. He'd hoped to steal a car and drive up to Church's property later this evening where that cute secretary would let him in by the back door and he could have a nice private little chat with his employer. But he'd now discovered that that wasn't going to happen as Bill Jr was presently living elsewhere.

Whoever would have thought that the guy, not to mention his closest henchman, would have caught that mysterious bug which had hit Metropolis at the end of October, just before Arlo himself had left the city? He'd never imagined the virus had been so contagious… or so dangerous, but it seemed Church had been seriously ill, and that must be true if he was still recovering in MetroGen. At least, pretty little Pammy had given him her boss's floor and room number, so finding his way to Church wouldn't be a problem. It just irritated him that the meeting had to take place in such a public venue.

And thanks to that kid Ben blabbing his mouth off like that, the hospital was bound to be crawling with cops. Possibly that big flying 'bug' in tights might be hanging around too, as those reporters Lane and Kent had made it known that he was taking a personal interest in the case.

What he needed was a disguise, but he didn't have anything suitable with him… unless you counted a couple of loud Hawaiian shirts and baggy shorts he'd picked up in Cuba, and he hardly thought that those would enable him to blend in with the majority in this freezing snowy weather. He required something that wouldn't look out of place in a hospital… something like a nurse's uniform, but he had no idea where he was going to get hold of that. He certainly didn't want to take the chance of acquiring one at the hospital. The way his luck was going he'd probably run into a policeman the minute he stepped through those big glass doors.

No, he needed something more inspirational. Maybe he'd be able to steal something out of one of those charity stores… Wait a minute, wasn't there a Salvation Army depot a couple of blocks from that hotel? Now, they always had second hand clothes to give away to the down and outs of the streets, and he doubted if those chronic 'do- gooders' had many alarms installed in the building since there wasn't much to steal and they most likely placed their trust in the hands of the Almighty! Let's hope that this night the Almighty might just be on the side of the 'fallen'. And if his luck changed then maybe he could kill two birds with one stone. Of course he had no intention of killing the bird that laid the golden egg… but the other 'songbird' was a whole different story!


Chapter Seven

No Honour Among Thieves and A Wicked Witch Takes Advantage

The next morning dawned clear and cold. It was the day of the children's school play and Lois and Clark had a difficult time holding down the children's excitement and pre-show nerves. Actually, both Lois and Clark remembered when the musical had reached almost cult status in the 1970s, and they were very intrigued just to see what sort of US teenage gang- member their little English gentleman would make. Though, from reports from the drama coach, it did appear that Julian had some acting and singing talents which had so far gone unnoticed in the family.

Clara had been a little jealous of her brother stealing the limelight, but even she had to admit that Joel's and her own absence from school had made it impractical for them to be anything other than in the chorus-line. And since Julian's offer last night for the Christmas Eve football game, Clara was only thinking good things of her brother. Now she could spend the whole afternoon with her hero — she just had to figure out how to make sure she sat next to Paul. For Clara, Christmas was coming early!

Finally, the three oldest kids had been deposited at school and Nathan with his grandparents, leaving Lois and Clark to drive over to police headquarters to check with Henderson on how the search for Joe Arlo was doing. The Inspector had promised to keep them informed, but after a quick chat with Bill they had learned that there had been nothing to report so far. The whole police force was on high alert but there hadn't been a single sighting of the wanted man. No one even knew if Arlo was still in the city.

Disappointed at the lack of information, the couple split up for the morning. Lois headed straight for the Planet to write up her interview with Mayor Golding for Sunday's edition of the paper. Amazingly she found herself approving of the politician, at least for the present. Maybe this was a public servant who wouldn't be caught with his hand in the cookie-jar, or visiting a high-class hooker… or even being a puppet for Intergang. There might be some dishonest politicians around, but Lois was willing to give Mayor Golding the benefit of the doubt and she'd certainly clear him of the last… 'indiscretion'. She'd suspected a leak in city-hall long before the present administration had taken over.

Clark had gone to pick up his tux for the Man of the Year ball the next evening, then he donned his other suit for an overhead scan of the city. Who knew… there was just a chance he might have a little more success than the MPD in the manhunt!

Two hours later, Superman grudgingly gave up and turned towards his workplace. He'd dropped by the hospital to remind the policemen guarding the boy that he was 'on the case'. Not that he particularly relished 'supervising' them in this way… but he'd made a promise to Ben which he intended to keep. While there, he'd been pleased to have a quick conversation with Nurse Kominski who was continuing to keep a close watch on Ben and had promised to scream for help if the need arose.

A second flyover of Hobbs Bay and the disused warehouses in the dock area had been his last port-of-call and, when that search had failed to turn up any clues, Clark had decided to call a halt and return to his paid job. Lois was no doubt running out of excuses by now. With the passage of time, his unexplained absences were considered common fare in the newsroom, hardly even causing remark, yet he didn't like to short-change his employers who, after all, paid his wages.

Clark entered the newsroom from the stairwell to find Lois waiting by the elevator. "Hi there, honey," he bent close and whispered in her ear as he walked up behind her.

Accustomed to being surprised by her husband's quiet arrivals, Lois clasped the hand that slid round her waist. "There you are, and just in the nick of time!"

"What is it, Lois?" Clark's voice rose anxiously at her words of welcome.

"Calm down, Clark! It's nothing life-threatening. Just another silly break-in a few blocks from Clinton Avenue where you used to live. Can you believe some thieves… they broke into a Salvation Army depot! Perry's asked us to cover it, which just proves how sparse news is these days. His top investigators on the theft of some secondhand clothes! Stefan!" Lois turned to catch the young copy-boy's attention as he headed towards Perry's office, his arms filled with a stack of paper-printouts — the Chief still liked to edit copy the old-fashioned way. Stefan's progress halted and he glanced up at the sound of his name being called. "Stefan, tell Perry that Clark got back and we're on our way out to cover the story. Thank you," she added at the youngster's nod of his head. "I doubt this will take long, so if he wants to hold a spot for this evening addition we'll have our copy back to him in plenty of time. I mean, how much of a story is this going to be!" That was said in an aside to Clark, as the elevator arrived and they stepped inside.

"I don't know, Lois, maybe there might have been some money being held overnight. Their people are pretty active in collecting for charity at this time of year."

"Then that's sick! That money is for helping them man soup-kitchens over the holidays. What sort of mean burglar would do a thing like that?!"

"Burglars are usually pretty mean people, Lois. It sort of goes with the territory."

"Yeah, well, someone should tell them that this is a time of peace and goodwill!" They rode the elevator to the parking level. "I'm assuming that your search came up empty, since I haven't heard anything about Arlo being apprehended."

"You're right. I also checked back at the hospital and the MPD isn't having much success either. It's like the guy's become invisible."

"Hey, Clark," she said as she reached the Jeep and clicked off the central-locking system. "You don't think Arlo's managed to get his hands on one of Alan Morris' invisibility suits?"

"Lois, Alan destroyed those suits years ago…"

"Yeah, but he did go to work with the government on their stealth-tactics project. Maybe they're making these suits by the truckload. We could have a whole army of invisible soldiers by now!" Lois' hands gripped the steering wheel tensely at that scary thought, as she drove out of the parking-garage.

"Honey, I think Superman's answer to these suits pretty much made them redundant. No, if Arlo is out there he's found another way to remain hidden. Meanwhile, we have this 'big' robbery to cover," he teased.

Lois gave him a sideways warning glance. "Don't knock it! Unless Alro gets himself arrested, it's the biggest story in town today."


Joseph Arlo walked with forced confidence through the entrance to Metropolis General Hospital. He'd spent the morning getting used to his new uniform, which actually fit him well, and his guise had proved very effective. He'd even managed to collect enough for charity to buy himself a pretty good lunch — didn't they say that 'charity begins at home'?

It had been a little nerve-wracking walking into the fast- food restaurant, but it seemed that the public expected Salvation Army personnel to eat. Why he'd even picked up a few extra donations in his collection tin while he was eating! It seemed the citizens of Metropolis liked to salve their consciences at this time of year.

Last night he'd got lucky! He'd broken into their local 'army' depot looking for some secondhand clothes with which to disguise himself — a heavy overcoat, hopefully a hat and maybe a pair of old glasses. There had been plenty of clothes to choose from, though he never did find spectacles. Instead he'd come across a pile of dark-navy uniforms lying on a table with a little note attached, telling this guy Albert to take them to the dry-cleaners first thing in the morning, as all the band-members wanted to look smart for their street concert on Christmas Eve. The uniforms had to be at the cleaners early to get under the deadline for pickup. That's when he'd remembered his training for the NIA that the best hiding place was in plain sight. Everyone expected to see the Salvation Army out in force at Christmas time, and one of those 'sob soldiers' wouldn't look out of place visiting the hospital either!

At least, that was the theory, but he couldn't stop his stomach from doing somersaults as he put it to the test in the busy foyer of the hospital. Yet no one paid him much attention: even when he shook his collection can under their noses, they just stuck their hands in their pockets or purse and dropped some coins in the opening. He even found the gumption to approach a fresh-faced rookie cop, but so far no one looked at his face and there were no shouts of recognition

He'd hung around for some time to allow his nerves to settle and the medical staff to become used to his presence; then, strolling over to the stairwell, he'd slipped inside. Deciding not to go straight to the top floor, he'd spent a few minutes wishing the staff and some patients season's greetings on the intervening floors. When he'd reached the Burns Unit, he'd stuck his nose around the door, but spotting the heavy police presence, he'd quickly let it swing shut. That was it! Gone was his idea of getting even with the kid. He had to go see Church and get out of here as soon as possible, or else there was a very good chance of him spending New Year in a police cell, and every other year of his life for a very long time.


Lois and Clark soon discovered that the 'big heist' was really no robbery at all. When they interviewed the 'commander' of the base, he explained that, though there had been a little money locked in a cash-box in his desk, it hadn't been touched. In fact, nothing was missing, except for the uniforms, and Major Holby had already checked with his subordinate to find they'd been delivered to the cleaners as arranged. Albert hadn't even realised the depot had been broken into, as he'd come and gone through the front door and the broken window had been round the back in a store room which held only boxes of sheet- music and stacks of Bibles.

"Were any Bibles stolen?" Lois asked for want of a better question.

"To tell the truth, I wouldn't know," Major Holby admitted with a tiny grin. "Only God knows how many are back there, but they definitely don't look disturbed. Besides, I wouldn't be too upset if someone wanted to take one of the Lord's good books."

"So what have we got here… a holy thief?" Lois gazed around her at the meeting-hall, noting that her husband had pulled his glasses a little way down his nose — a sure sign that he was also checking things out in his own unique way. The large room with its rows of benches looked plain but entirely clean and neat, with nothing out of place. Clark gave a negative shrug. Lois sighed, returning her attention to the major. "And nothing else has been damaged or anything?"

"Not that I can see. Perhaps someone off the street just wanted to spend the night in a warm place," Major Holby offered. "I feel a bit foolish for calling in the police and causing all this fuss."

"Don't worry about it, Major," Clark remarked with a friendly grin. "You were broken into, after all, and we've covered quite a few false alarms in our time."

The Salvation Army officer laughed knowingly, hoping to prove that he was more worldly than his 'calling' would suggest. "I must admit, I was pretty surprised to see Lane and Kent turn up here."

"Actually, I used to live just round the corner on Clinton, so I know the area pretty well!"

"You did? I only moved here a couple of years ago, but there are a lot of good people in the neighbourhood, contrary to its reputation." Major Holby leaned in closer to share a confidence. "Actually, they tell me that Superman used to be seen around here a fair bit. Thank goodness, I didn't call for Superman and waste his time also!"

Lois looked warningly at Clark as she watched his lips twitch and his shoulders give the barest of shakes. "Well, Superman is a busy guy and he shows up in lots of places. But if there's nothing more you can tell us, we'll just have a few words with the local police and than we'll go."

"Thank you for your assistance, Major Holby. You'll probably get a mention in this evening's Daily Planet." Clark offered his hand which the major shook willingly, looking quite pleased at Clark's comment.

"Fame, at last! I just wish I could be more help, but there really doesn't seem anything to he helpful about."

"Maybe Clark and I could put a little plug in our piece about all the good work the Salvation Army does, especially at this time of year."

"You would, Ms Lane?" God's soldier beamed even more. Lots of people read and respected the Daily Planet and getting a mention in it should boost their charity work a whole lot. "That's very kind of you."

"It is Christmas, Major!" Lois smiled as she said her goodbyes and walked over to confront the men in another type of blue uniform who were busily doing their jobs.

"Lois, how do you plan on getting your 'plug' past Perry? It's not even a robbery and he isn't going to go for just a 'fluff' piece!" Clark hissed in her ear while he followed her.

"Clark, like you said, it was a break in! You know, it's not totally out there to surmise that the crook had a change of heart. Maybe his conscience bothered him when he saw all these Bibles!"

"Oh yeah, a crook who got religion. Well, stranger things have happened I suppose!"

"Clark Kent, what is this… role-reversal? You're the one who's the optimist…"

"Honey, I'm all for a little role-reversal! I know how you like to…"

"… be on top! I doubt I'll ever live that down!"

Playfully she whacked his arm, then removed the smile from her lips as they approached the police sergeant in charge — this was business. Unfortunately, the police could tell them very little. Even if the burglar hadn't been of a religious persuasion, he was evidently very tidy, because he hadn't left as much as one tiny clue — no damage, except for the broken pane of glass and no other traces. Oh, apart for some scuffed footprints in the dust on the floor of the small room, but nothing clear enough to identify the thief. As for fingerprints — it looked like he'd worn gloves and besides, this place was frequented by many: picking out individual prints would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. And, since he hadn't stolen anything, the police were willing to close the case, as was Major Holby.

After another careful scan of the whole area, Clark confirmed the policeman's summation of the crime-scene and the couple left with hardly anything to report. Perry would be thrilled!


Arlo couldn't believe the ease with which he'd made it to the top floor, which only proved that the general public perceived strangers only superficially and didn't look too far beyond the exterior. Up here in the higher regions, the hospital was so much quieter and calmer, almost as if the staff had decreed that their rich clients shouldn't be disturbed even by the sounds of necessary medical procedures.

He'd used the stairs again to gain access, and thanked his lucky stars as he eased through the door. The elevator would have delivered him to the floor right in front of the nurses' reception area, and, though he did doubt that anyone would recognise him, he wasn't sure that a Salvation Army officer with a collection can would be allowed to wander around these 'hallowed hallways'.

Joe walked quickly in the opposite direction from the desk and prayed that Lady Luck would stay with him and that his destination would be on this side of the nurses' station. Otherwise, he'd have to go back down the stairs and traverse the building and climb up on the other side. He'd checked the lay-out of the hospital from a handy bulletin board he'd found on the ground floor and noted that there was a stairwell in both wings, supposedly for easier access should the hospital need to be evacuated in an emergency.

But fate was still smiling on him, which was good. He'd been in this building too long. He just wanted his business concluded so he could leave. The number of cops around was making him nervous, even if they weren't in close proximity. However, the signs on the wall depicting the room numbers showed him that he was in the right area and he hurried down the corridor towards his goal.


"Thank you, Ms Kendall." Bill Church smiled ambiguously at the nurse's aide as she finished making his bed and straightening up his nightstand. He couldn't quite put his finger on why, but the woman made him feel uncomfortable. Perhaps it was because she was such an unattractive little thing and he was a man who appreciated glamourous women.

"Can I get you anything else, Mr Church?"

Her returning smile was sickly sweet. Obviously, Ms Kendall had developed a crush on him. The poor woman was always trying so hard to please, always checking in to see if he had all he needed, and it grated on his nerves. It was beginning to make him claustrophobic. If he wasn't getting out of here tomorrow, he'd be strongly tempted to ask the management for her removal. Yet, he supposed that one more day of her clingy attention wouldn't really hurt him overmuch. Besides, she'd be going off duty around four this afternoon and he'd be gone by the time she came back on the floor tomorrow. So what difference would a couple of hours make?

"No thanks, Ms Kendall. I have everything I need. You've tidied up the room very well," he grimaced at the thought of her folding up his personal laundry and putting it away, even if it was under his careful eye… and it was part of her job. Nevertheless, it made his skin crawl and he wanted her out of here now. "I think I'll just sit here in the afternoon sun and read my papers. And besides, I believe my lawyer is coming to visit very soon… So, if you don't mind…" He waved his hand in the direction of the door in an unmistakable dismissive action.

Ms Kendall almost bobbed a small curtsy and, with her grin threatening to freeze on her face forever, she marched out of the room. "Why that slimy, sickly, stupid son-of- a- b


h," she whispered under her voice, unable to stop her anger from boiling over. She'd make him pay for the condescending way he'd treated her these past couple of days.

Yet, to be honest, Mindy was more incensed at the lack of progress she was making than Bill Church's arrogance. After all, she hadn't expected him to act any differently… the man was an ass! But she had expected to find some sort of evidence that would lead to his downfall. She was aware that he'd been conducting his business affairs from his hospital suite. The stream of assistants and legal personnel who'd frequented his room testified to that, yet everyone had appeared legitimate — so far.

Only she knew that Intergang never slept, so one of those visitors had to be relaying his instructions to his more nefarious business contacts. Mindy would bet that the lawyer was the most likely candidate. So all she had to do was listen in to their up-and-coming conversation and the little bugs that she'd managed to plant in Church's dresser while she was stowing away his clothes would do the trick. Mindy hurried to find the micro-tape recorder she'd hidden in her locker. This could be it… her moment of glory!

She was almost so intent on her mission that she practically didn't notice the uniformed man who rushed past her, though she had to admit that he looked pretty incongruous on this floor. After all, most of the clientele up here conducted their charity work on a much grander scale, where it would be noticed by the public and where they could claim a tax-break. So what was a Salvation Army guy doing around these parts… and would the staff have allowed him to pester their privileged patients?

Mindy thought not! And, now that she came to think of it, there was something very familiar about the man. Mindy never forgot a face. It was the one thing that had kept her out of deadly trouble in her long career in crime. She was also pretty good at remembering names… and Joseph Arlo was the name that went with that specific face.

