By Raconteur <email@example.com>
Submitted: January, 2005
Summary: When he's asked to give up everything he loves in order to save a world he doesn't know, Clark realizes that the measure of a person isn't just what they believe, it's what they're willing to sacrifice.
The Southwestern Present Day United States
"Grandfather!" the young boy shouted as he ascended the hill. Out of breath, he stopped at the hill's peak and looked down at the village below. "Grandfather!" he called out once again. He ran barefoot through the dry grass.
"What is the matter, little one?" the boy's grandfather asked as he caught the boy mid stumble on his barely controlled descent down the hill.
"Grandfather, in the sky, look!" The boy pointed upward at a dark, oddly shaped object in the sky. It moved like no bird he had seen. There was a sudden flash of light that momentarily blinded them both. Others in the village had now stopped their mundane work to look up at the unknown object darkening the sky. It began to grow in size as it approached the ground. Soon it was as if it blocked out the sky entirely. A dark shadow was cast across the village and the dry, dusty morning was suddenly replaced by night. Another, more intense flash of light followed, and the little boy turned away. He felt his old grandfather's arm clutch him close to his body. He wrapped his small arms around his grandfather's waist and prayed that the evil spirit that had spread this dark blanket over their sky would leave them alone.
The shadow receded. The strange object in the sky was gone. The village of mud brick buildings and morning cooking fires stood exactly as it had before.
Except now it was completely empty.
6000 Years Later
A bright flash of light set the night sky on fire. Burning as bright as day, it illuminated the shepherds' fields and startled the sheep. The men sat in stunned silence, and finally turned to each other, as if to assure themselves that they'd not gone mad. The light suddenly withdrew, and their eyes no longer hurt. They focused their gazes on the now concentrated source of light, like a midnight sun, hanging brightly in the desert sky, its light shone directly on an oasis upon a hill in the distance. Screwing up their courage, the shepherds stood and began to follow the path to the oasis.
The Arabian Peninsula
In a darkened cave upon a tall mountain, the caravan driver lay asleep, protected from the savage desert winds. A sudden bright light roused him. He sat up quickly, squinting and holding up a hand to shield his eyes from the intense light.
A voice that seemed to whisper and shout at once commanded him, "Recite." The single word reverberated through the cave, causing an immense rumbling. "Recite," the voice repeated, leaving the man trembling in fear.
"What, what do you want me to recite?" he asked timidly. He stood slowly and approached the mouth of the cave and the source of the light.
In a bright explosion of color, both the man and the light disappeared.
The inventor sat at his table, his head in his hands. He slowly rubbed his temples, trying to rid himself of the intense headache. He'd been suffering these pains for the past few days. They attacked unexpectedly each day and he'd begun to live his life in dread of the next attack. He looked up only to be blinded by an intense light. He squeezed his eyes shut and the images began to flash through his mind rapidly. Images of strange flying contraptions, chain driven chariots, and other things he could neither describe nor name. Gritting his teeth, he willed the pain away, and suddenly the light was gone.
March 17, 1962 AD
Eleven Light Years from Earth
The sullen man paced anxiously in the sterile white corridor. A door opened silently and he turned nervously, his heart weighed down heavily. He had waited for what seemed an eternity for news, any news. Now with a soul filled with dread he lifted his eyes to look at the man before him. "What news?" he asked, the words struggling to escape around the lump in his throat.
"Jor El, my friend," Tao Scion's thin face was drawn, his lips formed a slight frown, but his clear blue eyes were full of compassion and gentleness. The news was bad, that much was clear. "There is nothing more we can do for her, save make her comfortable in these last few hours."
Jor El felt his breath escape him as his knees grew weak. Tao Scion immediately extended a hand to steady him. Tao Scion had always been a good friend to him, and the finest doctor in the guild. "May I go see her?" he asked weakly.
"Of course. She asked for you." Tao Scion held the door open for him and he walked into the colorless, white room, trying to keep his emotions in check. She did not need to see him fall apart; she would expect him to be strong. He didn't need to magnify her fear with his own.
She lay still in the large bed, a series of small droids hovered around, keeping track of her vital signs. She looked up at him expectantly with those large hazel eyes that had the power to melt his stern and intellectual fa‡ade. She smiled at him and he felt the tears well up in his eyes.
"Father!" she said, her arms outstretched to him.
"My darling daughter," he spoke in hushed tones, gathering her tiny body up in his arms. She embraced him tightly and he kissed the top of her head. He smoothed the soft strands of brown hair away from her face as he looked at his little child. "I love you so much," he said.
"I love you, father," she whispered seriously. "Where is mother? I want to see her again."
"Your doctor has gone to get her, I sent her to get something to eat. She sat beside you all night and day and neither ate nor slept, but now that you are awake, nothing can keep her from coming to see you."
"Father, I'm going to go to sleep and never wake up again, like your grandmother, right?"
He felt a tear slide down his cheek and shook his head. "My little one, no."
He watched as she took his large hand in her two tiny ones. "Father, you said a lie was a grievous offense, and that it harms the person who lies as well as the person to whom the lie is told." He let out a ragged sigh. Of course his precocious little six year old would find this to be the most opportune time to respond to him with his own stern lecturing.
He didn't know what to say to her. He held her little hand tightly. The door opened behind him and he turned to see his wife standing in the doorway. The tears welled up in her eyes, the same hazel eyes that his daughter looked at him with. He couldn't stand to see the pain in either of their faces and that he could do nothing to relieve that pain was slowly tearing at his insides.
"My child," Lara whispered, placing her hand to her lips. The tears that had been threatening spilled over. She walked quickly to her daughter's bedside and gathered her little child up in her arms. Lara kissed her daughter's face.
"I love you, Mother, please don't cry. It doesn't hurt anymore, it doesn't hurt." She looked up at them with an odd mixture of the wide-eyed innocence of childhood and an earnest expression that belied a wisdom well beyond her years.
"I love you, Keir El, your father and I love you so much." Lara's voice quivered as she struggled to reassure her child.
Jor El embraced both his daughter and his wife, silently cursing his inability to keep them safe from harm. His entire world was in his arms and he was powerless to prevent the unthinkable from happening.
"I don't want to leave you, Mother."
"My little darling," Lara whispered. She brushed the tears away from her daughter's little face.
"Mother, please, don't cry." Keir El said, her little plea cutting straight to Jor El's heart.
"Rest, my love," he said, struggling to form the words. "Rest, my little child, don't tire yourself. Your mother and I love you." He gently encouraged her to lie back down and kissed her forehead. Lara continued to hold her hand. He took Lara's other hand in his and squeezed it gently.
He watched as his daughter lay perfectly still in the bed. Her heart rate and breathing began to falter and she closed her eyes. For hours, she struggled to breathe. He watched her slip away and he felt his heart die with her. With a loud cry, Lara began to sob. She touched the tiny face of her daughter, her expression was so calm, so peaceful, as though she was only asleep. Jor El bent down to kiss his little daughter's forehead, his body trembling. He placed his arms around his wife, they both shook with sobs as they fell to their knees. The pain in his soul overwhelmed him. There was an emptiness inside him that he knew would never be filled again. He was drowning in a sea of grief, clinging tightly to his wife, unsure whether they'd be able to save each other.
Two Years Later…
Jor El slammed his fist against his desk. "This can't be right," he muttered. He felt a pair of hands on his shoulders.
He hung his head down in defeat. "What are we to do, Lara?" he asked.
She massaged his shoulders gently. "We need to learn more before we resign ourselves to our fate."
He growled, frustrated. "Lara, what we know damns us. I've done the calculations, you've done the calculations, other scientists have confirmed it. We have to go to the Council with this, that is our only hope."
Jor El stood in the center of the large room, facing the First Ministers of Krypton. All around him sat the High Council of Elders, elevated from ground level and seated behind large lecterns. Jor El stood with his hands clasped in front of him. He had aged decades in the last two years. It was as though his soul no longer wanted to continue on with life. His face was creased with lines of worry and his eyes belied a weariness for which there was no cure.
"Esteemed councilors," he began, projecting loudly. "I began noticing anomalies in geothermal readings almost one year ago. I have consulted my colleagues who specialize in the field of geophysics. Their news is not good. Their estimations match mine. Noble ladies and gentlemen, our planet is dying."
"Are you certain of this, Jor El?" one of the councilors he did not know asked.
"I am certain, as are the other scientists. There is no doubt of it."
"How can this be?" Jor El turned toward Shai, the councilor and jurist who had asked the question. Shai was a levelheaded and sober man, with dark, hard eyes, but this news was more than enough to disturb his normally stoic expression.
"Councilor Shai, our small planet consists mainly of a slowly decaying radioactive element, covered by a crust of dense, stable rock. The radioactive nature of the planet has for many years, been our main source of heat and energy. Nevertheless it will be our undoing. The particular levels of heat and pressure exerted on this element at this time are causing it to decay very rapidly. This more rapid decay will lead to the eventual destruction of our planet, and everything on it."
"What can be done about this?" Dar Rhys demanded. She was an elder stateswoman and physician, and one of the most respected members of the High Council.
"If I might be frank, madam," Jor El began. "This planet was singularly ill suited for long term habitation. We were marooned here on this desolate space rock thousands of years ago with little concern for the long-term viability of our civilization. There is no way to slow or reverse this process. Krypton is doomed. The planet is dead and it will take the greatest effort and good fortune to save its people."
"And what is it that you suggest?"
Jor El turned around again. Grim faced and tight lipped, he fixed his gaze on Rae Et's cold, calculating eyes. He felt his insides churn with anger. Bitterness crept up in his throat. "Councilor, the planet must be evacuated. It will take the work of all of our scientists and this Council to organize the exodus. We must begin building ships and preparing for the journey at this very moment. We must also seek out a suitable destination."
"My esteemed brother," Rae Et began. "You are speaking of the movement of thousands of people over millions of miles of space."
"Thousands, madam?" Jor El snapped angrily.
"Well certainly, it would take thousands of individuals to create a viable population."
"If it has slipped the councilor's memory, the population of Krypton is forty one million persons," Jor El seethed.
"And you are claiming that you'll be able to save all of them? I admire your optimism and your courage, Jor El." Rae Et barely checked her contempt for the scientist. "But pragmatism will best serve us. How long do you estimate we have left?"
"Twenty six months, maximum," Jor El responded grimly.
Rae Et stood and addressed all of her colleagues. "And in that time, we'll be lucky to save enough people to start a viable colony. If we focus on that, we can ensure the survival of our civilization. If we aim too high, noble though it may be, we risk total annihilation. We thank you for your vigilance and your service, Jor El, the survival of our way of life will be due in no small part to you."
The meeting was suspended and the councilors gathered in small caucus groups to discuss the best way to coordinate their efforts. In an out of the way corner, Jor El fumed silently. He would not be party to the connivances of that woman. The fate of their people could not be left in her hands. He needed to contact Lara. He would call their students. He hadn't wanted to inform them until after speaking with the Council, but it was now time to go to work. Though they were still ignorant of the fact, the people of Krypton were counting on them.
One Year later…
Jor El lifted his head from his desk, and glanced around the darkened room. When had he fallen asleep? And who had placed the blanket over him? He rubbed his bleary eyes and tried to stretch his stiff neck. He pushed his rapidly graying hair away from his eyes. He heard a light tapping sound originating from the other end of the laboratory. He stood from his chair and followed the sound. Lara sat in a corner under the light of a single lamp. She typed away methodically at her terminal, transcribing her results from the day. She stared at the display, giving no indication that she knew he was there. A strand of her blonde hair spilled forward and he had to resist the urge to reach out and brush it away from her face. He placed a hand on her shoulder and felt her jump.
She turned suddenly to look at him. "Jor El, you frightened me!" she exclaimed.
"I'm sorry, darling. I can see you are quite absorbed in your work."
"We did it," she said softly.
He looked at her questioningly, surely she didn't mean? "Did what?"
"We perfected the formula for the fuel source. We'll be able to travel in larger vessels at higher speeds with less fuel. We shall be able to increase maximum distance by fifteen per cent or reduce travel time." She regarded him with a weary smile.
"Lara, that is wonderful!" He kissed his wife, feeling a sense of hope for the first time in months. She stood up, wrapping her arms around his neck and pressing her slender body against his. She sighed as he deepened the kiss.
"I love you," she whispered as she buried her face against his shoulder.
"And I you, my darling," he replied. He looked into her eyes, seeing a mixture of hope and weariness and love. She reached up to touch his face. He placed his hand on hers, holding it to his cheek. She looked at him questioningly.
"Jor El, what is bothering you?" she asked.
"It is nothing," he replied, hoping that she would not see through his deceit.
"Please, do not hide it from me, my love. Your pain is mine." She took both of his hands in hers.
"Oh Lara, I am afraid," he confessed. "We still do not know if we will be successful. We have precious little time and there is still so much we must do. I fear that I will fail. I fear that I will let you down, and let our people down."
"If it were not for you, our people would have no hope at all." She looked up at him somberly, her expression one of quiet determination. "We will do everything in our power to save our people. I fear that is all that we can ask of ourselves. You have worked night and day for a year, my love, you cannot doubt that you are doing all that you can. Come, let us go to bed."
He shook his head. "There is still work to be done."
"You have slept in this laboratory every night for weeks. You have had little rest and you are exhausted. You will accomplish more tomorrow if you are well rested."
"Jor El, I am tired of sleeping without you."
He wanted to protest that he wasn't tired and that he would sleep a few hours before morning, but suddenly, there was no conviction behind the argument. He, too, did not sleep well if he wasn't in his love's arms.
She stood up on her toes and kissed him again. It was a long, lingering kiss and he felt desire stir up inside him, reminding him that his love for Lara was the force that drove him. In the effort to save his world, he had neglected the most important thing in his world. He threaded his hand through her soft hair and deepened the kiss. He felt a sigh escape his lips as she withdrew. He opened his eyes with a start when he felt her kiss his neck.
"Come to bed, darling," she murmured.
"Oh Lara," he whispered breathlessly.
She looked up at him and their eyes met. "Make love with me, Jor El," she said softly, almost pleadingly. It hurt him to know that she believed she had to ask. He kissed her again before taking her hand in his, interlacing their fingers. Wordlessly they left the laboratory.
Six Weeks Later…
Jor El and his assistants stood in the hangar, examining the prototype of the launch mechanism. In another corner of the hangar, Lara and her students were gathered around the speculative plans for the fuel lines for the transports. Beside her was the chief design engineer, Mol Dai. "Because the fuel is a gel only in a very limited thermal band," Lara began. "Great care must be taken to control the…" she stopped. "To control the temp…temperatures."
Out of the corner of his eye, Jor El saw his wife falter. She leaned forward on the table to steady herself. He quickly stepped away from the group and rushed to her side.
He placed a hand upon her shoulder. "Lara, are you all right?" he asked. She closed her eyes and took a deep, shaky breath. "I will call the doctor," he said.
"No," she replied softly. She placed a hand on his. She stepped away from the table. "I will be all right," she said before turning to leave the hangar.
He followed her through the corridors but she entered a washroom and closed the door behind her. Perhaps she only needed a moment to herself. She had to know that he was concerned for her. She looked so pale. He had noticed it several days ago, but she had dismissed his concerns, claiming that she was fine. He would wait for her; perhaps in private she would tell him what was wrong.
He stood silently in the hallway, staring off into the distance and allowing his fears to grow and compound themselves. The door opened quietly a few minutes later and she stepped into the hall.
"Take me home, please, Jor El," she said softly.
He simply nodded and placing a hand on the small of her back to steady her, he led her out of the building. Like many of the other scientists, Jor El and Lara had moved from their home to smaller residences above their laboratories in the last year. "Can you walk, or shall I summon a transport?" he asked.
She smiled faintly at him. "I'll be all right, and it is a nice day, I'd like to walk."
They walked quietly to their quarters. It was a nice day, but Jor El was in no mood to enjoy it. Of course he'd been in no mood to enjoy it for more than a year now. He supposed that he ought not take for granted days such as this one, when the sky was a soft rose color and the little red sun shone down warmly on their world. He knew these days were limited, but that only caused him to hate nature instead of cherishing it. How dare the world fall apart on them? He found himself despising its transience. It was not supposed to be like this, he knew that for certain. He held the door to their quarters open for his wife. He immediately insisted that she sit down and she seemed amused at his concern.
"I am all right," she assured him.
He knelt beside her. "Lara, tell me, please what is wrong? Why can I not call the doctor? If you are ill, we should call someone."
"I am not ill, Jor El."
"Lara, please," he pleaded with her. "Tell me what it is."
She placed her hand on his cheek and looked at him lovingly. She smiled, but he could see tears in her eyes. He took her hand in both of his and held it to his lips. He looked at her in a silent plea.
"I am with child, my love."
He felt his breath catch in his throat. She bit her lip and smiling, nodded slightly. He felt tears spring, unbidden to his eyes. He smiled as he reached up to touch his wife's face. She leaned down to kiss him and took his hand in hers, guiding it to her abdomen. Closing his eyes, he held his hand against her stomach, thinking of the tiny child that grew within.
After Keir El's death, they had not spoken of having more children. The loss of their daughter had left gaping holes in both of their souls and time had done little to heal the wounds. As long as he had his wife, Jor El had a reason to continue living, but he knew that a part of him had died years ago when those little hazel eyes had closed for the last time, part of him that not even Lara could revive.
Having another child would require him to relive emotions that he'd tried to bury so many years before. He previously had not believed himself capable of becoming a father again. Now he faced the reality of bringing new life into a dying world.
He looked up at his wife, his lover, companion, and friend, his emotions in turmoil. "I will save this child," he whispered. "I promise you that our child will live a long, happy life."
Rae Et brushed an imaginary speck from the lapel of her greatcoat. She adjusted the cobalt cuffs on her wrists, a practiced look of boredom on her face. She drummed her knuckles on the polished surface of her desk. The junior councilors had been waiting outside her private office for half an hour now; perhaps they had waited long enough. She pressed a button on the console on her desk and the door to her study glided open silently. Two men entered. Like the other members of the High Council of Elders, they wore all black suits with the cobalt colored titanium wrist cuffs that signified their commitment as servants of the people of Krypton. They bowed their heads slightly in polite greeting as they crossed the doorway.
Rae Et nodded curtly but maintained constant eye contact with the two men. They were young; neither had her experience or position on the Council. "Gentlemen," she began formally. "I understand you have some concerns?"
"The scientists have worked day and night on the evacuation. We have heard conflicting reports of their progress." Alon looked physically uncomfortable. He was a large, brawny man and he shifted his considerable weight from one foot to the other. There were several chairs in the study, but Rae Et had not offered them a seat.
"We are all aware that there is no way to save everyone, even Jor El is not that deluded. The question remains, who will be saved? We must do what is in the best interest of the people of Krypton. We serve the whole of our society, gentlemen, that means we must ensure the survival of our civilization and our culture. The human sacrifice will be great. But with steady leadership, the standard-bearers of our civilization will carry on."
"Madam Councilor, it appears that you have great confidence in the ability to save our society," Shertal interjected. He was a tall, thin man with sharp, dark features. He regarded his surroundings with cold, calculating eyes.
"Mr. Councilor, a person in a position of leadership must plan carefully and prepare in times of crisis," she replied.
"So how do you plan to keep the calm in this time of crisis?" Shertal inquired, stroking his neatly trimmed, black goatee thoughtfully.
"By reassuring the people that all will be done to save everyone."
