“And the supplier shipped us forty yards of beige silk instead of the indigo, which is going to set us back another week while they get us what we actually ordered in the first place,” Lana’s assistant, Kay, groused as she paced back and forth. “Oh, and you know, Sadie was doing the alterations in Milan. Well, she misread a label on some cold medicine – she doesn’t read Italian – and took, like, four times the dose. She’s always been pretty quiet, so no one noticed that she fell asleep in the middle of work. Oh, and they had to let out all her hems and do them over, because she was basically stoned on NyQuil. Not to mention, the guy we’re renting the villa from says he’ll have someone out to look at the…”
Lana was listening, but didn’t interrupt. In truth, her attention was starting to drift, and she began absently toying with the water-ring her soda had left on her desk. Most of the things Kay was reporting on had already been dealt with, or would be soon. None of it actually required Lana’s personal intervention. Actually, she didn’t even need to be in Milan personally until next week. Although Kay didn’t seem to agree…
“And if you were out there, like you should’ve been last week…” Kay continued, and Lana decided to put a stop to that.
“Kay,” she said quietly. When the younger woman turned to look directly into her employer’s eyes, she hushed immediately. Lana Lang was easy to work for – she was polite, undemanding, pleasant to be around, and she was always both sensible and flexible about what she asked of her assistant. If she had a fault, it was that she was a trifle too nice, the kind of person who sometimes got taken advantage of in the cutthroat fashion world.
Now, though, those sea-green eyes held a hint of steel, and her tone was quite level. “I appreciate your concern, Kay,” Lana said. “But I’m not needed in Milan until next week. Perhaps not even then. More work will get done if ‘the boss’ isn’t there hovering over everyone’s shoulders, making them nervous, and anything that requires my personal touch can be handled by phone. For the moment, I’m staying in Metropolis. I have business here.”
Kay had gotten into the habit of talking to Lana like a friend instead of a boss, and one moment of apparent sternness didn’t change a long-established habit. “You mean your boy-toy,” she retorted, and immediately regretted the words.
Lana just gave her a cool, steady look. “Richard is one of the reasons I’m staying, yes,” she replied calmly. “And you’ve made your feelings known about that silly little gossip blurb before.”
The younger woman crossed her arms. Since she’d started this, she might as well finish it. “Lana, I’ve known you most of a year. And you’ve never let anything distract you like this before. Especially not men. But this guy… You’re willing to drop everything after the show and run off with him, and now you’re putting off the trip to Milan because of him. What’s going on? Out of all the guys who’ve asked you out, why is this one special?”
Lana sighed; it was true that she had kept herself clear of romantic entanglements since her divorce, in spite of having received quite a few invitations. Life was just easier that way, letting her focus on her business. “Kay, leave it. Richard is… He’s a good man. And he’s not after my money, whatever you might think.” I doubt he even knew about it, until the article in his newspaper pointed it out. And I’m certain he doesn’t care. It takes a good amount of ready cash to be a pilot, and he’s the International editor, so he’s not broke.
“You barely know him,” Kay harped, and Lana let her go on. How could you explain that instant familiarity that being in a life-or-death situation created? Or how sharing a secret – one as huge as Superman’s identity – could bring two people so close? If Kay didn’t know, she wouldn’t listen to explanations.
During the entire conversation, Lana had been absently playing with the little puddle of condensation on her desk. Now Kay glanced down and exclaimed, “Good Lord, do you even know what you’re doing? Drawing hearts in the soon-to-be water stain on your desk? Lana, come on! You’re acting like a lovesick teenager!”
“Kay, I am far from a teenager,” Lana replied with all the dignity she could muster. The heart shape had been entirely unconscious, but she wouldn’t let her embarrassment show. “And I’m not being irresponsible. That will be all, Kay,” she added, seeing her assistant open her mouth to speak again.
“So you’re still not going to Milan,” was all Kay said.
“Not yet,” Lana said, ignoring the little voice in the back of her mind that whispered, Some time away from him would be good. Being around Richard makes you light-headed. Otherwise you would never have wound up on the gossip page of a major newspaper.
She stood up to go, thanking Kay for keeping her updated. An internal debate had begun over Richard in the past few days, Lana torn and unable to decide which advice she should take. Another little voice spoke to her then, and it was more persuasive of late, if less sensible than her urge to go to Milan now. There’s no need to go just yet, it whispered. They don’t really need you over there until a day or so before the showing, and you’ve got two weeks still. See where this thing with Richard is going. What if you leave and he decides you’re more trouble than you’re worth, with all this traveling and everything? What if he loses interest and takes up with some blonde right out of college? Do you really want to be looking back on this when you’re an old maid and wishing you’d had the courage to follow through?