Joe the Blow — one of Intergang's top explosive experts and the one most favoured by the Churchs. She'd used him herself a number of times. Now what was the guy doing here? Had he come to send Church to the never-never-land? She very much doubted it. Mostly, criminals don't bite the hand that feeds them… unless they were completely insane, and somehow Joe Arlo had never struck her as a madman. Cold, calculating, competent, but always professional.

No, he was here because Church had sent for him… or because he wanted something from his old boss. A satisfied grin settled on Mindy's face. Judging by all the media attention that Arlo was receiving right now, she'd guess he was here to pick up his wages and some assistance from Bill to get him out of town. It would certainly account for his disguise.

And if Arlo had come to Bill Church for help, then he had to have some leverage to force Bill's hand — Junior did nothing for nothing. With her shoulders straightening and her walk returning to something akin to her sexy sashay, Mindy went quickly to retrieve her recording device. This could be exactly what she'd been waiting for, and she'd stake her life that this was going to prove a very interesting conversation on which to eavesdrop.


Bill glanced at his watch when he heard the door to his room open. It was a little early for his lawyer, so he fervently hoped that this wasn't yet another visit by Ms 'busybody' Kendall. The woman really was growing very irritating! He put down his papers and turned to confront her, but the figure standing in front of the closed door was someone entirely different.

He regarded the Salvation Army officer with some surprise, finding his voice after a few seconds. "I'm sorry but I don't deal with you people. Not that I have anything against your organisation, of course. You do serve a purpose." Bill strove to keep his exasperation at bay. Having a charity worker thrown out would not be good PR! "Indeed, what would the city's unfortunates do without the Salvation Army?" Personally, he'd consign them all to a large in-fill project he hoped to have up and running in the very near future, but that was a another matter. "However, I have a personal assistant who deals with my many donations to charity…"

"Cut the crap, Bill!" the man said quietly but with a cold deliberation, removing his cap. "I'm not who you think I am!"

Squinting at the uniformed figure, Bill questioned almost inaudibly. "Arlo? Joe Arlo?" His tone rose with shock and annoyance, causing their unknown listener to sigh with relief. These bugging devices were voice activated and she wanted to be sure the recorded messages would be clear. "What are you doing here?" Church went on, evidently thrown by his unexpected caller.

"I've come to collect my wages!" Arlo announced plainly.

"But you shouldn't be here! Don't you know the police are after you? Haven't you been reading the papers or seen any TV?"

"Yup! Why the hell else do you think I'd be dressed up in one of these 'holy monkey suits'?" His hand pulled at the high collar, which had been steadily getting tighter by the hour.

"But it isn't safe here! You could be spotted… and here with me!"

"Not safe for who? You always did look after your own skin," Arlo ground out between clenched teeth.

"That's not true!" came the offended reply. "Who was it set up the 'union' for the boys? Everyone knows I'll take care of them and their families if they go down."

"Oh yeah, just as long as they don't point the finger at you… assuming they know where to point the finger." Arlo walked menacingly closer to the seated man. "But if anyone gives the slightest impression that they'd be willing to grass on you, they end up dead!"

Church could see that a little supplication was needed here. "I wouldn't do that to you, Joe. You and I go back a long way…"

"Keep the violins for saps who believe it, Church. That's why I came to see you personally — so we can have a chat one on one." The last words were spoken pleasantly enough, but the man's stance was still threatening. "But relax, Bill, no one knows I'm here and no one will recognise me in this getup. All you have to do is give me my money and I'm out of here… out of Metropolis and this freezing-cold country. I can't finger you from South America."

Bill bridled. He hated being told what to do. It was the one thing that had annoyed him about his dad — the way Bill Sr had always treated him like a junior employee! Well, he'd made his dad pay for that, which wasn't quite true as it was Mindy in the end who'd sent them both to prison, but Bill had a selective memory on occasion.

"I don't owe you anything, Arlo." Bill used his surge of bravado to its best advantage and pushed up from his chair. "You didn't finish the contract. I still haven't got my hands on all the real-estate I need."

"That's your problem not mine. The contract was that I would take out the targets you told me to. It was a pay on delivery job… and I still haven't been paid for my last hit down in Hobbs Bay."

"And you won't! I paid you for the Gateway incident and you totally messed that up. You assured me that all the loose ends had been taken care of and that wasn't true. Because of your incompetence, the police are searching for you and my position in the community could very well be put at risk. The money you got for the work you mucked up can be regarded as your fee for the last job. Now get out of here before I ring for security!"

A slow but unpleasant grin lit up Arlo's expression. "Be my guest, Church. I'd like to see you talk your way out of why a known suspect is paying you a visit. Besides, the police will be very interested in hearing what I have to say… not to mention that our other associates will be very fascinated to know how you're defrauding them of their profits. " That last insinuation struck a chord in the other man and Arlo moved in closer until he was staring at his colleague eyeball-to-eyeball. "Now why don't you sit down, Mr Church, and we can talk about this reasonably."

Bill tried hard to brave it out. He was taller than Arlo, though probably not as tough, and he felt distinctly inadequate. Maybe it was difficult to appear intimidating in silk pyjamas and robe while his adversary sported a uniform… even if it was one of a church. Or maybe it was because he realised he was looking into the eyes of a cold- blooded killer. He subsided in his chair, understanding that in this case discretion was the better part of valour.

And what if he did have to use some of his well-earned cash? It wasn't as if he hadn't plenty of it… and he would have to pay well if he wanted to ensure this man's silence. Of course, there was always the chance that Arlo would double-cross him, but he very much doubted it — it just wasn't in the man's best interests.Arlo needed to escape and Bill had the means to make it happen. If in the future Arlo became a problem, then South America wasn't so far away that he couldn't be dealt with.

"You're correct, Joe," Bill admitted with a grudging grin, not wanting to give in too eagerly. He had a position of crime-boss to maintain. "There really is no reason for us to quarrel over this. You've carried out many well- organised jobs for me in the past. I see no reason why I shouldn't make a good-will payment… just to help you out of a bad spot, you understand."

Hey, the scum-bag was making out that Joe himself was at fault and he was the bountiful master! Arlo felt like throwing the man right out the window of his luxury pad, but that would serve no purpose, except making him feel a whole lot better for now. But Joe had to keep sight of the bigger picture here. He needed to get out of the country and Church had enough moolah to help… and he intended taking the schmuck for everything he could. Once he got clear though, he could always send a message to Intergang's chiefs that they should investigate their business affairs in Metropolis. He doubted that Church's books could withstand an audit from the powers that be. For now Arlo decided he would cooperate.

"That's real good of you, Mister Church. I knew common- sense would prevail in the end."

"Just let me get my checkbook, Joe. I have it here in my nightstand." Church rose again to go over to the small set of drawers.

"Check… I'd prefer cash!"

"Joe, be reasonable! Would I really have the kind of money you want stashed here in the hospital. Besides, you can take it to my personal banker — Malcolm Samuels, he owns a jewellery store on…"

"Yeah, I know it! You've paid me through him before…"

Bill sounded surprised. "I have?Strange, I usually use him only in an emergency."

"It was an emergency at the time! He was one of your father's old friends, before you took over."

Retrieving his checkbook, Bill proceeded to write while making a personal note to sever his contact with Samuels. He really didn't want anything more to remind him of his father's tenure of Intergang… Bill Church Jr was in charge now. He tore off the check and handed it to his visitor. "Will that do?"

A long whistle escaped Arlo's lips. This guy must be loaded! "That's very generous of you, Mr Church."

"Don't mention it, Joe. I did say I look after my own…"


The moment Mindy had overheard Church incriminate himself in the 'Gateway' incident, she'd left her tape running and headed speedily for the Burns Unit, where she knew she'd find a number of Metropolis' finest. Once there, she'd put on quite a show for the upstanding police officers — she ought to have been an actress!

"Please, sir," she attracted the attention of a big bulky sergeant who seemed to be the most senior officer present. "You have to come quickly," Ms Kendall gasped as if she'd been running hard, letting her voice tremble in a good imitation of fear.

"I'm very sorry, ma'am, but we can't leave our post here. Maybe you could try the hospital security," the big policeman informed the distraught lady kindly.

"Oh no! I need the police! You see I know where *he* is!"

"He! Who?" The sergeant had no idea what this woman was talking about, but she was definitely in a state about something.

"The man you're all looking for… The one on the TV news," Mindy allowed her eyes to fill up with terrified tears and gazed urgently at her supposed rescuer through the thick lenses of her glasses. "The one who's got his photo in all the papers. You know… 'Have You Seen This Man?'. I have! I work on the top floor and I just passed him going to visit one of our patients… a Mr Bill Church!"

This was now beginning to make sense to the policeman — he knew about Church's previous record. "Are you sure, ma'am'?" He absentmindedly patted the hand which was clutching nervously at his arm as he deliberated over his options. He didn't want to send his men on a wild-goose chase, especially when he'd been warned not to leave this floor for any reason. Yet he certainly didn't want to pass up on an opportunity to catch the suspect.

"Yes, I am sure… I think his name is Arlo, isn't it?" Mindy was beginning to get a little frustrated by this thick-headed cop's hesitation, but she swallowed her ire and clung harder to the man's arm.

"Yeah, that's him, but how did he get past security on the ground floor?"

"He's dressed in a Salvation Army uniform," Ms Kendall suggested helpfully. "I probably would have missed him if I hadn't bumped into him. I was carrying towels and they fell on the floor… He didn't even help me pick them up, just gave me a disgusted glare and hurried on. Now that's not the sort of behaviour you expect from a member of God's army! Then I realised where I'd seen him before… and I understood! I saw him go into Mr Church's suite." The lies rolled easily off Mindy's tongue. This was proving a much harder task to convince these cops than she'd first supposed, but help was at hand. A younger policeman approached his sergeant.

"I think this lady might be right, Sarge! There was a Salvation Army guy down in the foyer… I saw him when I was doing a patrol. I even put some money in his can, but, now that I think about it, he did look a bit familiar…"

"Monk, you're a blockhead!" The sergeant was galvanised into action. "You two stay here," he instructed the guards by the Burns Unit security doors. There were two more officers inside, directly by Ben Kershaw's room, and he felt this would be sufficient. "Radio in for back-up and get the guys in the lobby to meet us on the top floor. And stay alert… this could be a trick to get us to leave our post…"

"Officer! I hope you're not implying that I…" Mindy turned hurt accusatory eyes on the policeman. "I was only trying to help…"

"No, ma'am! I'm sure you're only doing what any concerned citizen would. But we're dealing with hardened criminals here and they tend to be very devious types. I wouldn't be doing my duty if I didn't prepare for every scenario. Monk, you come with me. Let's pay Mr Church a visit and see who he's got with him. You never know, kid, you might get a chance to make up for your earlier mistake by playing hero!"

Mindy smiled as she tagged along behind the two policeman. The sergeant seemed pretty capable, if not overly bright. Just the sort of policeman she needed to arrest Arlo and William Church Jr. Things couldn't have worked out better. Still, she was just congratulating herself on a job well done when the elevator doors opened and Chief Inspector Henderson arrived on the floor. Not being entirely convinced that this astute detective wouldn't see through her disguise, Ms Kendall immediately faded into the background.

Henderson checked over his men quizzically. They'd clearly been waiting for the elevator to arrive, and he doubted if they were preparing an honour guard for him. "What's going on here?"

"Chief, I sure am glad to see you," the sergeant explained, feeling very relieved to hand over responsibility to his senior officer. "We've just had a tip from one of the hospital staff." He gestured vaguely behind him. "A nurse told us that Joseph Arlo is on the top floor visiting Bill Church. She recognised Arlo from the publicity photographs and she seems pretty certain that it's him, sir. We thought we should get up there and check it out immediately, before he has a chance to escape."

Glancing in the direction of the sergeant's wave, the Chief saw a fairly nondescript bespectacled female hovering nervously near the nurses' station. They really needed to get a statement from her, but that could wait until her information was verified. Meanwhile, the sergeant was correct: catching Arlo was the main objective and, if he was with Church, they might just bring down two birds with one stone!


In the fancy hospital suite Arlo grinned. He had what he wanted. This amount of money was more than enough to help him escape: it would set him up in a new life down in Columbia, providing of course that Church wasn't thinking of double-dealing on him.

"Hey, this check isn't gonna bounce is it? Samuels will come up with the money?"

An oily smirk turned up the corner of Church's mouth. "Come on, Joe, I'm not like that. Samuels will pay out, and he'll even provide you with a new passport, for a fee, of course. But that's between you and him. Now I think our business is concluded. Goodbye, Joe, have a nice life!"

At that moment the door burst open and suddenly the room was filled with uniformed cops, their fire-arms trained on the two men.

"Freeze!" The shout came from a sergeant who inched forward from the group.

"Joseph Arlo, I arrest you in connection with the arson attack on the 'Gateway' shelter…" Chief Inspector Henderson continued to read Arlo the rest of his rights as he walked into the centre of the room and waited while the sergeant restrained the suspect. Thankfully, the alleged villain had decided that it was useless to resist arrest with all the guns pointed at him. Henderson was also fairly confident that Church wouldn't create trouble either. He doubted that Church would have a firearm here in the hospital, and besides, it wasn't the man's style. The crime boss would prefer to use the law to wriggle out of this predicament, but, hopefully, this time he'd have a harder task than usual.

"I'll take that," Henderson demanded as he grabbed the piece of paper which was still dangling from Arlo's cuffed hands. There was another long whistle as the detective perused the item. "What's this, Mr Church?"

With his face as white as his silk pyjamas, Church Jr tried a little bluff. "A donation to the Salvation Army?"

Nodding his head, Henderson looked doubtful. "I'm sorry to have to tell you, but this man is a fraud. He's not a member of that respected organisation. But then you already knew that, Church, since you've written this check to Joseph Arlo. I think you have some explaining to do. Perhaps you'd like to come down to the station to account for your actions."

"Are you arresting me, Henderson? My lawyer will be here any minute now, Inspector!"

"Good, then he can come with us… It will save us the price of a phone call!"

Church recognised the resolution on the detective's face, but he tried to stall once more. "At least let me get dressed before I agree to accompany you… merely to help with your enquiries, of course."

"What? And deprive the public and my men of the sight of your beautiful designer nightwear?" Henderson stepped back from the path to the door, barely concealing his contempt. "Get them both out of here!"


From her vantage point round the edge of the linen-cupboard door, Mindy struggled to suppress her triumphant laughter. This was the best Christmas present she could ever have, to see Bill Church taken into custody for questioning. And he'd never be able to talk himself out of this one, not when the authorities received the anonymous tape she was holding in her rubber-glove covered hands.

She'd managed to find her way back to the top floor just in time to hide in the cupboard to watch two desperate felons being apprehended by the police. Soon it would be time for her shift to finish and for Ms Kendall to disappear forever into the depths of Metropolis' seedy underworld.

However, not wanting to wait until 4 pm, Ms Kendall made her apologies to her co-workers, excusing herself on the grounds that her nerves were shot by her close call with the vicious thug. The rest of the staff were very sympathetic, assuring her that if the police wanted to talk to her, they'd send them to her home address. The plump, ill-favoured nurses' aide thanked them and left Metropolis General Hospital for the final occasion by a side door, her passing going totally unnoticed.

A few blocks from the hospital, her hands now clothed in warm woolly mittens, she dropped a brown envelope, which was addressed to Chief Inspector Henderson at MPD headquarters, into a postal box. Of course, the department never would find Ms Kendall when they went looking for her statement, and even if they did manage to figure out her connection with the tape, they could never prove who was the real Ms Kendall.

Congratulating herself on her magnificent coup, Mindy almost glowed as she crossed the road to hail a taxi. She couldn't wait to get back to her room and get out of this horrible getup. Then, all she had to do was wait for the legal wheels to turn and for the information to spread that there was an opening for the local boss of Intergang — a position which she was determined to fill. The year 2007 was going to be a better one for Mindy Church.


Chapter Eight

A Visit to Santa's Grotto, a Ball, and a Game

Usually, Lois and Clark made it a rule that they would never work together on Saturday mornings, preferring that at least one parent should spend time with their kids during the weekends. And on this particular day, Lois was actually covering the graveyard shift later, so she should be spending time relaxing at home. However, since yesterday's whirlwind arrest of Arlo and Church, and Chief Inspector Henderson's intriguing phone call about an anonymous tape he had received in his morning mail, Lois hadn't been able to resist accompanying Clark to work. After all, they'd been waiting for this momentous occasion for a long time, and if both were a bit disappointed that they hadn't been instrumental in bringing down William Church Jr, they weren't too upset. It was enough that the gang boss was finally being charged for his crimes.

Meanwhile, they had so much work to cover. There was to be a press-briefing around noon, but Henderson had promised Lane and Kent the exclusive inside story, and Lois certainly didn't want to miss out on writing up what had become something of a personal mission for her. The pity of it was that they'd only arrested one Church… the other more deadly of the species, Mindy, was still out there. Nevertheless, Lois resolved to be patient. She knew it was just a matter of time before she crossed swords with that witch again.

Both parents had been a little worried about how the children would react to their reneging on the time which was set apart for family matters, but surprisingly the kids were quite happy to be dropped off at their Grandma Martha's. They'd even gone as far as reassuring their Mom and Dad that they understood how important it was that the team of Lane and Kent report on the 'big arrests'. In fact, all the children had been so keen to say goodbye that it made the couple a little suspicious of what their family had planned for the day. Their kids were definitely turning into devious mini-plotters.

"Clark, do you think they're up to something?" Lois asked with a touch of dread; their children were known for their collective sense of adventure. She studied the grins on all four faces as the kids stood on the stoop to wave goodbye. "Nathan is positively jumping up and down with excitement, and, you know, he's the one who can't hide his feelings when they have something planned."

As Clark took advantage of an opening in the traffic to pull into the road, he shot a superfast glance back at his brood. They were looking a little pleased with themselves, but, on the other hand, they were under the care of his mother, so surely they wouldn't get into too much trouble. "Relax, honey, they'll be with Mom till we meet up with them at lunchtime. I bet that they're going uptown to buy our Christmas presents."

"I suppose that is possible," Lois yielded gracefully. "And as long as Julian doesn't draw on his trust fund for far too expensive gifts, then I'm perfectly happy with that!"