"In direct contradiction to what you previously said," Alon added. She could see beads of sweat forming on Alon's brow. She did keep the room rather warm, didn't she? Rae Et thought to herself with an inward smile.
"Technically, yes," she replied nonchalantly. "But by the time it becomes clear that we will be unable to save everyone, the pioneers will be long gone, on our way to tame a brave new world." She smiled at the thought.
"And you are confident that those pioneers will be able to leave in time?" Shertal asked, his hands clasped stiffly in front of him.
"By Jor El's own estimations, we have twelve months remaining before Krypton becomes uninhabitable. The first prototype transport will be finished within two months. Two months have been set-aside after that for diagnostic testing. That gives us a window of eight months."
"And how many people can be transported on each vessel?" Alon asked.
"There will be a certain balance to be determined between persons and materiel on board each transport. The Council's subcommittee has been working diligently to determine that balance. Several prospective destinations are being considered, none of which are particularly hospitable. The expeditionary mission will consist of two transports, each carrying 5,000 persons and 61 million tons of cargo. On board will be military commanders and their families, one hundred members of the engineering guilds finest electrical and structural engineers and systems managers. The remaining persons will be soldiers and peacekeepers. It will be the duty of the expeditionary mission to make inhabitable our new home.
"In each of the subsequent months, twelve transports will be ready for launch. In order to ensure the viability of our colony, those with the most useful skills will be selected first. With each launch we will again strike a balance between supplies and passengers. We've calculated how many persons we can save while maintaining travel time plus twelve years' worth of supplies, my personal estimate for the necessary time to establish a viable colony. We've also determined how many we can save with travel time plus two years' worth of supplies, Councilor Dar Rhys's suggestion, though I'm certain that Jor El was behind it." She scowled. "My estimates: 250,000, Jor El's: 2.1 million. Additional discrepancies arise due to disagreements on appropriate colony size and necessary supplies," she explained disinterestedly.
"250,000 out of forty one million?" Alon asked.
"It is a large enough population to ensure the viability of the colony, small enough to maintain order and discipline and to guarantee us a certain level of comfort while we establish our new home," she replied.
"Are your numbers supposed to give us peace of mind, Madam Councilor?" Alon asked pointedly.
"I would think so," Rae Et said, amused. "You are both young, healthy members of the High Council, proven leaders. There will be places for you and your families on those transports and in a desolate new world, with our people in need of guidance, I'm certain you will be propelled into positions of great power."
"Assuming we align ourselves with you?" Shertal replied.
"It never hurts to ally one's self with the force that will be victorious," she admitted almost haughtily.
"Five percent," Jor El said flatly.
"The numbers are correct," Nur Bei explained patiently.
"That doesn't make this right!" Jor El yelled as he jumped from his seat at the drafting table. Upset, he began to pace restlessly.
"Jor El, we have determined mathematically that we can obtain the highest raw number of survivors in T plus five years with the greatest potential for long term colony viability by taking 2.1 million people."
"And all the others will perish because mathematical statistics did not work in their favor," Jor El replied coldly.
"Neither you nor I can change the facts," Nur Bei said calmly.
"You are a damned actuary, Nur Bei, not a god! How can you sit there and calculate how many people we ought to save and what the most favorable breakdown of demographics would be? These are human beings, not numbers!"
"Perhaps you are the one who cannot accept your limitations, Jor El. Never doubt that I hate this as much as you do. I'm haunted by the thought of the end of our world, of the millions of people we cannot save, but you know that we cannot rescue everyone. We must do what we can." Nur Bei remained gentle and patient as she spoke to her colleague.
"I'm sorry," Jor El mumbled. "You are correct. I'm afraid I've let my emotions rule most of my judgments as of late."
"Don't apologize for being angry, Jor El, we all are."
Jor El leaned up against a distant wall in the mostly empty office. "How will we decide? How will select who lives and who dies?"
"I suppose that will be the decision of the High Council and the Representative Assembly," Nur Bei offered. "Perhaps a lottery of sorts."
Jor El shook his head. "First people will be eliminated due to advanced age or infirmity, then the list will be narrowed down further based on desirable skills and then suddenly we'll be squabbling over the best genetic traits to determine whether one is saved or damned," Jor El spat. He sighed anxiously. "You know, you have nothing to fear," he said quietly. "You are the finest mathematician on Krypton, your husband is one of the most respected geologists. Your family will be saved."
"The same is true of you and Lara," she replied quietly.
"And part of me is very thankful of this fact. I find an odd sort of peace in knowing that my family will be all right, I begin to think that that is the most important thing. Yet, if we go, who will be left behind?" Jor El asked. "Young students, an elderly couple that has already fulfilled its obligations to our society, a poet, an architect, a teacher, or other people who are more expendable than we, people with fewer useful skills?" He did not try to mask his disgust for the thought. "Are they not people with families as well? People, who like me, want nothing more than to protect those they love?" "How can I take a place on one of those transports, knowing that someone else will not live in order to allow me to survive?"
"You will take your place, Jor El, because our society and our future generations will be counting on you and the others like you on those transports, who will spend the rest of their lives ensuring that we have a future."
Jor El raked an agitated hand through his hair and sighed. He had found it easier these past few months to avoid contact with the outside world. He worked in his lab and interacted only with his colleagues and Lara. He tried to focus his mind on whichever task was at hand, trying to tackle little problems while ignoring the one immense one. It was easier not to have to ponder the end of the world, or to be constantly reminded of just what would be ending along with it.
He had reason to be confident that Lara and their child would be safe. That should have given him comfort. Yet every time he saw a child he was haunted by images of his own daughter and his conscience was plagued by the knowledge that millions of little ones, just like her, would be cut down mercilessly by a cruel, indifferent force they could never understand. And millions of parents would suffer the grief he suffered. They would be incapable of protecting their children. They would fail in that ultimate responsibility of parenthood, to keep their children safe from harm. They would suffer a pain that no being should be forced to endure and though they would not live long enough to mourn, he didn't doubt that in millions of hearts across his world, the first stirrings of fear had already made themselves known. As they approached the end, that fear would grow to an immense emptiness, the feeling that one's very soul had been ripped from them.
Five Months Later…
Lara winced slightly as she placed her hands on the small of her back, stretching and massaging the sore muscles. One hand drifted to her protruding abdomen. She felt the baby kick vigorously and smiled despite the discomfort. Like Keir El, the baby didn't kick too frequently, but on occasion showed signs of great activity. In a few short months she would be able to hold her child in her arms. Already the little boy or girl that grew inside her was the most loved baby in the world. Both of the baby's parents loved him or her with all of their hearts. Lara would have preferred better circumstances in which to bring a child into the world. She already lost a child, and she'd barely survived it. Had it not been for Jor El, had she not had him to share her grief or hold her when she cried, she would never have lived through it. The wounds of losing a child never healed. The hurt never went away, but she'd learned to live, even with the hurt. The most important thing in her life now was protecting and caring for the little life that she and Jor El had created. For this child, she and Jor El had to be successful in their work. They could not fail this little one.
"Lara, you've been working far too long!" Her husband began his chiding the moment he entered the hangar. He walked briskly toward her, a concerned look on his face.
"I am all right, Jor El," she replied. "I am not made of glass, and when I tire, I will rest, I promise."
"You are as stubborn as I am," he teased. He placed his hands lightly on her arms and smiled warmly at her. "How has the testing progressed, today?"
"Very well," she replied. "The engines and thrusters are working properly. The temperature and pressure tests have also proceeded perfectly."
"Finally, fortune turns our way," Jor El murmured.
"We are ready to begin the next phase of production immediately."
He smiled at her. "And so you're celebrating the same way we mark every accomplishment and setback, by working harder?"
"Would you do any different?" she asked with a smile.
"I suppose not," he admitted. "But I am not overworked, tired, and six months with child."
She laughed. "I can see that."
He merely shook his head and smiled. "Come now, it is getting late, and we have young students we can make to work through the night." He said the last part loudly enough for everyone in the hangar. The young scientists and students all quietly grumbled their complaints, but Lara knew how much affection they all felt for her husband. He was adored by his students and all of them worked hours as intense as Jor El's by choice. Her husband was no taskmaster, he led by quiet example, only the most dedicated students decided to follow. Lara could not have been more pleased with their students. She knew that the fate of their world could not have been placed on more solid and dependable shoulders than those of the young men and women who worked day and night with them and their colleagues.
"All right," she acquiesced to her husband's insistent requests. "Let us go." Jor El placed a protective hand on the small of her back as they walked out of the hangar.
They walked into their darkened apartment. The lights slowly illuminated, bathing the entry room in soft light. Their quarters were simple, Spartan, and comfortable. There was no unnecessary clutter, no superfluous elements. If their apartment lacked personality, it abounded in utility. It was perfectly engineered for maximum physical comfort, but Lara had to admit she felt no connection to this place, it stirred in her no emotions, no feeling of homecoming. She removed her white great coat, the symbolic mantle of her station as a teacher, scientist, and formally, a guardian of knowledge and science. The title of guardian was reserved for the most accomplished and dedicated members of each guild. She and Jor El had both earned the title and along with it, the responsibility of educating the young scientists in their fields.
Lara walked into their bedroom, similarly designed to the entry and similarly dull. She crossed the sparsely furnished room to the large windows that dominated one wall. The sky was dark and the distant stars twinkled brightly. Their new home at the scientific institution was near the very heart of Krypton's civilization, set upon a hill, from where they could look down upon the city. All around them the lights in thousand of homes burned brightly. In all of those homes, families gathered, children and parents, husbands and wives, friends, all gathered together, like they had for many nights and many years. Soon those homes would no longer exist, destroyed like everything else in their world. She thought about all those people gathered together, wondering if their fears and hopes were the same as hers, fairly certain that they were. She shivered involuntarily, though not from any physical cold.
She felt a pair of strong arms wrap around her from behind and smiled, drawing comfort from her husband's presence. His hands slipped down until they rested on her abdomen. She more felt than heard him sigh.
"It is difficult to imagine an end, isn't it? We take for granted that the world will go on." His melancholy words echoed her sentiments.
"Are you afraid?" she asked quietly.
He was silent for a long moment. "Angry, frustrated, afraid, yes," he said at last. "But mostly, I feel powerless. I am supposed to protect you and our child, but it is also our responsibility to save the whole of our society. I feel the awesome burden of our duty and wonder if I am equal to the task."
"Jor El…" she began sadly, wondering what comforting words she could offer him.
"I believe we will succeed, my love. Even if we do, even though we will save millions of lives, there will be many more millions whom we cannot save."
"The accidents of life seem too cruel and unfair to believe, even if their burdens do not fall directly upon us," she said quietly.
"Cruelty does not begin to describe the malice that nature seems to bear toward our people," he did not disguise the bitterness in his voice. "I am sorry, my love. I should not feel such anger and resentment now. We ought to be joyful at the impending arrival of our little child." His fingers moved in soothing circles across the fabric over her abdomen. She placed her hand on top of his, interlacing their fingers.
"Is it wrong of us to bring a child into this calamity?" she asked.
"This child is a blessing," he murmured softly. "Nothing could change that." He stepped around from behind her and lifted a hand to her cheek. He kissed her lips softly. "Thank you," he whispered. He began to slowly undo the fastenings to her long robe and parted the soft fabric to either side of her protruding stomach. He fell to his knees and placed his cheek against the swell of her abdomen. He turned his head slightly to kiss her. Lara wrapped her arms around him and held him close, running her fingers through his hair. Her heart ached with emotions she could neither describe nor understand. She felt such incredible love for this man and for the child that grew within her and such fear and anger toward the entire universe at the same time. She wanted some assurance that all would be all right, but she knew that no such assurances existed. All she knew for certain was that the man she held in her arms would do all that he could to protect their child. She drew comfort from that knowledge.
"Esteemed members of the High Council, we submit for your approval our selection for colonization." The old scientist cleared his throat as the holographic projections appeared to give the councilors three dimensional images of the tiny, isolated planetoid that would one day be home to Krypton's survivors. "This particular planetesimal orbits a minor red dwarf, similar to our own star. It is exceptionally dense, similar to Krypton, so it has a comparable gravitational pull. It lacks a true atmosphere, but over time, this can be remedied. There is no evidence of tectonic or meteorological activity and it is compositionally stable…"
"I hope the distinguished gentleman will pardon me," Rae Et began as she stood from her seat and interrupted him. "But you say there is no atmosphere and no meteorological activity on the planet, correct?"
"Yes, madam, but the temperature range of the planet is suitable and given time…"
"So am I correct in saying that the lack of an atmosphere will make this a most inhospitable environ?"
"Well, yes madam, but it is not an insurmountable problem."
"Sir, how far away is this little planet, say as compared to the planet of our origins?"
"They are roughly equivalent, madam, though in different directions of course."
Rae Et smiled. "Of course. But this planet you are suggesting is a far more hostile future home than our previous one, is it not?"
Dar Rhys stood up at Rae Et's statement. "My honorable colleague, certainly you are not suggesting…"
"Suggesting that we look at all alternatives? I must say that I am."
Shai rose to his feet. "Our people made an earnest vow never to return there."
"And under all but the most extreme circumstances, I believe we would always maintain that vow, Councilor," Rae Et replied coolly. "But these are the most extreme circumstances and we must ensure our survival. We did not voluntarily leave that planet for this one. Our ancestors were taken from their homes and transplanted on this desolate space rock. For millennia, our people have struggled to overcome all obstacles and to eventually flourish into this great civilization that we have today. We have faced every conceivable challenge, bearing the accidents of life with grace and dignity. But we must be prepared to draw the line. Why jeopardize our chance for survival when there is a perfect world we can inhabit, we will not be foreign intruders, merely pilgrims returning home after thousands of years of exile."
"You are not talking of an empty utopia waiting for us to inhabit it." Dar Rhys's normally unflappable calm momentarily took its leave of her. She spoke loudly and forcefully. "The planet we left behind has its own inhabitants and we affirmed that we would have no part in disrupting their world. We cursed those that took us from our home planet and marooned us out here on the edges of a seemingly desolate galaxy because they turned us into a people without a history. They stole our past from us through their interference, you are suggesting that we do the same to them."
"Nonsense!" Rae Et shouted. "These people are our brothers and sisters, we are of the same kind, our return will not jeopardize their primitive culture or civilization."
"You scorn them," Shai chastised Rae Et. "Because you forget that our superior technology and understanding are the products of outside interference and not of our own progression. But if you are so determined to lord your superior understanding over these people, how do you think these primitive beings will react to learning that life exists elsewhere in the universe, that they are not alone? You know that it would throw their world into turmoil. They will not be ready to deal with this information, nor will they be prepared to welcome millions of their Kryptonian cousins as indefinite guests.
"Besides, we do not know what was done to us to allow us to survive here. Returning to the planet of our origins may prove dangerous, and somehow I feel that we will not be the ones in danger. We cannot even consider the possibility, it cannot be allowed."
A low murmur began to echo through the chamber as it grew steadily louder. Councilors chatted nervously as the dispute continued. The pounding of a heavy gavel suddenly quieted the room. Li Han, the co First Minister stood up. "We will have decorum in the chamber," she announced. "It is the policy of both First Ministers that this line of debate ought to be aborted at once. We will not hear of a return to the planet of our origins, it would violate everything for which our predecessors stood for us to so thoroughly disrupt that planet as to throw it into calamity. We will put forward an immediate vote on the acceptance of the Astrophysics and Aerospace guild's suggestion. The First Ministers endorse said plan and hope that the Council will as well."
The role call vote was taken and the plan passed without objection, though with several notable abstentions. The co First Minister stood once again and turned to the representatives of the scientists' guilds. "Very well. The High Council has accepted your proposal. We trust that the expeditionary forces will be sent out post haste."
The representative of the Astrophysics and Aeronautics guild nodded slightly. "Your excellence, we shall be prepared to launch in ten days time."
Three Months Later…
"Very good, Lara, relax. Remember you are in control, separate mind from body, thought from feeling, good," Tun Lau spoke in soft soothing tones. He'd been the physician present at Keir El's birth as well.
Lara nodded as she focused. She squeezed Jor El's hand tightly as she centered her mind, shutting out all external sound and allowing her thoughts to focus inward. She felt the brief intense sensation as her mind became fully aware of everything around her. It was a single moment in which every sound was too loud, colors and lights, too bright and every physical sensation, even the feel of fabric against her skin was far too intense. Every nerve ending in her body tingled and fired. The sensation passed immediately, though none too quickly as far as she was concerned, and her mind transcended from its state of normal consciousness, through absolute consciousness to the disconnectedness she was seeking.
It was that moment of absolute consciousness that prevented children from learning the skills of meditation and self-control. It took years of training and discipline to achieve a state of control that allowed one to break through the barrier of absolute consciousness to a level of mental consciousness and total control over the physical self without being overpowered by sensory perception. No pain could touch her here. Sounds and images in the background faded to nothing.
She was conscious of the fact that Jor El was beside her, holding her hand and gently encouraging her, and that Tun Lau was still giving patient instruction, but it was as though she was aware of these things through her mind alone, without the aid of her senses. She could not feel Jor El's hand with her own, but she knew that it was there. She could not hear the doctor's words, yet she knew what he was saying. She felt no pain, no tiredness, no aches. Instead, her mind was able to exert perfect control over her body, with no possible source of distraction.
Tun Lau instructed her to push again, so she pushed. Her body of course, clamored for relief from the pain, but her mind was closed off to the desires of her body. The will of the mind was able to subdue the wants of the body. She pushed again, hearing in her mind the encouragements spoken by her husband and her doctor.
She was unaware of the passage of time. It may have been five minutes, five hours or five days. Tun Lau entreated her on. She could discern the excitement in his voice and in Jor El's touch. The time was near. She pushed harder this time and a sound filled the room. Suddenly, she could hear nothing but the cries of a newborn. In a surge of light-headedness, she spiraled back into normal consciousness, her mind and body reconnecting. She looked up to see Jor El smiling, he leaned down and kissed her forehead.
Tun Lau held their baby in his arms. He smiled at them before handing her the tiny child wrapped up in blankets. "Your son," he said quietly.
She was overcome with joy and knew that Jor El shared her happiness and excitement. She watched as he reached out to touch his son gently, a look of wonder on his face. "Our son," he murmured in amazement. She smiled wearily, her body was tired but she cared not. The tiny form in her arms with his shock of dark hair squirmed vigorously, but his loud cries had subdued. She rocked him gently. Pacified, his cries were no more than a soft whimper.
"Kal El," she whispered his name.
Jor El sat beside his son's crib. It was late and all was quiet, but he could not sleep. Lara lay exhausted in bed, sleeping peacefully. Their little son had already woken her several times tonight, hungry or in need of changing. Now little Kal El lay asleep, his dark little eyes lidded, his tiny chest rising and falling with each breath. He was but a few days old and already he'd changed their lives completely. Tomorrow, Jor El would begin work again. His mother would also arrive to help Lara take care of Kal El. He knew that his wife wanted to spend every possible moment with her son, but he also knew that within a few weeks, she would be back at work, helping to ensure that their son had a future to enjoy.
Kal El fidgeted slightly, his tiny thumb finally finding its way to his mouth. Jor El looked down at his little son. "I will take care of you," he promised.
Jor El looked up at his friend nervously. He felt his stomach clench. The sterile, stark white office began to spin. "Tao Scion, what is it? Please, tell me? What is wrong?"