The answer came quickly, and it sounded just a little like her mother’s voice. If he does that, then he wasn’t worthy of you to begin with. If he can’t give you time to make up your mind, you’re better off without him. Even Clark gave Lois that, and you know how badly he wants her back.
Martha’s jaw dropped slightly. Well. I suppose I’ve just been told off, she thought. “Son…” she said softly.
“If you’re going to place blame, mother, it rests on both of us. On me more than Lois,” Clark said. “Personally, I think we’re six years too late for blame. There’s nothing Lois or I can do now to change what happened then. And in certain cases, neither of us would want to. If it hadn’t happened the way it did, we wouldn’t have Jason and Kala. And I know the two of them make up for any of our mistakes – you’ll see when you meet them.”
“Whenever I finally get that chance,” Martha said, a touch of bitterness back in her tone. But she wouldn’t let Clark pursue that line of thought. It was too close to her real reason for snapping at Lois, too close to revealing the hurt that lay beneath her critical behavior. “Son, I’ll try to be more understanding of her. I’m sure Lois isn’t a bad person…”
“Of course not,” Clark interrupted. “Ma, I wouldn’t be in love with her if she was. She’s just a bit different from the people around here. And I like her that way.”
“I know,” Martha sighed. “And you’re right – I can’t blame her and forgive you. That was shortsighted of me, but I am your mother. Do you know how hard it is to be stern with you, even when you’ve done wrong?”
Clark just looked at her, not sure what she meant, and Martha reached out to take his hand. “You’re my son,” she said. “My only boy, the son I thought I’d never have. You mean so much to me – always have and always will. I’ve been so protective of you your whole life, it’s still hard to let go.”
“Ma, I’m a grown man,” Clark said. “I’m old enough to make my own mistakes, and to do my best to fix them.”
“I know,” she replied, and chuckled weakly. “My head knows that, but my heart isn’t listening. I tried to raise you to a certain standard. But when you fall short of those ideals – as any man must, you’re not perfect and you shouldn’t be, regardless of what that hologram tells you – it’s so easy for me to forgive you. I can still see the boy who came to me with that hangdog look, apologizing because he accidentally knocked a hole in the barn roof while trying to jump over it.”
The recollection brought a chuckle from Clark as well. “I think I understand, Ma. It would be very hard to stay angry at Jason for more than a heartbeat, even though I get the feeling he’s more of a rascal that his sister – just a lot quieter about it.” He sighed softly, and steered the conversation back on track. “The point is, you aren’t Lois’ mother. And she hasn’t done anything to deserve the way you treated her this morning. That was … that was rude, Ma, and I never thought I’d use that particular word to describe you.”
Martha sighed. “Son, I’m sorry. She startled me; not even men talk like that around here, and you know it. At least, not in mixed company, and not first thing in the morning. Amongst themselves, watching TV and drinking beer during the evenings, some of them might. But women never use that kind of language…”
“Ma, there isn’t a curse word Lois hasn’t used in my hearing,” Clark said blandly. “Drivers in Metropolis are basically insane, and she has a tendency to yell at people who almost hit her car. She’s a city girl; things are different there.”
“You don’t have to talk like that to get your point across.”
“I’m six-foot-four and two hundred twenty-five pounds,” he replied. “All I have to do to get people’s attention is stand up straight. Lois is only five-five or so, and she looks like a strong breeze could blow her away. She has to have an attitude, or get pushed around. And I like that about her. No, I love it. Lois Lane had the temerity to argue with Superman before she knew who I was or that I was interested in her. If sheer force of personality translated into height, she’d be a champion basketball player.”
“I’ll apologize to her,” Martha said, sounding slightly harried. “Like I said, she startled me. And yes, I know Barkley startled her; that idiot hound is loud, and he sounds like a badly-tuned fire alarm when he gets worked up. It’s enough to frighten anyone who doesn’t know him. I just… We need some time to get used to each other, Clark.”
He could tell she was skirting around something, and he frowned. There had to be some deeper hostility lurking beneath Martha’s snappish comment. She seemed awfully reluctant to talk about it, though, and he knew from long experience that Martha would keep finding ways to avoid doing so. Maybe it’s something she and Lois have to work out between them, Clark thought.
“Maybe that’s best,” was all he said aloud, and then inspiration struck him. “After all, I still need some time to get used to Ben. I was none too pleased to see him sitting at my father’s place during breakfast that first morning home. It might be time for both of us to realize we don’t have much say in the other’s choice of lovers.”
Martha raised an eyebrow. “The difference is, you didn’t find an unexpected little brother or sister when you came home. And not because of my age.”
Clark blushed a brilliant scarlet. “Ma! I didn’t mean it like that. I meant people you’re in love with, not… Goodness.”
“I see your point, Clark,” Martha said. “But what’s between Ben and me isn’t the same as you and Lois.”