"We don't have to worry about that this year, Lois. I think Julian got the message that he doesn't need to buy our affection, and besides, I doubt Mom would agree to that again."

"I guess you're right!" Lois settled back into her seat to watch Clark smoothly and confidently negotiate his way through the early morning traffic, which was particularly busy on the final Saturday before Christmas. Sometimes Lois just enjoyed ogling her husband. "What do you think is on the tape that Henderson was talking about?"

"Lois, I haven't a clue. I'll admit I have super-powers, but I'm not a clairvoyant! You want Star for that!" Clark pulled up as the lights ahead of them turned red. "Mind you, I think the more pertinent question will be where did the tape come from!"

"Oh no!" Lois sat up straighter in her seat, all thoughts of tapes, arrests and stories forgotten. "Clark, we forgot Star! We haven't bought her a present… we've gotten one for everyone else, but…"

"Sweetheart, don't panic!" Clark placed a soothing hand on Lois' thigh as they sat waiting for the lights to change. "We still have today and tomorrow to catch up on any last- minute shopping."

"And I'm working tonight, and I'm taking Julian to the movies tomorrow afternoon… and you'll be at the game with the rest of the kids…"

"Lois, Superman doesn't need much sleep, and he's not confined to shopping here in Metropolis. I'll find a gift for Star somewhere."

"Clark, maybe one of these galactic stars for her tree… Yes, that's it! Star would really appreciate that and we could say that we asked Superman to get it for her specially."

"Okay, honey, a star for a Star it is!"

Satisfied that she'd suggested the perfect gift for her longtime friend, Lois settled back in her seat to wait less than patiently for their arrival at police headquarters.


The taxi pulled up in front of the New Troy Tower, depositing Martha and her charges on the wide expanse of sidewalk before the gleaming glass structure which rivalled the old Lex Luthor edifice for style and prominence on Metropolis' skyline. Quickly paying the driver, she shepherded her brood into the building, very conscious of the fact that, as the Daily Planet was just one block away, they could quite easily meet up with Lois or Clark and that would be an end to their clandestine operation.

Once again Martha was wondering how she'd allowed herself to be talked into another of the children's 'surprise' schemes. Very probably it was because she approved of their thoughtful idea, though she did feel that perhaps it should have been run past Superman first. However, she was also aware that the hero rarely interfered in the running of the organisation they were on their way to visit. They hurried across the tiled foyer and into the elevator, pressing the button for the third floor, where the 'Superman Foundation' rented a modest number of offices.

When they arrived at the tinsel-and-holly decorated reception area, Martha enquired, apologetically, if Mr Brown would be able to fit Mrs Kent and her grandchildren into his busy schedule? The receptionist looked a little doubtful, as the group had turned up without an appointment. Yet she had heard of the Kents' association with Superman, whose charity this was, so she passed on the message to Mr Brown's secretary. Nevertheless, the young woman was a little stunned at the alacrity with which the family were invited into the CEO's office — Mr Brown even appearing in the corridor to welcome them.

"Mrs Kent, this is a very pleasant surprise… and the children too. Please come in," the dark-suited, stocky gentleman welcomed his unexpected guests effusively, as he showed the way into his office. His red grizzly hair was peppered with more strands of grey, but he still retained his brash drive and enthusiasm for life.

When everyone was settled comfortably and refreshments had been served, Murray leaned back in his chair and asked the obvious question. "Now, I'm assuming that this isn't a purely social call, though it is nice to become reacquainted — and haven't you kids grown!" He made a steeple of his hands, behind which his eyes scanned the group, trying to figure out what would bring these particular members of the Kent family to the 'Superman Foundation'. "So what can I do for you?"

"Mr Brown," the tallest of the children spoke up, surprising the foundation's chairman. Murray glanced towards Martha Kent, but she seemed perfectly amenable to allowing the boy to continue. "We're here to ask for a donation from the Superman Foundation for a project we'd like to do."

"Joel?" the elderly man questioned, putting a name to the young face which was so similar to that of his father, Clark Kent, and perhaps someone else, but that was a matter best left in obscurity. The youngster nodded and Murray continued. "Joel, the Superman Foundation requires very specific requirements before it hands out money…"

"Oh yes, we understand that, Mr Brown, and we hope that our idea will meet with your approval," Joel hurried to add.

Seated in his chair, Murray stared at the boy, amazed at his adult presentation; the kid must have rehearsed this before he came in here.

"Mr Brown, the money isn't for us — we wouldn't ever ask for that." The blond boy sitting next to his brother edged forward. "I'm Julian," he reminded the older man. "It's actually for some children who I think you're already providing some money for."

This was beginning to be intriguing, and, given a supporting smile from Martha, Murray too leaned forward. His colourful tie — his one concession to the younger, more flamboyant 'representative to the stars' — swung free from his contrasting dark coat, threatening to end up in his coffee cup. He quickly tucked it away and continued, as the row of kids perched on his large couch restrained a giggle. "I think you should tell me what you have in mind, and I'll tell you whether the Foundation can help you."

Getting back to the serious business in hand, Joel took up the tale again. "There's a group of teenagers in the Burns Unit of Metro General Hospital who were hurt in the Gateway fire and we'd like to give them a proper Christmas."

"That's a very nice thought, but why would you kids be interested in doing this?" In truth, Murray Brown, having been around almost since Superman's conception, had a pretty fair notion, but it would be much better to have a plausible excuse for public consumption.

"Mom and Dad have interviewed Ben Kershaw, the kid who's turned state's evidence against Joe Arlo, the real bad guy, and they really believe he's so sorry for what he did and trying to go straight," Joel explained succinctly. "We thought we could help him by showing that someone cares about him… about all of them."

"Mr Brown, we're very lucky kids to have parents and grandparents who love us a whole lot," Julian began slowly, a faint edge of sadness in his voice. "And maybe I know more than the others what it's like to believe you're all alone in the world. It's not a nice place to be, especially for a kid. Mom and Dad took me in and gave me the best life I could ever have, but these Gateway kids haven't had that chance. I…" Julian glanced at his brothers and sister, blushing slightly. "We'd really like to give them some of what we have and we thought that this might be a good way to do that."

Clara decided to speak up — her brothers would take forever to get to the point. "Only we just have our allowance and we've already used that to buy family presents." Actually, that fact wasn't quite true. There was Julian's trust fund, but Mom and Dad had been upset last year when Julian had raided that, warning him not to do it again. So that idea had been quickly dumped — the money would have to come from somewhere else. Clara cut straight to the chase. "And, you know, Mr Brown, decent gifts don't grow on trees and we don't want to insult these kids by giving them anything tacky!"

Murray's head nodded in complete agreement; thankfully he hadn't been put off by Clara's blunt speech and Joel and Julian both heaved inaudible sighs of relief. "Yes, Miss Kent, I can see the problem… and do you know, I think we might be able to help."

A bright confiding smile lit Clara's face. "I thought you'd understand, Mr Brown, and please call me Clara. Anything you could give us would be app… appreciated. And you wouldn't have to worry that we'd waste the money. Gramma Martha is here to see we do things right!"

"And we're going to visit Nurse Kominski. She works in the Burns Unit and knows all the kids. We're hoping she'll give us some help with what presents to buy," Joel added.

"Mr Brown, my grandchildren aren't asking for a lot of money," Martha joined in the conversation at last, adding her own brand of persuasion. "I did some enquiring and there are only six of the Gateway teenagers still in the hospital, so a small donation would be suitable… and I'm sure Superman would approve."

"Mrs Kent, I think we've known each other long enough for you to call me Murray, and I'm certain that Superman would be very proud of these children for thinking up this idea. You know, kids, we're a sizeable organization — not huge, but very well known — and just sometimes we're so busy thinking about the big picture that the smaller details get overlooked. But that doesn't mean that the details aren't important. So, the Superman Foundation would be very happy to be associated with your project."

Nathan, who'd been sitting quietly on his gramma's knee, listening intently, squinted at the corpulent gentleman with the rosy cheeks in the big chair opposite. He was learning new words every day, but this assoo…sayted thing was a new one. "Is that a yes, Mr Brr…own?" he asked very politely, his brow creased in concentration.

"It surely is, my boy!" Mr Brown rose from his seat and crossed to his desk, pushing a button on his intercom machine. "Elizabeth, could you bring the petty cash box in here please," he instructed his secretary. "I'd write you a check, but I doubt you'd have time to cash it and do the shopping before the big day. We keep a fair amount of cash on hand in the office, especially at this time of year, for emergency contributions. And let's face it, what burglar would be mad enough to rob Superman's offices? This place is probably safer than the National Bank!"

Murray grinned broadly at his own joke and the others joined in happily. The Kent kids were over the moon. Their operation had been successful. Now all they had to do was find out from Nurse Kominski what they should get, buy the presents, wrap them and the surprise would be set up for Mom and Dad and the kids in hospital on Christmas Day. Their only remaining worry was that Mr Brown would be generous enough with his donation.

That, however, was an issue which was quickly answered as the friendly gentleman received the box and counted out a fairly substantial amount of money. Clara and her brothers smiled even more broadly; they'd be able to do these injured kids proud. In fact, when Mr Brown had re-locked the little chest, he put his hand in his own wallet and contributed a tidy sum of his own, intimating that he wanted to be part of such a considerate scheme.

"There you are, young man," Murray announced as he folded the bills together and handed the bundle over to Joel. "I'm very proud to know such thoughtful children, and don't wait so long to visit me the next time. Murray Brown's door is always open to such sweet people."

Voicing their gratitude, the group made its way out the door. Joel sensibly gave the money to his grandmother for safe-keeping, while Clara turned to have the last word.

"Thanks, Murray," Clara conferred gaily, assuming that the invitation to use first name terms included the whole family. "We really needed you to come through for us or we were dead in the water! And it would be great if you could keep this to ourselves for now… we don't want to spoil the surprise for Superman."

"I understand completely, Clara. I know nothing." Murray gestured zipping his lips.

"You're a cool guy, Murray," the small girl admitted generously. "Oh, and nice tie… very bright… reminds me of one my dad wears!"

And with that they were gone, Murray's laughter following them down the corridor towards the office exit. That girl, the Superman Foundation's chief representative thought, reminds me of her mother — spunky as they come!


Around lunchtime, just when Murray was deciding which one of his favourite restaurants would receive his patronage today, another surprise visitor arrived, though this one came in by the window.

"Superman!" Murray gulped, almost choking as he rose to he feet. Had the superhero already discovered the kids' plan? Some fancy footwork might be needed here; he just hoped he didn't let them down. "What brings you here, 'big guy'?"

"Is this a bad time, Murray?" the man in the blue suit enquired solicitously. "Because I can come back later."

"No, no!" Murray moved round his desk, his high-colouring seeming even more pronounced than normal. "Just don't see you so very often these days."

Superman placed the large bouquets of flowers and boxes of chocolates he was carrying on the coffee table as he strode into the room, offering his hand to his old acquaintance. "I know, and I'm sorry I seem to neglect you all, Murray, but I always try to drop by at the holidays to show my appreciation to all the staff for the hard work they do for me and our charities."

"Yes, yes, of course you do!" The elderly man's gaze followed the passage of the gifts onto the table with some relief. He took Superman's outstretched hand and gave it a healthy shake, his cocky grin attempting to reassert itself. Evidently this was just a social call and the kids' secret was safe. "It's Christmas time… sorta forgot!"

"Murray, are you feeling okay?" Superman had noticed the rush of blood to Murray's cheeks and, feeling concerned, he listened to the man's heartbeat, which did seem to be settling back into a steadier rhythm. "The job isn't getting too much for you, is it?" The superhero was conscious of the fact that none of them were getting any younger, and that it might be approaching time for Murray Brown to retire.

"I'm fine, Superman. In fact I've never been better. I know there are a lot of young whipper-snappers out there with all their fancy ideas who'd love to fill my shoes." The CEO gestured to the outer offices. "But no one knows better than me just how you like things done, Superman. We've been together for a long time…"

"Yes, we have," the superhero was quick to agree. "And I'd be really unhappy if you did want to go, Murray. The Foundation's worked very well under your guidance. I'm proud of the work you've done…"

"Hey, Superman, let's you and me not get too sentimental here," Murray grinned again but his eyes were uncommonly moist. "I'm only earning my commission, though I've enjoyed working for you. All these years ago, you put your trust in me, and there was no way Murray Brown was gonna let a client down."

Superman was perfectly happy to let the status quo continue. "Good, then that's agreed, everything stays the same. But there's one particular thing I would like to thank you for… Those children who were hurt in the Gateway fire; I was especially glad to know that we're taking care of their medical finances. The majority of them don't have any families, so they desperately need our help and our care."

Murray's smile seemed to grow even broader as he thought, like father — like kids, but he hurried on with his conversation. "And we're glad to help. It's an arrangement the Foundation set up a number of years ago. I think it might have been in the minutes of one of our annual meetings, but I know how busy you are, big guy, so you might have missed it."

"Murray, I'm not complaining! Like I said, I think you all do a great job, but now that I have a few minutes free, I'd like to say hi to the rest of the staff and thank them personally for their endeavours."

A holiday visit Murray could handle easily and he quickly moved to open his office door. "This way, Superman, everyone will be real thrilled to see you!"

Retrieving his gifts, Superman walked past Murray into the outer offices, grimacing at the portly man's garishly patterned tie as he went. Thank goodness Clark had a much better taste in ties!


The day passed by in a helter-skelter way for Lois. She and Clark had written up the story of Arlo's and Church's arrests and disclosed to the citizens of Metropolis the existence of an incriminating audio tape which had found its way to Chief Inspector Henderson by means of an anonymous source. However, at a request from the detective and the DA, they'd kept the mention of the tape to a minimum while its authenticity was verified and its origins, hopefully, uncovered.

Given the contents of the recording, which Henderson had played to Lois and Clark that morning, the informant had to be someone who worked inside or had access to the top floor of the hospital. Yet, the subsequent investigations by police and the reporting team, plus a little surreptitious super-sleuthing, could find no trace of any electronic listening devices either in the room or the surrounding area.

Whoever had bugged the incriminating conversation had managed to sweep the place clean within the time of the arrest and the police cordoning off the area, which had been a fairly small window of opportunity. Henderson had to admit, though, that in the chaos following the arrests, someone could have slipped through. Of course, until the arrival of the tape the next morning, Henderson's team had no reason to suspect even the existence of these bugs.

But one thing they did learn was that the nurses' aide who'd been the person to first sight Joseph Arlo, had been hired from an agency on a temporary basis to cover the holiday period. It also turned out that she hadn't reported for duty that morning and wasn't to be found at her home address, where she'd been living for only a few weeks.

When the neighbours had been questioned about her whereabouts, each one insisted they knew nothing about the new tenant. In fact, most had never even spoken with her, and so far, the police hadn't been able to contact the landlord, though they doubted he'd be much help either. Slowly the suspicion grew that Ms Kendal could very well be a bogus identity, but no one had an answer as to why that should be.

From the accounts given by her colleagues at work, she appeared to be a fairly nondescript individual who did her work well and kept to herself. Yet, recalling Diana Stride's disguising herself as a paramedic to kidnap Clark so many years ago, Lois had asked that both she and Clark be allowed to watch the security video tapes of the floor. The couple had felt that it was a long shot, but it had paid off.

Using the advantage of his super powers, Clark had viewed the tape a number of times, while Lois waited for his verdict with barely concealed impatience. Without a word, but with his lips set in a determined fashion, he'd drawn a pencil-sketch of the woman, stripping away the glasses and the additional body padding and substituting the mousy brown hairstyle with blonde tresses. When finally he'd turned the sketchpad to his wife, she'd been elated. Somehow Lois had known that the mysterious woman would turn out to be Mindy Church! Of course, even though Lois and Clark had confided their suspicions to Henderson, their hunch couldn't be proved and the couple had to accept that once again, Mindy had escaped!

After the press conference, Lois had returned to the Planet to write up the coverage, while Clark had gone to do a few 'super errands'. Then they'd met their children for a late lunch, hoping to spend some quality time with them for the remainder of the afternoon, but it seemed the kids had other plans. Lois and Clark, both believing they knew what was going on, agreed to meet their family back at home.

Truthfully, neither was averse to stealing some time alone together, and besides, Lois really needed to go to bed if she wanted to have any chance of fulfilling her duties as night editor. Unfortunately that had meant spending some time there on her own.

Hours later, in the dimmed light of the quiet editor's office, Lois rose from Perry's high-backed chair and wandered out into the almost empty newsroom. Normally, Lois would feel exhilarated by the buzz and state of expectation which filled this place. At one time, she'd even considered the Planet as her only real home. Yet that was long ago, and tonight the deserted city-office was the last place she wished to be.

There had been a heavy burst of rain in the late afternoon, but with darkness had come a fierce drop in temperature, causing the roads to turn treacherously icy. Hardly surprisingly,another pileup on the freeway had resulted from motorists driving too fast for the freezing conditions. Lois had chosen to send the more seasoned of her two reporters to cover the incident. The guy had phoned in his report and divulged that Superman had made a very quick appearance, flying a couple of the injured to hospital, but when the superhero had ascertained that there were no more serious injuries, he'd left the clear up to the emergency services and flown off… possibly to another rescue.

Lois had instructed her staffer to stay at the scene until the cleanup was complete, in case of further developments. She'd contact him there if she had another assignment for him. He wasn't a happy man and Lois couldn't blame him — who wanted to hang about outside in these temperatures?

Once more she checked her watch, knowing that the reporter's assumption about Superman was highly unlikely and that Clark was very probably sitting down to dinner at the award ceremony at this present moment. This was going to be a long night.

Her aimless meandering had taken her close to the one work station which basked in a pool of light, where a slim young woman sat engrossed before a computer monitor. Lois watched, with an air of reflective detachment, while the girl studied her notes, chewing on the end of her pencil, then reaching some conclusion, began typing briskly on her keyboard. Turn the clock back a few… well, a lot of years, and the picture could have been of someone else. Except this present reporter was a redhead.

Lois walked the final few steps to the desk. "Hi, Mary, have you written up that story on the break-in down at the liquor store?"