Tao Scion chuckled softly. "There is nothing wrong, my friend. The contrary in fact." Tao Scion stood beside Jor El's chair.
Jor El sighed audibly. "Then Kal El is all right?"
"Certainly." Tao Scion placed a hand on Jor El's shoulder. "Your son is fine, Jor El. I did request a specialist to see him, though." The look of worry returned to Jor El's face. "An empath," Tao Scion explained. "He's a healthy child, no signs of physical or neurobiological problems. He's alert, happy, and from what I can tell, he'll be quite intelligent. He's a special child, Jor El."
Jor El ran a shaking hand through his graying hair. "So he is all right?"
Tao Scion laughed aloud. "Relax, my friend. This is something to be happy about."
Jor El finally smiled and laughed, somewhat nervously. The sound was odd to his own ears, as though he were out of practice.
"Lara is with him," Tao Scion continued. "I explained all of this to her. Why don't we go join them? The empath should be here soon."
Jor El stood on shaky legs as the remnants of fear leeched out of his body. His son was all right. When he'd received Tao Scion's message that afternoon he'd been terrified. From the moment he received his friend's call until the present, he'd been reliving the pain of losing his daughter, the images and emotions vivid in his mind, as though no time had past at all. The tenseness and terror had begun to pass and peace was settling in. For one moment, he was going to savor this contentedness.
Lara and Jor El stood beside the crib of their son and watched him sleep. "What does this mean for him?" Jor El wondered aloud. He thought about what Tao Scion had told him. The normal psychological tests performed in the routine examination had yielded noteworthy results, leading Tao Scion to call an expert.
'Your child already shows a remarkable degree of empathy,' the empath had explained to them. 'It is the skill we cultivate to create great leaders.'
"Nothing," Lara replied. "Kal El will choose his own future, with our support. He has no predestined fate, just like us, he'll have to make his way in the world. We owe him that opportunity."
Jor El smiled as he kissed the top of his wife's head. She was, of course, right. The empath had explained to them that such a trait in a child had to be dealt with carefully, that with special schooling and guidance, Kal El could be trained to lead his people, but that at the same time, such a child would be more impressionable to negative influences. And every day their world grew more perilous. Nonetheless, it was not their choice how to proceed. When Kal El was old enough, he would decide for himself where his path lay. Until then they could do no more than love and protect him the way all parents hope to do.
Jor El smiled. Their son's shoulders were still far too tiny to hold the weight of their world. For as long as they could they would shield him from that responsibility. Oblivious to all of this, their little boy slept.
Jor El looked up from his schematics and turned to look behind him at the source of that well-known voice. The word rang completely hollow from her lips, devoid of sentiment and sincerity. "Rae Et," he addressed her coolly.
"A calamitous time to bring a child into the world," she began, staring at him through narrowed eyes. "But a blessing nonetheless, especially a child so gifted as yours appears to be. He shall be an important man one day."
"If he so chooses," Jor El corrected her.
"As you know, I too, have a young son, and he shows such promise." Jor El thought he saw a hint of motherly pride in her eyes, but even if it weren't a figment of his imagination, it was gone in an instant. "It is for their sake that we toil so. We must leave them the best possible world, we both agree on that, but where we disagree is how to create such a world."
"You would do so by only saving those you consider worth saving," Jor El snapped.
"And you would enter a fool's errand in jeopardizing the entire colony out of sentiment." Her voice was cold and even. The exchange did nothing to disturb her calm demeanor. "I had hoped to convince you to withdraw your proposal and support my own. It seems we shall just have to let the Council decide."
"I have faith in the Council," Jor El replied.
"As do we all." With a sinister smile, Rae Et silently slipped out of the laboratory.
The cavernous room seemed to rumble. A hundred anxious and upset councilors argued furiously, forgetting all rules of decorum. The tension sat heavy in the air and the last speaker's comments had sparked outrage among her opponents. Debate descended into nothing more than a furious din as councilors shouted across the debate floor at one another.
"There will be order in this forum!" Shir Om, the co-First Minister demanded as he stood. Shir Om wasn't a tall man, but his features were stern and his presence commanded respect. For him to demand silence during debate was uncharacteristic. He was generally taciturn, allowing his co-First Minister to guide debate when necessary. "The proposals are on the floor. Discuss the merits of both, but I ask that you do not allow the conversation to again degrade to this utter chaos."
"If I may?" Shai began, addressing the First Ministers as he stood.
Shir Om nodded curtly.
"If it pleases the Council, I suggest we consider again Jor El's proposal. It is incumbent upon us to help as many people as we can. We have no reason to doubt our scientific advisor and the figures that he has quoted to us."
"No reason except the fact that Jor El's emotions cloud his thinking," Rae Et interrupted. She stood and faced the First Ministers. "Jor El is an honorable and capable man, but his judgment is impaired. He's lost one child and has just brought another into the world, he is guided too much by these emotions and incapable of doing what is best for our society as a whole."
"Are you suggesting that one must not have children in order to make sound decisions?" Li Han asked pointedly. Shir Om sat silently beside her, his expression guarded and unreadable. As all co-First Ministers before them, they were technically married to one another. They had no children and their personal relationship was unknown to all. They seemed to get along quite well, having been raised together since early childhood, but one wondered wistfully if both had given up any chance at personal happiness in order to take up the mantle of co-First Minister.
"Of course not," Rae Et apologized graciously with a bow of faux humility. "I am merely suggesting that our human emotions may lead us to make decisions our hearts demand, but that our minds know are wrong. Passion clouds our judgment. Level heads must prevail."
"And your level head would turn this into nothing more than a genetics experiment!" Shai exclaimed.
"Order!" Li Han demanded.
Dar Rhys stood. "If it pleases the Council, I think we should, in fact, consider the population implications of Councilor Rae Et's proposals. The esteemed Councilor has suggested thinning the pool of potential colonists through genetics screening."
"It is necessary to maintain the integrity of the colony," Rae Et rebutted. "With such a small pool, the presence of serious genetic defects could be disastrous for the viability of the colony."
"And what do you suppose we screen out, how will you determine who lives and who dies?" Dar Rhys demanded. A roar rose up in the chambers again as councilors began yelling furiously at each other. Shir Om demanded order, to no avail. The normally subdued chamber of the High Council of Elders had spiraled into pandemonium.
"The child will be a problem," she said dispassionately.
"The child? But he's merely an infant!" Alon exclaimed.
Her chair was slightly elevated, allowing her to look down at the two younger councilors on the other side of her desk. "And in the new colony, people will be afraid. They will cling to the promise of leadership. They will demand a savior, and they will look to him. They will put their faith in the promise of greatness, however stupid and na‹ve it may be."
"So you wish us to eliminate him?" Shertal asked. He stared at her unblinking, his cold eyes fierce with a glimmer of cruelty. Rae Et smiled to herself, knowing that she'd judged the younger man well.
"Precisely," she replied.
"There will be others like him," Alon replied. "He is not the only gifted child in our world."
"No, but he is the son of Jor El. He will hold a position of favor above all else, unless we prevent it."
"Why now? Why not wait until later, when the opportunity presents itself?" Alon demanded.
"It is too risky. We must create the opportunity, not wait for it to come to us. The murder of the child could create calamity in the colony. We cannot allow that to happen," Rae Et explained forcefully. She would not be swayed.
Shertal stood abruptly from his seat. "We will do as you wish," he said, his hands clasped in front of him respectfully. Alon quickly stood to join his colleague and they bowed slightly before departing.
Lara worked quietly in her area of the lab. She glanced up to see her husband buried in his work, oblivious to his surroundings. It was late and they had been working without pause since morning.
"We should go," he said without looking up from his work.
"I'm sorry?" she replied, caught off guard.
"It's late, and that son of ours is going to grow up without his parents there to watch him," he looked up at her and smiled. She marveled at how he always seemed to know what she was thinking. "Let us go," he repeated. Hand in hand, they slipped quietly out of the vacant laboratory.
"Hello?" Jor El called as he opened the door to their living quarters. What met his gaze was far from what he'd expected. The room was dark and the lights wouldn't turn on. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. A soft groan broke the silence.
"Mother!" he exclaimed as he raced to his mother's side. She lay motionless on the ground in the middle of their sitting room. The furniture was overturned and everything breakable in the room appeared to have been broken. He knelt beside her, pleading like a child with her to wake. She finally began to stir in response to his frantic, panicked attempts to rouse her.
"Kal El," she whispered weakly. Jor El looked up, fear welling inside him, but his wife had already raced to the child's room. He heard her cry and it pierced his heart. She raced back into the room, holding the still form of their son in her arms. Their eyes met and he could see the tears streaming down her face.
"I'll call for help," he whispered hoarsely. He stood and raced to summon medical help. His heart pounded and his hands sweat as he spoke into the communicator. The dryness in his throat made it difficult to form the words. "I don't…I don't know what happened," he explained agitatedly into the communicator. "We found them this way, please, send help quickly!" he entreated. He terminated the communication and immediately called upon Tao Scion. The bile rose in his throat. He wasn't going to lose his son.
Jor El paced in the anteroom of the hospital. He'd grown to despise this place — its cold walls, it's antiseptic smell.
"Please, sit down, Jor El," Lara entreated him. She extended her hand to him and he took it and sat beside her on the hard bench against the wall. She placed her head upon his shoulder and he wrapped his arm around her, putting his head on top of hers. He closed his eyes and held her tightly. He prayed silently to no one at all, a desperate plea to the fates for intercession.
The sound of footsteps echoing in the hallway as someone approached startled him. He looked up to see Tao Scion walking toward them. His face was grim. Jor El's face fell as his throat tightened. Lara looked up at their dear friend, her eyes bright with unshed tears. Tao Scion sat down beside her.
"We've stabilized him," he began to explain.
Jor El exhaled the breath he didn't know he'd been holding in. Lara sobbed in relief.
"He was poisoned. So was your mother, Jor El. We've managed to extract most of the poison from their systems, but they are both lucky that you found them when you did."
"Will they be all right?" Lara asked tremulously.
"Yes," Tao Scion said simply. He was silent for a moment. "Do either of you know who would want to harm them?"
"My mother and my son?" Jor El replied incredulously. "What reason would anyone have to harm them?"
"What if they were doing it to harm you?" Lara asked softly.
"No," Jor El responded forcefully. "No, this doesn't make any sense." He shook his head.
"Calm down, my love," Lara replied.
"I am perfectly calm!" Jor El snapped. "I'm sorry…" he began almost immediately, regretting the outburst as soon as it had occurred. He placed his hand against her cheek and kissed the top of her head. She embraced him tightly and he held her just as fiercely.
After a long moment, he looked at Tao Scion. "Can we see them?" he asked. His friend merely nodded. Jor El and Lara stood together, hand in hand, they walked toward their son's hospital room.
In the pre-dawn hours of the morning, Jor El held his wife in his arms. Unsurprisingly, neither had been able to sleep. Guards had been posted outside of the rooms of both his mother and Kal El, but given their delicate conditions, Jor El and Lara had not been allowed to stay with them. Tao Scion had arranged for a room for them, their own home was still a crime scene that would require an investigation.
Jor El absently ran his fingers through his wife's long hair. "What if we can't protect him?" he whispered softly, half to himself. It had taken him hours to work up the courage to say the words aloud.
"We'll go to the Council. We'll get help," Lara attempted to reassure him.
"What if we can't trust the Council?" he probed.
Lara looked up at him, confused. "Jor El…" she began.
"I'm beginning to suspect that Rae Et was somehow involved in all of this," he explained.
"Are you honestly going to accuse a Councilor of this?" she asked, incredulously.
"Not publicly, no. Rae Et commands too much power and I have no proof. I can feel it though, Lara, the woman is a force of true evil. Other than Tao Scion, and ourselves, only a few members of the High Council know what the empath told us about our son. Rae Et is one of them."
"Her personal animosity toward you is no secret, but what could she possibly have to gain by trying to kill our child?" Lara asked, her voice wavering.
Jor El was silent for a long moment. "I don't know. This world is growing ever more unsafe, and I'm afraid the next one will be no safer."
"I am so afraid," Lara confessed.
"So am I," he replied.
Rae Et moved briskly down the desolate corridor beyond the anteroom to the Council Chambers, the two junior councilors firmly in tow, as though she had them on a leash. It was well beyond late and approaching early morning. The exhaustion was visible in the countenances of the two young men, but Rae Et showed no signs of fatigue. "You failed," she hissed.
"We offer humble apologies," Alon began.
"Apologies do nothing to rectify the situation," she snapped. "Making another attempt before we leave this planet will be too dangerous; too likely to draw attention. We'll have to wait until we're firmly ensconced on that damned space rock. An entire generation will be wasted terraforming that vast expanse of nothingness. It will however, provide us with a rather harsh environment and the death of delicate ones such as infants will become quite commonplace and ordinary. If something untoward should befall the little El, it will hardly draw unnecessary attention."
"A wonderful bit of irony. Jor El succeeds in jeopardizing our colony's viability through overpopulation and selection of an unsuitable habitat and his own son will be among the first casualties," Shertal added.
"Try to contain your enthusiasm," Rae Et responded humorlessly as she increased her pace her footfalls echoing loudly in the empty hallway. The younger men struggled to keep up with her.
The sun cast long shadows as it slowly descended toward the horizon. Warm rays of light filtered in through the windows. Tek Ra, however, was in no mood to enjoy the sunset. He paced agitatedly, wearing a path into the plush carpeting of his sumptuously decorated office. The walls and furniture were warm, rich colors and the office was equipped with every possible amenity. He stopped in front of the floor to ceiling windows and looked out at the rose colored sky. A knock at the door interrupted his dour ruminations.
"Enter!" he barked. The doors silently glided open and Jor El entered the office. "Jor El," Tek Ra greeted his visitor. He could see the anxiety etched in Jor El's expression. Like Jor El, he too, had recently become a father and could not imagine how he would feel in the other man's place. If someone had tried to do something like that to Zara, suffice to say he did not believe that homicidal would begin to describe the emotional state in which he would have found himself.
"Tek Ra, how are you?" Jor El asked, a weary smile on his face.
Tek Ra laughed humorlessly. "It is odd that we all continue to ask each other these questions and exchange pleasantries given what is going on," he said as he waved a hand toward his window. "But I forget my manners," he continued. "Please have a seat," he said, gesturing toward the couch. "Can I have anything brought for you?"
Jor El sat down on the couch and shook his head. "I am fine, thank you," he replied. "How are Meiren and your daughter, Zara?"
Tek Ra sat beside Jor El. "They are both well, thank you." He paused for a long moment. "We do not know each other well, Jor El, but we have much in common. My daughter was read by the empath last week."
"So she is…" Jor El began.
Tek Ra nodded. "Like your son. The engineers and peacekeepers sent in the first wave to our new home have made substantial progress. The next group of colonists will be sent soon to join them. My family will be on that transport. I know that you and your wife have requested to stay behind as long as possible to help prepare the other transports, but I am afraid this world will descend further into chaos as time passes. It may not be safe for your son here. I do not know whom, but your little child has already made some powerful enemies, people who fear what he is and what that means for our people. That is why not even a single member of the Council knows about our Zara. If you will allow it, I will take your son with my family on the transport. We will protect him and care for him as long as it takes until you can be reunited."
Jor El remained silent. Finally, he spoke. "I thank you, Tek Ra. Your offer means a great deal to me, and it will to Lara as well. I will have to discuss it with her."
Jor El stood. "Thank you, again. I am afraid I must return to my work."
"I understand," Tek Ra replied.
"Good bye, Tek Ra."
"Good bye, Jor El. May fortune be with you always." As Jor El began to leave, Tek Ra called out to his retreating visitor. "The Council has decided to accept your proposal." Jor El stopped and turned back toward Tek Ra. "The largest possible number of people will be saved, because of you. This world has much to thank you for."
Jor El nodded with a sad smile and departed.
Lara gazed up at her husband, anxiety clear in her expression. "If you're right, Jor El, that world won't be any safer for him than this one," she commented sadly. She held their son in her arms as she fed him in the quiet of his nursery.
Lara continued. "But Tek Ra has a point. Can we do our work and care for our son?"
Jor El sighed and placed a hand on his wife's shoulder as he looked down at Kal El. "If Rae Et is behind this, he won't be safe anywhere."
"Have the police had any more success in their investigation?"
Jor El shook his head. "No. They have no more information now than they did the night it happened. There is nothing to link her to it. And yet, I cannot be free of the feeling that she is behind it."
An awkward silence settled between them. After a long moment, Jor El spoke. "There is still one thing we have not considered." Lara looked at him questioningly. "Earth," he said simply.
"You know that we cannot…" she began, startling both herself and Kal El with the forcefulness of her tone. Kal El began to cry. "No, darling, I'm sorry," she crooned as she rocked the child. Kal El's cries soon subsided to soft whimpers.
Lara looked back toward her husband. "You know the vow our people made," she said softly.
"And I know the vow I made to you. I will keep this child safe. He will have a long, happy, healthy life, no matter what."
"Then we must begin preparations at once," Lara replied. The gravity of their decision weighed heavily upon her, he knew, just as it weighed upon him.
One Month Later…
Jor El had gathered his students in the hangar. It was late and the last round of diagnostics had been performed on the latest transports. Everything was going as expected. "My friends," he began. "Our work is nearly complete. The colonists have begun settling our new home. The last of the transports have been produced and we've all been guaranteed spaces on the final transport. Our society owes you all a debt. While this is a time of great sorrow, our way of life will go on, because of the work that you've done."
A tremor interrupted his speech. Everyone looked around as the lighting fixtures swayed and unsecured items fell from their places on the shelves, the more fragile of them breaking. The tremors had become normal occurrences and the necessary precautions had been taken. Anything worth protecting in the hangar had been firmly bolted down.
Jor El waited for the shaking to pass. "Good work everyone. Go home, now, and be with your families." Without fanfare, the students dispersed. Lara was waiting for Jor El at the back of the hangar, holding their son. He approached them with arms outstretched and she handed him Kal El.
"It's good to know that they will all be safe," he said quietly. Kal El began tugging at his father's greatcoat, pulling a chubby little fistful of the material into his mouth. Jor El looked down at him with a good-natured smile.
"As will he," Lara added softly. Jor El's eyes met hers in a knowing look. "We are doing the right thing, aren't we?"
"I have to believe that we are," he said.
They exited the hangar and walked into their personal laboratory, where the project they'd worked on every night for a month waited. Tucked away in a corner sat the tiny blue metal capsule with the El family crest on it. In a few weeks time, they would place their son in that capsule and send him off, hoping that another world, far from this one would provide him with what they could not. The destination had already been selected and the course charted. All the preparations had been made.
Two Weeks Later…
"Jor El, you cannot be serious, you must take your place on this transport!" Tao Scion entreated him. He looked behind him at the platform where the transport was docked. In a few short hours, it would leave, the last of the transports to take the survivors of Krypton to their new home. Its location was secret, to prevent those who would not be saved from trying to gain access.
The ground underneath them rumbled again but both men ignored it. Jor El merely shook his head. "Lara and I will not be going, give our places to others. Please, my friend, you must do this for me."
"Will be safe," Jor El assured him. "We've made arrangements."
"So you did send him off ahead, as Tek Ra suggested?"
"Kal El will be safe," Jor El replied noncommittally.
"Please rethink your decision," Tao Scion pleaded with his friend.
"We've made our decision," Jor El said gently. "Take care of yourself."