“No, but at least Ben and Lois get along,” Clark said. “He seems to like her already.” He saw Martha’s mouth twitch, and wondered if that was part of the reason why she’d spoken so harshly that morning. Because Ben seemed immediately fond of a woman who was so different from the Smallville standard – or because Ben’s casual remark had implied that Martha was a fan, when she’d actually saved all those newspaper articles for Clark.
And in fact, before she’d ever met Lois, she had been more approving. But that was when Lois was just someone Clark talked about a great deal. Even when she was the mother of his unexpected children, Martha had been more tolerant. Only when confronted by the woman herself had small-town prejudices reared their ugly heads. Perhaps all of this had been easier to deal with in the abstract, but having the reality of Lois here, in this house, forced Martha to consider her feelings instead of pushing them aside beneath a calm exterior. Clark had needed his mother’s serenity during the last few weeks, especially when Luthor had taken the twins.
Regardless, this wouldn’t get resolved until the two women spoke to each other. Clark couldn’t help adding one last thing, though. “Ma, you know you and Lois are going to have to call truce. If not for each other’s sake, then for the twins. I want Jason and Kala to be able to come out here, and that would be hard if you and their mom didn’t get along.” A spark of lively wonder lit his blue eyes, calling forth an answering smile from Martha. “I don’t want them to have any hesitation in coming to see you. They’d love you. And I’d love having them out here. There’s so much to show them – Jason and Kala have been city-raised, and I know they’d be delighted to see the fields and the livestock…”
Seeing her son excited by the prospect of introducing his children to his own childhood joys brightened Martha’s mood considerably. He would make an excellent father. That much was certain in her mind. But another pang lurked beneath her smile. These were her first grandchildren, and she’d already missed so much of their lives…
The talk drifted to happier topics for a while, Clark’s delight over the twins utterly obvious. Martha asked him if he was nervous about being a father, and gotten a rather anxious chuckle in response before Clark changed the topic, but it was clear to her that joy overwhelmed any fears he had.
After a while, Ben came back in, thanking Martha again for breakfast and letting her know he was headed into town. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to ride with you,” Clark said. “Lois left to cool off, but she doesn’t know her way around very well. If she gets lost, she’ll probably wind up back in town, and she’ll need someone to guide her back out here.”
“I don’t mind at all,” Ben said. The two men walked out to Ben’s truck quietly, Barkley following them. The silence between them persisted while Clark got in and buckled his seat belt, and Ben lifted Barkley into the cab before getting in himself. Only after they’d started down the road to town did Ben finally speak again. “She seems like a real spitfire, your girl,” he said.
Clark couldn’t help smiling. Lois would have agreed with ‘spitfire’, but ‘girl’ might have given her pause. “That she is,” he confirmed. “And a very admirable woman, too.”
“Not likely to lie down and let Martha walk all over her, either,” Ben mused. “No more than Martha’s liable to smile and keep her mouth shut when she sees something she thinks is wrong. They’re both kinda stubborn that way, you think?”
Clark nodded mute agreement. More silence, and then Ben said in a speculative tone, “Do you think our ladies would get along better if we gave them a good example to follow?”
The younger man sighed. He’d been thinking much the same thing during his talk with Martha. “Ben, it’s not that I don’t like you…”
“It’s just that you don’t like me with your mother,” Ben finished.
Barkley chose that moment to rest his head on Clark’s leg, expecting to be petted, and Clark obliged him while he tried to figure out what to say. At last he replied, “Ben… It’s going to take a while for me to get used to the idea. That’s all. You’re a good man…”
“But I’m not your father, and I never will be,” Ben stated. “I liked Jonathan a lot, Clark. He was a good friend, a good man. A great father, if the way his son turned out is any indication. And I don’t presume to speak for him, but I doubt he’d be upset with the way things turned out between your mother and me. If it had been me and Martha that passed away, and Jonathan and Sue who got together after we were gone, I’d be glad to know Sue was with him. I’d want her to be with someone who loved her, someone who kept her interested in life, someone who made her happy. I wouldn’t want her to spend the rest of her life in mourning. Not when she could be living her own life, not just bemoaning the end of mine.”
That was a great deal to think about for Clark, and a part of him distantly admired how carefully Ben had phrased it. Had he said that Jonathan would want him to look after Martha, Clark would’ve been furious at his presumptuousness. But framed this way, as what Ben himself would have wanted for his own wife, it was a little easier to hear.
Still, there was no easy response. Clark had to examine his own feelings on the matter, and it took him the rest of the ride to root out the last of his sense of betrayal. Finally, he told himself firmly that he had no right to criticize Ben and Martha – even Martha’s apparent dislike of Lois had more cause than his own surliness toward Ben.