Mary eased back in her chair. "Sure, Chief," the younger woman answered with a grin, not noticing the grimace Lois gave at the sound of the title — that particular name belonged to Perry, and it made her feel old to have it directed towards her. "Wasn't much to tell, just some kids looking to celebrate an early Christmas. It wasn't as if they were armed or anything, and the local police patrol caught them like rats in a trap. Not exactly page one material!" Mary did not sound pleased.

"Don't be so impatient, Mary. Your time will come, believe me! How long have you been with us?"

"A little over a year! And I know that you'd gotten a few top stories under your belt by that time."

"Yes, but things were a bit different then. Superman hadn't shown up and Metropolis was a much less law-abiding city than it is now."

That wasn't strictly true, as there had been a noticeable rise in petty crime over the last few months. Still, Lois felt that this young woman had the potential to be a good reporter and she wanted to encourage her. Lois had never regretted her decision to become a journalist, even though she'd had to fight tooth and nail to become accepted in what was then pretty much a man's world. Thank goodness, Perry White had seen enough in the young Lois to challenge her and to back her up when the going got tough. Things might have changed a little in the intervening years, but it wouldn't hurt Mary to have a helping hand from an 'old hack' like herself!

A disembodied voice from the police-scanner crackled across the bull pit, interrupting Lois' thoughts.

'This is an all points bulletin. All units to Bibbo's Bar down in the bay area… another disturbance has been reported!'

That caused Lois to laugh. "Did I say Metropolis was more law-abiding? I meant everywhere but Bibbo's!" A disturbance on a Saturday night in that establishment usually meant that all-out war had broken out.

Mary pushed back in her chair and grabbed her thick coat — it would be cold down at Hobbs Bay, and this could take a while. "I'm on it, Chief!" And she was running for the elevator with all the fiery ambition which had once characterised a rookie reporter called Lois Lane.

Watching her go with an unexpected stab of jealousy, Lois sighed and started back to her office. Perry had asked her to check over his assessments on the new internees. She'd do it because it was important for those cub-reporters, like Mary, with budding careers, but she still hated this type of paperwork. Of course, she was fairly certain that some of the top managerial staff were of the opinion that she ought to be more suited to a desk job at this time in her life. But, while she didn't mind filling in now and then, as long as she had Clark by her side, neither of them were ready to give up the investigative job — the excitement of the chase. Lois doubted if they ever would.

She'd hardly taken a couple of steps when the elevator dinged again, warning her of its arrival on the floor. No doubt Mary had forgotten something, but when she turned towards the elevators, instead of an apologetic and flustered woman emerging, a shinny, shimmering apparition walked majestically onto the gallery above her.

Lois gulped and had to take a moment to assimilate who her unexpected visitor might be. In the darkened shadowy atmosphere of the empty newsroom the surreal appearance might have been of the ghost of Christmas past, present or future; she couldn't quite make up her mind! There was certainly something glittering in the subdued lighting but it wasn't chains.

Then the new arrival spoke, in its customary southern drawl, "Hi there, darlin'!" "Perry! What are you doing here?"

With his figure tightly corseted and clad in a white silk jumpsuit which daringly stretched and sparkled as he moved, Perry came down the ramp towards his stunned night- editor. "Hey, this is my newspaper, but I bet you didn't expect to see me here tonight!" he said grinning broadly beneath the false bangs of dark waves that covered his own thinning grey hair. Someone in the background turned the lights full on and Perry could be seen in all his magnificent 'Elvis in Vegas' attire.

"Nor me," Alice announced, following closely in the wake of her husband's swinging cape and tripping down the slope in a tight-fitting skirt with matching twin-set and stiletto heels that were much too high for comfort.

"Nor us!" There was a noisy chorus as four children outstripped both Alice and the ageing Elvis impersonator to reach their mother. The three eldest were dressed in their 'Grease' costumes of the night before, and it was obvious that Martha's sewing machine had been quickly utilised to create an outfit for Nathan, so he wouldn't feel out of place.

Feeling somewhat bewildered, Lois could only watch as her own parents and in-laws trooped into the newsroom, carrying various containers and crates of beer, while all wearing clothes in keeping with the fifties theme.

Yes, the ghost of Christmas past had arrived with a vengeance! Adopting a different style from Alice, Ellen was modelling a kingfisher-blue circular skirt and a short- sleeved blouse cinched with a tight belt, while the whole ensemble was finished off with a brightly coloured scarf tied jauntily around her neck. Martha was more simply attired in a calico print dress; however, she'd donned one of those crinoline underskirts that gave the skirt the appearance of a lampshade. Being a farmer, Jonathan had gone for a general 'Wild in the Country' look, but clearly her own father had decided to get in on the act, dressed as a very early version of the King in black leather jeans and jacket and matching silk shirt. And, oh my, he too was wearing a wig, but in his case the thick hair was swept into a high curl above his forehead.

She swallowed the hysterical urge to giggle, but couldn't help but remember that Clark had once looked especially hunky in a similar garb and was no doubt looking very hot tonight in his black tux and gleaming white shirt. Lois almost let out a groan of pure frustration at the thought of not being with him, but restrained herself and questioned Perry instead.

"Are you all on your way to your Elvis impersonators' party tonight? It was nice of you to drop round, but I can do this job you know, Perry." Lois allowed her exasperation to edge her voice, not being able to completely dispel her uncharitable envy that everyone was out to enjoy themselves tonight while she had to work.

"I know that, Lois," Perry spoke in conciliatory tones while the kids could barely contain their excitement as they milled around their mom, looking kinda cute in their retro-gear. "But we're not on our way to the party — we're at the party!" he declared on a guffaw.

"But I don't understand," exclaimed Lois as Nathan grabbed at her hand and shook it, unable to keep the big secret any longer.

"King's party's 'ere, Mommy! We's all 'ere! Gramma Martha make Nathan's new soooot!" He proudly displayed his drainpipe trousers with checkered shirt and bootlace tie, crowing gleefully, "See, Mommy, I's him!"

As the second elevator arrived, delivering yet more Elvises and their guests who speedily began setting up party food and drink, not to mention a state-of-the-art sound system which immediately began blasting out Elvis' rendition of 'All shook up'… and was that a karaoke machine?

Lois understood exactly how the singer was feeling!"But how will I get any work done with all this… hass… excitement going on?" Realising Perry would hardly agree with her opinion of the situation, Lois had discarded the first word she'd chosen. This night was turning into a complete disaster. The last thing she wanted was to be hiding away in the office, struggling with progress reports and editing fairly unexciting stories, while outside a fun time was being had by all!

"But you're not going to be working. You won't even be here!" Perry added still grinning with good cheer.

"Mommy's goin' to the Ball!" Nathan's smile was as big as his Uncle Perry's and all her kids were laughing as if they were in on a secret she knew nothing about.

"Yup, sweetheart! Cinderella will go to the Ball! And your mom's brought your gown and all the rest of the things that you women need to make yourselves presentable for these fancy dos, though if you were to ask me, Lois honey, you sure look good enough to eat at any time." Perry could see that Lois was still in shock at the sudden change of plans and, placing his hands on her shoulders, he turned her towards the ladies' washroom. "So don't hang around, go get changed!"

"Yes, Mom, Grandma Ellen's got all your stuff. Come on, hurry!" Clara took hold of Lois' one free hand and started dragging her to the ladies' room, while the rest of her family stood around chuckling happily at her.

But Lois resisted. "No, wait! Perry, it's my turn to be night-editor — I drew the short straw! I can't expect anyone else to do it for me."

"Well, fortunately it isn't up to you, Lois." Perry wagged an imperious finger under her nose. "I'm still in charge of this newspaper and, for once, you'll be good and do as you're told."

"But who'll do the job in my place?"

"Me, of course!" At Lois' sceptical look around the room, which seemed to be growing busier with every new arrival of the elevators, her boss's eyebrows rose quizzically. "What's wrong? Think your old 'Chief' isn't up to jugglin' two jobs at once, cause I gotta warn you, Lois, the King can do anything." His voice was stern but his eyes were twinkling, as he gave his cape a swirl. "I can handle the incoming stories and I'm sure those interns' assessments can wait till later. Lois, you and Clark have been through hell lately, and last year's holiday season ended in disaster for you too. You both deserve a break, and we're all here to see you get it. Now git! I got a party to get started!" Perry's hands gestured round the large newsroom, now resplendent with Elvis memorabilia.

Lois could appreciate when she'd been outmanoeuvred, and from the rest of the pleased as punch faces around her, she knew her family were all in on the conspiracy. She allowed herself to be pulled away, but stopped abruptly after a couple of yards and swung back. "Does Clark know about this?"

"Nope, he'll be as surprised as you, sweetheart!" Perry was enjoying the results of his clandestine plotting.

"Come on, Lois, let's get you ready." Ellen lifted the large box she'd been resting on a convenient desk, her pale bobbed hair swinging in harmony with her wide skirt. "Jimmy's waiting downstairs to drive you to the hotel and, if we hurry, we can have you there to enjoy dessert!"

"Yes, Mom," Clara chuckled. "Dad's gonna get a big surprise when you turn up."

A sly satisfied grin dawned on Lois' face, as she began to adjust to the party mood. "You know, sweetheart, I'm sure you're right, and I'll bet there will be one or two others who may be shocked to see me!"


The glittering dining room of Metropolis' grandest hotel was abuzz with a hundred cultured voices as guests took their seats at the many round tables throughout the large room. Paula Raine had to pinch herself that she'd not been transported back in time as she looked over the stylish members of New Troy's high society. So little had changed since last year; she was still working, though Caroline Whitbread's party was a vast improvement on her previous escort. She shook the bad memories away, determined to ban the ghosts of past tragedies.

Her eyes came to rest on table thirteen. Oh dear, she did hope that that number wasn't prophetic. Clark Kent had been a guest last year too, though that time his wife had been on his arm and he had looked a whole lot happier than now. How on Earth, Paula wondered, had he ended up having dinner flanked by Cat Grant and Linda King? She only knew these two women by repute but both females appeared to be vying, almost predatorily, for his attention.

Paula acknowledged that, as all three were members of the fourth estate, it was completely reasonable that the organisers had chosen to place them at the same table. In fact, she supposed Clark should be grateful that he hadn't been cordoned off at the back of the hall along with the rest of the press corps. It spoke volumes for his and the ladies' standing with their respective employers that tickets had been purchased by the said firms, allowing them to dine with the other exclusive, and very rich, guests.

Yet, from the moment Paula had first spied Cat sashaying up to Clark, she'd guessed that he was wishing himself anywhere else but at this function. Clearly Ms Grant's man-hungry image wasn't confined purely to her celebrity TV chat-show. It was obvious from the top of the woman's carefully arranged 'wild' hairdo to the tips of her glitzy sandals, which peeped from beneath a slinky skirt, that she was completely at ease with her wanton style. Her leopard- print dress was designed to titillate — from its plunging neckline to its thigh-high slit skirt, Cat Grant was determined to expose as much skin as possible.

And yet Ms Grant looked very good for her age, Paula conceded, as she reviewed the many files she'd ploughed through as part of her homework for tonight's security operation. This woman had been a well-known society- columnist at the Daily Planet when Clark Kent had first joined its staff as a rookie reporter, so she was hardly in her first flush of youth — unless you firmly believed in the old axiom of life beginning at forty! Perhaps Cat had employed some help from a plastic-surgeon to keep her looking so attractive, in a purely sultry way, of course. Charity, Paula, she scolded herself; growing older gracefully is certainly no crime. Watching the goings-on at table thirteen, however, Paula wasn't sure that Cat Grant and graciousness were even on speaking terms.

On the other hand, Linda King appeared cool, sophisticated and lovely. The dark blue satin dress complimented her fair skin and her sleek chignon hairstyle was extremely elegant. Paula was ready to bet that the simple pins which held Linda's hair in place were tipped with expensive diamonds. Her employer's niece was a beautiful cultured woman, yet Paula wasn't totally impressed. Having researched Ms King's background and discovered how avariciously the woman had dealt with her ex-husband, Paula was ready to believe that Linda King's beauty was only skin-deep.

Across the room, Clark Kent was feeling decidedly put upon. He'd known he was in big trouble whenever he'd realised that his fellow dinner guests would be Cat Grant and Linda King. His first instinct had been to run. A cowardly thought perhaps, but escape would have the distinct advantage of ensuring his continued survival. And yet, barring a Superman emergency, his mind refused to come up with an excuse to leave which wouldn't appear crass. Why had his mother instilled in him the need to always be well- mannered? And why were there no cries for Superman when he needed them most?

On top of all that, he now had the uncomfortable notion that he was being watched. His eyes scanned the room, lighting on another equally stunning woman, but even Paula Raine's friendly and sympathetic smile could not distract him. This was going to be a long night and he shifted uneasily as Cat placed a possessive hand on his arm while she sent a dagger-like stare at her blonde competition.

"Isn't this nice, Clark, that two old friends can resume their relationship this way," Cat purred closely… too closely, in his ear.

"Yes, isn't it," the lady in blue concurred. "Clark and I have a lot of catching up to do."

Clark froze in his chair and managed to grind out, "It's always nice to meet up with old friends." Oh boy, was that the best retort he could come up with? He felt very much like a bone which two prize poodles were about to fight over.

"And I'm so sorry that Lois couldn't be here too," Cat continued in her best woeful manner, though secretly she was licking her lips like her 'namesake' over a bowl of cream. Particularly since this bowl of cream had been the one who had got away so long ago. Cat had no illusions that she'd have any more success in the present day, but she was going to enjoy a little mild revenge. "I was so looking forward to catching up with my old Planet best girl friend!"

Hmph! Clark was well aware that Lois would be stunned to hear that she'd been Cat's best friend, but before he could reply, Linda interrupted.

"Yes, meeting up with Lois again would have been fun! I've known her forever, you know. We were college buddies… We shared everything!"

Yeah, even her boyfriend and her story, Clark mused, more sarcastically than was the norm for his mild manner. His brow creased at Linda's next inference.

"I'm sure Lois is very happy to know that I am taking care of her husband in her place." Linda smiled serenely on Clark, yet her eyes glinted mischievously.

Oh, yes, I'm certain Lois would be totally thrilled! Clark ruminated. He groaned silently, relieved to see the waiters arrive at the table with their silver platters and begin to serve the first course, causing the two women to move back to their places and thus further away from him.

Now that he was feeling less crowded, his amicable nature reasserted itself a little. "I'm sure Lois is extremely sorry to miss both of you and this delicious meal…" he lied manfully, pushing aside the knowledge that Superman never lies. Only sometimes it was inevitable, for the greater good, or at least for his remaining in one piece during the battle which was evidently brewing! "But she has to work tonight… And speaking of work, we're here to do a job too, so we really shouldn't get too distracted!" Clark removed Cat's hand, which had lingered on his arm.

"Cat, that's a very interesting dress you're… wearing," Linda intimated casually, but did Clark's superhearing detect the word 'almost' before 'wearing'? "Is it by that new designer who's trying so hard to get himself noticed? I can't quite remember his name, Borecelli or something like that. He's certainly very… 'ethnic'. Pity he ran out of material though!"

Clark nearly inhaled the food off his plate in shock. The gauntlet had surely been thrown down!

Cat's knuckles tightened on her fork, which hovered in front of her mouth in mid-journey from plate to lip. "It's intentional, Linda! But only certain women can get away with the minimalist look. I see that you're one of those who've reached that stage in their lives when they have to cover up their bodies." Cat's eyes slid disparagingly over the long-sleeved dress of her rival, completely ignoring its scooped neck-line, or Linda's trim figure. Her delicate little teeth took a sharp bite of the fat juicy prawn which was speared on her fork, clearly preferring that it had been part of Linda's anatomy! "Which style do you prefer, Clark?" she turned on him with a sudden demand.

"Yes, Clark, we'll let you be the arbiter of this discussion!" Linda's grin grew wider. She loved to see men squirm, and this particular man had had the audacity to prefer her friend.

While both females awaited his answer with, very probably, equal amounts of evil glee, Clark was giving a very fair impression of a mouse caught in a trap. Where was Lois when he needed her most? Yet that was a very uncharitable thought. His wife was working hard while he was supposed to be enjoying himself — huh, define enjoying!. Just how long would it be before he could escape from these females' clutches? But clearly they were waiting for his opinion… Superman had brokered peace treaties between warring countries before today, but somehow that now seemed like a walk in the park.

"Linda, I think that your gown suits you very well… very sophisticated and the color matches your eyes." The blonde anchorwoman from New York look very pleased with his praise, but Cat on his other hand was tensing, getting ready to go for the jugular. "And Cat," he smiled his brightest smile as he turned her way. "Cat will always have her very own unique style. It's what makes her Cat!" There, now that was diplomacy in action, but had he gotten away with it? Yes, his ex-colleague was grinning like the cat that got the canary. Phew, that had been a close call.

But he wasn't off the hook yet. The long-drawn-out meal continued while both women fought for supremacy over their spoils of war; riposte followed by counter-thrust was the name of the game with Clark the referee and, seemingly, the prize. Finally, they'd reached dessert, which had turned out to be a chocolate bombe! Now, Lois would have loved this!

"Lois would have loved this!" Was there an echo in here? Clark's eyes rose to Linda, who was again smiling innocently. Hah, the woman was as innocent as a black widow spider! "Poor Lois, I expect that her love of chocolate will have started to take it's toll on her figure, and she's had… how many children now, Clark?"


Lois arrived in a rush at the corridor outside the luxurious ballroom as the dinner guests, most of whom were unaware of the little skirmish which was being played out at table thirteen, plowed their way through the lavish four-course meal. She smoothed down the luxuriant material of her wide skirt, taking a moment to calm herself. After all, she was sort of gate- crashing the party, but Perry had called ahead and warned the manager of her late arrival, so she was expected by the organisers.

She took a few deep breaths and prepared to go through the large glass and curtained doors which were being held open by a couple of immaculately uniformed footmen. The rich red silk of the gown wasn't normally a colour that she would choose for herself, but even she had to admit that it contrasted well with the sheen of her dark hair, which curled softly on her face and emphasised the brightness of her chestnut-hued eyes. Lois couldn't exactly remember at just which function in the past she had worn this particular dress, but obviously Ellen had unearthed it from the depths of her daughter's closet because she'd instinctively known that Lois would want to create an impression.