Tao Scion threw his arms around his friend in an uncharacteristic display of emotion. Jor El hugged him back just as fiercely. After a long moment, Tao Scion drew back, his stoic mask beginning to crack. "You are a man without equal, Jor El. Our people owe you everything."
"I only wish we could have done more," Jor El replied sadly. "Take care of them, Tao Scion. They will need men like you to lead them."
Jor El turned around and quietly walked away from his only hope for salvation. He walked down the deserted pathways toward the waiting vehicle that would take him home. Their world was dead already. The streets were quiet, as people had withdrawn into their homes. In other parts of the city, there were riots, but most people were spending their last hours with family. He made his way down the desolate streets as quickly as possible. He wanted to spend every possible moment with his wife and son.
In the laboratory that had become more like home than home, Lara held her son close, tears streaming silently down her face. The tiny baby gurgled and laughed, unaware of what was going on. The tremors had always upset him, but he seemed to be in a good mood at the moment. Jor El watched them silently, his stomach tied up in knots and his chest feeling as though it was going to cave in at any second. She looked up to see him and their eyes met. She walked toward him, still crying and he felt the tears pricking at his own eyes. He wrapped his arms around both of them and allowed himself to cry silently.
"There isn't enough time," Lara whispered through tears. "There's never enough time."
Jor El stepped back and kissed his wife before kissing Kal El's forehead. Lara handed the baby to his father. "My darling son, forgive us that we cannot make this journey with you. There was only time to build a ship large enough for you." He handed Kal El back to Lara so that he could prepare the capsule. He moved it silently out to the hangar, Lara and Kal El following behind him. He set the controls, opened the lid of the capsule, and placed the navigating globe in its position. Jor El looked at his wife, holding their happy little boy. He felt a cold, steel vise tighten around his heart.
"Be a good little boy for mother," she whispered to him, nearly choking on the words. "We love you so much. Be a good little boy for us." Kal El wrapped his tiny hand around one of his mother's slender fingers and Jor El could see his wife trying to fight back the tears.
Jor El nodded toward her. They both knew that it was time. She lay Kal El down in the capsule, wrapping him in his blue blanket. The baby began to cry as Jor El closed the clear lid over the capsule. Lara broke down in tears as she watched her tiny son reaching for her. Jor El too, began to sob as he secured the capsule. The outer lid sealed, the baby's cries could no longer be heard. Lara reached out for his hand and took it in hers, squeezing it hard. They stepped back as the little capsule took off, racing their son away from them and this dying planet. As it disappeared, Lara collapsed in Jor El's arms as they both sobbed uncontrollably. They sunk to the ground as the world around them began to shake again. She clung to him as though she were drowning, and in a way she was. They both were. He wanted to tell her it would be all right, but he couldn't bring himself to lie. He couldn't even begin to think or move. All he knew was how much it hurt and how powerless he was to stop it. The tremors grew stronger as the lights flickered and failed. Soon it was dark. The rumbling continued, more powerful than before.
And in one long moment of chaos and fire, fury and sound, it was over.
An entire world ceased to exist.
Two Months Later…
A brilliant flash streaked across the Kansas sky on a gorgeous May evening that capped a day of rainbows, warm breezes, and the scent of spring with a slight hint of summer in the air.
"What was that?"
"Probably a meteor, or something," he muttered as he pulled the old, red pickup truck off the dusty road.
"It looks like it landed in Shuster's Field," she said. "We should go see what it is." She opened her door before finishing the sentence.
"Martha," he replied, shaking his head. He opened his door and followed her.
Almost Thirty Years Later…
The old man's thin frame shook as another coughing fit gripped his body. He gripped the armrest of his chair tightly.
"Are you all right, sir?" the younger man asked.
"I will be fine, Lieutenant Commander Ching," the old man rasped. "Bring Zara to me."
"Of course," Ching replied. He bowed respectfully before leaving the Spartan chamber. He walked down the dimly lit corridor, his heavy boots falling loudly on the metal floor of the barracks. Ching made his way through the maze to Zara's private quarters. He knocked on the heavy metal door.
"Shir Om wishes to see you, madam," he said when she opened the door. She nodded in response and stepped out into the hallway. As was his custom, he walked a step behind her as they walked toward the First Minister's chambers.
"How is he?" she asked.
"Not well," he replied simply. "He hasn't been the same since she died. Their bond was stronger than any of us ever realized. He doesn't have much time." The heavy double doors slid open as they approached.
"Come in," Shir Om called to them weakly and they entered the well-lit chamber.
"My young friends," Shir Om continued. "My time is short. Zara, I fear I leave to you a troubled world. Until a co-First Minister is chosen to rule by your side, there will be no peace among our people. Rae Et will not rest until her son is chosen."
"I will not rule with Nor," Zara replied steadfastly.
"If your people so chose, you will. You must." Shir Om coughed again. Zara touched his bony hand, but the old man shook her off.
"He is a man of no character, or scruples," Ching said.
"There must be another way," Zara insisted.
Shir Om doubled over as the coughing seized him once again.
"You need your rest, sir," Ching said. Shir Om merely nodded as Ching helped the older man out of his chair and to the bed.
"We will leave you in peace," Zara added as she and Ching slipped from the room.
"I'll summon my father," she said to Ching as they walked down the corridor. They stopped in front of the door to her chambers. Ching turned to walk away. "Stay," she said. Zara reached out and touched his hand.
Ching looked down at her hand and slowly interlaced their fingers. His eyes darted across the vacant hallway. Assured that they were alone, he followed her into her quarters and closed the door behind them.
She reached up to touch his cheek, but he turned away.
"I won't watch you marry him. I'd rather die than let the scoundrel touch you," he said sullenly.
"Let us try to avoid both scenarios." She raised his hand to her lips, never breaking eye contact with him.
"What do you propose we do?" he asked.
She shook her head. "I'm not certain, but we should speak with my father."
"I'll get him." With that, he left the room.
"There must be another way…" Zara mused aloud as she paced in her quarters, her agitation was patently clear, but in the company of the two people she trusted more than any others, there was no longer any need for pretense or dignified detachment.
"My daughter, you must calm down," Tek Ra chided. He leaned back in his chair. His tall body still strong, though his hair and beard were now thoroughly gray and lines of worry and many harsh years were etched into his face.
"If only Kal El had survived," she continued.
"Zara, there's no point in dwelling on the impossible," Ching interrupted. He stood against a wall, his arms folded across his chest.
"He may have," Tek Ra corrected.
"What?" Ching gasped, his arms dropping to his sides. "What do you mean?"
Zara and Ching looked expectantly at her father. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair and leaned forward to place his elbows on his knees. He looked down at the ground. "Jor El and Lara refused my offer to bring Kal El with us, but I do not believe that they allowed him to perish with them. I believe they sent him to Earth."
"Earth?" Zara asked incredulously.
"Jor El would have done anything to guarantee his son's safety. Sending him to the planet of our origin would have been his best possible chance of protecting Kal El."
Zara set her jaw sternly, an expression she'd inherited from her father. "Then we'll find him."
"This is a fool's errand!" Ching replied. "Even if Kal El survived and even if we find him, there's no reason to believe that he'll come with us or that he'll be accepted by our people as First Minister. He's never been trained or tested."
"He will be accepted," Zara insisted. She turned to her father. "And why did you not tell us about this?"
"Jor El lost one child and nearly lost the other. Protecting his son, both from whomever was trying to kill him and from that." He nodded toward the heavy silver cuffs Zara wore around her wrists. "Was paramount. He did not want his son to be forced down a path he would not have chosen. He could not force that upon a child."
"But I chose this," Zara replied.
"Did you?" her father asked. "You were raised knowing what was expected of you. A great responsibility was placed in front of you and you were asked to choose or to walk away and the daughter I raised would never walk away."
"If he was chosen, it was for a reason," Zara said softly. "He is our last hope. If Nor is allowed to take his place, it will be the end of our people. I am going to find him."
"If that is your wish," Tek Ra replied.
Ching stepped forward. "And I will go with you."
Zara arched a brow. "I thought you said this was a fool's errand."
"I did," Ching replied indignantly. "And it is. But you should not go alone."
"You will have to leave post haste and in secret. If Nor learns of this, it will go badly for all of us," Tek Ra counseled his daughter.
"We will not have much time. Shir Om will pass soon," Ching mused. "I will arrange for a transport."
"Assemble your crew only of those whom you trust," Zara warned.
Ching nodded curtly and left the chambers.
Zara turned to her father. "It will not be easy," he told her.
Zara nodded in understanding. "Kal El will have to decide his own fate, as we all do."
Two Months Later…
Lois walked down the street at her typical rapid clip. She smiled secretly knowing that her super-powered fianc‚ had to hurry to keep up with her. "Okay, so we've got your parents, and my parents, and lord, I wish my parents were more like your parents."
With a few quick strides he managed to get ahead of her and hold open the door to the Daily Planet lobby. "And we've got my cousins from out of town, my college roommate, half of Smallville…" she continued.
"Honey, you're babbling," Clark interrupted.
"I am not," she replied defensively. "I'm making a list."
"And checking it twice, I know, but please relax." He pushed the elevator button and they waited for the car. "We're getting married next week. This is supposed to be one of those blissfully happy times, not the most stressful moment of our lives, and believe me, given us, that's saying a lot."
He gave her one of those boyish half smiles of his that she found so irresistible, and not feeling particularly inclined to resist it, she leaned toward him and kissed him. It was a long, lingering kiss interrupted rudely by the pinging of the elevator. He smiled against her lips as he broke off the kiss. The elevator was empty but the ride to the newsroom on the third floor was far too short and she found herself wondering why the Daily Planet couldn't be located at the top of some hundred-story skyscraper.
Same Time, Earth's Orbit…
Zara sat at the controls on the deck of the transport. "Have you found him yet?" she asked impatiently.
"He wasn't particularly difficult to find," Ching replied snidely. He brought an image up on the main monitor of a muscular, dark haired man in a rather silly looking blue and red outfit with the El family crest on his chest.
"What an odd manner of dress they have," Zara mused.
"They don't all appear to dress like him," Ching explained, though when he considered it, even the garments worn by the rest of Earth's population were outlandish when compared with the simple, utilitarian clothing Kryptonians wore. "And they all seem to know that he's not one of them. He has powers that they don't. It's quite hard to believe, really. He's far too strong and invulnerable and he flies."
"Flies?" she asked incredulously.
"Indeed. I wager it has something to do with this planet's sun, or its atmosphere. It has an odd effect on the Kryptonian body. Completely harmless, but remarkable. Given a period of exposure, we should develop powers like his."
"What else do we know about him?" she continued.
"He attempts to live as one of them. Has a life separate from all of this," he replied. Waving vaguely at the red and blue clad figure. "He has a good life," Ching continued as he produced more information on the monitor. "A respectable profession, surrogate parents who are, as they say in these parts, 'the salt of the Earth,' and he is about to wed. It will be difficult to convince him to leave this place."
"We have to try," Zara insisted.
Ching cloaked the transport and navigated the ship as it entered the Earth's atmosphere. He landed the transport in secluded woods, not far from the city known as Metropolis.
"Ensign Parth," he called for his navigator.
"Aye, sir," the younger officer responded as he looked up from his station.
"You will take the ship back out into the planet's orbit and maintain the cloak. We will contact you regularly with our progress." Ching turned to Zara. "We will have to acquire proper garments and make our way into the city. From there we will be able to learn more about Kal El and how best to approach him."
Zara nodded in response and the two left the command deck of the transport toward the air lock. Zara deftly disabled the airlock, there would be no need for it, and opened the cargo doors. A long ramp descended in front of them to the ground. They walked down the ramp and into the brilliant sunshine.
Ching squinted as he looked up at the sky. The yellow sun of this planet was so bright and intense; looking at it hurt his eyes and he diverted his gaze. He stared up at the radiant blue sky that stretched out toward forever in front of them. Thin wisps of white clouds were scattered in the sky. He breathed deeply of the oxygen-rich air, laden with the smell of who knew how many species of flora. The region they had landed in was a lush green, from the soft grass beneath their feet to the trees that towered above them. It was alive with the sounds of animal life and he marveled at what might be waiting for them in this world. It was more beautiful than he could have imagined. All of the passages in all of the books he had read hadn't done it justice.
Here it was, in all of its glory. The original home of his people, a place they pledged not to return to for reasons that escaped him at the moment. He contrasted it to the world he knew; a world that was hard and harsh and cruel. It was an inhospitable space rock, desolate and merciless. It provided his people with no comfort or succor. They had clawed and fought their way to a meager existence on that little planet, fighting an unending battle merely to survive. But this world, it teemed with life, with endless possibilities.
He stepped further away from the ship, Zara right beside him. He turned to her. "Let us go," he said simply. "We have much to do."
"There's too much to do!" Lois exclaimed. "Why aren't we eloping?" she asked him with that plaintive tone that made him want to do whatever it was she commanded.
He smiled as he placed his arm around her and surveyed the mess that had taken over his living room since the wedding preparations had begun. This was only the secondary mess, the primary mess was somewhat contained at Lois's place. This was the spillover. "Because a wedding with all of our friends and family will be more fun," he tried to reassure her. "Besides, if we eloped, your mother would kill both of us."
"You're invulnerable," she grumbled.
"You think that would prevent your mother from killing me?" he asked with an arched brow. She elbowed him in the ribs. "Hey!" He feigned indignation. She leaned over and kissed him and he forgot what he was supposed to be indignant about.
It started as the merest whisper of a kiss, but her arms were soon around his neck, her hands in his hair. He groaned as he wrapped his arms around her, effortlessly pulling her into his lap. He could feel her smile against his lips and then she started kissing a slow trail to his chin and along his jaw, finally pulling his earlobe between her lips. He moaned, feeling as if every invulnerable nerve ending in his body was suddenly on fire. "Do you have any idea how much I love you?" he whispered breathlessly.
"If it's anywhere near as much as I love you, I'm the luckiest woman in the world," she whispered in his ear. He held her even more tightly and kissed her again. His hands trailed down her back and came to rest on either side of her slender waist. His fingers slipped under the hem of her blouse to brush against warm skin. She arched her back pressing her body against his. He more felt than heard her sigh. The sigh turned into a groan of frustration, though, when the phone began to ring. He glanced at the cursed phone and could see Lois giving him a look that plainly said 'don't answer it.'
He answered the phone reluctantly. "Hello? Hi, Ellen…no…it's good to hear from you, too…yes she's here…" Clark ignored the fact that Lois was vigorously shaking her head. He placed his hand over the receiver and held the phone out for Lois.
"How does she know I'm here?" Lois whispered.
"She said she tried you at home and called your cell and your pager and then she thought she'd try here," Clark replied. With a dour look, Lois took the proffered phone. Clark eased himself off the sofa and headed toward the kitchen, easily ducking the pillow Lois threw at him.
"No, Mother, the seating arrangements are done…no, we can't redo them…" He could hear the frustration in his fianc‚e's voice as she battled with his soon to be mother in law. He figured now would be as good a time as any to break out the triple chocolate chip fudge brownie ice cream and the Lethal Weapon movies he'd rented. He grabbed the carton of ice cream, a couple of spoons and the videos and headed back into the living room.
"Yes, the flowers have all been taken care of…everything has been taken care of, I promise… I'll talk to you tomorrow, when we have lunch with the coordinator, all right? No, I can't, Mother, I'm sorry, I have to go, Clark needs help with something…" Clark grinned at her as he placed his peace offerings on an empty corner of the coffee table. "Goodbye, Mother." Lois hung up the phone and threw another couch pillow at Clark, which he managed to catch.
"Hey, yourself, buddy," she replied. "It serves you right for that."
"Well, then maybe I won't share the ice cream I brought," he replied with mock petulance.
"Yeah, well if I eat any of it, there's no way I'll be able to fit into my dress on Saturday."
Clark took the lid off the carton and dug one of the spoons into the ice cream. He flopped down on the couch beside Lois and stuck the spoon in his mouth. Chocolate was nice, but it was just another junk food as far as he was concerned. Lois, on the other hand, seemed to live and die by the stuff. There was no reason he couldn't have a little fun with that, was there? He dug the spoon into the carton again and could see Lois watching him out of the corner of his eye. He relented and held the spoon full of ice cream out for her. She accepted the peace offering and closed her eyes and sighed dreamily; his fianc‚e could make chocolate ice cream an event. Her eyes still closed, he took the opportunity to steal a kiss.
"Ready for another round?" he asked as he stuck the spoon back in the carton.
She hesitated. "Maybe just one more."
"Close your eyes," he instructed. She did as he asked and he leaned over… and hit her with the pillow she'd thrown at him earlier.
"Clark!" she exclaimed as she lunged at him. She knocked him back against the couch cushions and pinned him there. "I'm going to get you for that, Clark Kent," she said as she jabbed a finger in his chest.
He stilled her hands with his and kissed her again. "I'm looking forward to it," he replied. "We should start the movie before we get distracted again and all that ice cream melts."
Lois arched a brow as she looked down at him. "What's wrong with being distracted?"
"Everything…nothing…" He kissed her again. "How much longer 'til the wedding?"
"A week," she replied. "Seven unbearably long days."
"You're right, we should elope," he said before kissing her again.
Zara and Ching walked through the crowded streets of Metropolis, trying to take in the myriad sights and sounds without looking too out of place. Though they did not know it, they were fortunate that Metropolis drew so many tourists and so they looked like any other wide-eyed visitors to the city.
"You shouldn't walk behind me, Ching," Zara chastised him; using the English they'd practiced on the long journey to Earth. Ching obligingly walked beside her, shaking off his usual habit.
"It's amazing," he said quietly. "All of these people going about their lives, taking for granted how incredible their world is."
"Then we should start behaving as though we take it for granted, too," Zara replied. She paused.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Communicator," she replied. She removed the small device from her pocket and held it up to her ear. At a glance, she could have passed for any other person talking into a cell phone. She whispered harshly into the communicator and frowned. After a long moment, she terminated the transmission.
"What's wrong?" Ching asked.
"Nor has found out about our mission, his supporters are claiming that we're committing treason. New Krypton is on the brink of civil war."
"Then we've little time to test Kal El and determine whether he is worthy," Ching mused.
Zara frowned. "You said yourself that he uses his powers here to help others and asks for nothing in return. Let us hope that is an accurate testament to his character. What else have you learned about him?"
"He's regarded as a god in this world," Ching replied. "Defender of the innocent and all that. He could rule them, but he chooses not to."
"Do you fault him for that?" Zara asked.
"It means he is untested as a leader," Ching answered.
"Does it? He could enforce his will on these people, but does not. There is strength of character in that, Ching."
"In this world, yes. In ours, he will have to lead. He will have to make difficult decisions; decisions that will cost people their lives. He is untested," Ching maintained. "We must determine what personal sacrifices he is willing to make, if he will give up this comfortable life of his for the greater good."
Clark found himself in a particularly good mood as he stepped out of the elevator and into the newsroom the following morning. He looked around the bullpen but didn't see Lois anywhere. It was a Sunday, but they were both planning on spending the morning at work. A quick glance at her desk told him that she'd already been there this morning. She was probably out chasing a lead, he mused. He hoped that she'd be back by lunch; there was no way he would be able to stay awake through a meeting with the wedding coordinator and his future mother-in-law without her. With Lois present, there was no question of whether he'd be able to stay awake, only whether he'd be able to keep the peace.
Trying not to dwell on a lunch spent discussing seating arrangements for the rehearsal dinner, he made his way to his desk and turned on his computer.