As they parked in front of the general store, Clark turned toward the older man and offered his hand. “Ben, I’m sorry for being a jerk to you. I hope you and Ma are happy together, and… Well, I guess what I’m trying to say is, I give you my blessing.”
“Thank you, Clark,” Ben replied, shaking his hand. “For what it’s worth, I think Lois Lane seems like a good match for you. And what you decide to do now is entirely up to you. Just, your mother would really love to meet those kids. The sooner you manage that, the sooner she’ll calm down, most likely.”
“You think?” Clark asked, but Barkley had sat up between them, peering nearsightedly through the windshield. A young man was just leaving the store, and even though he wasn’t walking toward the truck or even looking at it, Barkley decided to warn him away on general principles. The ear-splitting bay of the hound drowned out Clark’s question and distracted both men enough that they forgot where the conversation was taking them.
Clark wound up spending most of the day in town, which was what he preferred for the time being. He could hear Lois’ heartbeat, and it was steady, which meant she likely wasn’t lost. Unfortunately, he hadn’t been into town since arriving in Smallville, so folks who missed him and wanted to chat surrounded him. He didn’t have a chance to slip away and try tracking Lois down.
Instead he shared news of the big city and caught up on current small-town gossip. An interesting item was tales of ‘that Eastern gal’. Apparently, there was a stranger in the area, a woman whom men described as good-looking and women described as citified. She had an Eastern accent and Eastern habits, like handing her money to the gas station attendant instead of leaving it on the counter like everyone else did. The Eastern gal – or ‘that Eastern woman’, as the local women called her with a hint of disdain – also drove too fast, passed cars that were only doing ten miles under the limit, and made turns too quickly.
Clark had a pretty good idea of whom everyone was talking about before Wade Carmichael walked in, rhapsodizing about the lady in the red Mustang. It was he who supplied them all with her name: “Ms. Lane.”
But the majority of Smallville residents had already started calling Lois ‘the Eastern gal’ or ‘that Eastern woman’, and it was those epithets that stuck. Clark sat in the diner, sipping a root beer float, and listening to them talk with a soft chuckle. Lois would have no idea of the sensation she was causing.
After a while, he headed back over to the general store. It was something of a rarity, which saddened Clark. Only small midwestern towns actually had general stores these days, places where you could buy nails, flour, bug repellent, chicken feed, motor oil, candy, and a host of other useful things. This was the country cousin of those big department stores in the city, but far more charming. For one thing, general stores only stocked items the local people would actually use, and in sensible quantities; no shelves upon shelves of useless plastic trinkets, and no five-pound jars of mayonnaise, either. For another, the people who ran general stores were much friendlier, being residents of the community themselves.
And no big-city department store would ever have a front porch with a line of rocking chairs, where the older men would come to sit in the sun and complain about how much better things were in the old days. Clark had been startled earlier to recognize a few of the same faces he’d often seen on that porch when he was a boy. Youth is fleeting, but geezers are forever, as Pa used to say.
When he arrived at the store, however, the usual phlegmatic discourse had given way to an atmosphere of excited anticipation. “Morning, gentlemen,” Clark said. The four out here – Mr. Roy, Mr. Thomas, Mr. Lutter, and Mr. Ellzey – were all chuckling to themselves and peering down the road. “What’s going on?”
“Met that Eastern gal yet, Kent?” Will Ellzey asked, but didn’t wait for an answer. “The Carmichael boy says she’s got a right fancy car, a Mustang.”
“I’d heard that,” Clark replied with a sense of foreboding.
“Well, down the main road yonder is state road two-ten,” Al Lutter said. “And you can just barely make out the sun flashin’ on that purty red Mustang.”
Clark, whose eyesight was considerably better than theirs, could see the car now, coming along a reasonably straight and well-maintained state road. He hadn’t traveled that particular road in a very long time, but it looked like Lois was doing a bit more than the posted limit. “Hmm. Looks like she’s speeding.”
“She is, and can’t blame her,” John Roy said. “It looks like such a smooth road, you’ve gotta wonder why the limit’s only thirty-five.”
“What she don’t know,” Fred Thomas snickered, “is that state two-ten turns into county two-ten just a bit past th’ Main Street intersection. And the county don’t pay t’ pave roads less there’s more’n a few farms down ‘em.”
“Which means…” Clark trailed off. The mild feeling of foreboding had deepened to dread the more the older men chuckled, and he really hoped it didn’t mean what he thought it meant.
“Bit of a dip there, hard to see the road. She ought to hit the gravel right about – There!” All four men cackled uproariously as the distant car suddenly threw up a huge roostertail of dirt and gravel. Clark winced at the sight, unable to help a small chuckle. Of course, no one else could hear what he heard: Lois cursing a blue streak as she brought the fishtailing Mustang back under control.