And present a stunning vision Lois Lane most certainly did as she walked through and stood on the balcony overlooking the main hall. The bodice dipped low and clung to her curves, which might be a little more mature than when she'd first donned the ballgown. Yet, glancing quickly down at her cleavage, she decided that this might not be a bad thing considering the competition in the room.

Below her, the huge room was overflowing with laughing, chattering guests of all shapes and sizes, cultures and creeds and all turned out in their best finery. Lois fingered her gown once more, thanking her mother for her foresight in making sure that on this occasion Lois could rival the very best. She felt a momentary panic. How on Earth was she to find her husband in this sea of people?

As soon as the question came into her mind, her unerring 'sense' of Clark kicked in and she saw him over on the far side of the grand dining hall. Her sight and mind might fail her on occasion, yet her heart would always carry her to his side. But as she momentarily dwelled on how good he looked in his tuxedo, she soon realised that all was not well with her husband. From the way the women on either side of him were hungrily eyeing him, it seemed he might be eaten for dessert, instead of the chocolate creation the waiters were distributing.

Cat and Linda! Her worse-case scenario had come true. Poor Clark! He might be more streetwise and more worldly than the man who had first arrived in Metropolis all these years ago, but he would be still much too polite for his own good when it came to dealing with these two witches.

All traces of anxiety fled. Lois' little chin lifted, her shoulders went back and she floated regally down the flight of stairs as gracefully as her superpowered husband ever could. Clark needed rescuing and she was definitely the person to do it!

From her vantage point, Paula frowned as she witnessed Clark's expression turn from exasperated tolerance to shocked annoyance. Clearly one of these ladies had pushed too hard, and from the way he was glaring at Linda it seemed that the blonde had managed to get under his skin. Paula half rose from her chair, wondering if she could step in to smooth over the possible contretemps that was brewing. Yet, from the corner of her eye, she caught sight of yet another lady homing in on her target.

Lois Lane looked magnificent as she threaded her way between the tables. The blush on her cheeks was highlighted with determination; her dark hair gleamed as it caught the light from the crystal chandeliers, while her long red skirt with its sweeping trail swayed sensually behind her in rhythm with her sexy stride. Even if Clark had not already been totally besotted by his wife, these females wouldn't stand a chance against this remarkable woman. Lois had laid claim to Clark many years ago and heaven help anyone who got in her way. Paula subsided in her seat with a satisfied grin — go get 'em, Lois!

Clark regarded the pale woman at his side with dawning anger. All through the meal, he'd listened in dismayed amusement while they propositioned him — not always subtly — and made disparaging remarks about each other. Yet Linda King had trodden on forbidden ground by sniping at his wife's appearance and Clark wasn't about to let that insulting remark go by.

For one of the few times in his life, Clark was too absorbed to be aware of his wife's approach. His brows drew down and he fixed Linda with a daunting stare which any number of criminals in Metropolis would have immediately recognised. His voice had taken on the icy tone of the arctic wind. "Lois and I have four children, Linda." Clark did not deem it necessary to inform this woman that Lois had carried only three of these children. Besides, in his opinion, Linda King was most likely conversant with his and Lois' situation.

"And yes, she does still love chocolate, but that's hardly a crime," Clark continued, warming to his theme. "As to her looks… well, I suppose I might be called biased here, though I'm fairly certain that many men in this room would agree with me when I say that Lois Lane is one of the most lovely women it has ever been my honor to know. But Lois' beauty is not only on the outside. It comes from within — from her honesty and her steadfastness, her courageous and compassionate spirit and it will never fade. A concept with which I very much doubt either of you ladies are acquainted." Clark's gaze encompassed both women as he dumped his napkin down on the table and pushed his chair back. "Now if you'll excuse me, Linda, Cat, I really have had more than I can stomach of this interminable dinner." He turned to march off and came face to face with a bemused Lois. "Lois! What are you doing here?" he managed to ask breathlessly.

"Oh, Clark!" Tears pricked behind her eyes — her husband had always managed to touch her with his words. Yet a slow triumphant smile was stealing over Lois' face as she slipped her hand through his arm. Like so many people before them, Linda and Cat had mistakenly assumed Clark's gentle manner to be a weakness and had chosen to exploit it. They really should have known better."It's a long story, Clark, but I thought you might be lonely, so I came to join you."

"Lois, I'm always lonely without you. You know, I think I could do with some fresh air; it's a little overheated and overcrowded in here!" He returned her smile, feeling happy at last. Without a backward glance, he led Lois towards the large patio doors where a heated candle-lit balcony awaited any guests who were adventurous enough to brave the night air.

The two women left at the table sent disgusted glances at the retreating couple as their words drifted back to them.

"You know, it's not always true that eavesdroppers hear bad things of themselves," Lois chuckled, nudging him teasingly with her shoulder as she leaned in closer. "Clark, you were so brave — I never thought you had it in you!"

"Sweetheart, you know I'll always protect Lois Lane, no matter how scary the person is who's attacking her!" Clark took hold of Lois' hand while his eyes caressed her lovingly. His voice dropped to a whisper. "And no matter which suit I'm wearing!"

Lois and Clark's continued laughter rang out like two bells pealing in harmony as they strolled out to the wide patio, where they said their special hellos in the privacy of the darkened, romantic setting. Cinderella had won her prince and all was well with the world.


The next morning was an extremely busy one in the Kent household on Hyperion Avenue. As everyone had places to go later in the day, this was the last opportunity to clean up the house before Christmas Day. Of course, there was always the advantage of having a super-cleaner available, but that didn't necessarily teach the children the mundane tasks of life. Besides, even the latest turbo-charged carpet cleaner couldn't keep up with Superman.

Strangely enough there hadn't been any of the usual complaints from the kids when they were instructed to tidy up their rooms to Superman's inspection-standards. Lois and Clark had exchanged amused glances as they watched their brood troop upstairs to comply with instructions. Obviously there was a covert reason why Mom and Dad were not to be let loose in their bedrooms.

It had been a hectic time but a happy one, and also a noisy one. Laughter and shouts could be heard from the attic where the boys were putting their novice domestic skills to use, and, though Clara was personally quieter, two strains of music could be heard competing for supremacy on the floors above.

Even Lois was singing along to her personal-stereo as she finished off the carpet cleaning in the living-room while Clark tackled the kitchen. There was nothing very uplifting about washing down kitchen appliances and things, while cleaning sinks and unblocking the garbage disposal, which had mysteriously jammed, were not high on Lois' list of favourite pastimes. She was quite content to let Super- Clark do his thing in the kitchen.

It was hardly surprising then that no one was aware of the phone ringing for a few moments, and it was only when Lois turned to come back down the living room that she noticed the answering machine blinking. Switching of the vacuum and pulling off her head-phones, she hurried to pick up the phone.

"Good morning, Kent residence," she announced breathlessly, her voice husky.

A decided purr could be heard on the other end of the line. "Lois, whatever are you and Clark up to?"

Cat Grant had been ready to hang up, thinking that the family must be out, and not really anxious to leave a message on the machine. To tell the truth, she was feeling more than a little sheepish about making this phone call, but her sense of decency, which she kept very well hidden and often ignored, wouldn't allow her to back out this time. She had been way out of line last night.

"Cat?" Lois enquired incredulously. For one thing, she never thought that Cat made it out of bed before lunchtime at weekends, and for another, she doubted that even Cat would have the nerve to call here after her behaviour of last night.

"Yes, Lois, it's me." Discarding her mischievous streak which had led to her earlier quip, Cat replied, sounding fairly subdued for a serial femme-fatale. "Is Clark there? May I speak to him?"

"Yes, he is, but I don't think that you talking to him would be a good idea, Cat!" Lois sniped, wondering what the woman was up to now.

"Please, Lois, don't hang up, and please put Clark on the line. I think I owe you both an apology!"

Lois' eyebrows rose. Cat apologising? Well, that had to be a first. "Clark, honey, pick up the extension," she leaned back and called aloud — for Cat's benefit. After all, Clark would hear her if she whispered. "Cat would like to say a few words to you."

In the kitchen, Clark frowned. Whatever did Cat have in mind now? Actually, he was up to his elbows in gunk and studying one twisted silver teaspoon which he'd extricated from the insides of the garbage disposal unit — evidently, Nathan had been doing his own brand of dish washing again. Clark grabbed some paper towels to clean his hands.

"Got it, Lois," he answered as he put the phone to his ear, reminiscent of a man handling a rattle-snake which was getting ready to bite. "Cat, hello again. This is a surprise!"

"And not a very nice one, I suspect." On the other end of the phone, Cat took a deep breath. "I really wanted to say sorry for the way I behaved last night… to you, Clark, and to Lois. Believe me, I never went with the intention of coming on to you, Clark." Cat heard a suspicious grunt from Lois. "Oh, okay, maybe just a little. What can I say, I can't help myself. But believe me, Lois, it was always just a tease. I never had any hopes that Clark would reciprocate… I never did. It didn't take a rocket scientist to realise that, from the very beginning, Clark only had eyes for you."

"Hmm," Lois grunted again — how come everyone else had seen that but her? But, if she were honest, she had known. She just hadn't wanted to acknowledge it. But that was then and this was now. "Then why did you treat my husband like he was your pet plaything last night, Cat?"

Ever the gentleman, Clark's voice cut in, willing to accept the apology. "Lo-is!"

"No, Clark, Lois has a right to know," Cat came back reasonably. "Linda King got under my skin."

"Now that makes two of us!" Lois admitted.

"I'm a tease. I know that," Cat explained. "Though contrary to your beliefs, Lois, I usually do try to play fair. Linda doesn't. There was no way I was going to leave the field clear for her."

"So you decided to have a cat-fight over my husband? Well, maybe sorry doesn't cut it!"

"Hey, as the injured party, don't I have a say here?" Clark raised his voice a tone and amazingly there was silence from both women. "Lois, I think it was decent of Cat to phone and apologize, and let's face it, no great harm was done. And, Cat, your apology is accepted."

"Thank you, Clark, and, Lois, I really am sorry." Cat dropped her sexy growl for a more direct and friendly approach. "If it makes you feel any better, I'm suffering from a monster hang-over, not to mention a large dose of humiliation… and I have to get myself ready for an interview with our 'Woman of the Year'. That's not an easy task, believe me. Do you find it harder to recover from these late-night shindigs as you get older?" Cat threw in confidingly. "I used to be able to party till dawn and still be in to the Planet at an early… well, reasonable hour. Mind you, from the way you both look, I'd say neither of you are feeling the effects of age. Lois, if I ever complained about your fashion sense, I take it all back — that red dress! You looked sensational. And, Clark, you always did put every other man in the room in the shade…"

"Cat," Clark warned. "I think we've had enough of your teasing."

"No, this time I agree," Lois cut in happily, extremely content that, though other women could only admire from a distance, Clark was all hers. "You always do look great in a tux!"

"So, all is forgiven?" Cat asked cautiously.

"Sure, Cat. It was really no big deal," Clark conceded brightly.

"I suppose!" Lois' acceptance was just a little more grudging, but hey, Cat was Cat, and she had taken the trouble to phone. Besides, the Planet had already scooped the opposition with their article about Metropolis' Woman of the Year already published in the Sunday Supplement; she could well afford to be magnanimous. "Yes, Cat, and thanks for calling. That must have taken a lot."

"No problem, Lois; we are old friends, after all. Now I really have to go. I have a lot of work to do before this afternoon's taping. Happy Holiday, people!" Cat finished on a breezy note. She'd done the right thing and made her peace, though she was pretty sure that Linda King wouldn't be so accommodating. That woman made her look like Mother Teresa!

Back in the brownstone, Lois hung up and wandered through to the kitchen. "Well, that was unexpected, Clark!"

"Oh, I don't know," he said as he opened his arms to allow Lois to walk into his embrace. "Cat, was never as bad as she appeared."

She settled her head comfortably under Clark's chin as his arms closed round her. "No, she wasn't. Pity I can't say that about Linda King, though. That woman makes Cat seem like Mother Teresa!" Lois would have been shocked if she'd known she'd echoed Cat's thought… Lois Lane and Cat Grant just weren't on the same wavelength!


"Well, it's true, Clark. You have to admit that not everyone has good intentions and Linda was always too self- centered and single-minded to care for anyone but herself." Lois' hands rubbed at a spot of grease on Clark's chin. "Now I know that one time, long ago, some people might have described me in that way, but I was wise enough to grow out of that…"

"Lois, that was never you!" Clark held her gaze with an adoring stare. "It was always just a front you put up to save yourself from hurt."

"Yes, and luckily enough I met a man who could see behind the shell, and what's more important, who made me see it too."

Lois' hand continued round Clark's neck until her fingers were stroking through his hair. Clark closed the small distance between his mouth and Lois' and he brushed his lips against hers, quickly deepening the kiss until they were lost in each other. Neither heard the rumble of feet as the owners ran down the stairs and burst into the kitchen.

"Oh, no!" Joel moaned loudly. "You can't even trust them to clean the house without them getting into the gross kissing stuff. Don't you guys ever give it a break?"

"I don't know," Clara remarked dreamily. "It's kinda nice!" Clara was picturing a similar scene with two other, much younger people. Today, she was going to see Paul again. Except she had to admit that kissing, like Mom and Dad did, left her feeling kinda scared. Usually her daydreams never got beyond holding hands.

"Excuse us," Julian cleared his throat loudly. "We've finished upstairs."

"Easy seein' why you two haven't finished down here though!" Joel laughed as his parents broke their kiss, though they stayed in each other's arms, and turned to look at their inopportune offspring.

"Don't knock it, Joel," Clark advised grinning. "One day you'll appreciate this sort of activity."

Joel shrugged. Superman didn't tell lies, but he wasn't sure if his dad was a good judge on this particular subject. It looked like his mother and father were addicted to the 'sex' thing. But he and his siblings were on a different mission. "All that work has made us hungry. Is there any chance of us getting anything to eat today?"

"Why you cheeky little… super-boy!" Lois lurched out of Clark's arms laughingly and pulling her dust-cloth from where she'd tucked it in her pocket, she flicked it at her giggling son. "For that, you can help me finish up in the living room. Come on, kids. Your dad will be finished here in a second or two, and then we'll make lunch. What would you like?"

Lois' voice lingered in the kitchen while she shepherded her brood through the swing doors. Clark could hear a number of suggestions being thrown at her.


"Yeah, but without the olives…"

"Olives! Ugh, I hate olives."

"I likes banana."

"Banana! Nathan, you don't put banana on pizza!" Clara informed her little brother knowingly.

"Why not?!" Nathan could see no reason why two of his favourite foods shouldn't go together.

"'Cause not, squirt. The store doesn't do banana." Julian ruffled Nathan's hair. "But we can always cut one up and put it on your slice of pizza."

"'Hanks, Julian!"

Clark grinned at the conversation as he put the disposal- unit back together and finished off the rest of the kitchen at superspeed. It was just an ordinary day in the life of Lois and Clark!


Later in the day, the family planned to go their separate ways; Lois and Julian taking a cab to the local multi-plex cinema, leaving Clark to drive the rest of the kids out to the stadium. Yet when Clara came down the stairs to go out, Clark did a double take

His young daughter was dressed more smartly than for her usual excursions with the family. She was wearing her newest jeans topped by a leather coat with fur trimmed collar, which her Grandma Ellen had bought for her birthday. Though that was fake fur, as anyone who knew Clara's sentiments about animal rights would know. Her hair, instead of pulled back in the usual pony-tail, was shining and hung in a smooth bob, reminiscent of Lois' style when he had first met her. And was Clara wearing lipstick?

Clark was about to voice his disapproval when he received an elbow in the ribs from Lois. "Don't be such an old fuddy-duddy!" she said sotto-voiced.

"Lois, but's she's wearing make-up!" he whispered in return. Old-fashioned or not, he was none too pleased to see his eight-year old daughter in make-up.

"Yes, she is, but it's only a little lip-gloss." Lois kept her voice low and pulled Clark towards the dining room, leaving the kids chatting away happily about the coming game.

"Lois, I don't care what you say, she's much too young to be wearing make-up!"

"I agree," she still kept her voice low, though by this time they were standing on the other side of the slightly ajar sliding doors. "But you know who all this is in aid of."

"Don't remind me!"

"Clark, she's an eight-year-old girl who has a crush on a teenager…"

"Lo-is, how can you be so calm about this?" It was pretty clear that Clark was in danger of losing his perspective over the idea.

"Because the teenager in question happens to see Clara as just a little kid." Lois took Clark's hands in hers. "Clara is no fool, Clark. Pretty soon she's going to realize that and she'll soon get fed-up getting nowhere. Unless, of course, you give her the excuse to play a star- crossed Juliet! And don't give me those hurt puppy-dog eyes, because you know I'm right."

"I suppose!"

"Good, then you'll try your best to ignore your daughter making up to Paul this afternoon."

Clark groaned at the thought. "Do I have too?" he asked hopefully.

"'Fraid so, honey." Lois pressed a quick kiss on his lips, then dropping his hands she started back into the living room. But at the last minute she turned, a mischievous grin on her face. "And don't forget, sweetheart, this is the easy stuff. Just wait till she reaches her teens."

Clark rolled his eyes. "That's what scares me."

The twinkling in Lois' eyes grew brighter. "Make-up will probably be the least of the problems. Good thing you won't have to worry about body-piercing!" She hurried out of the dining room.

"LO-is!" Clark growled at his wife's retreating back, but he couldn't resist the grin which was tugging at his mouth. No one knew what sort of trials would lie ahead for them with their unique family — they had already been through so much. But as long as he had Lois… and a sense of humour, there was nothing he couldn't face.


The sun was still shining in the cold clear sky as Clark led his kids into the busy stadium. The sports fans of Metropolis were out in force, actually believing that their team, the Tigers, had a very good chance of beating the Dallas Cowboys. Even some people who weren't football enthusiasts had turned up, hoping to see the dreaded 'Cowboys' brought down. The large domed roof of the stadium had been retracted due to the sunshine, and what better way was there to spend a Christmas Eve afternoon in the crisp healthy outdoors than cheering on your local team?