"Clark Kent," an unfamiliar voice called. He looked around, but already knew that the voice was not coming from the newsroom. "Clark Kent, I am speaking to you on a frequency only you can hear. You'd do your best to come find me if you do not want the world to know that you are, in fact, Superman."
"Not again," Clark muttered through gritted teeth as he raced toward the elevator.
Superman flew high above Metropolis, attempting to find the source of the transmission. He scanned the city below him, keeping an ear out for further messages. After several long minutes, he found the source of his problem: a patch into a local broadcast antenna on top of a skyscraper was transmitting the message. He scanned the building and found his culprit in the basement of the building. A rather irritated Superman made his way into the building and into the basement. He pried open the locked door to the broadcast room in which the overzealous radio pirate was hiding.
"Took you long enough," the man taunted, his back to the superhero as he focused on the controls in front of him.
"What do you want?" Superman demanded impatiently.
"To broadcast this into every home in America." The man jabbed a button on the console and the bank of monitors in front of him all began to show a montage of shots from video that had clearly been taken of Clark's apartment that morning. There were clips of him showering and dressing at superspeed and shaving with his heat vision. A muscle in Clark's jaw twitched as he watched the tape. How had he managed to bug his apartment?
The man turned around slowly in his swivel chair. He sneered at the superhero. "You're free to stop me of course, but I don't think you will, because of this." At that moment, all the monitors switched from showing Clark going about his rather unusual routine to displaying footage of a little girl, shaking with tears streaming down her face. She was strapped to explosives in a large, dark, nondescript location. A large timer on the bomb counted down the seconds on the clock. Only a few minutes remained.
"The clock in the background there is accurate," the man explained calmly. Clark noticed the wall clock behind the little girl. "This is live and in real time, Clark. Save her, or stop me…" Before he could finish, Clark had already left in a colorful blur.
Ching calmly removed his communicator from his pocket. "Kal El is on his way," he said quietly before terminating the transmission. He removed the videocassette of Clark in his apartment and crushed it to dust in his fist before leaving the room.
A sense of panic welled up inside him as he flew over the city once again. He focused on the videotape. A faint amount of sunlight had been streaming in through the windows high up on the wall behind the little girl. The size of the room suggested that it was a warehouse and with an unobstructed eastern exposure. There were two major parts of the city with warehouses, the docks on Hobbs Bay and the garment district of West River. The West River warehouses were in the shadows of much taller buildings to the east and wouldn't get much sunlight. He tried to remember if he could hear anything in the background of the videotape, any sound that could give him a clue of where to go. He couldn't remember anything other than the ticking of the timer. That incessant ticking that was now echoing in his ears. He had to hurry. It's odd, syncopated rhythm reverberated in his skull. Syncopated? The timer's sound should have been steady, not syncopated. That was it! Muffled by the timer was the sound of the Hobb's Bay bridge gate guard siren. He raced toward the bay at full speed.
Once the warehouses were in sight, it took only a few seconds to find the right one. He burst into the warehouse with a spare ten seconds remaining on the timer. He raced toward the little girl, paralyzed with shock only to have her and the bomb disappear as soon as he reached them.
"You!" he seethed as he looked up at the same man who had been in the radio station.
The man paced in front of him, a condescending sneer on his face. "Not bad, Superman," he egged Clark on. "So there was no bomb," he said with a shrug. "It was just a hologram, the best money can buy, though. I think you'll find that what's behind door number two isn't a hologram." The man stopped in front of the thick cinderblock inner wall of the warehouse and it too melted away like the little girl and the bomb.
Clark started for him but stopped as soon as he saw what was hidden behind the fake wall. "Lois," he gasped. She was tied to a chair, her arms bound behind her, but she seemed unharmed. Why hadn't he been able to see through the holograms?
"I think that you'll find that she's quite real," the man said coldly as he held a gun to Lois's neck.
"Superman, get out of here!" Lois yelled.
"Tsk, tsk," the man chided. "Bait doesn't get to talk." Keeping the gun trained on Lois, he took a step back.
Immediately, Clark raced toward her, if he beat the bullet out of the barrel, they would be fine. Instead he found himself repelled by a wave of searing pain. He was knocked, back, caught off guard. The man cocked the hammer on the gun. "Kryptonite, I believe you call it," he explained. "Well, a synthetic, in any event. That's a Kryptonite field surrounding her. You can't pass through it. The bullet, I assure you, can."
"Superman, no!" Lois yelled again.
Clark lunged toward her just as the man squeezed the trigger. He threw himself in the path of the bullet, passing into the Kryptonite field. The agonizing pain washed over him as he waited for the bullet's impact, hoping that he'd be able to protect Lois, but there was nothing.
Clark collapsed to the ground inside the Kryptonite field, his body tensing up in pain. A wave of nausea crashed down on him. He heard Lois call his name as she struggled to free herself, but it sounded like she was a million miles away. He tried to call to her, but could only cough.
"That's enough," an unfamiliar voice in the distance yelled. Then the pain was gone.
"You!" Clark choked out as he lunged at the man with the gun. The gunman easily stepped to the side, causing Clark to fall unceremoniously to the ground.
"I am sorry, Kal El," the gunman said. "I truly am."
Clark stared up at him in confusion.
"Untie her at once, Ching," a woman's voice from who knew where commanded. The man in front of Clark promptly began untying Lois.
"Kal El, we mean you no harm," the woman's voice repeated, but he realized it was coming from behind him. He struggled to his knees and slowly turned to look at her.
"Don't call me that," he said harshly. "And who the hell do you think you are?"
"Superman!" Lois yelled to him as she raced to his side. He turned to look at her and was rewarded with another bout of nausea. Lois helped him stand as he continued to stare down the woman in front of him.
"I apologize for our behavior, Clark," the woman continued. "But we had to know if you were ready." The woman took a step toward them.
Lois put herself between the other woman and Clark. Her fianc‚ was still leaning against her for support. "Stay away from him," she growled, barely restraining her own anger. Clark placed a hand on her shoulder. She looked up at him, concern evident in her eyes, with a gentle look, he wordlessly communicated that he was all right and she seemed mollified.
"Lois, this does not concern you," Ching said simply.
"Ching," Zara said reproachfully. She turned back to Lois and Clark. "We are sorry for the pain we caused you, but you were never in any danger. The gun was unloaded and Ching destroyed the videotape. This was a test."
"A test?" Lois spat.
"We had to know if Kal El was ready," Ching explained unhelpfully as he moved to stand beside Zara.
"We heard that part already," Lois shot back.
"My name is Zara, of the House of Ra, of New Krypton," Zara continued.
"What?" Clark gasped.
"We come seeking your help, Kal El," Ching added with a deep bow. "You have shown a willingness to jeopardize your own life for others, you are worthy."
"With all due respect, and it's not a whole lot, of all the people in this room whose worth might be in question, Kal El isn't one of them," Lois retorted. "Can you walk?" she asked Clark quietly. He nodded. Needing only the slightest amount of support, he walked with Lois toward the door.
"Be that as it may we had to know," Ching replied, blocking their exit. "Our world needs you Kal El. It needs you to be our leader."
"So you try to kill me?" Clark asked him incredulously, still trying to shake off the dizziness from the Kryptonite.
"You passed our tests. You proved your worth. We had to know if you were equal to the challenge, there was no other way," Ching replied unrepentantly.
"Whoever you are, you are not Kryptonians, they're all dead," Clark said.
"Wrong," Zara replied. "Not everyone perished when Krypton exploded. We can prove it to you." She produced a globe, much like the one Clark had found with his ship. It glowed as it hovered a few inches above her hand. She reached her hand toward him and the globe floated just above it. "Take it," she said.
Hesitantly, Clark took the globe in his own hand. It flashed a brilliant white and suddenly a rapid series of images filled his mind — images of a dying world, of families being separated, of transports leaving a doomed planet, of the survivors arriving on their new home: a dark, desolate rock spinning off in space. He could feel the fear, the panic, and the sadness. With another brilliant flash it ended.
"What is it, are you all right?" Lois asked, the concern plain in her voice.
"I don't think they're lying," Clark replied quietly. He turned toward the two strangers. "What if I say I believe you?"
"Then we have much to show you, Kal El," Zara replied.
"How is this possible?" Lois asked as she surveyed her surroundings. She was standing on the deck of a cloaked Kryptonian ship hovering above the Earth. Crewmembers did whatever it was they were doing, oblivious to her presence. On the other end of the deck, a crewman was showing Clark something or other; she assumed it was a navigation system.
"The cloaking, the hovering, or the fact that we're Kryptonians who've traversed hundreds of billions of miles to find Kal El?" Ching asked.
"Yeah," Lois replied. "All of it, the last part, whatever."
"He was supposed to lead our people. We all believed he had perished when Krypton died, then we discovered that he had been sent here. Our current leader is dying and the succession is in jeopardy. Zara is to take his place, but cannot rule without a co-First Minister at her side. The man who would take Kal El's place is a ruthless tyrant who must be opposed at all costs."
"I think I need to sit down," Lois blurted.
"Certainly," Ching replied obligingly as he directed to her to one of the chairs in front of the command console.
"So what you're basically saying is that Clark is your king."
"Not exactly a king, but close enough," Ching replied.
Lois rubbed her temples. "This is a joke right?"
"A joke?" Ching seemed offended. "Of course not."
"My Clark is a terrific guy," Lois said. "Don't get me wrong. He's a hero, even, but he's no king. He doesn't want to rule anyone."
"Lois is right," Clark interrupted as he approached them. "I have no interest in ruling."
"And we respect that," Zara replied.
"It is not a perfect situation we find ourselves in, Kal El," Ching continued. "You have missed your training, all of the preparation you would have been given to ready you to accept this responsibility."
"Look, Ching," Clark began, annoyed. "I get that you wanted to know if I was up to the task, and while we're on the subject, I'm still really unhappy with how you decided about figuring that out, but what you don't seem to understand is that my life is here and I'm not leaving. What would you have done if I had died on New Krypton? You would have found someone else."
"War is about to break out on our planet. Our colony is on the brink of self-destruction," Ching replied. "Nor's supporters are not above using force to subdue his opponents into accepting his rule. He will seize power and enslave our people. Only you can pose a legitimate challenge to him. Our people will accept you as leader."
"Why? Why me?" Clark asked.
"Because you are the son of Jor El," Zara said simply. "Your father was our savior. He and your mother above all others were responsible for our survival. They sacrificed everything for us, giving up even their own lives. People will trust you."
The words hit Clark hard and he sat down absently in the chair beside Lois's, taking her hand in his. "Why didn't they save themselves, and why did they send me here, instead of to New Krypton?"
Zara shook her head. "When it was discovered that you had been chosen to lead, an attempt was made on your life. My father, as well as yours, suspected Rae Et, Nor's mother, but there was no evidence. Jor El knew that you wouldn't be safe in that world, so he sent you here. Your parents gave up their places on the final transport to New Krypton so that others would live. We thought that you had perished with them, until my father told us the truth."
"And you?" Clark asked, looking at Zara.
"Like you, I was selected in infancy to lead. From childhood I was raised to accept this responsibility, but the law is plain. I cannot rule alone. It is either you or Nor, and Nor's selection will be the end of our people and all of your parents' sacrifices will have been in vain."
"Why don't you guys just elect yourselves a president and give up the archaic practice of king worship?" Lois asked irritably. Clark squeezed her hand gently.
"Our leaders are all elected," Zara explained. "Except our First Ministers. A pair is chosen when both are still infants, and they are raised with the knowledge that it will be their duty to watch over their people and serve them. We serve at the pleasure of the people and our powers are largely ceremonial. Those that aren't are well constrained by the Council. Since the move to New Krypton, people have wanted to put their faith in a leader. Fear has caused them to cede much of their freedom out of a hope for some security. Our current leader has not abused his power, but Nor's selection as First Minister would likely change all of that. There are deep fissures in the Council; a war now will likely tear the Council apart. A unifying force is needed to bring the factions back together. I can see you are still not convinced."
"You're asking a great deal," Clark replied.
"We know," Ching said somberly.
"When your strength has returned, retrieve your own globe. We will contact you. I'm certain that it contains the information you'll need," Zara replied. "Until then, we shall take you home."
Hand in hand, Lois and Clark ascended the stairs to his apartment. He opened the door silently and they entered the apartment. Before the door was even closed behind them, Lois threw her arms around Clark's neck, hugging him fiercely. He felt her shudder and he wrapped his arms around her slender frame, one hand threading through the soft strands of her dark hair. He dropped a kiss on the top of her head. "It's all right," he whispered.
"I can't lose you, Clark, I can't," she murmured.
"I'm not going anywhere," he vowed. He gathered her up in his arms and carried her to the couch.
He didn't know how much time passed with them simply holding each other on the couch. At some point, they'd both fallen asleep and it was now dark outside. He smiled. He could tune into Lois's heartbeat again; his powers were back. "You need to get the globe," she murmured almost inaudibly.
He hadn't known she was awake. "Huh?" he asked.
"The globe," she repeated. "Your globe. I know it's eating you up inside. You need to know the truth."
"The truth is right here," he said, brushing an errant strand of hair away from her face.
"Clark," she said softly. "You have to know."
"Whatever it says, it won't change my mind," he replied.
She merely nodded. She took his hand in her much smaller one and raised it to her lips, dropping a kiss in the palm of his hand. "Go," she whispered.
He bit his lip, conflicted, but finally he stood up and spun into the suit. "I'll be right back," he said. Then he was gone.
Bare moments later, he returned. He spun out of the suit and took the globe out of its little wooden box. He stared intently at it, but it did nothing. With a sigh, he replaced it in its box, not bothering to close the lid, and sat beside Lois again. She curled up next to him, but as soon as she did, the globe began floating. It hovered over toward an open window and remained there for a long moment before darting out.
"What's it doing?" Lois asked.
"I have no idea," Clark replied before spinning back into the suit. "But we're going to follow it." He picked his fianc‚e up in his arms and they set out after the globe.
They followed the globe as it flew high over the city in a haphazard flight path. It finally slowed when they were beyond the city limits, in a remote area in the forests outside Metropolis. It descended toward the ground, Lois and Clark close behind. It stopped in a clearing, where Zara and Ching and the other globe were waiting. The two globes hovered next to each other. Clark landed, placing Lois back on her feet and stretched out his hand. His errant globe dropped into its master's hand after its long sojourn. Zara likewise reclaimed her globe, tucking it away.
"Hold it out like this," Zara said, gesturing with her palm up. Clark complied and she placed her hand on the globe beside his.
A brilliant flash startled all four of them and suddenly, an image of a tall, gray haired man with sad eyes appeared before them. The image began to speak. The sound seemed to come from all around them.
"My dearest son. If you are seeing this message it is because the globe has been activated by your touch as well as that of another Kryptonian. Such an occurrence can only mean that the colonists have found you."
A beautiful woman appeared next to the man, long, strawberry blonde hair framed her features. They both wore long, white robes, giving them an ethereal look as they spoke to their son from across space and time. "Kal El," she began, her eyes seemingly bright with unshed tears. "By sending you to Earth, we denied you the fate that otherwise lay before you — leading the people of Krypton. We believed in our hearts that we were doing what we had to in order to protect you from harm. We also believed that whether you would accept the responsibility of leading was a decision only you could make. My son, forgive us please, for not being able to live to see the man you have grown to be. And do not doubt, for one moment, our love for you. Whatever you decide, know that you have made us proud, my child."
The man put his arm around the woman and in another blinding flash the vision disappeared.
"No, please," Clark whispered. "Come back."
Lois squeezed his hand tightly. She bit her lip and fought tears, struck by what they had sacrificed to save their son. They sent him here to save his life, and many times over he'd saved hers, and the lives of everyone else on this planet. They had sent her the greatest gift imaginable and they had never had the chance to live to see what a wonderful man their son had turned out to be. They would have been so proud of him.
"How did you know that message was there?" Clark demanded softly.
"I didn't," Zara replied. "From your knowledge of your birth name, your parents, and Krypton's fate, I knew that they must have included messages in the navigational globe of your ship. It only seemed logical that they would provide you with the information you would need in the event that these circumstances came to pass."
"We must return to New Krypton post haste," Ching added. "We will contact you again in two days' time for your decision."
"I can't leave," Clark replied simply.
"So be it, but we will contact you again in two days, Kal El," Ching repeated.
Lois sat down at her desk, her stormy expression warding off anyone potentially foolish enough to disturb her that morning. She had both hands wrapped around her coffee mug, the one with all the little Superman shields on a blue background, hoping the caffeine would wake her up a bit. She hadn't slept at all last night. Clark had vowed that he wasn't going with them, that the Kryptonians would simply have to find another way to solve their problems, but could he ever really turn his back on someone who needed him?
He'd told her about Ching's other tests and she grew even more annoyed with the poncy, self-righteous alien. Who did he think he was? First he'd demanded to know if Clark would save someone at the cost of his identity. Then he'd made Clark choose between his own life and hers. And all of this for what? Who were they to question Clark's ethics, his character? They came here looking for his help and they ask by threatening to expose his secret identity and by threatening to kill his fianc‚e. Yet despite it, Clark had listened to them and had refrained from tossing their butts off the planet. She doubted that she would have been able to exercise the same control.
An entire world was on the brink of destruction. Did it matter that she didn't like the representatives that they'd sent or their methods? In the end, this wasn't about Zara and Ching. It was about an entire world full of people. A world of people Clark's birth parents had died saving. Clark's birth parents had placed that world above their own lives and Clark's life above that world. They sacrificed everything. And she didn't like it, but Zara was right. The destruction of that world would mean that sacrifice was in vain.
Well too damn bad! If the Kryptonians were too stupid to know what had been sacrificed in order to save their necks, that was their fault, not Clark's. It wasn't his responsibility to save them from themselves. This was problem was of their own making, they'd have to find their own solution. Without her fianc‚e.
But did Clark work that way? Did he refuse to save people from problems that were of their own making? To him, a life, any life, was worth saving, and he always did. He always did what he had to in order to help others. That was Clark, her noble, selfless, often lunkheaded fianc‚. And she loved him for it.
She sipped her coffee and mused that she ought to switch to tea if she were likely to get this worked up before her first cup of coffee on a morning following a night of no sleep. Lois thought about the previous night. She'd wanted Clark to stay so badly, and he would have, it seemed, except some emergency had called him away. God, she'd needed to be with him last night, needed to know that he was there and that he always would be. But he had been needed elsewhere, and she couldn't stand in the way of that. She couldn't be responsible for that. She would not get in the way of his being Superman. Ever.
Which meant…what, exactly? It meant that she would stand by whatever decision he made, she realized. Even if that meant leaving. Even if it meant she would have to let him go. With one word, she could have made him stay. She knew that.
One word from her.
That's all it would take. But she couldn't do it. Dammit, she wanted to. She wanted to tell him to stay, to tell the Kryptonians to take a hike (well, take a hike was likely the way he would put it; her language would doubtlessly have been more colorful). Yet all she could do was support him. And love him. Unconditionally, eternally.
Well this is a mature and self-defining moment you're having, Lane, she mused wryly to herself. She continued to sip her coffee as she began sorting through her mail.
"Lois?" A women's voice that she didn't recognize called her name.
"Yeah?" Lois replied without looking up from her NOWJ newsletter.
"May I speak to you for a moment?" Suddenly the voice was altogether too familiar. Lois looked up at the last person she wanted to see in the newsroom. Well maybe Lex Luthor had the woman beat, but dammit, she was a close second.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded of Zara.