The family threaded their way through the huge car park and entered the teeming gate which led to their particular seats in the bleachers, laughing and teasing each other good-naturedly as they went. The heavy beat of music from the loud-speakers drifted down the tunnels towards them and thousands of fans raised their voices to be heard over the din.

Clark subconsciously tuned out the volume of noise and swiftly checked Joel over, but, apart from a tiny grimace, the boy seemed to be dealing well with the assault on his sensitive hearing. The lessons on coping with superpowers, which Clark had been giving Joel during the past year, were evidently helping.

Satisfied that Joel was doing okay, the concerned father turned his attention to Clara. Though the developing powers were not so advanced in Clara, she did seem to have some audio sensitivity, but Clark need not have worried. Judging by the entranced expression on his daughter's face, all her senses were focussed on the tall teenager whom she was sticking to like glue. A bomb could explode beneath her feet and Clara would hardly notice. Clark rolled his eyes and prepared for an interesting afternoon as they emerged into the crowded stand.

The aromas of hotdogs, burgers and popcorn assailed his senses and Clark revised his opinion on the crisp healthy air. There was also the less pleasant underlying smell of stale beer. He sincerely hoped that his young family wouldn't be aware of that. Yet he chuckled; what would a football game be without the anticipation this melting-pot of smells and sounds created? It was all part of the culture.

Without much fuss, they found their seats as the marching band was finishing up its set and were clearing the field. Stu had come up trumps for them; the seats were very near the front of the stand and the kids would get a very good view from here. Picking Nathan up in his arms, Clark stood back to allow the others to file into the row with Paul going first. Somehow Joel had inserted himself between Paul and Clara, which certainly did not suit Clara's plans for the afternoon. Her hand sneaked out with something approaching superspeed and yanked her brother backwards.

Taken completely unawares Joel stumbled and gave ground, glaring at his sister as she scrambled past him. "Hey, Clara, what was that for?" Joel grumbled and Clark groaned inwardly.

Clara was lucky that her brother hadn't known what was coming or she most likely would have ended up on the floor, attempting to move an immovable object. Joel was gaining in strength and Clark would soon have to teach the boy to give way when pushed or hit, if they wanted to deflect any untoward suspicion.

But, for the moment, superboy only threw his sister a dirty look and took his seat, leaving Clark to put Nathan down next to Joel and take his place at the end of the line. Clark surmised, a little optimistically perhaps, that his little party would settle down once the game got underway.

One member of the group was definitely feeling very satisfied with the way the afternoon was progressing. Clara was going to spend the next few hours or so sitting next to the boy of her dreams. So what if she was getting dirty glares from Joel? He was only her brother and most of the time she ignored him anyway. Clara was going to make the most of this opportunity to get Paul to notice her.

"It's exciting, isn't it, Paul?" She beamed up at the young man, who was busily taking in the scene around him.

This was Paul's first time at a professional game and he was completely sold on his surroundings and was evidently appreciating the rows of Metropolis Tigers' cheerleaders who were entertaining the crowd directly on the field beneath him. He couldn't have asked for a better view. The girls were getting into the swing of the music and he was too preoccupied watching their lithe dance steps to pay much heed to a little kid. But he wasn't an ill-mannered youth, so he answered without taking his eyes of the action.

"Yeah, it sure is, Clara."

Following his stare, Clara was somewhat upset to see just who was stealing Paul's attention. Leggy cheerleaders in skimpy skirts who waved shimmery pom-poms around. Okay, some people might think they looked pretty cool, but they were the type of woman who made a living out of their looks… at least, that's what Mom would say. Clara didn't approve, but from the large smile on Paul's face, he certainly did.

"Pretty ladies! Pretty ladies," Nathan called, pointing and jumping up to get a better look.

Oh, so Nathan liked them too, but what did a little kid know? Clara decided to make allowances for her little brother.

"Yeah, they are, Nathan. They're the cheerleaders. They're here to get the crowd behind their teams," Clark explained while trying to hang on to the animated toddler. Clara frowned — surely her dad couldn't admire them. He liked women with brains!

Clara studied the gyrating group for a few minutes. She was in a gymnastics class and had to admit, grudgingly, that these women were fit and some of the moves they made were slick. Then she caught the goofy azgrin on Paul's face as he watched and she was through with making excuses… no female with a mind would make a spectacle of herself like that! She opened her programme and tried to ignore the dancing, chanting women.

"When does this thing start?" she asked, shaking Paul's arm to gain his wandering attention.

"Pretty soon, I think. Look, the teams are coming out!" Paul only glanced in her direction before returning to his drooling.

Well, at least she wouldn't make a fool of herself by shouting for the wrong team. She recognised the opposing sides by the colour of their uniforms, but how anybody was supposed to know who was who beneath those helmets was anyone's guess. Of course, they had numbers on their shirts, so she supposed that would help, if only she could be bothered looking it up in the programme.

The announcer's voice blasted out of the speakers as he began his routine introductions of the starting players to the crowd, causing Clara to jump in surprise. Next to her, Paul sat up straighter in his seat to listen, completely fascinated by it all.

Clara was beginning to think she'd have preferred going to see the movie — Paul had hardly said two words to her and that was only to answer her questions. But this was his first big game and he'd started to play football too, so it stood to reason he'd be interested in everything that was happening. If only she could muster up the same enthusiasm. Still, every heroine she'd ever read about had to fight for her love, so perhaps she shouldn't give up so easily.

"Paul, do you have a favourite player?" Refusing to be daunted, Clara tried again.

"What? Oh yes, number 21… free safety. Mike Madison. He's an awesome player, but there are quite a few really good players."

Mike Madison! Clara thought that might be the guy who got the biggest cheer during the introductions, but she couldn't be sure. Meanwhile, Paul was smiling as he warmed to what was currently his favourite subject and she was starting to feel that she'd hit a home run… except that was the wrong sport.

"Most people are saying that this is the best team the Tigers have ever fielded and they're doin' better than ever before too. I'm glad I got to Metropolis at just the right moment.It's exciting!"

"Yeah," Clara agreed, though somehow her heart wasn't in the game.

The loud voice-over proclaimed that the game was about to start, or that's what Clara thought the guy had said. She couldn't really make out his words above the crowd's deafening roars, but clearly some action was beginning on the field and, thankfully, for the time being, those pesky cheerleaders had stopped strutting their stuff. But she'd lost Paul's attention again and that wasn't so good.

Clara tried hard to concentrate on the game but there seemed to be a lot of stopping and starting, so it was hard to follow and she found her mind drifting off. She wondered if the latest 'Star Legend' movie was as good as everyone was saying.

"You shouldn't have come," Joel whispered in her ear. Though Clara didn't understand why he bothered to lower his voice when she could hardly hear him above the din and she was sitting next to him, not to mention she had the start of superhearing. "He's not interested!"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Clara huffed, shifting in her seat. "I wanted to see the game!"

"Uh-huh! I'll bet!" Her brother laughed knowingly, but something was happening down on the field and he gave up his teasing in favour of shouting for his team.

"What's happening?" Clara grabbed at Paul's coat sleeve again.

"The other team punted!" The teenager replied, though he kept his gaze firmly on the ball.

"What's a punt?"

"You don't know what a punt is?" Yet things were heating up as a receiver for the Tigers caught the ball and started a run towards the opposite goal. Paul enquired absentmindedly, still keeping his eye on the exciting action in front of him, "Clara, do you know anything about football?"

"No!" she admitted rather sheepishly.

That admission drew a surprised stare from Paul. "Then why did you come?" It seemed that the young man was shocked that anyone wouldn't share his passion for the game.

"I was hoping you'd teach me about it!" Clara decided to throw caution to the wind.

That drew a smile from the object of her affections, but he still didn't get what she was meaning. "Hey, if you want to learn about football, Clara, you should ask your dad. He knows a whole lot more than I do, and he used to play the game in college. I think he was pretty good too, even though he won't say much about that. Your dad's too modest for his own good."

Who wanted to talk about Dad? Clara certainly didn't! She was just about to comment that she'd much prefer to have Paul as her coach when the stadium erupted as one in a loud cheer.

"What's going on?" Clara asked again.

Paul was throwing her a dirty look as that annoying announcer came over the loud-speakers again. "We just scored a touchdown! And you made me miss it! The very first live touchdown at my very first live game and I didn't see it," he moaned.

"You can watch the replay on the big screen," Clara suggested helpfully and pointed at the huge picture which loomed over the end of the stand, where the players appeared larger than life, replaying the touchdown over and over again.

"It's not the same thing," a sullen young teenager mumbled. "Not the same thing at all!"

Oh, this afternoon wasn't going according to plan at all, and Clara subsided in her seat as every other Metropolitan in the stadium was dancing up and down as they watched their team consolidate the score with a 2-point conversion. Even those cheerleaders were up on their feet doing a victory dance. She should have gone to the movie with Mom!


Later in the day the football party, excepting Paul, met up with Lois and Julian at the family's favourite Italian restaurant. Clark had extended the invitation to Paul, but he'd chosen to go home to keep his grandmother company, knowing that Tula was going out on a hot date with Jimmy tonight. Again, Clark suggested that Mia should join them, but the old lady had caught a cold and she was saving her energy for Christmas dinner with the Kleins.

Clark and the kids were the first to get there, but they hadn't been seated long when Lois and Julian joined them. The two made their way through the busy restaurant to the large table by the fireplace where a welcoming fire burned.

"Hello, guys," Lois said happily as she slipped into the empty chair between Clark and Nathan.

"Hi, Mommy," her smallest son answered. "I's glad you're here!"

She leaned over and dropped a kiss on top of Nathan's head. "Are you, sweetie? That's nice, 'cause I am too. Did you have fun?"

Nathan's eyes crinkled with laughter. "Yes, Mommy. An' Daddy sayed I wasn't a noo…sssance," he confided proudly.

"I'm sure you weren't," Lois grinned and ruffled Nathan's hair. Then she turned to the rest of her family. "I take it from your broad smiles that your team won."

"You bet, honey," Clark answered. "They did well! 24 — 17's not a bad score."

"Yeah, we had a great time, Mom," Joel added grinning, while his mother and brother took their seats. "How was the movie?"

"Good! It was really good! I thought it was much better than the last one." Julian got in before Lois could comment. "Clara, you should try to go see it — you'll love it."

Looking over at her daughter, Lois could see that all was not well. From the moment she'd stepped through the door of the restaurant, she'd noticed Clara's doleful expression and correctly concluded that the afternoon hadn't lived up to Clara's expectations. Lois wasn't at all surprised, but it didn't lessen her sympathy for her daughter. Unrequited love was never easy to accept, even if it was a case of 'puppy love'.

The waiter came over to take their order and Lois postponed her inquiries for a few minutes. But as soon as he was gone and under the cover of the kids discussing the merits of their afternoon outings, Lois leaned over to her husband.

"I'm also assuming, from the look on Clara's face, that she didn't have such a good time."

"I'm afraid not!" Clark kept his voice low, but Lois could hear the echo of his daughter's hurt. "She lost Paul to a football game and a particular blond, leggy cheerleader."


"Paul appreciated the cheerleaders almost as much as the game, and one of them caught his eye. It seemed the attraction was reciprocated too, judging by the smiles he was getting."

"I don't find that hard to believe," Lois conceded, laughing. "He's a good-looking young man."

Clark returned the laugh, though with a touch of sadness. He hadn't been comfortable with Clara's crush on the teenager, yet he hated to see her upset. "Clara tried hard, but Paul wasn't interested.In fact, I doubt he even realises he's the object of Clara's affection, and I think our daughter's finally worked that out for herself. It had to happen, but I can't help but feel bad for her."

Lois placed her hand on Clark's arm. "I know — me too. The thing is, it's for the best, and probably we'll suffer through a few more of her crushes while she's growing up. Clara will survive. I did, and I didn't have a loving daddy to tell me that I'd always be his best girl. Besides, tomorrow's Christmas Day; she'll have plenty of other things to distract her."

"That's true!" Clark cheered up a little as he saw Clara ask Julian about the movie and even start to argue with her brother on his opinion of the leading actor. Lois was right; Clara would soon return to her effervescent self. "Clara, if you play your cards right," he called over to her, "I might take you to see that on Tuesday evening."

"Would you, Dad? That would be excellent!" A glow was starting to brighten Clara's appearance. There was nothing she loved more than a night out with her father… and the movie sounded really cool. Someone else, however, was feeling excluded now.

"Hey, I want to go too!" Joel announced.

Clara looked speculatively at her brother. She'd prefer to have Dad all to herself, but she wasn't mean spirited. "Okay!" She gave in with a wide grin. "I suppose I can put up with you too. But don't you make snide comments about Tom Carter, or you'll be for it!"

"The actor guy? What, I can't say that he's a dork? That's unfair!"

"No it's not!" Clara's napkin came flying over the table at Joel, but she was laughing heartily. "You don't know anything. He's a hunk — all my friends think so."

"They would! Your friends are all girls," Joel remarked feelingly and was rewarded by a bread roll being catapulted at him, which he caught easily.

"Show-off!" Clara complained but her eyes were twinkling.

"Come on now, kids, behave yourselves. There are other people here who want to enjoy their meal without interruption," Clark warned, and both Joel and Clara quickly settled back down, their little argument being no more than good-natured teasing.

Lois and Clark exchanged amused glances. Yes, their daughter was well on the way back to normal and, since Paul and his grandmother were going to the Kleins' for Christmas, Clara would have a chance to recover from her first foray into romance. Maybe this year they could all share a relaxing family Christmas.


Chapter Nine

Bless All the Dear Children

Christmas Day arrived with a new fall of snow from a dark and heavy sky, yet inside the house on Hyperion Avenue all was snug and warm. The children tapped on their parents' door at a very early hour; Julian holding tight to a squirming Nathan. The toddler's preference to a wake-up call had been to charge through the door and cast himself on top of his mommy and daddy. He'd been persuaded, however, that tiptoeing in and surprising them would be much more fun.

Of course, Joel had already heard his parents stirring and knew that they would play the game, making Nathan believe that he was the one to wake them up to wish them a 'Merry Christmas'.

In the bed, Lois groaned and cracked one eye open to look at the clock on the nightstand. It was only 6.30am; whatever happened to sleeping in on a holiday? Then again, it was Christmas Day and she knew how excited her children were. She doubted that the oldest two actually believed in Santa anymore, and Clara was at that age when her developing logic fought against her wish to believe in the 'magical' figure.

Besides, this was a family who grew up with a father who could fly and who spent a lot of his time doing good for the people of the world. Under the circumstances, 'magic' wasn't too hard to believe in.

During the lead up to Christmas, however, Lois had heard Joel and Julian make a couple of derisive comments about Father Christmas and she'd dissuaded them, on pain of death, against airing such thoughts as 'only little kids believe in Santa!'. She knew that Clark had also issued his own warnings to the boys and hopefully that had been enough.

Thinking of Clark drew her attention to the figure lying by her side. He was pushing himself up in bed and rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

"Mornin', honey," he said quietly with a soft smile, leaning over to kiss her gently. Then he squinted his eyes and stared through the door. "Looks like our alarm clocks are right on time, but I think we're supposed to be asleep, so they can surprise us."

"Better not disappoint them then," she whispered, smiling back.

Lois settled into Clark's side as he lay back down and drew her close. They were just in time, as the door opened silently and their children crept into the room. But stealth tactics were too slow for the impatient Nathan and he pulled out of Julian's grasp, resorting to his desired method of hurling himself at the bed.

"Mommy, Daddy, Santa's comed!" The small boy climbed nimbly on top of his father, shaking him awake. "Yoo 'ave to come see. Lots an' lots of prezzents under the tree."

Clark allowed himself to be roused and regarded the small burden which was straddling his chest, giggling cheerfully. "Merry Christmas, Nathan. There are presents beneath the tree? Our tree?" he asked groggily, pretending to be still half asleep.

"Yes, Daddy! Santa's leaved them for Julian and Joel and Clara and me!" His hand poked at his own chest at the last, just in case his dad didn't get the message. "Nathan has lots of prezzies," he announced in wonder, then his little face fell. "Santa will have bringed prezzents for Mommy and Daddy too… I's shoor!"

The toddler threw himself forward, his chubby arms stretching round both his parents' necks. He pressed wet kisses on Clark's face then turned to pay the same attention to Lois. "Mommy, not worry! Santa not forget yoo!"

Lois returned the hug and sat herself up. "I'm sure you're right, sweetie. Santa won't have forgotten anyone." Lois grinned over at her three other children, waiting expectantly by the bed. "Merry Christmas, kids. Come give your mom and dad a holiday cuddle!"

A few moments were spent enthusiastically exchanging Season's Greetings and hugs; this was a family who weren't scared of showing their emotions and their feelings for each other. Joel might occasionally complain about his parents' continual kissing, but it really didn't bother him. He'd be much more upset if his mom and dad stopped indulging in this pastime.

"Okay, kids, take yourselves downstairs and let us get up. We'll see you down there in a couple of minutes." Clark lifted Nathan off the bed, placing a quick kiss on his son's cheek in passing. "I expect that you'll want to open the gifts before breakfast."

"Yes!" The chorus of four voices rang out.

A teasing grin threatened to spread across Clark's face. "What do you think, Lois? Is that okay? Breakfast is the most important meal of the day; we really shouldn't put it off!"

"Dad!" Again four voices joined in unison.

"Clark! I think today might be an exception!" Lois laughed, and Clark could no longer hold back his own chuckles.

Clara flung herself upon her father, jokingly pounding his chest. "Dad! You're a big tease!" Then she tightened her grip around his neck. "But I love you, anyway!" She stood back, taking charge of her brothers. "Come on, you lot. Let's go downstairs and play 'guess the present' till Mom and Dad get there."


The rest of the morning passed happily as all the family opened their gifts and expressed pleasure at what they'd got. At one point, Nathan had become slightly overwhelmed by it all and ended up sitting on his mommy's lap, watching the rest of the proceedings.Yet he'd revived quickly when both sets of his grandparents arrived, pulling them in to come see what Santa had brought him and his brothers and sister.

The Kents and the Lanes dutifully expressed their approval and unwrapped their own gifts, which Santa had surprisingly left for them at Hyperion Avenue. Later the family enjoyed a Kansas-style breakfast, cooked to perfection by Clark and Martha. It was a noisy, pleasant meal, but eventually everyone helped to clear away the empty plates and stack the dishwasher. Afterwards, they'd wandered back through to the living room where the adults could drink their coffee in comfort and the children could play with their new toys.

Yet there was a sense of expectancy in the air. The children made quickly for the stairs, leaving their parents looking fairly uncertain, and Clark quickly voiced his displeasure.

"Look, kids, I don't want to complain on Christmas Day, but this is a family party, so no disappearing to your rooms right now. There will be plenty of time for trying out your computer games and listening to your CDs later."

The four children halted at various stages on the stair. "Dad, you don't understand," Joel announced, sounding a little aggrieved. "We were just going to get some stuff."

"Yes, dear! Let the children go!" Martha suggested soothingly, coming forward and placing the tray of coffee on the table. "It's fine!"

Lois, believing she'd caught on, looked up at Clark from her position on the couch and mouthed a warning, knowing he would understand. "Our special surprise!"

Clark's brows rose and he gave a sheepish shrug. "Okay, kids. I'm sorry. Just go get whatever it was you were… going to get."

The children needed no other encouragement and, grinning widely, they disappeared up the stairs. Martha's shoulders began to shake with suppressed laughter as she poured the coffee, and Ellen rescued the pot and took over the task. Ellen was also smiling delightedly. Lois and Clark glanced round at their two sets of parents, realising that they were also in on whatever secret the children had been keeping.

Very shortly the kids were back, each of them holding sacks of gifts, apart from Nathan, who brandished one, feeling much pleased with himself. Whatever this scheme was, Lois and Clark doubted they were surprises for themselves.

"Okay," Lois said, standing to join her husband. "Would someone like to explain what this is all about?"

"Yes, Mom," Clark switched his attention to his mother while he folded his arms. "Perhaps you'd like to share."

"Me?" Martha's eyebrows climbed towards her bangs, in an imitative expression of her son's. "Oh no, dear, this is nothing to do with me… or not much anyway. Why don't you ask your kids. It was all their idea."

Lois and Clark's gazes slid back to their young family, who were all still wearing large grins. Clark moved closer to Lois and slipped his arm about her shoulder. Since everyone was smiling, he doubted that they were about to listen to some confession of misdemeanours, but he was intrigued.

"Okay, what have you guys been up to?"

"And what have you got there?" Lois added her own question.

"We bought Christmas presents for Ben and his friends." Joel was the first to speak up, lifting up his bag to show off his loot.

"We didn't think they'd have any families to remember them at Christmas," Julian took up the explanation, "and we didn't want them to be forgotten… So we thought we could be their families this year."

"That wasn't wrong of us, Mom, Dad?" Joel asked, a little unsure of himself since his parents weren't answering immediately.

Clark was swallowing a lump that was forming in his throat, and Lois was unsuccessfully fighting to hold back the tears that were pooling in her eyes. Sometimes their kids could be brats but, when you least expected it, they could be… angels.

"No," Lois whispered, finding her voice. "No, that definitely wasn't wrong."

"It was good! Really good!" Clark's million-dollar smile was threatening to crease his eyes shut… or maybe he just couldn't see his kids for sappy tears.

The kids rushed over to their parents and another few minutes were spent in hugs. This Christmas Day was in danger of becoming truly mushy, and Joel thought that he better take things in hand when he was on the receiving end of another kiss from his mother. A guy could only stand so much of the kissy stuff. He pushed back and looked from one parent to the other.

"So you think we did good?" he asked gruffly, trying to disguise the wobble in his voice.

"Oh, yes," Lois affirmed proudly. "So what do you say — should we go play Santa?"


The family spent a couple of pleasant hours delivering their gifts to the injured children from the refuge centre. Most of the kids were doing well and were now in general wards, so it was easy to distribute the presents to them. And seeing their faces light up at the unexpected surprises certainly proved the old adage 'that it was better to give than to receive' to the Kent children — or 'it was as good as'. It seemed that everyone was enjoying the Christmas spirit.

Halfway through the visit, Clark managed to fade into the background and reappear as Superman, which thrilled the homeless kids even more. They knew that it was largely due to his actions that they'd made it out of the building, if not safely, then at least alive, and they were excited that the hero had come to see them. The Man of Steel spent some time answering their eager questions. After which, while his children were still entertaining the others with the gifts, he snuck off to visit Ben.

Superman was pleased to see that Nurse Kominski was with the boy, though as a visitor and not as duty nurse, and that the patient was looking a whole lot better.

He was even happier to learn that Nancy Kominski — she asked him to call her that — had already approached the Children's Protection Service to see if she could offer Ben a home once he was discharged from hospital and the official procedure had already been set in motion. It seemed likely that Ben had at last found a safe haven, assuming that the justice service would be satisfied with a non-custodial sentence for his crime of arson. Superman again assured the pair that he'd willingly put in a good word for Ben and stayed chatting until he heard his family approaching. The hero made his apologies and left, quickly joining Lois and his kids as Clark and filing into Ben's ward.

Here things got a little more difficult though, as the requirements of the Burns Unit allowed for fewer visitors. However, the nursing staff permitted all the family to stay for a short time while they handed over Ben's gift.

The teenager got a little tearful for a few minutes, while Nancy helped him with the wrapping paper. His hands were still bandaged and weren't exactly co-operating with his brain. It had been so long since he'd received anything other than charity handouts and they'd mostly been secondhand goods. Yet, this year, there had been presents from the hospital and a few of the nursing staff. Nancy had bought a new set of sweats for him to wear when he left this place, and now here was the Kent family with another gift. It was all pretty overwhelming.

The irony that he'd committed a crime for all these good things to happen to him wasn't lost on Ben, and he considered it very lucky that he wasn't languishing in Juvenile Hall. Of course, that might yet happen, and it would be what he deserved, but at least he wouldn't be facing his punishment alone. The fact that he'd almost lost his life, that physically he'd suffered greatly and probably would for a long time to come, seemed like a fair price to pay for the attention and care of his new friends. Life surely did work in mysterious ways.

Heedful of the department's rules, Lois and Clark soon took Nathan off, leaving Joel, Julian and Clara to show Ben how to work the latest game-box they'd given him, while Nancy supervised. The couple found a coffee machine and poured themselves a drink. On their way to the waiting room, they turned Nathan loose in the department's play-area, a brightly coloured room with climbing frames, numerous toys and books where parents could safely leave their younger children under the watchful eye of a nurses' aide. A number of other kids were having lots of fun there while their families visited relatives, and Nathan was happy to join in. Clearly Christmas Day was a busy one at Metropolis General Hospital.

Truthfully, the couple were feeling conflicted. It wasn't so long ago that they'd sat in a similar family room of this hospital and prayed that Joel and Clara would be spared to them. It gave them an uneasy feeling to be back so soon and both their hearts went out to a lonely woman who was wandering aimlessly, backwards and forwards along the corridor.

Finally, she came into the little room and sat in a chair by the window, staring out into space… probably unseeingly. Lois knew well how the stranger felt, and she'd just made up her mind to speak when the woman stood abruptly to leave the room.

"Please," Lois interrupted quickly, "I hope you don't mind me talking to you, but perhaps you'd like my husband to get you some coffee?"

Halting in her motion towards the door, the woman turned to Lois. "Pardon?"

Lois was struck by the haunted gaze of the woman. It seemed a fair assumption from her expression that a relative must have been badly injured, and very recently too. Which was surprising, since Superman had mentioned earlier to Lois that 'rescue-wise' it had been a very peaceful twenty-four hours. Could Clark have missed something?

"I asked if you'd like my husband to fetch you a cup of something to drink. Contrary to expectation, the coffee from the machine is very good."

"Oh, I couldn't trouble you…"

Clark offered the woman one of his warm smiles. "It's really no trouble. How do you like it?"

Like many members of the female population, the stranger wasn't immune to Clark's friendly attitude and she quietly replied. "Cream… no sugar."

"Okay, I'll be right back." Clark left quickly, though not at superspeed.

"I hope you don't think I'm intruding, but I couldn't help but notice how anxious you seemed, so I'm taking it that someone close to you is very ill." The woman's glance slid away from Lois' nervously. "I've been in that situation myself very recently, and I know that it's a bad time to be on your own… Perhaps I could contact someone for you?"

"No!" the woman replied brusquely. For a few seconds she seemed angry at Lois' infringement, then her shoulders slumped and she returned to sit in the same seat as before, resuming her contemplation of the sky.

Lois had just about decided that the woman wouldn't talk again, when the soft words reached her.

"No, there's no one… I have no one, not now."

Had this poor lady's relative already died? Oh, how terrible that must be — on Christmas Day, when everyone else was so happy! But surely, if that were so, the caring staff of this hospital wouldn't have left this bereft woman alone. Lois' intuition was telling her that there was another cause here, and as Clark frequently pointed out, Lois' gut instincts were often correct.

"Do you have a relative here who is injured?"

"Yes!" The answer was flat.

"I'm sorry, but I have to tell you that the doctors and nurses here are wonderful. I'm sure your loved one will do fine…" Lois was starting to feel very uncomfortable. Her experience of waiting to see if Joel and Clara would get better prompted her to help, but it appeared that this lady was too withdrawn to appreciate her concern. She just wished that Clark would get back soon. He had a way of reaching people… Yet Lois wasn't about to give in. She walked forward and sat near the woman. "Is it your husband… or maybe a child?"

The woman's head came up at that and the stricken stare she sent Lois shocked her to the core. "You have a child in the Burns Unit?" Lois asked gently.

"A son!"

Into the cauldron of emotion Clark walked; he was however, prepared. Just as Lois had guessed there was some mystery behind the stranger's pain, his senses too had sharpened. So he had felt a little justified in listening in to the conversation between his wife and the woman. He crossed to the seated lady and, bending to eye level, offered her the plastic cup. His movements were slow but steady, almost as if she were a startled fawn who was ready to bolt.

"Milk, no sugar," he said with a friendly grin.

A tiny smile of thanks turned up the corners of the woman's mouth, yet it never reached her eyes. Once the woman would have been pretty, even beautiful, Clark thought as he studied her. But now she was too thin and careworn, as if life had become too hard a task for her.

"I couldn't help but overhear when I came in that you have a son here. Is he very ill?" Clark spoke in the kindliest tone he could muster, aware that this stranger was on the verge of a breakdown. She needed help, and Clark didn't have to be in the blue suit to provide it.

Once more the woman took some time to answer, as if she had to drag up the words from the depths of her soul. "Yes… a son. I don't know how he is."

"He's just been brought in?" Lois asked, her shock and fright for the lady causing her to rush. She knew only too well how traumatic those early hours could be.

But the woman shook her head. "No! He's been here quite a while. I've… never… come before."

Lois and Clark exchanged puzzled glances. "Have you been away?" Lois pried further.

"You could say that." The woman's voice was barely audible. "I've not been a very good mother you see."

As always, Clark reached to give his comfort and his hand settled on the woman's arm. "I'm sure that's not true…"

The woman jumped up, spilling her coffee, but she hardly noticed. "You don't understand! You don't even know me!"

Clark too stood, retrieving his handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the wet splashes from his sleeve and hand, but it was Lois who spoke up.

"But anyone can see that you care deeply for your son, Mrs…" Lois found herself lost for words — not a situation she found herself in often. Yet this stranger seemed locked in a world of her own and maybe she needed more specialised help than Lois was qualified to give.

"Mrs Dailey… Claudette Dailey." She'd given them information and that was good, but it was delivered in a monotone.

"Is there a Mr Dailey?" Lois enquired, approaching the problem from a different angle. Though at the woman's unexpected shudder, Lois surmised that perhaps that hadn't been a wise choice.

"He died!" There was still no inflection in the strange woman's voice, yet her eyes reflected disgust.

"I'm sorry," A bland apology was all that Lois could offer, though Clark tried a little more, hoping for some sort of response.

"That must have been hard for you, Claudette." He used her first name, believing that the familiarity might forge a connection.

"Yeah, I thought so… but it turned out to be a lucky escape." The distraught female was back to staring out the window again, yet, when she spoke, she at last showed some emotion, even if it was deep loathing. "The b


d deserved to die!"

Another perplexed looked passed between Lois and Clark. Neither were quite sure how to proceed, or even if they should. Fortunately, their new acquaintance continued to talk.

"But it was too late! It was much too late to help Ben!"


In the family room the atmosphere became charged with expectation as Lois and Clark's feelings swiftly changed to incredulity. That really was too much to be coincidental!

"Would that be Ben Kershaw?" Clark asked, his eyes narrowing.

For a moment the woman looked poised for flight, but she visibly made the effort to hold her ground. "Do you know him?" Her voice sounded timorous, with just the tiniest edge of something akin to hope.

"Yes, we do," Clark replied, again smiling encouragingly. Ben had thought that his family was lost to him forever. In fact, other than stating that he'd had his reasons for running away at the tender age of twelve, the boy had refused to give any other information about his folks. But now his mother had come to see him. "This is amazing…"

Lois cut in on her husband, sounding a little more cautious. After all, Ben had run away from this woman. "Claudette, may we call you Claudette?" At the woman's slight nod of affirmation, Lois continued. "I'm Lois Lane and this is my husband Clark Kent…"

"You're the reporters who wrote the story about Ben!"

"That's correct! So I'm assuming that you read it." Lois moved a little closer to Claudette. "Is that why you came here?"

Claudette nodded and returned to her favourite chair next to the window. The silence in the room stretched out almost palpably. She took a few deep breaths, as if she were gathering herself for the traumatic confession. "I didn't know where he was until I read your article in the paper," she said to the floor, then raised her head to face the couple who were regarding her with some compassion. "I did try to find him… a few years ago, but the circumstances were difficult…"

"They must have been!" The note of censure in Lois' voice was barely disguised. Before meeting and falling in love with Clark, Lois had never considered herself the mothering type. Yet, if any of her brood disappeared, she knew that she'd move heaven and earth to find them… no matter what the circumstances.

Evidently Claudette had not been fooled. The nervous woman seemed to shrink in on herself. "You despise me," she uttered hollowly, "and you have every right. I let my son go… I abandoned him. I shouldn't be here now… opening old wounds." Claudette rose and took a few steps towards the door, pulling her coat around her like a protective shield. "I'll go. Please don't tell Ben you saw me…"


Lois reached out and grabbed Claudette's arm as she passed. "Please, don't go!" She sent Clark an apologetic look and turned back to Ben's mother. "Claudette, I don't know what happened between you and Ben, but you shouldn't leave without trying to talk to him, no matter how bad things were in the past."

"He didn't tell you?" Claudette's glance swung between Lois and Clark.

"He wouldn't tell anyone!" Clark moved closer to the two women. "Not even Superman. All he would say was that he ran away because he didn't get along with his stepfather."

"Is that what he called it?" Claudette said with a sneer.

"Can we take it that's the man who died?" Lois made sure to keep her voice neutral. She knew there were men who abused their families and, judging by what Claudette had said earlier, this man might have been one of them. Maybe the woman had been terrified of him, though Lois still didn't see that as an excuse for a mother not to protect her child. But then, she supposed it was easy for her to assume that, when she was blessed with one of the most gentle husbands on the planet.

"Yes!" The woman was back to monosyllabic answers.

Clark decided to take things in hand. "Look, this is obviously a very painful subject for you, but I agree with Lois. Now that you've come this far, it would be a tragedy for you to leave without seeing Ben. Why don't we sit down and we can talk about it… that's if you don't mind discussing your problems with two strangers. Though I have to tell you that Lois and I have grown pretty fond of Ben. He's a good kid who just got a little side-tracked onto the wrong path."

"That's probably my fault too," the poor woman admitted guiltily, but she did allow Clark to lead her back to her chair.

"Seems to me that your husband had something to do with it," Lois prompted more kindly as she came to sit by Claudette's side.

"He did, but I was too blind to see it… and when Ben finally found the courage to tell me, I didn't believe him. I just put it down to his being jealous of David… David was so plausible you see…"

Now that was something that Lois could identify with; Lex Luthor had fooled her for a long time. People believed what they wanted to…

"I thought he was a good man," Claudette insisted, cutting into Lois' thought. "Though maybe I just didn't want to believe that about the man I thought I loved. I mean, it's not the sort of thing that you like to admit — that your husband is sexually abusing your son." The fact that the revelation was delivered numbly, colourlessly, only seemed to emphasise the horror.

Both members of the reporting partnership had been fairly certain that it was something like this that had driven Ben from his home, and that was what he'd been keeping so wretchedly to himself ever since. They'd even written a series of articles on the heartbreaking problem some years back, so they did understand a little. But hearing it confirmed that their young friend had been a victim of such a vile crime left them stunned and cold.

Surprisingly, it was Clark who was the first to recover. "What about Ben's real father… Mr Kershaw? Didn't he try to intervene?"

"There never was a Mr Kershaw, unless you mean my father and he died when I was a kid. I was only sixteen when I got pregnant and the boy ran out on us when he found out he was responsible. I was a single mother, and being that in a small town Like Mount Farrell, where I came from, wasn't easy."

"How about your mother — didn't she help you?" Lois asked without much expectation. No one knew better than she that mothers could often be flawed.

"Sometimes… but she was too busy landing husband number three to care much what happened to me and her grandson. Whenever she succeeded she and her 'catch' were off to Vegas, though they did leave me with a roof over my head and some money in a bank account — they'd even drop by a few times in between trips to bankroll me and Ben, but the help they gave was pretty grudging and sporadic. Ben and I had to fend for ourselves. So I suppose I was fair game for David Dailey when he drove through town. He was a gentleman, not real handsome, but nice, and he treated me like a lady It was a whirlwind courtship. We got married within four weeks, and Ben and I moved in with him. He lived in the next big town to Mount Farrell."

Claudette seemed lost in her memories, so Lois chose to prompt her. "When was that?"