"I wanted to speak with you," Zara replied.
"Yeah, I get that," Lois snapped irritably. "What about?"
Zara looked around nervously. "Perhaps it would be best if we discussed this in private."
"Conference room," Lois replied evenly as she got up and headed in that direction, trusting her not-so-welcome visitor would follow. She ran into Jimmy on the way to the conference room. He seemed eager to discuss something but she shot him a look that quickly nixed that idea.
"All right, what's going on?" Lois demanded after closing the conference room door behind them.
"I wanted to talk with you about what we're asking of Clark," Zara began. "We understand that we are asking a great deal of you as well."
Lois arched a brow but said nothing.
"We know that you two are to be wed this week. I suppose our timing could not be worse."
"Well, you and every super-villain in the world are kinda in a neck and neck competition," Lois replied drolly. At Zara's blank expression, she continued. "Never mind."
"I am truly sorry, Lois," Zara replied earnestly. "I imagine you resent me, a usurper in your life…"
"Usurper? Wait a minute? What?!" Fit of pique did not begin to describe Lois's mood.
"Oh dear." Zara sighed. "The First Ministers of Krypton. In this case Kal El and I…"
"Hypothetically, you and Kal…Clark!" Lois replied.
"Hypothetically, Clark and I, would be married."
"What?!?!" The entire newsroom heard that and Lois frankly didn't care.
"It's a formality, a sham marriage…" Zara continued, a distinct look of unease on her face. "No one expects…no one expects a real relationship. The marriage is designed to prevent divided loyalties."
Lois laughed. It was a frail, hollow sound. "Well that's rich. Is there anything else you want to take from me? Anything else I have that you want?" she demanded angrily. She felt tears of frustration prick at her eyes. This is no time to get emotional, Lane, she thought to herself, unless that emotion is righteous indignation. You've always been good with that one.
"This isn't an ideal situation for any of us."
"And yet, I'm feeling very little sympathy for you at the moment," Lois retorted. "You come here to take the love of my life away from me so you can have a phoney marriage with him all the while putting him in danger to stop some war that your people have started and you want me to see things from your perspective? I'm sorry, I'm having a tough time doing that right now. You wanted Clark to stop your war, now you're expecting him to play house with you? For how long? Months? Years?"
"We don't know," Zara confessed. "Possibly."
"Wow," Lois gasped in amazement. "The nerve of you people!"
"We're both being asked to give up the men we love for the greater good, Lois," Zara replied, frustration creeping into her voice.
Lois glared at the woman standing not five feet from her. Zara's posture was tense, but she looked as though she was trying hard not to appear uncomfortable. Was she making Zara uncomfortable? Well, good, then, she thought petulantly. So I guess Clark isn't your first choice as a husband?" she asked icily.
"No!" Zara began, but seemed to regret the outburst immediately. "What I mean, is, I am in love with someone else," she confessed softly. "Someone I cannot be with, because of my responsibility to my people."
"It's Ching, isn't it." It was a statement, not a question. Lois eyed Zara critically. She was pretty, she mused. Tall, dark hair, intense eyes, strong, striking features, but too formal, too stiff. Not at all Clark's type. God, what was she thinking! Clark wouldn't do that to her. He'd be just as outraged as she was.
"Yes," Zara admitted. "We've known each other since childhood, but our duties keep us apart. I hate asking you to go through what we go through everyday."
"But you can still see him everyday. He's always with you. You're asking me to say goodbye to my husband and to wait, not knowing if he'll ever return to me. He could…something could happen to him…and I'd never know," Lois's voice was barely above a whisper as she finished.
Zara looked away. Lois was thankful to not have another awkward apology or platitude to have to deal with at that moment. The situation itself was too much to bear.
"I just don't know what to do," Clark explained, exasperated. He paced restlessly in his parents' kitchen as they sat at the table. He'd explained most everything to them, including Zara's last visit just before he'd left for Kansas. He'd bumped into her outside the Daily Planet and she'd explained the whole arranged marriage thing to him. He'd flat out told her that there was no way he'd go along with it.
"You're certain that they're telling the truth?" his father asked.
Clark nodded glumly. "My…birth parents confirmed it." At their puzzled looks, he continued. "The globe…there was another message on it. Jor El and Lara told me to do what I thought was best, but I can't help but feel like I owe this to them. They did so much to save the people who made it off Krypton and they saved me. I feel like…like I'd be betraying them if I didn't finish what they started."
"They wanted what was best for you, Clark," his mother counseled gently. "That's why they sent you here. They wanted what every parent wants: to give their child the best life possible."
"And I'm sure that somewhere on New Krypton, there are an awful lot of parents wishing for the same thing for their kids." Clark pulled out a chair and sat down. He put his elbows on the table and leaned forward, his shoulders slumped in a defeated pose. "How can I even think about this?" he asked quietly, expecting no answer. "How can I even think about leaving Lois? We're supposed to get married this weekend."
"Son…" his father began.
"I have everything I've ever wanted in life right at my fingertips, and I don't want to give it up," Clark interrupted, frustration clear in his voice. "That's selfish of me, isn't it?"
"No," Jonathan replied simply. "You have the same right to want to be happy that everyone else does, and no one should ask you to give that up."
"But life isn't fair, is it?" Clark finished.
"It's a hard choice, but it's yours to make," his father replied.
"We want you to stay, Clark," Martha began. "We want nothing more, but we'll support any decision you make." She placed a hand on top of her son's, her eyes bright with unshed tears. "You have our support, you always will."
Clark nodded in silent thanks and squeezed his mother's hand gently. He remained quiet for a long moment. "I think I need to talk to Lois."
Lois opened the door to her apartment, all of the deadbolts had been unlocked, which meant he was here. Still, her heart leapt up into her throat when she saw him. He stood up from his seat on the couch and she nearly flew into his arms. It had been one of the longest days of her life. She felt like she hadn't seen him in months. How was she going to survive if he left? He held her tightly and she prayed that he'd never let go.
"I don't want to lose you," she murmured against his chest. She could feel his heart pounding an erratic rhythm.
He stepped back and with one hand, tilted her chin up. He gazed at her with fierce, dark eyes, the intensity unhidden. "You could never lose me," he said in a soft, but insistent tone. "Never." He cupped her cheek with his hand and kissed her gently.
Her eyes shut tightly, she tried to burn every detail into her memory — his scent, the warm, insistent pressure of his lips against hers, the strength of his embrace, his taste, the way it felt to run her fingers through his thick, dark hair, the way a single touch could make her shiver, a delicious jolt of pleasure skittering down her spine, the way he whispered her name breathlessly. She felt tears prick at her eyes and a lump form in her throat. How was she supposed to let him go?
"Shhh," he whispered as he brushed away an errant tear. He took her hands in his and they sat down on the sofa. She immediately curled up next to him, staring down at their interlaced fingers. "Please, don't cry," he said in a voice barely above a whisper. "I couldn't bear it."
"Don't let me be the thing that holds you back," she murmured, not looking up at him. She couldn't make eye contact with him; she wouldn't have been able to keep herself from dissolving into tears.
"Lois…" She could hear the pain in his voice. "You've never…"
She placed a finger over his lips and shook her head sadly. "If you have to go," she said, her voice breaking on the words. "If you have to go, I will be here. I will wait as long as it takes and I will be here when you come home to me." She sobbed, unable to check the tears. His arms were around her immediately, enfolding her in a warm embrace. He rocked her gently.
"I don't want to go," he whispered. "I don't want to leave you. God, I hate this. I wish I could just make it all go away, make things right again."
"But you can't," she replied tremulously.
"No," he confessed sadly. "I can't."
Lois kissed him fiercely, passionately, trying desperately to cling to the one thing in the world she was certain of, the one thing that wouldn't change no matter what. She was drowning and she knew it. She was drowning and she had to let go of the one thing that could keep her afloat. Lois held him tightly, knowing that no force in heaven or earth would have been able to tear them apart. So instead, she would have to let go. But not yet.
He ran his fingers through the silk of her hair absently. It was the middle of the night but neither was sleeping. They lay together on her bed and had remained mostly silent for the last few hours. "I'm afraid," he confessed at last. "What if you need me, what if you get hurt? I won't be here, I won't even know…"
"I'll be all right," she said softly. "Well, I'll find a way to manage, anyway."
"This world needs Superman," he replied. "I'm going to New Krypton to save lives, but what about all the people I won't be able to help here?"
"You aren't a god, Clark. Whatever you can do, that's enough."
"I wish it were," he said roughly. "But what if it isn't?"
They were both silent for a long while. He sighed inwardly. Sure, Lois had managed for twenty-six years before he'd met her, but what if she needed him and he wasn't there? He'd die if anything happened to her. He knew that. Could he take the risk of leaving? Was he putting her life in jeopardy? Lois placed her hand on his chest, over his heart. He placed his much larger hand over hers. Clark held her tightly, his fear and unease growing by the second. Minutes passed and they both remained quiet. He wondered if she'd fallen asleep, but while her eyes were closed, he could tell by her heartbeat that she was still awake. Perhaps like him, she just didn't know what to say. What could they say? There weren't any words that would make this better.
"Ultrawoman," she said at last.
"What?" He'd failed to follow that particular non sequitur.
She sat up, her voice taking on the edge it did whenever a risky idea had entered her head. "We bring back Ultrawoman. With the lightning transfer? It'll work, won't it?"
"I don't know," he confessed. "I mean, it should…but Lois, are you sure? Do you want that responsibility again?"
"I admit, I was pretty anxious to get the powers back to the right person, but I can do this," she said with quiet resolution. "I think."
"It's not right for me to ask you to take over my responsibilities," Clark replied.
"And that's why you're not asking," she said firmly. "I'm the one offering. I know what I'm getting myself into."
He was surprised to find himself seriously entertaining the notion, but how else could he make sure that she'd be safe?
"Are you all right?" Clark asked.
"For the thirty-seventh time, I'm fine, really," she replied. He'd been asking her that every since they'd made the transfer. Superman had borrowed some equipment from Dr. Klein in order to create the necessary electrical current and bam! Ultrawoman was back, but this time, without Clark losing his powers as a result.
She'd held on to Clark tightly as they stepped into the path of the Tesla coil and they were both struck by a surge of electrical power. Since the transfer was direct, it wasn't likely that she'd lose the powers over time, unlike the little boy that everyone had believed to be Superman's son. Lois had thought that she would have been more afraid, but the only thing that had been going through her mind at the time was what it would mean to fill Clark's boots again.
She was thankful to have had the practice from her last time around as Ultrawoman, though having the powers back again took some getting used to. She didn't really mind; concentrating on the powers gave her something to think about other than the fact that she was about to say goodbye to the love of her life and she had no idea when she would see him again.
They held hands, their fingers interlaced as they walked quietly through the park. Somewhere, on the other side of the city, her mother was busy yelling at the caterer or something like that, she thought darkly. Planning for and anticipating their wedding seemed like something they'd done a million lifetimes ago. They had, however, picked up their wedding bands that morning. Even if they couldn't get married that weekend, she needed those little reminders of the fact that they would have a life together when he came home, no matter how long it took. She had read the inscriptions in the bands a hundred times since then and they still managed to cause that tightness in her chest and the quiver in her throat.
"Where are we supposed to meet them?" Lois asked.
"They said they'd find us here in the park," Clark replied quietly.
Lois stopped walking. "How do we do this?" she asked, searching his eyes, but not expecting to find an answer. "God, this is so hard."
"I know," he said softly as he pulled her into his arms. "I know."
"Kal El." They both looked up as Ching and Zara approached, their posture stiff and formal, their expressions somber.
"Have you made your decision?" Zara asked.
Clark stepped back, still holding Lois's hand. He looked at her, as though waiting for her approval to continue. She nodded slightly. "We have," he replied. "I will go with you."
Lois bit her lip. It wasn't a surprise, but the moment still affected her. Clark was really leaving.
"Make your arrangements, then," Ching said stoically. "We shall leave in the morning."
She stood in her living room, packing things in a duffel bag — a few of the stories they'd written together, some photos. Lois looked down at the little pile of mementos; this was all he'd be taking with him. The lump in her throat returned with a vengeance and she swallowed roughly. Now wasn't the time to fall apart. She'd have to hold it together until after Clark left, then she could just let it all out and cry as long as it took. The thought of Clark being gone only served to make the lump bigger.
Dinner that night had been awful. They'd flown to Kansas to see his parents. She would have been able to fly there under her own power, this time, but this was one of the last times they'd get to fly together for a long while and she wanted to fly in his arms again. The entire evening had been tense, as though no one had any idea what to say. They'd tried to keep the conversation light, but how could they? Any time the discussion turned to what would happen tomorrow or the next day or the week after that, they'd go silent. Reminded of the fact that Clark wouldn't be there.
They'd flown Jonathan and Martha back to Metropolis so that Clark could spend more time with them and so that they could be there to say goodbye in the morning, when he left. He was with them now, promising that he'd come by later. She'd flown a few patrols so that he could spend the time with his parents. Ultrawoman's return had surprised many, but she'd been too distracted to really pay attention.
And so here she was. Packing up things that she thought he'd like to have with him. Things that would remind him of home and of them. She began to fold up a sweater of his that he'd left there a long time ago.
The doorbell rang. Her heart began to pound furiously in her breast, so hard she thought it might shatter her ribcage. She opened it. "Hi," she said softly, tears already forming in her eyes.
"Hi," he replied mutedly.
She threw her arms around his neck, holding him as though for dear life. He hugged her back just as fiercely. For a long moment neither moved. She wondered if he, too, were pretending that if they didn't move, if they stayed frozen like that, that maybe they could make time stop and keep tomorrow from coming. Eventually, he let go of her, and she stepped away, fighting tears she was determined not to let him see.
"Your sweater," she explained with an uneven voice as she folded it and placed it in the bag. "You lent it to me that time that we flew to Bangkok for Thai noodles." She tried to keep her tone light, but knew that she was failing miserably.
She turned away from him, seemingly absorbed in the task of packing the bag. Maybe if she busied herself with the packing, she could keep up the pretense. "I thought you might need it. Who knows what the weather's going to be like on New Krypton, it might be…" frustrated she stopped. She couldn't do this. She couldn't pretend with him. "I don't know what to do here. I could pack some cookies, or darn some socks." Her eyes welled up with tears. "I can't even write you."
"I don't know if I can do this," he confessed miserably.
To her surprise, his fear galvanized her strength. He had always been strong for her. Now he needed her to be strong for him. She took a deep breath, fighting back the tears that had threatened to spill. "You can," she assured him.
"I don't want to leave you," he admitted, his voice rough.
"I will be here, waiting for you, Clark. And if you can return, you will."
"You have so much faith in me," he said quietly.
"Oh, well, that's all I have," she replied, a tremor in her voice. "I think that's what's keeping me standing here, cuz when I let myself imagine tomorrow without you, I start to shake."
She took a long step toward him, closing the gap between them, and took his face in her hands. "I know," she whispered. She kissed him softly before stepping away to open the small jewelry box on the table. Lois looked wistfully at the rings in the box. "I just wish we'd had a chance to wear these." Clark stood behind her, wrapping his arms around her.
"Maybe we should have eloped," he joked.
"Yeah," she replied longingly.
"I'm joking. Probably not the time for jokes, but…"
"I'm not," she said.
His hands on her shoulders, he turned her around so she was facing him. He took her hands in his. There was a look of confusion on his face, and he gazed at her intently, as though he were searching for an explanation of her words.
"We should have been married by now," she said. "And I'm tired of things keeping us apart. We have the license, let's just run off somewhere and elope."
"What about the…"
"The wedding?" she finished for him. "I've never cared about the wedding part, Clark. Just the being wed."
"I don't want to do this because we're both afraid this is goodbye. I don't want us to rush into this because we're afraid that we don't have a future together, because I'm going to come back."
"I know you are," she said. "I'm not suggesting this because I don't think you will. I want to recite my vows to you and I want you to know that I mean it when I say that I'm going to wait for you. I want to marry you now because you're coming back."
"You don't have to recite vows to make me believe," he said quietly. "In my heart, I am your husband."
"And I'm your wife," she replied, her voice wavering. "Please, Clark," she whispered as she placed her head against his chest, wrapping her arms around his waist.
"There shouldn't be tears on our wedding night," he replied roughly.
"What if I promise not to cry?" A weak laugh covered the breaking of her voice.
"What if I can't make the same promise?" he whispered.
She looked up at him with tears in her eyes and bit her lip. Lois could see the emotions he was trying to check. They kissed softly.
"This is crazy," he murmured.
"So was bringing back Ultrawoman," she quipped in response.
"Sanity's a one-trick pony, pal." It was distancing, she knew, but joking made it easier to deal with the pain. "Crazy keeps you on your toes."
He chuckled softly and held her tighter. "And you've never failed to do that. But are you sure you want to do this?"
"I am," she replied simply. "I want to marry you. I don't want to wait, or plan. I just want to marry you."
"So where do we find someone registered to perform weddings in the State of New Troy at ten seventeen on a Tuesday night?" he asked with a lopsided smile.
The elevator pinged and the doors slid open, startling him from his work. Who would be coming into the newsroom now? He rubbed his eyes and looked up from his desk. "What are you two doing here?" Perry asked. His two star reporters looked ill at ease as they walked hand in hand toward his office.
"We have a favor to ask of you," Clark replied.
"We want you to marry us," Lois explained.
"You want what?" Perry asked incredulously.
"We want you to perform our marriage, tonight," Clark added.
Perry arched a brow. "You're joking, right?"
"We aren't," Lois replied somberly. "We're dead serious, Perry."
"This is nuts!" Perry exclaimed. "Why in Elvis's name can't you two just wait until Saturday and do this thing properly?"
Clark seemed to give Lois a cryptic look before answering. "We can't. I can't explain it to you now, but Lois will. Later."
"Later when?" Perry demanded.
"Please," Lois pleaded with him. "If there were another way, we wouldn't ask, but we need your help."
Perry put his hands up in resignation. "You'll need witnesses,"
"My parents are on their way," Clark replied.
"How'd you talk them into this?" Perry asked, turning a skeptical eye toward the younger man.
"They don't know why we asked them to come down here," Lois admitted.
"Good grief," Perry replied.
Just then, the elevator doors opened. All three looked up to see Martha and Jonathan Kent exit, wearing matching looks of concern.
"Clark, honey, what's wrong?" his mother asked as she stepped out of the elevator and into the dimly lit newsroom. "What's going on?"
"We're in here, Mom," Clark called from Perry's office. Clark's parents looked around for a brief moment before regaining their bearings. They headed toward his office.
"Oh, hello, Perry," Martha said, as though surprised to see him.
"Good to see you, Martha, Jonathan," Perry replied.
"Nice to see you, too," Jonathan responded somewhat absently.
"Clark and Lois here can fill you the two of you in on what's going on. But let me say that this is the craziest thing I've ever heard from either of them, and that's saying a lot." Perry retreated from his office.
"We want Perry to marry us," Clark explained. "Now."
"We just don't want to keep letting circumstances dictate our lives to us," Lois added. "We've already waited so long."
"Perry's right," Jonathan said simply. "It is crazy."
Clark sighed in resignation. He felt Lois squeeze his hand.
"But we understand why," Martha added comfortingly. "It's not the wedding that we wished for you, but we aren't going to try to stop you. It's not like you wouldn't be able to find other witnesses." She managed a small smile.
"Thank you," Lois whispered. "And it's not like we didn't try the big fancy wedding," she added, her voice uneven. "It just didn't really take."
"Then it's settled," Jonathan replied. "Perry, why don't we get this show on the road?" he called to the editor.
"I take it cooler heads didn't prevail?" Perry asked as he re- entered his office.
"I'm afraid not," Jonathan replied.
Perry grunted. "Well then, where do we begin?" He stood in front of his desk. "Lois, Clark, why don't you two come over here." They did as he asked. Martha and Jonathan stood quietly off to the side, holding hands.
Clark never took his eyes off Lois. She wasn't wearing her white dress and he was without a tux. This wasn't the church, the rest of their family and friends weren't here, but they were finally going to get married. He smiled as he felt Lois slip her hand into his.
"Do you have the rings, Clark?" Perry asked.
He reached into the pocket of his slacks where the rings had been burning a hole for what seemed like quite some time. He handed them both to Perry.
"Well, let's see," Perry said with a frown, as though trying to remember how the ceremony went. Clark thought back to the last time they'd tried this, but firmly squelched the thought. This time, it would be for real.
"Dearly beloved," Perry began as he looked at the small group in the office. "We are gathered here to witness the union of Lois and Clark in holy matrimony. If there is anyone here who believes they should not be wed, speak now, or forever hold your peace." He paused briefly. "Well then, the vows. Clark?" Perry held the smaller of the rings out and Clark took it.
He felt the nervousness and the excitement beat back the lonelier feelings that had plagued him the last few days. His mouth was dry and his heart was pounding and all he could think about was how much he loved the woman standing beside him. "Lois," he began softly. "I have loved you from the moment that I saw you. I love your humor, your passion, and the way you just dive right in, even when you shouldn't. Because you refuse to just watch the world, you demand that it be a better place, and because of you… it is. I want to give you as much of the world as I can, so I give you my heart… my soul… our future." He slipped the ring on her finger. "I have loved you from the beginning," he said softly.
"Lois?" Perry held out the other ring for her.
"Clark, you're my best friend," she began, her eyes shining bright with emotion. "Until I met you I never had a best friend, and falling in love with you has been so easy, I don't know why I fought it so long. You have such gentle grace, and such quiet strength, and mostly… such incredible kindness. I've never known anyone with as pure a heart, and so I give you my love…my honor… and our life, together." She placed the ring on his finger. "I will love you 'til the end," she whispered. A tear slipped down her face and Clark hoped that it was a tear of joy. She smiled bravely at him.
"By the power vested in me, I now pronounce you husband and wife," Perry concluded.
Clark held Lois's face in his hands and kissed her gently. She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him back. It was a bittersweet kiss. It should have been the very beginning of everything, of their life together, but deep down, he felt the cold hand of fear grip his heart. He wanted to never hurt her, to never make her cry, but how could he live up to those hopes now? He looked down at her and smiled, hoping that the fear didn't show through, but then again, she could read him like a book.
"I love you," she whispered so that only the two of them could hear.
They stood together at her window, gazing out. His arms were wrapped around her. She took his hands in hers, interlacing their fingers and looked down at their joined left hands and the wedding bands on them. "It's all happening so fast," she murmured. "None of it feels real."
"This feels pretty real to me," he said as he turned her around and kissed her softly. "I love you," he whispered. "More than anything. You know that, right?"
"I do," she replied. "I love you, too." She closed her eyes and kissed him again, a soft, slow kiss, full of longing. It felt like they were both trying to convince themselves it was real. Lois turned to look back out the window. "So, which star is yours?"
"There." Clark pointed toward a tiny dot in the sky.
Lois followed his outstretched hand. "I see it." No doubt, the enhanced vision made it possible. She looked at him. "I'll watch it every night." She put her arms around his neck and kissed him again. This time, she let the emotions wash over her. She couldn't hold back any longer. Was there any reason not to let Clark see how much she needed him? Somewhere, deep down inside, she couldn't help but feel as though she was being selfish. By insisting that they get married, was she just making it harder for him to go? She hadn't wanted to think about it earlier, placing her needs above his. As soon as the unbidden thought crept into her mind though, it was washed away as Clark kissed her fiercely, passionately, causing her blood to burn like fire in her veins. She could hear his pulse thundering, his heart beating like a jackhammer in his chest. A nifty side effect of the powers she mused through a passion induced haze. Her breath caught in her throat as he bent down and hooked one arm behind her knees and with one arm around her waist; he lifted her up and carried her toward the bedroom.
He laid her down gently on the bed and sat down beside her. He brushed an errant strand of hair away from her face. "You are so beautiful," he murmured before bending down to kiss her. He kissed a slow trail from her lips down her jaw, along her neck and to the hollow of her shoulder, his very movements worshipful as he paid silent homage to her.
Clark looked at her with passion-darkened eyes and she could feel the heat radiating off his body. She slowly began undoing the buttons on his shirt, eagerly searching out the warm, soft skin underneath. He tossed away the superfluous garment and she pulled him closer to her, splaying her hands against the muscles of his back. He seemed to rest his weight on her hesitantly, which caused her to smile. "It's all right, Clark," she said with laughter in her voice. "I'm not likely to break."
He managed a small laugh and smiled that lopsided smile of his that made her melt. Her hands trailed absently up and down the muscles of his back. His muscles bunched and flexed under her gentle ministrations as he slowly began removing the layers of clothing that remained between them. He lavished attention on every inch of newly exposed skin. She wondered how the simplest touch seemed to send a jolt of electricity down her nerve endings. Invulnerability had certainly done nothing to make her skin less sensitive. He spent an eternity tracing his fingertips over every curve, every hollow, every feature and she knew he was doing exactly what she was doing — trying to burn every detail into memory.
She let her hands wander over the muscled planes of his chest and stomach, his abs tightening reflexively in response to her touch. She floated upward, startling him, as he finished removing the last of their clothing. "Easier?" she asked.
"Yeah," he replied, having regained his balance and discarded the rest of the clothing. "Easier." One finger traced the curve of her collarbone and followed the line of her neck and came to rest under her chin, tilting her head slightly. His thumb brushed over her lips and she kissed the tip of his finger. He buried his hands in her hair and kissed her. She arched her back toward him, relishing in the feeling of his skin against hers, with no barriers between them. His kiss became more passionate, hungrier as he held her tightly to him.
She could hear both of their hearts beating wildly in uneven tempos. The sound grew louder, filling her head as their pulses came into sync, their hearts pounding in unison.
"Do you hear it?" he asked breathlessly.
"I hear it," she whispered. "I hear it." Her heart ached and she thought it might burst with love for this man. Desire clawed at her; her blood was racing in her veins, her skin burning at every point of contact, her breath caught in her throat. She moaned into his mouth, feeling as though she might die of pleasure.
A million thoughts swirled through her head. A million fears tugged at her soul, pulling her down. Thoughts of the morning to come, a morning she'd face without him and many more to follow. Fears of who knew how many nights when her only warmth and comfort would be the memories of this one. Memories she would cling to for as long as it took. Don't think, just feel, she tried to tell herself.
He tore his lips from hers to trail frantic kisses down her neck, along her jaw, up to her ear. "I love you," he whispered. "I love you."
And he did. She knew that. He loved her as much as she loved him and he would continue to love her. No amount of time, no distance, nothing, nothing in heaven or earth would change that. Every word, every touch, every look told her that. She felt her body tremble. What had she done to deserve being loved by such a remarkable man? Tears pricked at her eyes. Tears of joy, of sadness, of the indescribable pain of knowing what was to come, of rage at being powerless to stop it. She screwed her eyes shut, willing the tears not to come.
"Oh, Lois," he murmured, as he brushed an errant tear from her face. His breath was warm against cheek. She kissed him, desperately, breathlessly, trying to push out of her heart and her mind everything other than that moment.
They lay floating in a tangle of limbs several feet above the bed. She curled up beside him and he dropped a kiss on the top of her head.
"What time is it?" she murmured sleepily.
God, he loved the sound of her voice, the feel of her body stretched out next to his. She buried her head against his shoulder, letting him enfold her in his arms. "It's still early," he assured her. She sighed in apparent contentment, the sleeping angel caught in quiet repose in his embrace bore no resemblance to the ball of hell fire and iron nails she could be when she was awake. He'd fallen in love with both Lois Lanes — the crusading spitfire and the wonderfully vulnerable and tender woman she hid from everyone. Even him sometimes. He held her tightly, hoping that, maybe, if he held on tight enough, he wouldn't have to let go.
She stirred slightly and put a hand on his chest, over his heart. "I love you," she said softly, as though unsure of her own voice. She kissed him and he could taste the salt of her tears. He kissed her back with equal passion. Last night had been the most incredible night of his life. The reality had been much better than anything he could have imagined. And though he'd spent the entire night memorizing every amazing, tiny detail of her body and every sound, every quiet gasp and contented sigh, he couldn't get enough of her. He longed to—needed to—hold her, touch her, breathe her in, feel her heart beat against his. Just once more.
He knew that last night had made it so much more difficult for him to go. Better if you don't know what you're missing, he mused wryly. And he didn't care. He wouldn't have traded last night for anything in the world. Nothing could have made him regret it, or want to take it back.
Lois stood in front of him, smoothing the line of his cape. She stepped back and bit her lip. "You look good," she said in a low whisper.
"Thanks," he replied roughly. He managed a small smile. "You look pretty good, too," he said as he kissed her forehead. He enfolded her in his arms. "Are you ready?"
"No," she murmured. "There isn't enough time, there's never enough time."
"I know," he whispered.
Lois withdrew slowly and walked toward the bureau. She removed a pair of silver chains from a jewelry box. "I guess we can't wear the rings if we want to keep the wedding a secret," she said. "So I thought we could wear them on these instead." She gingerly removed the gold band from her left hand as though the very act caused her pain. She slipped the ring onto one of the chains.
Clark reluctantly did the same. He looked down at the inscription inside the band. "This is the most precious thing I own," he said softly as he held up the chain. "I want you to keep it for me."
Lois nodded and allowed him to put the chain around her neck. She held up the chain with her ring on it. "Keep it safe," she whispered.
"As safe as I keep my love for you," he replied, bowing his head so she could put the necklace on him. He held the little ring in his hand. "I will come back, and return this to where it belongs. 'I have loved you from the beginning,'" he repeated his vow inscribed in her ring.
"And I will love you 'til the end," she whispered.
TV and newspaper reporters filled the bullpen of the Daily Planet newsroom. Superman had announced the press conference only a few hours before, but it had taken the media no time to set up in preparation. Superman was always big news. Clark stepped up to the bank of microphones and took a deep breath. He looked out into the audience as camera flashes burst all around him. The cacophony of high-speed photo clicks seemed dull and distant to his ears.
He saw Lois, standing with his parents. She gave him a tiny, tremulous smile. Over the din of the newsroom, he could still focus on the sound of her heart as it pounded wildly in her breast. His mouth was dry and he swallowed roughly around the large mass that had formed in his throat. With the exception of an occasional, erratic camera flash, the newsroom went silent as he began to speak.
"Although I have always loved life here on Earth, and have called it my home, I have another home as well… one that needs me now." A low murmur rose up in the crowd. "But wherever I am, I'll carry the best of Earth with me," he continued. "I have asked Ultrawoman to watch over this world in my absence, and I am confident that you will all manage just fine. I ask each one of you to look to yourselves for the strength, decency, and compassion that I know each one of you has inside. Emerson said self-trust is the essence of heroism. Inside each of you is a hero. And so I leave, knowing that a world full of heroes has nothing to fear."
Clark stepped down from the microphones, and with long, purposeful strides, walked toward Perry and Jimmy. He shook Perry's hand. "I'm counting on the Daily Planet to be the conscience of Metropolis."
Perry nodded gruffly. He paused for a moment before letting go of Superman's hand. Perry looked him in the eye and arched a brow slightly. Something had clearly dawned on Perry White and it didn't take Clark three guesses to figure out what it was. Clark gave him merely the faintest of nods in acknowledgement as they shared a look of understanding.
Clark turned toward Jimmy, and laid a hand on the younger man's shoulder. He'd wanted desperately to say goodbye to his friend as Clark, and not like this. He imagined that Lois would tell him the truth once he'd left and it became apparent that Clark wasn't around. She'd need his help as well as Perry's in maintaining a proper cover for his absence. But they'd decided it was something to be dealt with later; neither had wanted to confront the issue. So much of their thinking of late seemed guided by the desperate need to seize the day, to think for the present moment and not the ones to follow. Perhaps it was their way of balancing out an unknown future, a future they couldn't plan for. He looked down at his young friend, who was trying hard to keep the tears from forming. "Be a friend to Lois," he said simply, knowing the words would have far greater weight once Jimmy knew the truth.
"Of course. Um, Clark wanted to be here, but he's out covering the reaction to your speech," Jimmy managed.
It was a somewhat lame cover, Clark admitted to himself, but there'd been no time to devise anything better. "Well, Clark knows how I feel," Superman replied.
He turned away from his friends and walked towards Perry's office. Lois and his parents had slipped in there after he'd finished his speech. He found them waiting for him.
Clark looked at his parents, unsure how to tell them how grateful he was for everything they'd given him. He couldn't believe he was being forced to say goodbye to the people who had taken him in as an infant, raised him, loved him, and taught him what it meant to belong to something. No matter what was waiting for him on New Krypton, whatever links to his supposed heritage, he knew where his home was. He knew where his place was.
"You're the only parents I've ever known," he said softly. "The only parents I've ever wanted. Whatever good I bring to New Krypton will be because of you."
His mother began to cry and he hugged both of his parents tightly. "I love you," she whispered through her tears. He closed his eyes, feeling his heart break. He knew that if he had just a fraction of his mother's strength, courage, and wisdom, he'd have no problem bringing peace to an entire planet.
"You take care of yourself, son," his father said gruffly, his normally stoic voice thick with emotion. Clark nodded. He couldn't begin to count the number of lessons he'd learned from his dad, about life, love, doing the right thing, and just being a generous and decent human being. It was strange, but he felt exactly the way he did on so many occasions as a child. He looked at his father, hoping that he'd made him proud. Jonathan wasn't an overly emotional man, but the look on his face spoke volumes. The exchange between father and son may have been quiet, but he knew he had his father's love and support, and that like him, his father would be waiting anxiously for the day he would return.
Clark turned to face his wife, his mind cogitating over the word. It had very quickly become a favorite. Wife. There was something perfect, something permanent about it. He hadn't had enough of a chance to use it, he mused wryly. He approached her slowly. She was avoiding eye contact and he realized he was doing the same. How could he look at her, see the pain in her expression, and know that he'd put it there?
She finally raised her eyes to meet his. Her eyes were bright, but she seemed to have her emotions firmly checked. She amazed him sometimes. Well, most of the time, actually. He should have known never to underestimate Lois Lane and her seemingly endless reserves of courage and strength.
"Take care of them," he asked her, referring to his parents, knowing that she would. They would take care of each other. "Please."
Lois nodded slowly. She looked away again, but not a single tear threatened to fall. He was so thankful for her strength. He would need it. She reached under the collar of his costume and pulled out her wedding ring on the end of the chain. She'd only worn it for a night. One bittersweet, all too short night. But as he'd promised, he would return and replace it where it belonged. No matter what it took.
She tucked the ring back out of sight. "Don't forget me," she said softly.
"Lois…" he began, his voice uneven, taking her hands in his. He could never forget her. How could he forget the only woman he'd ever loved, the one who had made him feel a part of the world, the one who was his entire world? No matter what happened, the one thing he knew would never change was his love for her.
The door opened, Zara and Ching stood there waiting for him. They were dressed in their simple, black Kryptonian uniforms, somber looks upon their faces. Clark felt a brief, irrational flash of hatred for them cut through him. He wanted to hold a grudge against them, to despise them for what they were doing to him, what they were asking of him. Yet he knew that they were doing it to save an entire world, a world he didn't yet know, but one his birth parents had died saving. If they believed it was worth the sacrifice, he knew it was.
"It's time," Lois said slowly, her eyes met his with difficulty. He could see the determination in her face. In the worst of times, his wife displayed such grace and dignity it humbled him. Clark blinked away tears, unable to find any words that could possibly express how he felt, but then again, she knew. She had to know. Reluctantly, he let go of her hands and turned to follows Zara and Ching into the newsroom.
The two Kryptonians flew up to the windows on the second level and turned to wait for him. Clark followed them slowly, deliberately, taking off gently and flying toward the large window that had framed Superman's first appearance in the newsroom. It seemed like so long ago that he'd flown through those windows, an awestruck Lois Lane in his arms. He turned to look down at the crowd in the bullpen. Perry and Jimmy stood with the media, looking up at him with both pride and sadness in their expressions. He would miss them. He'd miss the Planet, just being able to come to work here every day among friends. He looked toward Perry's office, where Lois and his parents stood in the doorway. His father stood with his arm around his mother. Lois stood beside them, her head held high as she watched him float there.
Zara and Ching flew out the window one at a time. He watched them go. With one last glance, full of longing and pain, toward his wife, he turned and followed them.
Lois stared unblinkingly at the spot where he had just been, the tears finally spilling out. The stoic mask had crumbled; her bravado revealed for what it was. She nearly stumbled as she stepped back into the office. Her grief was private, and not something she intended to share with the world's news media. "It's over. Everything's over," she murmured through tears.
Martha and Jonathan stood one on either side of her. For all her newly acquired super strength, she felt as though her legs would buckle underneath her at any moment. She clung to them for support. "I shouldn't have let him go," she sobbed
"You two will find a way," Jonathan said softly. "Dearest Lois, a love that risks nothing is worth nothing." The words sounded hollow and distant to her. How could they find a way? How could she find a way to get through the next hour, the next minute? She couldn't breathe…her chest…it hurt so much…and she couldn't breathe…
Clark stood on the command bridge of the transport, now wearing a plain black suit like Zara and Ching's. Around him, the sparse crew of the vessel worked quietly, but he ignored them. He couldn't believe it. He couldn't believe he'd left her. He pulled the silver chain out and looked at Lois's ring. 'Lois, I love you,' he thought to himself, secretly willing her to hear it, but knowing that she couldn't.
"Come, Kal El, there is much for us to do," Ching began matter- of-factly as he walked toward him. "Training, language, history, there's much to cover." Clark looked over his shoulder at the other man and regarded him darkly.
"Ching," Zara rebuked. She stood at the entry to the bridge. "Give him a moment."
Ching merely nodded slightly and backed away. Clark resumed gazing out the window at the dark emptiness of space. Stars, scattered all around, twinkled faintly in the distance. It had been a long time since he'd been able to see Earth. The little blue dot had disappeared from view some hours ago, despite his enhanced vision. The sun now just looked like any other star. Ordinary, average. There was nothing special about it. Zara relieved a man from his duty at the helm, taking his place. She seemed to ignore him and he didn't mind.
"I didn't realize you were a pilot," he said to her at last.
"Life on New Krypton is such that even our politicians must have useful skills," she replied.
He grunted in response. If he hadn't known better, he would have thought that she'd just made a joke.
"You should rest, Clark," she said. "Your powers will soon start to fade and you will need your strength. The simulated gravity on the ship will become stronger and stronger to mimic the gravity on New Krypton. And Ching is right; there is work to be done in order to prepare you for life on New Krypton. There is much you will have to learn."
Clark silently left the bridge to return to his Spartan quarters. Maybe he'd be able to sleep. Maybe he'd dream of Lois. He said nothing as he passed Ching on his way to his chambers.