The haggard woman shot Lois an almost irate look, as if she were loathe to be pulled from her contemplation of what she had once thought of as happier times. "Let me see… I guess Ben was around seven at the time. Yes, that's right, cause just after we moved, David threw a huge party for Ben's seventh birthday… balloons, birthday cake and he invited all the kids in the neighbourhood… there was even a clown. David owned a successful car-dealership and you have no idea how good it felt not having to eke out a living. I was sure we were all going to be so happy, but Ben never took to his stepfather. Only I put it down to jealousy. Ben and I had always been on our own together, looking out for each other. I was sure he was angry because he had to learn to share me with someone else…You know how hard it is for some kids to adjust to new things?" Claudette searched the faces of the two people for some sort of understanding. "How was I to know what was really going on? David seemed so good… and he tried so hard to win Ben's approval. Everyone else thought Ben was just being difficult."

"Everyone?" Clark asked, trying to keep the edge from his voice.

"David's family, his friends… David was very well liked. No one had any idea of what he was doing. And for a long time, Ben wouldn't say what was wrong. He just became so silent and withdrawn… and sometimes he'd get angry and throw terrible temper tantrums."

"I'd say he was entitled!" Lois scoffed.

"Lois, don't!" But Clark's reprimand was without force. To tell the truth, he too felt annoyed that this woman had allowed her son to be hurt in such a terrible way by the man who should have been protecting him.

"No, she's right. You can't know how much I've condemned myself for letting it all go on for almost five years, right under my nose. Though, looking back, I don't think that it began immediately we moved. I don't think David was so sure of his ground then. He waited until he had me completely under his spell. I thought I'd found a good husband and one who wanted to be a caring father to Ben. How could I have been so wrong?"

"I'd think that he must have been a very devious man," Lois found herself responding to that last desperate question.

"Yes, he was! Even when Ben ran away, he kept up the pretext. He didn't even seem to blame Ben for stealing the money from the cash-box in the garage."

"You did try to find Ben?" Clark now found himself in the role of the prosecution.

"Of course! We filed a missing persons report and when the police couldn't find any leads, David went to the trouble of hiring a private investigator. I read the reports you know… but it was all for show. My husband was very good at keeping up appearances. I found out later that he knew the PI from college and that he was another of David's filthy cronies."

"So no one was looking for Ben?" Clark really didn't need to ask to know the answer.

"No! Not then… not until after David was killed in a car crash. Afterwards his brother and I started cleaning out his den and checking the computer. He never let me go in there, and even the cleaning lady was only allowed to do the basics. I thought it was his home office. He'd often take clients in there… but it turned out they weren't men who were interested in buying cars — they had a different type of merchandise in mind."

"That must have been quite a revelation," Lois found herself shivering inside at the thought.

"Oh yes! We found it all locked away… those terrible tapes and the photographs. Even photographs of my son. I think that my heart broke then. Doctors will tell you that's a physical impossibility… but it isn't. It hurts so much and I deserve all my pain." Claudette's voice was desolate and Lois and Clark didn't doubt that she'd already tried and found herself guilty. "I really did look for him after that. I hired a good Private Investigating Agency, but they told me not to expect too much. They said it had been too long. I'd given up hope until I read the Daily Planet and saw your story about Ben."

"I'd guess you just knew it was your Ben? A mother knows." This time Lois' statement was accompanied by a small gentle smile.

"Yes, but the Agency got in touch with me; they did some checking — found out the boy probably was my son. I've been trying to decide ever since whether I should come or not, but me being here is a mistake." Claudette shook her head despairingly. "Before he left, we had another huge fight. He'd tried to make me see the truth one last time but we just ended up arguing again. How can I expect Ben to forgive me?"

"Don't you think that Ben deserves the chance to answer that question himself?" Lois prompted, determined to stop the woman from leaving. "And if you run now, you'll never know if a reconciliation would have been possible. You'll always wonder."

"Lois is right. You owe it to Ben to let him make his mind up."

"And if he rejects me?" Claudette stared long and hard at Clark.

"Then you learn to live with that… even though it's the hardest thing you'll ever have to do. You owe Ben that as well." The sorrowing woman's shoulders dropped in defeat and Clark went on quickly. "But that might not happen. Ben isn't the boy who ran away from home… He's made some pretty bad choices too. Why don't you go see him… let him know that you came for him."


A few minutes later Clark walked into Ben's room while Lois waited outside with Claudette — just in case the tragic woman's resolve weakened.

"Hey, kids, I think you've stayed long enough in here for today," Clark said with just a hint of steel. "Poor Ben will be exhausted playing with that game."

There was a collective moan from the Kent kids but they didn't argue. Ben was a little disappointed too, though he couldn't deny he was tiring.

"I'm sorry, children, but I have to agree with your father, and I'm in charge," Nancy announced, a laugh robbing her stricture of its sting. "Let's get this thing packed away for now. You can come back another day and continue to save the world from alien invaders."

"Come on, you guys, say goodbye now and you'll find Mom in the corridor. I'll be along in a moment. I just have a few things to say to Ben."

The three children filed past their father as he held the door, assuring Ben they'd be back. Then Clark purposefully closed the door. He sighed uncomfortably. Now that the moment had come, he wasn't exactly sure if this was the right thing to do. "You have another visitor, Ben."

"Oh, okay," Ben said with just a small amount of curiosity. It wasn't often he got so many people dropping by and he wasn't about to turn company down just because of a little tiredness.

Nancy stood, recognising the slight change in Clark's lighthearted manner of earlier. Her long years in the nursing profession warned her that this unknown person wasn't a casual caller. Was it the police, or someone from the DA's office? Yet it was unlikely for them to arrest Ben on Christmas Day — after all it was a holiday. And it wasn't as if he could run anywhere.

"Should I go?" she enquired, though truthfully she was loathe to leave the boy, whom she regarded as her surrogate son.

"No, Nancy." Clark gave a tiny smile of approval. "I think Ben might need your support."

At last Ben recognised the worry that lay behind Clark's forced cheerfulness. "Hey, what's all the mystery about? Who is this visitor?"

"Someone who's come a long way. I hope you don't mind, but I thought you might want to see her." And Clark opened the door again, ushering a fair-haired woman inside… a woman who looked vaguely familiar.

Ben would never know which part of his anatomy recognised her first. He was only aware that his heart was beating so hard it was drowning out the sound of everything else within the room. He didn't know how long it was before he could force out that one word.


Next to him, Nancy sat abruptly, as if her legs would no longer hold her upright, while the silence dragged on.

Meanwhile, Claudette stared in fixation at the boy she hadn't seen in over three years and her heart broke anew. Lois and Clark had warned her about his injuries, but she hadn't been prepared for this. He'd been through so much hurt; he really didn't need her adding to his troubles.

"I told you this was a mistake." She frowned at Clark and turned to walk away, but he stood his ground, blocking her exit.

Finally, Ben found his brain connecting up with his mouth again. "What are you doing here?"

"I heard about you on the news — read about you in the paper. I had to come and see if it was really you… Find out how you are?" Claudette sounded raw and she was visibly shaking.

"As you can see… I'm not doing too well!" Ben threw that at his mother, the years of neglect and bitterness surging to the forefront of his mind and colouring his voice.

The woman who was once the most important person in his life took a few apprehensive steps into the room. "I'm sorry, Ben, for your pain." She looked as if she wanted to say more, but didn't quite know how. How do you tell your only child that you're sorry you destroyed his life? Behind her, Clark slipped noiselessly from the room.

"Why should you care anyway? You didn't before!" Years of pent up anger drove away Ben's fatigue.

"That's not true," she cried out agonisingly and walked further forward, while she visibly tried to calm herself. "It might not have seemed so… but I always cared."

"That's garbage! I always knew you cared for him more than me!" That was a kid's petulant cry, but Ben was no longer a child and he curbed his rancour, asking bitterly instead, "Is he outside?"

"If you mean David, then no. He died over a year ago!"

There were some moments of silence while Ben absorbed that piece of momentous news. The pervert was dead — he should be glad, but he only felt numb. "Well, don't expect me to shed any tears!"

Claudette closed the distance to her son's bed. "I don't and I haven't shed many for him either. Not after I found out that you were telling the truth about what he was doing to you… and other kids. We found certain evidence in his den…"

"Good for you," Ben growled sarcastically. "And don't expect to come waltzing in here and imagine that I'll take you back."

"I don't." Claudette's face looked ashen, but she'd found the courage to say what she'd come so far to tell her son. "I should have believed you then, but I made a judgment call and the sad thing is that you had to pay the price for my mistake. And how can I ask you to forgive me when I can't forgive myself?" She took a few deep breaths, praying she wouldn't break down. "But for all that, I couldn't stay away. I had to come and find out for myself… and to say I'm sorry. I just needed to know that you were alive… somewhere. I have no expectations."

She started to turn round to leave when Ben's voice forestalled her. "What are you doing?"

"I'm leaving," she explained dully. "It's clear that you don't want me here!"

Ben shrugged, his feelings surprisingly doing an about- face. "I didn't say that. You've come a long way for such a short visit."

"Further than you think," Claudette gave a tiny smile. "I went back to Mount Farrell, after Dav… after he died. Your grandparents eventually got tired of travelling and moved back home. And I couldn't go on living in his house after I'd discovered his dirty secrets. I couldn't bear it. I sold up and used some of the proceeds to hire a Private Detective to look for you."

"Better late than never, I suppose," Ben commented, the cynicism back in his tone with a vengeance.

"That's what I thought, though it seems I was wrong. But I've said my piece. I can't make you do anything you don't want to — I wouldn't even try. So I'll be on my way."

"No, wait!" Ben searched his mother's face. She looked so much older than he remembered her. It had been a few years, of course, but she looked like she'd had a rough time. Maybe he wasn't the only one who had suffered. "About that judgment call, I've made some huge mistakes in that department myself, so maybe I don't have the right to condemn anyone else. I don't know how I feel about all this, but I don't want you to go. I'm not saying we could ever get back to the way we were once, but we do need to talk." A huge unexpected yawn interrupted his speech. "Only I'm tired and I'd probably fall asleep on you right now. I do that, you know. It's the medication." Ben attempted a grin, but failed miserably, tears starting to fall instead. He tried to dash them away, but was hardly successful, since his bandaged hands were clumsy.

The women on either side of his bed rushed to help him, but it was Nancy who reached for the tissues and dabbed gently at Ben's face. Claudette gave way to the other female with just a tiny attack of envy.

As soon as Nancy had dried Ben's tears, she turned her attention to the distraught mother, holding out her hand in a friendly manner. "Hello, I'm Nancy Kominski, Ben's nurse."

Claudette managed a weak smile in return as she shook the proffered hand. "And I'm Claudette Dai…" She halted, as she sent her son an apologetic glance. "Claudette Kershaw," she announced with determination, finally consigning her life as Dailey's wife to the dim and distant past.

Ben brightened at his mother's words, but he wasn't completely ready yet to let bygones be bygones. "Nancy's more than my nurse… she's my friend… and I'm going to stay with her when I get out of here. She'll be my foster- mother."

The tears which Claudette had been unable to cry for so long threatened to spill now, but she wouldn't let them fall. She'd given up any rights she might have had to her son long ago, and she would not begrudge him the happy home that this woman was offering. She forced another smile, only this one was genuine. "Good! That's good, Ben. I'm happy that you have someone to take care of you. You deserve the best. I'm glad I came… and that you didn't have me thrown out. Thank you for seeing me." Claudette bowed her head and whispered, "Goodbye, son."

Once more Ben found himself conflicted as he watched her turn to leave. "Mom!" He surprised himself by calling after her, and when she swung back, he sent her a tiny lopsided grin. "I'm not that tired. You don't have to go yet."

"Ms Kershaw, why don't you stay for a little while," Nancy suggested pleasantly, her kind heart moved by the younger woman's harrowing situation. "And, if you don't mind me saying so, I think you should spend some time in Metropolis and come visit Ben again. You both must have a lot of catching up to do."

"What do you think, Ben?" Claudette asked, anxiously chewing on her lower lip.

"I'd say it wasn't a bad idea… if you wanna stay, that is!"

Those few words transformed Claudette into something of the pretty woman she once had been and now her smile was from the heart. "Then I guess I'd like to stay… Only, I'd have to find a hotel or something."

"You'll have a hard time finding anything on Christmas Day," Nancy surmised sensibly. "Why don't you come home with me for tonight and we can figure out something more permanent tomorrow?"

"Oh no, I couldn't impose!"

"It's no imposition, my dear, though you'll have to take potluck on the food situation. I had my lunch here at the hospital and I was just planning on ordering takeout later."

"Takeout is fine. But you really don't have to offer me a room for the night…"

"Mom, I'd give up arguing," Ben advised, now grinning like the Cheshire Cat. "I've never won an argument with Nancy yet when she's doing her 'mother-hen' impersonation."

"Then I'd better say yes, Nancy… And thank you, both of you. This is so much more than I'd hoped for."

"It's a start, Mom. I don't know where we're gonna end up, or even if we'll get there together. But it's Christmas Day — a good day for a new beginning.


In the reception area of the Burns Unit, Clark stood with his wife and children around him while the conversation played out between the trio in the room he'd just left. Lois watched her husband closely with as much patience as she could muster but, as a range of emotions chased, one after the other, across his features, she could no longer bear the suspense.

"What's happening, Clark?" She patted his chest demandingly, yet at the same time she let her hand linger, appreciating, as always, the well-toned muscles that were hidden beneath his brand-new sweater.

Clark's distracted attention was drawn to his wife and, purely out of habit, he found himself objecting to her suggestion that he was listening in. "Lo-is, I do not…"

"And don't pretend that you're not eavesdropping, sweetheart, because even super-ethics aren't immune to curiosity on this scale," Lois smirked, but she instinctively lowered her voice.

For a fleeting moment it looked like Clark might demur, but he gave in laughingly to the enquiring quirk of Lois' eyebrows — she knew him better than he did himself. Not to mention the fact that his superboy was about to spill the beans anyway. He really needed to speak to Joel about the moral values of respecting people's privacy. Only on this occasion, Lois was right — even he had been concerned enough to break the rules. "Okay! I might have overheard a little, and I don't think we have to worry anymore. Things are definitely looking up for Ben and his mother."

"That's wonderful, honey. I'm so happy for them," Lois said sincerely, feeling a little misty-eyed at the prospect of a reunion between mother and son. Claudette's and Ben's lives had been torn apart by an evil man and they'd both made mistakes, yet they deserved happiness. Of course, both had a long way to go to find redemption, but the fact that they'd taken the first steps on the journey was enough for today. And talking of days — this was Christmas and the afternoon was drawing to a close. Lois shook herself out of her reverie. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm getting hungry and I know that your grandparents will have Christmas dinner waiting for us, so we should be leaving."

Lois and Clark started shepherding their four children towards the elevators, swinging Nathan along between them as they went, while the three elder children reviewed the prospect of the feast that waited for them at home.

"Great, Gramma Martha's roast turkey and gravy." Joel salivated at the thought. "With chestnut stuffing!"

"Her apple-pie and homemade ice-cream!" Clara hadn't yet developed her mother's taste for chocolate, preferring her father's favourite dessert.

"Dad's chocolate Yule log!" Julian announced dreamily, then his fair skin flushed bright red. His eyes shot to his father's in apology. "Sorry, Dad! That was meant to be a surprise."

"Clark, another surprise! You spoil me!" Lois squeezed against her husband as they waited for the elevator, her thoughts returning to the delectable feeling of Clark's broad chest beneath her hand a few minutes ago.

"It's only a cake, Lois," Clark explained, blushing at her actions yet enjoying them too.

"But a chocolate one — you know how much I love dessert!" she teased, allowing the tiny tip of her tongue to lick her luscious lips.

Oh, how well Clark remembered enjoying one specific dessert with Lois before his children came along. He felt himself grow hot, but fortunately for his equilibrium the elevator arrived and he hustled the family inside, pressing the appropriate button for the basement car park.

"Gramma Ellen bought special Christmas Crackers at Nieman's," Clara informed the group, her mind still on Christmas dinner.

"Nieman Marcus!" Clark's eyebrows rose in speculation. "I bet they cost an arm and a leg!"

"Well, you know my mother, Clark," Lois grumbled, though her tone was a great deal more indulgent than once it had been when discussing her mother. "Nothing but the best!"

"What the heck are Christmas Crackers anyway?" Joel asked, his interest tweaked.

Clara gave a puzzled shrug. "Beats me! She said it was something she saw in some fancy store in London when she and Grandpa stopped off there."

"Maybe they're a bit like cookies," Joel suggested helpfully, "though they probably don't taste as good!"

"Well, of course they don't, stupid!" Julian couldn't hide his laughter or his knowledge of the mysterious items. "They're made of colored paper and cardboard, and when you pull them they go bang! Then you find paper hats and funny little prizes inside."

"No kidding?!" Joel's eyes opened incredulously.

"If Mother bought them at Nieman's, I'd expect diamonds inside!" Lois speculated, bringing that conversation to a close.

There was a few minutes' silence as the family waited for the car to descend the final few floors, until Joel cleared his throat and raised his face to his parents. Evidently he had something of importance to say.

"Mom, Dad, it's been a good afternoon. We all had a great time." A concentrated frown marred Joel's clear brow. Sometimes he got a little tongue-tied when he tried to put his feelings into words. "But these poor kids don't have anybody to care for them… no grandparents to look after them and buy them nice things, no sisters or brothers to play with… or Moms and Dads to love them. I'd hate to be on my own like that! So I think we're the luckiest kids in the world to have you."

"I'd second that," Julian said, nodding his head in firm agreement and smiling up at the only parents he'd ever really known.

Tears sparkled on Clara's long eyelashes and she blinked them away. "Ditto!" she announced gruffly, wrapping her arms around Lois.

"Me too! Me too!" Nathan was not to be left out and he bounced up and down in the centre of the group. Clark bent down to scoop up his youngest child as the doors slid open.

"I think we're all very lucky to have each other." Clark's statement was indeed heartfelt. This had been a terrifying year, even by Superman's standards. There had been times when he'd been afraid of losing many members of his family.

Lois swallowed a giant-sized lump which had risen in her throat. The echo of Clark's thought touched her soul and she too felt very blessed that she was surrounded by all those she loved. "Come on guys, let's go home! Christmas isn't over yet; we still have lots of time to have fun!"

And from a onetime confirmed hater of Christmas that was a massive change of heart. Yet Lois realised with a lifting of her soul that she had finally come to see Christmas through her dearest husband's eyes and that it truly was magical!