Zara looked up once Clark was gone. "There's a transmission incoming, Ching, retrieve it," she commanded, quickly returning her attention to the task of piloting the ship.
"Of course," he replied.
Ching remained silent for a long while and Zara paused to glance at him. "What is it?" she demanded.
"Shir Om has passed," he replied. "Nor's supporters in the Council are clamoring to proclaim him First Minister. Several jurists have called for your resignation."
"It does not seem that we will be able to return in time to avert war," she reflected.
"Shall I inform Kal El?" Ching asked.
"There is no need now," she replied without emotion. There was no time to grieve their fallen leader or to allow panic to set in. "There is nothing he can do. We must simply concentrate on returning and marshalling our forces to oppose Nor."
"Lois, what are you doing here?" Perry asked gently as he stood over his favorite reporter's desk. She quickly tucked the chain back under her blouse. Apparently superhearing didn't really do a whole lot for people when they were lost in their own thoughts and not paying any attention at all to the world around them.
"I have work to do," she replied unconvincingly. Anyone could have seen through her charade. It was late, the newsroom was deserted, most of the lights were off, and she was sitting at her desk, staring blankly into the distance.
Perry sat on the corner of her desk. "Have you decided how you're going to explain Clark's absence?"
"What?" she asked, pole-axed by his question.
"I know," Perry replied simply. "Figured it out this morning. Suddenly your rush to elope made an awful lot of sense. I haven't told anyone about the wedding, and I won't. If you want, I know a judge, a good friend of mine; I'll file the certificate with him. He can be trusted to be circumspect about it."
She managed a half smile. "Thanks, Perry. I don't imagine I'll be able to keep it secret for too long, but I just don't think I could deal with that right now. As for the explanation of where Clark is, I haven't figured it out quite yet, though I'm leaning toward the idea that he was kidnapped by one of the Kryptonian factions and used as bait for Superman. It'll explain why they both left at the same time and why they'll come back at the same time. That and I don't really like Kryptonians right now. It's nice to blame them for things."
Perry shook his head with a weak laugh. "So Ultrawoman?"
"Is me," Lois replied matter-of-factly.
"Right," Perry agreed with a head nod. "How?"
"Long story," she dismissed. "Tesla coil, electrical transfer of powers… okay, not that long. I tried patrolling today, but there wasn't much to do. Clark was afraid the bad guys would have a field day with Superman's leaving, but I guess they're just as stunned as everyone else."
"How are you holding up?" Perry asked.
Lois merely looked at him. "Sorry, stupid question," he said before she could formulate a reply.
They were both quiet for a long moment. She finally spoke. "You know the expression 'you look like you just lost your best friend?' Yeah, it has new meaning."
"He'll come back," Perry reassured her.
"I know he will," she said.
"I think I told you once that that boy would walk on water for you or…well, given Clark, a couple hundred billion miles or so won't keep him from coming back to you. Anyway, you should try to rest. I'll work out the details of Clark's cover and we'll run something in the evening edition."
"Thanks, Perry," she replied sincerely.
"If, ah, there's anything I can do, anything at all," he began. "Well, you know."
"I do," she said.
"Hey Lois," Jimmy called out to her as he stepped off the elevator and into the newsroom the following morning. He seemed far more subdued than usual, but that was hardly unexpected. "Where's Clark?" he asked almost immediately.
The question cut straight through her and the pain flared up, blossoming in her chest again. "Jimmy, let's go into Perry's office," she suggested. The young man gave her a puzzled look, but she didn't explain further. He followed her into the office.
"What's up, you two?" Perry looked up as the two entered the office.
"Jimmy should know," Lois replied simply, closing the door behind them.
"Know what?" Jimmy and Perry asked simultaneously.
"Everything," Lois replied. "Clark would want him to know."
"Clark? Where is he, by the way?" Jimmy asked.
"Are you sure?" Perry asked.
Lois merely nodded.
"All right," Perry replied. "Jimmy, you might want to sit down for this."
Jimmy's expression belied unmistakable confusion, but he simply sat down as Perry instructed.
"Clark is Superman," Perry said frankly.
"Wha..mphhph…" Jimmy began to yell in surprise but Lois managed to place a hand over his mouth quickly. It wouldn't exactly do for Jimmy to be heard across the newsroom.
"Promise you won't scream?" she asked. Jimmy nodded mutely.
"Heck of a grip, Lois," Jimmy muttered as he rubbed his jaw.
"I'm Ultrawoman," Lois replied.
"You're wha…" Jimmy stopped himself, holding up a hand as if to signal that he promised not to yell if Lois refrained from silencing him again. He remained quiet for a long moment.
"You okay, Jimmy?" Perry asked.
"I think I need to sit down," the younger man managed at last.
"You are sitting down," Lois replied.
Jimmy looked down. "Right, I knew that," he said absently. "You guys lied to me," he added, his voice quiet.
Lois shook her head. "Perry didn't know until yesterday…"
"But you knew," Jimmy replied.
"I found out last year," Lois admitted.
"Why didn't he tell me? I feel like such an idiot, I thought he was two different people and Ultrawoman…" Jimmy blanched. "Oh man," he groaned as his face turned red. He looked down at the ground and covered his face with his hands. "I…I was…man, I made a fool of myself!"
"You're not an idiot, Jimmy," Perry responded gently. "We all thought Clark was two different people."
"I was his partner for two years, I dated him for months without ever knowing," Lois admitted softly. She leaned against the wall, her arms crossed over her chest, her posture defensive as she guarded against an intangible danger — the sharp edge of memories that threatened to cut deep and bleed her dry again. "He proposed without ever telling me."
Jimmy looked up, his eyes narrowed in disbelief. "Really?"
"Really." Lois sighed, the memory festering deep inside, threatening to open old wounds. "Not his brightest move." She managed a weak smile at the thought.
"So why are you telling me now?" Jimmy asked, his words deliberate and slow.
"Clark wanted you to know," she replied.
"And we need your help, keeping his secret," Perry added.
"The only other people who know are his parents," Lois continued. "But Clark and I decided that you should know. I don't think I have to tell you how important and how dangerous this secret is, but we trust you."
"Oh," Jimmy managed inarticulately.
"We need to create a plausible cover for Clark's disappearance," Perry continued.
Lois watched as Jimmy sat dumbly, trying to follow along as Perry detailed their planned explanation. Perry left out the wedding and for it, she was grateful. She didn't want to explain it, or why she didn't plan on telling anyone. It was deeply private and she wanted to keep it that way, or as close as possible, for as long as she could. She was already dreading her parents finding out about Clark's 'abduction.' She was too emotionally exhausted to think about what would happen.
At least, given their cover story, she wouldn't have to pretend that things were okay for another moment longer. News would hit very soon that Clark was gone and that Superman had promised to bring him back as soon as possible. She'd be allowed to fall apart, to play the heartbroken fianc‚e, without fear of rumors stirring up again about her and Superman. Lois found herself wanting to run away and hide before the outpouring of sympathy began. She wasn't certain she'd be able to bear the sympathetic looks and the condolences of everyone around her, even if they meant well. Maybe Ultrawoman would be needed and she'd be able to stay busy that way. Work was always an escape for her, and now she had two jobs she could escape into; she'd need every moment of both of them.
"So, if Clark's been abducted by aliens," Jimmy began. "Wow, that didn't sound nearly as weird in my head as it did out loud…anyway, if Clark's been taken by the Kryptonians, and we're going to break the story, shouldn't Lois not be at work, acting as if everything's okay?"
"Good point," Perry replied. He looked at Lois. "You should probably go home…or patrol…or just stay under the radar, well as Lois, anyway, I guess."
Lois wasn't sure which surprised her more, Jimmy's sudden level headedness in spite of learning Clark's secret or his suggestion that she leave. "What about the story?" she asked.
"Jimmy and I will take care of the story," Perry replied nonchalantly. Out of the corner of her eye, Lois saw Jimmy try to suppress a look of surprised delight.
"All right," she acquiesced. "I'll go." Lois headed toward the door.
"Wait," Jimmy called after her.
She turned around and was taken by surprise when the young man hugged her tightly. She hugged him back, appreciating the simple gesture of support and caring.
"Take care of yourself," he said quietly.
"So how long will it take to get to New Krypton?" Clark asked Ching as he followed the other man through the corridors and to the command bridge. It was their second day traveling and by all indicators, there were many more ahead.
"Roughly two earth months," Ching replied. "New Krypton is approximately twenty-five light years away from Earth."
"How far away was Krypton?" Clark asked.
"Less than half that distance."
"But how?" Clark was puzzled. "I mean, that's so close, shouldn't we have known it was there?"
Ching opened the door to the command bridge and they stepped through and into the wide-open space at the helm of the ship. "Krypton was a tiny planet, a planetismal, really, that orbited a very small, very weak red sun. Your scientists may have spotted it, they may have even recorded when it was destroyed, but I hardly think they paid it much mind."
"And there was this race of people, us, just like people on Earth, that close by?" The odds were too fantastical to contemplate.
"Well, our people were removed from Earth and marooned there some millennia ago, I doubt that whomever did the marooning really thought much about settling us further from Earth. Why bother?" Ching barely glanced at him as he checked the Ensign's log. Satisfied that all was well, he made his way to the navigator's station.
"Wait a minute, what?"
"Pardon?" Ching replied, not bothering to look up.
"What do you mean the Kryptonians were removed from Earth?" Clark demanded.
"Kryptonians originally come from Earth," Ching explained. "Did your parents not tell you that?"
Clark looked at him stunned. "I guess it's something they left out," he replied drolly.
Ching sighed with apparent exasperation. "Some other race, apparently enamored of Earth and its inhabitants began removing groups of people, entire civilizations even, from Earth some eight thousand years ago. They stranded their subjects on a rather barren little space rock not too far from Earth, but remote enough to never be noticed. They continued to meddle with your civilizations for some time, intervening whenever they felt like it, but they apparently tired of us much more quickly."
The whole thing made no sense as far as Clark was concerned, but it didn't keep him from continuing to ask questions. "So Krypton was some sort of intergalactic ant farm, then?"
"Ant farm?" Ching looked thoroughly confused. "Who would want to farm ants?"
"Never mind," Clark replied. "The whole planet was a science experiment then?"
"Apparently," Ching replied as he checked the ship's diagnostics. "Ensign Parth, what is the capacity of the fuel cells?" he demanded.
"Seventy five percent plus reserves, sir," a young officer whom Clark recognized from previous trips to the bridge replied.
"Very good," Ching replied.
"This can't be!" Clark exclaimed.
"The fuel cells?" Ching asked.
"No, not the fuel cells, Ching, the crazy story you're telling me about Krypton."
"And what is so strange about it? Isn't it stranger to try to imagine two species of beings, separated by unfathomable gaps in time and space evolving to look and move and behave exactly the same? Doesn't it make more sense to accept that the people of Earth and Krypton are of one race?"
"Well, yeah, when you put it that way, but no. What about the powers, the differences? Do you have any idea how isolating it was, growing up? How strange it was to be different? And now you're telling me that I'm not? That I felt that alone, that disconnected from the world for no reason?"
"Kal El, are you honestly that slow-witted?"
Clark was taken aback. "What?" Had he heard Ching properly?
"The alienation you describe, the loneliness, the isolation, that's simply life. Everyone is alone, everyone is isolated. Everyone is a stranger in a strange land, as Earth people say. Being alone is being human. It always has been. You merely assumed that it was because you were different. It was because you were exactly the same. People have their different reasons for it, the things that make their case special, but in the end, they all feel the same thing. The sense that they face the world alone, even in a crowd."
Clark stared at him and couldn't think of a thing to say. Ching apparently didn't notice. Ching finally looked up from his monitor, but not at Clark. "Good work, everyone. Now not another word in English from here to New Krypton."
Ching said something to him that was completely unintelligible, but Clark managed to figure out rather quickly that Ching was ordering him to follow him. They left the bridge, Ching continuing to speak in Kryptonian, and Clark was certain that it was going to be a long day.
Four Weeks Later…
Lois stepped out of the elevator and into the newsroom later than usual that morning. She was surprisingly tired, but blamed it on a night that had her racing from one rescue to the next. Ultrawoman had been needed again this morning thanks to a major pile up on the interstate just outside the city limits. The rescue had gone well; no fatalities and all of the injured were safely and quickly evacuated to nearby hospitals with the judicious use of superpowers. She'd even managed to scribble down some notes for the story before heading in to work.
She stifled a yawn as she made her way to her desk. Was she really that tired? Who are you kidding, Lane? She thought to herself. Of course she was that tired. The nights she didn't spend staring up at the sky, wondering where Clark was and whether he was safe, she spent at one emergency or another. When she slept, she dreamt of him and she'd wake up alone and it would hurt just as badly as it did the morning he left. When she couldn't sleep, she'd patrol, thankful for something to do, but knowing that she wasn't getting enough rest, even for a super- powered being.
Reminders of Clark had begun popping up all around her apartment and her desk at work. At first, the reminders would often just bring her pain, but now, she felt lost without them. A picture here, a silly memento there. Anything that reminded her of better times soon found its way onto the display spaces of her home and her desk at work. And at night, she'd go home and pull on his Midwestern State sweatshirt, many sizes too big, but soft and comfortable and comforting. Clarkie the Bear, the little black and white stuffed animal he'd won for her at the Corn Festival had also found his way out of her closet and onto her bed.
These tangible reminders along with her memories were all that she could cling to in search of her connection to him. Deep down, she was so afraid that time would make the memories fade. In her mind's eye, she could still see him perfectly, every detail, every tiny element was crystal clear, but would it stay that way? She told herself it would, that she could never forget, that the details would never blur with time, never go fuzzy or fade. But how long would it be before she'd no longer be able to hear the sound of his laughter in her mind? Would she always be able to picture the way his eyes lit up when he smiled? Would she always remember the way he smelled, the unique blend of his cologne and the scent of his skin that was so comforting? Would she be able to recreate in her thoughts the way it felt to hold his hand or kiss him, or make love with him? The memories were there, but how long before they dimmed, before the images lost their brightness and grew blurry in her mind? The physical things, the ones she could hold on to, literally, she needed them. They couldn't fade, couldn't get distorted with time.
She looked at the picture frame on her desk. It held a picture of them from the Kerth ceremony some time ago. They looked so happy in the photograph. Why hadn't she realized she was in love with him that very night? Why hadn't she admitted it to herself then? If she hadn't been so stubborn, if she hadn't been so afraid, so blind, she could have told him she loved him right then and there and then they wouldn't have wasted so much time…
Had they wasted time? She cherished every minute she'd had with him, as partners, as friends and as lovers. Every moment with him had been a gift, and every moment had shaped her, changed her life, for the better, she knew. If she could have gone back in time and changed things, sped them up, would she have? Or did they need all of that time as friends, getting to know each other, falling in love at their own pace? No, she wouldn't have changed a moment of it. Those memories, the time they'd had, that was what she clung to, she couldn't have jeopardized any part of it.
Lois fought back another yawn and tried to shake herself awake. She was tired. Were super-powered people supposed to get this fatigued? She'd spent plenty of time in the sunlight, so it wasn't a lack of sunshine that was doing this to her. So why was she so sleepy? Coffee would help. She'd gotten lazy about getting her own coffee over the years, she mused with a wry half smile. She stood up and suddenly felt completely lightheaded. Something was entirely wrong. Was there Kryptonite around? The dizziness became nausea and she felt herself beginning to panic. Clark didn't get queasy, she shouldn't, either. She put her hands on her desk to steady herself. What was going on? She tried to X Ray scan the newsroom to see if there was anything making her sick. Her powers were working just fine, but nothing. No evil little glowing green rocks, no tell tale lead anywhere.
She took a deep breath and made her way to the coffee pot, pouring herself a cup. She took another deep breath as she raised the cup, breathing in the scent of the coffee. And that was it. She placed the cup down unceremoniously, harmlessly splashing some of the hot liquid on her hand, as she bolted from the newsroom.
Half an hour later, she stood in front of the sink in her own bathroom. It couldn't be, she said to herself as she ran the cold water. It just couldn't be. She should have known, but she hadn't been paying attention at all. She'd been too distracted. Lois stared unbelieving at the mirror. A stranger seemed to peer back at her. It couldn't be, she told herself again.
But it was.
"Come on, Kal El," Ching commanded in Kryptonian as he readied his quarterstaff.
Clark paced around the padded gymnasium of the transport, balancing the staff in his hands, preparing for another round of it. His entire body was sore. He hated being without his powers. "Would you please call me Clark?" he asked of Ching. His Kryptonian was coming along slowly, but reasonably well. The language was just so different from anything he'd ever studied before — different cases and tenses for situations he'd never even thought of before.
"Your birth name is Kal El, your people will know you as Kal El. If you wish to lead Kryptonians, you must be a Kryptonian." They clashed, quarterstaffs connecting with a satisfying 'crack.'
"Well that's a shame, because I'm not all that Kryptonian," Clark returned as he defended against Ching's attack.
"You will be," Ching responded tersely, focusing on his series of parries and ripostes. He came down hard with an over the top attack that Clark blocked with his staff horizontal. Ching pressed down, causing Clark's knees to buckle. He felt himself begin to sink. Focusing his strength, he managed to stand, causing Ching to lose his balance. Clark swept Ching's legs out from underneath him and the other man was sent tumbling to the mat. Finally, Clark had bested him. He extended a hand to Ching who grudgingly accepted it and allowed Clark to help him up.
"You still have much to learn," Ching said sternly.
"I get that," Clark replied.
"Do you?" Ching asked.
"What exactly do you want from me, Ching?" Clark replied, exasperated with the other man.
"I want to know what kind of man you are, Kal El, whether you will be able to handle the responsibilities you'll have to undertake on New Krypton."
"We already had a really nice series of tests back on Earth, remember?" Clark asked, glaring at Ching through narrowed eyes. "You tried to kill me and the woman I love, I threatened you, it was a touching moment." Through his venom, he wondered if the other man would understand the sarcasm.
Ching merely ignored it. "There is a saying among our people: the measure of a person is not merely what he believes, but also what he is willing to sacrifice. What are you willing to sacrifice?"
"Were we both there at those tests?" Clark asked incredulously. "Because one of us seems to have a faulty memory."
"My memories of the event are perfect. Are you willing to make the ultimate sacrifice?"
"The lives of others, Kal El. Can you watch others die for a cause that is just?"
Clark wanted to answer, but honestly, how could he? He knew this was a war, he'd contemplated the fact that he might die many times, but had he really allowed himself to think about leading others into battle, knowing that many would die? Could he do that? Could he live with himself if he did?
"Coming!" Martha shouted as she raced from the den to the front door. She wasn't expecting any visitors, but it was possible Wayne was just stopping by to say hello. She looked through the window and her heart sank. Poor dear, she thought to herself. Being alone in Metropolis was probably making her miserable, though Lois rarely visited in the middle of a weekday. She opened the door to find Lois standing there, looking so small and lost, her brown eyes filled with tears.
The younger woman sobbed as Martha threw her arms around her. Fear gripped Martha's heart as she wondered what could have possibly driven Lois to this state. Was there news about Clark? Had something gone wrong?
Lois hugged her tightly. "Martha," she managed, her body shuddering. She trembled as she wept uncontrollably. "I'm pregnant," Lois whispered through tears.
To be continued in "The Longest Road: The Roads They Walked Alone."